Eye doctor has a SoCal jazz presence

Walk into the Highland Park office of optometrist Dr. Elliott Caine and you'll see framed photographs of jazz greats of the Blue Note Records era on the walls. The doctor also swings, as he will do at Colombo's Steakhouse in Eagle Rock on Friday.

It's no longer a novelty when medical doctors also play music. Psychiatrist Denny Zeitlin has been recording and touring since the early 1960s, and local heart specialist and trumpeter Dr. Richard Williams can be heard leading his Raw Sugar band around town at least once a week.

Caine has been a presence in Southern California jazz almost as long as he's been a resident, beginning in the fall of 1976. The trumpeter has played in many local jazz and Latin bands and led his own aggregation since the 1990s. Bandleader Bobby Matos has featured Caine in his group and, in turn, played for Caine.

"Whenever he plays," Matos marvels, "I always think: 'This must be what it felt like to play with Lee Morgan.' Elliott has a great tone and concept, and his solos are all based in logic."

Caine is a native of Indianapolis, which gave the jazz world giants like trombonist J.J. Johnson, guitarist Wes Montgomery and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. At the University of Indiana, Caine studied with the renowned Dr. David Baker, chair of jazz studies. "There was still a scene in the black community," the 62-year-old Caine recalls from his South Pasadena home, "and that's where I cut my teeth. I was getting it together on the horn."

Jam sessions and a stint with a cooking soul band, Calvin Turner and the Sound Masters, provided early professional experience, including a tour of the South. The only white player in the band, Caine's nickname was "Soul."

"It was a great experience," he exults. "The people down there wanted to hear James Brown, so I'd go down on one knee and they'd go crazy. At the time I knew it was a special experience. Only later did I understand just how special it was."

He took his optometric board exams in L.A. and stayed — jobs were more plentiful here than in San Francisco, another town Caine considered. "I was like a kid in a candy store," he says. "I could go to the Lighthouse, Concerts By The Sea and The Parisian Room and hear all of these great musicians. It was incredible."

In singer Hank Ballard Jr., Caine had a good conduit to jam sessions and networking. "I was always welcome wherever he had a gig," Caine says, "and I met a lot of guys and started playing with them."

Caine is known for his hard-hitting bands, playing the post-bebop jazz most associated with the Blue Note artists like Horace Silver or Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers.

Bassist Bill Markus, part of the group since its inception 20 years ago, talks about Caine's conception: "He likes to have fun, but there's serious work that goes into Elliott's music. The rhythm section has been through a lot of players, and we've had some great ones — like pianist Mahesh Balasooriya. Elliott likes the bass to lay it down and keep time — though I do get some solos — but he really likes his drummers to push. Trumpeters need that push."

Told that his sound is admirably full and strong, Caine says, "It's something I've worked on. I used to play in Jump With Joey and I heard a recording and thought that I sounded a little thin. So I worked on it and got a bigger mouthpiece. Lee Morgan's sound is my favorite and I practice a lot of long tones. I used to be a blaster, especially in the Latin bands, but now I want a more controlled sound."

"I get bored easily," Caine confesses, "so I want our music to be exciting. If the band is happening, it lights a fire under me." He adds, "I'm still discovering and it's never ending. I study the greats because I'm trying to get inside myself as best I can. Ultimately, I want to make a statement about me."

What: Elliott Caine Quartet

Where: Colombo's Steakhouse, 1833 Colorado Blvd., Eagle Rock.

When: Friday, Jan. 18, 7 p.m.

More info: (323) 254-9138


KIRK SILSBEE writes about jazz and culture for Marquee.

Copyright © 2019, Glendale News-Press
EDITION: California | U.S. & World