Jazz pianist was at the heart of the local music scene
Al Reese started playing in Santa Barbara in January 1969 in the Al Reese Trio, a band with bassist Hank Allen and various drummers over the years.
Pretty quickly, he knew Santa Barbara was home and became a staple of the clubs in town.
The only reason he left Santa Barbara was his health. He moved to San Bernardino County to live with one of his three daughters, Rachelle Chillous, and seek treatment for his health.
He died the morning of Jan. 4 after contracting COVID-19.
“He was Al the entertainer, and that’s what I knew of him,” Ms. Chillous told the News-Press Monday. “Yes, he was Daddy, but he was also my celebrity — and a celebrity to others also.”
His music career lasted decades as he played nearly every club in town and spent weeknights tickling the ivories at the Biltmore and the Miramar.
“He was pretty much the center of the music scene in the ’70s. Even if we started the night at a different club, we’d find where Al was playing,” said Sandy Cummings, a jazz singer who worked with Mr. Reese for a few years.
“If we said Al was playing, the place would get packed. That’s what kind of magic he had,” she told the News-Press.
She first heard about him from her mother who listened to him play outside of Fort Ord. (He was drafted into the Army and served three years and played in clubs around the base.)
Her mother described his voice like Nat King Cole. Five years later, Ms. Cummings heard him sing at a club in Santa Barbara and instantly knew it was the man her mother described. Years later, she got to sing with him and the experience reawakened her career.
“He taught me how to be a better person,” she said. “He taught me to be generous, and that’s pretty big in an industry that was notorious for competition.”
His giving spirit was apparent in his stage presence, from his smile to the charming way he took requests (even annoying ones).
“Everybody knew him as Al. He would give the shirt off his back to help out any way he could,” Ms. Chillous said. “If anyone was in dire straits, he would be there.”
When jazz pianist Debbie Denke was studying piano, she admired his style and tried to emulate his playful style. She asked him for a lesson, and he obliged — but refused any payment.
“He had a wonderful voice, a wonderful style at the piano, and he knew a lot of tunes,” Ms. Denke told the News-Press. “I think he just had a pleasant, attractive demeanor with people.
“I think (he was popular) because he was so good and he added a lot of besides great musicianship and a warm way of singing and doing tunes so well, and his bluesy style on the piano was very fun to hear. I think all those things go into making a musician appreciated by other musicians but also making a place to visit like a hotel feel like family or a community.”
His musicianship became holiday traditions for a few local celebrities. Montecito actor Rob Lowe always wanted him to come play in his home around Christmastime, and the late Santa Ynez actor John Forsythe had him play a dinner party every Valentine’s Day.
Prior to staying in Santa Barbara, he and Mr. Allen, fresh out of Fort Ord, moved to Los Angeles and played gigs on the Sunset Strip.
“When we were in Hollywood, we were always playing for celebrities,” Mr. Allen told the News-Press. “But Santa Barbara is the most beautiful place. He knew it; I knew it.”
Ms. Chillous is planning to commemorate her dad around his birthday in Santa Barbara. She doesn’t know what it will look like during the pandemic, but she feels she should do something in his home city.
“I know that that’s what I have to do for him is take him back there and honor him there,” she said.
Late in his life, he continued to contribute to the community in Santa Barbara. In his 70s, he played basketball on the courts and played piano for nursing homes.
As his health was declining, Mr. Reese told his daughter that he had no regrets in his long, happy life.