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Fattburger broke my heart

A child-sized John Coltrane, a friend had once called him.

It is a quiet night, perked up by a woman — Gentry’s girlfriend — who is dancing to the music by herself. Gentry, in coat and tie, is part of a horn section that is playing behind a singer who is doing his best to deliver the standards loud enough to keep people from talking during the performance.

In due course, each of the horn players gets a solo break, and when Gentry takes his, he belts out a few silvery runs while he watches the Padres game unwind on the big-screen TV.

I ask him about it later, when we hook up on the sidewalk out front. Did he see the final play of the game?

“Yeah,” he says. “And there was a movie on one of the other TVs. It was a Tom Selleck flick. I was watching that, too.”

Then, casually, he asks, “Did you bring your horn?”

No, I say. I did not. I am surprised that Gentry even remembers that I play, given that it’s been a good decade since we last saw each other.

Back in 1969 when we were both sophomores at Crawford High School (54th and University), Gentry could already do the jazz thing — he could improvise; he could make up his own solos. And he spoke jazz — y’dig? — all before his 15th birthday. A child-sized John Coltrane, a friend had once called him.

Crawford, designated as a magnet school, is what brought Gentry to white, middle-class Crawford (“the La Jolla of East San Diego,” he now calls it). I played the baritone sax in what Mr. Foster, the music teacher, named “The Stage Band.” Foster got us arrangements written by young composers like Clark Gault and Don Ellis.

“I was probably playing over my head at the time,” Gentry says. He could barely read music then. His ear got him by.

After school, Gentry played jazz with seasoned musicians in Webster Jackson’s band. “Playing with these older guys in the garage...it was, like,‘Okay, young Hollis, whatcha got? Whatcha got, son?’”

At Crawford, Gentry formed his first serious fusion group, which lasted into college. He named it Power, homage to the soul/jazz group Tower of Power.“Power became the black-community band,” says Gentry. “It didn’t matter — if a black act came to town, Power opened for it.” When Barry White’s Love Unlimited Orchestra played the Community Concourse in 1974, Power was indeed the opening act, which earned them an invitation to join the show. Gentry and bandmate Nathan East took leave from UCSD and went on tour. But when the tour canceled due to White’s health, Power was sent home early.

Cannonball Adderley offered Power a week of opening gigs in Sacramento.“At the end of that week, we all drove back to Cannonball’s pad in Bel Air,” Gentry remembers,“and he took me upstairs to the music room. And he pulled out this instrument case, and he opened it and pulled out this horn, and he said, ‘This here is Charlie Parker’s first horn.’ And I was just, like, whooooooah... like, all these spirits just jumped out at my ass. And Cannonball says,‘Go ahead and play it, Hollis...but I couldn’t. I was too mysti- fied by it. It was so emotional. I just wanted to sit with it for a little bit. So, he walked out and I sat there, man, and I started cryin’.”

Adderley recorded a demo of Power’s originals and was going to shop it around when he suddenly died of a heart attack. “Not only did we lose a great friend and an icon, but our dream collapsed, and the band kind of drifted apart after that.” Gentry and East found steady work with a band that would eventually become San Diego’s Fattburger.“We had an incred- ible run together,” says Gentry, “which culminated in an album in 1986.” The album got airplay.

Then, Gentry says that he was asked to leave Fattburger. They accused him, he says, of taking too much attention away from the group.“Fattburger gave me, like, 90 days to play out my tenure,” he says,“which totally broke my heart. It really hurt...that they would do that to me.”

But pianist Carl Evans says that’s not how it happened. “The real problem was that Hollis had a lot of personal problems that were interfering with the business of the band,” he says. “He’s notorious for that stuff. It became a matter of liability for lawsuits. He would book gigs and forget to tell us, and then we’d get a call from him saying, ‘Where were you guys?’”

I ask Evans what the real problem was.“In a nutshell,” he says, “there was way too much partying going on.”

“That’s bullshit,” Gentry says. “There’s always gonna be an occasion where somebody’s gonna miss a gig or two, but nothing outside the realm of what is normal. Otherwise,” he says, “I wouldn’t be working now. Nobody would hire me.”

Gentry has since played road stints with jazz pianist David Benoit and pop-jazz flautist Dave Valentin. At 45, he is a grandparent. Gentry’s daughter Taura is 26, his son Hollis IV is 25, and the grandbaby, Hollis V, is 2. The walls of Hollis’s North Park apartment are covered with pictures of Gentry: on-the-road shots, posed stills, photos of Hollis stabbing the air with his soprano saxophone. He lives alone, save for the company of his cat of 16 years, Chaka. The apartment is chaos in boxes. There is a bicycle (“I ride it every day”), finished crossword puzzles on a table, ashtrays full of butts.

“I’m still movin’ in,” he says.

“How long have you lived here?” I ask.

“A year and a half.”

Gentry’s career seems momentarily stalled; his future appears to lie in four cardboard boxes on the floor of his music room — his new CDs, he says, which he must now sell to recoup both his own and his investor’s money. He points to two more boxes on a shelf: “Carlton’s and Benoit’s sheet music,” he says,“in case they ever call me to come back to work.

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