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Weekend Life: Person of the Week

A jazz ukulele legend rides his instrument's renaissance.
by: Jim Clark, Lyle Ritz recorded a jazz ukelele record in 1958.

After 76 years and several storied decades in music, Lyle Ritz is enjoying his work more than ever.

In the '50s, Ritz played stand-up and electric bass in recording sessions and on stage, working alongside Frank Sinatra and Ray Charles. He opened for Lenny Bruce. In the '60s, he played on recordings like the Righteous Brothers' 'You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'' and the Beach Boys' 'Good Vibrations.'

But he's delighted with the sound of his latest CD, 'No Frills,' a collection of jazz-influenced ukulele tunes he recorded all by himself, in his West Hills home.

He'll play some of those numbers when he appears tonight at the first of two concerts at Reed College that cap this week's Portland Uke Fest.

'I'm excited about this one that just came out,' Ritz says of the new recording. 'I did it all by myself, in my house, on my computer. No histrionics. No funny stuff. I played a base track and a uke track, and that's all.

'I like what I did. For the first time, I didn't mind listening to what I did.'

From music seller to player

Ritz spent most of his career in Southern California, where he learned to play ukulele while working in a music store during his college years. 'I was demonstrating ukes,' he says. 'I didn't know how to play. One day I picked up a tenor ukulele. That was it. I fell in love. I still have that tenor uke.'

After a stint in the army during the Korean War- he played tuba in the band in Monterey, Calif. - he returned to Southern California. Using connections he'd made in the music store, he began finding work playing both stand-up and electric bass.

'There was so much work in the '60s and '70s,' he says. 'It was burgeoning. There were so many clubs.'

He played with Trini Lopez and comedy acts like Bill Cosby and Stiller and Meara. He worked with Herb Alpert and Sonny and Cher. Despite the proximity to some of the shining stars of the entertainment industry, Ritz says he mostly stayed clear of the indulgences of the glamorous life.

'I saw a trumpet player get fired one night for being drunk,' he says. 'That was the excitement.

'It was pretty much all business. There were time constraints because we were all busy.'

But Ritz never forgot about the tiny string instrument that arrived in the Hawaiian Islands with Portuguese laborers in the 19th century. In 1958, he recorded two albums of ukulele music, 'What About Uke?' and 'Fiftieth State Jazz' for Verve Records.

'I kind of developed a style, just for fun,' he says.

Back to the source

Years later, that jazz-influenced style caught the eye of Roy Sakuma, the man who founded the annual Ukulele Festival in Honolulu, now in its 36th year and the largest of its kind in the world. Sakuma revered Ritz's work on the ukulele.

'He just moved rocks around until he found me,' says Ritz, who made repeated trips to the festival before relocating to the islands in 1988 with his wife and young daughter.

'I thought I'd be able to put some playing time in on the uke,' he says. 'The thing I didn't understand when I moved there is that I don't really play Hawaiian music. I left that to the natives. They have a style that's different to what I'm used to.'

Ritz spent 15 years in Hawaii, but much of it playing bass at gigs in clubs and hotels. He would not be fully reunited with the ukulele until a new wave of interest in the music was gathering strength when he moved to Portland two years ago.

'I'm really looking forward to getting to hang around with him,' says Seattle musician Del Rey, who also appears Saturday at the Portland festival. She credits Ritz with having introduced audiences to ukulele music 'in a straight jazz context.'

'Twenty years ago, it was like a novelty,' Ritz says. 'It could have been a bassoon or bagpipes. Now, I think there's a whole different feeling about the uke. It's like an instrument now.'

Ritz has great respect for some of the young talents driving the resurgence in the popularity of ukulele music, notably Jake Shimabukuro and Canadian James Hill, who joins him on tonight's bill.

'They're monstrously good,' he says. 'James was always more interested in music more than showmanship. Here's a new generation that's taken the uke into another dimension. They have taken what we did and built on it.'

Ukuleleist Rey says the tiny intrument's appeal for musicians is simple. Literally.

'Guitars can involve your ego,' she says. 'There's something about the uke. It strips chords down to their real essence and makes you think about music in a fundamental way. It clears your mind.'

As for the ukulele renaissance seeming to take hold of the Pacific Northwest, Ritz is at a loss to explain.

'There's people coming from all over to get to this, and I don't know what it is,' he says. 'Just the planets?'

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