Charles Unger Experience
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Charles Unger Experience

San Francisco, California, United States | Established. Jan 01, 1984 | INDIE | AFM

San Francisco, California, United States | INDIE | AFM
Established on Jan, 1984
Band R&B World


This band hasn't logged any future gigs

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Lately, I’ve found myself fondly recalling some of my favorite saxophonists, from the incomparable Wayne Shorter and his work with Miles Davis, and later with pianist Joe Zawinul, his co-founder in Weather Report; the tender tones of Joe Henderson with Chick Corea; Bennie Maupin’s “Chameleon” with Herbie Hancock, to the unmistakable tenor of Stanley Turrentine, whose “Salt Song” features prominently in my iTunes playlist. There are many, many more of course, Bela Fleck’s Jeff Coffin, Bill Bruford’s Tim Garland, and Washington’s own Ron Holloway, to name but a few, however one Bay Area icon has continuously sparked my attention, San Francisco’s legendary Charles Unger.

Unger has performed for numerous years at Les Joulin’s Jazz Bistro on Ellis, and the Rasselas Jazz Club on Fillmore, to the delight of regulars, tourists, purists and jazz aficionados alike. Surprisingly, more have not experienced this legendary reed player. Unger and his various editions of the “Charles Unger Experience”, hope to change all that, with new recordings, shows and a renewed appetite for the sultry tones, humor, and musical explorations he has become known for.

Unger first arrived in San Francisco in 1968, at the impressionable age of eighteen, and during the famed “Summer of Love.” Unger stayed a week during that visit, and in 1969, he came back again, this time for a two week stay. According to “In Search of the City” writer Louis Martin, Unger “was hooked”. “A year later he moved to San Francisco. He played mostly rock and R & B back then. He can’t pinpoint exactly when he started playing jazz but says, “It’s always been in the background. It’s one of those things you grow up playing in school. In school bands they try to throw in a couple of jazz tunes.”

“Rock can be very seductive to young musicians these days, but Unger says it was his mom who kept him interested in jazz. “She loved Stan Getz.” Unger is African American, and I began to wonder if his mom liked Charlie Parker and Miles Davis too, but I did not get around to asking. His father was an amateur singer and song writer. “Music was his dream,” says Unger. Unger talks loose and relaxed, and his playing, which is lyrical, is like that too. It is eclectic. He can play funky R & B; he can be as lyrical as Coleman Hawkins at times; and when inspired he can rip like the young Charlie Parker…” Now in 2006, Unger remains, more committed to his music than ever.

Unger’s work with the lovely singer Valencia Hawkins at Les Joulin’s, his shows and recordings with bassist Atila Medvedski, (who reminded me of Weather Report’s Mirolsav Vitous), pianist Eugene Pilner, and drummer Andy Marquetti, are just a sampling of his ample talents. Two of Unger’s CDs, the “Unger Pangs” Live at Les Joulin’s, and “Aural Persuasion”, showcase some of his compositional prowess as well. The moody textures of “Astral Aura” with it’s lilting bass lines and percussion provide a lovely backdrop for Unger’s melodies, the Turrentine-like flavor and strings of “Riverside” open to a latin passage of a Cuban night, and the take no prisoners vamp of “Night Sounds” blends into the promise of nocturnal adventures, only to be interrupted by a deft string arrangement, and a Sonny Rollins-like/Brooklyn Bridge solo by Unger, conjuring his own solitary walk, perhaps across the Golden Gate.

But these comparisons don’t really do justice to Unger’s sound, because his tones are unmistakably his own. His ability to humorously blend the sounds of dropped forks and cash registers with his saxophone during shows, and then return to the melodies with subtlety or powerful prestidigitation, has delighted thousands. Unger tells me he’s planning on writing more these days, adding some new recording software for his Macintosh, updating his CD catalogue and website, and playing with a variety of new cats. “Jazz isn’t about the money for me”, he told me. “I’m happy, I’m fortunate really. It’s about the music to me. I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t play.” The look of joy on his face, and his trademark hat says it all… Unger lives to play.

From the deserved popularity of a Joshua Redman, the oft forgotten Courtney Pine, the avante-garde jazz of David S. Ware, to even the “happy jazz” music, (as a trumpet playing friend calls it), of a Kenny G, it is comforting to know that in San Francisco, and despite the inequities of the music world, we have another bonafide legend in our midst, an unsung hero of the horn, in the form of Charles Unger. So if you are in the mood for jazz, make your way down to Les Joulin’s at 44 Ellis on Wednesday and Friday nights, and “experience” one of San Francisco’s best jazz musicians.

E. “Doc” Smith is a musician and recording engineer who has worked with the likes of Brian Eno, Madonna, Warren Zevon, Mickey Hart, Jimmy Cliff, Paul McCandless, Jack DeJohnette and Bill Bruford’s Earthworks, among others. He is also the inventor of the musical instrument, the Drummstick. He can be reached at - by E. "Doc" Smith / Beyond Chron

"‘A great player who loves what he’s doing’"

MUSIC | Anthony Torres
I first heard Charles Unger play when I stepped into the Sheba Piano Lounge on the way home from Yoshi’s one night. As I walked in, I was immediately struck by the intonation of the tenor sax and the ease with which Unger and his band, The Experience, moved through Carlos Santana’s “Europa.” Since then I have seen them at both Sheba and Rasselas. Every time, it’s been a thoroughly enjoyable experience.
With jazz, they say it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing. These guys swing, and they do it in a way that incorporates a range of influences. The music moves and is inflected with a Latin groove and a Middle East undercurrent that creates a melancholy feel so sensuous a person can’t help but be moved.
Unger is a great player. He’s also a great guy who loves what he’s doing and does it with all the seriousness in the world. Music for him is a spiritual mission and a quest for a kind of secular redemption that he has pursued since he was a child — one that sustains him and has brought him a wealth of knowledge and experience.

You were born where?
Montgomery, Alabama.
How did you wind up in California?
The great migration out of the south. My family migrated north to Chicago. Most of my family is still in Chicago. My immediate family was one of the few branches that wound up coming west. My family moved to Riverside, California, in around 1957, when I was like 10 or 11. I was an Air Force brat. My father was career military. He’s still living; he’s 86. He always wanted to be in a lot of bands, so he was a songwriter and singer. He sang in big bands. He was a crooner. He liked all the old cats — Nat King Cole, those guys.
So you grew up with music?
Yeah, I was always involved in music, since grade school. The schools in those days had music classes and offered lessons. I played clarinet since fourth grade. And then I heard my first tenor and it was love at first sound. The thing about Riverside is that they had a lot of street festivals, so they had all these bands in the streets, and you had exposure to a lot of different kinds of music. They had R&B honking tenor saxes and I said, “Oh man, this is the bomb.” I started playing tenor sax in the seventh grade with Lloyd Mummert, one of the premier music teachers in Southern California. Then I played in the high school marching band, and then I started playing blues right after that — straight- up blues, Muddy Waters, Albert King and Howling Wolf.
What brought you to the Bay Area?
I had some family up here: Bayview, Hunters Point. The first time I came up here was the Summer of Love. I was 17. I was spoiled, man. I came back in 1969, and as soon as I graduated from high school in 1970, I moved here. I had to come back. I moved to Lakeview, by City College, where I got some more formal training, and joined David Hardeman’s big band. Later I formed my own band, playing R&B and funk. We were a party band called Pizzazz. Back in the day, “Bad for a Mother’s Ass” was our slogan. It was a straight-up party.
So how did you wind up in the Fillmore?
I met the love of my life. She lived over here. That was 1986. So I have been living around here for years.
Who are some of the cats you’ve played with?
One of the first people was Maxine Howard and the Down Home Blues Band. I met her at a festival in Marin and she asked me to join her band. And through her, I met Bobbie Webb. Bobbie really helped me musically with the different genres of R&B and the blues. I learned a lot, performance-wise, hanging out with him.
How would you characterize your own music?
My last name, Unger, means to be from Hungary. On my father’s side, we’re an Afro-German mixture of people, Afro-Jewish mixture. So all these influences come into play. My first influence was my father. He played all kinds of music. He played with all kinds of people. He always recognized his European heritage. I’ve never wanted to be pigeon-holed in any one thing.
Who have been your influences?
All the masters — Dizzy, Bird, Miles, Coltrane, Lester Young. I love Lester.
What do you think of the scene in the Fillmore Jazz District?
I think if people give it a chance and go out and support it, it will happen. It takes time for people to get exposure and knowledge. If they do, it will take off, as evidenced by the Fillmore Jazz Festival. And now it’s even better because younger people are coming and different people are coming. That’s one of the things the jazz and R&B thing does: It captures people with the grooves. It’s a learning curve. It takes a while for people to get hip to it.
If there were something you’d want to relate about what you do, what would it be?
I look at music as a catalyst for bringing different people together and breaking down barriers that separate us from our oneness and our humanity. I try to put that into my music as a way of relating that we all share this beautiful planet together. That we are all on the same road. That we are all the same people. That we are all family. If I can break down barriers through music, then I will have fulfilled my destiny. - Anthony Torres

"Charles Unger Experience, Josephine Jazz Band"

One of Charles Unger's album is called "Mr. 2 AM." Now he had to nicely change the identity to "Mr. 2 PM." A Saturday summer afternoon in Malmö is not ideal for nocturnal cool jazz rhythm 'n' blues. But San Francisco-based-tenor-saxophonist Unger is a polished entertainer and equally at home in bop, swing, funk and bossa. The welcome festival guest has the authority and soul in the tone and improvised with variety and taste.

Charles Unger was surrounded by an excellent Malmö-accented band, with, among others, the entertaining, nice solo-improvising pianist Sven-Erik Lundeqvist and bassist Lasse Lundström, capable of playing any genres. "Fly Me To The Moon" and "In A Sentimental Mood" was followed by a funky "Summertime" and Hancock's "Cantaloupe Island."

"Green Onions" felt deliciously bold and audacious and Unger turned himself into a successful calypso Rollins in a quick "St. Thomas."
................. Would have been fun to hear Josephine Ahlqvist together with Charles Unger.

In Swedish:
Ett av Charles Ungers album heter ”Mr 2 AM”. Nu fick han vackert byta identitet till ”Mr 2 PM”. En somrig lördagseftermiddag i Malmö är inte idealet för nattligt tillbakalutad jazz-rhythm ’n’ blues. Men San Francisco-tenoristen Unger är en slipad entertainer och lika hemma i bop, swing, funk och bossa. Den välkomne festivalgästen har auktoritet och soul i tonen och improviserade nu med variation och smak.

Charles Unger omgavs av ett utmärkt Malmöbetonat band, med bland andra den underhållande, skönt solo-oberäknelige pianisten Sven-Erik Lundeqvist och basisten Lasse Lundström, kapabel att driva vilken verksamhet som helst. ”Fly Me To The Moon” och ”In A Sentimental Mood” fick sällskap av en funkig ”Summertime” och Hancocks ”Cantaloupe Island”.

”Green Onions” kändes läckert fet och fräck och Unger förvandlade sig till en lyckad calypso-Rollins i en snabb ”St Thomas”.

Josefin Ahlqvist gjorde sig först känd som bluessångerska och det var ingen överraskning att hon övertygande levererade några mustiga kvinnobluesar, ”The Devil’s Gonna Get You” och ”Sit Back Down, Daddy”.

Men Ahlqvist med det intensiva vibratot är också en stark jazzsångerska, med handlag även med ”Paper Moon”, ”Straighten Up And Fly Right” och scatsång.

Tordönsstämma finnes, men också en balladsida som kom fram i en nyanserad version av ”God Bless The Child” med både tryck och ömhet i. Hade varit kul att höra Josefin Ahlqvist ihop med Charles Unger. Sångerskan utstrålar en medryckande energi på scenen och i sången och hennes band, goda regionala musiker här också, kändes först för städat och tog alltför god tid på sig innan det började matcha den kraften.

Andra set blev mera helgjutet och speciellt altsaxofonisten Jarl Hoffman signerade engagerande solon. - ALEXANDER AGRELL, Sydsvenska Dagbladet, Sweden


My first CD is" Paris Calling "Featuring Valencia
followed by" Magic Dancer" "Around the World and
Mr. 2AM. There is currently music streaming on my website
The Charles Unger along with
you can find music and more than 30 of my recent acrylic art work in many sizes.



A major force in the music scene of the San Francisco Bay area for the last 40 years, saxophonist Charles Unger is a musical institution. He is known for his exuberant style and talent, and for a stage show that is unforgettable.

A regular performer at San Francisco clubs, Charles is an innovator in the genres of Jazz, R&B and World Beat. Charles, who plays alto, tenor and soprano saxophones, was deeply influenced by the seminal works of artists such as Coleman Hawkins, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Grover Washington, Kenny Garrett and Lester Young, but has also drawn on a lifetime of experience playing with top level musicians the world over. Charles brings an undeniable sense of joy to his performances, with a smile that welcomes even the most recalcitrant listeners to the party, then proceeds to open up avenues of music that are enjoyable for the uninitiated and the aficionado alike.

In San Francisco, Charles plays every Wednesday and Friday evening at Les Joulins Jazz Bistro (where he has performed for more than 20 years), leading a jazz band that includes his wife Valencia on vocals on Friday evenings.  He also plays at the Peacock Lounge, Sheba Lounge, Rasselas, Yoshi’s San Francisco, Intercontinental Hotel San Francisco, 57th Street Gallery in Oakland and many other places in the San Francisco Bay Area.

In September 2014, Charles released his latest album "Around the World – Wanderlust,” which is inspired by musicians he played with and many trips abroad.  It was funded by a successful Kickstarter campaign in the fall of 2013.  His previous album, "Mr. 2 AM, is a colorful set of jazz, World Beat and R&B. The music is bluesy, at times funky, atmospheric and infectious," says Scott Yanow, Jazz Reviewer. 

During the last four summers, Charles has performed in Sweden at the Jazz House at the Malmö Festival, the Gothenburg Cultural Festival, in Båstad and at the Kristianstad/Åhus Jazz Festival. He has also performed with the Swedish group Wavemakers in the musical ”A Dream of a Better Life” at multiple locations. During the summer of 2011, Charles toured Europe for the first time since 2005, and performed in Sweden, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Paris and in the South of France.

Charles Unger is a great player who loves what he's doing. Music for him is a spiritual mission and a quest for a kind of secular redemption that he has pursued since he was a child — one that sustains him and has brought him a wealth of knowledge and experience.  

Charles Unger is a man of the world. “On my father’s side, we are an Afro-German mixture of people, Afro-Jewish mixture. My first influence was my father. He played all kinds of music and always recognized his European heritage.  I’ve never wanted to be pigeon-holed in any one thing.”

Born in Montgomery, Alabama to a military family that moved often, Charles grew up in Riverside, California from the age of 7. “It was part of the great migration out of the south,” Charles says.  “My family migrated north to Chicago. My immediate family was one of the few branches that wound up coming west.” Charles’ father was a songwriter and vocalist.   “He loves all of the old cats like Nat King Cole, the big bands and the standards of the 1930s and '40s. 

Charles started off on clarinet in 4th grade. When he heard a R&B honking tenor sax being played live, “it was love at first sound.” He switched to sax in 7th grade and played with Lloyd Mummert, one of the premier music teachers in SoCal. Charles played in the high school marching band, and gained experience performing at parties. “My first real musical jobs were blues gigs with Freddie Howard, playing straight ahead 12-bar blues all night long - Muddy Waters, Albert King and Howlin’ Wolf.”

After graduating from high school in 1970, Charles moved to San Francisco.  He attended City College, San Francisco State and the Dick Grove School of Music where he took courses in arranging and composing.  Charles joined David Hardeman’s big band, worked with the Magic Colors Band for a couple years, and freelanced. In the mid-1970s he formed a group called Pizzazz, playing R&B and funk. In 1979, Pizzazz became the Charles Unger Experience. 

Charles has spiritual views on music:  “I look at music as a catalyst for bringing different people together and breaking down barriers that separate us from our oneness and our humanity. I try to put that into my music as a way of relating that we all share this beautiful planet together and that we are all on the same road, are all the same people, and are all family. If I can break down barriers through music, then I will have fulfilled my destiny.”

Band Members