Friday, May 1, 2009

Jack Tracy - Part 4

Although they often contain more than a modicum of truth, I really dislike trite expressions.

But all I could think of when Jack Tracy informed the editorial staff of his decision to conclude his memoirs on JazzProfiles was the adage: “All good things must come to an end.”

Thanks to Jack’s reminiscence about pianist Johnny Guarnieri, I spent an afternoon preparing a draft of this portion of Jack’s last feature listening to Johnny’s Echoes of Ellington [Star Line SLCD-9003].

Since I was already somewhat downcast because of the disappointing nature of Jack’s news, it didn’t help that some of the song titles on Guarnieri’s Duke tribute album are entitled In a Sentimental Mood, Birmingham Breakdown, Mississippi Moan and In My Solitude.

© - Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Woody Herman

The last years of Woody Herman's life were desperately tough. Abe Turchen, his manager, put Herman into such terrible trouble tax-wise that he was constantly hounded by the IRS, who levied fines and threatened to take away his Hollywood home, a house he had purchased from Humphrey Bogart many years before.

Then his beloved Charlotte died, he had a crippling car accident driving to a gig and never really recovered, and yet he somehow he stayed out there on the road and put one foot in front of the other.

There were two big reasons Woody didn't realize the extent of Turchen's financial didoes in time to do something about them: (1) Abe had power of attorney, and everything concerning the band went through him, and (2) Woody was a great bandleader but a terrible businessman. He had experienced some of the same sort of problems years before with a management team that booked the First Herd, yet he left everything up to Turchen, who took full advantage of Herman's trust in him.
For example, when I brought Woody to the Philips label, everything was handled by Abe, including signing Herman's name to the agreement and then telling me, "Don't tell Woody the details of the contract, I'll handle that." When the band, whose record sales had been moribund for several years, had big success on Philips I'm convinced it was Turchen who talked Woody into leaving us to sign with Columbia, which now was interested in him after turning down the chance to sign him at the time I made my offer. If any money changed hands to effect that switch it went to Abe.

It was a sad story, and Herman's last years were wretched as the Irs nagged him to his grave, creating a bitter ending for one of the most decent and fine men to ever grace the jazz world. Woody Herman didn't deserve that --he gave us too much to get back so little.

I must tell you this about him. For decades he had an East Coast friend, still alive at this writing, named Jack Seifert. They were tight buddies, and Woody would spend as much time as possible with Jack whenever he was in the vicinity of Philadelphia. One night he called his dad, by then a senile widower in Milwaukee,from Seifert's home and listened patiently as the old man rambled on and on. When he finally hung up, Jack said something like, "Woody, I know this is none of my business, but sometimes I wonder why you spend so much time and money calling your dad. These days he doesn't even know who you are."

Woody looked at Seifert. "But I know who HE is," he said.

That was Woody Herman.

Buddy Rich

I am a member of an online group that deals in singers. One person once asked about a particular Buddy Rich vocal album, "Weren't you at Mercury at that time? Did you have any professional interaction with him then? I wonder what other musicians thought of his vocal abilities? "

I was indeed there then, and in fact I had signed Buddy, a long-time friend to the label. The album was recorded in 1959 after Rich had suffered a heart attack that left doubts as to whether he could ever withstand the physical rigors of playing drums on a fulltime basis again. So he was seriously considering putting together a night club act that would have him doing some standup patter, some dancing and some singing, along with perhaps a closing drum solo on a reduced-size kit.

We didn'texpect to be a threat to Sinatra, Bennett, Torme or the like - we wanted to do an album that would let people know Buddy could sing well enough to hold an audience. And I thought that by adding a four-singer backup group, along with charts by longtime vocal coach and mentor to many singers, Phil Moore, we'd have a product that could introduce disc jockeys to another side of Rich that would get some attention.
The album was titled "The Voice Is Rich," and I think it came off quite well and served its purpose.

In the several albums that I did with Buddy, never once did I find him to be anything but a complete professional and very easy to work with. I saw him scores of times in clubs, concerts and recording studios, and he always gave it 100%. It was when he felt that others involved were slacking that his temper flared and his language grew colorful.

It turned out, of course, that he recovered completely from the heart scare and, except for a couple of tryout dates, the nightclub act became unnecessary and was ditched. He went on for many years as an astounding drummer and top bandleader, but Buddy's ability to get to an audience with his wit and patter was often demonstrated in his appearances on the Johnny Carson show.

And what did other musicians think of Buddy's singing? I haven't the slightest idea, and Buddy wouldn't have cared, either; it was the standards he set for himself that mattered.

I wish he was still around.

Jack Leonard
(This was written in 1999 in response to someone who wondered if Jack Leonard was still alive)

Jack Leonard died 10 years ago. He had cancer and spent his last days at the Motion Picture home in Woodland Hills, California.

He was a dear friend, and a kinder, sweeter, nicer, more thoughtful man you will never meet. And he could sing. Sinatra always referred to him as one of his early influences. After he quit performing, he worked for the legendary (and I use that word very sparingly) Carlos Gastel, the hard-drinking personal manager for such stars as Nat Cole, Stan Kenton, Peggy Lee, Mel Torme, June Christy, Billy May, etc., etc. All of Cole's promotion was handled for the Gastel office by Jack.

After Nat and then Carlos died, he went to work first for Paramount Pictures' music publishing division, then for the publishing wing of Columbia Pictures. The last recording he ever made was for the Capitol series of re-creations of big band favorites arranged by Billy May. Jack once more sang his biggest hit of all, "Marie", with the Tommy Dorsey band. Pete Candoli played the classic Bunny Berigan trumpet solo.

One Dorsey record that Jack hated to talk about was titled (if you can believe this) "The Man in the Moon Is a Coon". Once I asked him how on earth he could ever have brought himself to sing it. He grimaced and said, "I had to do it. When I got the lead sheet at the recording session I told Tommy I couldn't sing a lyric like that. He just looked at me and said 'You shithead, you'll sing the effin song or get the eff out of here, because you're fired if you don't.'

"I figured I didn't have a choice, but I've always been ashamed of having done it.
Nat would kid me about it once in awhile, but I didn't think it was funny."

It wasn't.

Jazz Novel
The late Milt Bernhart was a gifted writer whose literary abilities nearly matched
his skills as a trombonist. He once said that it might be fun to try to write a
jazz mystery novel. I responded as follows.

Dear Milt:

I have become enamored of your idea for a mystery novel about a trombone-playing bandleader who is found dead on the bandstand. I think it would make a helluva movie and I’d like to take the liberty of helping you cast it. Here are some suggestions

“DT” The hard-drinking, satirical, trombone-playing bandleader who is detested by everyone: Steve Allen (don’t laugh, remember how great he was as Benny Goodman?)

“Fancy” The girl singer secretly in love with the lead trumpet player, even though she sits in the right front bus seat with DT and shares a blanket with him when the lights go out: Betty Grable (who else?)

“Chops” The terrifically talented, triple-tonguing lead trumpet who happens to have a thing for girl singers and ladies’ underwear: Dan Dailey

“Speedy” “The World’s Fastest Drummer,” who has a quick mouth to match his sticks-a-plenty: Mickey Rooney

“Sonny” The heartthrob boy singer, skinny as a microphone but hung like a horse: Frankie Avalon

“Blinky” The nearsighted bandboy who is an amateur photographer and may have inadvertently taken a picture of DT being ( a ) poisoned, ( b ) stabbed in the heart with a hatpin or ( c ) strangled with a size 36D bra: Phil Silvers

“Artie” The fawning song-plugger who is furious when DT refuses to play Artie’s #1 plug of the week on the band’s “Fitch Bandwagon” broadcast: Tony Curtis

"Shamus Greenberg" New York’s only Jewish Oriental homicide detective: Keye Luke

"Leon Fartner" Jazz critic and would-be pianist who breaks the story of the romance between DT and Fancy in Down Beat, thus revealing their affair to DT’s wife, who is terminally ill with breast cancer: Peter Lorre

Various sidemen could be played by such noted musician/actors as Georgie Auld, Pete Candoli, Jerry Colonna, Tony Martin, Hal Linden, Sid Caesar, Jack Sheldon and Phil Harris.

What do you think, Milt?


Judy Garland

Any stories you might run into these days about Judy Garland are likely to lay stress on the tragedy of her passing and the empty ending of her career, but I have to agree with the writer who recently said, "She was very funny, whether recounting scripted anecdotes or just bantering with the band or the audience."

I'm of the same mind: I saw her perform several times, and aside from an appearance at the Miami Fontainebleau when she was very heavy and quite obviously spaced out, she was always witty, appealing and full of energy.

I particularly enjoyed Garland's performance on a windy Sunday afternoon at the 1961 Newport Jazz Festival. It was outdoors, and the sound engineer had covered the mikes with condoms to shield them from the wind.
At one point Judy stared at her slim, hand-held mike for a couple of seconds, then treated it in a fashion so graphic that it brought a huge appreciative laugh from the audience. She offered a salacious grin in response.

I like to think of her as she was that Sunday.

Johnny Guarnieri
Johnny Guarnieri could flat out play piano. I recall more than several evenings spent at the now-long-gone Tail of the Cock in Sherman Oaks, California, where Johnny gave lessons nightly on how to play solo piano.

On one occasion I invited John Campbell, one of my favorite pianists, to dinner at the Tail and to introduce him to Guarnieri's playing. Campbell recognized Johnny's name, but had no idea of how he played--he just took my word that he was worth listening to.

We had dinner in a room well away from the bar where Johnny was playing a perfunctory first set in which he tried not to bother the dinners as they ate. I noticed Campbell's reaction as the music drifted over...he tried hard to be polite, but it was obvious that he was wondering what this old fool had led him into.
Then we went to the bar to hear the next set. By the third tune, Guarnieri was turning it on. When he began a brilliant stride version of "Stealing Apples" Campbell could contain himself no longer and left me to stand directly behind Guarnieri to see exactly what the hell he was doing.

He stayed there for the remainder of the set. When he came back he said simply, "Jesus Christ!"

I repeat, Guarnieri could flat out PLAY piano.

Clark Terry
This was written in 2006 to a friend:

I went to hear Clark Terry last night when he appeared at a Santa Barbara City College concert. I cried when they brought him onstage--he is very heavy, he needs someone to support him when he walks even though he also uses a cane, and to see him like that tore me up. You know the first words he said at the microphone? "The golden years suck!"

He played a couple of tuneswith each of three different big bands, all of which rhearse regularly at the school and only the last of which was much good. The first couple of things he played were embarrassingly bad--he sounded terrible--andI almost walked out because I just couldn't take hearing and watching this giant sitting in a chair and sounding like a beginner.

His chops got better in the next two sets, and he managed to fire off a few bars in each of another half-dozen tunes that let you know he was once somebody, but it was all very bittersweet stuff- I was glad to have seen him one more time, but almost wished I hadn't. The full house of some 400 applauded and quite properly showed their love and respect for a true hall-of-famer, however, and I know he musthave appreciated it.

Couldn't bring myself to go backstage and say hello afterwards, but I'll never forget the many nights I heard him in person with small groups and with Brookmeyer and with Duke and with Basie's septet in '51 and I remember the sheer delight he always gave everyone in the house.

It is a privilege to know him.

Miles Davis
An online contributor once said of Miles Davis: "I only went to one of his concerts. Nina Simone was the opening artist. It was her famous 1959 Town Hall Concert--which was really Miles' concert. Nina was a revelation to everyone. Miles was a total s**t. He showed this receptive audience total contempt".

Isn't it sad that Miles would act in this manner to people who had come to listen to a great artist? Because, from a number of firsthand experiences, I can tell you that Miles could be a witty, friendly, open man who was fun to be with on a one-on-one basis.

An example: Once we were chatting casually, and jazz critic Leonard Feather's name came up. Leonard was slightly stooped with a prominent nose and a vaguely furtive appearance who sort of scurried when he walked. When I mentioned his name, Miles exclaimed in that guttural voice of his, "Leonard Feather? Leonard Feather looks like a man who just stole somethin'."

It was Davis's music, not his public behavior, that spoke for him, and when I listen to the best of Miles I hear a shy, lonely man who loves things that are beautiful but looks at a world through eyes that see mostly ugliness and greed.
Most of his difficulties came when he attempted to cope with that vision.

But he had a broken coper.

Les Koenig
Les Koenig, a screenwriter and associate producer at Paramount Studios, found his motion picture career aborted by 1950s blacklisting. A fine writer and lover of music and the arts, he founded his own record label, Contemporary, and first found success with his Dixieland band of Walt Disney technicians, The Firehouse Five Plus Two.

It was not long, however, before he started to record modern West Coast musicians, and his fastidious taste in the selection of artists, recording techniques and packaging began to set a standard in the industry. He was the first to record Ornette Coleman, and Shelly Manne, Bud Shank, Art Pepper, Barney Kessel and Andre Previn were just a few of the jazz artists whose careers were given a huge boost by their association with Contemporary.

His death in 1977 was a sad loss for us all.

I first met him on a West Coast trip for Down Beat in the mid-1950s, but after I moved to Los Angeles in 1962 I got to know him well. I found that Les took his time evaluating people before he extended friendship, but when he did, it was to reveal a sense of humor and mature wisdom that made any time spent with him invaluable.
Leonard Feather initiated a series of sessions in which a small group of some of us jazz regulars would meet in one of our homes to listen to and offer opinions on the newest record releases. It was a great way to keep abreast of what was happening, and among the participants was Koenig. It was his ear that I quickly began to trust when comments were offered, and his judgment that I invariably agreed with.

And so it came to pass that I once brought a new recording I had produced to one evening’s meeting, Roland Kirk’s “Rip, Rig and Panic.” Customarily we’d play just a track or two of an LP to get the feel of it, then move on; there were always many records to hear. After the seven-minute Kirk title track was played, Leonard started to lift the record from the turntable, but Koenig said, “Play some more.”

The second track was played, then Les turned to me and said, “I wish I had made that record.”

I think it was the greatest compliment I have ever received.


Regrets? Some. Shortly after I left Down Beat to join Mercury Records, a concert was held in Chicago featuring many of the prime Dixieland players in the country: a group from New York that included Pee Wee Russell, Jimmy McPartland and George Wettling and a band of Chicagoans headed by Art Hodes. I contracted them all to record a New York/Chicago “Battle of Bands,” and then made a stupid mistake.

To take advantage of the growing interest in stereo recordings, I put the two bands on opposite sides of the studio and had them stopping and starting as the soloists played. It was an absolute mess, and I was too inexperienced in recording to abandon the scheme, reshuffle, and just get some good music out of the guys. The talent was all there to make a fine album and I plain screwed it up. If you ever see a copy of the record that came out you may be looking at the only one anyone bought.

When I was at Argo Records I became quite friendly with Oscar Brown Jr., who was struggling to create a songwriting career and was not yet a recording artist. He came to me one day with a tape of a young Chicago pianist he had heard and asked me to listen to it. I thought it was terrific and was interested in signing the youngster, but asked Oscar to give me a couple of days to think about it. I talked it over with others at the company and they convinced me that it might not be fair to the pianist to sign him—that we already had two pianists to promote and take care of, Ahmad Jamal and Ramsey Lewis. Ahmad was already a major star and Ramsey was threatening to break open and both needed a lot of attention..

So I called Oscar and told him that I reluctantly would turn down the young pianist. The young pianist’s name? Herbie Hancock.

Actually I created a double regret in this episode: I didn’t have the brains to sign Oscar Brown Jr. either.

I recall some record reviews I did at Down Beat that I wish I’d been more careful about, but I’d guess every reviewer goes through that. The one I really regret and cannot explain was one I wrote of George Wein playing piano and singing on an Atlantic LP made shortly after his initial success as producer of the Newport Jazz Festival.

George is no Tatum, but certainly a capable pianist, and not a bad saloon singer either. But for no reason I can yet offer, I dismissed the record with a totally unnecessary remark that went something like, “He should work his side of the street and let musicians work theirs.” It was stupid and uncalled for, but I can’t pull it back.

Somewhat similar was the thoughtless editorial judgment I made in allowing Nat Hentoff to suggest in a Down Beat review of a Charlie Ventura record that Charlie hang up his horn and get out of jazz. I should have pulled that from his review as a cruelty that didn’t belong in our pages.

There were times in those days when record company sales departments were able to say they had to have product by certain artists by a specified date and that producers had to come up with albums by them to meet that deadline. What occasionally resulted was a record that didn’t fully reflect the artist’s talent because it was all done in too much of a hurry.

We used to get hard looks and reprimands if we didn’t complete an entire album--some 35 minutes of music—in three three-hour sessions, which would be laughed at today, when it takes longer than that to lay down a track. Overtime was considered an expensive luxury. But I still now wish that at some sessions I had ignored the bitching which would result and taken more time to make a better record.
There was one session, however, that didn’t cause any worry about the time clock and was one of the easiest and best I was ever to be involved in. The final album Cannonball Adderley recorded for Mercury was done in Chicago with Adderley and the rest of Miles Davis’s sextet sans Miles. Adderley, John Coltrane, Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb strolled into the studio on a frigid February night an hour past the scheduled recording time and walked out about four hours later after completing an entire album of six tunes, none of which required more than two takes.

Titled “Cannonball and Coltrane” (I wish now I’d called it “Ball and Trane”), it is a prime example of two outstanding jazzmen at their finest and sounds as good today as it did that night.

No regrets on that one.

And there will be no regrets, either, about writing this little series of reminiscences. Thanks for letting me share them.

Jack Tracy

1 comment:

  1. It was so wonderful to see these pictures of you and to read your fine writing. You were my "Grandpa Tracy" back in the seventies and eighties---I was Norma's granddaughter Deanna. I knew so little about you other than your role as my grandpa---I certainly never knew about your professional life as depicted here. If you get this message and would like to correspond, please send me an email to
    P.S. I'd love to send you pictures of my daughter Cami--she would have been your great grandaughter. Sadly, Norma never got the chance to meet her.


Please leave your comments here. Thank you.