Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved
It’s funny how things turn out sometimes.
A few weeks ago, a Jazz buddy sent me a CD entitled Gene Quill “The Tiger” Portrait of a Great Alto Player [Fresh Sound
At the time he sent it, he asked if I had done a feature on Gene for my blog.
The answer was “No,” not because I didn’t like Gene’s playing, which I have found to be consistently marvelous over the years, but because, frankly, I didn’t know very much about Gene.
I knew his playing from his recordings with fellow alto saxophonist Phil Woods on Prestige Records and from the many studio sessions that he played on. As our guest author,
Gordon Jack points out, Gene was “a brilliant sight-reader and one of the finest lead alto and clarinet players of his generation and had become an established member of the exclusive studio scene by the mid-fifties.” New York
The quotation is excerpted from the following article on Gene which Gordon prepared for JazzJournal.
Thanks to Gordon, I now have some background information about Gene and his career to put along side his recorded music
Gordon is the author of Fifties Jazz Talk: An Oral Retrospective [
: Scarecrow Press, 2004] and he has graciously granted the editorial staff at JazzProfiles permission to reprint his work on these pages. Lanham, MD
Order information regarding Jazz Journal is available at www.jazzjournal.co.uk/.
Gordon Jack/Jazz Journal. Copyright protected; all rights reserved; used with the author’s permission.
“Gene Quill was just 15 in 1943 when he joined the AFM Local 661 in his home town of
. Precociously talented on alto he had already won a “Stars in the Making” contest three years earlier which led to an appearance with the Jimmy Dorsey orchestra. While in high-school he had his own band playing army bases and USO dances and on leaving school he joined Alex Bartha who had the house band at the famous Steel Pier in Atlantic City . New Jersey
He first met Phil Woods in 1948 at one of the regular sessions held at Teddy Charles’s loft on the corner of
55th Street and Broadway in where Brew Moore, Tony Fruscella, Don Joseph, Jimmy Raney and Frank Isola were in regular attendance. Phil was studying at Juilliard at the time and he told me in a JJ interview (September 1998), “I sat in with Gene for a super-fast Donna Lee. He kicked it off and when we hit the head it sounded like a unison. Afterwards we went to the bar to hang out and Gene could really hang out!” New York
Another popular venue where 24 hour sessions frequently took place was at Joe Maini and Jimmy Knepper’s apartment on the southwest corner of
136th Street and Broadway. Gene was often to be found there and a list of those attending at various times reads like a who’s-who of the new music because Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Joe Albany, Miles Davis, Herb Geller, John Williams, Charlie Parker, Gerry Mulligan, Zoot Sims and Warne Marsh all played there at various times. Lenny Bruce frequently came to listen and socialise with the musicians. On one occasion in 1950 Don Lanphere taped Charlie Parker there accompanied by John Williams, Buddy Jones and Frank Isola and the results were eventually released as The Apartment Sessions (Philology W842-2CD). Many of the younger musicians though were finding it difficult at the time to become established. Joe Maini was occasionally reduced to busking in subways and a year after the Parker recording Mulligan sold all his horns and hitch-hiked with his girl friend to Los Angeles in search of work.
In March 1951 Gene joined the newly formed but short-lived Buddy DeFranco big band performing arrangements by Mulligan, Jimmy Giuffre and the leader. In an enthusiastic DownBeat review of the band’s performance at the Rustic Cabin in Englewood Cliffs,
, Leonard Feather said, “Buddy really has something on the ball musically and could be built into an idol of American youth.” It didn’t happen despite extensive financial backing from a number of quarters including a very well connected call-girl named New Jersey . She invested around $50,000.00 in the band which was an enormous amount for the time. Eight months later and hugely out of pocket Buddy had to call it a day as a band leader. Charlotte
The same year DeFranco disbanded, Gene worked briefly with Jerry Wald’s band at the Arcadia Ballroom which had a strict Local 802 policy for tax purposes. Gene didn’t have a union card at the time so Herb Geller took his place and in a JJ interview (September/October 1994) he told me, “There was some resentment because Gene was very popular with the guys and he was an excellent player but quite soon I was accepted and everything was fine.” A couple of years later he had another unfortunate experience with Quill who was late for a Nat Pierce recording session. Pierce telephoned Herb who immediately took a cab and arrived at the studio just as Gene came running in. Nat said, “Herb is going to do the date because whenever I use you Gene, you’re either late or you don’t turn up at all.” Quill was angry and upset and accused Herb of always taking his jobs although he obviously didn’t bear a grudge because in 1956 when Leonard Feather asked him who his favourite alto players were he named Charlie Parker, Phil Woods, Charlie Mariano and Herb Geller.
Soon after leaving Jerry Wald he successfully auditioned for Claude Thornhill who was organising a new orchestra at the Local 802 union hall in
. It was quite a band. Quill had the jazz alto chair and Med Flory led the sax section which included Brew Moore for a time. Bob Brookmeyer was on trombone and relief piano and Teddy Kotick and Winston Welch were also there with the delightful Chris Connor taking care of the vocals. Quill remained with Thornhill off and on until 1956 eventually taking over from Med Flory on lead alto which included a great deal of clarinet work. New York City
Teddy Kotick left in 1953 to join Stan Getz and was replaced by
Bill Crow who remembered Gene in his book - From Birdland to Broadway - “As a scrappy little Irishman always ready to challenge the world.” Along with Brew Moore and Brookmeyer he was a heavy drinker and although he had been a Golden Gloves boxer his diminutive status left him at a disadvantage in certain situations. According to Crow, “He wound up the loser in many after-hours brawls.” The Thornhill organization did not have a band bus. They travelled in a convoy of four cars between bookings and one of the vehicles – The Rat Patrol - carried rejects from the other three with Gene of course usually at the wheel.
According to Crow’s book, his brilliance on both alto and clarinet did not extend to the essential maintenance regimes all instruments require. One night in
part of his alto’s right side-key assembly broke off requiring pressure from his hand to keep it in place. On another occasion in Texas his horn almost collapsed. Pausing in mid solo he refitted the keys and rods while instructing tenor-man Ray Norman to - “Hold your finger right there.” During the band’s residency at the Roosevelt Hotel in El Paso he married his girl-friend Bobbie who had been travelling with him. Winston Welch and New Orleans Bill Crow were two of the witnesses.
The Thornhill orchestra recorded 14 titles in April 1953 for the Trend label. Quill is heard on Jeru, Family Affair, Rose Of The Rio Grande and Five Brothers which are his first recorded solos (Hep CD 80) - he had soloed on Tiny’s Blues in 1951 with DeFranco but that title has never been released. A brilliant sight-reader and one of the finest lead alto and clarinet players of his generation, he had become an established member of the exclusive
studio scene by the mid-fifties. It was a busy time and he was frequently called for recording dates with among others Quincy Jones, Ernie Wilkins, Joe Newman, Manny Albam, Michel Legrand, Tito Puente, Johnny Richards and Oscar Pettiford. New York
In 1955 he had a short-lived small group with Dick Sherman an outstanding but now almost forgotten trumpeter. They had been colleagues in the DeFranco and Thornhill bands and Jordi Pujol has released a fine example of their work on
FSR-CD 667. It includes a memorable concert from the Pythian Temple, New York introduced by Al ‘Jazzbo’ Collins with excellent performance on Flying Down To Rio and ’s own Sid Meets Haig. The latter has an AABA 32 bar form reminiscent of Monk’s Rhythm-A-Ning in the A sections. The trumpeter was a former Juilliard student who had disappeared as a recording artist by 1958 but luckily his Bobby Hackett by way of Fats Navarro approach can be heard at length with Al Cohn and Zoot Sims on From A To Z (RCA 74321). Sherman
It was at this time Quill became very friendly with John Williams who told me, “Gene was special. We shared a lot of jam sessions and booths full of friends and laughter in Charlie’s Tavern.” Frank Isola was one of their close, mutual friends. He had worked a few months with Quill in
in 1951 and they can be heard together on one of Dick Garcia’s few albums as a leader – Message from Garcia (Dawn DCD 108). Atlantic City
Another close friend of Gene’s was of course Phil Woods. He was best man at Phil’s marriage to Charlie Parker’s widow and early in 1957 Woods sat in when Gene was working with John Williams at the Pad in
Greenwich Village. Things worked out so well musically that they decided to form a group together which worked fairly regularly for the next year or so around the area. They were booked as Phil and Quill. This confused an M.C. at the White Canon club in New York Queens who enthusiastically introduced, “Phil Anquill - here he comes now” to a bemused audience. Well worth tracking down is their Fresh Sound release ( FSR-CD-473) which includes some titles with Sol Schlinger one of the busiest baritone players in at the time. New York
Early in 1960 Gene joined Gerry Mulligan’s Concert Jazz Band taking Eddie Wasserman’s place on lead alto and clarinet. Don Ferrara told me that Gene was a very popular member of the band because he was a stellar player with a good sense of humour. Brookmeyer who was the straw-boss was also impressed, ”I thought that Gene had the fire and the madness sometimes of Charlie Parker. He was a little maniacal but controllable.” Unfortunately he did not get many solo features with the CJB at least on record but the ‘fire’ Brookmeyer mentions is readily apparent on 18 Carrots For Rabbit (
FSR-CD 710) and All About Rosie – both on alto. He also made an outstanding clarinet contribution to Bridgehampton Strut which is available on Mosaic MD 4-221 together with Rosie. One night he had an accident at Birdland when he had his alto balanced on his knee with the mouthpiece close to his face. Somebody called him and in turning quickly, the reed cut his eyeball. Phil Woods was in the club and took Gene’s place with the CJB for the remainder of the engagement.
After Mulligan disbanded in December 1964, Gene free-lanced around
at clubs like Kenny’s Pub and Embers West where he had his own quartet. He was one of several fine alto players who worked with Buddy Rich’s exciting new big band in the late sixties. Ernie Watts, Art Pepper and Richie Cole all followed him after he left in 1967. Jazz-work becoming scarce he did what a lot of musicians at that time were doing and moved to Las Vegas where he worked with Dan Terry, Ray Anthony and Billy Daniels. New York
In 1974 he moved back home to
where he played in the Steel Pier Show Band. Sadly in what was believed to be a robbery he was mugged on Memorial Day weekend in 1977 which left him paralysed on his right side and blind in one eye. One of his former Thornhill colleagues told me that it was not so much a mugging as an assault. Phil Woods and Bill Potts went to visit him in hospital where he was lying in a semi-comatose state in an oxygen tent with tubes connected to every orifice. Phil gently asked if there was anything he could do and Gene whispered, “Yeah, take my place!” Atlantic City
He no longer had a horn so at a 1979 benefit Phil Woods presented him with a new alto. Revising his fingering to compensate for his lame right hand he played his favourite ballad It Might As Well Be Spring with Woods on the piano. Years later Phil told me, “There wasn’t a dry eye in the house…the sound and fire where still there”.
Daniel Eugene Quill died on
the 8th December 1988 in , Pomona . Atlantic City
The following video tribute to Gene features him performing “Flying Down to
Rio” with Dick Sherman on trumpet, Argonne Thorton, piano, Buddy Jones, bass and Sol Gubin, drums. The track is from Gene Quill “The Tiger” Portrait of a Great Alto Player [Fresh Sound FSR-CD 667]