Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Frank Isola - "Le Scrupuleux": The Gordon Jack Essay

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

“Efficient, flexible and energetic, Frank’s playing emphasizes rhythmic stability and employs phrasing similar to that of Kenny Clarke and other, early bop drummers.” 
- Georges Paczynski

In his comprehensive Une Histoire de la Batterie de Jazz, Georges Paczynski refers to drummer Frank Isola as Le Scrupuleux - The Scrupulous One.

Mr. Paczynski goes on to explain that this reference is intended to characterize Isola as a drummer who is diligent, thorough and extremely attentive to details. Elsewhere in his brief treatment of Frank, he describes his approach to drumming as “careful,” “meticulous,” “rigorous,” “particular” and “strict.”

Having been in attendance at the June 1954 concert at the Salle Pleyel with Gerry Mulligan’s Quartet featuring Bob Brookmeyer on valve trombone and Red Mitchell on bass, Mr. Paczynski’s observes of Frank’s role as the drummer in Jeru’s quartet:

“Frank knows he was preceded by two remarkable drummers: Chico Hamilton and Larry Bunker. It is never easy to succeed talented artists.”

He goes on to say that “ … when Frank trades four-bar breaks with Mulligan and Brookmeyer, that what he plays displays the paradox of a style of drumming based on the influence of Gene Krupa, but one that is played in a very modern, musical context.”

It is a very astute observation because Krupa himself was never comfortable in the more subdued drumming environment of modern Jazz where showmanship had to give way to making musical statements.

Ultimately, what Mr. Paczynski is implying involves a question of Frank Isola building on strengths - the punctilious attention to the details of time-keeping - while offsetting a “weakness” by keeping the flashy elements of Swing era drumming to a minimum during his soloing; a soloing that rarely involved extended choruses.

Frank Isola’s unobtrusive drumming always kept the focus on developing a hard-driving sense of swing in the music. He was the perfect example of the Drummer as The Engine Room of a Jazz combo [of any era].

And given the complexities of keeping an engine humming, perhaps it’s a very good thing, indeed, to pay scrupulous attention to the details?

Thanks to Gordon Jack, Frank Isola’s talents did not go unrecognized beyond their brief “moment in the sun” in the 1950’s as he has immortalized them in the following chapter from his singular work - Fifties Jazz Talk: An Oral Retrospective.

Gordon’s essay on Frank Isola first appeared in the December 1993 edition of JazzJournal. You can locate more information about the magazine by going here.

© -  Gordon Jack/JazzJournal; copyright protected, all rights reserved., used with permission.

“For a time during the early and middle fifties, Frank Isola's subtly understated approach to the drums was very much in demand from a variety of high-profile leaders. He worked and recorded with Stan Getz off and on from 1952 to 1957 and spent the whole of 1954 with Gerry Mulligan, which included a visit to the Paris Jazz Fair in June of that year. He played with Bob Brookmeyer and John Williams and appeared on Mose Allison's famous Back Country Suite in 1957, but after that it seemed as though Frank disappeared from the jazz scene entirely. It wasn't until 1992 that I was able to find out what had happened to him, when his good friend pianist John Williams was staying at the Hilton Hotel in London. John told me that although he had worked with Max Roach, Kenny Clarke, Mel Lewis, and Gus Johnson, Frank Isola was his favorite drummer. Over the course of the next two years, as a result of several long, long-distance telephone calls to Frank and numerous letters from John, I was able to find out more about Frank's career in the fifties, a period that could be called jazz music's last golden age.

Frank Isola, who was the youngest of seven children, was born on February 20, 1925, in Detroit. He was eleven years old when he was taken to the Fox Theater to see Gene Krupa play with Benny Goodman. After the show, he went home and told his parents that he wanted to be a drummer. Mr. and Mrs. Isola had both immigrated from Italy, and his father certainly preferred opera to American popular music, but they were obviously understanding people because, quite soon, Frank was catching the trolley car every Saturday for his drum lesson in the old Wurlitzer Building in downtown Detroit.

He played in his high school band, and his first success occurred in 1942, when he won the Detroit section of a national Gene Krupa contest. Many of the major cities in the United States had a competition to send the best young drummer to the final, which was held in New York, and one of the tasks was to play along to Krupa's famous recording of "Drum Boogie." Unfortunately, the thrill of winning was swiftly followed by the disappointment of disqualification on a technicality. Frank had joined the union just before taking part, which was enough for the judges to decide that he was a professional and therefore ineligible. The runner-up was sent to New York, where the national contest was won by a youngster called Louie Bellson.

During World War II, Frank served in the Army Air Force as a musician, doing his basic training with Louie Bellson, with whom he formed a lifelong friendship. He was stationed initially at Columbus, Georgia, transferring later to Fort Wayne, Indiana, and on discharge in February 1946 he traveled to California. With the help of the G.I. Bill, he enrolled at the Los Angeles Conservatory, but after two semesters transferred to the more modern music college at Westlake, where Dick Kenny and Conrad Gozzo were fellow students. In January 1947 he took time off to go home to Detroit to marry his high school sweetheart, Pat Sheahan. Later that year, having now left college, he went on the road with the Earle Spencer big band touring the West, and it was during an engagement in Kansas City with the band that Frank first met the nineteen-year-old Bob Brookmeyer. Big bands were finding it hard to survive in the late 1940s, and faced with limited bookings, Spencer disbanded after a gig in Dallas.

By 1948, after an invitation from Dick Kenny, Frank had joined Johnny Bothwell's big band, which had John Williams on piano. Many other fine jazzmen played with Bothwell in the forties, and Don Lanphere, Jimmy Knepper, Allen Eager, Teddy Kotick, and Joe Maini were all with the band at various times. The leader had played alto with Gene Krupa, Tommy Dorsey, Woody Herman, and Boyd Raeburn, but unfortunately his band didn't fare any better than Earle Spencer's. Business became so bad that, towards the end of 1948, Frank, Joe Maini, and John Williams left the band in Ohio and drove to New York, determined to secure a change of fortune.

It is difficult to put all of Frank's activities into strict chronological order in the years from 1949 to 1952, when he first played with Stan Getz, but there are some events that can be determined with accuracy during this period. In January 1949, along with Don Lanphere, John Williams, and Teddy Kotick, he accompanied Babs Gonzales in an audition for Capitol Records. The audition was successful, because Babs got his contract, but a different instrumental group was used when the singer came to record. Don Lanphere told writer Alun Morgan that, at about the same time, he recorded several unreleased octet sides, possibly for a company called Motif, with, among others, Tony Fruscella, Milt Gold, Herb and Lorraine Geller, and Frank Isola. In June 1950 Frank was recorded at a private session with Charlie Parker, and on March 19, 1952, he made his first studio recording with Eddie Bert on the trombonist's debut as a leader.

The story behind the Parker recording is quite fascinating. It took place at an apartment rented by Joe Maini, Jimmy Knepper, and a tenor player named Gerson Yowell. Regular jam sessions took place there, and the list of musicians who attended reads like a "who's who" of the new music. Charlie Parker, Herb Geller, Gene Quill, Joe Albany, Dave Lambert, Gerry Mulligan, Zoot Sims, Warne Marsh, Lee Konitz, Jon Eardley, and John Williams all came to visit and sat in at various times. Comedian Lenny Bruce was often there, socializing with the musicians. Frank Isola was one of the regulars, and he was recorded on four separate occasions as part of the rhythm section with John Williams and Buddy Jones that backed Charlie Parker. Don Lanphere made the recordings, and the tapes, which had circulated among musicians for years, were finally released commercially in 1977.  In an interview with A. C. Stone for The Mississippi Rag, Frank said, "Warming up before a session, I asked Bird what tempo he wanted for a number we were recording. He just looked at me and said, 'Whoosh,' and made a motion with his hand like a jet taking off." One of the titles was a super-fast "Donna Lee," which of course is based on "Indiana." Gerson Yowell's sleevenote for the album says: "The ensemble went into 'Indiana' by bus, while Bird flew!"

It is impossible to be quite as specific about Frank's other activities at this time, but these were certainly busy years, as he worked mostly in and around New York City. A few random examples, though, will give an indication of the musical company he was keeping between 1949 and 1952. He did a few months in Atlantic City with Gene Quill, and John Williams remembers taking a bus to State College, Pennsylvania, with Jon Eardley, Buddy Jones, and Frank for a jazz gig after a big football game there. He played with Louis Prima's big band in New Jersey and was often involved in jam sessions at a studio called Don Jose's, which was situated on West 49th Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue and was a favorite venue for Lester Young, Zoot Sims, and Gerry Mulligan. Frank also did a short tour from New York to Chicago in 1951 with a trio backing Peggy Lee. He is quite sure of the year because on October 3,1951, Bobby Thomson hit his famous home run for the New York Giants in the final game of the National League Pennant against the Brooklyn Dodgers. This became known as "The Shot Heard Round the World," and the two events have remained connected in his memory ever since. In explaining to a non-American the significance of that phrase, writer Jerome Klinkowitz told me that it came from "the American Revolution, pertaining to the gunfire from the militiamen ('minute men' available for duty at a minute's notice) at Lexington, Massachusetts, that started the fray. Journalists transposed it to sports for the Thomson's hit."

For ten months from 1951 to 1952, Frank worked with the Claude Thornhill Orchestra, and some of the sidemen who played with him at various times included Dick Sherman, Sonny Rich, Gene Quill, Phil Sunkel, and Bob Brookmeyer. Thanks to Bill Crow's book Jazz Anecdotes, we know that there was definitely one leader Frank did not work for during this period, and that was Tommy Dorsey, "The Sentimental Gentleman of Swing." Dorsey's manager apparently telephoned Frank and asked him to come to the Pennsylvania Hotel in New York, because Tommy was auditioning drummers and wanted to hear him play. Knowing that Dorsey would only be happy with another Buddy Rich, Frank thought for a minute and said, "Aaah, thanks but tell Tommy I'm not in a sentimental mood." He has always regretted not playing with Tommy Dorsey, because he really admired the band. Bill Crow, who played with Frank at this period, has told me: "I met Frank at jam sessions in New York in 1950 and had the pleasure of working with him when we were both with Stan Getz, as well as on a few casual gigs. He played quietly but with a wonderful swing, and sometimes his hi-hat closing on the afterbeat was the loudest part of his playing."

In 1952 Stan Getz had the problem of replacing the great Tiny Kahn, who was leaving the quintet, so Frank's friend Teddy Kotick arranged for him to play with Stan at an engagement at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem. Al Haig and Jimmy Raney were in the group, and Joe Newman and Kai Winding also sat in that night. At the end of the set, Getz was so impressed with his playing he simply said, "Step into my office," and Frank remained with the tenor-man off and on for the next five years.

In Arne Astrup's revised Stan Getz discography, he lists Frank on a broadcast at the Tiffany club in Los Angeles on September 14,1952, but Frank told me that he did not play on this date. He thought that Stan probably used a West Coast rhythm section, with possibly Donn Trenner on piano. Frank's first booking as a member of the group was at a club in Providence, Rhode Island, and Teddy Kotick and Jimmy Raney were still there, but Jerry Kaminsky had taken Al Haig's place. Frank remembers that the club had a policy of booking guest stars at weekends, and on one such occasion he had the pleasure of playing with Billie Holiday. On November 14, 1952, the Stan Getz Quintet, with Frank on drums, appeared at Carnegie Hall as part of a musical celebration to mark Duke Ellington's twenty-fifth anniversary as a bandleader.  Also on the bill that night were Charlie Parker with Strings, Billie Holiday, Ahmad Jamal, Dizzy Gillespie, and Frank's good friend Louie Bellson, who was on drums with Ellington.

In December, Isola made his first studio recordings with Stan Getz, which have been reissued with a fine sleevenote by Bill Crow. It was while this album was being recorded that Jimmy Raney decided to leave the quintet and

gave Stan his notice. Frank recommended Bob Brookmeyer as a replacement, because they had been playing in jam sessions around New York together and he knew the trombonist would fit in perfectly. In a recent letter, Bob said he considered Frank one of his favorite drummers, and that from 1952 to 1954, he was his first choice for recording and club work. Brookmeyer was not immediately available to join Stan Getz, but he did manage to play one engagement with the group at the Hi-Hat in Boston, although there is some confusion over the date and the drummer. Bob remembers playing at the Hi-Hat in December 1952 with Getz and Frank Isola, but Fresh Sound Records have issued two CDs from this booking, quoting March 8, 1953, with Al Levitt on drums. Astrup's discography goes for December 8, 1953, and says that the drummer is Roy Haynes. The exact date may never be known, although December 1952 may be the most likely, but when I sent Frank a copy of the CD, he confirmed that he was playing the drums, not Levitt or Haynes.

Bill Crow's notes for the Getz and Jimmy Raney recordings are enlightening about the apparent "revolving-door" policy the tenor-man applied to his drummers at this time. "We had come back to New York in January for a week off after a week in Boston, then Stan called and said that he had filled in the open week at Birdland. When I got to work on Tuesday, I found Kenny Clarke setting up his drums. I didn't know what had happened to Frank but assumed he had already booked another gig. Tuesdays at Birdland included a live broadcast of an early set to help publicize the attraction of the week. During the second set, Frank Isola walked in and sat listening beside the bandstand. When we finished playing, I went down to say hello and asked what had happened. 'I don't know,' he said. 'I turned on the radio and discovered I was fired.'"

In May 1953, Teddy Kotick, John Williams, and Stan Getz drove across country from Washington, D.C., to spend the summer playing in Los Angeles. Bob Brookmeyer, who was now with the quintet on a permanent basis, joined them from Kansas City, and Frank flew out a few weeks later. Their first engagement was at the Tiffany club, where Stan used local drummer Richie Frost, who was a friend of Brookmeyer's. After a week's break, the group, this time with Frank Isola, took up residency at Zardi's, where they remained for the next four months. Zardi's was situated on the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street and was the premier jazz club in Los Angeles at the time. During that summer the quintet visited the Hollywood studios on three occasions to record fourteen titles for Norman Granz, but in September, Getz disbanded to go on the road with a package tour called "A Festival of Modern American Music," with Erroll Garner, June Christy, and the Stan Kenton Orchestra.

The rest of the group went back to New York to freelance, and around Christmas 1953, Brookmeyer received a telephone call from Gerry Mulligan, inviting him to join the quartet he was reforming in Los Angeles. As he intended to go back to the East to work, Mulligan did not want California-based players, so he asked Bob to bring a New York rhythm section to Los Angeles with him. Frank and Bill Anthony were selected, and while the new quartet was rehearsing in January, they played a concert as part of Gerry's tentet at the Embassy Theater, Los Angeles. This had been a short-lived project of Mulligan's, but luckily the tentet had made one album for posterity, recorded the year before, in 1953.

Initial rehearsals over, the new Gerry Mulligan Quartet made its debut at the Blackhawk, San Francisco, late in January 1954. Their next engagement was at the Storyville club in Boston, so Mulligan bought two cars for the long trip back East. Bill Anthony and Frank traveled together, while Brookmeyer and Mulligan were in the second car with Gerry's wife Arlyne, who was also his personal manager. After Boston, they went to Toronto and then New York, arriving there in April, where they appeared at Basin Street opposite Frank's original inspiration, Gene Krupa, who was there with Eddie Shu and Dave McKenna. By this time, a significant change had occurred in the rhythm section, as the superb Red Mitchell had taken over from Bill Anthony on bass.

It was during a booking at the Blue Note in Philadelphia that Henri Renaud invited Mulligan's group to appear at the Third Salon du Jazz in Paris, France, where they were a huge success. Luckily, Vogue Records was on hand to record the concerts, and thirty-one titles were eventually released, representing a fine example of Frank's stay with Mulligan. He follows the tradition established by Chico Hamilton and Larry Bunker in playing brushes almost exclusively with the quartet, and one might be forgiven for thinking this was at the request of the leader. Frank told me, though, that this decision had been his. In fact, when Gerry originally hired him, he said that he particularly liked his stick work. Compere Charles Delauney, whose introductions are on the L.P. (but not on the CD), has said, "Contrary to many modern musicians, whose attitude seems to be one of utter boredom, the members of the Mulligan quartet showed their evident pleasure in what they were playing." During the group's weeklong stay in Paris, where they were featured at five concerts, the drummer became very friendly with Thelonious Monk, who was also appearing at the festival. They had sat next to each other on the flight from America, and in the evenings they walked back to the hotel together after the concerts. When they returned to America, Mulligan had the problem of replacing Brookmeyer, who had decided to leave the group. He selected Tony Fruscella, who had established a reputation in New York circles as a sensitive and lyrical trumpeter.

On July 17, 1954, the Mulligan quartet with Fruscella, Mitchell, and Isola played at the first ever Jazz Festival at Newport, Rhode Island. They followed the Oscar Peterson Trio onstage and were introduced to an enthusiastic audience by Stan Kenton, who was the master of ceremonies that year. Kenton called Frank "A veteran of a number of outstanding jazz units and a percussionist of skill, control, and imagination." As for Tony Fruscella, a tape exists of part of the program the group played that day, and his approach sounds extremely tentative and lacking in confidence. John Williams has said that in the right setting, and the Newport Jazz Festival was probably anything but the right setting, Fruscella's lyrical creativity was unsurpassed. Almost immediately after Newport, Mulligan decided to replace him, and at Frank's suggestion he chose Jon Eardley. Apparently Jon was playing at the Open Door in Greenwich Village with Fruscella and Don Joseph, and Frank was in the rhythm section. Gerry and Arlyne Mulligan were in the audience, and it was Arlyne who made the introductions, when she asked Eardley how many white shirts he had. On being told that he had three or four, she took him over to Gerry's table, where Gerry said, "Would you like to come and work for me?" The new quartet opened in Baltimore three days later, and Jon's ebullient sound and striking ideas were to remain a feature of Mulligan's groups for the next two years. It is a source of regret that the group with Eardley, Mitchell, and Isola never recorded. The only permanent memento that seems to exist is a photograph in Time Magazine dated November 8, 1954, the issue that had Dave Brubeck on the cover.

In September 1954, John Williams made his first album as a leader with Bill Anthony and Frank Isola, and towards the end of the year, they were all involved in a seven-week nationwide tour organized by Norman Granz. John and Bill Anthony were part of the Stan Getz Quintet with Bob Brookmeyer, and Frank was still with Mulligan. The Dave Brubeck Quartet and the Duke Ellington Orchestra were also featured, and the tour started in New York's Carnegie Hall, moving on to Boston, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Detroit (where Frank's family, including his sixty-year-old mother, sat in the front seats of the Lafayette Theater), Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Denver, and San Francisco before concluding at the Shrine Auditorium, Los Angeles. This represented the end of Frank's career with Gerry Mulligan. The day after the Shrine concert, Stan Getz recorded six titles for Norman Granz, using Frank instead of Art Mardigan, who had been his drummer on the tour. Frank told me that "Jeru could be pretty stubborn and was upset that I had made the LP with Stan. He said it was unfair to Art Mardigan." The baritonist still had commitments on the West Coast, so Frank, who was anxious to return to his family in New York, took the opportunity of rejoining Stan Getz. After their argument, Gerry had driven off with Frank's drums in his station wagon, which necessitated Getz hiring drum kits for Frank while they worked their way back East. Bob Brookmeyer also stayed in California for a while, so Stan added Tony Fruscella to the group for a Birdland engagement, although by March 1955 Brookmeyer was back again.

Isola continued to freelance around New York, and in 1956 he recorded with Dick Garcia in a group that included Gene Quill, and Terry Pollard.  He played with the German pianist Jutta Hipp in a trio with Jack Six at Basin Street East, and he worked in Cleveland for a while with Helen Merrill. During this time his wife, Pat, was contributing to the family income by holding down a job as a receptionist/secretary at the William Morris Booking Agency. He also played in jam sessions with Al Cohn, and at one such session in a loft on 34th Street, he met Mose Allison. By early 1957, the pianist had joined Frank in the Stan Getz Quartet, and it was around that time that he was rehearsing his famous Back Country Suite. When it was recorded, the drummer showed himself to be perfectly able to adapt to Allison's charming and idiosyncratic compositions. The Suite was Mose Allison's first recording, and it proved to be Frank's last for thirty-seven years.

In the 1959 Metronome yearbook, Frank, together with six other leading drummers, was asked to select some of his favorite artists. His selections make interesting reading, because he chose Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Red Norvo, David Allyn, Milt Jackson, Ray Charles, Gerry Mulligan, Artie Shaw, and Count Basie with Joe Williams. By the time this entry appeared, Frank and his family had returned to Detroit, and his days of playing with major jazz figures were over. The sixties was not a good decade for Frank, or for jazz in general, although the music survived, unlike Frank's career, which never recovered the high profile that it enjoyed in New York during the fifties.

In 1961 he played in a trio that opened Hugh Hefner's Playboy Club in Chicago, but for most of that decade and into the seventies, he stayed close to home, playing casuals with local musicians. He did return to New York in the mid seventies, working with tenor player Victor Lesser at the West End. But jazz gigs were still very scarce in the city, so he went back to Detroit, where to some extent his life has come around full circle. Until 1992 he lived downtown in an apartment at the Lenox Madison Hotel, close to the old Wurlitzer Building, where he used to have his weekly drum lesson. As a result of the Urban Renewal Program, the Lenox Madison has been demolished, so Frank has moved to another apartment, near to the Fox Theater, which of course is where he was inspired to become a drummer at a Gene Krupa performance. He was recently a victim of what has become a regular feature of inner-city life; his car was stolen, and worse, his drum kit was inside. Somehow, Louie Bellson heard of Frank's loss, and he immediately arranged for his old friend to receive a new kit.

In October 1994 he was reunited with John Williams when they recorded a quartet CD down in North Miami, Florida. Also involved were Spike Robinson and Jeff Grubbs, a bass player from the Florida Symphony. Earlier that year, he was heard with Franz Jackson and Marcus Belgrave at a Jazz Festival in Windsor, Ontario, where a live recording was produced, and in November 1994, at the same venue, he was the guest of honor at a concert billed as "A Tribute to Legendary Detroit Drummer Frank Isola."

Other than Bark for Barksdale with the Mulligan quartet in Paris, there are no recorded examples of Frank taking extended drum solos, but his four-and eight-bar breaks are models of taste and restraint, with no over-elaborate displays of technique. Within the ensemble, he never imposed himself in the way that perhaps Art Blakey might have done. Excellent though Art's more aggressive and dynamic approach was, Frank Isola's relaxed and gently swinging style was just as valid for the contexts in which he worked.”

Frank’s playing can be heard on the following performance of Bernie’s Tune which was recorded by baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan in 1954 at Storyville in Boston MA with Bob Brookmeyer on valve trombone and Bill Anthony on bass. Frank takes an 8-bar solo on the bridge of the closing chorus.

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