Thursday, February 4, 2016

Shorty Rogers Is Long On West Coast Jazz

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

“The definition of "West Coast Jazz?" You know, I've been asked that question so many times. It's a hard one. I'm not trying to evade the question, I'm just trying to figure it out myself. Maybe I was a practitioner of it, but as I think it over, all of us in music are products of our environment and heritage. Shelly Manne, Jimmy Giuffre and myself who are so distinctly associated with this sound...when I look back at our musical heritage, I remember that we all loved the Kansas City 7, a small unit out of the Basie band, and groups that you don't hear people speak about anymore. Bassist John Kirby, for instance, had kind of soft sounding group.

Just to express ourselves and have fun, some of our tunes were in the softer groove. Lester Young played clarinet in the Kansas City 7 and created a sound much like Giuffre was getting later. If you research it and analyze it, you'll see a very strong similarity between the Kansas City 7 sound and what later became known as the "West Coast Jazz" sound. A quite similar sound coming out of the East Coast was called "Cool Jazz." They are kind of interrelated with each other.

The bottom line is we're just a few guys trying to have fun, enjoying and expressing ourselves through playing.”
Shorty Rogers as quoted in Steven Harris, The Kenton Kronicles

Although not specifically credited, the following piece on Shorty Rogers appeared under the continually running “The West Coast of Jazz” series in the February 5, 1959 edition of Down Beat magazine. The Los Angeles Associate Editor at that time was John Tynan who more than likely penned the piece.

As you read about what was going on in Shorty’s career in 1959, please keep in mind that this is just one aspect of the vibrant and dynamic musical scene that was the world of many Los Angeles based Jazz musicians.

Doing movie studio calls, radio jingles and TV commercials during the day and playing Jazz gigs at night while interspersing recording sessions at all hours of the day and night was the norm.

It was a marvelously creative time for all concerned.

Who knew that in less than a decade much of it, if not most of it, would all be over?! With the benefit of hindsight, there is an ironic twist to one meaning for the word  “long” in the title of this piece.

“Arms dangling, head bent and bobbing to the beat, fingers snapping and jaws chomping gum, the short, dark-bearded trumpeter stood alone in the center of the recording studio listening to a playback.

Shorty Rogers had left his horn at home for this particular record date. In his capacity as west coast supervisor for RCA-Victor jazz albums his job in this instance was in the booth, overseeing the performance of a small group, led by tenor-ist Jack Montrose, which included Red Norvo (Shorty's brother-in-law), Barney Kessel, Red Wooten, and Mel Lewis.

''Swell, fellas," Shorty drawled as the playback ended, "let's go on to the next one."

Back at his bench in the booth, Rogers lit his tenth cigarette since the session began, took a swig from a bottle of coke and, when the musicians were ready, cued them on the first take of the next number.

During Montrose's solo, Shorty nodded repeatedly, a broad smile on his face. "The closer Jack gets to the shape of a pretzel," he grinned, "the funkier he plays."

"The Kenton guys used to call Jack 'George Washington' because he looks just like him. See?" Impulsively he pulled out a dollar bill, blocked off Washington's head, triumphantly repeating, "See? The cover of this album's gonna be a dollar bill," he chuckled.

With an unusually generous capacity for fun and laughter, 34-year-old Milton Rogers, late of Great Barrington, Mass., has much to enjoy these days.

Now solidly established at Victor's Hollywood office as jazz chief, his arranging chores know little letup as he churns out endless charts for record dates that range from his own swingers to the most commercial pop singles.

Shorty works all hours of the day or night, when he has a deadline to meet, in a large, untidy work room in back of his redwood-and-brick ranch style Van Nuys, Calif., home. Here an old upright piano stands in a corner adjacent to the large draftsman's table on which he writes. The rest of the space is taken up by a clutter of papers, a guitar and miscellany on a low table, old magazines and a variety of bric a brac. On the far side of the room four multicolored mobiles dangle and stir restlessly in perfect balance.

"I shut the door and make these," he laughed, "and my wife thinks I'm writing."

Marge, Shorty's pretty, blond wife, functions in the very positive capacities of wife, mother of three sprouting children and intelligent manager of her husband's business affairs.

Tangible results of Mrs. Rogers' skill in management are evident in many corners of Shorty's demesne. Not only is his back garden graced by a large swimming pool, but he has had built two poolside Polynesian-type grass huts, one for changing clothes, the other a cabana with table and chairs.

Here his three children, Michele, 11; Mike, 9, and Marshall, 7, romp to their hearts' delight while Mom and Dad relax in the cabana enjoying the fruits of a successful career in music.

A typical week's activity for Shorty was the seven-day period preceding Down Beat's interview. Monday he had a record date with a vocalist; he wrote four arrangements for that. The next four days were spent locked in his study, completing charts for his own big band date, Chances Are — It Swings, set for April release. Saturday Shorty spent in the studio, recording the album till the early morning hours.

On the day of rest, the trumpeter-arranger lounged around his home in a grey, terrycloth playsuit while wife and children visited relatives. Most of the afternoon he spent sprawled in the rumpus room watching a basketball game on one of three television sets in the house.

There is no question of Will success spoil Shorty Rogers?  It hasn't — personally nor musically. While his backbreaking writing chores are accepted as a happy vocation, he enjoys more than ever, he says, playing trumpet or Fluegelhorn.

"It's really a gas blowing now." He tugged at the short, curly beard, eyes twinkling. "I get the same feeling playing now as I used to get when I was real young. Today, when I get a club gig with the group, I feel like I'm back in high school when I play. It's my getting a chance to blow . . . a fresh feeling. Playing for enjoyment's sake, that's a groovy thing."

Shorty, who plays only on his own dates now, admits the tension and clinical atmosphere of a recording date puts somewhat of a strain on his own playing.

"There's such a lot to think about," he explained. "You're concerned with the writing, balance, kicking off the tempos, and all the rest of it. But in spite of all the hassle, when you get your horn up and blow, it's a relief from all the other complications."

Rogers' records have enjoyed particular success on the Victor label, and the sales statistics account for his being the only jazz artist on the west coast under long term contract to the Little Dog.

Though in charge of Victor jazz recording on the coast, Shorty spreads his talents to encompass much writing in the pop field, too. He doesn't feel that this versatility will work to his detriment with fans and buyers of his jazz albums and cites the activity of arrangers such as Neal Hefti and Al Cohn to support his contention. Besides, he argues, his connection with non-jazz record production provides additional work for the many jazzmen he calls to do the pop sessions.

"My using the jazz cats on these dates gives them a chance to prove to everybody that they're very good musicians who can handle any style music with ease," he stressed.

As the acknowledged first High Lama of modern jazz on the west coast, Rogers feels that if coast jazzmen are playing differently from their brothers in the east ". . . it's not because of their more stable, domesticated lives, but because they're listening more . . . to all music.”

"Jazz is constantly changing," he avered. "It's changing so rapidly that what's valid today might not be valid three weeks from now. So musicians have got to go on developing with it and, in turn, change the music to fit the time."

Shorty's efforts in this direction are due principally, he feels, to study under Dr. Wesley La Violette, Los Angeles teacher whose students include Red Norvo, Jim Hall, John Graas, and others.

To Rogers, LaViolette's main value and most important quality as a teacher is that "... he tries to teach the technique of writing. Just as a pianist works to develop his fingering, La Violette encourages his students to develop their personal writing technique. And within that lies the development of what you might call the 'inner technique' to be yourself and to express yourself."

As proof of the soundness of La Violette's method, Shorty cites the fact that none of those musicians who have studied under the white-haired maestro write alike.

Looking forward to touring Europe in the spring, Rogers said simply, "I'm a bug on the National Geographic and I'm dying to see some of those places I've been reading about/' Originally, he said, the tour was planned for last October but the promoters, changing their minds, felt that the hornman would encounter better weather in six months.

One of Shorty's favorite enthusiasms is the husband of his sister, Eve, Red Norvo. During the Montrose date red-headed Norvo was relaxing on a chair by the piano, arm propped on the chair back and his little cap tilted over one eye. Watching him from the booth, Shorty grinned. "Look at Red. He looks looks like a cross between Hemingway and Burl Ives." Then, he added, "For all the years Red's been around, it's really great to see his records doing so well for Victor.''

Shorty and Red are inveterate football fans. "When we go to a game together, Red is jumping up and down like a yo-yo, tearing his cap off his head, slapping it on again, yelling at the plays. And the cap is waving in the air like a flag. He's cute."

Of Bob Yorke, the RCA-Victor executive to whom Shorty is directly responsible, the trumpeter waxed eloquent. "He was the cat I did my first Victor albums for. Remember? He's a wonderful guy and a great friend to jazz musicians. Having him here is crazy for us because now he's in charge of everything. Yeah, it's a real break for jazz."”

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please leave your comments here. Thank you.