© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
Gordon Jack is a frequent contributor to the Jazz Journal and a very generous friend to these pages in his allowance of JazzProfiles republishings of his excellent writings. He is the author of Fifties Jazz Talk An Oral Retrospective and he developed the Gerry Mulligan discography in Raymond Horrick’s book Gerry Mulligan’s Ark.
The following article was first published in Jazz Journal, October 2010.
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“The baritone saxophone was once dismissed by a writer in Downbeat magazine as nothing more than a ‘Bottom-Heavy Monster’ but it was Harry Carney’s huge, indomitable sound and concept on the instrument that became one of the defining qualities of probably the greatest jazz ensemble ever – the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Leo Parker, Cecil Payne, Serge Chaloff and Pepper Adams showed how well it could adapt to the harmonic intricacies of bebop and Gerry Mulligan’s melodic creativity was uninhibited by what many considered to be no more than a section horn. Nick Brignola, Ronnie Cuber, Lars Gullin, Bob Gordon, Ronnie Ross and John Surman are just a few who have added to the lore as has Grammy award winner Gary Smulyan. Unlike a lot of contemporary players Gary’s baritone does not extend to a low A (C concert) which prompted my first question when we met on his visit to the UK in March 2010.
“I much prefer a conventional Bb baritone because a low A weakens the power of the lower register, whereas the Bb horn has a much more open and singing quality down there.” (Alex Stewart’s highly informative book on New York big bands – ‘Making The Scene’ – says there is yet another price to be paid for a low A. Many musicians insist that it does not blend so well with the other saxophones in the section because the extra length on the instrumental bell alters the entire overtone series. Danny Bank** who might just be the most recorded baritone player in history has also highlighted intonation problems at the top of the horn – GJ.) “ Danny is a Master and if he says that I’ll go along with it too but don’t forget Nick Brignola played one as does Ronnie Cuber and they both sound amazing.
“I was born in Bethpage, New York in 1956 and started playing alto when I was eight but by the time I was 13 I was fooling around on the bass-guitar. Rock’n’Roll was the big thing for kids back then and I got together with a couple of friends because we really liked Eric Clapton’s ‘Cream’ – the group he had with Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker. We rehearsed in a garage and did one gig at a high-school prom but we weren’t very successful.
“I wasn’t aware of jazz at all but one night I was twiddling a radio dial and found Ed Beach’s famous ‘Just Jazz’ show on WRVR. He played Fats Waller’s African Ripples and that was a defining moment in my life in terms of changing direction. I started hanging out at Sonny’s Place in Long Island which was one of the clubs everyone from New York used to play. Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, Jimmy Knepper, Lee Konitz and Ray Nance all played there – the list goes on and on. Throughout high-school I was really getting into the music, playing at Sonny’s three or four nights a week and sitting in with
some of those guys. This was before I had a driving licence so my parents used to drop me off at the club at nine and pick me up at 1:30 in the morning.
“One night Bob Mover was there with Chet Baker. I was about 16 and although we didn’t know each other, I started talking to Bob during an intermission. I told him I played alto and asked if I could sit in. He went over to the juke-box and put on Bird’s record of Just Friends telling me to sing along with Charlie Parker’s solo. I passed the test because I sang it from the beginning to the end and that was my audition to sit-in with Chet who was very nice to me incidentally. We played a couple of numbers and Bob and I became good friends from that day forward.
“My influences then were Charlie Parker, Cannonball Adderley, Phil Woods and Gene Quill. I also liked Frank Strozier a lot who was one of the true giants of the alto saxophone with a mature and original sense of harmony that was very advanced.
“The first well known band I played with was Woody Herman’s thanks to a recommendation from my friend Glenn Drewes who was playing trumpet with the band. I was 22 and I got a call from Bill Byrne the road-manager asking if I wanted to replace Bruce Johnstone who was leaving. He is a New Zealender and an unsung giant of the instrument – I wish more people knew about him because Bruce is truly amazing.” (One of his very best solos on record can be found on a 1973 recording of Macarthur Park with Maynard Ferguson’s big band on Vocalion SML 8429 - GJ). “I’d never played a baritone before but I jumped at the chance to play with Herman. I went out and bought a Yamaha and joined them two weeks later in Bridgeport, Connecticut. I was told that Woody’s pet peeve was alto players who doubled on baritone – he really hated that. He wanted guys who specialised on the instrument where the baritone was their ‘voice’. Every day I was convinced that he was going to say, ‘You know kid, nice try – we’ll see you later’ but he never did.
“Woody was one of the best band-leaders I ever worked for because he led the band without seeming to. He never told anybody what to do, it was all very subtle and I was thrilled to share the stage with him. I loved the three tenors and baritone voicing and it was an honour and a privilege to play some of the same parts Serge Chaloff had played. Four Brothers was still in Jimmy Giuffre’s handwriting and the saxes used to perform it out front of the band every night.” (Gene Allen who played with the band in the early sixties told me in a 2000 interview that he liked the concept of a tenor lead. However he preferred a conventional sax section of two altos, two tenors and a baritone because it gave the writers more flexibility and tone colours – GJ.)
“The band played all kinds of dates including Elks clubs and the American Legion. One night we might be in Carnegie Hall the next some dance out in the mid-west. That was what was so valuable because you had to play all kinds of music which wasn’t always satisfying but it was a gig. Woody had been doing that kind of thing all through his career.” (There is a photo in William Clancy’s fascinating book ‘Chronicles Of The Herds’ showing Gary with the band at Disneyland, California in August 1979 – GJ.)
“In 1979 we played the Monterey Jazz Festival with Dizzy Gillespie, Slide Hampton and Stan Getz as guests. I remember Stan played What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life? which luckily was recorded because it was absolutely stunning. One of my favourite records is ‘Focus’ which is one of the pivotal jazz records of all time. The way Stan reacted to Eddie Sauter’s great string writing was brilliant and Roy Haynes sounds just great on that album too.
“I stayed with Woody for two years. During that time I decided to say goodbye to my alto because I discovered I really was a baritone player and just before I left the band I switched from a Yamaha to a Conn.
“I moved to New York in 1980 and started subbing at the Village Vanguard with Mel Lewis which is how everyone gets into the band – you see if the chemistry works and how things fit. Gary Pribek who had been with Buddy Rich was on baritone but he wanted to move over to tenor. Eventually the tenor chair opened up allowing him to make the switch which is when they offered the baritone chair to me and I’m still there – I’m probably due for a gold watch. Bob Brookmeyer was the musical director and I think his writing was going in a different direction to where the band was at that time but we learnt so much under his direction and tutelage. It was an incredibly beneficial experience for all of us to work with him.” (Talking about that period Bob Brookmeyer told me back in 1995, ‘I was becoming very experimental and giving them music that was not suitable for them so by 1982 I had written myself out of Mel’s band – GJ.)
“I played Monday nights at the Vanguard but the early eighties was a slow time for extra gigs. I was doing a lot of commercial work like weddings, bar-mitzvahs and other dance band stuff but it was really unsatisfying music. I’d always enjoyed cooking and as there was so little happening for me musically that was artistically satisfying I decided to get away from music for a while and do something else that was creative. I did an eight-month intensive culinary course at the New York Restaurant School and then worked for a year and a half at a French restaurant in Pearl River, New York doing twelve hour shifts.” (In 1991 Gary told writer Arnold Jay Smith, ‘After that, four-hour weddings and bar-mitzvahs looked pretty good!’ – GJ).
“I realised that I had been trying to run away from music which was my one true calling. I started putting more into playing and taking my career seriously which is when things started happening. I was free-lancing all over town playing with a whole host of people thanks to rediscovering a sense of commitment as a musician after spending so many hours on my feet in a hot kitchen.” (The Lee Konitz nonet, the George Coleman octet, the Toshiko Akiyoshi-Lew Tabackin big band, Tito Puente, Lionel Hampton, the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band, the Smithsonian Masterworks Orchestra and the Tom Harrell octet are just a few of the many notable New York ensembles Gary performed with from the mid eighties – GJ.)
“I had the good fortune to be part of the Philip Morris Superband led by Gene Harris which did three world-tours with B.B.King and Ray Charles as guests. One of the concerts was recorded at the Town Hall in NYC in 1989 and I had a stop-time chorus on Ol’ Man River arranged by Torrie Zito which was pretty well received on the night.” (Gary is being really modest here because the sleeve note refers to this solo as ‘One of the evening’s highlights…that rendered even the normally talkative leader Gene Harris almost at a loss for words.’ From the audience reaction on the CD it sounds as though he received a well deserved standing ovation – GJ). “That same year I had the great pleasure of performing in Charles Mingus’ magnum opus Epitaph conducted by Gunther Schuller at Avery Fisher Hall.
“When Gerry Mulligan passed away Ronnie Cuber, Nick Brignola and I did some concerts together as a tribute which was followed by an album of Gerry’s music together with some other material associated with him. He wasn’t a direct influence but anyone who has played the baritone is going to be influenced in some way by Mulligan even if it’s through the back door. I mean, I owned all his records and I loved the CJB. I recognised his genius and brilliance but I was more attracted to a hard-bop style of playing so stylistically I gravitated more to Pepper Adams. Gerry came out of Pres really. You can hear it in his time-feel whereas Pepper was from the post-bop era – a much more aggressive style of playing which is my approach but I still listen to Lester Young and Gerry too.
“Pepper Adams (along with Charlie Parker) is my main influence because his playing has all the characteristics a great improviser requires – an original and personal sound, a well developed harmonic conception, a keen wit and a ferocious sense of swing. For me he was the most important post-bop baritone player and his influence is still felt today. I must mention Harry Carney whose sound and approach paved the way for everyone who played the instrument and who followed in his footsteps. Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s beautiful writing showcased the baritone because Harry was featured so prominently.
“John Surman is someone else I really admire. About five years ago he played a solo concert in a small theatre at the Montreal Jazz Festival. During the evening he’d been playing electronics, soprano sax and bass clarinet and for an encore he played ‘Round Midnight on the baritone. He used all Monk’s changes and it was one of the most stunning versions of Monk’s classic I’ve ever heard – I can still hear it because John is amazing.
“Getting back to the ‘Three Baritone Band’ we still work occasionally and a whole bunch of people have come through since Nick Brignola died, like Charles Davis, Howard Johnson and the brilliant Scott Robinson.” (An excellent example of multi-instrumentalist Robinson’s stunning work on baritone can be found on Bob Brookmeyer’s 1997 ‘Celebration’ CD – Challenge Records CHR 70066. Bob said at the time, ‘He did an absolutely amazing job sounding to me like Mulligan - if Gerry had been born 30 years later - plus all the personal history Scott brings’ – GJ).
“I’ve made two CDs with Mark Masters that I’m really pleased with beginning with a release featuring Clifford Brown material.” (Jack Montrose, who arranged a famous 1954 album for the trumpeter which included Zoot Sims and Bob Gordon, is present in the sax section. He also arranged three titles for the Masters session – GJ).
“The other one that might be a surprise is dedicated to Frankie Laine because I’m a huge fan. He had a real blues sensibility in his approach and he was incredibly soulful. He was also a skilful composer and lyricist helping to create a wonderful body of tunes that are both beautiful and harmonically interesting from a jazz musician’s point of view. Unlike a lot of pop singers from that era he collaborated with some of the really great songwriters like Hoagy Carmichael, Matt Dennis, Billy Strayhorn and Mel Torme.” (Probably the two finest examples of Frankie Laine’s work as a lyricist are We’ll Be Together Again with Carl Fischer and What Am I Here For with Duke Ellington. In 1996 the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame honoured him with its Lifetime Achievement Award – GJ).
“Unfortunately he’s best remembered for country & western schlock like Rawhide but in my opinion he was a truly great jazz singer as he demonstrated on a 1955 album with Buck Clayton, J.J.Johnson, Kai Winding and Budd Johnson.
“On the subject of recordings ‘Hidden Treasures’ with Christian McBride and Billy Drummond featured the line-up that I really like to work with – baritone, bass and drums only. Although the bass develops the harmonic line, I am free to create within that structure without having a piano or guitar leading me in the direction they want. Without those constraints I can take the music where I want to take it.” (‘More Treasures’ where pianist Mike LeDonne drops out for four titles has a similar line-up – GJ).
“I feel honoured and privileged to have shared the bandstand over the years with so many of my musical heroes. Through all of those experiences I’ve had some great times both on and off the stand and I feel I have really grown as a musician.”
** Danny Bank died three months after this interview on June 5th. 2010.
You can checkout Gary's brilliant solo on Old Man River as a member of Gene Harris and the Philip Morris Superband on the following video.