Monday, October 31, 2016

Don Ferrara - The Gordon Jack Interview [From the Archives]

© -Steven Cerra. Copyright protected; all rights reserved.

"Don is a real improviser and a very complete player—sound, ideas, time. He possesses very cohesive intuition." … Don was a powerful player and one of the few trumpeters to have some of Roy Eldridge's heat."
- Lee Konitz, alto saxophone

Where I grew up, everyone’s last name ended in a vowel, or so it seemed for a very long time.

Names like “Ranucci,” “DiStefano,” and “Capaldi” - it was all so mellifluous to listen to the teachers call the attendance roll each day in the classroom.

“DeSantis” was the name above the entrance to the bakery, “DiPippo” owned the store where you went to buy musical instruments and took music lessons and “Ferrara and Ferrara” was really a law firm.

The son of one of the Ferrara attorneys was my best buddy through most of grade school and as a result of this boyhood friendship, I’ve always had a fondness for the last name of “Ferrara.”

And my fondness for that family name didn’t diminish once I heard the brilliant trumpet playing of Don Ferrara on recordings by the Gerry Mulligan Sextet and then later on LPs with alto saxophonist Lee Konitz and Gerry’s Concert Jazz Band.

Don Ferrara’s beautiful sound on trumpet always brought to mind another of my favorite trumpet players who shares the same first name - Don Fagerquist [and the same initials!]. And what I wrote about Don Fagerquist in this excerpt from a previous blog posting also applies equally as well to Don Ferrara.

“One of the musicians on the Left Coast who always knocked me out was trumpeter Don Fagerquist.

He had one of the most beautiful sounds that I ever heard on trumpet; plus, he was one heckuva swinger, which always caught me by surprise. Here’s this lyrical, pretty tone, and the next thing you know the guy is poppin’ one terrific Jazz phrase after another.

The trumpet seemed to find him. His was one of the purest tones you will ever hear on the horn. In Don Fagerquist, the instrument found one of its clearest forms of expression.

Don never seemed to get outside of himself. He found big bands and combos to work in that both complimented and complemented the way he approached playing the trumpet.

His tone was what musicians referred to as “legit” [short for legitimate = the sound of an instrument often associated with its form in Classical music].

No squeezing notes through the horn, no half-valve fingering and no tricks or shortcuts. Even his erect posture in playing the instrument was textbook.

If you had a child who wished to play trumpet, Don would have been the perfect teacher for all facets of playing the instrument.

He was clear, he was clean and he was cool.

His sound had a presence to it that just snapped your head around when you heard it; it made you pay attention to it.

No shuckin’ or jiving’, just the majesty of the trumpeter’s clarion call . When the Angel Gabriel picked trumpet as his axe [Jazz talk for instrument], he must have had Don’s tone in mind.”
- the editorial staff at JazzProfiles

Regrettably, there is not much information about Don Ferrara in the Jazz Literature, a fact that has been somewhat remedied by the following interview that Don Ferrara gave to Gordon Jack and which first appeared in the June, 2000 edition of JazzJournal.  It also forms Chapter 11 is Gordon’s invaluable Fifties Jazz Talk: An Oral Retrospective.

Gordon very graciously gave his consent to allow JazzProfiles to repost his Don Ferrara interview as a blog feature. I have retained the footnote numbering in the body of the text and you can find these sources at the end of Gordon’s interview along with a video that will give you an opportunity to sample Don’s trumpet playing.

[Gordon also advised regarding the photo that appears at the beginning of this feature: “One piece of information regarding the Ferrara, Travis, Candoli picture in my book was that they were all on stage with Mulligan's CJB in Paris at the time -1960.”]

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

What is really surprising about Don Ferrara, who worked with major figures like Georgie Auld, Woody Herman, Lee Konitz, Gerry Mulligan, and Lennie Tristano, is that he is not mentioned in any of the standard jazz reference books. Tristano once said that Ferrara had ‘absolutely everything,' but in a long career, despite an earlier attempt by Leonard Feather, this is the first interview he has agreed to give. It took place in 1996, when he replied on cassette tape to my list of written questions.

“I was born on March 10, 1928, in Brooklyn, New York. I started playing the trumpet when I was ten years old, and I was the only professional musician in my family. The radio was filled with music every night, broadcasting from clubs and hotels all over the city, and I would listen to Louis Armstrong, Roy Eldridge, Lionel Hampton, Glenn Miller, Harry James, Tommy Dorsey, Duke, Basie, and Woody. I was hungry to hear as much as I could, and I was knocked out by how well the trumpeters played and how different they all sounded.

Jerry Wald had a good commercial band, and it was the first big band I played with for four months in 1945, but he was more of a businessman than a musician and he didn't make much contact with the guys. I left to join Georgie Auld, and along with Diz and Woody, he had one of the best big bands in the country. Al Porcino, who was a great lead trumpeter, was there along with Al Cohn and Serge Chaloff. Al Cohn wrote most of the book, which was very loose and musical, and Georgie was a friendly guy who would hang out with the band. He was a wonderful musician, not at all competitive, and I stayed with him until May 1946, when I was inducted into the Army. That is where I met Red Mitchell, because we were both in the same Army band, and Howie Mann was there too. Howie was a friend of mine from high school, and he was a good drummer who later worked with Elliot Lawrence.

I first met Warne Marsh at this time, and we spent a lot of time playing together and listening to records, which is when I found out about Lennie Tristano. As soon as I was discharged in April 1947,1 started studying with him, and right from the beginning he got me into chords, because I didn't know how any of that worked. It was thanks to Lennie that I was able to find my own direction, although I wasn't copying anyone's playing, so there wasn't anything to change. This was really when everything started for me, and I carried on studying with him for a total of fourteen years. 1947 was also the year I started teaching.

1950 was a very busy year for me because I was rehearsing with a band that Gene Roland put together for Charlie Parker. It was Al Porcino who recommended me to Gene, who was organizing an unusual big band with the idea of working and recording with Bird. A couple of weeks before rehearsals, Lee Konitz, Warne Marsh, and I went to hear him at a club out in Queens, and we all ended up on the bandstand with Miles and J.J., who were working with him that night. I really enjoyed it. I had never played in a band as big as Gene Roland's—eight trumpets, five trombones, eight saxes, and four rhythm—and it was unbelievable to hear Bird playing in an eight-man sax section. He was so strong and beautiful, playing lead the way he played everything else, and the feeling and looseness were just wonderful. One of the tunes was "Limehouse Blues," and even though he had thirteen brass in cup mutes behind him, his line and sound cut through everything. I did about two weeks' rehearsals, but I couldn't make the recording with Bird because, once again thanks to Al Porcino, I was called for a record date with Chubby Jackson.1 Howard McGhee was in the trumpet section with Al and me, along with J. J. Johnson and Kai Winding in the trombones and a very hip sax section of Charlie Kennedy, Georgie Auld, Zoot Sims, and Gerry Mulligan, with Tony Aless on piano and Don Lamond on drums. There was talk of Chubby taking the band out to a new club in Texas, but I didn't go because Red Mitchell had recommended me to Woody Herman, so I started working with the Third Herd in April 1950.

Our first job was a month at Bop City in New York, and we had some wonderful soloists like Milt Jackson and Bill Harris that I really enjoyed listening to. The trumpet section was very strong, and Bernie Glow played most of the lead, although the way the book was written, some of the tunes had the lead split three ways. Being a "Four Brothers" type band, the saxes had most of the solos, but once in a while the trumpets got a chance. On "Route 66" for instance, Woody asked me to write a chorus for the section to play in unison in harmon mutes, which was followed by a solo for Doug Mettome. I arranged for Jeff Morton to take Sonny Igoe's place on the band for three weeks when Sonny got married, and the rhythm section sounded wonderful. Woody was nice to work for and I stayed with the band for fifty weeks, but eventually I left and went back home to Brooklyn to study with Lennie again, and I think that Don Fagerquist took my place.2

Over the next few years I was teaching and studying as well as playing at lots of jam sessions around town. Then, in 1955, Lee Konitz asked me to join his group with Sal Mosca, Peter Ind, and either Dick Scott, Ed Levisen, or Shadow Wilson on drums. Billy Bauer sometimes worked with us, and the repertoire consisted of originals by Lee and me, pieces by Lennie, together with some of Bird's lines. It was a great band. I loved the way Lee, Peter, and Sal played, and we had a wonderful time for a couple of years, playing at clubs like Birdland, Cafe Bohemia, and the Half Note.

The first time we worked opposite Mulligan and Brookmeyer, Gerry said he was so knocked out with my playing that he called me to record with his sextet. I rehearsed with the group in the afternoon of September 26,1956, and after we took a break and went out for something to eat, we recorded the album later that night.3 That was the only time I played with the sextet, but a few days later Bill Crow called and said that Gerry wanted me to join the band. I didn't because I was still working with Lee, although I really liked the sextet. The writing was very good, the blend and intonation of the four horns was perfect, and everyone could really blow. The following year I recorded again with Gerry, only this time in a big band, and just about everyone had a short solo.4 That same year Lee and I were in the studio for Norman Granz, and on "Billie's Bounce" we played Bird's four choruses from memory, because most of the people studying with Lennie were memorizing solos by Lester, Bird, and Roy Eldridge.5

One of my students was a good friend of Mulligan's, and Gerry told him to get me to call because he wanted me to join the Concert Jazz Band, which he was organizing. After three months of auditions and rehearsals we played our first gig in January 1960 at Basin Street East. The club was filled every night, and I couldn't believe how many musicians were coming to hear us, as well as film and stage people who were friends of Judy Holliday. I had already met her at the rehearsals, and she was there at the band's first night, sitting next to Dora, my wife, and they were having as much fun listening as we were playing. I remember one night later on at the Village Vanguard, someone was whistling loudly after solos and at the end of every tune, generally having one hell of a time. When we came off the stand I asked Dora who was making all the noise, and she said it was Judy!

Nick Travis played all the lead, and he had good chops and excellent time. He was a fine consistent player with a relaxed feeling, but when we were in Europe he had a loose tooth on the top, right under the mouthpiece. He really had a problem for the last part of the tour, but it wasn't apparent to anyone, and as you can hear on the records, he sounds as full and consistent as always. Gerry already had Brookmeyer, but he wanted another strong soloist in the trombone section, so a couple of months before we left for Europe, Willie Dennis joined us, and he was perfect. I had first met Willie when he was with Elliot Lawrence in 1948, and he was a very good friend of mine. When he left Elliot's band, he moved to New York and started studying with Lennie, and his playing was just beautiful. He had very good chops and great time, with a soft texture to his sound, and despite what you may think, he was not slurring all the time but tonguing very lightly. He was very spontaneous, immediately reacting to what was happening. He was also a very good cook, and if you ate at his house, you ate well. Unfortunately Willie was killed in a car accident in Central Park; Dora and I went to his funeral, which had a closed casket. His wife, Morgana King, told us that on the night of the accident, it had been raining, and the road turned but the driver didn't. He hit a tree, sending Willie through the windscreen.

Gene Quill was a great character, and one of his features in the band was "18 Carrots for Rabbit," which was nearly all alto followed by a short solo from Gerry. One night after Gene finished and Gerry took over, the audience exploded because Gene had played so well. He took an extravagant bow, turned round to the band, giving us a real dirty look, and kissed himself on the shoulder. We just broke up and couldn't play anything, missing a whole bunch of phrases to be played behind Gerry's solo. At the end of the piece, Gerry asked us what had happened. We told him what Gene had been doing and Gerry, shaking his head, said, "I don't want to play after him anymore. Who the hell can play after him!" Which is when we all started laughing again. It was great having Zoot Sims on tour with us because he was so musical. He had great time and a sound that projected a wonderful feeling every time he played. On the subject of sounds, Gerry had the best of any baritone player, and he was extremely melodic. Bob Brookmeyer, too, had a superb sound and time, and they both played piano very well.

It was very easy working with Gerry. He was definite and consistent, so you knew exactly how he wanted his things played, and he always listened intently to the soloists, letting them know how much he dug their playing. We were all friends, and it was a happy band, in fact the best big band I ever played with. Gerry also had a good sense of humor. I remember one night he became angry with some of the audience for keeping time with the band by tapping on their glasses. He walked to the mike and told them he didn't like it and it was costing everyone in the room a lot of money to hear us. Those people got up to leave, and Gerry announced that it would be a good time to play "Walkin' Shoes."

I started working with Lennie at the Half Note in November 1962, and it was the best time I ever had playing. For about a year and a half we did three weeks there every two or three months, and Lennie was just unbelievable; his surprises were endless. I had been listening to him for years at lessons and jam sessions, but to be on a gig with him was something else, because he totally followed through on everything he told his students. He had great time and he was the most melodic player I ever heard. His chords and lines were extremely rich and intense, and I couldn't believe what a great sound he got out of those terrible nightclub pianos. Lennie would ask what tune I wanted to play and at what tempo. He would tap off, and we would just start improvising.

In 1964 Dora and I were busy with the first home that we had bought in New Jersey, and for the rest of the sixties I carried on teaching and making sessions. In 1972 we moved to Pasadena, California, which is where Warne Marsh introduced me to Gary Foster. I started teaching at Gary's studio and did some playing with Gary, Alan Broadbent, and Putter Smith, who are all excellent musicians.

Lennie Tristano was very important to me, as well as being one of my best friends, and I kept in touch with him until he died in 1978. Jeff Morton was a great drummer, and we played together as often as we could until his death in 1996. We have now moved to southern California, just north of San Diego, and because I teach by cassette, we can live anywhere in the country and still keep all my students.

No interview with Don Ferrara would be complete without discussing Roy Eldridge, who had an enormous influence on his playing, and his comments in a 1956 series of articles he wrote for Metronome magazine are particularly succinct: "Every note Roy played had meaning and life . . . his feelings pushed the valves down, not his fingers." In a recent telephone conversation Don told me, "Roy was the most important trumpeter for me. His time and sound were great. His line was always melodic, and the feeling was always very intense. He had the best chops of all the trumpeters, sounding loose and strong, and it didn't matter what tempo or in what range he played; it was all meaningful."

I concluded the interview by asking Don to list some of his favorite instrumentalists, singers, arrangers, and bands. His selections are as follows:
Trumpet—Roy Eldridge. Trombone—Bob Brookmeyer, Willie Dennis, and Bill Harris. Alto—Lee Konitz and Charlie Parker. Tenor—Lester Young, Warne Marsh, and Zoot Sims. Baritone—Gerry Mulligan and Lars Gullin. Clarinet—Artie Shaw and Lester Young. Vibes—Milt Jackson. Piano— Lennie Tristano, Sal Mosca, and Bud Powell. Guitar—Charlie Christian, Jim Hall, and Billy Bauer. Bass—Peter Ind and Red Mitchell. Drums—Jeff Morton, Max Roach, and Roy Haynes. Singers—Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra. Arrangers—Ralph Burns, Neal Hefti, Gerry Mulligan, Bob Brookmeyer, and Bill Holman. Big Band—Gerry Mulligan and Woody Herman. Small Group—Lennie Tristano, Lee Konitz, and Dizzy Gillespie/Charlie Parker.

Don Ferrara's solo abilities are well represented on the albums he made with Mulligan's sextet and the CJB. In 2000 Peter Ind released previously unissued tapes of a 1957 Lee Konitz engagement at the Midway Lounge, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, containing four numbers featuring the trumpeter.6 A particularly good example of Don's work in a small group situation is the LP. he mentions in the interview, where he and Konitz play Parker's famous solo on "Billie's Bounce." The album allows him to stretch out and really develop his highly individual ideas, and it has the additional advantage of including two of his distinctive compositions, "Sunflower" based on "Yesterdays," and "Movin* Around" based on Tristano's "Pennies in Minor" It is a recording that is long overdue for reissue on CD.”

1.  Chubby Jackson Big Band. Fantasy OJCCD-711-2.
2.  In Bill Clancy's book on Woody Herman, Chronicles of the Herds (Schirmer Books), a June 1950 photograph shows Don Ferrara playing with the band at the Capitol Theater in New York.
3.  Gerry Mulligan Sextet. Emarcy Jap 826993-2.
4.  Gerry Mulligan, Mullenium Columbia/Legacy CK 65678. In addition to some examples of Gene Krupa and Elliot Lawrence playing Mulligan charts from the late forties, this CD also features six titles recorded by a Mulligan big band in April 1957. It includes a restored Ferrara solo on "Thruway" that had been removed on the original L.P. The CD booklet has some excellent and previously unpublished photographs from the session.
5.  Lee Konitz, Very Cool. MGV 8209. May 1957. Talking about Ferrara on the sleevenote to Nat Hentoff, Konitz says, "Don is a real improviser and a very complete player—sound, ideas, time. He possesses very cohesive intuition." More recently he told me: "Don was a powerful player and one of the few trumpeters to have some of Roy Eldridge's heat."
6.  Peter Ind Presents Lee Konitz in Jazz from the Fifties. Wave CD 39. February 1957.

If you wish to spend a fun evening listening to recorded Jazz sometime, try playing back-to-back records by Bobby Hackett, Don Fagerquist and Don Ferrara see where that takes you.


Sunday, October 30, 2016

Harry James - Cornet Chop Suey and Jazz Connoisseur Part 4

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

"Harry James was a genius. He could read all of the highly syncopated charts at sight, and he played fantastic jazz solos—different every time. ... He was also a good conductor and a fine arranger."
- Arthur Rollini, member of the reed section of the 1937-38 Benny Goodman Orchestra

“By January 1937, then, through the almost random process of comings and goings and casually hired replacements and all the other accidents of circumstance that commonly determined the course of a big band's personnel, the Benny Goodman trumpet section finally completed its evolution and had formed itself into the classic triumvirate of Harry James, Ziggy Elman and Chris Griffin.

This powerhouse trio, as it came to be called, played with a precision and drive and spirit-rousing joyfulness that added even more excitement to the band's performances, and it was the perfect vehicle for executing the Jimmy Mundy killer-dillers that Benny was now favoring. For Hammond, who much preferred Fletcher Henderson's more subtle and relaxed approach to orchestration, "the loud, meaningless 'killer' arrangements which Benny instructs Jimmy Mundy to pound out in mass production each week are definitely detracting from the musicianship of the orchestra." But even he had to admit "there has never been a better trumpet section except in one of Fletcher Henderson's old bands."

This was not an uncommon opinion. Glenn Miller, for one, considered it "the Marvel of the Age." "The best compliment we ever got," Chris Griffin remembers, "is when Duke Ellington once said we were the greatest trumpet section that ever was, as far as his liking." In most trumpet sections one man played lead and the others held down the less demanding second and third trumpet chairs….

In the Goodman band, though, the lead was alternated among all three players. "They switched the parts around because there were so many high notes for the trumpets they'd wear one guy out," Jess Stacy explains. "They had to switch the parts. If they hadn't, one guy would have died."
- Ross Firestone, Swing, Swing, Swing: The Life & Times of Benny Goodman

''His solo work poured out of his horn with a sense of inevitability that no other trumpeter could equal with such consistency."
- Gunther Schuller, The Swing Era

The editorial staff at JazzProfiles, continues its in-depth look at the career of trumpeter and band leader, Harry James with a reprinting of the following inserts notes that Jazz musician, bandleader, author and editor Bill Kirchner penned for Verve Jazz Masters 55: Harry James [314 529 902-2]. The CD provides a wonderful retrospective of the music produced by the bands that Harry led in the 1950's and 1960's.

Still to come in future postings about Harry are Gunther Schuller’s take on him in The Swing Era and a synopsis of the salient aspects of his career as drawn from Peter Levinson’s Trumpet Blues: The Life of Harry James.

“If a poll were taken to pick the most famous trumpeters in the history of twentieth-century music, chances are that Louis Armstrong and Harry James would top most lists. Armstrong, of course, also has a most secure place in the jazz pantheon, but James does not, due to the "burden" of having achieved enormous commercial success early in his career. It's ironic that while few judge Armstrong's achievements on the basis of such hits as Hello, Dolly, James is still viewed in many quarters mainly as an early-Forties purveyor of schmaltzy ballads such as You Made Me Love You and such virtuoso pop-classical fare as Flight of the Bumble Bee.

To be sure, there was a strong element of commercialism in James's musical persona, but. there was an intense jazz side as well. His playing gave witness to the varied influences of his favorite trumpeters: Armstrong, Muggsy Spanier, Bunny Berigan, Buck Clayton., and Clifford Brown. There have been few trumpeters in jazz history who could sound equally convincing on Armstrong's Cornet Chop Suey and the challenging bebop harmonies of Ernie Wilkins's Jazz Connoisseur.  James pulled it all off effortlessly, while leaving no doubt who was playing. (''His solo work", observed composer, conductor, and historian Gunther Schuller in The Swing Era: "poured out of his horn ... with a sense of inevitability that no other trumpeter could equal with such consistency.") Combine these elements with an eloquent jazz ballad style - there are several examples in this collection -  a passion for the blues, and breathtaking execution, and you have a unique, and great, jazz musician.

Born in 1916 in Albany, Georgia, Harry Hagg James was the son of a circus bandleader and he spent much of his childhood in this unusual musical environment, (His adult fondness for such showpieces as Carnival of Venice no doubt stemmed from early exposure to brass band music.) He began playing drums at age seven and three years later commenced trumpet lessons with his father. The boy evidently learned quickly: While in his teens, he played in succession of bands in Texas, where his family had settled, and by the time he was nineteen had graduated to the national with the Ben Pollack band. His popularity, however, was established with his 1937- 38 stint in the most renowned of Benny Goodman's Orchestras, enabling him to go on his own and become one of the most successful bandleaders of the Swing Era — before reaching the age of thirty.

With the unofficial demise of the Swing Era at the end of 1946, James disbanded his orchestra, as did a number of other bandleaders, but he formed a new band soon afterward and led it intermittently throughout the next decade. In the late Fifties he began what was arguably the most artistically fruitful period of his career: During this time, he acquired a base at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas, where his band played for several months of each year when not touring. James also commissioned a slew of charts from first-rate composer-arrangers: Ralph Burns, Bob Florence, Neal Hefti, Thad Jones and, most of all, Ernie Wilkins. The last three, not coincidentally, had written extensively for Count Basie, whose band James admired and, to some extent, imitated in approach.

(The two Burns compositions, released here for the first time, are from a November 1961 session in which James recorded eight Burns originals. Hommage a Swee Pea is a tribute to Burns's friend Billy Strayhorn, the longtime Duke Ellington collaborator and compositional alter ego. Rosebud was a nickname for a well-known groupie.)

But the James band was more than just a Basie copy — its leader was too strong a musical personality to settle for that. His own playing continued to grow in scope — including an assimilation of Clifford Brown's music — and in the series of nine albums recorded for MGM between January 1959 and March '64, he demonstrated his artistry in a variety of settings. There was a Bob Crosby-like album of big band Dixieland as well as a mainstream small-group date, updated orchestrations of Swing Era fare, and challenging postbop vehicles (The Jazz Connoisseur, its sequel A Swinging Serenade, and Walkin'). As a soloist, James was at his peak, and his former sidemen remember his musicianship with awe. "On a scale of one to ten," recalls lead trumpeter Rob Turk, "Harry was a fifty."

"He was the greatest musician I ever played with," tenor saxophonist Jay Corre says. Both Corre and bassist Red Kelly mention that James had what must have been a photographic memory (and a phonographic ear). He not only had his own parts memorized but those of every band member as well. If a player was absent, James would play the missing part on trumpet. And Ray Sims played an occasional game with the leader: Sims would pull out any chart and display a random two measures of his second trombone — even from an arrangement that the band had not played in years — and James would invariably identify the piece correctly.

If James was a prodigious musician, his band was more than capable of supporting him. The James band heard on these sixteen tracks was one of the finest jazz orchestras of its era. Its most celebrated members were drumming phenomenon Buddy Rich (in residence from 1962 to '66), the great lead alto saxophonist Willie Smith (a longtime James sideman who originally had achieved fame with Jimmie Lunceford), and tenor saxophonist Corky Corcoran — but there were other notable soloists, including tenor saxophonists Corre and Sam Firmature, trombonist Sims (older brother of Zoot), and pianist Jack Perciful.

Harry James continued to play magnificently and lead his orchestra until his death in 1983. The music contained in this collection, all recorded during what was arguably his most creative period, makes a strong case for a reevaluation of his place both in jazz history and in the jazz pantheon. In a musical tradition that celebrates individuality, he was truly one of a kind.”

-Bill Kirchner, November 1995

The following video features Harry on Ernie Wilkins’s Jazz Connoisseur.

Saturday, October 29, 2016


© -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.
For more information and subscriptions please visit
“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.