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Whether it’s the arrangements, the ensemble playing, the solos or the rhythm section, one would be hard-pressed to find a better big band in the history of Jazz than the Terry Gibbs Big Band.
I first heard the band in performance on a Monday night in 1960 when it was appearing at The Summit on Sunset Boulevard.
Prior to this occasion, I had very little knowledge of Terry Gibbs. I knew him to be a vibraphone player who had been with Woody Herman’s band and who fronted a quartet with Frankie Capp on drums that played the Hollywood clubs. By the time I discovered the band at The Summit, I gather that Terry’s band had been playing together for over a year, usually on Tuesday nights, at another Hollywood locale - the Seville on Santa Monica Boulevard.
The Summit was formerly The Sundown Club which changed names toward the end of 1960 when Bob Gefaell bought the premises from Jimmy Maddin.
The club charged a modest fee to get in and a two-drink minimum that was very loosely monitored.
For that, I got to hear almost four hours of a most incredible big band book of arrangements courtesy of Bill Holman, Bobby Brookmeyer, Shorty Rogers, Al Cohn, Lennie Niehaus, Marty Paich and Med Flory.
On any given evening, the band's trumpet section would be composed of four monster players selected from the following list: Al Porcino, Ray Triscari, Stu Williamson, Conte Candoli, Johnny Audino, Frank Huggins, Lee Katzman?
The trombone section was usually comprised of Frank Rosolino, Vern Friley and Bob Edmonson with Bill Smiley and Joe Cadena as subs.
The saxes were anchored by Charlie Kennedy [lead alto] and Joe Maini [solo alto], Bill Holman, Med Flory, Bill Perkins or Richie Kamuca on tenor and Jack Nimitz on baritone saxophone.
The rhythm section was made up of Pete Jolly, Lou Levy or Pat Moran on piano, Buddy Clark or Max Bennett on bass and the always cookin’ Mel Lewis on drums who was quoted as saying to Ted Gioia in his West Coast Jazz: Modern Jazz in California, 1945-60: [p. 164]: “I don’t think there was ever a better band than this one, including my own.”
The mood at the club was very relaxed; it appeared that the musicians were glad to be out from under the rigors of playing in the movie and TV studios or dealing with the tedious nature of making the music for commercial and jingles.
The fact that the musicians were enjoying themselves was certainly evident as they hooted and hollered to urge on the soloists [Terry’s in particular drew all sorts of ‘comments’ from both Joe Maini and Frank Rosolino] along the lines of “Hammer, baby, hammer!]." You can hear this revelry and camaraderie in the background of the band’s in-performance recordings.
According to Gioia: “The Gibbs band is like a turbocharged roadster…the band’s pizzazz also stems from Gibbs penchant for dramatic flourishes and high-energy music. … Gibbs, ..., also apparently had a flair for bringing the best out of his musicians.” [p. 165]
Although most of the music recorded by the band remained unreleased in Terry’s possession until the late 1980’s when he finalized a deal with Fantasy for their production and distribution, there were some LPs issued on Verve and Mercury during the band’s existence.
The Mercury albums were originally produced by the late, Jack Tracy who also worked with Terry as co-producer on the reissue of Terry Gibbs and his Exciting Big Band/Explosion [Mercury 20704] when it was converted to digital as Terry Gibbs Dream Band: The Big Cat – Volume 5 [Contemporary CCD 7657-2].
With Jack’s permission here are the insert notes that he wrote for the CD reissue of this recording. After reading these notes, one can easily understand why Jack served as the editor of Down Beat magazine for many years. Any writer would be well-served by and proud to have such an editor. It’s an honor to share his writing with you on the Jazzprofiles website.
Dick.'" he yelled. (For some reason he always felt that my surname entitles him to call me Dick.) "Dick, you've got to come out to California and record the band ... we're breaking it up every night at the Summit. Let's get Wally Heider and do a live date."
Perhaps I should fill you in. At the time I was Jazz director for Mercury Records, based in Chicago, and Gibbs was one of the top artists on the roster. He was a poll‑winner, worked regularly, enjoyed a strong following, and had a compellingly infectious personality. Matter of fact. he still does. He talks approximately as fast as he plays the vibes, and if hypers ever need a poster child, they should pick him. Wally Heider (God rest him) was, hands down, the best sound engineer who ever did a remote. No one since has been able to record a big band on location like Wally. It was in his blood.
To get me out there didn't take a lot of convincing on Gubenko's part. (I call him Gubenko. His surname entities me.) I'd heard the band before and I knew how good it was. Listening to it was much like riding a roller-coaster ‑ there was excitement, yelling, speed, giddiness. breath‑sucking, stomach‑tightening elation and just plain awe. Perhaps as good an ensemble band as ever was; certainly none have been perceptibly better. They came roaring out of the chute on every set, clean and high‑flying and with great pride in performance. Swing, dynamics, shading, crispness, and confidence were all there all the time and the phrase "joyous abandon" comes readily to mind when describing their playing. They could set a house on fire.
So I said yes, let's do it.
Besides, who in his right mind would pass up an expense‑covered trip to a Hollywood that was still lush and green, graffiti‑less and smog‑free and full of long‑legged, healthy blonde ladies with golden tans?
Because by the end of the 1950s big bands were desperately trying to stay alive. (Big jazz bands, anyway. You take Lawrence Welk ... Please.) Travel costs were up, jazz was on a down cycle, airplay was next to impossible to get, forget about TV, the Beatles came over from England and screwed up everything.
The days of the big bands were over, save for an occasional dinosaur like Basie, Ellington, Herman, or Kenton found hanging on for dear life, and the world of music had changed. Ever the second coming of Christ wouldn't have drawn a crowd if he had returned leading a band.
So although we didn't know it then, this was to be the last recorded gasp of the Terry Gibbs big band. For nearly 30 years, anyway, until a perceptive record company recognized that great is great no matter the date and has re‑released every album recorded by the Dream Band.
This one is the finale, and if you'll accept admittedly prejudiced opinion, it is even better than the preceding four. These are flawless performances of some beautifully written charts. I have listened to them many a time, first when they were initially released and more recently when preparing this essay, and I can't hear a single thing that should be changed, corrected, or improved upon. The band never played better.
Most of the credit for that should go to the leader. Yes, I know that a chain is never stronger than its weakest link, but Gubenko knows how to select personnel so that there are no sore thumbs or red asses among them, knows how to draw the best effort from every player, knows when to be boss and when to be one of the guys, knows how to pick tempos and pace a set according to the mood of an audience, can play hell out of his instrument and not just stand up front waving his arms, and sets everyone an example by giving 125 percent at all times. In short, he is one helluva bandleader, and had he been born ten years earlier would have been one of the biggest names of the swing era, when bands were bands and you'd better believe it.
I was always struck by the closeness of this band. One well remembers the Ellington orchestra, for example, where on any given day half the guys might not be talking to the other half, or even to each other. Or Basie's outfits, where there were generally a couple of fiefdoms to be reckoned with. In other instances it might be the case of a star‑struck leader communicating with the troops only through an underling.
But this conglomeration of personalities somehow managed to act like a high school cheer team. There was the irrepressible alto saxist, Joe Maini, another of the God‑rest‑hims, leading the sax section, contributing those startling, angular solos, and cutting up something awful. The brass section was, to be truthful. plain raucous, with Al Porcino, Conte Candoli, and Frank Rosolino the chief truants. (When you hear the guys in Doc Severinsen's band on the Carson show yelling "Yo‑o," you know where it all started, don't you? On the Gibbs band.) And if there were any jealousies about anyone getting fewer solos than the next guy, or not being properly recognized, they were well hidden. This was a team that hit the bandstand ready to blow you out of the room.
And if you have never experienced the electrifying shock of hearing a great jazz band up close in a nightclub, you are to be pitied. Concert halls are fine, jazz festivals are OK, but unless you've had your head in the lion's mouth at a Blue Note or Birdland or Summit and actually smelled his breath, you don't know what it was really like to physically feel the energy being generated and to be absorbed into it.
You may have heard me say this before. but on some nights a band would come at you in waves, and you couldn't do much but sit there helplessly. You knew you were being had, and you knew you were being stripped of all propriety and decency, but you just didn't care. There was a joy unmatched, and somehow you had shared something deep and unspoken with those men on the bandstand that you'd never forget. It was thrilling, and if it has never happened to you I am truly sorry.
Gubenko's guys could do it to you. The rhythm section was tight, with Pat Moran on piano (in case you don't remember Pat, a Ms. goes in front of her name) and Buddy Clark (no, not the singer) on bass, with the marvelous Mel Lewis playing drums. Mel (damn, but it hurts to keep saying God rest him) looked sort of funny and all hunched up back there, peering nearsightedly over the ride cymbal, but he was so good. Every nuance of every chart, every little hole that needed filling, every breath that lead trumpeter Porcino took, every shading and inflection, there was Mel, right on top of ft.
Gibbs used to call him "Mel the Tailor" because “I had this old Jewish tailor in Brooklyn who had bunions and he walked funny. Mel walked just like him, so I called him The Tailor and it stuck." In later years Mel was to tell people that he got his nickname because he played “tailor‑made drums," but many of us knew better.
As I was saying, Porcino played lead trumpet and he was about as good as they get, right in the same ballpark with Conrad Gozzo, Snooky Young. Johnny Audino, that bunch. Al talks ver‑r‑y slow‑w‑wly, and it has been said that a person could spend the better part of an afternoon listening to Porcino and Shorty Rogers say hello.
Most of the trumpet solos came from Candoli and Stu Williamson. Conte blew with great verve, fire. and dash‑he came up listening to Dizzy. Stu’s solos were pretty, more ruminative. He was never in a hurry.
Rosolino (from now on I'm just abbreviating ‑God rest him" to G.R.H., OK?) simply leaped out of the trombone section on his solos. Blindingly facile. and full of musical humor, he would draw “who was that?" looks from the uninitiated after one of his rapid‑fire, take‑no‑prisoners sorties during which he took no prisoners.
Both tenor saxes in the section, Bill Perkins and Richie Kamuca, were also featured as soloists. Kamuca (G. R. H) always used to say he didn't like to play in big bands; he liked the looseness of small groups. But he was proud to play in this one, and often made that known to Gubenko. I loved Kamuca's playing: his solos were such a deep reflection of his quiet, thoughtful, and sensitive personality.
This band was a delightful crew, one that worked chiefly for the fun and fulfilling ness of it, certainly not the money. "We got paid scale at, the Summit," remembers Gubenko, "which at that time was $15 a night. I got double. $30, but gave half to the band manager. My bar bill was usually about $20, because I'd pick up a tab or two, so it cost me at least five bucks a night to work there. But I never had more fun or musical satisfaction in all my life."
Neither did a lot of other people. And, please do me a favor. Put this disc on your machine. kick up the volume, to hell with the neighbors and stick your head in the lion's mouth.
You'll smell his breath."
‑ Jack Tracy
Santa Barbara, CA
Jack Tracy was the editor of Down Beat in the 1950s and has been a jazz record producer and freelance writer ever since. He no longer drinks or smokes.”