Monday, November 17, 2014

Pete Christlieb - The Gordon Jack Interview

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

The editorial staff at JazzProfiles is hard at work on a number of features including lengthy book, DVD and CD reviews which it plans to post to the blog in the coming weeks.

This Gordon Jack interview with tenor saxophonist Pete Christlieb commences a Gordon-Jack-Meets-The-Sax-Section week that will allow us additional time to develop these planned features. Succeeding days will offer interviews that Gordon conducted with Gene Quill, Bobby Militello, Allen Eager, Brew Moore, Charlie Ventura and Billy Root.

As always, we are very grateful to Gordon for guesting on these pages and for allowing us permission to use his copyrighted materials.

More about the sources for Gordon's excellent interviews is located below our introduction to this piece.

“It was thanks to Bob Cooper that I became one of the Lighthouse All-Stars. … I played with Sonny Criss there, and going toe-to-toe with him was like standing in front of a wheat-eater. I mean, he was geared to play with guys like Sonny Stitt, which I wasn't at the time, and I got beat-up pretty good. He was impressed that I was willing to get up on the stand with him, so we became buddies and he was like a father figure to me.”
- Pete Christlieb

“In the early seventies I met Warne Marsh for the first time at a rehearsal with Clare Fischer's big band. The tenors sat next to each other, and we shook hands as Clare counted off "Lennie's Pennies." Playing Tristano’s line for the first time was like trying to change the fan belt on a car while it is still running.”
- Pete Christlieb

I did get to play with Basie in 1983, when Eric Schneider telephoned and asked me to dep for him during the band's week-long appearance at Disneyworld. Danny Turner and Eric Dixon were in the section, and the first tune every night was "Corner Pocket," featuring me. I had been listening to that arrangement for years, so I didn't have to read it; I just walked up to the microphone and blew the shit out of the solo. On the first night, after I sat down, Basie leaned over to me and said, "What did you say your name was?"
- Pete Christlieb

One of the great benefits of residing in Southern California has been the opportunity to listen to Pete Christlieb perform on many occasions in a variety of Jazz settings.

He is a tower of power on the instrument and plays it with great command, singularity and inventiveness. A few notes and you know its Pete. The kind of original voice all Jazz players strive to achieve seems to flow effortlessly from the bell of his horn.

While playing in a big band, all of his sax section mates pay him the ultimate compliment of looking up at him when he stands to solo and nodding their heads in approval at his creations.

When soloing in a small group, you hate to be the one taking your solo after his. He is such a forceful and singular improviser whether he’s devastating the changes to Cherokee or enhancing the melodic beauty and lyrical poignancy of If You Could See Me Now that it takes the audience a bit of time to deal with the “after shock!”

Sadly, although he’s played with the big bands of Woody Herman, Louie Bellson and Bill Holman, as well as, being a fixture for two decades on Doc Severinson’s “Tonight Show” Band, he has never had a recording contract with a major label.

Not surprisingly for someone who is such a dominant and overriding soloist, Pete holds strong opinions and views about Jazz music and Jazz makers.  He has also had a variety of mentors whom he recalls fondly including, Russ Cheaver of the Hollywood Saxophone Quartet, Bob Cooper whose place he took with the Lighthouse All-Stars, and indirectly, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, who had a great influence on Pete’s style, and Warne Marsh, with whom Pete recorded three wonderful albums.

His time on all of these major bands, his influences and his gigs with everyone from Chet Baker to Frank Rosolino are all recounted in the following interview as given to Gordon Jack, Fifties Jazz Talk: An Oral Retrospective [Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press, 2004, pp. 53-60; paragraphing modified].

Gordon’s interview with Pete also appeared in JazzJournal magazine in March, 2000. You can locate more information on the latter by going here.

© -Gordon Jack, used with the author’s permission; copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Despite his nearly forty years in the business, it is still one of the very best kept secrets in jazz that Pete Christlieb is one of the music's most exciting and inventive tenor players. He has worked with Count Basie, Louie Bellson, Bob Florence, and Woody Herman. When we met in 1999, he was a featured soloist with the Bill Holman band at a party to celebrate Vic Lewis's eightieth birthday.

“I was born on March 16, 1945, in Los Angeles. My father was a professional bassoon player at Twentieth Century Fox, and as a youngster I listened with him to Boulez, Schoenberg, Stockhausen, Stravinsky, and Villa-Lobos, because our house was full of classical music. Stravinsky often came over to rehearse with my dad, so it is not surprising that I took up the bassoon and, a little later, the violin.

It wasn't until I was about thirteen years old that I first heard some jazz. We had a few Gerry Mulligan Quartet albums lying around the house, and that's when I decided to learn the saxophone, which turned out to be a lot easier than the violin; you press a button and you get a note.

When I was about sixteen, I played in a Saturday morning rehearsal band with some other kids my age, and occasionally somebody good would sit in, to show us how the charts should really sound. The great Joe Maini once visited and played the lead alto chair, and he was so good, it was frightening. He more or less said, "You follow me, kid, and try to stick close to my ass, because we're going down the road and we're going fast!" Man, what authority. It was just fantastic to play in the section with him.

The first road band I played with was Sy Zentner, who gave me a call when I was about eighteen and flew me to Chicago. Although it was a dance band, they had a lot of nice arrangements, and being the solo tenor, I had the opportunity to play a little bit. Of course I wanted to be like Gerry Mulligan and play in a small group, but before you can do that, you have to pay your dues and go to "boot camp" on the road in a bus, just like everyone else.

Sy told me there were also some clarinet parts, so before I left town, I had to take lessons real quick with Russ Cheaver, who was wonderful. He was at Fox with my father and had played many fine clarinet solos in motion pictures over the years, and he was also the lead soprano with the Hollywood Saxophone Quartet. In just three lessons he taught me enough for my chair, which was really "industrial strength" clarinet, where you don't play any lead or any jazz, just a lot of whole notes. Gene Goe, who was the lead trumpet with Basie for a long time, was in the band. The bass player was Jeff Castleman, who had recommended me to Sy. Jeff eventually went with Duke Ellington and married the singer Trish Turner.

When we were playing opposite Harry James at Lake Tahoe, I used to sit in with his band when Sy's gig finished, because Harry's last set was a jam session. We stood next to each other, and he was just outstanding. Even though he was a hell of a drinker, he could always function, and he was such a great instrumentalist, he could play every part in the book. Harry was wonderful, and there was a camaraderie in his band rather like a bunch of guys fighting a war.

I was still too young to get into most of the jazz clubs, where you had to be twenty-one because of the drinking laws, but the Lighthouse served food, which gave them a loophole. Teenagers could go and listen, and that's where I asked Bob Cooper for some lessons. It turned out that he lived a block from our house and knew my father by reputation, and although he was not a regular teacher, I went to him for a couple of years for fine-tuning. If Lester Young had lived that long, I think he might have sounded like Coop, because Bob was such a fluent player.

He started me thinking about new possibilities and other avenues for improvisation, and we studied the old Nicolas Slonimsky book on scales and melodic patterns that everybody has [Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns]. If you really listen, you will hear people quoting from that book all the time. You know, the more I listen to Al Cohn and Zoot Sims from those days, the more I realize how much they influenced me, because they were both highly lyrical "Song in My Heart" type players, just like Bob.

When I was in New York in the early sixties, I used to visit the Half Note and watch Zoot go through his routine of looking away from the bartender and dropping his empty glass fifteen feet from the bandstand. The guy would catch it, fill it up, and pass it right back up to him. Zoot was a clever guy; he was like the Will Rogers of the tenor. Al was also clever and very funny, and together they were pretty wild. I got to know Al well a few years later at the Dick Gibson Jazz Parties in Colorado, and I told him what a pleasure it was playing with someone I idolized as a child. I used flattery as my opening approach, and it worked!

It was thanks to Bob Cooper that I became one of the Lighthouse All-Stars. He was playing on the Dean Martin Show at NBC, so he used to send me to me club as his substitute. I played with Sonny Criss there, and going toe-to-toe with him was like standing in front of a wheat-eater. I mean, he was geared to play with guys like Sonny Stitt, which I wasn't at the time, and I got beat-up pretty good. He was impressed that I was willing to get up on the stand with him, so we became buddies and he was like a father figure to me. I also played a few weeks with Hampton Hawes, who was a sweetheart. And Frank Butler, another genius, was the drummer. This was around 1965, but it wasn't too long before they changed the format and the Lighthouse All-Star era sort of "uglied" away into the sunset, collapsing in a heap of dust.

Soon afterwards, Chet Baker called me for a gig with Terry Trotter, Ray Brown, and Colin Bailey at one of those unattractive little bars near L.A. airport, the Boom-Boom room or some such name. It was a strange part of town, but people were flocking there to hear the great Chet. There was nothing written; he just called tunes and we played. After that, he had another date in Pueblo, Colorado, and he asked me to go with him. If I had been a little older and wiser, I would have asked for the money up front, because at the end of the week I didn't get enough from him to pay my hotel bill, let alone get home. This is what happens when you work for a junkie, so you really have to watch out for yourself.

Musically it was the best because he was playing beautifully, but everything else was a tragedy! I did some tunes alone with the rhythm section that I wanted him to play, and after a couple of times he had them down - he had great ears. Anyway, my wife and I had only been married a couple of months, and here we were in this little hotel in Colorado Springs; eventually I had to wire for money to get home, and that was the end of my career with Chet Baker. I think Phil Urso took my place.

I went back to L.A. and got a call from trumpeter Bobby Bryant, who was in town and making a big impression with Gerald Wilson's band. He wanted me for his steady gig at Marty's down on 58th and Broadway, which featured a hot organ and two-tenor group, along with Bobby.

This was around the time of the big riot in Watts, and the club was located at ground zero there. I waltzed on over, and the first thing they told me to do was to take the battery out and put it in the trunk so I could start my car after the job.

I was replacing Herman Riley for six weeks while he went on the road with Louie Bellson and Pearl Bailey, and the other tenor was Hadley Caliman, who was quite an exponent of the John Coltrane approach. Now I was from the tough "Lockjaw" Davis school, with some Gene Ammons, Coleman Hawkins, and Zoot Sims thrown in, so we went at it like a sword fight in a pirate picture every night! Bobby was on staff at NBC, so he would come in later and get in the middle, saying something like, "O.K., you guys-cool down!"

It was a wonderful experience. I learned the technique of how to really work a rhythm section on the bandstand - what to do and what not to do, and if you are going to play more than two choruses on anything, you had better have a good reason. That job lasted a couple of years, because when Herman got back, Hadley took off.

In 1966 I was at the Flamingo in Las Vegas, backing Della Reese with another two-tenor and trumpet group. Buddy Childers was the leader, and the other tenor was Jimmy "Night Train" Forrest. Della was a big star, but she was a real sweetheart, and it was fun working for her because she didn't act big time at all  - just a great gal and one of the guys.

Woody Herman was at the Tropicana, and Buddy used to hang out there all the time, and when our job with Della finished, it was Buddy who recommended me to Woody, because Joe Farrell was leaving. Bill Byrne, who played trumpet and was the band manager, called and asked me to join them at the Chez Club in West Hollywood. I had all the records with Sal Nistico and the '63-64 band, so I was already familiar with the music, and I was like a young lion ready to take on the world - let me have at it! I really roared through the stuff, and Woody was pretty cool.

At the end of the first week, we had a party at his house in the Hollywood Hills, which used to be Humphrey Bogart's old place, and he gave us the "Cook's Tour." We got to this beautiful bathroom, which looked like the municipal plunge. It was like a big swimming pool about eight feet deep, and it would have taken about two hours to fill it up. I said something like, "Hell, Woody, what do you need that for?" and he said "To soak a sore ass, kid. Now keep moving and don't loiter!"

The word was that we were going to Europe, and two days before we were due to split, Woody said he wanted to talk to me. I thought that I had been doing pretty well and he wanted to give me a raise, but he told me that I was not going, which was like a harpoon to the old ego.

Apparently Sal Nistico wanted to come back, and Woody needed him for his big name and crowd appeal, because he would be a big draw in Europe. The deal in those days with big bands was that if they let you go, they had to give two weeks notice or two weeks pay, and as they were leaving straight away, I was supposed to get the money, which was $300.  At the time, everyone was making $150 a week unless you were on Basie's band, for instance, where some of those guys were on about $500, and Sonny Payne was probably getting $2,500 a week. Woody said to go and see his personal manager, Abe Turchen, and you can guess exactly what happened; I got nothing but a promise. About a week later, Byrne phoned from Switzerland and told me that, as soon as the plane landed Sal disappeared and wasn't seen again.

They had been using some other guy, but Woody wanted me back. No. had just had a call from one of the trombone players who was booking for Buddy Rich's band, and he offered me $175, so I told Bill I would come back for $225 clear. In other words, they could pay the tax. He replied, "$225 clear? I'll have to ask Woody." I could hear Woody in the room with Bill saying, "Christlieb that S.O.B.! Stan Getz didn't get $225 clear." Then Bill says, "Well, that'll be fine with Woody!"

I rejoined the band in Oklahoma City, and by this time it was a completely different band; everyone had left. Cecil Payne was on baritone, and the other tenors were Steve Lederer and Steve Marcus. With Woody, if you played first tenor, you had all the hip lead parts and the third chair had all the jazz. I was playing second, which was known as "The Bermuda Triangle," where you got nothing. It was the lackluster position in the band, with no fun and no glory. I had no jazz to play except on the last set every night, when I had a couple of choruses of the blues in A-flat on "Woodchoppers Ball." Eventually I told Woody that it was ridiculous, because I had come on the band to blow, so I quit and I never did get my $300!

Around 1970 1 had a call from Louie Bellson, who was rehearsing a band down at the union prior to going on the road with Pearl Bailey. He is the nicest man in the world, and I am still working with him thirty years later.

Just before joining Louie, I had been working at a club owned by Fletcher Henderson's brother, Horace. He had known Pearl for years, and he gave me a note for her. She always did have an ego like a blowtorch, and when I gave it to her, she just exploded and started shouting at me about taking up her time with something she considered trivial. Louie told her to give me a break, and the next day, she bought me an expensive sweater as an apology. During the tour, every time we had a scene, she bought me another one, and I still have about twenty-five beautiful sweaters from getting beat-up by Pearl Bailey!

One night I fell asleep onstage, and she hit me so hard that I fell over and took the rest of the sax section with me, music stands and all! The audience loved it and thought it was part of the act because it looked like the Keystone Cops. Louie told me that when Joe Louis was guesting with them in the fifties, she kept picking on Joe and throwing punches at him. Eventually he said to Louie, "Please tell your old lady to cut it out, because it really hurts when she hits, man. She's got a helluva punch!"

I made the first few rehearsals with Supersax, but I quit very soon because it was so arduous and repetitive. The concept of playing Charlie's solos was beautiful, and when I heard their first record, I was a little envious of the guys who stuck with it, because it took a long time to get it right. It needed a certain personality who would sit down and work hard, but I was not willing to spend that much time. If there had been opportunities to blow, I might have remained, but the guys were so tired from playing about 23,000 notes that, when it reached the point of someone taking a chorus, the saxes needed a rest. That's why Frank Rosolino or Conte Candoli were hired.

In the early seventies I met Warne Marsh for the first time at a rehearsal with Clare Fischer's big band. The tenors sat next to each other, and we shook hands as Clare counted off "Lennie's Pennies." Playing Tristano’s line for the first time was like trying to change the fan belt on a car while it is still running. Afterwards, Warne told me that he was using an album of mine as a teaching device for one of his students, demonstrating which series of notes I used moving from chord to chord. He actually told me things about my playing I didn't know I was doing. He was totally unique, and you will never in your life hear anyone play with quite that same chromatic approach. The Tristano method could be tedious and involved, but Warne made it more palatable and less cumbersome by swinging a little harder. I learned different ways of improvising from him, especially with regard to economy and selectivity.'

I was on the Tonight Show from 1970 to 1990, and it was a great gig with steady money. We made scale, which was $175 per night, plus doubles, although everyone thought we made a lot more because they saw us on T.V. every night. These days, on the Star Trek show, for instance, I play clarinet, bass clarinet, flute, and a little tenor, and in one four-hour call, I take home what I used to make in an entire week on the Tonight Show. All through those years, I had regular offers to tour with people like Count Basie and Harry James, but I always sent one of my students. I kick myself now for turning down some good offers, but why go on the road when I had a steady gig in town?

I did get to play with Basie in 1983, when Eric Schneider telephoned and asked me to dep for him during the band's weeklong appearance at Disneyworld. Danny Turner and Eric Dixon were in the section, and the first tune every night was "Corner Pocket," featuring me. I had been listening to that arrangement for years, so I didn't have to read it; I just walked up to the microphone and blew the shit out of the solo. On the first night, after I sat down, Basie leaned over to me and said, "What did you say your name was?" I told him again, but he wasn't too good on long names, so he announced every number with, "Ladies and gentleman, Pete's on tenor" or "Now we are going to turn Pete loose on . . . " etc., etc. He gave me features on everything and, man, I played high, fast, and loud all week and got to hang out with all those great guys. I have a tape of one of the shows, so now I can tell my grandchildren I played with Count Basie.

Over the years I worked a lot with Frank Rosolino, who had a real gift, and we had a wonderful relationship. He was a great trombone player and scat singer, and he swung so hard, it was like playing with another saxophone, because he had such facility. He was also extremely funny, and on the bandstand he could create total, hilarious bedlam. Sometimes the band couldn't play because we were too busy laughing. I knew nothing about his domestic problems, but they were enough to set him off, turning the whole thing into a tragic Italian opera, where everybody dies in the end, leaving everything in a minor key.

I had been working with Bob Florence, but when Bob Cooper passed away in 1993, 1 took his place on Bill Holman's band, and I have been there ever since. You know, people ask me about "free" jazz, which I have never liked, because there is enough freedom in the legitimate avenues of expression which hasn't been exhausted. Suppose you have eighteen guys together and, after the downbeat, you let them play free. It sounds like they are warming up. Someone has to come in and say, "Stop. Let's get down to business," and that someone would be Bill Holman, who is the leader of the intelligent big band movement.

When Warne Marsh improvised, he could put a phrase anywhere between beats one and four and have it resolve twenty bars later in exactly the same place -displacement, in other words. As a writer, nobody can do that better than Bill Holman, and he is also a master of tension and release. He has a wonderful way of building tension and then more tension until you wonder if it is ever going to release, and when it does, the band is like a juggernaut coming out of the pipe with a momentum that is totally elevating. We have a lot of fun playing his music, but I don't know if every little detail is always right, because if concentration is lost for a second, you can slip out of the cog. I always tell anyone new who sits next to me that if he is playing with me, he is almost certainly lost; we all have our own part. There is nobody in the world who can shine Bill Holman's shoes when it comes to writing for a big band.

I have already mentioned some other influences, but Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis was also very important to me because he was so different to everyone else. Nobody could ever copy his incredibly ornate false fingerings, and he had about fifteen for any note you can think of. He was like a trombone with a plunger, only he was doing it on a saxophone. He could get the timbre, the slant, and the growl, swinging and ricocheting off this note and that note, and when he put it all together, he created a sense of excitement that had you on the edge of your seat. I had known him for years, and when we spoke before he died, I gave him a hug and a big kiss and told him how much I loved him and what his playing meant to me. I also listened a lot to the "Tasmanian Devil" of the tenor, the wonderful Johnny Griffin, who plays fast and furious. Sonny Rollins was important too, for his sound and tremendous command of the horn.

I have several tenors, but my favorite is an old 1949 Selmer with a balanced action, and I use a two and a half Rico plastic reed with a wide-open Berg Larsen mouthpiece, which gives me a lot of flexibility and lets me play. A closer lay with a three or four reed needs too much pressure, because it is like trying to get a diving board to vibrate. You have to blow so hard that you run out of air halfway between an idea and completing the phrase. Why work so hard? Phil Woods has a similar set-up to me, as did Al Cohn and Zoot Sims, but there are exceptions like that good old Washington boy, Corky Corcoran. He had a sound like a tree trunk because he used a five reed on his Link mouthpiece, which had a very narrow lay.

You know, you need other interests in life besides playing and rehearsing with bands every day, which is why I have been involved in drag racing for thirty years. They are the cars that do zero to two hundred miles an hour in seven seconds and need a parachute to stop. I used to drive, but now I just build them for my kids to race. Mechanically they need the same preventative maintenance program that an aircraft has, so with the cars and the music, I manage to keep pretty busy.”

Pete is joined by his close buddy, the late Warne Marsh, on the following video. The tune is FishTale which is based on the changes to On Green Dolphin Street. Jim Hughart is the bassist and Nick Ceroli is on drums.


  1. I got to know Pete through his Tacoma buddy Bill Ramsay a while coaching a big band @ the Bud Shank Centrum clinic in Port Townsend WA in 2002.We did quite a bit of serious hanging out at the time and eventually, Bill andI I managed to get Pete to parcipate in my recording project for Origin REcords in 2003. This led to two more Origin projects and Pete has been a part of all of them all fact, one of the principal solo voices on all three ..His knowledge and application of the jazz tradition has definitely been a huge plus for all of my projects. Plus, he's a great guy to hang with ! Thanks Pete !

    Phil Kelly
    Northwest Prevailing Winds
    Southwest Santa Ana Winds
    Origin Records

  2. The collaboration between Pete Christlieb and Bill Holman is well ducumented
    here at "Jazzcorner " on a wonderful CD-R (rec. live) with the Metropole Orchestra
    recorded on April 1st, 2002 at studio 1, Hilversum, The Netherlands.
    Thanks for that excellent blog on one of my favorite West Coast musicions of our time.


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