Sunday, April 19, 2015

Don Ferrara - The Gordon Jack Interview

© -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.



  1. appreciated this post Steve, which instantly brought to mind Ferrara's short muted solo/s gracing Johnny Mandel's "Barbara's Theme" -- as per Mulligan's CJB recordings...
    the Milan, Italy, Nov 1960 version remaining the one that really 'does it for me'..... ref: >>>

    will I be alone in suggesting that IMHO, this hauntingly poetic 5.17 minute mood-masterpiece consigns to posterity one of the most subtly understated & epoch-evocative 'CrimeJazz/FilmNoir' pieces ever recorded...?

    thanks again

  2. Wow, thanks for sharing that video. I had never heard the music on it before and, after having sampled it, you are not alone in your assessment of Don's solo on it.


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