© - Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
Jazz history is full of enfant terribles, mythical characters, maudits, legendary figures who seem to have been born in order to become protagonists in hardboiled stories of the darkest nature. Outsiders destined to a mala vita, which can only be avoided thanks to an inborn talent that transforms them into all-time romantic symbols of the artist and his struggle. Tony Fruscella was one of these characters.
As a musician, Tony Fruscella led an intermediate path between Bop (Dizzy Gillespie) and Cool (Miles Davis), a style later made popular by Chet Baker (whom Tony regarded as "Chatty" Baker, by the way). His dense, muted, velvety sound expressed a sense of poetry full of "literary" references, in the low and medium registers, of a rich variety of tonalities that made his solos sensual, deep and somewhat melancholy.
- J.G.Calvados. Translated by A. Padilla
“Tony is no Bix, and for that matter, no Miles Davis, …, but it’s the rich, full whisper of his middle and especially his low register that sets him apart immediately.”
- Claude Nobs
“In the right setting, Tony’s lyrical creativity was unsurpassed.”
- John Williams, Jazz pianist
“All works of art are not produced by a handful of major poets, painters, musicians, or whatever, and at any time there are always hundreds of others active and often creating worthwhile, but overlooked, contributions to their chosen area of activity. It ought to be the duty of a critic to recognize those contributions, though too many take the easy way out and concentrate on a few famous names. This is certainly true of jazz writing, with the result that numerous musicians are virtually forgotten.”
– John Dunton
John Dunton is a past, regular contributor to the Penniless Press which is edited by
I have populated the piece with photos that are not a part of the original essay. The video tribute to Tony
© - John Dunston/The Penniless Press, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
“The name Tony Fruscella may not mean much unless you have a specific interest in the modem jazz of the l940s and 1950s but the facts of his life and his few appearances on records, say a great deal about the period and the musicians he worked with. A fascinating jazz "underground" comes to life when his activities are examined, and it offers, as well, a comment on the society in which Fruscella and his contemporaries sought to function.
Fruscella was born in
Village in 1927,
though his family belonged to the Italian-American working class of that area
rather than to the bohemian element. His childhood years are largely
undocumented, but he was brought up in an orphanage from an early age and seems
to have had little exposure to music other than as it related to the church.
However, he left the orphanage when he was about fourteen or fifteen, started
studying the trumpet, and came into contact with both classical music and jazz.
He appears to have been quick to develop his skills and was soon playing in
public. When he was eighteen he went into the army and gained more experience
by playing in an army band. It was around this time that Fruscella also
encountered the new modern sounds of the day, and the post-war years saw him
mixing with the many young, white jazzmen who were devoted to bebop and cool
jazz. They had an almost-fanatical belief in the music and had little time for
anything else. New York
William Carraro recalled: "We'd jam at lofts, or flats in old tenement houses on
Eighth Avenue, around 47th or 48th Street. The empty rooms were rented for a few
hours, and the musicians and the 'cats' that came by just to listen would chip
in whatever they could afford at the moment to help pay the rent. Brew Moore,
Chuck Wayne and many other names-to-be came by."
One of the musicians who participated in these sessions was an alto-player by the name of Chick Maures, and in 1948 he and Fruscella recorded for a small label called Century, though the records never appeared commercially until thirty years later. They are fascinating documents in terms of what they say about jazz developments. Of course, by 1946 bebop was well-established, and the music shows the influence of the famous Charlie Parker quintet of those days. But the tricky themes played in unison by the alto and trumpet also suggest an awareness of the kind of approach favored by pianist Lennie Tristano and his disciples Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh, who were cooler and more careful in their improvising. And Fruscella's trumpet playing, though superficially akin to that of Miles Davis, had its own subtlety and warmth. [In my opinion,] Fruscella was more melodic than
But what happened after the heady days and nights of the late1940s'? Fruscella and the others no doubt continued to play when and where they could, and a few even got to work professionally. But paying jobs, especially those involving jazz, were often hard to come by. Bob Reisner, a writer around
Greenwich Village in the early1950s, recalled that Fruscella
never seemed to have a permanent address:
"Short marriages, short stays in hospitals and jails, and he invented the crash pad. He walked the streets, an orphan of the world, but with incredible dignity. He never accepted anything for free. He would cook and clean and play music if you put him up."
The chaotic nature of Fruscella's life wasn't improved by his use of alcohol and drugs. He wasn't alone in this. Chick Maures, his companion on the 1948 record date, died from a drugs overdose in 1954, and Don Joseph, a trumpeter who was not unlike Fruscella in his playing and was close to him as a person, had a career that was marred by drug addiction. Both were wayward to the point of self-destruction. Bob Reisner once got them an engagement at the famous summer festival at Music Inn in the Berkshires, but Fruscella, when asked by a polite listener what he would play next, replied "We Want Whiskey Blues," and refused to carry on until a bottle was provided. And Joseph somehow managed to insult the son of the owner of the place. Bassist
Bill Crow, who was around New York at the time and
later wrote a fine book, From Birdland to Broadway, about his experiences,
remembered Fruscella almost losing them a rare job in a club with his response
to a customer's invitation to have a drink: "Well, I'm already stoned, and
the bread is pretty light on this gig, so would you mind just giving me the
cash?" Crow said that he "loved the way Tony played in a small
group,” but noted that he didn't fit into a big-band format. His low-key style
needed a small group and an intimate club setting to allow it to
It's perhaps indicative of Fruscella's lifestyle, and his liking for a Bohemian environment that Beat writer Jack Kerouac knew him in the 1950s. In his "New York Scenes," a short prose piece included in Lonesome Traveler, Kerouac writes:
"What about that guy Tony Fruscella who sits cross-legged on the rug and plays Bach on his trumpet, by ear, and later on at night there he is blowing with the guys at a session, modern jazz." Kerouac also mentioned Don Joseph in the same piece: "He stands at the jukebox in the bar and plays with the music for a beer."
There were a few moments of near-glory in Fruscella's career. In 1951 he was hired to play in Lester Young's group, though the job lasted only a couple of weeks and no recorded evidence of it exists. It would seem that Fruscella was ousted from the band due to some sort of rivalry which may have involved a form of reverse racism.
Pianist Bill Triglia, who worked with Fruscella over the years, tells the story:
'Fruscella was a white fellow and very friendly with Miles Davis and used to jam with him. He played with myself and Red Mitchell a lot. He had a beautiful sound. He didn't play high, he didn't play flashy, but he played beautiful low register, very modem. When
Kenny Drew left and some jobs came up, John
Lewis was playing with Lester. According to what I heard, and Tony Fruscella
was a good friend of mine, Tony used to get drunk with Lester. Lester loved
him. He didn't play the same style as Lester, but it fit nicely, it was a
beautiful contrast, but John Lewis didn't like Tony. Tony said he didn't like
him because he was properly white, I don't know, but John Lewis tried to get
somebody else on. The next job they had Lester's manager didn't call Tony
Fruscella and he was so hurt, because he loved Lester, you know. He wanted to
stay with him, he was a young fellow and very tender."
It was just after this experience that Fruscella again recorded some tracks which, like those from 1948. didn't appear until many years later. In February, 1952, he joined forces with altoist Herb Geller, tenorman Phil Urso, pianist Bill Triglia, and a couple of others, to produce some music which ought to have been heard at the time and drawn some attention to Fruscella. Instead, it simply disappeared into the vaults, and Fruscella and his companions carried on struggling to play their music and earn a living. Critic Mark Gardner noted that, although the 1950s were, for many, years of affluence, the good times did not necessarily arrive for musicians, "especially those who had rejected the commercial sop dispensed over the airways and via the jukeboxes."
added:" Jazzmen adapted, as they
always have, and found places to play the way they wanted - in basements and
cellars, seedy bars, strip clubs and coffee houses. Gardner
Surroundings were uncongenial but unimportant. The main thing was that in those varied environments were the patrons were either alcoholic/moronic or intellectual/revolutionary, nobody told you how to play or what to play. If you were looking to dig what was happening you went to the open door in Greenwich Village or wangled an invitation to pianist Gene DiNovi's basement or to where Jimmy Knepper and Joe Maini lived The people who passed through these underground pads and dives were the jazz underground The life of prosperous, middle-class America was far removed from those basement jam sessions, those rehearsals and gigs in down-at-heel corner bars. Musicians, natural skeptics, turned their backs on McCarthyism and the rest."
A little steady work did come along now and then, and in 1953 Fruscella was hired to play with Stan Getz's group. Some poorly-recorded excerpts from a broadcast from Birdland do exist, and on "Dear Old Stockholm" Fruscella demonstrates all that was best in his playing as he shapes a solo that is relaxed, warm, melodically coherent, and in which the use of spaces between the notes is as important as the notes themselves. Some listeners might think there is a resemblance to Chet Baker in Fruscella's sound. He did play with Gerry Mulligan's group briefly in 1954, but it is only slight, and Fruscella very much had his own way of constructing a solo. There are interesting comparisons to be made between Baker's 1953 recording of "Imagination" and Fruscella's version from the same year. Admittedly, Baker's was a studio recording, with the disciplined format that implies, whereas Fruscella 's was from a live session at the Open Door and has a relative looseness, but even so, there is greater depth in Fruscella's playing. As
Dan Morgenstern said of it: "It is music very much of its time - a
time of scuffling, an inward looking time, a blue time."
The recordings from the Open Door - and, yet again, they came to light only years later - are valuable not only for the way in which they allow us to hear Fruscella soloing at length, but also for the window they provide into the modern jazz world of New York. The Open Door was a bar and restaurant frequented by jazz musicians and which they soon began to use as a place for jam sessions.
Dan Morgenstern remembered it as a "haven for jazz
people with no money. It was a weird place. When you walked in off the street,
you entered a room with a long bar that had a Bowery feeling to it. At one end
of this bar stood an ancient upright piano, manned most evenings by Broadway
Rose, a fading but spry ex-vaudevillian, her hair dyed an improbable shade of
red. She knew a thousand old songs and cheerfully honored requests. From the
bar, right next to Rose, a creaky door led to the huge, gloomy back room,
sporting a long bandstand, a dance floor which was never used, and rickety
tables and chairs."
Bob Reisner, a freelance writer who some years later produced a couple of short but lively memoirs of the 1950s, and also wrote a funny book about graffiti, hired the room for Sunday afternoon concerts at which Charlie Parker sometimes appeared. Others spontaneous sessions appeared and drummer Al Levitt recalls musicians like Herb Geller, Gene Quill, Jon Eardley, Milt Gold, and Ronnie Singer, dropping in to play. Geller did go on to make a name for himself on the West Coast in the late 1950s and is still around, having lived in
for many years. Most of the others made
only occasional appearances on record and those mostly in the 1950s. And the
casualty rate amongst them was high. Quill was badly injured in a road accident
and spent the rest of his life virtually immobilized, Singer committed suicide
and Eardley had an up-and-down career due to drug addiction. Germany
The music produced by Fruscella at the Open Door, mostly with tenorman Brew Moore and pianist Bill Triglia, sounds relaxed almost to the point of casualness, and it is played without any concessions to non-jazz tastes. Using a few standard tunes from the jazz and popular music repertoire (the popular music of the pre-rock period, that is), the emphasis is on improvisation, and Fruscella shows how inventive he could be in such a setting. He never repeats ideas and always sounds poised, no matter the tempo. He was fond of the ballad, "Lover Man," using it at the open Door sessions and also at an engagement at
in Ridgewood High School which must have taken place around the
same period (1953). "A Night in New Jersey ," the classic tune from the hop era,
also crops up at both places. There are moments on the ballad performances when
Fruscella can sound pensive, almost hesitant, but he skillfully uses that mood
to shape his solos and his emotional sound complements it. Tunisia
It needs to be noted that the
1955 was probably the peak year in Fruscella' s short career, and he was featured on a couple of recordings by Stan Getz and was also invited to make an LP under his own name for the Atlantic label, a well-established company. Fruscella chose Bill Triglia to accompany him on piano and he added tenor-saxophonist Allen Eager, a musician who had been highly thought of in the 1940s, when he was amongst the leading hop players, but who was by 1955 slipping into a shadowy world of occasional public appearances and even fewer recording dates. With Phil Sunkel, another little-known trumpeter, acting as composer-arranger, Fruscella came up with some of his finest work, especially on "I'll Be Seeing You" and the attractive "His Master's Voice," on which he uses some of his classical background to fashion an engaging Bach-like series of variations. Fruscella and those who admired him no doubt imagined that this album would help him widen his reputation, but it soon slid from sight and was remembered by only a few enthusiasts. The mid-1950s were reasonable years for some jazzmen provided they could be identified with bright West Coast sounds or the hard hop forcefulness associated with black
. Fruscella's music, like so much good,
white New York
jazz of the 1950s, didn't fit into either category. New
What happened to Tony Fruscella after 1955? Very little, it seems, if the reference books are anything to go by. He probably still played at jam sessions and perhaps even did some club work in obscure places, but the "dogged will to fail" that Bob Reisner saw in him, and his drug and alcohol problems, must have held him back. And the 1906s were lean years for a lot of jazzmen, as pop music took over in clubs, dance halls, and on the radio. His kind of music, quiet, reflective, and requiring sympathy and understanding from the listener was hardly likely to appeal to many people. It never had, it's only fair to say, but things got even worse in the 1960s. After years of obscurity, Fruscella died in August, 1969, his body finally giving up the struggle against barbiturates and booze. Bob Reisner, in a touching elegy written for a jazz magazine just after Fruscella died, said: "If I were an artist, I would paint Fruscella in the Renaissance manner. A side portrait of him bent in concentration over the horn which produced the flowing and delicate music. The usual background landscape would be strewn with a couple of wives, countless chicks, barbiturate containers, and empty bottles. His artistic life, however, was in sharp contrast. He was completely austere and disciplined. There was not a commercial chromosome in his body."
This short survey of Fruscella's life is scattered with the names of the forgotten. What did happen to Don Joseph and
Davey Schildkraut? Allen Eager is dead. And a whole world of jazz of the 1950s comes to mind when one
listens to a few of the records by Fruscella and others. Where are Jerry'
Lloyd, George Syran, and Phil Raphael and Phil Leshin? Jerry Lloyd was around
in the 1940s and 1950s and recorded with Gerry Mulligan, Zoot Sims, and George
Wallington, though he never became well-known and worked as a cab driver even
when he was featured on many records. George Syran was on an album with Jon
Eardley which also featured trombonist Milt Gold, and the two Phils worked with
Red Rodney in 1951, but what else? That fine tenor-saxophonist Phil Urso, who
soloed on Woody Herman records in the early-1950s, was with Chet Baker's group
a few years later, and then seems to have faded into obscurity around 1960 died
in 2008. There were so many who had only a brief moment or two in the
spotlight. Not all of them were necessarily as ill-fated as Fruscella. Bill
Triglia. who figures so prominently in the Fruscella story, seems to have still
been alive in the 1980s, though hardly in the forefront of jazz. New York
Nor would it be true to say that all the musicians mentioned were victims of an unjust or uncaring society. When there were casualties, they often came about through personal waywardness and self-indulgence rather than from any form of oppression. Some jazzmen may well have felt that their music was misunderstood and neglected, but that's hardly an excuse for taking drugs or drinking heavily.
may have got nearer the truth when he
said it was an 'inward-looking time." Were drugs a part of that inwardness
or simply just a social fashion?
But a lot of musicians probably just gave up playing jazz, or even playing any kind of music, and some possibly turned to commercial sounds in order to earn a living.
Compromises are often necessary if one wants to eat. The point is, though, that all those I've named, and more whose names are mentioned when people reminisce, deserve to be remembered for their contributions to jazz, even if those contributions were small ones. We do the artists and ourselves a disservice when we neglect the past. A form of "organized amnesia' takes over, as is so often evident when one listens to those radio stations which purport to cater for a jazz audience but which mostly present a non-stop procession of bland sounds. There is little or no historical sense in what they do, and certainly no place for a fine, forgotten musician like Tony Fruscella."