Tuesday, October 3, 2017

"Willie Dennis" by Gordon Jack

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

For all the harmful ways the Internet can be used, one of its many salubrious contributions to mankind is the manner in which it facilitates the coming together of people who share common interests.

Such is the case with Gordon Jack’s frequent appearances on these pages.

Gordon lives in England and we’ve never met. The internet and Jazz brought us together. Through this communications vehicle, Gordon has reached out on many occasions over the years to generously allow the editorial staff at JazzProfiles to present his masterful articles about Jazz and its creators.

We couldn’t be more grateful.

Gordon is the author of Fifties Jazz Talk: An Oral Retrospective and a frequent contributor to JazzJournal.

Willie Dennis was one of the great individualists on the trombone [Bill Harris, Jimmy Knepper and Frank Rosolino also come to mind in this regard].

Brian Priestly, the author of a critical biography on bassist Charles Mingus who had a penchant for bringing Jazz individualists into his various bands, offers this explanation of what made Willie Dennis’ style so unique:

“His playing is characterized by extreme agility and a legato style in which a combination of lip and slide movements is used to avoid conventional articulation by tongueing.”

Here’s Gordon’s take on Willie.

“It’s a long time ago but I still remember buying Gerry Mulligan’s 1961 Concert Jazz Band recording – A Concert In Jazz - and playing it almost ceaselessly over the next few weeks. Gary McFarland’s Chuggin was one of many gems and it featured trombonist Willie Dennis who was a new name to me at the time. Unlike his contemporaries who had mostly fallen under the spell of the great J.J.Johnson, his roots were clearly in the more expressive Bill Harris School. Almost free of articulation and barely seeming to tongue at all his use of slurs and glissandos created overtones as he moved between slide positions – often alternate slide positions.

Many years later I asked Eddie Bert who knew him well to explain how he did this: “Willie had a unique style and sound playing some notes out of the usual positions and doing something we call ‘Crossing the Grain’. The trombone has seven positions and each one has a series of overtones starting with an octave, then a fifth, then a fourth and a third and as you get higher the intervals are smaller. If you move quickly from the first position to the fourth for example you can play these overtones up high and ‘Cross the Grain’ which Willie did a lot”.

Willie Dennis (William DeBerardinis) was born on the 10th January 1926 in Philadelphia and was  mostly self- taught on the trombone. He began working with the popular Philadelphia-based big band led by Elliot Lawrence on the local WCAU radio station. He made his recording debut with Lawrence in 1946 on a 78 rpm single featuring vocalists Jack Hunter and Rosalind Patton. An interesting but short-lived addition to the band at that time was Mitch Miller on oboe. Dennis was on two broadcasts with Elliot later that year which have subsequently been released commercially – the Meadowbrook Ballroom in New Jersey and the Hotel Pennsylvania in New York City. In the late forties he also worked with Claude Thornhill and Sam Donahue but did not record with them.

Around 1951 he began studying with Lennie Tristano at his studio on 317 East 32nd Street in NYC joining a group of students that included Lee Konitz, Warne Marsh, Don Ferrara, Ted Brown, Billy Bauer, Peter Ind, Sal Mosca and Ronnie Ball. In his book Jazz Visions Peter Ind says, “Some of the most exciting musical times I remember were with Lee, Warne. Don and Willie playing some of those incredible lines composed by Lennie, Lee and Warne. Lennie recorded some of this music but I have no idea whether the tapes still exist.” Willie along with Marsh. Ferrara, Mosca and Ind would occasionally travel to Konitz’s house in Elmhurst, Long Island to rehearse. Lee once told me that he considered Willie to be a, “Wonderful trombonist and a lovely guy but I didn’t know him that well because he used to drink and hang out at places like Jim & Andy’s. Being a family man I didn’t hang out there.”

Regular work was scarce though and sometimes the musicians had to take day jobs. Ind and Konitz both worked occasionally in the mail-room at the British Information Office and Dennis took temporary employment as an attendant at the Museum of Modern Art. Coming from a relatively affluent background Marsh probably did not have quite the same financial pressures as the others but he did give occasional saxophone lessons. His father was the celebrated cinematographer Oliver T. Marsh whose credits included David Copperfield, A Tale Of Two Cities and The Great Ziegfield. Sal Mosca, Peter Ind and Don Ferrara taught throughout their careers and around 1955 Mosca gave piano lessons to a very young Bob Gaudio who wrote numerous hits for the Four Seasons.

We have Bob Sunenblick to thank for a fascinating insight into the trombonists’s work with Tristano. In 2014 Uptown Records released a previously unissued double CD of Tristano’s sextet performing at the Blue Note in Lennie’s home town of Chicago in 1951. The other members of the group on this historically important release were Lee Konitz, Warne Marsh, Buddy Jones and Mickey Simonetta. The billing on the illuminated marquee was, “Lennie Tristano With His Great Band and Slim Gaillard’s Trio”. An intriguing if somewhat incongruous combination which might explain the bizarre request for Tennessee Waltz which was a big hit at the time from a member of the audience. Presumably Peter Ind, Arnold Fishkin, Al Levitt or Jeff Morton who regularly accompanied Tristano were unavailable which explains the presence of Jones and Mickey Simonetta. Jones was playing bass with Buddy DeFranco at the time and went on to perform with Elliot Lawrence, Al Cohn, Joe Newman and Manny Albam among many others. The obscure Simonetta was a local drummer and his only other recordings were with Danny Bloc in 1953 and 1954.

Standards were always a rich vein of inspiration for the Tristano school and the 14 Uptown titles are either well known tunes or songbook contrafacts: Sound Lee (Too Marvellous For Words), Two Not One (I Can’t Believe You’re In Love With Me), Sax Of A Kind (Fine And Dandy), Background Music (All Of Me), No Figs (Indiana), Palo Alto (Strike Up The Band), Judy (Don’t Blame Me) and Tautology (Idaho). Just as an aside when Tristano announces Judy, “Written for a very nice lady” he does not inform the audience that he wrote it for his wife Judy Moore Tristano. There are two versions of All The Things You Are and it is worth pointing out what Jerome Kern’s sophisticated harmonies continue to mean to Lee Konitz. In a Down Beat interview he once said, “I could just spend the rest of my time playing All The Things You Are” and as if to stress that point again he told writer Andy Hamilton, “I mean that”. Willie’s powerful, choppy phrasing combines well with the more cerebral, vibrato-free work of Konitz and Marsh and he has his own ballad feature on These Foolish Things where he is centre stage. Reviewing the engagement in Down Beat, Jack Tracy called Dennis, “A fabulously facile musician who comes close to Warne’s and Lee’s standards.”

In September 1953 he made his first album with Charles Mingus on a live date with three other trombones in the line-up – J.J.Johnson, Kai Winding and Benny Green. It was essentially a jam session recorded on Mingus’ own Debut label at the Puttnam Central Club in Brooklyn. All four trombones stretch out at length and Willie certainly holds his own in this heavy company on numbers like Move, Wee Dot, Ow and Now’s The Time. When the album was reissued in 1964 Ira Gitler gave it three and a half stars in Down Beat. A month later Dennis performed with Mingus’ octet and is heard briefly on Miss Bliss.

In March 1956 he performed on Englishman Ronnie Ball’s first and only date as a leader in the USA. The pianist had arrived in New York in 1952 and immediately began studying with Tristano and for this recording he added fellow student Ted Brown to the front line on tenor. Wendell Marshall and Kenny Clarke who had worked with Tristano the year before were recruited to add their subtle uplift to the rhythm section. The leader included two of his originals Pennie Packer (a minor variant of Pennies From Heaven) and Citrus Season (based on Limehouse Blues). This was Ted Brown’s first recording date and he contributed Feather Bed (You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To) and Little Quail (I’ll Remember April) to the repertoire. He also transcribed Lester Young’s famous 1940 Tickle Toe solo calling it Prez Says. Learning classic jazz solos was a regular Tristano teaching device and another good example of this practice is a 1957 Lee Konitz date with Don Ferrara. On Billie’s Bounce they play Charlie Parker’s four choruses from the 1945 date with Miles Davis. The unison is so perfect that one could be forgiven for thinking they must be reading it, however Ferrara confirmed to me they were actually playing from memory.

Later that year he did a tour with Charles Mingus in a group that included Bunky Green, Wynton Kelly and Dannie Richmond. They travelled across country playing Washington D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco and Vancouver before returning to New York for a booking at Birdland. Willie then decided to leave Mingus to concentrate on studio work and recommended Jimmy Knepper as his replacement. 1957 was the year he proved to be an elegant spokesman for his instrument when Metronome published his essay – The History of the Trombone – in their March issue.

For most of that year he was a member of Woody Herman’s Fourth Herd sitting next to his original inspiration Bill Harris in the section. “The first time I heard Bill Harris” Willie once said, “I knew that he was the one who was doing anything new on the trombone. I went to hear that Herman band as many times as I could and bought all their records just to listen to that Harris sound. I knew it was the sound I wanted for my own blowing”.  He joined in January when the band appeared on the Jerry Lewis TV Show and stayed with Herman for most of 1957. Harris along with Jack Jenny was Herman’s favourite trombonist so Bill obviously took care of the trombone solos himself.

He joined Benny Goodman for a short European tour in May 1958 that included a week performing at the Brussels World Fair. Zoot Sims was in the band and after the tour he and Willie were invited by Joachim-Ernst Berendt to join Kenny Clarke for a concert in Baden Baden, Germany with some local musicians. The trombonist is heard on Blue Night, These Foolish Things, I’ll Remember April and Trottin’. Back in the USA he re-joined Woody Herman for a hugely successful three month tour of South America and the Caribbean under the auspices of the State Department. Early in 1959 he performed on Mingus’s Blues And Roots album and is heard on an infectious Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting. For the next year or so he was usually to be found working with Buddy Rich’s small group at Birdland with either Phil Woods or Seldon Powell as the other horn. He visited Brazil with Rich in 1960 which was the year he recorded a particularly fine album with the drummer titled The Driver along with Seldon Powell, Marky Markowitz, Mike Mainieri and Earl May. He is particularly impressive on Big Leg Mary, Straight No Chaser, Bloody Mary, Night In Tunisia and Miss Bessie’s Cookin’. For all his brilliance in powering a big band it is sometimes forgotten what a sympathetic and very subtle drummer Buddy Rich could be in a small group situation.

Don Ferrara who was a charter member of Gerry Mulligan’s CJB told me how Willie came to join the band, “Gerry already had Bob 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 him when he was with Elliot Lawrence in 1948 and he was a very good friend of mine. He 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…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.” Brookmeyer too was very happy to have him in the band, “Willie and I loved to work together. We tried to give him all the solo room we could on pieces that suited him, bearing in mind that I was the second banana and featured soloist. He was a very unusual player because he didn’t seem to tongue at all and I don’t know how he did that but he was wonderful to work with. Later on when Clark Terry and I had our little band (at the Half-Note) he would be quite happy if I sent Willie in when I had to have a night off. Of course Willie Dennis and Don Ferrara came from the Lennie Tristano school and all his students had a very individual voice”.

His first recording with the CJB was at a 1960 concert in Santa Monica. The band then travelled to Europe for performances in Gothenburg, Milan, Basel and Paris. His solo opportunities sitting next to Brookmeyer were just as limited as they had been with Woody Herman when Bill Harris was his section-mate. On their return to New York things changed a little. One of Brookmeyer’s regular solos was on Blueport but during a residency at the Village Vanguard he let Willie take the solo, “He played so individually and well…we had to give him something to play. He deserved it”. He stretches out inventively for eight choruses, perfectly at home despite the blistering tempo of some seventy bars to the minute. The following year the CJB recorded probably its most ambitious album (A Concert In Jazz) which included George Russell’s magnum opus - All About Rosie. Mulligan described Gary McFarland as  “A Godsend” and he contributed not only Weep but Chuggin’ to the date which was a notable feature for Dennis’ utterly relaxed, laid back sense of swing.

In 1961 he married singer Morgana King who had previously been married to Tony Fruscella. Willie had performed on her 1959 album (The Greatest Songs Ever Swung) and she had visited Brazil with him when he was there with Buddy Rich. The CJB’s last studio recording in 1962 featured Willie on Bridgehampton Strut. He carried on working with the band but it was becoming increasingly difficult for Mulligan to keep it on the road. Their last engagement was at Birdland in December 1964 not long before ‘The Jazz Corner Of The World’ finally closed down for business. By then Thad Jones had been added to the trumpets, Phil Woods had taken Gene Quill’s place on alto and clarinet  and the tenor solos were in the very capable hands of Richie Kamuca who was replaced by Al Cohn for part of the booking. Ira Gitler had this to say in a Down Beat review of an earlier CJB performance that year at Birdland, “If this band cannot work when it wants to, there is something very wrong with the state of music in the United States”.

Willie Dennis died when he was involved in a car accident in New York City on the 8th. July 1965. Eddie Bert gave me the details, “I saw him the night he was killed because we were both in Joe Harbor’s bar across the street from Birdland. There was a sailor there who was pretty juiced and kept asking if he could take Willie home. Eventually they left and the sailor was driving so fast in Central Park that he lost control and hit a tree sending Willie through the windscreen. He was killed instantly.” At the funeral there was a closed casket. Phil Woods, Gary McFarland and other friends of Willie’s established an annual scholarship in his name to the Ramblerny Music Centre near New Hope, Pennsylvania. Contributions were sent to the Willie Dennis Memorial Scholarship Fund c/o Jim & Andy’s.

Seven months after Willie Dennis was killed Gary McFarland presented a programme of new music at Lincoln Centre’s Philharmonic Hall in New York. It was performed by a nineteen piece band that had enjoyed the luxury of four days of rehearsals prior to the concert. The repertoire included Willie which was Gary’s tribute to his good friend and there is a hint of Chuggin’ in the coda. In Willie’s memory there was an empty chair in the trombone section."


LennIe Tristano: Chicago 1951. Uptown UPCD 27.
Jazz Workshop: Trombone Rapport. Prestige PCD 24097.
Ronnie Ball: All About Ronnie. Fresh Sound FSRCD 570.
Zoot Sims: The Lost Tapes. SWR Music 10170.
Charles Mingus: Blues & Roots. Atlantic CD1305.
Buddy Rich: The Driver. Wing MGE 26006.
Gary McFarland: Profiles. Impulse AS 9112.
Gerry Mulligan CJB: Mosaic MD4-221.


  1. Interesting, and kind of admirable, that Eddie Bert alters the story of Willie Dennis' fatal car crash. The driver was not "a sailor," but another musician who was himself badly injured. The musician, who had a lifelong alcohol problem, survived his injuries but was haunted for life by the experience.

  2. One would hope for some mention of Willie’s first wife, the actress Roxane Berard (derived from DeBerardinis), to whom he was married in the mid 50s. I worked with Willie in the MOMA 1953-54, fresh out of high school. Willie introduced me to contemporary jazz and allowed me to attend the Saturday night sessions at Lennie’s studio. Heady times for a teenager.


Please leave your comments here. Thank you.