Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Nat Pierce - Big Band University

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

If there’s anyone who was more beloved in Jazz big band circles in the second half of the 20th century than pianist, composer-arranger and band leader Nat Pierce [1925 - 1992], I’ve yet to meet them.

Nat seemed to have reached his majority as a fully formed big band disciple when he began working professionally in 1943, mainly with big bands in Boston, including one led by trumpeter, Shorty Sherock.

Following a stint with Larry Clinton’s big band in 1948, he commenced a long association with Woody Herman in 1951 as pianist, arranger and even road manager that lasted well into the 1960s.

During that same time, Nat directed his own big band which was based in Boston, co-led a group with trumpeter Dick Collins [1954] and worked as an arranger for Quincy Jones, Count Basie and Ella Fitzgerald.

Nat was the principal arranger for the landmark 1957 television show - The Sound of Jazz - and his own composition Open All Night served as the opening theme for the show and was performed by an all-star band under Count Basie’s direction.

Pierce moved to Los Angeles in the early 1970s and was active as an arranger for Earl Hines, Carmen McRae and Anita O’Day; took on a great deal of freelance work; tour and made recording with drummer Louie Bellson’s Orchestra; took part in Woody Herman big band reunions until Woody’s death in 1987.

In 1975, along with drummer Frankie Capp, Nat formed the Capp-Pierce Juggernaut Orchestra which he co-led until his death in 1992.

During the 1970s and 1980 he Nat was a regular fixture on Concord Jazz recordings as his ability to propel a rhythm section from the piano bench, a skill he learned from his idol, Count Basie, was much sought after by many of the horn players who recorded for the label during this period.

Because of his long and distinguished career in the company of many Jazz notables, Nat’s early days as a leader of his own big band are often overlooked.

This period is very well-covered in Richard Vacca’s The Boston Jazz Chronicles: Faces, Places and Nightlife, 1937-1962 [Troy Street Publishing]. We wrote to Richard and asked his permission to share this segment of his unique book and he has graciously allowed us to do so with this blog feature.

The images that populate this piece and not part of the original publication.

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

“The Nat Pierce Orchestra

Nathaniel Pierce Blish, known to the jazz world as Nat Pierce, was born in Somerville, Massachusetts in 1925. Pierce attended the New England Conservatory briefly and started playing piano professionally at 17. In the mid-1940s, he jammed in sessions at the Ken, worked at the Silver Dollar Bar with Nick Jerret, and played in a trio at Izzy Ort's with drummer Marquis Foster. Then he played and arranged for the Boston bands of Pete Chase and Carl Nappi, and did a turn with Shorty Sherock's big band, where he first met his longtime colleagues Mert Goodspeed and drummer Joe MacDonald.

In 1947 Pierce joined the Ray Borden Orchestra. Borden was a trumpeter who organized his first Boston band in 1941. That one fizzled, and Borden spent the next five years working for a string of big bands, including those of Bobby Sherwood and Jack Teagarden, but the most significant one from a musical development point of view was that of Stan Kenton, in 1942-1944. In 1946 he joined a band led by Whitney Cronin, a bassist and guitarist from Boston. Eventually Borden assumed leadership of the band, and Pierce came on as pianist and arranger. Over time they were joined by Charlie Mariano, trumpeters Gait Preddy and Nick Capezuto, and the aforementioned Goodspeed and MacDonald. The band recorded six sides for Manny Koppelman's Crystal-Tone Records in 1947, under the guidance of Reuben Moulds, who was either handling publicity for Borden or doing legwork for Koppelman, or both.

Borden's was a good band. Their Crystal-Tone sides wear well and have been reissued more than once. They were well rehearsed and well played, the soloists were first-rate (listen to Charlie Mariano on "What's New?"), and Pierce's up-tempo arrangements already showed the rhythmic drive that would mark his best work. But Borden was not cut out to be a bandleader. ("He was a screw-up" was the uncharitable opinion of one musician.) Personal differences were compounded by financial problems, and in July 1 948 the band members fired Borden and selected Pierce to replace him because, as Goodspeed recalled, Nat captured the spirit of the band. But Pierce couldn't find work, and he disbanded in November. In early 1949 Pierce and five band mates hit the road as members of the new Larry Clinton Orchestra.

Pierce regrouped for another try in the spring of 1949, and in April the band recorded its first sides for the new Motif label, "Autumn in New York" and "Goodbye Mr. Chops." The 1949 recording of "Autumn in New York" featured the alto saxophone of Charlie Mariano, whom Nat Hentoff called the best local man on that instrument since Johnny Hodges. The flip side was "Goodbye Mr. Chops," the recording debut of vocalist Teddi King, and a record she never particularly liked. Mariano, who had joined Ray Borden's band in 1947, was the best-known and most highly regarded member of the Pierce orchestra, and a real catalyst for the growth and acceptance of modern jazz in Boston.

The recordings of 1949 are still gems. Mariano was already playing with great feeling on his Hodges-influenced "What's New" with Borden, and again on "Autumn in New York" with Pierce. "King Edward the Flatted Fifth," recorded for Motif with a Ralph Burns/Serge Chaloff septet, and "Sheba," with his own sextet, show the Parker influence. These recordings marked Mariano as a special talent. He remained with the Pierce orchestra until its demise in 1951.

Brockton-born trombonist Mert Goodspeed entered a diploma program at Bentley College following his wartime army service, "but that's when I was really getting into music — in fact I missed my graduation ceremony because I had a gig that night." He worked with Johnny Bothwell and Shorty Sherock before joining the Ray Borden band, and he was one of the group who wanted Pierce to lead it. When Pierce disbanded in 1948, Goodspeed joined Pierce with Larry Clinton.

Goodspeed made the rounds in Boston, jamming at the Ken Club with Pee Wee Russell and Vic Dickenson, and playing in a group at Izzy Ort's with Charlie Hooks and Marquis Foster. He was accomplished enough to work with Sabby Lewis and Phil Edmunds. When Pierce reformed his band in 1949, Goodspeed and Sonny Truitt formed a dynamic duo in the trombone section, where Goodspeed remained until 1950.

Sumner "Sonny" Truitt arrived in Boston after his wartime navy service to study at Schillinger House, and in late 1947 he too was in the Borden band. Truitt was another multi-instrumentalists who could seemingly play anything. Primarily known as a trombonist, he also played piano, tenor sax, clarinet, and even bassoon. He composed and arranged, and despite the fact he was a stutterer, he was a fine singer as soon as he got on the bandstand.

Although Truitt stayed with Pierce until the band broke up in 1951, its frequent downtime gave him time for other projects. In 1949 he was a regular at the Hi-Hat as a pianist and trombonist, and while Pierce was on the road with Larry Clinton in 1949, Truitt joined another Boston contingent, which included trumpeter Don Stratton, trombonist Joe Ciavardone, and pianist Roy Frazee, on the road with Tommy Reynolds, who had rehearsed his New Sound band in Boston. Said Stratton of Sonny Truitt:

Sonny Truitt played everything well, and I never thought the trombone was his best instrument. With Reynolds he was playing a two-piano thing with Roy Frazee. I think he was getting an extra $5 a week for writing arrangements—and that was lousy money then, too. But he arranged the music we played between the juggler and the balloonist in the floor shows.

Metronome reviewed all the Pierce Motif recordings, but it was an octet date released under Mariano's name that drew the highest praise. "Babylon" earned a grade of B in May 1950: "Boston baked bop, clean and clever in a Miles Davis mold, with only a tuba missing to make Miles's sound really stick. The leaders alto, Mert Goodspeed’s trombone, Don Stratton's trumpet, and Nat Pierces piano deserve recognition; the ensemble is unusually precise for their kind of skipping line."

The Pierce band rehearsed before a live audience, albeit a motley one, at Philip Amaru's Mardi Gras, a bar at 863 Washington Street, in 1949-1950. Numerous young musicians would fall by for the late afternoon sessions to listen, but the regular daytime crowd was attracted by the 15-cent beers and couldn't have cared less about jazz.

Trumpeter Don Stratton remembered the scene at the Mardi Gras:

For us, the Mardi Gras was an important place. The Pierce band rehearsed there in the afternoons for close to two years. And the owner let us play there for nothing. Well, not quite nothing, he did ask us to play for his daughter’s wedding. An Italian guy. Imagine, here's this bunch of young guys with a bebop band playing for a traditional wedding in the North End!

When we started playing in the late afternoons at the Mardi Gras, there wouldn't be many customers, a few drunks at the bar, rhe regulars, and we'd start to play and they would get upset with it, didn't like it. And Nat, he went out and got an arrangement of a polka, the "Beer Barrel Polka" or something, and we'd play that and they would cheer us on. So that was Nat, playing something for the regulars.

They did have shows at the Mardi Gras, and they did have good jazz players at night there, like Bill Wellington playing saxophone and Danny Kent on piano. It was a gay bar, and the band was in there playing for the show, and the main attraction was a guy, Alan Vey, and he was up there in a wig and makeup. This was Boston and it was tame stuff compared to what I saw in New York working in gay bars a few years later.

Part-time jazz bar and full-time dive, the Mardi Gras was a key location for the Pierce band and the development of modern jazz in Boston, but it's been gone for 40 years. The building was demolished around 1970 to make way for the New England Medical Center.

Spring 1950 brought the group its most consistent work. Charlie Shribman hired the Pierce band to work two nights per week for 12 weeks at the Symphony Ballroom, the spot known as the Play-Mor back in the Ballroom District days. George Shearing heard the band and liked it. He hired Teddi King to sing with his celebrated Quintet, the only singer ever to do so. Basie heard the band and liked it. He turned his piano over to Nat Pierce for last set chores on his subsequent trips to Boston, and the two began a musical relationship that lasted more than 30 years, until Basie's death. Woody Herman heard the band and liked it. After the Pierce band’s 1951 breakup, he hired a half-dozen of its members, including Nat himself.

Pierce’s band earned an invitation to the Local 535 Musician's Ball in May 1950, at the Red Roof in Revere, where Eddy Petty in the Chronicle noted they acquitted themselves well:

Nat Pierce and his 15 piece band and girl singer opened their phase of the program with one of their own compositions, titled "Spirit of 1950" (which you will soon hear on record) and rocked the joint from top to bottom. Charlie Mariano, Mert Goodspeed and Joe MacDonald gave out with the good feature work. Ruth Mann, the vocalist with the band, gave a splendid rendition of Ellington's "I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good." This band was definitely the greatest band to hit the stage that night, and their music was what the crowd begged to hear more of.

The mystery of this night is the band that failed to show. Jimmie Martin and his band were scheduled, and their vocalist for the evening, Barbara Jai, was backstage and waiting. But the Martin band didn't show, and it is possible that some of the band members did not want to share the stage with a white band at a function staged by the black local. Instead Pierce's band ruled the roost...but what a night it would have been for a battle of music!

Looking Back on the Pierce Orchestra

Working sporadically, the Pierce band grew in reputation but not in financial security. If there was one guy who had no illusions about the band, it was Pierce himself. Talking with Les Tompkins in 1966, Pierce played down his band's significance:

Most of the guys were all single, like I say, in those days. We didn't have a dime, we couldn't care about making money — as long as we had enough to exist on. So we had a very good thing going there. We had a certain amount of professionalism. I guess when I listen back to some of those records now, they sound kinda trite — with all the so-called bebop licks that we wrote into the arrangements. Double-time trumpet figures and everything — it was kinda patterned after Woody's band at the time.

We made one record date, to which a lot of the guys from Woody's band showed up — Lou Levy, Earl Swope, Zoot, Serge and so on. They all came around to help us on our way. It was nice. It was a very friendly situation up there in Boston at that time. So my direction was towards the Herman noise. It was a little cruder then, though. Some of the voicings were strange, and then we wrote too many notes. We did things that were completely uncomfortable to play. In fact, we couldn't even play 'em!

I don't think this band or any other could play some of the things we played up in Boston. We just killed ourselves, trying to get these things down, you know — for no reason at all. It was just a lot of flash. But we thought we were doing something that was good. Most young people do play many extra notes. It takes many years to learn what to leave out.

One of those kill-the-band numbers was among the last pieces the Pierce band recorded, an ambitious Ralph Burns composition, "Red Hills and Green Barns." Scored for two pianos, played by Burns and Pierce, it was recorded at an overnight session in the studios of WCOP radio in December 1950. Longtime band members MacDonald, Mariano, Stratton, and Truitt were present. The band broke up before a record could be made, and it was 25 years before "Red Hills and Green Barns" was finally released.

Lack of steady work doomed the Pierce Orchestra. Nat Hentoff reported in Down Beat in October 1951 that Nat Pierce, "leader of the city's most musically advanced and most thoroughly unemployed band, has left town to take over the piano chair with Woody Herman." (He took Dave McKenna's place.) A weary Hentoff closed his article with, "Unless you have a boom-chick beat and a 1924 mind, this is no town for a progressive local jazzman."

Pierce of course went on to a long, stellar career in jazz. He arranged and played piano for Woody Herman for five years, freelanced for five, then went back to Herman for five more. Pierce arranged the music for the landmark 1957 television program The Sound of Jazz, filled in for Count Basie on many occasions, recorded prolifically as leader and sideman, and finally formed another big band, Juggernaut, in 1975 with drummer Frank Capp. Although he experimented with bebop with his own Boston orchestra, over time he settled into a swing-oriented groove — but it was swing chipped off the same block as Basie's and Hermans. Nat Pierce died in Los Angeles in June 1992.

The Pierce band scattered to the wind, some going on to long careers in music and others leaving the field completely. Of the former, saxophonist and arranger Dave Figg must have set a road warrior record, as between 1950 and 1964 he was with the big bands of Louis Prima, Tony Pastor, Ray McKinley, Claude Thornhill, Hal Mclntyre, Thornhill again, Billy May, Sam Donahue, Jimmy Dorsey, Buddy Morrow, and Woody Herman.

Four other members of Pierce's 1951 band followed him to Herman's: saxophonist Art Pirie, trumpeters Roy Caton and Dud Harvey, and bassist Frank Gallagher.

Don Stratton went with Buddy Morrow, Claude Thornhill, Tony Pastor, and Elliot Lawrence before settling in New York, where he played jazz, Broadway shows, and modern classical music. Stratton was the only member of Pierce's Boston band to work with him again, in New York in 1956. George Green settled in New York as well, and became a sought-after copyist.

Sonny Truitt was bitten by the same modernist bug as Charlie Mariano. He was an early member of Mariano's bop groups at the Melody Lounge, and took part in Mariano's The New Sounds from Boston recording in 1951. Truitt, Mariano, and drummer Joe MacDonald toured with Bill Harris and recorded under Mariano's name on the West Coast. In New York, Truitt recorded with Miles Davis in 1953, and played in innumerable bands before forming The Six, a sextet with Bob Wilber, in 1956.

A few members of Pierce's band returned to Boston. Nick Capezuto was with Harry James, Tex Beneke, and Louis Prima before returning to Boston and the Herb Pomeroy Orchestra. Dave Chapman entered the U.S. Air Force, and joined Capezuto with Pomeroy after his discharge. Joe MacDonald joined Woody Herman in 1954, but after less than a year returned to Boston, where he worked as an engineer and played music part-time, eventually becoming president of AFM Local 9. Trombonist Bob Carr worked with Manny Wise in the mid-1950s. Phil Viscuglia from the 1949 band taught at the New England Conservatory and played bass clarinet with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Mert Goodspeed was one who left music. He remained with the Pierce band until 1950, when he went with Dean Hudson, a dance band working seven nights a week across the southeast. When that ended, he moved to New York and worked with Buddy DeFranco while he waited for his union card. In 1951, though, he left music and enrolled in business school. He faced the realities of the business: "Why did I quit? Six months of one-nighters, you get real tired of that. And guys like Urbie Green were getting all the studio work and I didn't see any way past that."

There were never any revivals or reunions. For all its importance to Boston's jazz scene, the Nat Pierce Orchestra was forgotten until Art Zimmerman collected its music for an LP he released in 1977. At the time. Pierce was surprised anybody was interested.”

The following YouTube features the Pierce band on The Ballad of Jazz Street. Stick around for the “shout” or “shout me out” chorus following the solos.

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