Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Terry Gibbs' Big Band - "Vamp 'Till Ready" by John Tynan

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

“The Gibbs bands combined the high-energy swing of Lionel Hampton with the sophistication of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis outfits (Mel Lewis straddled the drum stool during Gibbs's most productive period).”
-Richard Cook and Brian Morton, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.

As a working musician based in Los Angeles, CA during the heyday of the East Coast Jazz versus West Coast Jazz marketing nonsense which was aided and abetted by Jazz critics and record companies on both coasts, I can honestly say that I never felt deprived living 3,000 miles away from The Jazz Capital of the World [aka New York; aka Birdland].

In terms of the number of Jazz clubs, Hollywood was not the equal of New York, but it had its share. And, although, you had to access them by freeways without the benefit of subways, car rides to the Beach Cities [Santa Monica, Long Beach and Hermosa Beach] and to the San Fernando and San Gabriel Valleys brought forth contact with a plethora of neighborhood bars and bistros that featured Jazz played by both nationally recognized groups and homegrown talent.

Musicians such as guitarist Joe Pass, tenor sax and flutist Charles Lloyd, pianist Keith Jarrett, bassists Charles Mingus and Herbie Lewis and drummer Billy Higgins first came to prominence on the Left Coast [aka Los Angeles].

Los Angeles also had its “exclusives,” groups that didn’t tour and could only be heard at local venues. In many cases, this was because the musicians that made up these small combos and big bands were also heavily engaged in movie and television work or in providing the music for TV commercials and radio jingles and they couldn’t afford to be away from such lucrative employment for long periods of time.

Howard Rumsey’s Lighthouse All-Stars, which over the years featured many notable Jazz musicians including Shorty Rogers, Jimmy Giuffre, Bud Shank, Frank Rosolino, Stan Levey [and for a time, Max Roach], and Victor Feldman, could only be heard at the Hermosa Beach club from which it drew its name.

And the big bands led by vibraphonist Terry Gibbs, Gerald Wilson and trumpeter Don Ellis were for the most part populated by studio musicians who simply couldn’t afford to go on the road.

I felt particularly blessed to be able to take in large amounts of what came to be known as the Terry Gibbs Dream Band. All three of the Hollywood venues that the band played at were a short drive from my home so I was in constant “residence” at this “big band university” for almost two years.

The following piece by John Tynan was written in December, 1962 which sadly was around the time that drummer Mel Lewis left for New York to join Gerry Mulligan’s Concert Jazz Band. Bassist Buddy Clarke and trumpeter Conte Candoli would join him.

Sadly, too, the clubs on Sunset Blvd. referenced in the article began to close in 1963 and were all but gone by May, 1964 when lead alto saxophonist Joe Maini accidentally shot himself.

Terry moved on to other things and especially following Joe’s death, the band was but a memory.

Following John’s article you’ll find a video of the band playing Al Cohn’s composition The Big Cat with solos by Terry on vibes, Joe Maini on alto sax and Conte Candoli on trumpet.

“CAN RECORDINGS alone make a successful band? Almost any self-styled sage in the music business will assure you that this is virtually impossible because a band, in order to be a going concern, i.e., a consistently paying business, must work on the road, must hit the one-nighter grind most of the year in order to get the public exposure that can build a national reputation.

The sages may be right, and certainly the success on records of such leaders as Hank Mancini has nothing to do with a permanent Mancini orchestra of the one-nighter variety. But in a more limited way the Terry Gibbs big band is a recording success, too, and so far as the vibist is concerned, his albums keep the spirit of the band alive.

Spirit is the key word here. It has to do with the roaring jazz produced by Gibbs and 16 others when they assemble on a bandstand for an occasional club engagement or concert.

It is certain that jazz spirit, captured in the Gibbs albums, thundered out of the grooves so dynamically it compelled the voters in Down Beat's 10th annual International Jazz Critics Poll to elect the band to first place in the new-star category this year. What is remarkable is that the majority of the critics who voted for Gibbs' band did so without ever hearing the band in person. All they had to go on were three LP albums — Launching a New Band, Swing Is Here, and The Exciting Terry Gibbs Big Band. The few critics who did hear the band in person dug it on its own stomping ground, Hollywood, or perhaps at the 1961 Monterey Jazz Festival.

Pickings are lean in Hollywood for a big band. Thus has it been, of course, since the early 1950s. As has been pointed out on many occasions in the past, a big band cannot expect to remain on the West Coast and make it. This is particularly true of a big jazz band. So the miracle of the Gibbs band's endurance is only partially touched by economic considerations; the real secret is wrapped up in the words spirit and loyalty — the general jazz spirit of the musicians and their loyalty to the idea of this big band.

In the beginning there was a seemingly prosaic domestic decision: Terry Gibbs and his wife, Donna, decided to settle down in California. He bought a suburban home with swimming pool in the San Fernando Valley and from time to time sallied forth with his quartet for engagements in the East.

It had been Gibbs' practice, under his recording contract, to record one big-band album a year. These sessions were made with studio musicians, and the arrangements generally were the first-class work of such as Al Cohn and Manny Albam. It was a nice musical arrangement for Gibbs; he could record and work night-club and concert jobs with his quartet, commanding top money, and then, for kicks, he could cut loose and indulge his real love for big-band jazz.
If the quartet led to the big studio band on record, it led also to the formation of the presently existing aggregation. Gibbs recently recalled the origin.

"A movie columnist friend of mine, named Eve Starr," he said, with his staccato, machine gun delivery, "called me one day in 1959. She told me about this club in Hollywood. Place called the Seville. She said the place was dying and the owner wanted to change the policy. He really didn't know whether he wanted jazz; he wanted anything that would bring customers into the joint. Eve suggested I go talk to him. His name was Harry Schiller."

Gibbs talked to Schiller and signed a contract to work the Seville with the quartet. At this time he was preparing his annual big-band album. He already had a dozen arrangements and planned to cut the LP in Hollywood with a top-notch personnel.

There was the problem of rehearsal. Musicians union rules prohibit unpaid rehearsals for recordings but permit a band to rehearse for a night-club job.

"I made Schiller a proposition," Gibbs said. "I asked him if he'd let me take the big band into the club Tuesday night only for the same amount of money as the quartet was getting. Schiller said it was okay with him if the quartet did business. If the quartet brought in some customers, he said, he didn't care if I brought in a band of apes on Tuesday. So we were set."

The rehearsals began, and it was immediately evident that, in the Hollywood musicians, Gibbs had a group unlike any of his previous studio big bands.
The weekend prior to the band's Tuesday one-nighter, Gibbs did a guest appearance on the Sunday night Steve Allen Show. Allen gave him a hefty plug.

During the next two days an unprecedented telephone campaign added word-of-mouth publicity to the debut. The forthcoming event—for it had indeed become an event— was literally the musical talk of the town.

The band's opening was a sensation. In the jammed Seville, scattered through the audience, was a remarkable celebrity turnout. Among those who attended were Fred MacMurray and June Haver, Johnny Mercer, Stuart Whitman, Ella Fitzgerald, Steve Allen, Dinah Shore, and Louis Prima. The turnout of musicians was unparalleled.

By the end of the evening it was a foregone conclusion that the band would play the following Tuesday too. In a week, those who had not heard the word in time for the debut were ready to come and dig. The second Tuesday was as successful as the first. And so, for nine consecutive Tuesdays the new Terry Gibbs big band made West Coast jazz history.

The fact that the band began that first set with the knowledge that there were only 11 more numbers in the book didn't matter to Gibbs and his men.

"We just kept an arrangement going for 10 or 20 minutes," Gibbs grinned. "With long solos and different backgrounds made up by the guys in the sections, it was no problem."

By the second week, Gibbs recalled, other arrangers, such as Bill Holman and Med Flory, had contributed arrangements to help expand what probably was the smallest big-band book in jazz history.

In retrospect, Gibbs noted the band could perhaps have continued indefinitely at the Seville on Tuesdays had he not received an offer to take it into the now-defunct Cloister on the Sunset Strip for three weeks. He accepted the offer and the owners' proviso that the band must not play any other Los Angeles location on the night off.

The Cloister engagement was a mistake. For one thing, the room was too small. For another, the customers, who largely came to hear singer Andy Williams and laugh with comedian Frank Gorshin, who shared the bill with the Gibbs band, were not prepared for the shock of hearing the band at full throttle. From Gibbs' point of view, the engagement was less than successful.

By now, Gibbs was obsessed with a desire to keep his band working and exposed to a growing following. Morale in the band was possibly unprecedented.

'The guys made a rule," Gibbs said. "Nobody takes off for another job. If a guy did, he was out of the band. And this they did for $15 a night!"

It wasn't long before Gibbs found a new home for the band. This was a club also on Sunset Blvd., called the Sundown, where the band began working Mondays and Tuesdays every week. Soon after, Sunday nights were added.

With time out for a fortnight at the Dunes Hotel in Las Vegas, Nev., the Gibbs band remained based at the Sundown for 18 months. Las Vegas was as far east as it ever traveled. For that engagement, Gibbs said, the band was paid $5,000 a week; by the time all the expenses had been settled, he wound up with $111 at the close of the job. "But," Gibbs added, "it was worth it. We had Jimmy Witherspoon with us at the Dunes, making it even more of a ball."

While Gibbs concentrated on building the band, his bank account took a heavy beating.

"I had to give up so much work with the quartet," he explained, ''that I figured it was costing me $1,000 a month to keep the band going. In all, I had to give up about $20,000 in work with the quartet. During the previous years, when tax time came around, I always had to come up with additional money for Internal Revenue. The one year I had the band working steady, I got back a check for $1,100 from the government.

"But I've been in this business 31 years, and I've never been so happy losing money in my life."

ALTHOUGH THE BAND presently is without a home or any reasonable facsimile of steady work, Gibbs refuses to abandon his idee fixe. He has almost 100 arrangements in his library at present, and the albums will shout on. The latest, Explosion, on Mercury, will be released shortly.

Meanwhile, the "guys in the band"—Gibbs refuses to use the term "sidemen"—are standing by in Hollywood, most of them busy with studio work, while the vibist tours with the quartet in the East.

"I must work with my little group," he insisted. "I love working with the quartet. Eventually, I want to have a quartet within the big band but not made up of some of the guys in the band. A separate group.

''And I'm looking for a singer. Probably a girl singer. And I don't know yet what I'd like her to sound like—but I'll know when I hear her.

"I'm going to see what I can do with the big band in the East. Then, if I see something promising, I'm going to call Mel Lewis and the rest of the guys. Of course, it depends on the money I have to work with, so it's very hard to predict what'll happen."

Gibbs' "guys in the band" constitute a unique group in that they are, to a man, musicians skilled in the most exacting studio work, and most derive their livelihoods therefrom, yet they retain a genuine jazz freshness both as individuals and as a unit.

"It's a fun band," Gibbs said. "For example, during our first few tunes of the evening, when the place isn't crowded, the guys applaud one another when they play solos. It's like a ball club. When a player hits a home run, he gets a pat on the back. It's that way in the band."

Mel Lewis, the time-keeping cornerstone of the Gibbs band, made the following flat statement: "This is the greatest swing band I ever played in."

"It saved my life, musically," the drummer continued, "and the same goes for the rest of the guys."

"Who was hiring big bands to work in L.A. clubs," Lewis asked rhetorically, "before we went into the Seville? Since then, several big bands have worked clubs in L.A., but we were the only band that did any business in a club. We started the big-band era in Los Angeles."

Gibbs outlined the most important ingredients in a musically successful big jazz band.

"A drummer!" he explained. "A good drummer to hold the band together. All the great bands had great drummers —Basie had Jo Jones; Tommy Dorsey had Buddy Rich; Woody had Dave Tough.

"And then a good lead trumpet player. These are the guys who sort of run the band. They lay the time down for the band.

"We have a very great brass section. Four of the trumpets play lead—Ray Triscari, Al Porcino, Frank Huggins, and Stu Williamson. And Conte Candoli, along with Dizzy Gillespie, is the best big-band jazz trumpet player.

"Three of the trombones play lead. Frank Rosolino, Vern Friley, and Bob Edmondson keep everything going."

Of the lead alto man, Joe Maini, Gibbs cannot sing enough praises: "Point to Joe — for anything — and he can do it beautifully. Jazz or lead, doesn't matter."

Rounding out the sax section are tenor men Bill Perkins and Richie Kamuca; Charlie Kennedy, second and jazz alto saxophone, and Jack Nimitz, baritone saxophone.

In the rhythm section are pianist Pat Moran, for several years leader of her own quartet; bassist Buddy Clark, who with drummer Lewis toured with the Gerry Mulligan big band during the last two years; and Lewis, who, according to Gibbs, "holds any band together."

Whenever it's necessary to substitute because of illness or other Acts of God, Lou Levy generally gets the call for the piano chair; Frank Capp or Larry Bunker on drums (and the Bunker-Gibbs vibes duets on occasion have been memorable); Johnny Audino, Jack Sheldon, or Ray Linn in the trumpet section; and Bill Holman, Teddy Edwards, or Bud Shank in the saxophones.
Why, in Gibbs' opinion, did the jazz critics vote for a band that is (a) non-full-time and (b) whose appeal outside Los Angeles-Hollywood lies wholly within the grooves of long-play records?

"On the strength of those records, I would think," he said. Then he added, "If they liked the band on the albums, they would like it 20 times better if they heard it in person."

Down Beat
November 8,  1962

The following Playlist features four selections by this once-in-a-lifetime band.

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