Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Terry Gibbs Dream Band - The Jack Tracy Notes

© Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Terry Gibbs and I recently became friends on Facebook, and to celebrate that occasion, I put recordings by his big band in my CD changer which led, in turn, to a reunion of sorts with the writings about Terry’s band by Jack Tracy which you’ll find after this introduction. 

Whether it’s the arrangements, the ensemble playing, the solos or the rhythm section, one would be hard-pressed to find a better big band in the history of Jazz than the Terry Gibbs Big Band.

Although it existed for only 3 years [1959 - 1962], performed in relative obscurity because it never toured [I gather that it did play a two week engagement at the Dunes in Las Vegas] and didn’t have most of its recorded output released until a quarter of a century after it folded, those who experienced it in person during its brief existence have come to refer to it by another name –The Terry Gibbs Dream Band.

The band had an incredible book of arrangements courtesy of Bill Holman, Manny Albam, Sy Johnson, Bobby Brookmeyer, Shorty Rogers, Al Cohn, Lennie Niehaus, Marty Paich, Wes Hensel and Med Flory.

On any given evening, the trumpet section would made up of four monster players selected from the following list: Al Porcino, Ray Triscari, Stu Williamson, Conte Candoli, Johnny Audino, Frank Huggins, and Lee Katzman.

The trombone section was usually comprised of Frank Rosolino, Vern Friley, Bob Edmonson, Bobby Burgess, Bill Smiley and Joe Cadena.

The saxes was anchored by Charlie Kennedy [lead alto] and Joe Maini [solo alto], Bill Holman, Med Flory, Bill Perkins or Richie Kamuca on tenor and Jack Nimitz or Jack Schwartz on baritone saxophone.

The rhythm section was made up of Pete Jolly, Lou Levy or Pat Moran on piano, Buddy Clark or Max Bennett on bass and the always cookin’ Mel Lewis on drums who was quoted as saying to Ted Gioia in his West Coast Jazz: Modern Jazz in California, 1945-60: [p. 164]: “I don’t think there was ever a better band than this one, including my own.”

Of Lewis, Gioia had this to say: “Lewis possessed the rare skill of being able to propel a big band without overplaying – a talent of vital importance during his [earlier] tenure with the Kenton band, whose heavy textures had been known to overpower more than one drummer.” [p. 166].

The band played on the “off” nights at Hollywood clubs such as Seville, the Sundown or the Summit and the mood at these clubs was very relaxed; it appeared that the musicians were glad to be out from under the rigors of playing in the movie and TV studios or dealing with the tedious nature of making the music for TV commercials and radio jingles. 

The fact that the musicians were enjoying themselves was certainly evident as they hooted and hollered to urge on the soloists [Terry’s in particular drew all sorts of ‘comments’ from Joe Maini along the lines of “Hammer, baby, hammer!].  You can hear this revelry and camaraderie in the background of the band’s in-performance recordings.

According to Gioia: “The Gibbs band is like a turbocharged roadster…the band’s pizzazz also stems from Gibbs penchant for dramatic flourishes and high-energy music. … Gibbs, ..., also apparently had a flair for bringing the best out of his musicians.” [p. 165]

Although most of the music recorded by the band remained unreleased in Terry’s possession until the late 1980’s when he finalized a deal with Fantasy for their production and distribution, there were some LPs issued on Verve and Mercury during the band’s existence.  The Mercury albums were originally produced by Jack Tracy, who also worked with Terry as co-producer on the reissue of Terry Gibbs and his Exciting Big Band/Explosion [Mercury 20704] when it was converted to digital as Terry Gibbs Dream Band: The Big Cat – Volume 5 [Contemporary CCD 7657-2].

Jack had a long association with my family, although I didn’t find out about this until we became friends during the last years of his life [he died in 2010 at the age of 84].

It seems that when Mercury Records moved Jack to the Left Coast from Chicago in the early 1960s to handle its California productions, Jack was a frequent visitor to a restaurant where my father worked as a waiter and later as a bartender. 

So here’s me digging Terry’s big band at various clubs on Sunset Blvd., which Jack is producing for sessions on Mercury Records after which he would go to a restaurant [just off of Hollywood Blvd.] where my dad served him dinner. Talk about six degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon!!

When I first started the blog in 2008, Jack was a constant supporter always encouraging me with small messages like “... what you are doing is important,” “... you played the music so share your knowledge and experience,” “... you should do more pieces on Pops [Louis Armstrong] and Duke”....

Pretty heady stuff to a novice writer from a former editor of down beat magazine and a major Jazz record producer!!

With Jack’s permission here are the insert notes that he wrote for the CD issue of Terry Gibbs Dream Band: The Big Cat – Volume 5 [Contemporary CCD 7657-2].

After reading these notes, one can easily understand why Jack served as the editor of down beat magazine for many years. Any writer would be well-served by and proud to have such an editor. It’s an honor to share his writing with you on the JazzProfiles website.

Oh, and one more thing, Jack’s writing is funny; he has a way with humor that will have you giggling, chortling and sniggering and wanting to go back and read it all again.

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

“One day some 30 years ago I sat there listening to this excited voice in my ear on the telephone. No surprise; Terry Gibbs sounds excited even if he's only asking you what time it is.

Dick.'" he yelled. (For some reason he always felt that my surname entitles him to call me Dick.) "Dick, you've got to come out to California and record the band ... we're breaking it up every night at the Summit. Let's get Wally Heider and do a live date."

Perhaps I should fill you in. At the time I was Jazz director for Mercury Records, based in Chicago, and Gibbs was one of the top artists on the roster. He was a poll winner, worked regularly, enjoyed a strong following, and had a compellingly infectious personality. Matter of fact, he still does. He talks approximately as fast as he plays the vibes, and if hypers ever need a poster child, they should pick him. Wally Heider (God rest him) was, hands down, the best sound engineer who ever did a remote. No one since has been able to record a big band on location like Wally. It was in his blood.

To get me out there didn't take a lot of convincing on Gubenko's part. (I call him Gubenko. His surname entities me.)  I'd heard the band before and I knew how good it was. Listening to it was much like riding a roller-coaster there was excitement, yelling, speed, giddiness. breathsucking, stomach tightening elation and just plain awe. Perhaps as good an ensemble band as ever was;  certainly none have been perceptibly better. They came roaring out of the chute on every set, clean and highflying and with great pride in performance. Swing, dynamics, shading, crispness, and confidence were all there all the time and the phrase "joyous abandon" comes readily to mind when describing their playing. They could set a house on fire.

So I said yes, let's do it.

Besides, who in his right mind would pass up an expense covered trip to a Hollywood that was still lush and green, graffiti less and smog free and full of long legged, healthy blonde ladies with golden tans?

So for three nights we recorded every set, and the fitting climax to this tale would of course be that the record was a smash hit and the Dream Band would become one of the biggies of the Sixties.


Because by the end of the 1950s big bands were desperately trying to stay alive. (Big jazz bands, anyway. You take Lawrence Welk ... Please.) Travel costs were up, jazz was on a down cycle, airplay was next to impossible to get, forget about TV, the Beatles came over from England and screwed up everything.

The days of the big bands were over, save for an occasional dinosaur like Basie, Ellington, Herman, or Kenton found hanging on for dear life, and the world of music had changed. Even the second coming of Christ wouldn't have drawn a crowd if he had returned leading a band.

So although we didn't know it then, this was to be the last recorded gasp of the Terry Gibbs big band. For nearly 30 years, anyway, until a perceptive record company recognized that great is great no matter the date and has rereleased every album recorded by the Dream Band.

This one is the finale [actually, there is a 6th - Terry Gibbs Dream Band One More Time], and if you'll accept admittedly prejudiced opinion, it is even better than the preceding four. These are flawless performances of some beautifully written charts. I have listened to them many a time, first when they were initially released and more recently when preparing this essay, and I can't hear a single thing that should be changed, corrected, or improved upon. The band never played better.

Most of the credit for that should go to the leader.  Yes, I know that a chain is never stronger than its weakest link, but Gubenko knows how to select personnel so that there are no sore thumbs or red asses among them, knows how to draw the best effort from every player, knows when to be boss and when to be one of the guys, knows how to pick tempos and pace a set according to the mood of an audience, can play the hell out of his instrument and not just stand up front waving his arms, and sets everyone an example by giving 125 percent at all times. In short, he is one helluva bandleader, and had he been born ten years earlier would have been one of the biggest names of the swing era, when bands were bands and you'd better believe it.

I was always struck by the closeness of this band. One well remembers the Ellington orchestra, for example, where on any given day half the guys might not be talking to the other half, or even to each other. Or Basie's outfits, where there were generally a couple of fiefdoms to be reckoned with. In other instances it might be the case of a starstruck leader communicating with the troops only through an underling.

But this conglomeration of personalities somehow managed to act like a high school cheer team. There was the irrepressible alto saxist, Joe Maini, another of the God-rest-hims, leading the sax section, contributing those startling, angular solos, and cutting up something awful. The brass section was, to be truthful. plain raucous, with Al Porcino, Conte Candoli, and Frank Rosolino the chief truants. (When you hear the guys in Doc Severinsen's band on the Carson show yelling "Yoo," you know where it all started, don't you? On the Gibbs band.)  And if there were any jealousies about anyone getting fewer solos than the next guy, or not being properly recognized, they were well hidden. This was a team that hit the bandstand ready to blow you out of the room.

And if you have never experienced the electrifying shock of hearing a great jazz band up close in a nightclub, you are to be pitied. Concert halls are fine, jazz festivals are OK, but unless you've had your head in the lion's mouth at a Blue Note or Birdland or Summit and actually smelled his breath, you don't know what it was really like to physically feel the energy being generated and to be absorbed into it.

You may have heard me say this before. but on some nights a band would come at you in waves, and you couldn't do much but sit there helplessly. You knew you were being had, and you knew you were being stripped of all propriety and decency, but you just didn't care. There was a joy unmatched, and somehow you had shared something deep and unspoken with those men on the bandstand that you'd never forget. It was thrilling, and if it has never happened to you I am truly sorry.

Gubenko's guys could do it to you. The rhythm section was tight, with Pat Moran on piano (in case you don't remember Pat, a Ms. goes in front of her name) and Buddy Clark (no, not the singer) on bass, with the marvelous Mel Lewis playing drums. Mel (damn, but it hurts to keep saying God rest him) looked sort of funny and all hunched up back there, peering near-sightedly over the ride cymbal, but he was so good. Every nuance of every chart, every little hole that needed filling, every breath that lead trumpeter Porcino took, every shading and inflection, there was Mel, right on top of ft.

Gibbs used to call him "Mel the Tailor" because “I had this old Jewish tailor in Brooklyn who had bunions and he walked funny. Mel walked just like him, so I called him The Tailor and it stuck." In later years Mel was to tell people that he got his nickname because he played “tailor-made drums," but many of us knew better.

As I was saying, Porcino played lead trumpet and he was about as good as they get, right in the same ballpark with Conrad Gozzo, Snooky Young, Johnny Audino, that bunch. Al talks verry slowwwly, and it has been said that a person could spend the better part of an afternoon listening to Porcino and Shorty Rogers say hello.

Most of the trumpet solos came from Candoli and Stu Williamson. Conte blew with great verve, fire, and dash he came up listening to Dizzy. Stu’s solos were pretty, more ruminative. He was never in a hurry.

Rosolino (from now on I'm just abbreviating God rest him" to G.R.H., OK?) simply leaped out of the trombone section on his solos. Blindingly facile. and full of musical humor, he would draw “who was that?" looks from the uninitiated after one of his rapidfire, take-no-prisoners sorties during which he took no prisoners.

Both tenor saxes in the section, Bill Perkins and Richie Kamuca, were also featured as soloists. Kamuca (G. R. H) always used to say he didn't like to play in big bands; he liked the looseness of small groups. But he was proud to play in this one, and often made that known to Gubenko. I loved Kamuca's playing: his solos were such a deep reflection of his quiet, thoughtful, and sensitive personality.

This band was a delightful crew, one that worked chiefly for the fun and fulfilling ness of it, certainly not the money. "We got paid scale at, the Summit," remembers Gubenko, "which at that time was $15 a night. I got double. $30, but gave half to the band manager. My bar bill was usually about $20, because I'd pick up a tab or two, so it cost me at least five bucks a night to work there. But I never had more fun or musical satisfaction in all my life."

Neither did a lot of other people. And, please do me a favor. Put this disc on your machine. kick up the volume, to hell with the neighbors and stick your head in the lion's mouth.

You'll smell his breath.”

Jack Tracy
Santa Barbara, CA
February 1991

“Jack Tracy was the editor of down beat in the 1950s and has been a jazz record producer and freelance writer ever since. He no longer drinks or smokes.”

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