Wednesday, April 22, 2020

"Shorty Rogers - The Gentle Giant" by Howard Lucraft

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

The following interview/article appeared in the February, 1979 issue of Jazz Journal [Vol. 32, No. 2].

With the 1952 release of the music on Modern Sounds and the Cool and Crazy LP on RCA the following year, Shorty Rogers was hailed as the father of West Coast Jazz. But as Shorty explains - “ … we never made any premeditated attempt to play anything different or specific that could be labelled 'West Coast Jazz'. We just played our jazz.”

Ten years or so after these recordings by Shorty spawned the West Coast style of Jazz, both he and the style were pretty much fading from public view as Rock ‘n Roll and Folk Music claimed the popular listening audience.

Shorty and many of his cohorts transitioned to the Hollywood studios where they found lucrative work writing and playing for movies, TV shows and radio jingles.

Humble and self-effacing to a fault, when one considers the amount of music Shorty wrote for big bands and small groups in the 1950s and adds to that what he contributed to the Woody Herman and Stan Kenton orchestras during the prior five years, his composing and arranging output is staggering both in terms of proportion and the consistently high quality of musicianship. 

Shorty’s music is as instantly recognizable as that of Duke Ellington-Billy Strayhorn, Woody Herman-Ralph Burns, Stan Kenton-Pete Rugolo-Bill Russo-Bill Holman, Count Basie-Neal Hefti, Henry Mancini, Gil Evans, Thad Jones or Gerry Mulligan, to name but a few distinctive, composer-arrangers, and yet his name is rarely mentioned in such circles. His brass sonorities, especially the pairing of upper register trumpets with lower register bass trombones and tubas, are unequaled for their range and density and a light, airy swing underscores all of his orchestrations. Shorty’s music is always moving.

Fortunately, a ton of Shorty’s music has made its way to digital platforms and if you are looking for something new and different, I urge you to explore the world [universe?] of cool and crazy modern sounds that Shorty Rogers created from about 1945 - 1965.

“WHAT HAPPENED to Shorty Rogers diminutive doyen of the West Coast movement of the fifties?

The answer is that Shorty is alive and well — in teeveeland. You've all heard that melodramatic chase music in the American cops and robbers TV shows. Well, Shorty has written a good deaf of that.

Shorty dropped by for a cuppa recently and was delighted to hear that his RCA Victor big band album, originally titled Cool And Crazy was a hit reissue in Europe as Blues Express. The album was recorded around 1951. Yes, it was nearly three decades ago that people began talking about "the new West Coast Jazz". The knowing ones claimed: "West Coast Jazz is everyone writing and playing like Shorty Rogers."

Says Shorty: "I've been told that quite a few times and it's a great compliment. You know, we never made any premeditated attempt to play anything different or specific that could be labelled 'West Coast Jazz'. We just played our jazz. Actually we spent a lot of time listening to all the records coming from the East Coast. We tried to learn from them.

"Just before that I had been playing and writing for Stan Kenton. A bunch of us came out of the Kenton (Innovations) band together — Bud (Shank), Coop (Bob Cooper, the late), Johnny Graas and others. I started teaching the cats composition and arranging. At the same time I myself was studying composition with Dr. Wesley La Violette — to keep one step ahead of my students!"

Prior to the RCA Cool And Crazy date Shorty had done one previous album as leader — for well-known jazz producer Gene Norman. It was called Modern Sounds. Gene sold the tapes to Capitol Records who released the session as an EP. It was the very first jazz of its type to come out of the West Coast. Several years later it was reissued as an LP on Capitol with tracks by Gerry Mulligan on the other side.

Shorty recalled the personnel of the Modern Sounds date as Don Bagley (b), Shelly Manne (d), Hampton Hawes (p), Gene Englund (tuba). Jimmy Giuffre (ts), Art Pepper (as), Milt Bernhart (tb) and Shorty Rogers (t). Titles included four Rogers originals (Popo, Didi, Apropos and Sam The Lady) plus Giuffre's Four Mothers and Over The Rainbow. 'It was kind of a Mites Davis small group sound," Shorty commented, "a few horns with a tuba on the bottom."

Jack Lewis was working for Gene Norman all that time as associate producer. He did all the leg work — put it all together. And as a result of working with us on that Modern Sounds album, Jack got very enthused. When he went over to RCA, he got the OK to produce the Cool and Crazy album.
"The big band was my idea. Most of us were still working for Stan Kenton at the time. I remember going to Stan and saying: 'Don't get upset with us, Stan'. And Stan, the beautiful guy that he is, gave me his blessing.
"We did all new things — all my originals. We all thought up the weird titles. Milt Bernhart named The Sweetheart Of Sigmund Freud. Shelly (Manne) christened Tale Of The African Lobster. Infinity Promenade was one of my titles."

I asked Shorty to run down the personnel on the Cool and Crazy date.

"You should know — you were there!" he answered.

The musicians included Maynard Ferguson, Conrad Gozzo, Uan Rasey, Sweets Edison, Conrad Gozzo, Uan Rasey, Bob Enevoldsen, Bud Shank, Jimmy Giuffre, Art Pepper, Bob Cooper, Herb Geller, Don Bagley, Marty Paich and Shelly Manne. Shorty played the trumpet solos. (It was before he had switched to flugelhorn.)

The recording took place in an early RCA Victor studio in Hollywood — now a record pressing plant.

Shorty commented: "It was a poor studio, soundwise. It had a gigantic high ceiling. It was originally constructed for the recording of film background music. We had 16 men but it looked like a little teeny band."

There was only one other major record studio in Los Angeles at that time — Radio Recorders. Today there are probably hundreds. Jazz record dates then were a Hollywood event. Shorty recalled: "In those days Shelly would get a jazz record date some seven weeks in advance. The word would go out. Musicians would ask: 'Can we come and sit in the booth'?"

It was around this time that Shorty started a regular evening gig at the famous Lighthouse Club in Hermosa Beach, some 25 miles from Hollywood. I remember driving down there one night with Shorty. We were stopped by a policeman for an alleged dangerous left turn. "Where are you going?" asked the officer. When we told him the cop replied: "Oh, isn't that the place where they all smoke marijuana?" When Shorty and I told John Levine, the Lighthouse owner, of the cop's comments, John was furious. He vowed he would sue the police department for a million dollars.

"But those were really good days musically,” Shorty said.

“And even more as Shorty was with the first Lighthouse All-Stars group. They played every night of the week except Monday. The group had Frank Patchen (p), Jimmy Giuffre (ts) and Shelly Manne (d) in addition to bassist-leader Howard Rumsey and Shorty. Trombonist Milt Bernhart was added later. On weekends Howard would hire extra players — like Gerry Mulligan and Art Pepper.

"Sunday we had jazz all day," Shorty recalled., "The Lighthouse is just half a block from the beach. People would come into the club in their bathing suits in the afternoon. And at two in the morning, when we closed, some of them would still be sitting there in their swimsuits."

From the Lighthouse Shorty went to the Haig. This club — just a wooden hut really — was on famed Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, opposite the well-known Ambassador Hotel. The Haig has long been torn down to make a modern office building. Shorty's band there was Giuffre, Shelly, Russ Freeman (p) and Joe Mondragon (b).

Then Shorty had an offer to move over to Zardi's on Hollywood Boulevard (now a porno film theatre). Freeman left and Marty Paich came in on piano, followed by Pete Jolly who had just arrived in town. The period was circa 1954.

Johnny Dankworth came to Hollywood at this time. It was his first visit here. He came with drummer Allan Ganley. I got Abe Most to lend Johnny an alto and arranged for him to sit in with Shorty's group. Teddy Wilson, Stan Getz and Gene Krupa were in Hollywood at that time working on the Benny Goodman Story film and they were all in the audience at Zardi's that night.
"They were very good days for jazz," Shorty sighed. "People could sit and listen to jazz for just the price of a 75-cent beer."

After this Shorty started getting active in composing and arranging. "I felt I wanted to do more writing. I tried to keep up the playing in clubs. But it does take a lot out of you even though I was much younger then.

"The transition came about through film composer Leith Stevens. Leith used to come down to the Lighthouse to listen to us. He hired me to help him do some arranging on the Marlon Brando picture The Wild One.

"My work on that picture attracted a lot of attention. I think it was the first time that jazz had been used in a film with that aggressive approach.

"Then Leith recorded an album of the music for Decca. It became a hit LP. One of the people who heard about it was film composer Elmer Bernstein. Elmer had me orchestrate and arrange a lot of jazz sequences for The Man With The Golden Arm. This also attracted a lot of attention and again there was a big-selling album out of the picture.

"All of a sudden people were calling me up for jazz arrangements. I didn't know what was going on. I was just trying to have fun. I was also teaching an awful lot (the same guys) and playing at night. It was kinda hectic but being young I enjoyed it.

"About ten years later it became hard to keep up the playing. It was reduced to an odd Saturday night here and there. It was hard to keep my chops up. The Lord wanted me to rest my lip and start working the pencil harder. I still practise the trumpet at home but I look around first to make sure no-one is listening!"

Shorty has almost forgotten the rhythm and blues records he made at that time under the name of Boots Brown. "The first time we went into the studio we had a hit but, do you know, I can't even remember the title now. We did two sessions of four tunes each. I had a wild bunch of rock & roll stars! — Bud Shank, Gerry Mulligan and Jimmy Giuffre. It has a tongue-in-cheek thing that we used to do at the Lighthouse for a gag. It was again Jack Lewis's idea to record the Boots Brown group."

At first Shorty was just arranging and orchestrating for other film and TV writers. Then he got some composing work on his own for television. For the past couple of years Shorty has been doing episodes of Starsky And Hutch, The Goldbergs and The Love Boat. Before that he wrote for The Partridge Family, Occasional Wife, Mr Deeds Goes To Town, I Dream Of Jeannie, I Spy and Mod Squad ("plus others —- I can't remember them all!").

A turning point came for Shorty when he met film composer Earle Hagen. "I consider him my teacher. He took me under his wing and trained me — showed me how to do it. You could never pay Earle. All he would ever accept in appreciation was golf balls!

"Writing for television envelopes you completely. At that time I had a show to write and record every week. It became a tremendous rat race. I didn’t [at first] realize the differences between composing and arranging. They’re two different worlds! It became so much I didn't have a chance to think of anything else. Just to meet the weekly deadline was my life.

"So.. .currently the Lord wants me not to work so hard although I'm still keeping my hand in and working on a few TV shows. But now I'm considering my health. I worked for so many years without taking care of myself. I thank God for my health — and now I want to sort of water it and make it grow."

A few of the old Giants still work with Shorty (on his TV assignments) — Bud Shank, Shelly Manne and Bob Cooper. Russ Freeman worked with Shorty at Columbia for many years. "Some of Russ's tunes are not to be believed. I love his work. He's incredible."

What does Shorty think of the many new directions in jazz? Does he feel it is all jazz?

"I like everything I hear...Chick Corea and all the fusion things. I dig it. I'm not trying to be nice. I just like the things I hear today."

Different inflections, feel?? "Yes, but it's easy for me. I've written a lot of rock things. It would be an enjoyable thing to go out again with a band. I'd play some of my olden arrangements along with some fusion things.
"I love the electronics today. When I'm writing for the studios I write in a lot of synthesizers, phasers etc. But when it's on television it goes by and people forget it. It's not like an album that you take home and play over and over. I’d like to to an album that had different time signatures and then do a
complete about-face and play some of the Basie things." (You may recall Shorty's Basie-style compositions on his Shorty Courts the Count LP in the fifties).

Shorty has lived in the same house in the San Fernando Valley for 25 years. In the "Garden Room" where he works the old jazz scores and parts are still all stacked high ("the room hasn't been cleaned in 25 years").

Would Shorty like to take the old scores and the original Giants on a tour of Europe?

"Yes, it would be fun. I put it in the Lord's hands. If he wants me to do it, I'm ready."

British bandleader Howard Lucraft emigrated to the United States and settled in Los Angeles in 1951 since when he has been active as a composer/arranger and broadcaster. His early credits include compositions and arrangements for Stan Kenton and his specially commissioned Los Angeles Suite was performed at the Hollywood Bowl. His Jazz International show for American Forces Radio had more than 100 million listeners and he has been a prolific writer for newspapers and magazines including the Los Angeles Times, Variety, Down Beat and Melody Maker. He is a director and treasurer of the American Society of Music Arrangers and consultant and adviser to Westwood Entertainment Corporation in Los Angeles.

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