Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Don Joseph - Jazz Poet by Gordon Jack

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

“Don Joseph (1923-1994) merged jazz and poetry in his style. He was a cornet player of sweet sound and controlled passion, with the most delicate of timbres, a feeling for melody and an exquisite choice of notes, who was not at all compromised by any particular style. Too shy to ask for recognition, as if playing was the essential thing, it was a pity that such a gifted, sensitive player like his friend trumpeter Tony Fruscella was seemingly incapable of sustained work habits.
His imagination and cornet sound was a marriage that yielded sheer poetry.”
- Jordi Pujol, Fresh Sound Record

Gordon Jack is a frequent contributor to the Jazz Journal and a very generous friend in allowing JazzProfiles to re-publish his insightful and discerning writings on various topics about Jazz and its makers.

Gordon is the author of Fifties Jazz Talk An Oral Retrospective and he also developed the Gerry Mulligan discography in Raymond Horricks’ book Gerry Mulligan’s Ark.

The following article was published in the 21 July, 2020 edition of Jazz Journal. 

For more information and subscriptions please visit

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

“Don Joseph’s fleeting appearances on the post-war jazz scene certainly impressed contemporises like Charlie Parker, Gerry Mulligan, Phil Woods, Bob Brookmeyer, Bill Crow and John Williams. Historically his reputation now depends on the slimmest of discographies: three titles with Lucky Millinder’s orchestra in 1949 (one track has a trumpet solo but it is uncertain if it his), a 1952 live date with Dave Schildkraut, a1954 session with Al Cohn, recordings in 1957 with Chuck Wayne and Gerry Mulligan and a final date with Cohn again in 1984. These performances reveal a technically fluent soloist with a disarmingly fragile lyrical quality reminiscent of earlier masters like Bix Beiderbecke and Bobby Hackett. The closest in style to Don Joseph at the time was probably Don Fagerquist on the west coast.

Don Joseph was born on Staten Island on 13 April 1923. He benefited from studying with the renowned trumpet teacher Haydn Sheppard who was apparently the Carmine Caruso of his time. Michael Morreale who knew him well told me that Don would often have to demonstrate lip slurs together with exercises from the Arban trumpet method for the other students. A well trained instrumentalist, he played Bach duets with colleagues throughout his career. (Michael is a very fine trumpeter himself as can be heard on YouTube where he and Don perform Embraceable You and Ash Wednesday Blues).

In 1940 Joseph had a quintet which for a while featured Manny Albam on alto. (Later Manny switched to the baritone with Georgie Auld, Charlie Barnet, Charlie Ventura and Herbie Fields before becoming one of the finest of the New York-based arrangers in the fifties.) During World War II Don played with most of the bands appearing at the Paramount Theatre in Times Square. Toward the end of the forties he worked with Jerry Wald, Buddy Rich and Alvino Rey. In 1950 Gene Roland selected him for the twenty five piece band that rehearsed at Nola’s Studio with Charlie Parker. It became known as The Band That Never Was because it didn’t work, it just rehearsed. The ubiquitous Eddie Bert was there over four or five days of rehearsals taking photographs which can be found in Ken Vail’s excellent Bird’s Diary. The following year he was briefly with Buddy DeFranco’s big band and towards the end of 1951 Gerry Mulligan, encouraged by his girlfriend Gail Madden, started experimenting with a piano-less quartet with Don, Peter Ind and Al Levitt. The idea was to be fully realised with Chet Baker, Chico Hamilton and Bob Whitlock a few months later when Mulligan relocated to Los Angeles. He was recorded at the El Mambo club on Long Island in 1952 with Dave Schildkraut and Jackie Paris and both horns stretch out to good effect on Jackie’s Blues, Buzzy and Whooz Blues. Tom Lord claims the date to be 1961 but Fresh Sound on their Tribute to Don Joseph CD go with 1952 and my guess is that Jordi Pujol is correct.

In 1953 Robert Reisner and Dave Lambert started featuring jazz at the Open Door in Greenwich Village and for a while it became a home-from-home for Don Joseph and his friends. Tony Fruscella, Brew Moore, Ronnie Singer and Freddie Gruber formed the resident band and sitting-in was not only welcomed but encouraged. Occasionally some of the stars of the day were featured like Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus and Roy Haynes but not too often because remuneration was probably more generous elsewhere. There is a famous photo of them performing at the Open Door to be found in Ken Vail’s book. Bill Triglia, Phil Woods, Red Mitchell, Teddy Kotick, Nick Stabulas, Al Levitt and Art Mardigan were usually to be found there along with Don who liked to perform Bach duets with Fruscella during the intervals. In Reisner’s book Bird – The Legend Of Charlie Parker bassist Ted Wald says, “The summer of 1953 was wonderful. Those of us who lived in the Village got to play with Bird almost every day either at the Open Door or at Sheri Martinelli’s pad on 3rd. Avenue and 4th Street. Don Joseph and Bird used to sound nutty together”. (Ms. Martinelli was a celebrated painter and a poet.) Parker visited Don in his room just before he died in March 1955.

In Bill Crow’s Birdland To Broadway he relates the following anecdote which sums up Don’s attitude to drummers. “Don Joseph and I were playing with Brew Moore at the Open Door. A couple of young drummers were waiting their chance to sit-in. When one of them took over and began pouring on the fire and brimstone, Don gave him a pained look and asked me, “Whatever happened to that other drummer we had all nice and tired out?” 

Jack Kerouac and Alan Ginsberg were occasionally in attendance at the Open Door and Kerouac mentions Don and Tony Fruscella in his book Lonesome Traveler. This is what he says about Don, “Let’s go see if we can find Don Joseph… (he’s) a terrific cornet player who wanders around the Village with his little moustache and his arms hangin’ at the sides with the cornet which creaks when he plays softly, nay whispers, the greatest sweetest cornet since Bix and more. He stands at the jukebox in the bar and plays with the music for a beer. He looks like a handsome movie actor. He’s the great, super glamorous secret Bobby Hackett of the jazz world”. Another Greenwich Village venue that Don played was the Nut Club where Phil Woods held court with Jon Eardley, Teddy Kotick, Nick Stabulas and either George Syran or Gil Evans. It was a strip club and Phil once told me, “Don was a lovely player who was very close to Gerry Mulligan. He was a brilliant man, very articulate and very well-read into Hemingway, Faulkner and Thomas Wolfe. He was quite an imbiber though and mad as a hatter”. I mentioned this to Bill Crow recently who said, “I wouldn’t call Don mad, just eccentric with a wicked sense of humour”.

It may surprise some readers to learn that jazz musicians like Phil Woods and Gil Evans would work in strip-clubs but they were often the first port-of-call when other work was scarce. Brew Moore played in burlesque clubs in Memphis, New Orleans and Brooklyn. He once said that he was twenty one before he saw a naked woman from the front. Zoot Sims too was no stranger to the scene and Dave Schildkraut worked in a strip club on New York’s 52nd. Street. Herb and Lorraine Geller, Joe Maini, Lawrence Marable and Philly Joe Jones all worked regularly at the notorious Duffy’s Gaiety near Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles. Lenny Bruce was the M.C. and his wife Hot Honey Harlow did the stripping.

Years ago John Williams vividly described both Tony Fruscella and Don Joseph to me, “During World War II when many of the good musicians were in the service, guys that could really play like Don were in great demand. He played with all the big bands that came to New York at places like the Paramount Theatre in Times Square. The joke became that the bands would change at the Paramount but Don would still be in the same chair because he was such an excellent player all the bandleaders wanted him. Unfortunately he took some sort of a downhill turn at the end of the forties possibly through drugs and he became the bad boy on the block although he could still play beautifully. He would show up at jam sessions at places like Nola’s and he would be welcome but he never had a dollar in his pocket. He always seemed to be down and out and on the take and his reputation became so bad that he couldn’t get any work with the bands. He wasn’t even allowed in our musicians’ bar Charlie’s Tavern because he had abused the privileges there so much that Charlie would have one of the bartenders throw him out if he tried to get in. He used to come to the front door and shout. ‘Hey Charlie it’s me Don Joseph. I’m banned from bars and I’m barred from bands!’

“He and Tony Fruscella were two of a kind and needless to say they were close friends. They used to hang out and play duets together and they would go to the same jam sessions. Anyway the three of us were going to play at a session in Greenwich Village so we jumped in a cab and as I was the only one who had any money and I didn’t have much, I just knew I was going to pick up the tab. What I remember most is sitting there absolutely enthralled while these two lame-brained but incredibly talented musicians sang two-part Bach fugues all the way to the Village. That was Tony Fruscella and that was Don Joseph”. Michael Morreale told me that Don had an apartment around this time near the corner of Morton Street and 7th. Avenue. Tony Fruscella helped him and his family move in although they were both in Don’s words, ‘Whacked out of our minds!’

Pianist Jack Reilly’s blog reveals the following, “Don Joseph was a rare and brilliant improviser. I had the joy of knowing and playing with him at local Staten Island clubs and jam sessions in 1954 when I was paying my ‘dues’. We played shows, lounges, weddings, dances – you name it. At Crochitos on South Beach they hired comedians, dancers, strippers and singers on week-ends. We were there for about six months and between the shows we played jazz. He had an interest in literature, especially Shakespeare and at the drop of a hat he would stand up on stage and recite long passages from memory in that deep Orson Wellsian-voice with the conviction of a seasoned Shakespearian actor. He had us spellbound and dizzy with laughter as he added his own interpretations to the Bard. He became clean and healthy in the latter days of his life and was very content to live in relative seclusion with his trumpet and books on Staten Island. Don is always with me”.

Around this time Bill Crow was rehearsing with the Jerry Wald band at Nola’s for a booking at the Embers. Don Joseph had worked with Wald back in the forties but they had parted on less than friendly terms. He came to visit with the musicians during a break and when the rehearsal re-started he moved to the door and shouted, “Hello Jerry. I just dropped by to say that I wouldn’t work for you again for three hundred dollars a week.” He left, then the door re-opened - “Make that four hundred!”

In 1954 he recorded four titles with Art Mardigan’s sextet along with some other Open Door regulars plus trombonist Milt Gold who was with Stan Kenton at the time. Joseph is inspired on a buoyant, foot-tapping session featuring Al Cohn’s heavy-duty tenor together with the rhythmic propulsion of John Williams on piano. The following year Mulligan wanted him for the sextet he was forming with Bob Brookmeyer and Zoot Sims. He didn’t turn up for the rehearsals so Idrees Sulieman was hired who was later replaced by Jon Eardley. His two recordings in 1957 reveal what might have been if only Don could have controlled those inner demons because his performances on both reveal an artist of uncommon sensitivity. In April that year Gerry Mulligan recorded Mullenium which featured some of his new big band charts. Years later when I asked him about the date he still remembered that “Don played beautifully on All The Things You Are”. The arrangement is also notable for the leader’s delicate reconstruction of the theme in the last chorus. Bill Crow told me an amusing story about the recording. Apparently Don did not have a horn at the time so Mulligan loaned him a flugelhorn that someone had given him. When the date was over Gerry forgot to ask him to give it back. About a week later he got an envelope in the mail containing a pawn ticket with a note that just said ‘Sorry’. Gerry’s reaction to Bill was, “Well that just shows Don still loves me or he would have sold the pawn ticket”. Don’s behaviour might be explained by the fact that he was apparently a hard alcoholic at the time.

Three months later he was on Chuck Wayne’s String Fever session. Wayne who was in the vanguard of post Charlie Christian guitarists had just completed a three year stint with George Shearing’s quintet. Don’s fellow Staten Islander Caesar DiMauro played some delightful Prez-inspired tenor and on some titles Gene Quill’s explosive alto is added. Don has some exquisite ballad readings on Embraceable You and Lover Man. Michael Morreale told me that Chuck Wayne might have had a similar experience to Mulligan’s regarding an unreturned instrument.

Don Joseph frequently left the jazz scene for lengthy periods because he just did not feel like playing. Larry Kart told me that he had a phobia about travelling from Staten Island to New York City either by car, over the bridge or the subway which of course made playing with his peers there difficult after his Open Door days. He did play with local Staten Island musicians at dances and lounges although his behaviour remained unconventional. Michael Morreale told me about a club date where the leader was annoyed because he had turned up in a tuxedo and brown shoes. Don’s solution was to play the gig with his shoes off. Near the end of the evening on another booking the leader was asked if the band would play over-time. “Fuck no” screamed Don. Michael often performed with him along with Turk Van lake where Don would surprise audiences as well as the band by eloquently delivering passages from Shakespeare. He was a huge admirer incidentally of Sir Laurence Olivier.

He went to AA and stopped drinking in 1969 remaining sober until the end. He had his last methadone hit in1981. He became an assistant band director at Farrell High School and sometimes he would sit outside the band-room playing bop licks on an Eb alto horn which amused all the students. Michael told me that he was, “a big fan of Eddie Sauter. He also spoke well of Artie Shaw whose attitude to the music business he may have shared. He usually liked quiet drummers but he did say once that Art Blakey was the best he played with”.  Apart from his literary interests he was also a boxing fan numbering Roberto Duran and Benny Leonard among his favourites. Eventually he became a Mormon which gave him comfort and friends who helped him. He contributed to the religion by recording readings in a deep voice rich with resonance.

His last recording took place in 1984. Bob Sunenblick of Uptown Records was impressed when he heard him at a Staten Island club called Cana in a group led by local legend Caesar DiMauro. Bob offered him $2000.00 for the date. The money was certainly attractive although he was never totally comfortable playing after he had false teeth fitted. He selected some old friends from his Open Door days for the session like Al Cohn, Bill Triglia and Red Mitchell. He played a borrowed cornet and when asked who he wanted on drums he said, “Just someone who can play quiet on brushes” so Joey Baron was hired. 

Don Joseph passed away on 12 March 1994. Two Mormon elders were with him at the end.”

As leader
One Of A Kind – Uptown Productions (UP27.23)

As Sideman
Lucky Millinder And His Orchestra (Classics (F) 1173 CD
Gene Roland Orchestra – The Band That Never Was (Philology W845 – 2 CD.
Buddy DeFranco (Classics 1445 CD)
Gerry Mulligan – Mullenium (Columbia/Legacy CK 65678)
Chuck Wayne – String Fever (Euphoria 180)
A Tribute To The Jazz Poetry Of Don Joseph – Fresh Sound Records FSR-CD 919) 
The Fresh Sound CD includes three titles with Dave Schildkraut.

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