Sunday, May 15, 2022

CHARLIE VENTURA REMEMBERED by Gordon Jack [From the Archives]

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

Gordon Jack’s remembrance of saxophonist Charlie Ventura first appeared in the December 2013 edition of JazzJournal. The magazine’s website is

Gordon is the author of Fifties Jazz Talk: An Oral Retrospective [LanhamMaryland: The Scarecrow Press, 2004].

As always, the editorial staff at JazzProfiles is very grateful to him for allowing us the opportunity to share his fine writing about Jazz musicians with the readers of this blog.

© -Gordon Jack/JazzJournal, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“The list of Italian-American tenor players who have made contributions to the music is a long and impressive one. A partial group would include Carmen Leggio, Joe Lovano, Don Menza, Vido Musso, Salvatore Nistico, Antonio Pestritto (Tony Pastor), Joseph Filipelli (Flip Phillips) and Charlie Venturo who changed his name to Ventura.

Charlie Ventura who was the fourth of 13 children was born in Philadelphia on December 2nd. 1916 and three of his brothers – Ben, Ernie and Pete – all became professional musicians. Initially studying guitar he taught himself to play the tenor after hearing Chu Berry with Cab Calloway’s orchestra. In 1941 he joined the house band at the Downbeat club performing there with Red Rodney, Buddy DeFranco and his good friend Bill Harris. Roy Eldridge who was playing at the famous Earle Theatre nearby sat in one night and was so impressed he recommended Charlie to Gene Krupa. He joined the band in late 1942 at the State Theatre in HartfordConnecticut and was helped by his colleagues in the section because his sight-reading at the time was a little below par. “They treated me royally” he was to say later. He was not allocated any solos until one night at the Meadowbrook club in New Jersey, Eldridge who had become a big fan asked Krupa to let him play something. The leader was so pleased with what he heard that Ventura together with the trumpeter soon became one of the most heavily featured soloists in the band. Unfortunately in May 1943 when they were appearing at the Golden Gate Theatre in San Francisco the leader was convicted on a drugs possession charge forcing him to disband temporarily.

Krupa was cleared on appeal and reformed in June 1944 when he again recruited Ventura together with Don Fagerquist, Joe Triscari, Teddy Napoleon and singer Buddy Stewart. The band performed forward-looking charts by Ed Finckel, George Williams and the young Gerry Mulligan who was added to the arranging team a little later.  By now his mature virtuoso approach was in full bloom - still inspired by Chu Berry - but on up tempo numbers at which he excelled there was some Ben Webster and perhaps a hint of Illinois Jacquet. He can be heard on titles like Leave Us Leap, Calling Dr. Gillespie, Blue Lou, I’ll Never Be The Same, It’s Up To You and Lover. Pretty much the star of the show he was also featured in a band within a band – Gene’s trio with Teddy Napoleon - on bravura performances of 10, Ritchie Drive (Krupa’s address in Yonkers), Wire Brush Stomp, Body And Soul and the hugely popular Dark Eyes which became Charlie’s calling-card for years. An indication of things to come with his own Bop For The People group can be heard on What’s This which has vocalists Buddy Stewart and Dave Lambert in an extended scat routine. (Properbox 1101-1104).

By now his ability had been acknowledged by the wider public when he won the 1945 Downbeat poll on tenor followed by Esquire magazine’s New Star Award a year later. His colleagues too knew just how good he was. Red Rodney told Ira Gitler in his book Swing to Bop – “Charlie Ventura was a great, great tenor player.”

In 1945 he briefly joined JATP when he appeared in Los Angeles with Howard McGhee, Joe Guy and Illinois Jacquet performing How High the Moon and Lady be Good. That was the year he made his debut as a leader with Howard McGhee producing a fine ballad reading of Ghost of a Chance for Sunset - a small local label. A few months later he was again in the studio this time for Savoy with his own quartet featuring Arnold Ross, John Levy and Specs Powell. Charlie Comes On has some exciting call and response passages with Powell, typical of his work with Gene Krupa and he also revisits his hit Dark EyesJack Pot is an up tempo theme-less romp based on that old jam session favourite Stompin’ at the Savoy which finds Ventura particularly inspired (Properbox 1261-1264).

Early in 1947 he was booked for two months at the Three Deuces in New York where he took over from Georgie Auld’s sextet. He had Ralph Burns, Chubby Jackson, Dave Tough and the irrepressible Bill Harris with him who were all available because Woody Herman had just disbanded the First Herd. Jackson had left and been replaced by Bob Leininger when Jerry Newman recorded twelve titles at the club which have subsequently appeared on the HighNote label. Dave Tough makes an important contribution with his relaxed and unhurried approach to the drums, brilliantly adapting his big band approach to the demands of Ventura’s small group. Free of the need to grandstand which was sometimes necessary when he appeared with Krupa, the leader has several telling moments especially on a moving version of The Man I Love (HCD 7066).

That restraint is also apparent a few months later on a booking at Chicago’s Hotel Sherman with Kai Winding. Only four titles have been released on CD and a bonus is the performance of vocalist Buddy Stewart a colleague from the Krupa band. He won Downbeat’s award as a new star in 1948 and can be heard on Pennies From Heaven, Eleven Sixty and East of Suez (Properbox 1261-1264).The latter co-composed by Lou Stein and Ventura became something of a hit thanks to regular air-play by Symphony Sid Torin. Eleven Sixty finds Stewart singing wordlessly in unison with the horns much as Jackie Cain and Roy Kral were to do later with Charlie’s famous eight piece group. The vocalist whose sister was married to Stan Getz was destined for a very bright future but he was killed in a car accident in New Mexico in 1950. The jazz community held a benefit for his family at Birdland and Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Lester Young, Ella Fitzgerald, John Coltrane, Harry Belafonte and Charlie Ventura were just a few of the stars who participated in a six hour event.

In 1948 Charlie formed a group with his brothers (Ben - baritone, Ernie – tenor, Pete - trumpet) for a series of club dates at Chicago’s Blue NoteTootie’s Mayfair in Kansas City and Club Bengazie in Washington D.C.  Later that year he organised the small band he is most associated with – Bop For The People - with Boots Mussulli, Norman Faye (soon replaced by Conte Candoli), Bennie Green, Roy Kral, Jackie Cain, Kenny O’Brien, and the nineteen year old Ed Shaughnessy. (Jackie Cain and Shaughnessy were to make their recording debuts with Ventura). The band broke attendance records at the Royal Roost but with Green and the leader as primary soloists it was anything but a hard-core bebop group. They were both sympathetic to the new harmonic language but their rhythmic approach – and this is not a criticism – still reflected the earlier swing era. This made for a stimulating contrast with Mussulli, Candoli and Kral who took their inspiration exclusively from the Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie school both harmonically and rhythmically.

Kral did most of the writing and the clever blending of the horns with Jackie and Roy’s voices gave the ensemble its unique appeal. It lasted nearly a year recording an impressive body of work and titles like Lullaby In Rhythm, ‘Deed I Do, East Of Suez, High On An Open Mike, Birdland and Euphoria were excellent examples of early vocalese.  Incidentally, Gene Roland’s Birdland is a blues with a Honeysuckle Rose bridge - not to be confused with the well- known Joe Zawinul original of the same name. Euphoria is an intriguing contrafact of S’Wonderful.  Even novelty numbers like Barney Google, Yankee Clipper (a hymn to Joe DiMaggio) and their brilliant reconstruction of I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles have a high level of musicality. Occasionally Charlie switched to the baritone and his full, rich sound reminiscent of Leo Parker is particularly impressive on If I Had You. Their May 1949 Pasadena concert where they shared the stage with Erroll Garner, Roy Eldridge, Teddy Edwards and Jimmy Witherspoon is still available on Properbox 1261-1264 and is rightly considered to be a classic. In 2006 Jazzwise asked John Surman to nominate the record that “Changed his life” as a young musician. He chose Ventura’s Pasadena concert which may surprise some members of the jazz police.

In 1948 Downbeat voted Bop For The People the number one small group in jazz. The following year they won the Orchestra World and Metronome polls with Ventura coming top in Metronome’s tenor section. This represented the pinnacle of Charlie Ventura’s career because never again was he to enjoy so much popular success. 1950 heralded the arrival of Stan Getz as a perennial Downbeat poll winner and of course the fifties saw a new school of jazz emerging on the west coast with an emphasis on cool, understated playing. Critics seemed to decide Charlie’s earthy more rhapsodic approach was no longer relevant

He did keep busy. In December 1950 he opened his own club – Ventura’s Plantation – in Lidenwald , New Jersey not far from Philadelphia. Initially he worked with a quintet featuring Conte Candoli and a little later he played there with Teddy Napoleon, Chubby Jackson and Buddy Rich who were known as The Big Four. The club survived until 1954 when Charlie’s quartet with Mary Ann McCall was booked on a nationwide tour called “A Festival Of Modern American Music” with Stan Kenton, Shorty Rogers and Art Tatum. After that he moved around the country appearing mostly as a single in MinneapolisAtlantic CityDenver (working there with Johnny Smith), and WindsorConnecticut.  A good example of his mid- fifties work can be found on High On An Open Mike which has some of his specialities like Euphoria, East Of Suez and Dark Eyes together with two versions of Bernie’s Tune and a poignant alto statement on Cry Me A River (Fresh Sound Records FSR-CD 314). Peter Ind worked with him at the Colonial Tavern in Toronto and in a JJI interview (June 1996) he told me,” Charlie was easy-going and very pleasant. Like most of the guys from that earlier generation he was less demanding and very appreciative.”

In the late fifties Ventura moved to Las Vegas often appearing at the Tropicana and the Thunderbird Lounge with Carl Fontana. One night in 1958 at the Copa Room at the Sands he fell off the stage, breaking five ribs. Charlie, together with Fontana and Margaret Whiting had been booked for a Stars Of Jazz broadcast in Los Angeles so Vido Musso took his place. I believe he also worked in Vegas with Jackie Gleason but I have been unable to confirm this although they often recorded together. In the sixties he was usually to be found at the Metropole in NYC with Gene Krupa. Kenny Berger who heard him there told me, “I used to love it when he’d play Body And Soul on the bass saxophone… he sounded great.” From 1972 to 1975 he worked as a disc-jockey on a radio station in Camden New Jersey and on one notable occasion in 1974 he performed with Teddy Wilson at Michael’s Pub in NYC. Health difficulties and severe dental problems began to restrict his performances until he moved eventually to Florida to live with his brother Ben where he earned a living repairing instruments.

Stan Levey who worked with him at the Spotlight club in the forties told me in a JJI interview (September 1999) “Charlie was straight down the middle and a nice guy but over the years he got taken for a ride and ended up broke.” The last word though on this unsung giant of the tenor who died on the 17th. January 1992 should come from Conte Candoli who told me, “Charlie Ventura was one of the greatest sax players who ever lived. He was very under-rated but not by musicians who knew how great he was.””

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