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Mort Weiss: Sets Sail With Clarinet

By Published: December 18, 2006
The Weiss saga started with him taking classical lessons as a youngster. He was born in Pennsylvania, but moved to the Los Angeles area where he's been based since (currently in San Clemente). Among his teachers was Antonio Remondi, a clarinetist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. During his years in high school, he was a Dixieland fan. His reputation got around and appeared as a soloist in a number of live TV performances and playing in local bands. Among the groups he played with was the Freddie Martin Orchestra with singer Merv Griffin. It also had Frank Morgan on alto sax.

"There was a resurgence of Dixieland in 1947 and I loved Dixieland, and still do. A friend said, 'Did you ever hear this?' It was Jazz at the Philharmonic (Verve, 1994). Illinois Jacquet, Flip Phillips, playing "Perdido. It just knocked me out. Then there were two guys at the high school where I went and they said, 'You gotta hear this.' It was Bird. For about fifteen seconds I had no idea what I was listening to. It was like music from another planet. All of a sudden I understood what was happening. It was an epiphany. It screwed up my life. I was instantly hooked.

"They didn't have all these play-along jazz records like they have today. I practiced. I was studying with the second clarinetist with the LA Philharmonic [Remondi]. He knew, and I knew, that I wasn't going to be a classical clarinetist, but the chops were there. I used to practice three and four hours a day as a kid. Then listen to all the Buddy DeFranco I could, which was on MGM Records. Then he came to town and my parents took me to see him. The rhythm section was Art Blakey [drums], Curley Russell, bass, and Sonny Clark on piano and Buddy. Even today, that's insane. That's what I wanted to do with my life, says Weiss.

He practiced intensely to pick up the nuances of the new music and become proficient in the language of bebop. DeFranco was his main man, but he also listened to everyone around, Lester Young, San Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis. But he was drafted into the Army in 1954, where he played tenor sax in an Army band. After that, he kept up with the sax for some time, leaving the behind the clarinet.

"I was working Vegas and all that with the tenor sax on shows and so on. Nobody hired clarinet players in jazz then, and they don't today. The instrument fell out of vogue when Bird hit the scene. The clarinet doesn't lend itself, says Weiss. "Buddy DeFranco, who I have a phone relationship these days, I'm happy to say; he's always been my hero. He said you have to abuse the clarinet to play jazz on it. You have three-and-a-half working octaves and every note is fingered different in every octave. It didn't lend itself. It was the antithesis. In the swing era in jazz it was like rock guitar today. Then they did a 180- degree turn when Bird hit it, harmonically and rhythmically.

Weiss never took a lesson on sax, but took to it well. Though his heart was with the clarinet, "my bucks were made with tenor sax. He still practiced clarinet like hell, including in the taxi. "I'd sit there at two o'clock in the morning in a 1958 Plymouth with no heat, practicing, man. When I look back, talk about obsessive compulsiveness, which one has to have. But he's proud of it. At the funeral of a friend about a year ago, "somebody came up to me and said, 'You're the guy we used to see always carrying a clarinet.' That's right. Sometimes I was locked out of where I lived because I didn't pay the rent, but I always carried the clarinet with me. Kind of a sad story now I think about it, he says with a soft chuckle. "Phew! But I did learn how to play some ballads, though. I wouldn't recommend the school to anybody.

The "school, was the school of hard knocks.

"I got into the thing with the drinking and the pill taking and the whole shot, man. Psychologically, my life just went into the toilet like almost everybody goes. I didn't handle it very well. I ended up literally in a padded cell, Weiss says without pity or sadness. It was what it was. And he's past it.

"Standing in a padded cell in downtown Los Angeles in the police building, it ain't joy, brother. I'm standing there naked in a padded cell in the '60s, all of a sudden I had this epiphany. I'm not a particularly religious person, but I would call it some sort of a religious experience. I said, 'You know, Mort? You're doing something wrong.' [laughs] It caught my attention. 'I think I better make a 180-degree course change.' And that was the beginning. I put the horns down, everything down.

"I put it down when I was thirty years old. I was consuming like a fifth of vodka day, if I had the money. If not, it would be cheap wine. Three packs of Salems, and about 25 grams of Benzedrine. Cocaine wasn't available then, thank goodness. I never stuck a needle in my arm because I knew I would like it. I didn't need that.

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