Bud Shank: A Voice for the Ages
I'll always have fond memories of the 2007 Prescott (Arizona) Jazz Summit, as it was the last time I had the great pleasure of seeing and hearing the phenomenal alto saxophonist Bud Shank doing what he did best: enfolding an entire audience in the palm of his hand with a seemingly endless stream of irrepressible notes and phrases that arose from his heart and soul and cascaded gracefully through the bell of his horn.
As Shank was at the time recovering from a serious illness, there was talk among those at the event that he might not be able to perform. But at the appointed hour the lights were dimmed and Shank walked slowly onstage, seated himself on a high stool in front of a rhythm section, fastened his alto to its strap and started to play. For the next hour and a quarter the auditorium was his sanctuary, his home away from home. As I later wrote of that memorable occasion: "Even though on oxygen owing to a recent illness, Shank showed no signs of fatigue or shortness of breath as he ingeniously designed one remarkable solo after another, reaffirming his supremacy after more than half a century at the top of his game. The second half of the concert belonged to Shank, and it was indeed a marvelous way to end the evening." I also noted that even though I couldn't recall every tune he had played (and the absence of lighting thwarted note-taking), they included the standards "Night and Day," "The Touch of Your Lips," "I Can't Get Started," "Here's That Rainy Day" and "The Night Has a Thousand Eyes." In Shank's masterful hands, each one gleamed like a precious gemstone.
As you've no doubt heard, Bud Shank passed away on April 2, 2009, at age eighty-two, leaving for our continuing enjoyment a legacy of musical excellence that spanned nearly six decades. As a testament to his endurance, Shank died one day after returning home to Tucson, Arizona, from a recording date in Los Angeles. No credible jazz hall of fame would be complete without his name enshrined there. While many remember him as one of the architects of "West Coast Jazz," Shank, who was born in Dayton, Ohio, received his higher education in North Carolina and moved to California out of necessity, never thought of himself as a representative of a defined geographical area, only a jazz musician playing the way he felt. Being called a "West Coast" musician "irritates the hell out of me," he said in Graham Carter's splendid documentary Against the Tide: Portrait of a Jazz Legend.
Shank started playing clarinet at age ten (owing to the influence of Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman), switched to tenor sax two years later, and to alto while playing in Charlie Barnet's orchestra in 1948 when he was only twenty-two. In 1949 Shank left Alvino Rey's band to join Stan Kenton's newly formed Innovations in Modern Music Orchestra, staying for more than two years before moving on to become a member of bassist Howard Rumsey's Lighthouse All-Stars. He was joined there by other members of the Kenton orchestra including trumpeters Shorty Rogers and Maynard Ferguson, tenor saxophonist Bob Cooper, trombonist Frank Rosolino and drummer Shelly Manne. While there, Shank and Cooper began playing duets as a lark, with Shank on flute and Cooper on oboe. Audiences were entranced, and the unorthodox pairing led to a best-selling album and many guest appearances on television and elsewhere.
In 1954, Shank teamed with another Kenton alumnus, guitarist Laurindo Almeida, and their two Brazilliance albums foreshadowed the bossa nova craze that swept the country nearly a decade later. Shank's ability to double on flute (his memorable solo on "California Dreamin'" by the Mamas and the Papas is still heard today) enabled him to disband his quartet (which had recorded for the World Pacific and Pacific Jazz labels from 1956-63) and place jazz on the back burner while he worked for top wages from 1963 to the mid-1980s as a first-call Hollywood studio musician. With Rogers' help he had also become a writer, scoring the surfing films Slippery When Wet (1958) and Barefoot Adventure (1960) as well as an early Robert Redford film, War Hunt (1962). In 1974, Shank and Almeida formed the L.A. Four with bassist Ray Brown and drummer Jeff Hamilton, recording half a dozen well-received albums for Concord Records. After tiring of studio work, he teamed again with Rogers, Cooper and others in a newly revived version of the Lighthouse All-Stars. He had gradually abandoned the flute and clarinet, choosing to play alto exclusively for the last decades of his life.