A Fireside Chat With Bud Shank
“ You can?t be the best flute player and the best alto saxophone player no matter how hard you try. There are not enough hours in the day. ”
Is Bud Shank West Coast cool jazz? Providing you know what the hell 'cool jazz' is (and I don't), I find everything that Shank plays to be cool. Shank's alto is hip, but alas, I have a hidden agenda. I am campaigning here and now to convince Shank to play the flute once more. Shank has, as you will find below ' and if you know and follow his career and records ' since put down the flute to concentrate on the alto saxophone. And although I respect Shank's decision as his own and as an artist, I still lament not being able to hear his beautiful flute playing.
So here is the bus to get Shank to play flute once more. I know I have Bill Mays onboard. Question is, do I have you? Read on folks and perhaps you too will be convinced, as I present, Mr. Bud Shank, unedited and in his own words.
Fred Jung: Let's start from the beginning.
Bud Shank: That is a good question, Fred, because my family was really not musical. I grew up on a farm in Ohio and the only exposure I had to anything decent musically was on the radio and I quickly latched onto Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman even before I was ten years old and when I got to ten, this country school that I went to was forming a band and I told my father that I wanted a clarinet and he said, 'You want a what?' I wanted to tryout for the band and he said, 'OK.' I started taking lessons from the band instructor.
Again, this was a music program starting from scratch. Four weeks later, they had me in downtown Dayton doing a recital. It went from there. By the time I was twelve, I was more into the jazz scene and wanted an alto saxophone and it went from there. I knew at that time that I was going to be a professional musician, which is common among most of the guys that make it as pros. You know at an early age that this is what they were going to do.
FJ: Perhaps if you had not taken the fork in the road to the road less traveled, do you think you would have taken over the family farm?
BS: No, my brother was an attorney and I probably would have gone that route. I am the first guy in my family for a couple generations that did not graduate from college [laughs]. In fact, when I quit school, I was at the University of North Carolina and quit in my third year. And my father had been in the service and he and my mother were back on the farm, and I hitchhiked a ride back there from North Carolina and said that I wanted to go to Los Angeles.
They said that I could go to Los Angeles if I enrolled at USC and went back to school and I said, 'OK.' I got another free ride and went to Los Angeles and registered at USC. This was 1946 and hundreds and hundreds of GIs were getting out of the Army and trying to get into schools, so the schools were very crowded. I had a course in trigonometry at the University of North Carolina which I failed because I hated it and when USC officials looked at that, they said, 'You're rejected,' and I said, 'Whoopie!'
It worked out great and then I started parking cars and painting houses to survive because four of us moved into a one room apartment. There were four of us living in there. It was my exposure to LA, and I loved it, and it went from there.
FJ: Did you have to hustle long before you started making a name for yourself?
BS: That took a while. I just made myself available and exposed myself, free big band rehearsals or any chance there was a club to play jazz in, which at that time was very rare in LA. Later on it changed, but at that time, it was very rare.
My first break was with Charlie Barnett, which was the beginning of '47, after I had only been in LA five, six months. That was my first chance to do something. But I got the job on tenor saxophone, so I could play Charlie Barnett's solos when he was off the stand, which was most of the time. He was at the bar or hosting some chick or something.
When we got to New York, the lead alto player quit and went back to LA and I asked Charlie if I could play lead alto in his band and he said, 'Yeah.' I went down on 48th Street, where all the music stores were, and bought an alto saxophone, and I have been an alto saxophonist ever since. The whole thing is when an opportunity presents itself, you have to be there and take it.
I am basically not an aggressive person. I am basically quiet, at least I was in my youth. The fact that I went up to Charlie and asked was a huge thing for me. I stayed with Barnett's band up through the beginning of '49 and went back to LA and stayed there.
A lot of jam sessions were going on then. You could play almost any night of the week if you wanted to. In doing that, I met all the guys in Stan Kenton's band. Stan had taken a year off in 1949 and all the guys that had been on that band were in Los Angeles, Bud Childers, Shelly Manne, Art Pepper, Bob Cooper, all those guys and I had a chance to play with them and met them.