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.
So in the end of '49, Stan decided to form an orchestra. It was a jazz band plus about twenty strings, a couple French horns and a tuba, extra percussion and a saxophone section needed to double and I had just started to play flute. When I left Dayton for LA, I borrowed a hundred bucks from my father and bought a flute. One of my roommates was a wannabe flautist, but he had money to take lessons, so when he came back I would have him tell me what the teacher told him and that is how I first got started on the thing.
The guys in Stan's band brought him down to hear me play and he liked what he heard, but I needed to play flute, so I woodshedded constantly for two weeks and got myself to where I was fairly presentable on the instrument and did the audition. Flute-playing saxophone players were very rare in those days and I didn't have much competition, but I got the job and that was what was important. That started a two and a half year association that was probably one of the most important in my life, working for Stan and meeting those guys.
FJ: Why has the Kenton band had a following that is really unparalleled in jazz?
BS: Yes, you are right. The music was very thrilling because it was loud and ponderous. It wasn't swing. Stan's band started to swing in the middle Fifties and I was off doing other things by then. His presentation, it was always thrilling to see. He always had screaming trumpet players, first Buddy Childers and then Maynard Ferguson. There was always excitement and he stood up in front of the band and he was six foot five.
He conducted the band and it was a wild scene. This guy looked like a stork in front of this band. It was visually entertaining and musically entertaining. Nobody ever asked me this question before. I am making this up as I go along here [laughs]. There was also a lot of comedy in the band and he made sure that anybody that had any comic abilities got a chance to make a fool of themselves.
In between, we did the regular jazz band and they were all booked as dances, but we would play a dance set for an hour and take an intermission and then play a concert set for another hour. Then we would play a dance set at the end of the thing. Most of the people that follow Kenton now were probably teenagers in those years. They remember all those kinds of thing.
You are right, especially in England and here in the United States, there are still Kenton tributes going on all the time. I haven't done one recently, but I was going to London almost every year to do one.
FJ: Let's touch on your association with Bob Cooper.
BS: I met Bob in '49 in jam sessions. We became very close friends at that time and he was one of the guys that was very instrumental in getting me on the Kenton band. We remained friends until he died. I spent, I don't know how many times, going over their house for dinner. We were extremely close and with his wife June Christy also.
When I got married, it was a foursome. I had so much respect for him. When Christy died, he came apart and he became very reclusive. He died of a heart attack, but I think he died of a broken heart. I miss him. He was a great player and great writer. He was a much greater writer than people realized. He never pushed himself as a composer/arranger. He wrote arrangements quietly for Christy. He did a lot of things for me because I was not a writer in those days. We went to Europe twice I think and one time, we went to Africa together with a rhythm section.
It was a great association and like I said before, I miss him.
FJ: How about Chet Baker?
BS: Chet Baker was a strange case. I always got along well with him. There are other people who didn't. The only problem I had with Chet is I would go for a couple of years and not see him and every time I would see him, the first thing he would say is 'loan me twenty dollars,' which I never saw again.
He had a lot of notoriety and a lot of fame at an early age, more than he could handle and that is why I think he took the road to avail all that and he did it so violently and so much that he was in jail in Italy and he was about to be the next James Dean. They were about to make a movie star out of him. That I how far he got up in the popularity kind of thing and he blew it all because he couldn't face it.
All he wanted to be was just a player. He would go through periods when he was living in Europe when he would take the Concord to fly back to New York. He was really up there. Italians were really serious about him and that is why he was in Italy when he got thrown in the slammer for a year.
FJ: Did his polarized personality become tame when he was on the bandstand?
BS: Yeah, I guess so. I always got along well with him. We had several occasions to play together in clubs and a lot of records we did together. Yeah, when he had the horn nearby, he was a different person. That was the most important thing and the musicians around him were important.
He recorded a lot of stuff in Europe, things that are still coming out with rhythm sections from a local town in Europe that were really not good, but they were good when he got through with them. He made them sound good. He was such a marvelous player and threw his life away. I don't think he could face it, face the notoriety that comes with that type of fame.
FJ: And Ray Brown?
BS: Ray, I first met after he left Oscar's trio. In the early '60s he came out to Los Angeles, just when jazz music was going down the toilet and most of us that had been in LA were starting to do a lot of studio work. Film composers were starting to realize that jazz musicians did excellent film scores, so I first met Ray then. We became very friendly and I associated with him and we played together a lot doing film scores.
Around 1974, we had lunch together and both of us said that we were really bored doing this ' which we were ' and about that time, a guy asked Laurindo Almeida... I had made some records with Laurindo, and the guy asked Laurindo if he would put that band back together and do a concert for him. Ray and Laurindo had been doing some duo things in a tiny little club on the Sunset strip and they called me and then we called Chuck Flores, who had been the drummer with Laurindo and I on the record.
We did the concert and Ray and I were working together on a film and we had lunch together and one of us said that we should explore this. We sensed interest again in jazz music as we knew it and so why don't we put this group together. We got a job in Australia and Ray, myself, Laurindo and Shelly Manne went to Australia and came back and went to Mexico City and came back to LA and we were working at Shelly's club. Shelly still had the Manne Hole.
I knew Laurindo better than any of them and I knew no matter what happened that Laurindo would always think it was his band, so let's call it the LA 4 and the rest of the world will think it is the Los Angeles 4 and Laurindo will think it is the Laurindo Almeida 4. And we got away with it for ten years (laughing).
And we did everything for him. He didn't have to do a thing. He couldn't do anything. All he wanted to do was sit on his stool and play the guitar. Ray did all the booking. I took care of all the finances. By this time, Shelly decided he couldn't travel anymore, so Jeff Hamilton came with us. He was in charge of the music and getting the sets together. We just let Laurindo do his thing and it worked out fine for a while.
It was a classical musician and three jazz musicians, which theoretically couldn't work, but we made it work for eight years. We did a lot of classical things. We did a lot of samba things because that is what Laurindo did best. Straight-ahead jazz things we couldn't do unless we told Laurindo not to play. By 1983, Ray and I looked at each other and said that we had taken this as far as it can go. We better quit and so we broke it up.
FJ: That band did quite a few recordings for Carl Jefferson's Concord label.
BS: Oh, yeah. In fact, I used to fly up to have lunch with him. He was great to work for. He loved the music and I had a lot of respect for him. We had a falling out. A whole bunch of people had a falling out with him later on. He was a great man. I had much respect for him.
FJ: You had a well known association with Richard Bock's Pacific Jazz label, noted as 'cool jazz.' Do you play 'cool jazz'?
BS: That is what I did. We were doing Monday nights at the Haig when Gerry and Chet were there during the rest of the week, and Dick had a lot of association with the Haig. He, obviously, had a lot of association with Gerry and Chet. Those were the first records he made. That is when I met Dick. It went on from there.
Curiously enough, the first records I made for Dick right after that, one was called The Bud Shank and Three Trombones and the next one I did was with Bob Brookmeyer and a string quartet. So many people have called me and emailed me about where to get these records and they haven't been in existence. A record company in Spain just got a hold of those masters and he is putting both of those on CD. I am very happy about that because they were both very good records.
It went on from there. I made a whole bunch of records for him. As we got into the '60s, the record business and club business started to deteriorate and Dick realized that I could adapt to any situation he put me in. If he wanted to put me with Ravi Shankar and play Indian music, I could handle that. And so I did all these strange things at Dick's suggestion and I enjoyed being put in those kinds of parameters.
So I made a lot of stuff in the '60s that bruised a lot of jazz fans. Now it is hip to do that. World music, everybody is doing world music, but back then, jazz critics were saying what is all this and that is another box I got put into. It has been a lot of work to get out of those boxes. People still associate me with all of that.
FJ: You did what you had to do to make a living.
BS: Yeah, a lot of people resented the fact that a lot of us went into doing studio work in the '60s rather than sit back and cry that we couldn't find work. I had to pay rent. I was married and had expenses as did Shelly Manne and Bob Cooper. It was a matter of survival.
The fact that we were very good at it and made a lot of money at it bruised a lot of people. We are supposed to be a starving artist. They resent the fact that a jazz musician can be successful in another art form, and film music is an art. It is a whole other ball game that people don't know about because it is not open to the public.
Film is also background music. They don't want anything too active that will detract from the dialogue. It is background music. The only time I really got to play fast music, flute or saxophone, was during the chase scene. I did a lot of that. I did a lot of alto solos during romantic scenes.
If a composer gives you a melody, he is writing in a way, because he has seen the film, the way he wants it played. You can't stretch out and play it your way, so you have to figure out a way to adapt and keep your own identity and yet, keep it within parameters given to the composer and a lot of guys had trouble with that.
FJ: Do you still play the flute?
BS: Nope. I stopped in 1986.
We had broken up LA 4 and I was back working with jazz groups. In a way, I was back starting all over again and around about '85 or so, I asked myself what it was that I wanted to do and what it was that was standing in the way of what I wanted to do. Every time, it came back to being an alto saxophonist. What was standing in the way of me becoming a better alto saxophonist was practicing the goddamned flute. So away it went.
I love it. I love the instrument and I am proud of what I accomplished, but I proved to myself that you can't be two people. You can't be the best flautist and the best alto saxophonist no matter how hard you try. There are not enough hours in the day. So one of them had to go and that is what went. I sincerely believe that the flute was never meant to be a jazz instrument anyway. When you get down to the nitty gritty, alto saxophone, tenor saxophone, trombone, and trumpet are the horns that have been with jazz since its inception and there is a reason for that. Anyway, I am a lot happier now.
FJ: Let's touch on Silver Storm and On the Trail.
BS: I was living in Washington at that time, two years ago, three years ago, and this guy came from the Silicon Valley with fifty thousand dollar bills coming out of his pocket. He effectively retired and made all his money from computers or biochemistry and he had a blues label in the Bay Area as a hobby, and built a little recording studio in his house and recorded a lot of blues things, which was something he knew a lot about.
He wants to start a record company, which he did and called me to do some jazz things. I signed a contract with him and did those two CDs and now he is not too happy about jazz record sales. He could never quite figure out how to sell these things, which is another art... how do you sell a jazz record. I don't know how happy he is that he tried out the jazz market, but in the meantime, I was able to make both of those CDs, both of which I am very proud of. In fact, he did all the artwork. All that artwork was his.
It was extremely difficult, if not impossible for him to talk to the president of a distribution company. As a result, he didn't have a distributor. It was unfortunate. I think I am going to buy the masters from him and take it over myself. I love them both. All my best friends are there. Conte died right after we did On the Trail. That is why I dedicated it to him.
I hope some way or another I can get those records out. They did not sell very well because there was no marketing done. It gave me a chance to be a composer/writer, which I had not done much before in my life. I had done a little. Almost all the writing on On the Trail was mine except for a couple of things that Bill Mays did, and the same with the Silver Storm album.
And writing for three horns is the hardest thing you can possibly do. I didn't know this. I was too dumb to know it, I called both Bill Holman and Brookmeyer and I said, 'How in the hell do you write for three horns?' All of them said, 'Write unison.' I learned a lot by doing that, trying to make some sounds with three horns. You can do it with writing a lot of counterpoint, but writing counterpoint, I leave that to Bill Holman. That is what he does. I am not going to get into that. I ain't going to mess with what Holman is doing. He can do it. I can't.
FJ: And the future?
BS: I am not doing much now. We are involved in two moves. We moved from Washington down here and bought a home that didn't work out, and so we had to put it on the market and we bought another house. And we just moved into this one a week ago and so that has pretty much dominated everything, these two moves. As a result, my wife, Linda, who had been taken care of my career, hadn't been on the phone and so I haven't been doing much these last few months, but starting in June, I'm back hard at it.
I am going to Europe again and going back East. I have a whole lot of friends that aren't working too. The weather is marvelous. It is closer to LA. This is much better.