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Artist Profiles

Doug Mettome: A Brief Life in Bop

By Published: August 23, 2013
The saxophones, in particular, watched Fagerquist and Mettome with some awe, because both Dick Hafer and Bill Perkins have commented on the duo. For one thing, Fagerquist and Mettome's alcoholism, the disease that would eventually kill both players, was well established at this point. Perkins, in particular, commented on their prodigious intake, finding it extraordinary that either could play so well under the influence. Dick Hafer called Mettome "one of the great trumpet players of all time," and Woody reportedly rated Doug as one of his favorite trumpet players—along with Nat Adderley, who professed that he had no idea that Woody held his playing in the same regard as Mettome's. Shorty Rogers' assessment was similar: "He was just an unbelievably great player." This is all very striking— but it may well be that his best playing went unrecorded: surely this was the case when Charlie Parker performed with the band on July 16, 1951 in Kansas City. There are numerous bootlegs of the concert (Urbie Green recorded it, and Hafer had a copy, which got out of his control) —some much better than others, and Bird's playing is, for the most part, astounding. But after the concert, Bird and Mettome had a private jam session, at least according to Dick Hafer, and the eyewitness accounts (some place Don Fagerquist there as well), suggest something not to be missed. If there's any recorded evidence of the session, it has not come to light.

One clearly undisputed solo by Mettome occurred in a broadcast from the Hollywood Palladium in March 1951. The vehicle was a flag-waver the Woody recorded several times, "More Moon," on which Mettome takes four choruses. It is a punchy solo in which Mettome quotes "Turkey in the Straw," takes advantage of the jumps within the descending progression, and again ends up emphatically ending on a series of accented eighths in the upper register (Concert D). The excitement comes not only from Doug's playing, but also from Sonny Igoe's drumming and shouted encouragement—Igoe in many ways was the perfect big-band drummer for Doug's up-tempo playing. There may be some other solos that Mettome recorded with Woody, including an upper register entry on "Leo the Lion," that certainly sounds like Doug, but has been credited to John Bello. In any event, by 1952, Mettome apparently left Herman.

Dick Hafer was so emphatic on the level of Mettome's playing, that he is worth quoting at length: He said to William D. Clancy, "About two weeks after I joined the band, Woody made a deal with Doug, 'cause he loved him. He said, "If you stay sober for me. Doug, I'll give you a $200-a-week-raise!" That would have put him in the $400-a-week-bracket, which in 1951 was very good money. Doug stayed sober. He didn't touch a thing. I'll never forget, he started playing so great that it was unbelievable. He had so many good things going that when he stayed sober, it was just scary. He played all of the high-note parts....and all of the lead, and most of the jazz solos.

"Fagerquist was playing too. Fagerquist was a really great player, but there were times when he just couldn't contend with Doug. Woody would turn them loose and they would play like eights and fours. It was frightening. They called Doug "the white Dizzy"for a while. He was so great. He wasn't a pure bebop player. He had a knack of playing almost like a bebop version of Dixieland. He played some little phrases that weren't just bop. According to Hafer, Doug's playing and endurance deteriorated after he fell off the wagon, and Woody let him go.

In September 1954, Pete Rugolo had put together a band for an engagement at Birdland in New York. It must have been an odd one: it coincided with the arrival of Hurricane Edna, which inundated the New York City with record rains and keep attendance down, if Leon Merian, who played lead trumpet on the band, is to be believed. In October, Rugolo took the band into the recording studio and it was at this session that Mettome played what may arguably be the best recorded solo of his career, "Gone with the Wind." It is not clear whether Rugolo had written out the solo in advance, because it was a feature for Mettome, who somehow manages to sound deeply reflective even at medium-up tempo. The solo is interestingly constructed: Mettome's entrance and first chorus is muted, but not tightly. After the ensemble restates the theme, Mettome once again plays, but this time, with what can only be described as a gloriously open horn with a truly beautiful sound.

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