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Doug Mettome: A Brief Life in Bop


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Douglas (Doug) Voll Mettome, the son of Nels P Mettome and Leafy Dawn Mettome was born into a prosperous family on March 19, 1925 in Salt Lake City, Utah, where he died on February 17, 1964. He was one of two children (a younger sister attended Northwestern University).

Doug's musical career began early. His first training was on piano, but by the age of 12, he had begun to receive newspaper notice for his trumpet playing: "Doug played some bugle calls and a trumpet solo. When he played "Reveille... "91 year-old Charlie Shields woke up and saluted." (Salt Lake Tribune, February 13, 1937) Doug was also a member of what eventually became a group of three students who bugled at the striking of the colors at the local Veterans' Hospital each night at 5—an activity he had joined in 1933 at the age of eight. "There isn't any special reason for doing this," Mettome was quoted as saying. "we just thought it was a good thing to do." (Salt Lake Tribune April 11, 1939). By 1943, Doug had his own band, "Doug Mettome and his "'Swingout' Rhytmaires"

And he was, by all accounts, a superior athlete. He was involved in competitive ski jumping by the time he was 13. By the age of 16, Doug was a competitive cyclist, winning races and vying for a state championship.

He graduated from East High and was attending the University of Utah when World War II broke out. He enlisted at age 18 and spent World War II (1943-46) in the 745 Army Air Force band. By all accounts he had started to make an impression on other brassmen as a player in the service. I suspect if you had asked anyone in Salt Lake about him when he went into the service, they would have predicted he was bound for great things. The All American Boy as Trumpet Player.

In early 1945, while still in the service, Mettome married Catherine Ransford Wade in Louisville Kentucky, where he was stationed. Mettome had previously been in Detroit, because he was initially to have been married there in December 1944. The first real notice of him to surface as a player was in Detroit in 1946, so he had presumably made contact with a fertile jazz scene there. Barry Ulanov heard him jamming at the River Rouge Show Bar with drummer Art Mardigan and described Mettome as a "talented trumpeter" who had been deeply—Ulanov used the word "slavishly" influenced by Dizzy Gillespie. In 1946-47, Doug joined Billy Eckstine's band. Some maintain that he was recommended by Miles Davis, who was also briefly with Eckstine, while others suggest that Mettome and Davis had become close because Mettome, even as a white musician (and at that point, the only one with Eckstine) was unwilling not to stay with the band on the road because of segregation. Mettome now met drummer Art Blakey, who was to later remark that he thought Doug could have played either jazz or classical trumpet, which was a bit unusual in the late 1940s.

By late 1947, Mettome was recording with Allan Eager in New York, taking solos on "Nightmare Allen" and "Churchmouse." While there are some echoes of Dizzy's licks in them—especially his ubiquitous triplets—, both solos favor the middle register and are built around longish legato lines that never get much ahead of the beat. 1948 found Doug playing with the Buddy Rich big band where he plays an expressive chorus on "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" that displays a full tone that characterized in his ballad playing. He also took a brash upper-register solo on "Aaron's Axe."

Doug really appears to have come to public notice while with Benny Goodman. Mettome impressed just about everyone while playing with Goodman, including Benny, who was later to name him one of his two favorite trumpet players (Chris Griffin was the other). Doug toured extensively with Goodman and played some of his best-known (and best shaped) choruses in 1948 and 1949. He replaced Fats Navarro in Goodman's Sextet, not surprisingly perhaps, in view of their stylistic similarities. As Ross Firestone put it, "Fats Navarro was hired for the solo trumpet chair, but occupied it only briefly. After he kept showing up late for rehearsal, Benny let him go and brought in Doug Mettome, a brilliant twenty-three year old who had replaced Navarro in the Eckstine band in 1946." Buddy Greco recounted Mettome's role to Firestone: "When I had my Benny Goodman hat on, I played Benny Goodman music. When we turned into a bop band, I tried to play like Bud Powell. Wardell [Gray] and Doug Mettome did the same sort of thing. When Benny was fronting the band, Doug got into a Roy Eldridge bag; then later on in the evening he switched over to Dizzy or Miles. Doug was a genius player, and Benny was very, very hot on him. In fact at one point he wanted to send him out on his own doing a more commercial kind of thing à la Harry James. Unfortunately, Doug had some personal problems, but he was some talent."

Greco was not specific about Doug's "personal problems," but at least one of them was the death of his wife, Catharine Wade, "after an operation" in New York City in early August, 1949. (Salt Lake City Tribune, Aug. 9, 1949). There is unfortunately very little recorded about this. One musician, who played with Mettome on the Goodman band, had no recollection of Doug ever discussing a family, one way or the other. The late Leon Merian, another trumpet player who knew Doug from his time with Pete Rugolo, was aware of the event. He reported in an interview that it had had a devastating impact on Mettome, which is somewhat less surprising. Sixty years on, unfortunately, memories, understandably, fade and often blur. Another former band mate described Doug as "introverted" and doubted there were too many people who knew him well. If Goodman had tried to induce him to front a commercial band, it's doubtful Mettome would have been interested in any case. By most accounts, he disliked that part of the business as much as anyone and was basically interested in playing jazz.

And yet the last word that anyone would use to describe Mettome's work with Goodman would be "introverted" or even, perhaps, "reflective." To the contrary, what was probably his most famous solo occurred on "Undercurrent Blues," which was recorded while the band was in Los Angeles in February 1949. The topside of the recording is "Ma Belle Marguerite," a vocal that featured Buddy Greco. If your taste runs to English light opera ("Bless the Bride"), you may enjoy it. If not, the flip side is the winner, "Undercurrent." This was not the first time that Goodman had recorded it. There was a V-Disc made in mid-December 1948 which is slightly different in tempo, but which also features a hard-swinging chorus by Wardell Gray. Unfortunately, that chorus is absent from the February 1949 for reasons that are not clear. The 1949 recording is different in other ways. It is taken slightly faster, but the interesting comparison comes with Mettome's solos.

On the V-disc, Mettome's first eight-bar break opens with repeated Bb triplets that rapidly move up a fourth, and sound, for all the world, like a stylized quote from Kay Keyser's hit 1948 recording of the Woody Woodpecker song. But when he reenters for a second chorus, misfortune, if not disaster, strikes. He runs off a Bb major ascending scale with some assertion, but appears to stumble coming off of it in another triplet figure, and then plays an outright clam on the way out. A natural reaction is to regard it as a powerful performance marred by a stumble from which Mettome doesn't recover. The LA version is, while very striking, a more conventional solo, opening with Dizzy's signature triplets. But this time, the "Woodpecker" triplets are executed in the upper register in his second chorus and the ascending scale is rearranged into something resembling a bop Arban's exercise, perfectly executed in the "near" upper register. When Goodman solos, it is in a way that makes it clear he really likes what he's heard. His chorus is reminiscent of his reply to Bunny Berigan on "King Porter Stomp" (1935) of which Ross Firestone writes "Benny... almost bubbles over with delight." Small wonder. The entire production, arranged (and written?) by Chico O'Farrill, ends on a screaming concert Bb. It is a memorable performance.

The comparison to Berigan is not entirely coincidental. Leon Merian regarded playing with Mettome as "the closest I came to playing with Berigan," and elements of Bunny's style, by no means out of place in a transitional figure like Mettome, are evident in some of his other recordings with Goodman. One was "King Porter Stomp" itself, which Gunther Schuller characterized as a "near-perfect performance" in the original, and Berigan's introduction as "supremely authoritative." In a 1949 recording, Mettome has Berigan's solo, and his paraphrase of Bunny's introduction is a knowledgeable, but by no means "slavish" update.

Doug's sixteen-bar chorus is wild, as exuberant as anything he ever played with Goodman, and pure swing. Whether or not he reached Bunny's level is debatable, but the excitement he generates (along with the propulsive drumming of Sonny Igoe) is palpable. The real test comes, however, with "Blue Lou."

Berigan played "Blue Lou" in a Metronome All Star Band in 1939 with what was basically Goodman's reed section and Benny himself and Berigan's "stride trumpet" style is on powerful display (as is, incidentally, Sonny Dunham's). Charlie Shavers and Bobby Hackett had also played the tune, so the stakes for a trumpet player were pretty high. To say that Mettome acquits himself well is a mild understatement. His solo exploits the alternating minor-major/ major structure of Edgar Sampson's classic with an exceptionally fluent solo, which is only enhanced by Doug's growl (or near-running out of breath!) near the end of his chorus. Goodman once again responds enthusiastically, and Buddy Greco's eight-bar piano break picks up one of Doug's phrases and extends it.

Chico O'Farrill's "Fiesta Time" once again hits a much more boppish note. The tune is taken at a blazing pace and it's hard to suppress the idea that here we have Rhythm changes taken as fast as anyone can play them. It's safe to say that Mettome's solo is more Dizzy than not, and for the most part, executed very cleanly. If there was ever any doubt about whether or not Wardell, Doug and Benny could fly, this recording will put them to rest. Doug plays another Dizzy-inflected chorus on "Bop Hop." There's also a cover of Dizzy's "Land of Oo-Bla-Dee" with good solos by Wardell and Doug—oddly enough supposedly recorded before Gillespie's 1949 version.

On balance, it's probably safe to conclude that Mettome's stint with Goodman represented one of the high points of his career, and that his playing in 1949 was, with few later exceptions with Woody Herman or Pete Rugolo, never surpassed. Another such indication is a live recording that Mettome made with the Herbie Fields Septet at the Flame Club in Minneapolis in November 1949.

The date was recorded and somehow preserved: Mettome's performances are uniformly excellent. His technique throughout is enviably secure and the double-time choruses he plays are impressive without being obtrusive. The band opens with Dizzy's classic "Ow!" on which Mettome starts out very much sounding like Chet Baker, but eventually plays closer to Fats Navarro, decorated by the characteristic squeals into the upper register that became one of his stylistic trademarks. If anything, "Indiana" is even more characteristic of his style at that point. Taken at an extraordinarily fast tempo, Mettome states the theme directly and then heads off into several choruses of improvisation. His statements seem to use a major scale as a kind of launching pad into more complex rhythmic figures, and he has a distinct tendency to use a series of five rising accented eighths to resolve a line. On "Zing Went the Strings of My Heart," Mettome plays something on the order of seven choruses and they are lovely. They give a real taste of what was later to become his best known pretty solo with Pete Rugolo, "Gone With The Wind." On "Lemon Drop," Mettome picks up on Frank Rosolino's scatting, repeats it several times and continues on with a brisk statement. In fact, Mettome's chorus is shaped largely as a response to Rosolino's, a brilliant call-and-response, chase, or whatever one decides to call it.

Sometime in 1950, but certainly by early 1951, Mettome had left Goodman for Woody Herman, where he played in Woody's "Third Herd." The details of his move are, of course, lost, but Mettome and Nick Travis had been together with Goodman. Travis left Goodman for Herman and was replaced on lead by Al Stewart, so it's always possible that Nick recommended him. In any event, at one point or another, Herman's trumpet section included people like Travis, Don Fagerquist, Shorty Rogers, John Bello, John Howell, Roy Caton, Dick Collins, Don Ferrara and Mettome. Fagerquist (playing jazz) and Mettome (playing lead) were in the section simultaneously and their performance on and off the bandstand were the subject of considerable notice by the other musicians.

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.

Usually, Mettome was not well-recorded, so it is something of a revelation to hear what he could do under the right circumstances and explains why so many musicians described his sound as "fat" and "warm," qualities that don't always come through in surviving live broadcasts. Overall, he sticks pretty close to the melody and ends up resolving to a concert D# after playing the D# min 7 chord in accented eighths to get there. Mettome had the ability, so to speak, to make the "near" upper register on a trumpet sound higher—and hence, more dramatic—than it really is. This, too, was a characteristic of Berigan's playing that Mettome shared.

From 1953 through 1955, Mettome gigged mostly around New York, and was variously associated with The Dorsey Brothers, Med Flory and Urbie Green. I have yet to hear anything recorded with the Dorseys, although examples of the Dorsey band from that period do exist. Mettome also recorded with Urbie Green as a Member of the Urbie Green Septet, recording not only on trumpet, but also on mellophone and baritone horn. These were not necessarily good solo vehicles and his choruses on "Incubator," especially on the baritone horn, are tentative and uncertain, while even his trumpet playing is marred by problems with the rhythm section.

On the other hand, while his up-tempo playing was a little less confident or certain than during his stint with Goodman or Herman (the issue surfaces a little in his work with Med Flory as well), Mettome's ballad playing—always lovely—really blossomed. His 1955 recording with Green, "When Your Lover Has Gone," is rarely if ever mentioned, but is one of his most passionately lyrical, amply decorated with color tones, and featuring not only Doug, but also an exchange with Urbie Green in the final chorus that more than compensates for their uncomfortable interaction on "Incubator."

Doug also did some work with Nat Pierce in late 1955. His solo on "Piercin' Thru" is especially noteworthy, not simply for incorporating most if not all of his distinctive style and licks, but also for the energy with which he trades choruses with Ruby Braff. There are also good outings on "You're Driving Me Crazy" and "Back on the Scene." They're very much worth searching for, particularly because they are little known or cited.

There doesn't seem to have been much activity in 1956, or for that matter, after 1958. In July 1957, Doug recorded some highly regarded solos for Johnny Richards on "Wide Range," which is, interestingly, the session most frequently mentioned by people who have any familiarity with Mettome's work at all. His solo on "Walkin" recalls some of the assertiveness of his work from a decade earlier, and the rest of Mettome's performance is admirable as well. Richards had taken the band into a live performance at Town Hall in May, and an unnamed reviewer singled out Mettome, as well as Frank Rehak, Nat Pierce, Gene Quill, and Frankie Socolow, among others as "aggressive" and "top flight," so one assumes the band was well rehearsed and familiar with the charts. The recording sounds it. It's probably significant that Doug was heard to best effect when professional arrangers (like Rugolo and Richards) employed him in the studio for work on their own material. A particularly noteable example of Doug's playing with Richards was recorded live at the Red Hill Inn in Pennsauken, New Jersey. Listen to "Band Aide." It's some of the best blowing you'll hear from him in this period. Blowing sessions, on the other hand, had clearly come to suit him less well by the late 1950s. He returned to work with the Nat Pierce Orchestra in late 1958, and basically left a recording of "Stomping at the Savoy" featuring Buck Clayton. It is not impressive.

Ira Gitler writes that Doug worked around New York in the early 1960s. Gitler reports hearing "an eclectic style away from Gillespie's," after a period of "inactivity" caused by "illness." What he meant by this one can only imagine, but for trumpet players, infirmity (and ageing) almost inevitably force modifications of style: aggressive upper register playing around jagged bop lines is practically the definition of "demanding." He was also spotted in a quartet with Ralph Flanagan at the Embers. Clark Terry probably saw Doug about now—near the end of his time in New York—and his assessment is depressing.

"He was a beautiful trumpeter. I'll never forget one day he and his wife [his second wife, Elaine Bertha Hanna, known as Sis, or Cissy] came to the Apollo Theater not long before he died. Doug was very sick at the time, had no money, and they wouldn't let him in backstage. I gave him and Cissy a little money to go around front and see the show... I always respected him as an all-around trumpet player, great lead, great soloist. Anybody who can get along with Benny Goodman can't be all bad." (quoted in Doug Ramsey, Jazz Matters (1989), pp. 41-42)

Whatever the case, Mettome was back in Salt Lake by early 1962, where he was reported, perhaps improbably, skiing again. "Utah's skiing and music scene are glad to have him back." ( Salt Lake Tribune, February 22, 1962). It would not be for long. Doug Mettome died in the hospital at 10:00 AM, February 17, 1964, "after a brief illness." He was 38 years old. Funeral services were private, and he was buried at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Salt Lake. Virtually all the stories of his death involve alcoholism in some form. He had outlived Bunny Berigan by five years, but like Bunny, alcohol eventually affected his playing and ultimately killed him.

A bit of perspective is, perhaps, not inappropriate. Mettome has been labelled a "journeyman" player and in a certain sense, that is true. He never led a session. He did not write. His legacy of recorded work is quite small. It is very likely that his best work never made it onto records. But "journeyman" also has a derogatory, if secondary meeting: mediocre. There was nothing mediocre about Doug's playing, not if we believe Woody Herman, Benny Goodman, or a surviving group of musicians who played with him. Even given a tendency to remember the best about a neglected, and in some ways, sadly unfulfilled figure, bandmates like Al Stewart simply said "He knocked us out every night" on the road, and didn't hesitate to put him in the same class with the great Wardell Gray. Some great players are great neglected, or even unknown players. Or just not easily classifiable in terms of style—because more than a few of his contemporaries heard in Doug a kind of passage from Berigan or "Dixieland" to Bop and back. Doug Mettome, in his brief life in swing and bop, was a great player, and should be remembered that way.

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