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Frank Tiberi: The Thundering is Still Heard

Jim Worsley By

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We traveled all over in a 1935 Chevrolet with two rumble seats, front and back. We traveled with our uniforms on because you never knew when the U-haul truck was going to show up with our suitcases. —Frank Tiberi
The term "ninety-two years young" is a bit cliché, but if the shoe fits (oops, another cliché). Saxophonist Frank Tiberi (pictured above playing with saxophonist and long time friend George Garzone to the left) spoke with the verve and energy of a much younger man. He got excited, as if being back in the moment, when telling stories of as far back as the 1930s. We laughed, and I learned, in a conversation that covered a lot of ground.

As much as Tiberi's association with Woody Herman is at the fore, there, not surprisingly, is so much more. The dynamics of his cerebral connectivity to John Coltrane and his career at the Berklee School of Music go hand in hand and are discussed as such. It was a treat for sure to talk music with a top shelf arranger and player.

No doubt the many memories of an era gone by paint a picture and are far more than just interesting. The rumble seat mode of big band travel, Charlie Parker in a small club, playing with Dizzy Gillespie, turning hotel parking lots into Italian restaurants, and arranging and playing Coltrane's "Giant Steps" backwards ("Spets Esrever"), are the tip of the iceberg.

All About Jazz: Your familiarity for most people would likely come from your connection to Woody Herman. The Woody Herman Orchestra, The Thundering Herd, and other incarnations are among royalty in the big band genre. There was huge success and popularity from the start, back in the heyday of the big band era. How and when did you meet Herman, and how did you get started playing with him?

Frank Tiberi: Well, they came into Philadelphia and Frank Vicari, their lead player, wasn't able to make that gig. Gus Manusco knew me and called me to come over to that particular engagement. So, of course, I did, and everything was cool. A few weeks later, Vicari decided to leave the band and stay in Louisiana. I had gone out to the beach to get away for a bit. The trumpet player, who was also the road manager got ahold of my mother, and spoke to her in Italian. So, he had her right there (laughing)...

AAJ: (laughing as well) I'll bet.

FT: Yeah, she was hooked and gave him my phone number. He called me and I joined the band in the Midwest somewhere.

AAJ: This was when, what year?

FT: Oh well, let's see, I was forty years old, so it would have been 1969.

AAJ: Woody Herman was about as big time as it gets. You had to be just out of your mind excited to get that call, yes?

FT: Oh, of course. I had just gotten divorced and was looking forward to relaxing in a retirement of sorts. So, that changed my life.

AAJ: Overall, what kind of venues were you generally playing?

FT: We were playing every night right through at colleges and high schools. That was a good time. They were paying well. We had a bus and just kept going from town to town. We played a lot of conventions in addition to that. It's different now where all the colleges have their own bands.

AAJ: Now that was a new beginning of the Thundering Herd at that point, correct?

FT: Yes, we would have some lineup changes every five or six months. A lot of great musicians came through for varying periods of time. Joe Lovano, Alan Broadbent, Gary Anderson, and many others, got it together with the Herd. Woody was very concerned about how the cats played. You had a short time to step up or you could just get a ticket at the counter and get a plane home.

AAJ: You cut the mustard, or you went home.

FT: That's it. That's it exactly. He would pay for two weeks to start with.

AAJ: And maybe to finish with (laughing).

FT: (laughing) That's right.

AAJ: Well, you obviously cut it and then some. You made some early impressions, Coltrane reference intended, with the band.

FT: Yeah well, the first record we did after I joined the band was Giant Steps (Fantasy Records, 1973). I introduced material that changed the direction of the band.

AAJ: Yeah, the Woody Herman Orchestra sound from the 1940's big band era was great, but no longer in keeping with the times, or being able to get gigs. You had to have a more modern sound to be booking all those college gigs.

FT: Yeah, we started playing some rock tunes in the mix as well. But the Giant Steps piece was the first album we recorded. We won a Grammy that year and won again the next year. Eventually we incorporated the music of the likes of Chick Corea and Steely Dan.

AAJ: Herman was known for being open to changes and moving forward with the times.

FT: Yeah, very much so. We had a lot of different arrangements. He would push some lines around here and there as he was always very concerned about what we were recording. We recorded a lot, mostly with Concord Records. You probably know that.

AAJ: I do, but it is interesting to hear about the evolvement of the band and your involvement with that. You made it so that the younger crowd would dig it more so than they would listening to what they otherwise would perceive as their parent's music. You made it current.

FT: Exactly. We had so many great arrangers coming up with ideas and Woody would always accept them when they were introduced.

AAJ: That's cool that he was modern thinking enough to do that. Not every big band leader was able and/or willing to do that. What about some of the other guys in the band.? Were there some that had been with Herman for a long time, that weren't so keen on the changes?

FT: No, actually, I was the old-timer in the band (laughing). Woody had a bunch of young cats in this band.

AAJ: Oh, so he was totally geared up for the changes.

FT: Yeah, and they all dug the arrangements. They were written for them.

AAJ: Seems as though it was a great time. There is a pulse in which you are speaking about it even now, nearly half a century later.

FT: Yeah, we had fun. Woody was a connoisseur. So, I would scout out the best restaurants in the various towns. You couldn't always find that many with really great Italian food. I would have all the material I needed to cook on the road with us. I'd set up my Coleman equipment in a Holiday Inn parking lot. The guys would be playing football and would come running over when the pasta was ready.

AAJ: That's a fantastic story. I never would have thought to ask that.

FT: I turned every town into an Italian restaurant! I had pots and pans and everything I needed to cook. The guys loved it.

AAJ: That's really awesome. Thanks for sharing that. You were saxophonist, and head chef.

FT: Yeah, I don't know of anyone else that did anything like that.

AAJ: Not that I have ever heard about it.

AAJ: After several successful years with the band, you were handpicked by Herman himself to lead the band upon his retirement. How did that come to pass?

FT: At one time Woody had an accident and I subbed as the leader. There were a couple of other artists that were suggested. Buddy DeFranco came in for a time but he didn't know the band or the style, so, he just couldn't go through with it. Woody was in a wheelchair for a for time. When he came back and saw the band, he could see that everything was alright, so he asked me to take over the band.

AAJ: Well, that's quite an honor to be chosen by a big band legend to take over his band.

FT: Of course, yeah. I have appreciated and enjoyed it ever since.

AAJ: What is the current standing of the Woody Herman Orchestra or the Thundering Herd?

FT: There isn't much call now, it's been pretty sparse over the past five years or so. But, we are still available to play. There are four or five of us that are the core, and then we have other cats in different cities that can jump in and play. We have guys in Miami, Chicago, Los Angeles, and elsewhere. We have no problem filling those chairs and being very efficient.

AAJ: That's great to hear that and to know that.

FT: Yeah, even at my age, I have a duffle bag packed and am ready to go. There is a CD out called 4 Brothers 7 (Jazzed Media, 2007). Just last year we, three tenors and a baritone (4 brothers), went to London and played that music for four nights with the London Rhythm Section (which made 7). We are currently in the process of making a decision on which tracks to put on a CD of that occasion, that we are planning to release.

AAJ: Oh man, that's exciting Frank. That can be a difficult task to pick the best cuts, and mix and match, or to choose one evening in its entirety.

FT: Yeah, that's right Jim. I would prefer to have one night that flows naturally with the applause and such. Otherwise it can get to sound kind of choppy.

AAJ: Yes, sometimes tempting to take this track from one night and this cut from another because they were especially great, but you do lose that feeling of being at a concert and can be jerked back to reality with a rough edit.

FT: Exactly, that's why we will most likely pick one of the four shows and go with that.

AAJ: I know that the 4 Brothers terminology, in relation to Woody Herman, goes back to the fifties, before your tenure with the band. Still, I'm thinking you can give us some background on the significance of that.

FT: Jimmy Giuffre came up with that idea. "4 Brothers" is a song that was written by Jimmy Giuffre specifically for Woody's sax section. Early on it featured Al Cohn, Stan Getz, and Zoot Sims, with Serge Chaloff on baritone. They became the 4 Brothers. Woody, of course, played alto, and would take that chair whenever necessary as well. It reached number twenty-three on the charts. After I joined the band, we would have engagements in Las Vegas about three or four times a year. I always wondered why Woody would bet one hundred dollars on twenty-three red anytime he walked by a roulette table. It was the number twenty-three on the chart for "4 Brothers."

AAJ: Another long-standing part of your life is your affiliation with the Berklee School of Music. When did you get started with that?

FT: Well, I just received my twenty-fifth year gift. Unfortunately, it wasn't a rocking chair. They discontinued that. But, it's a beautiful little ornament. It has been great. I've always been able to keep playing gigs and work around the schedule.

AAJ: Your current title is Professor of Jazz Studies.

FT: Yes, I only do it one day a week right now. I used to work with a lot more students. I'm happy with it. It gets me out of the house, gets me over to Boston. I feel young, being able to get out and around. I get to teach and work with some really good young players. They keep me on my toes. I still practice. I have a tremendous concept. It's so important for musicians to be a little stylish and be something more than just a standard player. I have some inserts that I acquired years ago from Trane's divisions of the twelve tones. Trane's sequences were in a four-bar period. I have developed it to be used in a short period before a chord is struck. Piano players will embellish and play chords before they are really provided, so I am doing the same thing. I'm using related chords from the equal divisions. It's all relative, such as George Garzone's thing.

AAJ: His triadic-chromatic approach, yes. I talked to Garzone about that and I got to the point where I almost understood it (laughing).

FT: Yeah, he explained it to me one night when we were playing and I said, "Okay ,well, here's my sciatic version of that." (laughing)

AAJ: (laughing hard) That's pretty funny.

FT: (laughing) Yeah, we got a pretty good laugh out of that.

AAJ: Your concept is completely separate from Garzone's triadic-chromatic approach. You have been able to disseminate a large volume of impressions, play on words intended, to impart on your students.

FT: I am documenting all my sequences for students to be able to use. With these I can take a saxophonist that has never even played jazz, and they will have their performance abilities enhanced quickly. Of course, it is very much about tonality. I tell my students to get that together, to get themselves together, before they start pushing forward into embellishments.

AAJ: Coltrane left his mark on thousands of musicians. However, you and your pal and fellow faculty member Garzone, have both studied it up one side and down the other and managed to dissect Coltrane's music at a transcendent level. What makes it extraordinary is that you have been able to impart that wisdom on so many young players in a model that they can appreciate at their own level of understanding. To take his genius and complexities and break them down into more bite size chops is remarkable. To be able to carry on that greatness in such a manner is truly impressive, Frank.

FT: You know it's interesting too, that when Coltrane first hit the scene, I wasn't that impressed. He was too technical, played too many clichés, and repeated himself. After he started a new group in 1960 that included McCoy Tyner, and introduced "Giant Steps," "Countdown," and his twelve-tone improvisation, well, that was it. At that point, I really wanted to see what he was doing. I would go to small clubs and bring in a small recording device. I had wires up my ass( laughing) and a small microphone.

AAJ: (laughing) Ah yes, I have heard a few stories about sneaking in recording devices in various clever ways.

FT: Yeah, I have over three hundred minutes recorded on the best equipment available at that time. This is way before digital of course. It was great because in a small club he wasn't worried about anything like the expectations of playing in front of ten thousand people or whatever. It was a no cover charge, dollar a beer kind of club. He just experimented at will. What's his name, the flute and clarinetist, used to come in and sit in with him. Oh, now, Eric. Eric Dolphy. I took these recordings to Universal and they calibrated them all. So, we are just waiting for the right time.

AAJ: Oh man, that would be sweet to hear those recordings.

FT: Well. They are different, Jim. They are like thirty-minute versions of songs.

AAJ: Oh, you're killing me Frank. That is SO much up my alley. I love long versions when an artist really gets into it and improvises. Much better to hear an artist dig deep into maybe four songs than to play tidbits of ten or twelve.

FT: Yeah and he was able to build up a frenzy. He was a performer, a great artist. He was like a painter on stage.

AAJ: Yeah, the painter analogy is well said. He went out every night with a blank canvas and with his improvisations painted a different picture every night. That's the beauty of it. Changing gears a bit, when I was kid, in the sixties, my parents and I would talk about what we referred to as the "olden days." Things like being able to go to a movie for a nickel and such. Odd, in retrospect, that they were referring to the thirties, which at the time was only thirty years prior. Now it is more like eighty years ago and can more accurately be described for real as the "olden days." Other than seeing double features for five cents, what else was going on back then that is way different than today's world?

FT: Well, I would go to the movies and see a big band play. A band would play an hour set and then the movies would play and then back to the big band. This would happen four times a day, there were four shows a day.

AAJ: That's amazing. I had never heard of going to a movie and hearing a big band play. That is just too cool.

FT: Yeah, and there were a lot of jazz clubs around in Philadelphia. One night I just walk in and there's Charlie Parker with his foot in a cast on a highchair, and he's playing his plastic saxophone. This was a time where you could just walk up the street and hear jazz flying out of one club after another. It was a very fruitful time. When I was nineteen, I joined the Bob Chester Band. We traveled all over in a 1935 Chevrolet with two rumble seats, front and back. We played a lot of gigs, and a lot of great players came out of that band. We traveled in our uniforms because you never knew when the U-haul truck was going to show up with our suitcases. That's the way it was back then. There were over four hundred big bands traveling the country at that time. That was the era when it was very fertile.

AAJ: Traveling with your uniforms on in a 1935 Chevrolet with rumble seats creates a vivid image of the past.

FT: After that, for about eight years in the fifties, I played in an eight-piece band that played at the fifty-yard line at halftime of the Philadelphia Eagles games.

AAJ: As a huge fan of the NFL, that really jumps out at me.

FT: Yeah, I got to see Steve Van Buren and all the stars of the day.

AAJ: Yeah, not only a hall of fame running back like Van Buren, but all the great players on the visiting teams coming in to play the Eagles.

FT: That's exactly right. I still have those programs and a bunch of autographs and stuff.

AAJ: Nice. Now, did the saxophone come first for you, or like many others, were there other stops along the way?

FT: I started playing clarinet when I was eight years old. I had lessons three days a week and on Sundays we had processions, performances. All of that was like three dollars a month. I had an opportunity at the age of twelve to go to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. But then I heard Benny Goodman play, and I canceled that.

AAJ: (laughing) A bit intimidated., were you?

FT: (laughing) Goodman and Artie Shaw, I thought, "Oh boy there goes my life."

AAJ: (still laughing) I could see how that could be overwhelming.

FT: I put that aside and later picked up a saxophone. I taught myself how to play and to arrange music. I was also taught to play the bassoon by Sol Schoenbach of the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra.

AAJ: Who were you listening to on the radio back then? Who would you say are your major influences?

FT: Lester Young for sure. Anyone from my era would tell you that. Then Charlie Parker, of course. Al Cohn I think, to this day, is the greatest player I have ever heard. He was so very talented and played with a lot of soul.

AAJ: When and what was your first professional gig?

FT: Well, my father passed when I was twelve. By age fifteen, I was playing in a five-piece band to support my family. I got paid thirty dollars a week.

AAJ: What can you tell us about your early experience playing with Dizzy Gillespie?

FT: Oh, now that was a long, long time ago, back in Camden. He needed someone to fill in and the guy at the club knew me. So, next thing you know, I'm up there playing with Dizzy. I guess I did alright. Dizzy kept joking and saying, "Where'd you come from? Who are you? Where'd you come from?" (laughing).

AAJ: You also performed with legendary crooners like Frank Sinatra and Rosemary Clooney.

FT: My favorite album is actually with Rosemary and a big band. Its called My Buddy (Concord Jazz, 1983). And yes, with Frank, of course, The Main Event-Live (Reprise, 1964).

AAJ: In addition to playing on many big band records and the aforementioned 4 Brothers 7, you have released several albums as a leader. A standout that comes to mind is Tiberian Mode (NY Jams, 1999). How did Tiberian Mode come together? That's a tight sextet happening there. Coltrane's "Giant Steps" written and performed backwards, "Spets Esrever" is an intensely clever piece of work.

FT: Yeah, we had fun with that one. Lovano and Garzone were both on that.

AAJ: Your rhythm section came to play on that one. Adam Nussbaum had it going on behind the kit.

FT: Oh yeah, he kicked my ass on a couple of tunes, like the ballad "I Have Loved."

AAJ: For sure, and he was swinging on "Body & Soul."

FT: Oh man, yeah. I had a chance to solo and stretch on "Body & Soul."

AAJ: I should say. That is a great arrangement, Frank, and you were really inside it.

FT: And LaVerne, he brought a lot to the mix.

AAJ: Andy LaVerne indeed came to play. He lit up on both "Stella by Starlight" and "The Champ."

FT: I used most of my concepts and inserts on almost all those tunes. "Cherry Key" and "Retrospective," especially in the use of sequencing.

AAJ: Well, and you gotta just love the play on words of "Cherry Key" (as opposed to "Cherokee"). Lovano, Garzone, and yourself really shined on that tight ensemble project.

FT: Well you know, Jim, there are a couple of other albums I would like to mention that I am proud of, that either didn't have enough distribution, or just didn't get their due for one reason or another, but that are very strong records.

AAJ: I'd love nothing better than to hear about hidden treasures that have been under the radar.

FT: Live at Ronnie Scott's (Jam Records, 1999) and Legacy (NY Jams, 1998) and for sure, Live at Montreux (Fantasy Records, 1998). For Ronnie Scott's I wrote several different arrangements, including one of Joe Zawinul's "Carnavalito." That and Legacy (The first Woody Herman Orchestra record recorded after Herman's death eleven years prior. It was presented as a tribute to Herman.) were both big band records. Live at Montreux honestly should have won a Grammy. Count Basie won that year. He won a few. Anyways, this record had Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, Woody Shaw, and many other talented musicians. I did an arrangement of "Countdown." Getz came on stage with no rehearsal and played an amazingly beautiful arrangement of "What are You Doing the Rest of My Life." Slide Hampton wrote an incredible arrangement of Dizzy's tune, "Manteca."

AAJ: Garzone told me recently that he will sometimes pick you up, drive to the city (Boston), hit a few sports bars, and convince you to get up on stage and blow. He also said that you sound as great as ever. So, it sounds like, and I am so glad to hear, that you are still diggin' it and havin' fun at 92.

FT: Yeah, George is my dearest friend. I go over to his house for supper sometimes and on holidays. He's a fine man.

AAJ: Yeah, he came across to me as a great cat. He also said that he may have to prod you a little to get up there and play, but he then can't get your ass off the stage! (laughing) I love it!!

FT: Yeah, you know at this stage of the game doing solos is something else. George and I have had a lot of fun over the years.

AAJ: I have had a lot of fun talking with you today, Frank. A true pleasure. Thank you for your time, and for taking us back in time. You shared some remarkable stories and painted some new pictures in the mind's eye of a time gone by over the past ninety minutes.

FT: Wow, have we been talking that long? (rhetorical) Isn't that something? (son of rhetorical). You're all right, Jim. Very nice speaking with you. You take care of yourself.

AAJ: You do the same, Frank. I look forward to checking out the records that you brought to our attention.

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