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Glenn Zottola: A Jazz Life - The Early Years


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World-renown trumpeter, saxophonist, musical director, producer and entrepreneur. These are but a mere handful of words that describe the vast talent in Glenn Zottola's bag of musical marvels. There are others: child prodigy, creative genius, "musical natural" and aural savant also percolate rapidly to mind. Now in his sixth decade of playing professionally as a rare and masterful "Triple Threat"—he plays and has recorded on trumpet, alto and tenor saxophones—Zottola's career when viewed in terms of both its longevity and the depth and breadth of his performing resume is simply staggering. Zottola recently released A Jazz Life (Classic Jazz Records, 2013), a compilation of his selected recordings from over 50 albums plus jazz festivals and at Carnegie Hall.

All About Jazz: Glenn, on behalf of All About Jazz, thanks for taking time to share "A Jazz Life" with us.

Glenn Zottola: Thanks, Nick. It's my pleasure.

AAJ: Please take us back to your earliest musical memory.

GZ: My family lived at 32 Browndale Place in Port Chester, New York. I was 2 or 3 years old and I was in the crib and I remember my Dad was rehearsing a big band in the living room. My Dad, before he went into his business manufacturing and brass mouthpieces was an arranger for Claude Thornhill along with Gil Evans. In fact, my Dad arranged "Autumn Nocturne" for Claude. It was the flip side of Thornhill's famous theme song, "Snowfall." Conrad Gozzo was the lead trumpet player in Thornhill's band. Dad would tell me stories about Gozzo and others in that band. Dad played lead trumpet like Goz and jazz like Louis Armstrong.

AAJ: Were there any other musicians in the family?

GZ: My older brother played trumpet and my sister sang and played piano. However, my Mother played great piano by ear—playing with great time and chord changes—stride and everything. My Mom and Dad had a steady gig playing at a country club for 16 years and they would take me on gigs when I was about seven years old. When I would come home from school, Mom would sit me on her lap and teach me hundreds of standards with her playing piano by ear. No sheet music. The Great American Songbook is in my musical DNA.

AAJ: How old were you when this early tune training started?

GZ: About four years old. I'll tell you a side story about that. Dad had this recording machine that created thin plastic records. They recorded me playing "Carnival of Venice" at about 4 years old with my Mom on piano but not really playing it. I heard the entire piece perfectly in my head as If Herbert L. Clarke was playing it but much to my shock when I heard the recording back I did the entire piece only on one note—a middle C but with perfect rhythm as that was all the chops I had at that age.

AAJ: When did you start playing the trumpet?

GZ: Age three. The "Carnival of Venice" thing happened when I was about four.

AAJ: How did the trumpet thing come about?

GZ: Dad had trumpets hanging on hooks all over the house and he and my brother played.

AAJ: So, this was much more than a natural environment for you to musically develop.

AAJ: Absolutely. When I'd come home from school and Mom was in the kitchen cooking, she'd stop and say: "Want to play something?" We would jam nearly every day, playing "Honeysuckle Rose" and the like. Later on, Mom and Dad also operated a jazz club in Westchester where I performed with them. Many jazz artists performed there.

AAJ: What about reading music?

GZ: My Dad was just starting me on that—with Solfeggio from the Pasquale Bona book. That was the old Italian style. He studied with a teacher from La Scala in Milan in Italy. You did Solfeggio, etc. before you actually played the instrument. He was an amazing musician and conductor and when he played with the Italian concert band with those old cats, they would play games like reading music backwards from the end to the beginning.

AAJ: What about playing in school band?

GZ: Yes, however, since the band director was friends with my Dad, they would have a school bus pick me up from grammar school and take me over to play with the junior high school band. I was playing with kids much older than I was.

AAJ: What advice did you get from your Mom and Dad about playing the horn and being a musician?

GZ: Well, when I was about six, I played "Red, Red Robin" accompanied by Mom in front of the entire school in the auditorium. I got to the bridge, froze from stage fright. forgot the bridge and ran offstage crying. Mom came over and gave me a pep talk that got me back onstage. I finished the performance to a standing ovation. Dad encouraged me to play jazz by saying "Just embellish the melody like Louis." Dad had me on the Arban's book, but I wanted to make music that I heard in my head right away and play jazz. So, he got me a "Music Minus One" jazz recording that had Oscar Pettiford, Milt Hinton, Osie Johnson, Kenny Clarke and Jimmy Raney on it. In fact, I did a recreation of that exact album recorded in 1951 on my first Classic Jazz Album, after coming out of retirement four years ago. That "embellish the melody" advice was important throughout my career, because I play by ear 100 percent and it carried me through playing with Benny Goodman to Chick Corea. I know nothing about chords. I can read music, but, I don't even know what key I'm improvising in. On a gig one time with Zoot Sims, he said he played that way, too.

AAJ: As an aside, it's interesting that the greater majority of young players today, even with the Internet and all that, certainly don't have the robust family-driven musical environment you had—especially to play at a young age with professional-caliber musicians.

GZ: That's right. I was very fortunate.

AAJ: When did you first play on television and how did it come about?

AAJ: I was about eleven. I had joined a jazz orchestra in Stamford, Connecticut, playing lead and jazz trumpet. The pianist in that group was a student of Bill Evans. He got us on Chubby Jackson's television show. Chubby, as you know, was a bassist and entertainer who played with Woody Herman and others. He hosted Our Gang films on the TV show. Chubby loved me. He hooked me up to do gigs later with Jack Teagarden and Bobby Hackett. Chubby formed a little band with me and with his drummer son, Duffy. Duffy and I then played on Garry Moore's old I've Got a Secret show. Duffy was the "secret guest who had a band." A little later I recorded my first album at Nola Penthouse at Steinway Hall. The pianist played on the same piano that Bill Evans played on for that session.

AAJ: Do tell.

GZ: That was 1964 when I was about fifteen with a quintet from the Stamford jazz group. It was the tune "Greensleeves" on a Christmas album. It's the first track on my A Jazz Life compilation CD.

AAJ: When did you meet Miles Davis and Maynard Ferguson?

GZ: This was 1961. My Dad was making a mouthpiece for Maynard. He and Miles were on the bill together at Birdland. I was seated in the "Peanut Gallery" they had there. Miles opened for Maynard and Davis had John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley on the band. I had never heard that type of playing before and was taken by it. It was a little over my head. I was just getting into Clifford Brown. I went up to the bandstand and looked at Miles's trumpet. Miles poked his head out from offstage and asked me somewhat gruffly what I was doing. I told him I was a trumpet player and wanted to see his horn. "OK," he said and turned away backstage.

AAJ: You mentioned getting into Clifford Brown.

GZ: That was a pivotal experience for me. One day at home, my Dad was playing a record that Clifford made with Max Roach. The cut was "What Is This Thing Called Love?" And, on it Clifford takes this solo and I was completely taken by it and him technically. After all, it was completely different than Louis Armstrong from a technical trumpeting perspective. Lights went off in my head. I had never heard a trumpet player play that way. It was a revelation.

AAJ: How did your appearance on "The Ted Mack Amateur Hour" come about?

GZ: Well, since my brother was previously on the show, my Dad knew Lloyd Marks. He was the band leader and musical director. I played "I've Found a New Baby" which, by the way, ended on a high G above high C. Not bad for a 13-year old, since I had a high G at 9 years old. I won on the show three times and toured for a year and then played at the finals which were held at Madison Square Garden in New York. I was even getting fan mail from the Mack show. From that appearance, I landed a lead role in a documentary film called Comeback, playing a youth with polio and acting alongside of Natalie Schaefer who later played Jim Backus's wife on Gilligan's Island. Maynard Ferguson saw the Ted Mack television show and, when he saw my Dad, asked him if I could tour and perform with him as his protégé. But, Dad declined since I was in school.

AAJ: And after that experience?

GZ: Well, the Stamford band I was playing with played at the Atlantic City Jazz Festival, sharing the bill with Dinah Washington, Oscar Peterson, Gerry Mulligan, Art Blakey and others. Years later, I played with a lot of them.

AAJ: Really?

GZ: Yes, at the Festival itself, I was mesmerized by Dinah's singing. I've always had a vocalist's approach to the instrument singing through the horn—whether I listened to Dinah or Frank Sinatra or others. It influences me to this day. Even Clifford Brown and Charlie Parker had lyricism. That's how I try to play. I don't hear that lyricism in a lot of new players unfortunately but all the greatest from the "Golden Age of Jazz" had it, especially on ballads.

AAJ: You are also a terrific saxophonist. When and why did you start playing saxophone?

GZ: When I got into Clifford Brown, I really enjoyed the playing of Sonny Rollins and Harold Land on their recording with Clifford. Also, listening to Miles I was drawn to early John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley. I was endorsing trumpets for Leblanc since the Ted Mack show, so I sent a letter to the president of the Leblanc, Vito Pascucci, and he sent me a tenor. I took one lesson just to learn the fingerings and taught myself the rest, applying what I could already do on trumpet as far as improvisation over to the saxophone. Everything was natural for me on sax—embouchure, etc. I played it just using my ear, hearing the music and transferring it to the horn just like trumpet.

AAJ: When did you first go out on the road professionally?

GZ: I was in my senior year in high school and I got a call to go out with Buddy DeFranco who was leading the Glenn Miller. I have no idea how it came about or who referred me. But, I did go. I left school and went out with the band. I was playing Bobby Hackett's chair. Buddy was very nice to me, but, I didn't like being out on the road.

AAJ: Did you have to play Bobby's classic "String of Pearls" solo?

GZ: I got pressure to do that, but, with respect to Bobby Hackett, I didn't like reading anyone's written solos. Buddy said to play your own solo. He was fine with that and we became friends, as he was a real jazzer.

AAJ: How long were you out with the Miller Band?

GZ: About three months. I didn't like it—one-nighters and hit and runs. Plus, I'm a soloist. I'm not a section guy or someone that would play in the Broadway pit even though I have done it. Just not my thing and what I was groomed for.

AAJ: And then?

GZ: Well, I went from the frying pan to the fire. I went home and got a call to immediately go out again. This time with Lionel Hampton.

Continue to Part 2

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