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Glenn Zottola: A Jazz Life - On the Road and In Demand

Nicholas F. Mondello By

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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: So, now you're out with Lionel Hampton.

Glenn Zottola: Yes. I went from the frying pan with the Glenn Miller band immediately into the fire with Hamp. I was playing the jazz book and Hamp's book was tough—"Flying Home" and all that. Remember, I'm a soloist not a section guy. Hampton was amazing. He was really great to me. The gig paid $50 a night and you had to pick up your own hotel. Plus, I was working my tail off—their manager was booking afternoon gigs and not paying us any extra money. It became too much. I decided to leave the band, but, it was like leaving the Lion's Den! It took me three hours talking to the band's manager in Hamp's suite in New York before they'd let me go. Remember, I was a young guy. I was 17. I was scared and the manager—a real tough guy—pushed me up against the wall and said: "You can't leave Lionel Hampton!" At the same time, Hamp was saying "Gates, I love your playing. Do you want more solos?" It was a crazy scene. I told him it was simply too much for me.

AAJ: So you came back home?

GZ: Yes. My Mom and Dad were very loose and supportive of me and my decision. It wasn't as if they said: "We told you so." They, being musicians, knew the business and were 1000% behind me. I knew I could get work in New York.

AAJ: From?

GZ: I started doing work with all the well-known Latin bands—Larry Harlow, Ricardo Rey, Ozzie Ramirez at the Palladium in New York. Those bands and others.

AAJ: Was that your first time playing in that genre? It can be very demanding chopwise.

GZ: Yes, it was a new experience. It was quite interesting and I learned a lot about the real Latin thing. There were a lot of jazz players out there such as Pete Yellin—a good Bebop player. I did fine, but, some Latin band members said I was "out of clave." I had no idea—and still don't—what they meant—perhaps they meant that their emphasis was on beats One and Three versus our Two and Four in the jazz world. Who knows? I adjusted and they loved me.

AAJ: What other work were you doing?

GZ: Near home, I was working with my own group and also went up to play in the Catskills, playing at the various hotels there behind Mel Torme, Professor Irwin Corey, Myron Cohen and all the great acts that performed at the Playboy Club, Kutscher's and the other hotels. It was a vibrant scene. The hotel bands had great players from New York. I used to drive up there with trombonist, Jimmy Knepper.

AAJ: How did you wind up hurting your chops and going to see the great Carmine Caruso for help?

GZ: I was working in a very rough and tough place in Westchester with a great group, playing seven nights a week. Some of the bandcmembers were in the original Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers bands—Sonny Wellesley on bass from Blue Note records, Bross Townsend, Jr. on piano, Belton "Sticks" Evans on drums—he played like Bernard Purdie—a real groover. It was a great education. It was nuts. We'd play all night until 3 AM and then go to the owner's room for another couple of hours to discuss charts for future gigs. My Dad came and got me out of the gig. It was like that scene in The Godfather. It was a heavy scene. My chops were actually cut up. So, I went to Carmine Caruso and within a year he got my chops back. He was great. It was like being around my Dad.

AAJ: Then the Broadway pits?

GZ: Yes, the "pits" for sure! I moved to Manhattan and I did the original Evita with my brother who was playing first trumpet. It was way over my head reading-wise—time changes every other bar and all that. Remember, I'm an ear player. I was playing the music perfectly by ear not even looking at the conductor. Others were struggling and my brother turns to me in surprise and says: "You're not reading this music, right!? You are using your radar!" And, I said: "You caught me!" I also did Annie, They're Playing Our Song, Barnum with the great Victor Paz, 42nd Street and others. Then I did the national tour of Chicago with Jerry Orbach, Chita Riviera, and Gwen Verdon, playing lead trumpet and replacing Jimmy Sedler, who did it on Broadway. I loved it because we were onstage and the music was jazzy—you know, plunger and all that. We ended the tour in Los Angeles.

AAJ: The Benny Goodman gig came next. That was a major career step for you.

GZ: The pianist, John Bunch called me one day. I had done a number of gigs with John earlier. He said: "Can you come to the Astor Hotel in New York right away? Benny Goodman needs a trumpet player in his septet." I walked in and the band was John Bunch, Buddy Tate, Sonny Russo, Major Holley, Cal Collins, and Connie Kay. Benny doesn't say anything when I walk in and just starts playing tunes and I just started jamming with Benny. After the first set, Goodman comes to me says: "You sound great. Can you leave tomorrow to go on tour?" I might be wrong, but, I think he had Jack Sheldon at that time. I was so taken by Goodman's offer that I initially deferred, not wanting to take anyone's gig away and I said to Benny "I thought you had a trumpet player?" He replied "I didn't ask you that. Can you leave tomorrow?"

AAJ: So you accepted?

GZ: Yes. The first night out with the band, I asked Connie Kay, who was the road manager, if there were any charts. He reached into his trap case, pulled out a brown worn-torn small sheet of manuscript paper which was a riff of the last 16 bars of "Undecided"—handed it to me and said: "Here's your charts!" I got the message quickly.

AAJ: What was Benny's reaction?

GZ: He was very complimentary that first night, talking to the audience before my solo feature which was "I'm Confessin'" He got on the microphone and went through a list of trumpet players that worked in his band: Harry James, Cootie Williams, etc. and said: "This young man can hold his own with any one of them." I almost couldn't play after that intro!

AAJ: Did he ever "Ray" you?

GZ: Yes, and I "Rayed" him back—maybe I am the first one to ever do that according to the guys in the band. Remember, Dad told me always to be cocky and have a lot of confidence. He'd say: "You are the lead instrument when you play trumpet." We were in the middle of "Lady Be Good" and Benny glared and "Rayed" the band. Everyone was wondering where to go and what to do next. So, taking Dad's advice, I took the melody up an octave and wailed it, taking it out. Later, after the gig, Wayne Andre said to me: "You actually 'out-Rayed' Benny! Benny never said anything to me!"

AAJ: What did you glean best musically from Goodman?

GZ: His time. In the middle of "The World is Waiting for the Sunrise," he would wave the rhythm section out and play only with the guitarist Cal Collins—just clarinet and guitar. The intensity of his playing didn't drop one ounce, as opposed to his playing with the entire band. I couldn't believe it. Goodman's sense of swing was at the top. He swung his ass off.

AAJ: How long with Goodman?

GZ: Two years. It ran its course.

AAJ: Then?

GZ: I came back home and got a gig working at Eddie Condon's six nights a week with the great Vic Dickenson—a beautiful experience and education. He worked with Louis! A lot of guys would come in to hear this new kid in town during that time I just had moved to Manhattan. Roy Eldridge, who was working up the street at Jimmy Ryan's, Papa Joe Jones, even Wild Bill Davidson, who I invited to sit in. Also, John Hammond came in to hear me and also Ahmed Ertegun. It was truly amazing. Producer Harry Lim of Keynote and Mercury records fame came in one night when I was working with John Bunch and Mousey Alexander on a Sunday when they did more modern music. He gave me my first pro jazz record date for his label, "Famous Door" for Mousey with John Bunch, Al Klink, Phil Wilson, and George Mraz. "Cotton Tail" is the second cut on my Jazz Life anthology from that album—real hot New York jazz. I ended up doing many albums of my own and for others with Harry Lim and Famous Door. Soon, I met saxophonist, Bob Wilber who was putting together a group called The Bechet Legacy. I always loved Bob's playing. Also, the music scene was going in a direction that wasn't attractive for me—Fusion, Rock, Electronic and so forth. So, I did a rather unusual thing; I went "back in time" revisiting and honing my Louis Armstrong roots with Bob Wilber and The Bechet Legacy. I spent five or six years with Bob traveling the world and recording many albums and doing tours for Smithsonian. We were incredibly well-received in Europe and all over the world.

AAJ: Did you tell me that you got some great advice from Count Basie?

GZ: Yes, my quintet and I were doing the warm up act for Count Basie. I come off stage and as I walked by his dressing room I heard Basie's voice, "Young man, young man, come in here." I go in and there is Count Basie. People don't realize this is like meeting Elvis Presley or Michael Jackson—only better! He said: "You have been listening to Pops." And I said: "For sure." So, he said: "You sound great! Don't change a thing. Just keep doing what you are doing." I followed that great advice of his up to this day and have no regrets!

AAJ: How did you hook up with drummer, Bobby Rosengarden?

GZ: I met Bobby in Benny's septet. We also lived near each other in Connecticut along with Gerry Mulligan. I got a call from Bobby to cover him as leader with his 10-piece band at the Rainbow Room in New York as he was going to Europe I think with Mulligan. I had never led a big band before, but, I agreed to do it and he gave me everything—his bandstands and book and I opened up with singer Johnny Desmond. It was a big hit. We played six sets a night. The place was packed with celebrities—Frank Sinatra was a regular, the Shah of Iran, or couple from Iowa on their honeymoon, all on a given night. What a place! They ran it like a stopwatch—40/20. We had to break down and set up the band every night. I rotated my band for about two years with Rosengarden, Sy Oliver's band and Panama Francis's and I was getting amazing reviews from John Wilson and others. It was a great experience for me and I realized I could lead a big band and was very comfortable with doing it.

AAJ: Were you also then moving into leading, music production, and music business activities?

GZ: Yes, I became the Entertainment Director of two hotels in Connecticut—the Hyatt and the Crowne Plaza. It was even more of a great experience. I also started a music production company. In a given year, with the Rainbow Room and all, I was doing over 300 gigs and I had 70 of the best musicians in New York on the payroll. It was unbelievable. I then became partners with Rosengarden and we did plenty of gigs—two telethons for Jerry Lewis in New York and Mary Tyler Moore in Los Angeles with Frank Sinatra, corporate work, jazz festivals, recordings, and many other things. I made a lot of money, but, started burning out. I learned a lot from Bobby Rosengarden. He was a great player, bandleader and businessman.

AAJ: Give me an example, please.

GZ: He was a tremendous bandleader and a terrific businessman. A very smart man—like a mentor for me as far as the music business goes and for leading a big band on television, etc. Bobby was a major mentor.

AAJ: What about your playing in the celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the legendary 1938 Benny Goodman Carnegie Hall concert?

GZ: In 1988 I got a call from Bob Wilber. I had already left The Bechet Legacy and my production company with Bobby Rosengarden was thriving. Wilber said: "I need you for Carnegie Hall, because we are doing the 50th anniversary of the historic 1938 concert. I want you to play Harry James chair—lead and solos." I was reluctant, as I had not played in a big band in years and I was very busy, but I accepted. The night was one of the highpoints of my career. And, two tracks are on my anthology. I found them 25 years later, having been recorded by someone who was there that 1988 night. Isaac Stern did a beautiful intermission talking about Benny and jazz and Benny's daughter gave his clarinet to Issac for the Carnegie archives. At the 1988 performance, anyone who was there in 1938—"Bobby Soxers" at the time of the original show—was allowed to sit on stage. I could see decades drop off their faces, as they relived that historic night when "swing music" became the new national music of the country—the first and last time jazz has ever done that. We played the same program in the same order as that of 1938 to a packed house. My music was all brown as Wilber got the original arrangements from Library of Congress and there were little handwritten notes on my lead parts penciled in from Harry James like "You got this one, Ziggy."

AAJ: And Hollywood came next?

GZ: Yes. Another major step in this life in jazz.

Continue to Part 3

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