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Glenn Zottola: A Jazz Life - Hollywood, the World and the Stars

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: Your move to Hollywood was a tremendous step in your career. How did that happen?

Glenn Zottola: Well, I was at a high point in my career, recording for Harry Lim. I was busier than busy; 90 hour weeks, working with everybody—Milt Hinton, Frank Wess, jazz festivals with Dick Gibson and Phil Woods, Gerry Mulligan, Slide Hampton and Joe Pass. It was a dream come true. I'm in Europe playing with Harry "Sweets" Edison" and subbing for Clark Terry. It was a jazz musician's dream. But, I came to a point in my life—I was one of a group of "young lions"—Scott Hamilton, Warren Vache—that played mainstream-oriented music; not fusion. Even before Wynton Marsalis came on the scene. I remember one year Wynton and I were both up for a magazine's "Best New Jazz Artist" award.

AAJ: So, those were halcyon days for you as a performer.

GZ: Yes. But, the jazz music scene was changing; many players were getting into fusion, John Coltrane with Giant Steps," and so forth. But, we were mainstream players. I saw icons in their 80s out on the road doing one nighters with half the chops they had in their prime and playing with lesser rhythm sections. I said to a friend: "I never want to end up that way—doing one-nighters and scuffling." I realized that, as wonderful as things were, there would be a ceiling here—both financially and in how hard you would have to work, traveling less than first class, etc. All this got me thinking.

AAJ: And the big move to LA and Suzanne Somers?

GZ: I got a call from a friend who invited me to come down to a rehearsal in Los Angeles. It was a rehearsal for her live act and some TV performances. So, I'm sitting there watching Suzanne rehearse, singing some nice standards. I told her she sounded nice and asked her if I could sit in—a fateful move. She looked at me as if to say: "Who is this guy?" "OK," she said. So, we played "But Beautiful" which is on my anthology. I played alto sax and she sort of melted in front of me. She then said: "I want you as my bandleader." I can't believe that I said to her: "I don't back up singers anymore. I'm not a sideman I have my own jazz group and go to Europe which was all true." She then said: "No, not backing me up; you and I on stage together as my co-performer." I said: "I like that, let me think about it," left and went back out on the road performing with my own group here and in Europe. But, I soon realized that this was an opportunity for me to move to an entirely different level. Suzanne hadn't started the television show yet, having booked some gigs in Las Vegas and elsewhere and on Arsenio Hall. When I got to LA, Suzanne told me that they were going to do a TV show pilot for Universal Studios. She said that she'd get me good money. It was more money than any jazz musician could have dreamed of. So, we do the pilot and soon I'm at Universal Studios with an office next to Steven Spielberg's, a make-up and wardrobe person, and a "runner" who would get me reeds or anything I needed. When Suzanne traveled, we traveled by private jet, limos, and we stayed at the Ritz-Carlton Hotels. It was heaven. The perks were ridiculous, but I felt the way it should be for any jazz artist, but it wasn't in that other world.

AAJ: What was it like musically to work with her?

GZ: A dream. I worked for her for nine years. The television show was the "cherry on the cake" of a long career; all the dues paying off and we toured Las Vegas and elsewhere during those nine years I was with her. We didn't have one disagreement during that entire time. She loved jazz and she loved me. She never told me to do or not do anything. She would say: "Just do your Glenn thing." And, I didn't have one piece of music. I improvised the entire show differently every night. She was an actress first, but had natural phrasing and loved jazz. We never collided musically and had complete artistic respect for each other. It was a beautiful working relationship. And, we're close friends to this day.

All About Jazz: And the next step?

GZ: Well, Suzanne's television show was winding down at the time. And, there was a possibility developing at the same time with the "Tonight Show with Jay Leno." Branford Marsalis was leading that band at that time and was soon to leave. A manager had seen my work with Suzanne—remember, I'm a jazz musician, not a TV guy. The manager was very complimentary about my work and mentioned the "Tonight Show" opportunity to me. He wanted to set up an interview for me with the "Tonight Show's" producer. I had to defer, telling him that I wanted to honor my obligation to Suzanne and wanted to wait until we fully closed that show. Kevin Eubanks eventually replaced Branford on Leno and the rest is history, but, I felt good about my integrity and loyalty to Suzanne.

All About Jazz: Then what did you do?

GZ: Well, after Suzanne, I couldn't go back to being a working gigging musician I was spoiled. So, I went to Florida as I had a house there, met and hung out with the great Chick Corea for two years, jamming and recording with him. There is a track with him on my anthology from that period which was glorious. He is a monster and a very sweet guy. It was like hanging out with Mozart! I had known Chick by mail and through his great reputation, but, hadn't yet met him. Being there in Florida and with Chick—it was the only thing anywhere comparable to what I was doing with the TV show. He's amazing and is still my best friend to this day. No way could I go back to "business as usual" after Suzanne's gig. I still won't.

AAJ: What about your hooking up with Irv Kratka of "Music Minus One" fame?

GZ: I had some material already in the can from Europe and also wanted to do some recording. Irv has several jazz record labels beside Music Minus One and has recorded 6,000 albums since 1951 so I contacted him and he released that first album Jazz Titans CD with my trio. Irv is a huge fan of classic jazz and Louie so when he heard these concerts in Europe with my trio and Bob Wilber he became a big fan and friend. Soon, Irv asked me If I would like to do some MMO sides for him and I thought that might be a good vehicle to pass down what was passed down to me all these years by the jazz greats I played with. I told Irv that I used to play along with his original 1951 MMO recordings with Oscar Pettiford, Milt Hinton, Kenny Clarke, Osie Johnson, Jimmy Raney, Mundell Lowe, Nat Pierce and Wilbur Ware when I was kid. Those records helped shape my jazz style and I would love to record some MMO sides for him. That original MMO record had a lot of influence on me and my career. So, I did two albums on tenor sax with those tracks as I wasn't playing trumpet yet at that time. After that, Irv asked me what I wanted to do, so I told him I wanted to do a tribute to Charlie Parker and then Clifford Brown, Stan Getz, Ben Webster and a new one soon to be released -Miles Davis—paying homage to those jazz legends that made me who I am. So, he said sure. Irv has invested $60,000 in all the records I've done for him, both jazz CDs and Music Minus One in production costs. That's because he does everything top of the line with great artwork and production values. All my solos are transcribed which was a thrill. He's done over 6,000 albums of all kinds, some with amazing big bands, orchestra and lush strings—something I wanted to do for a long time. Something that most jazz players don't ever get the opportunity to experience.

All About Jazz: He must love your work.

GZ: He does. Irv is a great fan of Louis Armstrong and great jazz in general. He's opened his vault to me. I've found recording masters there that are fantastic some not even released—even an old Nelson Riddle recording that I used and one with Jimmy Raney and Stan Getz from that famous Storyville band they had in the early 50s. His vault is gold but he also has hired his arranger to transcribe original arrangements for me like the Neal Hefti arrangements I used on the Clifford Brown tribute and the one I am working on now a re-visit of the historic 1949 Charlie Parker with Strings which was the first time any jazz player recorded with strings. Very emotional stuff.

AAJ: Your focus of late has been on recorded work as opposed to live performance.

GZ: Right. I actually haven't performed live in ten years by choice. I turn down work all the time—here and in Europe. However, all of my recorded work has been and is ongoing. I want to pay homage to the greats of Jazz—Clifford Brown, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Ben Webster and others like them—the players who helped make me who I am.

AAJ: How many of these albums have you done to date?

GZ: About 14 albums—that is a lot of production. When I entered four albums into the Grammys this year and they found out how many I did they took a double take! Each requires a tremendous amount of production and Irv and I only do things first class.

AAJ: Your Clifford Brown with Strings album was done completely by ear, correct?

GZ: Yes, all of them with no music just like I am blowing on a jazz gig in performance that is the way I like to play. Irv has an arranger who transcribed the original Neal Hefti arrangements. I performed the Clifford Brown melodies by ear—no charts for me, but, the solos are my own with Clifford's spirit and inflections. Remember, I had heard that classic recording as a youngster every night before bed and wore it out.

AAJ: What does the future hold?

GZ: Well, I want to give back and share my experiences. I'm thinking about taking all these albums I've done about the greats—Clifford, Parker, Ben Webster, Getz, Miles and the like—and doing a comprehensive multi-media live performance with narration and presentation. I've done that before with Bob Wilber for the Smithsonian. We actually did a tour for them playing for classical music audiences with Vladimir Horowitz. They went crazy for our jazz. We'll see. Maybe we'll play in universities and places like that. It's on my bucket list!

AAJ: So, there are plenty major projects developing.

GZ: Yes. I'm not retiring, that's for sure. There's plenty of exciting music projects I have in mind and possibly a "Legends in Jazz" live concert based on all these records for colleges and choice venues and some multi-media video. There is talk about a possible documentary on my "Life In Jazz" which you gave me some great ideas on. Also, the companies I endorse: Music Minus One and Classic Jazz, RS Berkley Instruments and Rico Reeds also want me to go out and do clinics. I've kept away from that so far. However, I might just do that. I'm not an academic guy. I'm a player and leader. My college has been the bandstand. I think with my six decades of music experience, it might be fun to share some of that. I love what I'm doing. My "Life in Jazz" certainly isn't over yet.

All About Jazz: Glenn, this entire interview has been absolutely fascinating. I can't thank you enough.

GZ: Thank you, Nick. It's been wonderful to be able to discuss my life in jazz with you for All About Jazz.

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