Jazz Orchestras

Nick Catalano By

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This excerpt appears in New York Nights: Performing, Producing and Writing in Gotham (IUniverse, 2008).

In addition to the productions of the dance band shows, being a Performing Arts producer meant that I had the opportunity to present artists from every genre imaginable. I steadfastly tried to adhere to some sense of objectivity listening carefully to comments and requests from students, faculty and patrons from the outside communities. Often, imaginative ideas arose out of discussions with these groups of all the music genres; however, one wound up pleasing everyone and coincidentally gave me a large measure of satisfaction.

In 1976, the winner of the academy award for best picture was "Rocky." In addition to being the overwhelming sentimental choice, it had been a well-directed, well-acted film. The music score by Bill Conti not only won awards but seemed to resound throughout America that year. I was doing some musical producing in Philadelphia that year so I began hearing the "Theme from Rocky" in my sleep; as the setting for the film, and the focus of the bi-centennial the city in the center of the world's public eye. I went to the Robin Hood Dell concert center to see the Maynard Ferguson band which was enjoying a rare moment for a jazz orchestra—they had the hit record of "Rocky" and their fees had suddenly increased. This had occurred during a period when Maynard had his usual extraordinary sidemen and recorded some notable jazz albums. The "Rocky" album had then become icing on the cake. At the Philly concert, the band was really roaring and the huge crowd went wild. I called Richie Barz in New York and he told me he had a great date on the routing book and would give me first dibs on it. Naturally, I grabbed it.

Born in Quebec Canada in 1928, Maynard had the usual credentials of a child prodigy. He played with the Jimmy Dorsey orchestra as a youngster, then moved on to Boyd Raeburn's band (not very successful commercially but memorable for its jazz innovations). From there Maynard had moved on to the Charlie Barnet band where he'd played alongside Doc Severinsen finally attaining international prominence with Stan Kenton. Early on, Maynard's trademark was his incredible range. No one before him had ever played consistently well in upper ranges that could only be heard by animals. And he could do it night after night.

At my 1976 concert, the band featured immortal sidemen such as Bobby Militello, Mike Migliore and a baritone saxophonist from Aukland New Zealand—Bruce Johnston.

Maynard had employed Denis DiBlasio, Jaki Byard, Alan Broadbent and a host of other great players who had gone on to achieve stardom. He had uncanny ability to uncover sidemen who were primed for greatness and playing alongside Maynard seemed to bring out the best in everyone. People of all ages went wild at my show. The exciting sound of Maynard's brassy band electrified patrons who had previously shunned jazz. Later, Maynard recorded a jazz arrangement of "McArthur Park"- and another one of the popular Beatles tune "Hey, Jude." Maynard's arrangers could preserve the pop identity of a song but still give it an authentic jazz feel. I booked Maynard several times during those years and sold out every concert.

No jazz orchestra of the swing era had sacrificed more for his art than Stan Kenton. Founded in the midst of the dance band craze, the band had signaled loud and clear—"no dancing here." Stan had very clear ideas on what he wanted his band to accomplish. The challenge was to integrate the new harmonic development in both jazz and classical music against the best traditions of ancient polyrhythm.

Employing writers such as Johnny Richards, Bill Russo and Bill Holman who were far in front of the mainstream, Stan had set the bar for success very high. But from the start on Balboa Island in California, the sound of the band appealed to enough people so that the payroll could be met. And some of the charts attained fair grades on the Billboard charts such as "Across the alley from the Alamo," and "Artistry in Rhythm." Kenton also employed some excellent singers (de rigueur in those early days) like Anita O'Day and June Christy so that the appeal of the music could be extended. Throughout the 50's and sixties, truly outstanding musicians filled the chairs in the Kenton band. The names read like a who's who: Mel Lewis, Milt Bernhart, Kai Winding, the Condoli brothers, Maynard Ferguson, Vido Musso, Lennie Niehaus and many others.

Since I had become an ardent jazz devotee as a child, I had thrilled to Kenton's music but because the band rarely toured in Gotham, I had never seen them. It was with titanic pleasure then that I called Richie B. and booked the band the first time. Stan was a totally independent guy. Stories of his rigidity abounded everywhere musicians gathered. He had his own record label and the only way he managed to sell records was at his concerts. His earlier contract with Capitol had resulted in constant fights as to repertoire and distribution so he had had to go it alone. I found him to be very professional, cooperative in every way giving interviews, publicity blurbs, and autographs for fans—and always dedicated. By the time he had arrived in New York to work my shows he'd had 30 years of jazz prominence behind him. Despite the relatively sharp aesthetic focus of his music, there were enough fans in the Metropolitan area to support the shows.

After the concerts, it was always heartening to see lines of fans from several generations who sought autographs, asked questions or simply wanted to congratulate him and shake his hand. He had withstood decades of opposition, eschewing time and again the easy commercial music that would have filled the coffers. Most of the fans who gathered outside his dressing room after the performances were musicians, writers and other insiders who knew what an important contribution he had made to American music.

I had presented the Kenton band several times in those years. One day, in late 1977, Richie called to tell me that Stan had been in an accident resulting in some loss of memory. But 3 or 4 months later, he was ready to back on the road and Richie asked if I wanted the New York date. Swiftly, the concert was arranged and the show was a great success and sold out. After congratulating Stan, who was clearly in great discomfort because of the accident, I said goodbye and wished him good luck on the tour. It was to be my last conversation with him and his final performance in New York. He died a few months later.

There are many methods that employed by bandleaders to create the focus and unity that must always be present if the band is going to maintain its standards. Most leaders are tight disciplinarians and little nonsense is tolerated. Some can loosen up now and again and still get results. A very few can be constantly relaxed and enforce no rules at all and despite this, the band will still sound great. Duke Ellington had a reputation for great laxity exemplified by the treatment of his preeminent saxophonist Paul Gonsalves, who was continually weaving to and fro on the bandstand in heavy stupor. Although he eschewed strict discipline, Ellington led one of the greatest musical aggregations in history. Woody Herman fell into this latter category and his famous "herds" had reputations for substance abuse, alcoholism and other vices. Still, Woody, one of the gentlest jazz people I have ever hung out with, made his band roar for decades.

It had been Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, Serge Chaloff and Stan Getz in the days of the "four brothers" herd that had helped Woody attain star status despite leading a band of notorious miscreants. In the 70's when he'd worked my shows, he had Alan Broadbent, Bruce Johnston and other Ferguson alums to support a cast of college-trained music majors. One of the shows during this time was a 40th anniversary concert at Carnegie Hall. It was a grand affair with hundreds of well-wishers showing up to embrace Woody. The plan was to bring out the star sidemen of the first "herd" (few are aware that former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan played sax in that band) and feature them in a number. The idea worked because a packed Carnegie Hall cheered all the alums as they came out and the venerable concert rocked with animation that night. I was backstage in the green room looking out to the festivities through the little dark green window that the architects had cleverly installed years before. As each musician arrived at his designated time I could direct him and coordinate his march down to the stage with Woody's gracious introduction. The last star to walk out to tumultuous applause was Stan Getz. When he had arrived in the green room he asked about the music with his usual aloofness.

I opened the pages of the especially written charts still wet with ink from the copyist so Stan could sight read them. He turned over each sheet as rapidly as someone counting a pile of dollar bills. His reputation for having a photographic mind was legend but that night I observed it first hand. I almost couldn't believe it. In an instant he went down and out onto the stage and straight away had the Hall applauding wildly.

Woody Herman's affability was infectious. One night after just about any kind of technical snafu that one could imagine had occurred during one of my shows, we decided to go out after the show and put the evening behind us. We settled into a cozy booth at the Café Pierre and were relaxing listening to the Bucky Pizzarelli trio entertain a roomful of bluebloods. Everyone instantly recognized Woody and in the rush to our table to greet him and say hello, someone spilled a glass of crème de menthe all over Woody's tuxedo. I rolled my eyes up thinking, "what else can go wrong tonight?" but Woody just laughed it off and told me to relax. In an instant the incident melted away and we were laughing and enjoying the music.

Woody's good nature was ill served by bad management. Toward the end of his life he was hounded by IRS agents demanding restitution for non-payment of taxes. The financial people that he had trusted through the years had betrayed him. Even after his death, his children and heirs had years of misery because of this.

Ever since Benny Goodman had discovered a young Lionel Hampton in California during the early 30's and brought him into national prominence with his small group recordings. Hamp had ruled mightily from his roost atop the jazz world. As noted previously, I first saw him when, as a 14 year old, I was playing at the Hollywood Terrace, on New Utrecht Avenue in Brooklyn. Hamp had come out to thunderous screaming and clapping from a roomful of worshippers. I immediately noticed that his fly was open, signaled to him and he whirled around to zip up and returned to the vibes with such rhythmic precision that I'm sure absolutely nobody saw this. As the band roared into Hamp's theme "Flyin' Home" the room went wild. I had never seen anything like it in my young life.

Through the next decades Lionel Hampton attained legendary status. By the 70's he had toured everywhere in the solar system with his "all-star" bands, played the most prestigious venues on the planet, received plaudits, honorary degrees and always gave 100% of himself on every gig just as he had in that appearance in Brooklyn when I was a kid. Because his music was so appealing and people who didn't even like jazz came to see his dazzling acrobatics, I booked the band often. During this time, I had my own production company and was producing concerts, plays and novelty shows. I'd been hired by others to put together entertainment packages and orchestras always figured prominently in all of this activity. Hamp's orchestra was important because he could play dances and concerts with equal success. During those years it seemed that I saw him every few weeks.

Hamp had been well mentored by Benny Goodman and he and his wife Gladys had learned how to invest wisely. Hamp had become a favorite of Richard Nixon, entertained during inaugurations and was a frequent visitor to the Nixon White House.

In 1999, as Hamp was aging, there was a concert a Pace with the band. I had to arrange to meet with him long before the show so I could interview him in connection with a biography of Clifford Brown that I was writing which was published the following year. It was going to be a bit sticky because I had to confront Hamp with an unpleasant situation that had occurred years before. In 1953, Hamp and Gladys were booked for the very first "Lionel Hampton All-Star" tour of Europe. Because bebop was in great demand in Europe, Hamp had hired Art Farmer, Clifford Brown, Quincy Jones, Gigi Gryce and a host of other beboppers.

The story is a long saga in my book. Briefly, the beboppers were in great demand to record all over Europe but Hamp and Gladys issued an edict strictly forbidding anybody in the band from doing any outside recording. The boppers were conflicted but decided to sneak out after hours and drive to various studios in Paris, Stockholm, Oslo and other cities on the 4 month tour where producers and European sidemen were waiting for them to record. Clifford Brown was the center of all the attention from the record producers and in greatest demand. When Hamp and Gladys discovered what was happening there was huge acrimony as they fired the Annie Ross and George Wallington and refused to provide them with their return tickets back home. Huge resentment built up on the part of the boppers who were all eventually fired. Despite all of this, Clifford Brown's secret recordings resulted in an explosive response from writers, fans and critics making him instantly famous. I had to write about this episode in my book and had to ask Hamp some difficult questions. I also was hesitant to annoy him at such an advanced age (90 at the time) and I knew his eyesight was going. As we sat backstage at Pace, I made him comfortable and asked about the unfortunate events in Europe almost 50 years before. He shuffled his feet and indicated that he and Gladys had wronged the young boppers with unjust treatment of them. I sat back proud of Hamp for his candor and class. I asked what he thought about Clifford during this time and he gave me a dramatic quote for the book. Clifford had "set Europe on fire" said Hamp. I leaned over and hugged him then helped him to get ready for the Pace concert. Of course, he was a big hit.

Scholars often debate the origins of "swing" but most agree that none of the early bands of the style swung harder than those in Kansas City during the early 30's. I remember reviewing Robert Altman's fine film "Kansas City" and spreading the word among fellow critics about how powerfully Altman had portrayed the era. For whatever reason the film had received bad reviews and I worked hard urging everyone to see it because the first night critics had surely missed the impact of the film entirely.

The K.C. band that swung the hardest was that of Bennie Moten. Thankfully recordings and transcriptions of the band exist and convey first hand the marvelous rhythmic revolution that the band achieved. At the keyboard, the band featured a young musician from Red Bank, New Jersey—William Basie. Bennie unfortunately died prematurely only leading the band for a few years, but during his tenure the band recorded "Moten's Swing" one of the seminal compositions of the era. After Moten's passing, the leadership fell to the young, unpretentious pianist. He organized matters carefully, putting bookings and tours together. Within a short time the band emerged under its new incarnation—the Count Basie Orchestra.

The rhythmic magic at the heart of the great swing orchestras lay in the interplay between the bass, the percussion, and the rhythm guitarist. Early on during the initial Basie years, the impact of Freddie Green on rhythm guitar can never be overstated. The joke concerning Freddie was that he played in the band for 40 years and never took a solo. By the time the swing era moved into its 3rd decade in the early 50's the Basie band had become the most respected among jazz cognoscenti for its rhythmic brilliance. The addition of the titanic blues stylist Joe Williams gave the Basie band of the early 50's a slice of pop appeal in the middle of the rock n' roll juggernaut. With release of the famous "Atomic Bomb" album featuring spectacular Neil Hefti arrangements and the best selling single "April in Paris," the Count Basie band insured itself a long run of fame.

The first time that I produced a Basie concert, I was standing at the curtain backstage having just introduced Bill and the band when someone began gently tapping me on the shoulder. Because it was so dark I had trouble focusing my eyes and identifying who it was and blinked my a bit when the person opened an overcoat that was so long it draped on the ground and revealed multi-pocketed inside compartments filled with all sorts of jazz merchandise—CD's, books, statues of stars, magazines and odd bits of memorabilia. It was as if an instant storefront had suddenly appeared from nowhere. My first thought was "who the heck is this clown and how did he get in here?" I was about to alert security when the guy blurted out "Hey, man this stuff is for intermission... you and me man... 50-50... we sell it in the lobby." As he spoke, I recognized him and started to amusingly shake my head in disbelief. It was Babs Gonzales—the original hipster and bebop "cool cat." Babs had snuck backstage and was finger popping as the Basie band swung wildly. I, too, was so enthralled the sound that I couldn't possibly chastise Babs. Later, he hawked his wares in the lobby and then simply slid out of sight. Babs's hip expressions in the 40's have become a part of mainstream American speech. Every time a student in my class begins a comment with the word "like" and then uses it exhaustively, I think of Babs.

The Basie band was such a great draw that, in the early 80's when Bill had had a heart attack and a concert date was imminent, Richie called wondering if I wanted to cancel the performance. I told him that the show should go on anyway because the band had helped make my jazz series very successful through the years. Pianist Nat Pierce led the band that night and the audience responded well even though we all missed Bill. Another time before a Basie show ABC Morning show host David Hartman showed up at the ticket office of a sold out performance asking for seats. I received a call and instructed the ushers to escort David and his wife backstage where I was and invited them to watch the show from the wings. He explained that he had a rare night off from a schedule of arising at 3:00 A.M. daily, that he and his wife rarely got out because of this wild schedule and their need to spend time with infant children. They hadn't been in town in months but when they discovered that "Bill" was playing they scotched their movie plans and rushed down to Pace. That was the excitement that a Basie performance engendered for almost half a century. As Buddy Rich lay on his deathbed, he asked to see one of his closest confidantes—Mel Torme. Lots of discussion had taken place regarding his biography in 1975. In 1987, Buddy endured a long illness. He was suffering from various heart problems and on top of this he had developed inoperable brain tumors. As he lay close to death, he and Mel again discussed the project and soon after Buddy passed away, Mel wrote a wonderful biography entitled "Traps the Drum Wonder."

In this book, Mel related one of he most amazing stories in American jazz history. Buddy Rich's parents were vaudevillians who constantly toured the country with an act dubbed "Rich and Renard." Shortly after their son Bernard was born, Marjorie and Robert began toting him to and fro crossing and re-crossing the country on the vaudeville circuit. When the infant was eighteen months old, the act was booked into the Bijou Theater in Fort Wayne, Indiana. In the usual fashion, Robert began passing out music to the orchestra as the act prepared to rehearse. He placed his infant son on the stage next to the drummer. No sooner had the music begun when all activity immediately ceased. Everyone was staring spellbound at the infant who had picked up the drummer's sticks and was tapping the stage keeping "perfect rhythm." When the tempo had changed, "the tiny hands adjusted to the new pace without missing a beat." Everybody naturally went ballistic; they could not believe what they were seeing. When the ooohing and aaahing finally subsided, the theater manager rushed over to Robert and told him he had to instantly revamp his act to feature his infant son. There were some parental hesitations but when the dust settled the child was brought on stage for the first show where he "paralyzed the Indiana audience. When the band finished the number and the toddler laid down the drumsticks, there was bedlam in the audience." Thus began the career of one of the most gifted musicians in all of American music.

After his meteoric rise to fame as a youngster, Buddy soon distinguished himself with great swing bands playing with Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw and others. He also became a celebrity hanging out with Frank Sinatra and causing rumpuses in Hollywood. His percussion skills were legend and he often participated in "drum wars" with Gene Krupa who had gained fame with Benny Goodman. No matter what percussive challenge presented itself to Buddy Rich, he overcame it in spectacular fashion. He soon turned his back on the world of pop swing so he could climb higher mountains. Fortuitously, he came upon the world of bebop which was attracting the best virtuosi in music. Nobody improvised with greater skill than Charlie Parker so Buddy sought him out and began recording with Bird. Ever the artist, Buddy rejected the lucrative world of commercial music for the cult world of basement bebop. Other challenges came when he entered the Marine Corps, served overseas and later obtained a black belt in Karate.

During the next decades in that period of the onset of rock n' roll where everybody in music had to scuffle, Rich was no exception. There were always gigs for Buddy but not necessarily ones that he loved. He had to eat and that was that. Then in the middle 70's he was able ,with the help and contacts of Willard Alexander, to get his own jazz band going and began the process of one-nighters albeit without the money that the dance bands could command. It was during this period that I booked the band and got to know him.

There were all sorts of stories about Buddy and his band leadership. He had continued to develop the legends of his youth by wowing his own band personnel. A new trombone player would be hired who might have a great reputation as a sight reader. He would be counting measures on a chart in rapid tempo; there might be a 40 bar tacit and then a darting punch from the bones that could consist of perhaps one-sixteenth note followed by 20 more tacit bars. Just to make sure that the new hire would be alert, Buddy would cue the entrance without looking him. After realizing what Buddy was doing, the new band member would quickly fall into line as a Rich worshipper. Although the band recorded several outstanding albums, the record business had become all but impossible for their music. Still, after recording a scintillating version of "Love for Sale" in a rocket tempo and a lengthy "West Side Story" medley with some breathtaking Rich solo work, these numbers became standard repertoire on tour.

Performances in the major concert halls of the world were well attended by legions of respectful fans who had been accruing since the old days. Buddy kept his "celebrity" image alive with many appearances on the Johnny Carson show. During the often hilarious dialogue exchanges between host and guest, Buddy would exhibit his rapid fire verbal repartee which had the audiences, along with Johnny, howling. Buddy's mental acuity and witty tongue were reminders of his precocious origins. One of the treats I looked forward to when Buddy worked my shows was the amusing show put on backstage between Buddy and saxophonist Steve Marcus. As the two clowned and traded hip, sharp-tongued lines the band members along with anybody else backstage would roar with laughter. This all happened, despite the fact that Buddy was a fearsome disciplinarian running the band. He was loud in his criticisms and often harsh with his personnel. In this connection, one of the funniest underground tapes in jazz became all the rage. It was not unusual for Buddy to chew out the troops after a gig he deemed unsatisfactory. As they boarded the band bus and settled in for the long ride to the next one-nighter, Buddy would stand up and launch into a tirade about the lack of harmonic cohesiveness in the trumpet section, the "clams" emanating from the soloists, the sloppy entrance of the reeds in the coda. He worked himself into a wild state often sounding like an incarnation of a Marine Corps drill sergeant. When he got this nuts, the band members often had to stifle giggles because his hysterical demeanor was so funny. One day somebody decided to tape the outbursts. The tapes were so outrageous that musicians all over begged for copies and if you didn't have your Buddy Rich "crazy speech" tape copy you just weren't anybody.

Always crusading for the art of jazz, Buddy decided to open a club—"Buddy's Place." He wanted a room where jazz would receive the same respectful silence during the performance that a symphony orchestra would receive in Carnegie hall. So he gave orders that drinks were not to be served during the sets. This and other strictures made the club a short-lived affair. People in clubs won't keep silent even if God is on stage.

Although known for toughness and lack of warmth toward many, Buddy seemed to take to me. He realized that my booking the band was an attempt to aid the cause and not to make money. He respected that and he said so. He began taping shows at the dawn of the cable TV era and asked me to produce some of the sequences. They were tough outings with constant interruptions for technical reasons. He became tired, impatient and irritable but never once lost his professionalism. Until the end, he remained the consummate artist.

One of the most memorable nights I ever had as a concert producer came as the immortal Benny Goodman said "Oh, alright" when I hounded him to perform at a series I was producing at the Colden Center in Queens. No one in the American instrumental arena had a greater name than Goodman. I was producing the Colden series independently and when Benny agreed to perform, I quietly jumped for joy because I knew the show would sell out in a heartbeat. In addition, Benny Goodman was a boyhood hero of mine as he had been for every reed player in the cosmos. The apotheosis of the American dream. Benny had done it all—been the "King of Swing" with all of the accompanying financial rewards from movies, records etc., established himself as the greatest clarinet improviser, led the first integrated jazz group in 1936 and set high standards as a classical musician. He was an icon in American culture and a world renowned artist.

After he said "Oh, alright," he added "but you have to put the band together." I quickly responded "No problem." Excited by all of this, I began to put all of the proverbial pieces for the show together. I had no trouble hiring "the" guys as sidemen for the show—John Bunch on piano, Mel Lewis on drums, Phil Flanigan on bass, Warren Vache on trumpet, Bucky Pizzarelli on guitar and Scott Hamilton on tenor sax. Benny had worked with all of these stalwarts before, and I knew he would be pleased. I had scheduled the rehearsal in a small hotel venue close by Benny's apartment on East 66th Street. As I knocked on his door, I heard the sound of a clarinet sliding up and down scales. I would go to visit B.G. several more times in the next few years and there never was a time I knocked on that door that I didn't hear him practicing. On a cold March day in 1982, the two of us drove over to the rehearsal space. The atmosphere was exactly what you would expect—a group of musicians laughing, exchanging stories, glad to be working a gig together. As Benny and I walked in everyone turned and greeted him with a little less of the usual jocularity and a little more of the reverential salutation due him. He smiled back at the group but said nothing as he removed his coat, took his clarinet out of his case and started playing scales. As I watched, something extraordinary happened.

Bunch stopped talking and placed his hands on the keyboard and lowered his head to stare at the keys in weird concentration. The others put horns to mouths, hands on strings and sticks on snares. They were all instantly immobilized—a tableau of drawn statues. Benny raced up and down the scales, played a gorgeous cadenza and roared into the head of "Avalon." On the downbeat release of the first note of the melody, all six sidemen hit correct notes precisely on the money. No one in the room had the slightest idea which tune he was going to play. "Avalon" progressed brilliantly, precision improvisations of one chorus each, 4 bar trades that were spontaneously extended for an additional half chorus with everyone smiling at the leader's decision, a crisp 16 bar drum solo, back to the head and then out with precise variation of the Basie ending... The performance had been executed so meticulously I was wishing it had been recorded. At the conclusion there was no congratulatory banter as there usually is when star musicians know they have just nailed a performance... The statuesque poses returned again with the guys waiting for the clues in Benny's next cadenza as to what the next tune would be...Later, exasperated, I pulled Bunch aside and mumbled "How the hell did you know what tune he was going to play?" He chuckled and said "You've just seen a Benny Goodman rehearsal...they're always like that... you've got to be ready every second!" I had heard about Benny's disciplinary reputation, but this was something I'd never encountered before in music and I had been to rehearsals of Toscanini conducting the N.Y. Philharmonic.

In my memory, although the concert was a huge success, the rehearsal will always stand out. There were over 2500 seats at the Colden Center and they were all sold out within hours of the initial announcement. Benny was very happy with the reception and he reached out to the crowd with his best effort. The music swung mightily and I made enough money to pay for my daughter's entire college tuition in one night. Thank you Benny Goodman.

Learn more about New York Nights: Performing, Producing and Writing in Gotham. © 2008, Nick Catalano

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