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Jimmy Zito: Young Man With a Horn

Jimmy Zito: Young Man With a Horn

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He had a low tolerance for BS.
—Chuck Findley
So, we can start with a question? Name me another musician who played with both Ted Fio Rito and (maybe) Frank Zappa? Aside from Jimmy Zito. Time's up. No, it's not some kind of trick question. I doubt there was another. But wait a second, Jimmy Who? Even if you're a trumpet devotee, Zito's name is probably not a familiar one to you. Zeets, as he was known, was one of the elite West Coast studio trumpet players in the 1960s and 1970s, but his career had begun in Chicago in the late 1930s. By the 1970s, he had been around the block a few times, so if you were into swing bands, or even just a more than casual fan of jazz in Southern California, you may have seen or heard of him. He worked in what Leonard Feather, in another characteristically charitable evaluation, called "the commercial salt mines." Well, yeah. Even trumpet players must eat. So, there was that.

At one time, you would not have had to work particularly hard to find Zito's name in the newspapers, this is the later 1940s and early 1950s. He would have been, as it were, a minor celebrity of the gossip column sort, just as Nick Travis would be at a slightly later date. As late as 1950, Zito got more ink than Pete Candoli, Conrad Gozzo or Uan Rasey, three of the then heavy-hitters of the instrument (and that is backed by science, an N-gram search) And, yes, the press would have involved Jimmy's amours, something that trumpet players of the time seemed particularly prone too. If you are intrigued, stick around. You may get to hear some pretty good playing in the process too, as well as an answer to the question, "Oh yeah, whatever happened to him?"

James Carmen Zito came from a large immigrant family that had settled in Chicago. It would strike you as large by contemporary standards, but it was probably not exceptional as Italian American families went. He had, at minimum, seven living siblings in 1930, in a household that numbered eleven. He lived in a small row house on a quiet, tree lined street, but it must have been crowded. If Jimmy practiced trumpet as a kid, someone got an earful, family, or neighbor. A kid trumpet player's first months on the instrument are usually memorable, no matter how gifted the student may be. Jimmy was certainly gifted, a prodigy even, but no one is born knowing how to play a horn. The story that he played with the Chicago Symphony at 12 or 13 appears to be apocryphal (at least the Symphony can't verify it), but Herbie Hancock verifiably performed with them at the age of 11, so you never know. There is another story that Zito took his first band audition in Chicago at age 12, but got sent home with carfare, not because he could not play, but because he was too young. It is possible he may have studied with somebody in the Symphony, something an enthusiastic publicist may have may have honestly confused with playing with them. It happened.

In May 1941, "Jimmy Zito, not quite 18 and looked upon [in Chicago] as a veritable hell on trumpet" was playing with Paul Jordan's locally based band. But not for long. By August of the same year, Zito had joined Ted Fio Rito, with whom he briefly played, until no later than 1942 (when he did make a raucous eight-bar appearance on "Ma, He's Making Eyes at Me" in a film with Fio Rito), by which point he had joined Tommy Dorsey (his draft registration proudly noted TD as his employer). The brief stint with Fio Rito not only gave Zito visibility. He also met a 15-year-old singer named June Haver (then so unknown her name was garbled in a photo) who was being chaperoned by her mother. For now, let's say they must have made an impression on each other, and leave it at that. Zito played lead on Fio Rito's "I Never Knew," and sounded pretty good doing it. It may have gotten him the gig with Tommy Dorsey, where he also handled lead.

By May of 1942, Zito had joined what Frank Sinatra once called "the General Motors of the Big Bands," Tommy Dorsey. Jazz writer George Simon was ecstatic: about Dorsey, the band, the trumpet section, and about Zito."[You]" have probably never heard a more brilliant trumpet section than this one, composed of... Ziggy Elman, Chuck Peterson, [Jimmy] Zito and [Jimmy] Blake... .And in a young Jimmy Zito, Tommy has himself a real find, a trumpeter with an exciting aggressive tone and an amazingly versatile range." I don't know if George Simon was the big gun of the big band writers; while he was rarely as sour as some of the critics of the day, that was some endorsement. Zito had arrived. If there is any consensus about the young Zito, it was that he was something else. An eyewitness to a 1942 performance had the chance to talk to Zito backstage. He observed that Zito used a beat-up Holton with a cornet mouthpiece doctored with newspaper so as to fit. When queried about the odd setup, Zito said this is what I've used from the beginning. It does everything I want. It's the player, not the equipment.

Well, a lot of great players in those days were remarkably casual about their horns (Bunny Berigan seems to have been an outstanding example). But the Holton part was clearly accurate, because as late as 1953, Zito was endorsing Holton instruments in the trade press. I doubt he was still playing his original setup if Holton had anything to say about it. He was a very good-looking guy, about average height, and went maybe 130 pounds. His power must have come from proper technique, because when he stood next to a bigger guy, like Ziggy Elman, he seemed slight. But his sound certainly wasn't small, since he handled lead with TD. In those days, one might have said Zito had "matinee idol" looks, because that must have been a part of the story with June Haver, his first wife, who was nicknamed "the pocket Betty Grable" and was seemingly destined for movie stardom. Normally you'd rather stay away from the gossip column material, but in Zito's case, it turns out to have been a big part of the story. You can't help wondering if his personal life didn't derail what was a very promising career in 1942. He would not have been the first (or the last) jazz musician, let alone trumpet player, to have gone that route.

Before going into the military service (the United States entered World War II in December 1941 and there was a draft), Zito seems to have recorded a certain amount with TD. But there is one recording that stood out, if only because we have a clip of it from the late 1943 film "Madame DuBarry was a Lady," and it featured Zito's razzle-dazzle playing with Ziggy Elman on "Well Git It." (Lord knows what Dorsey's band was even doing in the film) TD had previously recorded the Sy Oliver tune with Chuck Peterson (who some thought outplayed Elman!) in 1942. It is worth watching the 1943 version in full, because you get an idea of Zito's boisterous style.

So, it probably should come as no surprise that writers like Barry Ulanov began to refer to Zito, then all of 20 years old, as a copy of Elman, but this was probably one of the last things he did with TD before going to Les Brown in 1943. With the war on, Zito, like many others, was drafted and ended up in the 678th Army Air Force Band in Atlantic City, New Jersey, but was soon discharged for unspecified medical reasons and ended back with Brown, with whom he became a featured soloist (with Doris Day). Even Ulanov had been complimentary but suggested that Zito might try playing more in the middle register, where he appeared to have considerable potential as a jazz player. It was a good suggestion, and anyone who has ever heard Zito's solo break on Brown's 1946 classic "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm" could only agree that he could indeed play nice jazz when he wanted to. On the other hand, he screeched his way through the intro of "Show me the Way To Go Home," just in case anyone wondered if he could. But the antics took a toll. In late 1945 Zito had to take time away for a "lip operation." It would not be the last one.

Not that it seemed to matter. In March 1947, Zito took probably his best-known solo with Brown's band, "High on a Windy Trumpet." While for once Brown's band starts to sound a little more modern and even boppish in places, Zito's solo is unreconstructed swing chops that rivaled anything that Roy Eldridge or Harry James could do. But probably more importantly, Zito also married a Hollywood star in the making, June Haver, that same month. They had known each other from the early 1940s when both were improbably with Ted Fio Rio, just teenagers in fact.

The marriage was a disaster, to put it mildly. It lasted slightly more than 2 years. Writing about turbulent relationships is always difficult. You inevitably get mostly one side of the story and Haver had a distinct flair for the dramatic., not to mention short-term commitments (in fairness, her subsequent marriage to Fred MacMurray was a long one). There is a temptation to regard the union as irrelevant, except for the fact suddenly, the whole world (it seemed) knew who Zito was. Hollywood gossip columnists like Louella Parsons saw to that. Even worse, this was the point when Zito left Les Brown and started his own band.

This may not have been a great business move. Even though the band was small—11 pieces—and got basically good reviews even as it was starting out, times were tough economically with the unwinding of World War II. But George Simon called December 1946 the official end of the Big Band era. Woody Herman, Benny Goodman, Harry James, Jack Teagarden, Benny Carter, Ina Ray Hutton, and Tommy Dorsey called it quits. So too did Jimmy's employer, Les Brown. So, it wasn't as if Zito had much choice, if any.

But if you did have a band, you had a payroll, and you had to work. The road called, which did not make for marital bliss. Perhaps the only reason for even mentioning the episode is that Donn Trenner, who was Musical Director of the Steve Allen TV Show (1956-60) hired Zito to play trumpet in the Allen show band. As Trenner archly put it, "That marriage was an important part of Jimmy's resume." Well, whatever he meant, the marriage can't be ignored, private life or not, because when he went on the road to places like San Angelo, Texas, with his band, he was billed as "the former husband of Hollywood star June Haver." If this was part of the draw in the hinterlands, then it is relevant. That must have been what Trenner meant.

And from 1947 to 1952 Zito was mostly on the road. While the band did occasionally have two-or three-week engagements in venues like Los Angeles, what followed was a seemingly endless round of one nighters, and college proms. Zito was a top post-war "name "band on the college circuit (like his near-contemporary Elliott Lawrence) and did proms and social affairs At UC Berkeley, the University of Washington, Oregon State, and the University of Idaho. Just looking at the band's schedule in 1948 and1949 would make you think twice about the glamorous life of a road musician: one-nighters in Oregon, Idaho, Washington, Montana, Utah, California, Texas. The list was virtually endless.

Moreover, Zito got caught up in the wrangling over the infamous American Federation of Musicians recording ban (1941) which was supposedly over in 1944, but whose lingering effects had caught Zito in a 1948 lawsuit over recordings that he either could not or should not make. If there was any time worse for swing bands than the late 1940s and 1950s, you would have to prove it. In the event, Zito finally gave up, defeated, and rejoined a reconstituted Les Brown band in 1952. He was again a featured soloist, and virtually reprised "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm" on "Ramona." He also soloed, or played lead, or some of both on a terrific album, Musical Weather Vane (Coral, 1952), in a bop-inflected trumpet section. In the meantime, he would be married and divorced once again, to a minor Hollywood starlet, Cece Whitney. Her complaint was that Jimmy, apart from being a genius, and hard to live with, was inclined to spend his evenings out playing music. And that was that.

What comes next leads to speculation. Unfortunately. Zito, Lord knows, was not the first great trumpet player to have problems with substance abuse, and he certainly would not be the last. A measure of fame, Hollywood glamor and all the rest, including trying to get a big band going under unpromising circumstances took a toll. Really, in retrospect, he was lucky to have survived. The account of the automobile accident he was involved in in Van Nuys, California in October 1954 was bad. It sounds as if he lost control of a car in a turn, suffered a concussion, a fractured jaw, and a fractured leg. Zito was quoted by police as saying, "I have been drinking for three days but don't know what happened last night. I don't know whether I was in a traffic accident, whether somebody hit me, or whether I hit somebody else. The only thing I remember is when I came to in the garage." Aside from very likely killing him, the accident he had could have easily ended his career if damage to the jaw were severe enough (not just a dramatic ploy in a movie like Mo' Better Blues (1990) He must have been a tough customer, because he had also broken his playing hand at one point previously and kept on right through it.

Zito obviously had an alcohol problem, but since the rest of his career was basically realized as a studio musician—along with the best at the instrument around LA—it is difficult to believe he did not get a handle on it. Any professional will tell you studio calls are often early in the day (trumpeter Uan Rasey said he once had one at 6:30 AM!), and that time is money. You aren't reliable, you can forget about getting called again. It is, of course, possible to play and even play very well while inebriated, high or otherwise impaired, but most people do not recommend it. At the very least, with trumpet players, it seems to shorten lifespan considerably. Consider Berrigan, Bix Beiderbecke, Sonny Berman, Doug Mettome or Fats Navarro, for example.

So it is very interesting that when Zito surfaced again with what must have been a near rendezvous with mortality it was with a studio orchestra (sometimes called a symphony) operated by MGM, in which he played in a section with Ray Triscari, Uan Rasey and plenty of others, not to mention a slew of films from the 1950s through the 1970s, including Mutiny on the Bounty, "Ben Hur, and North By Northwest. It was at this point, one surmises, that Zito's career took a different direction. And Perhaps Zito did himself. He was, after all, only in his early 30s at the time of the accident. Most trumpet players could easily, with sufficient care, play into their 70s, and some even beyond. So, the very real question was then, what were you going to do to make a living the music business in Southern California? For one thing, a lot of the incessant travel and touring stopped. He bought a home in the San Fernando Valley along with a lot of other studio musicians, and, for some time, appears to have shared a residence with a sister. He may have gone on the road to accompany a specific act occasionally, but Southern California became his postwar base.

Sometime, one guesses in 1956, Jimmy joined the house band for the Steve Allen show that ran on NBC. It was directed by Donn Trenner and included players like Frank Rosolino and Bob Enevoldsen. Trenner praised Zito's "warm ballad sound" and "strong lead... for this setting," but characterized Zito as "volatile" and as a guy who walked out over some trivial issue. He was replaced by Conte Candoli. Trenner adds "We had only that one personnel change in the band." You get the feeling there was not much love lost between them, but it is not as if Zito was hard up for work. Between 1956 and 1966, he worked with Shorty Rogers, Billy May, Benny Goodman, Al Hibbler, and Louie Bellson among others. A sample of his work can be heard with Bellson Big Band Jazz From the Summit (Fresh Sound,1962(2013)). His lead work, assuming it was Zito and not Johnny Audino or someone like Conrad Gozzo, was fine. The solos he takes are not what you would have expected from Jimmy, especially in contrast to Conte Candoli's.

It had not happened yet, but, in music, as in most fields, there would be a slow changing of the guard. Sure, as late as the 1980s, a lot of the top LA studio musicians and session players would still hold down top jobs, but by the late 1960s, the vanguard would inevitably arrive. It happened with trumpet players, of course, and these people would bring a lot of youthful energy, ears, and drive with them—and a different mindset perhaps, to a physically demanding instrument. You might think of Chuck Findley or in the United Kingdom, Derek Watkins, still in their late teens or early twenties, but as precocious as Zito had been a generation earlier. Of course, not everybody who went on to Wrecking Crew notoriety was a kid, and some of them were Zito's generation as well. But there was change in the air.

In 1972, The Tonight Show, then hosted by Johnny Carson, moved from New York to California (Burbank, to be precise), and the Tonight Show Orchestra, led by Doc Severinsen, moved with it from New York. To a lot of older viewers, the band in New York under Skitch Henderson must have looked a lot like some version of one of Benny Goodman's. Some of the regular band members moved West, but Zito was one of those who had to sit out a buyout of the NBC staff orchestra. As things worked out in Burbank, Zito eventually joined Snooky Young, Johnny Audino, Conte Candoli, and Maury Harris in a rotation (with Zito as fourth chair) This lasted through the 1970s and into the 1980s, when a recurrence of problems with his lip made playing the trumpet at the level to which he was accustomed impossible. It was at this point, around 1990, that he moved to bass trumpet, which employed a bigger mouthpiece.

Doc Severinsen characterized Zito on bass trumpet "[as] one of the greatest sounds you'll ever hear," and once again, Zito went to work with Louie Bellson's big band at Disneyland on bass trumpet, with a feature written for him by Tommy Newsom. The switch obviously worked out for the best, for Zito spent the earlier 1990s gigging around LA, sometimes in the company of trumpeter Buddy Childers. We are lucky enough to have a document of Zito's playing on but on valve trombone (Jennifer Leitham was on the date, so we can be sure it was valve trombone) with Buddy Childers, West Coast Quintet (Candid, 1997). Zito's playing is marvelous, especially on "All The Things You Are," where he plays counterpoint to Childers and then takes a couple of inspired choruses, returning to counterpoint on the out chorus. It is a great job by all, rhythm section included. "Lament" is a feature for Zito pretty much from beginning to end, and a lovely one. No one does much new on "Cottontail," but it is fun to hear, and Jimmy and Buddy trade fours at the end. Jennifer Leitham, who played with Zito at this point in his career, makes a couple of striking observations: "He was as good an improviser as I've ever played with... he may have had the best sense of time of any musician I ever played with. His ideas were so fluid, yet so precise, never a wasted note, even when he was improvising with abandon."

At that point, Jimmy would have been 74, and although he would live to age 90, he seems to have called it day sometime before, although relatives say he continued to play for hours a day. He passed away in 2004 in Woodland Hills, California, where he had long lived, but went to home to Chicago as his final resting place. He had outlived all but one member of his immediate family.

Chuck Findley remarks that his wife, Zelee once called Jimmy Zito "The Oldest Hippy in Town." Chuck observed the Zito "loved to play," something Zito confirmed repeatedly when asked about his life in music. It's very tempting to say you can hear that in virtually everything he recorded, especially when he was cast as a matinee idol early in his career, sort of The Young Man With a Horn (1950), for which he supplied the trumpet background with Harry James. Sometimes in the music business as in life, timing is everything, and Zito may have arrived just a bit late on the big band scene to have had the success of Tommy Dorsey, Les Brown, or Harry James. But when he was on, Zito could play with anyone, spectacularly gifted, as Gunther Schuller was reputed to have said. Aspects of his personality may have worked against him too, but you could have a worse epitaph than "he had a low tolerance for bs." Most geniuses do. Besides, Leitham concludes: "In the time I knew him, he was self-effacing and humble. He didn't want the limelight..." In the final analysis, people are complicated. So what else is new?

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