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Marvin Stamm: Team Player

R.J. DeLuke By

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One of the things that put me in good stead was my versatility. My being able to play all kinds of music —Marvin Stamm
Trumpeter Marvin Stamm is known for being part of a gazillion albums, having that ability to go into a studio and play exactly what's required, whether it's for a records by pop singers, jazz artists, Paul McCartney, Donny Hathaway or touring with Frank Sinatra. It's a reputation the highly skilled player earned with hard work.

But it's been awhile since the studio days. It's also been awhile since Stamm, 81, sat in the trumpet sections of some of the best big bands ever—Stan Kenton, Woody Herman, Thad Jones Mel Lewis Remembered and more. Though he will do some sideman work and has sat in some horn sections since those days, like the Westchester Jazz Orchestra based near his home, he moved on, and has accrued a long series of albums as a leader, employing other great musicians and exploring the improvisational world of jazz that takes Stamm and his bandmates on special journeys.

"I was very fortunate when I was in New York to be called upon to do a lot of studio work. One of the things that really put me in good stead was my versatility. My being able to play all kinds of music, everything from commercial to jazz. Classical style things to lead in a big band. Things like that. All of that comes from years of training and playing with older guys that taught all the lessons just by me listening to them," Stamm says.

He may not be on the tip of people's tongues when they discuss the genre's trumpet heroes. But that's OK with the mild mannered and very astute musician from the musical city of Memphis.

"As far as my career is concerned, I never recorded for money. I never recorded for fame," he says. "All the things I have done are to document the music we were playing, among the players I was playing with. There have been a number of different players I have been playing with, even on my own albums. When you talk about a business, and you want to make a recording of something, you have to really think if you're really into it for the music. Not for fame. Not for fortune. Basically what you want to do is document, at a certain moment in time, where you and your group are coming from. Where you are at, at that time."

"That's the important thing about the music. In the pop field, people make a record and all of a sudden people you never heard of are big stars and they make a lot of money. Two years later, nobody even knows who they were or who they are. That kind of music has no staying power," he notes. "When you listen to some of the music that many of the jazz musicians over the years have recorded, you still find them, including myself, still recording music that was written in the 1920s. Or earlier. They had melody, they had harmony, they had rhythm And for singers they had lyrics that really spoke like poetry. There are things that have staying power."

Stamm strikes again, documenting the music of his current quartet with the release of Live @ Maureen's Jazz Cellar (Big Miles Music), with drummer Dennis Mackrel, pianist Mike Holober and bassist Mike McGuirk.

The recording captures a group used to working together, sailing through the waters with each crew member knowing their duties, and knowing when they can stray for the purposes of enjoyment. "Invitation" shows Stamm soaring over pulsing rhythm, leaving spaces in his phrasing as his mates walk through the changes. The solo builds in complexity and the trumpeter's sweet tone is on display. Holober explores with fine technique and touch and the bass, too, flows through the changes seamlessly with sparkling sound. It's what a live set is supposed to be, compelling and telling. The stories are presented in the moment for the audience to experience. "Morning Hope" is an intriguing ballad. There are a couple of standards, "All the Things You Are" and "You Stepped Out of a Dream," exquisitely handled, as are a couple of jazz classics, Horace Silver's "Peace" and Bill Evans' "Funkallero."

"The thing about doing a live recording is you really have the feeling of the people you're playing for, and you get an opportunity to get the real return reaction and emotion of the audience," says Stamm. "The feedback you get just from the feeling in the room, how they respond to your music—not with applause, but something that is hard to explain. But you get the feeling of whether your music is reaching them, whether they're with you or not. That feeling is very inspiring."

Stamm's association with Holober goes back some years, from playing in the Westchester Jazz Orchestra, north of New York City, a big band led by the pianist that lasted about 10 years. "We had an opportunity to make it more of a friendship basis rather that just a musical basis. We started getting together to play some duos at his house on Sunday afternoons. Play for a couple of hours. Have a bite of dinner together with the wives. Relax. A relationship grew out of this. And the musical relationship all of a sudden became a co-leader kind of thing. We did some duo concerts and established a real musical rapport," Stamm says.

Mackrel he has known for nearly 30 years, going back to his days in the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Big Band, when Mackrel took over the drum chair after Lewis was too ill to continue.

"Denis is almost like a painter. He has such a palette of colors with his drum set. It's never about playing the drums and it's never about being a soloist, although he is a great soloist. It's that he thinks along the lines of being a team player. He's always listening to what Mike and myself are doing and he's always accentuating that. That becomes the main thrust of what he does," says the trumpeter. "As a soloist, he's a virtuoso as well and he's got tons of experience with many great people including Basie.

He calls McGuirk "just an astounding soloist. The bass under his fingers is almost like a guitar. But it's not about the technique, it's the ease with which he is able to express his musical ideas. As a soloist, he also is a virtuoso. As a team player in the rhythm section, he has marvelous time, plays beautifully in tune and like Dennis he's an inveterate listener. We've developed this conversational thing which I think is very obvious in the record when we improvise together.

"The most important and main ingredient of this quartet is the accentuation we put on listening to one another. Listening to the music. Letting that be the thrust of exactly what this group is all about. Listening, contributing, having a musical conversation. As opposed to four soloists getting up and playing and making it an act of self aggrandizement.

"I feel like we reached a point where we had a real exposition of the music and it made everything come to life so well," he adds. "When a jazz musician makes a recording, it's important that they think about what that recording means to them. If you're doing it to make a hit, then you're not servicing the music. You're servicing the industry. Because you're trying to get something out of it that has nothing to do with music. Really, you're trying to project what the efforts and how the music comes together for people. That's the thing. How does the music reach the audience?"

Of a live setting, Stamm expands: "You can hear when I split a note. You can hear when I go for an idea that doesn't quite come off. But hopefully, I take it to another direction and make it come off. But what I intended to do didn't exactly happen. That's what happens when you play live," he says.

There will be no touring, of course, with the coronavirus wreaking havoc.

"We're all getting weary from the whole thing, but we have to conscious of the fact that this is for the long run," says Stamm. "We have to find a way within ourselves not to let this disease and this political situation drag us down. We have to find a way to keep our spirits up. It's necessary. If we don't keep our spirits up, then we all lose."

Playing clubs with his own group, at times with friends, has been the staple for Stamm. He was a longtime veteran of the studios, injecting all styles of music with his pristine trumpet sound and, when necessary, marvelous technique. But he gave up the studios years ago. In fact, he notes, that scene doesn't really exist anymore, antiquated on a large part by technological advances. Some producers put the technology to good use. Others, not so much.

Stamm left the studios around 1990 as he garnered more opportunities to use his own voice in his own groups.

"The whole studio thing had changed because of the synthesizer. The synthesizer was a way to replace musicians for record companies so they could make more money, have less cost. A lot of the writers who came along were not of the stature, musically, of the people I had been working with. The business changed drastically. I thought if I was ever going to have the opportunity to go out and play, this would be it. If it didn't work out, I'm sure I could have gotten back into something one way or another. Because I think I left most people in the business with a good taste in their mouth. I always seemed to get along with people pretty well. I always showed them respect and most people respected my abilities as a trumpet player, whatever they might have thought of my jazz playing."

It may have been a risk, but Stamm was supported by his family and things worked out. He says studio work has shrunk to the point where if a musician doesn't have a Broadway pit band gig to fall back on, there isn't enough work to make a decent living. His close friend, the great trumpeter Randy Brecker, has a studio in his Long Island home where he will lay down tracks to be injected into other people's recordings. That is the type of studio work that is being done, though Brecker, who Stamm has known since their days in Duke Pearson's band in the mid '60s, still travels to live gigs for most of his work.

"Randy is one of my favorite players of all time. He's not only a friend, but if I didn't know him, he would be one of my favorite trumpet players, having sat in a section together for many years and knowing what a team player he is, along with being a great soloist. He's just wonderful. I wouldn't want to do what he does. As much as I love to play jazz, I don't want to travel that much. Not at this age. Not at this time," he says.

When Stamm first arrived in New York, a lot of work was with big bands, including albums with Oliver Nelson. "The guys I was sitting next to were guys like Ernie Royal, Snooky Young, Bernie Glow, the three top trumpet players. We did everything live. If it was a big band recording, there would usually be five saxophones, three or four trumpets, three or four trombones, piano, bass, drums, guitar. Everybody recording live. I worked for many years for Burt Bacharach. We'd have 80 pieces in the orchestra, live."

Stamm explains how the studios began to evolve.

"As the number of tracks through the years went from two-track to four-track to 16-track to 32-track, the engineers wanted complete control over every microphone and every track on every instrument. So there were some recordings where, before they started a tune, the drummer would come in and they would do the whole drum track. So they could get the exact sound they wanted on every cymbal, every drum, so on and so forth. Sometimes they would record each track separately, instead of having the drummer play the whole thing at the same time. And then they would put on the bassist. And then maybe the keyboard player. They got down to where all the horn players were called in to play their parts after all the rhythm section stuff was done. We did this for years.

"It came out perfect. But you never walked out of the studio feeling like you were part of a band. You came out feeling you were part of a section and you did a darn good job. Because these were some of the best musicians in the world. ... Whatever you needed them for, they always put out the best job you could ever want. If the first four calls in any chair couldn't make it, the next four were just as good. That's how deep the bench was in New York City at that time."

Meanwhile, Stamm was gaining considerable recognition for his playing with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis (1966-1972) Orchestra and with Duke Pearson (1967-1970), as well as performing with Frank Sinatra in the early '70s, and with the Benny Goodman sextet, among others. I was so fortunate to grow up when I did and come up at a time when there was a lot of recording of some marvelously beautiful musicians. Including people like Paul McCartney and some of the other guys.

He's particularly fond of a session he did for Hathaway's Extensions of a Man. "Talk abut a beautiful singer, beautiful songs. And he wrote all the arrangements for the orchestra and even the smaller groups. It's not jazz. The orchestra was just amazing."

Stamm's own first, album Machinations came out on Verve Records in 1968, and he recorded steadily over the years under his own name, as well as collaborating with the likes of Bill Evans, Quincy Jones, Oliver Nelson, Wes Montgomery, Freddie Hubbard, Stanley Turrentine, Michel Legrand, Lena Horne, Paul Desmond, George Benson and others.

Stamm particularly liked this big band experiences. "The biggest thrill for me was the musicians I sat in the trumpet section with. My colleagues. In the first 10 years, maybe a little longer, the guys I grew up listening to ... being accepted by them into the trumpet section and being able to be a part of what they created, was the biggest thrill for me of any of that studio work and big bands."

One of the experiences was being in the George Gruntz Concert Jazz Band in 1991, when it was called upon to play the music of Gil Evans when Quincy Jones coaxed Miles Davis into playing that music again. Davis was notorious for not looking back, but when he decided to do that project, under the baton of Jones at the Montreux Jazz Festival, Stamm was there. It was a momentous event, even if not artistically fantastic.

"Quincy wanted to do a double band," recalls Stamm. "He wanted two players on each part. Which meant for the four trumpet parts there were eight players. The same thing throughout the orchestra." Wallace Roney, who wound up standing with Miles and playing a lot of lead parts, was in the Gruntz band at the time. "He knew Miles from his time in New York. He was, at this time, a young up-and-comer. When we got there, none of us knew this, but Miles was ill. He passed about four months after that concert."

"When we started to rehearse the first day, we were waiting a good while for Miles to come down. Evidently, he was too ill, so he didn't come down. Somebody, maybe Quincy, suggested that Wallace play Miles' part. Wallace was very much a stylist in the style of Miles. So we rehearsed that way, with Kenny Garrett. I think the second day, Miles came down for a short period of time and played. But it was obvious, he was not really strong," says Stamm. "Before we came to Montreux, Wallace and I talked quite a bit. He told me Miles was not excited about doing this. Quincy really wanted him to do it. So Miles acquiesced. When we finally got down to the concert, Miles asked that Wallace play next to him so that when he felt tired or whatever, Wallace could pick up the playing. That's how that came about. None of us realized that Miles was ill until the end of the gig. We knew something was wrong. We didn't know what it was.

"We were all looking forward to this. Not for any reason expecting to hang out with Miles, but just to hear this man play this music live, in the same room. Miles has always been someone, to me, who is really very special."

It was recorded as an album and DVD, but Stamm feels it was not a good production.

"So they recorded this, and made a video of it. It was not a great representation of Miles. All the great music that he recorded, whether you like his later stuff or not. Regardless of what style of music you liked or didn't like that he played, there was never any doubt that this man was one of the most exceptional artists in music that ever lived. When that album came out, it was not a representation of Miles. Putting that album out was a disservice to him."

Another icon he had experience with was Sinatra, in 1973-74. "He had retired for a year and decided to come back. When he came back, he was drinking and smoking and everything. The thing about Sinatra is, he still sang well. But he didn't sing like he did 10 years before that. But he could deliver a lyric like the greatest actor in Shakespeare. He was amazing with his delivery of lyrics."

Stamm had a chance to hear and play with many great musicians, but it wasn't a specific musician who got him into jazz as a youth in Tennessee. It was his older brother and the records he had collected. His brother let him listen and try to play along. Among the trumpeters he tried to emulate were Harry "Sweets" Edison with Count Basie and Clark Terry with Duke Ellington. "That's how I learned to play jazz, by playing along with those records. All those guys were heroes of mine."

He also liked Shorty Rogers, Dizzy Gillespie, Clifford Brown and Chet Baker. Later on, he added players like Freddie Hubbard, Woody Shaw, Lee Morgan and Brecker to the list of people he admired. Stamm still maintained his own voice and style.

"These were all great players and certainly heroes of mine. But the earlier guys, you would hear Sweets Edison play something and say. 'Wow. Where's my horn? I gotta try that.' Roy Eldridge is another. And of course Louis Armstrong. If you go and listen to the big band stuff, when he had his big band, absolutely amazing playing. You could see from there: there's the platform that it all came from... I had a lot of heroes and still do. But I have no desire to try to do something that's not genuine with me. In a hundred years, what a history we have to look back on in this music. Amazing."

Stamm started trumpet at age 12. "The reason I picked the trumpet was because my brother had a recording of a guy named Clyde McCoy, who made a recording of the 'Sugar Blues' with the Harmon mute and the wah-wah and all that."

In junior high, he got permission to play in the high school band among trumpeters who were more advanced. He also took private lessons and would play from classical music instruction books. The teacher also helped him learn tunes by Gillespie and Charlie Parker. He learned chord changes. At age 16, his father urged him to get a union card. As a college freshman, all the trumpet players were older. Some had served in the military first and some were veterans of dance bands. Stamm didn't cower. He took advantage of it.

"I've always had the chance to play with older people. It's always been a lesson. I was always taught to have respect for older people. Even older people you didn't like. You still had to show a certain respect. I learned it was more important to listen than to talk. You learn a lot that way. All I had to do, and every lesson that I learned, was just listen. Open my ears. The reason I think I had such early success when I went to New York was because I was so attentive."

An important part to his development, and his career, was learning "how to play as a team player. No matter what part you play, you always had to realize you were part of something that was bigger than you. It was your part to learn how to blend, phrase, listen and be a part of this thing. That's what gains musicians' respect for other musicians. The guys who come in and need to prove they're such hot shots, that doesn't work too well. You always have to respect those who've been there and done that. That's the way it was. That's what I learned. Most everything I've learned about music was from that—keeping my ears open, listening to what people have to say, both musically and personally."

His big break came while he was at North Texas State. The school played at the University of Notre Dame in a school band competition that featured 30 bands over four days. North Texas was named the best band at the festival and Stamm was selected not only as the outstanding trumpet player, but outstanding soloist overall. (Chuck Mangione was among the participants). The prize for the band was to attend the Stan Kenton clinics at his band camp for a week in the summer of 1960. Kenton heard him play each day and asked Stamm to join his band for the next tour. He chose to continue school, but that October, Kenton tried again. Stamm got a leave of absence and joined the band at the end of December—taking his school books along with him to continue studying.

The next spring he joined Kenton full time and lasted two years, recording five albums with the band during that span. Afterward, some friends in Reno, Nev., invited him out. It was akin to Las Vegas, but smaller. Gigs were plentiful. Some two years later, Stamm signed on with Woody Herman. In 1966, he went to New York City for good. He didn't really know anyone, but ventured into a spot where musicians hung out. There was only one other customer that day. It turned out to be Ernie Royal, whose career credits include Ellington, Basie, Herman, Charles Mingus and work on the Gil Evans/Miles Davis recordings. That contact got him to subbing in for big bands. His career was off and running again.

"It was all happenstance. You can't practice to be in the right place at the right time. You can only be ready for it when it happens. Even then, you're never really sure. Not when you're that young. I look back on things and I'm so fortunate," Stamm says. "Just working with these guys for that recording (the new CD). It's absolutely great. What a gift to be able to make music with people like that. And all the people I've met. The years I spent with Rufus Reid and Bill Mays and Ed Soph. Wonderful."

Wonderful is a fitting word for Stamm and the path he has walked for many years. First rate musicians. First rate music. A classy and intelligent guy.

"Someone asked me if I ever regretted not reaching the level of someone like Wynton Marsalis or someone like that. I said: Each person speaks with their own voice. However they speak, whatever music they do, the opportunities come along because of that. So much of it is just being in a certain place at a certain time. And things just happen. That's life.

"Do I have any regrets? If something like that did happen to me and I had to be out on the road more than that, I wonder what my home life would have been. I'm the father of three daughters. Four grandchildren. I've had a steady home life. I've been married to the same woman for almost 48 years. We have a home in Westchester County, at the top of the county, in the woods, for 42 years. I may not have had any of that. Or I could have had it and lost it. So I have no regrets. I've played with some of the greatest players in the world. I have been able to achieve my own personal dream. Living my dream of playing with my heroes. And as I've grown older, having colleagues and peers who have been amazing and have taught me so much. Even at this point in time, playing with Dennis and Mike is the same thing. Every time we play together is a lesson in music.

"Along with that, I have a family and a deep life. What more can I ask for?"

Not much, really. Amen.

Photo: Courtesy of Marvin Stamm

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