Conte Candoli: Top West Coast Trumpet Soloist


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Conte Candoli made his debut in the Woody Herman Orchestra while still in high school, and went on to establish a deserved reputation as the major jazz trumpet player on the West Coast. He worked often with his brother, trumpeter Pete Candoli, and enjoyed a 20-year residence in the studio band for Johnny Carson’s celebrated Tonight Show.

He was born Secondo Candoli. His father was an amateur trumpet player, and encouraged his sons to play music from a very early age. Conte was invited to join his older brother (Pete was born in 1923, and survives him) in Woody Herman’s First Herd during his summer vacation in 1944, but the band leader encouraged him to finish school, then hired him after graduation in the summer of 1945.

It proved a short stay, since he was called up by the Army later that year. He was discharged in late 1946, and worked with a succession of band leaders, including Chubby Jackson (1947-8), Stan Kenton (1948), Charlie Ventura (1949), Herman again (1949-50), and Charlie Barnet (1951).

His early influences were swing era trumpet players like Harry James and Roy Eldridge, but his mature style owed more to the example of Dizzy Gillespie. From 1972 onward, he played regularly with the group Supersax, and was highly adept at filling the Gillespie role in the band’s recreations of the music of Charlie Parker.

He returned the Stan Kenton Orchestra in 1951 for a two year stay, then formed his own band in Chicago in 1954. He is most directly associated with the development of the jazz scene in California, where he took up residence later that year.

He joined Howard Rumsey’s Lighthouse All-Stars (1954-55), one of the key bands in West Coast jazz, then co-led a band with his brother from 1957-62. He worked regularly with vibes player Terry Gibbs from 1959-62, and toured Europe with saxophonist Gerry Mulligan in 1961-2, as well as working again with both Herman and Kenton, and with drummer Shelly Manne throughout the 1960s.

He established a merited reputation as a highly inventive jazz improviser in these contexts, but California also offered the prospect of a great deal of studio work for musicians, and both Candoli brothers benefited from that opportunity (his discography lists some 770 separate tracks and 123 albums on which he played).

In Conte’s case, it included sessions with Frank Sinatra (including all of the singer’s television specials), Bing Crosby, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Sarah Vaughan, among many others. In 1968, he began to make occasional appearances in the band led by Doc Severinson for Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, and became a permanent member of the band when Carson relocated the show from New York to Burbank, California, in 1972.

He remained with the band until Carson’s retirement in 1992, and appreciated the financial stability which the bjob offered in an often unstable profession. He said that the sense of security sharpened rather than blunted his appetite for playing jazz, which he continued to do in a variety of contexts.

They included co-leading bands with his brother and with saxophonist Pete Christlieb, reunions with Woody Herman in 1976 and 1986, working with the Capp-Pierce Juggernaut and the revived Lighthouse All-Stars, and playing or recording with such veterans of the West Coast jazz scene as saxophonists Teddy Edwards, Bud Shank and Bob Cooper.

He had been suffering from cancer, and was confined to a convalescent home in the weeks before his death.

Kenny Mathieson is a freelance writer based in Scotland. His book Giant Steps: Bebop and The Creators of Modern Jazz (1999) is published by Payback Press. E-mail: [email protected]

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