Elliot Lawrence: 1925-2021

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Elliot Lawrence
Elliot Lawrence, one of the last surviving big band leaders of the late 1940s and early 1950s who employed many of the finest and most sophisticated New York jazz musicians who went went on to leadership careers in the LP era, died on July 2. He was 96.

In 1960, Elliot began composing, arranging and conducting for television, film and Broadway. His shows included How to Succeed in Busness Without Really Trying, which won him a Tony. He also conducted every Tony Awards telecast from 1965 (its first year on TV) to 2011 as well as other televised gala events.

I've long loved Elliot Lawrence's music. His big band recordings of the late 1940s and 1950s had superb post-war optimism and freshness, especially when playing Gerry Mulligan arrangements. His bands were always tight, well rehearsed and loaded with the best musicians. After my posts on Elliot back in August 2016, singer Marlene VerPlanck emailed kudos and suggested I give Elliot a call. So I did. One thing led to the next and I did an old fashioned JazzWax interview with him.

With Elliot gone, Ray Anthony is now among the few surviving big-band leaders with ties to the 1940s. Elliot spent the second half of the 1940s and the first half of the 1950s fronting sublime bands. His Elevation band of the late 1940s was romantic and hip, and his early '50s orchestras featured arrangements by Mulligan, Johnny Mandel, Al Cohn and Tiny Kahn. His albums for Fantasy, include Plays Gerry Mulligan Arrangements (1955), Swinging at the Steel Pier (1955) and Plays for Swinging Dancers (1957). All are gorgeous. He also recorded a number of great albums for Vik, including Four Brothers: Together Again.

So how did Elliot's band come to have so many Mulligan arrangements in his band book in the 1940s and '50s? I interviewed Elliot, in the fall of 2015 and spent time with him at his Central Park apartment going over the interview to be sure all was perfect. That was a fun afternoon, as you can imagine. It was as if we were going over a score. Here's the interview:

JazzWax: When were you born?

Elliot Lawrence: I was born in Philadelphia on Valentine’s Day in 1925. My mother, Esther, wrote for the radio. My father, Stan Lee Broza, also worked in radio, but he should have been a wealthy man. He was one of the people who started WCAU in Philadelphia and the CBS network but was bought out by Leon Levy and William Paley in the 1920s.

In the early days of radio, he broadcast on the air and sold ad time. He was a very personable guy who’d offer a retailer or business a mention on WCAU for $10 or $15. It was the early model of radio advertising. He eventually became the station’s program director. My mom was a amateur singer, but I’m not quite sure how my parents met.

When I was 10, my chore was to accompany my mother on the piano in our living room. As a result, I played the entire American Songbook by age 12. This came in handy whenever my parents threw a party. My job was to sit there all night until I was bleary-eyed accompanying the gang.

JW: Did you and your father share the same last name?

EL: Our family name was Broza. My birth name was Elliot Lawrence Broza. But my father was so well known in Philadelphia as Stanley Broza that I didn’t want to use his last name. So I flipped my last and middle names and became Elliot Broza Lawrence.

JW: You took piano lessons starting at age 3?

EL: Yes, until I came down with polio two years later in 1930, when I was 5. When I became afflicted, my parents took me to Atlantic City, where my grandparents lived and there was fresh air. The polio was in my fingers and neck, and doctors said I would never play piano again. My mother wasn’t going to hear of it. To build back my strength, she bought me rubber balls and had me squeeze them all the time so I’d get my hands back.

I’m not sure exactly how I came down with polio. I think back then, you just had to live in the center of Philadelphia to contract it. Polio hit epidemic levels there starting in 1930. I wasn’t scared because I didn’t know what was going on. My parents figured that since Atlantic City was 90 miles away, I’d be safer and have a chance of recovery. The move separated me from my younger brother, Stanley Broza Jr.

My first memory of the Depression was a man coming to see my grandfather in Atlantic City and saying, “Jacob, the banks are all closed. Do you have any cash?” My grandfather said he had a small stash in case the man needed it for food. So I must have still been there in 1931 and ‘32, when banks were failing.

JW: What were the Band Busters?

EL: When I recovered and returned to Philadelphia in the early 1930s, my father and mother had a well-known children’s radio show called the Horn & Hardart Children’s Hour. It became so popular that Horn & Hardart expanded it to New York in the 1940s and then to TV. Talented children would perform. It was like the Major Bowes Amateur Hour, but for kids, the Band Busters, from left, Al Alberts, Buddy De Franco, Leonard De Franco and Roxy Lee (Rocco Liuzzi) on WCAU's The Children's Hour]

My mother would audition the kids—some of whom went on to become famous entertainers, like singer Kitty Kallen and the Nicholas Brothers dancers. When my parents finished their Saturday rehearsal, I’d eat dinner with them at a Chinese restaurant on Chestnut St. in Philadelphia that featured a big band for dancing. When I was 10, I used to get up in front of the band and conduct. It was the start of a conductor’s ego (laughs).

Two years later, I started a small rehearsal group in my home. We played stock arrangements. Buddy De Franco and his older brother Leonard were in the band. Leonard played bass and guitar. They came from South Philadelphia. Most of the kids couldn’t really play. I played a horrible saxophone and clarinet, but I sat next to Buddy, who was 14 or 15. He could play better than anyone else. After Buddy left the band, I brought on a bunch of talented kids from his neighborhood who were poor and talented. That was the start of the Band Busters.

On Sundays, after my parents’ radio program, some of the kids who were on the show would come out to our house in Merion, Penn., about 15 miles from Philadelphia, and my mother would feed them. We started using stock arrangements in those days, and I started to write.

JW: How did you know how to write and arrange?

EL: My mom was smart. She started me on piano early then found a man named Hoppock who taught at the Settlement Music School in South Philadelphia. By the time I was 12, we moved to Devon Pa. about an hour and a half from Philadelphia. I’d take the train in for my weekly lessons. Hoppock taught me harmony and then advanced harmony, followed by counterpoint and advanced counterpoint. He was a great teacher. My lessons gave me a huge foundation for arranging and everything else. After I graduated high school at 16 and entered the University of Pennsylvania, Hoppock was teaching there. Since I had gone through all of his lessons already, I had a big advantage in college.

JW: How did you manage to enter the University of Pennsylvania at 16?

EL: I did very well in high school. Back then, in 1941, you could graduate at 16, probably so kids could take a job earlier and help support their families. Remember, college wasn’t a goal for most kids then, since families couldn’t afford it. My high school was divided into kids who wanted to go to college and those who didn’t. There were only a few of us in the former category out of hundreds of kids.

When I was a senior in high school, I was good at math. With the war coming, the head of the school thought I should go to engineering school at Vilanova to avoid being called up too early by the draft. But my cousin Larry Mallis's advice made more sense. He said I should audition for the University of Pennsylvania’s music school.

So I went and played piano for the professors—things like Brahms' Sonata for Piano in F Major, which people told me after was a terrible choice. It turned out that one of the professors in the music department there thought he was Brahms. Truly (laughs). Nevertheless, the university gave me a scholarship.

JW: While you’re in college in the early 1940s, the band business is starting to quiet down. What did you do?

EL: I was very lucky. While I was at Penn during World War II, the draft plucked many men from local bands and there weren’t enough civilians to fill out the seats of orchestras. The same was true at college, since many college-age men were in the service. The head of the Penn band at the time was Adolph Vogel, who had come to Philadelphia with the rights to all the famous French composers like Ravel and Debussy. The European composers were relatively new then and copyrights remained in force for 75 years after their death.

One day Vogel came to me and said he was giving up trying to hold a band together given the draft. He said, “Elliot, if you want to put a band together, go right ahead.” Penn had ROTC students from all branches of the armed services. All the guys wanted to go to football games on Saturdays. So I went around and talked to all the men in ROTC and put together a band. They couldn’t wear the Penn band uniform so they wore their military uniforms instead. They were great. For the Penn-Army game, I wrote a jazz arrangement of all the Penn fight songs—like Fight On, Pennsylvania and The Red and the Blue. The game was sold out. I led the band through the goalpost and we stopped to play an arrangement. Both major newspapers in the city had a photo of us the next day.

Leon Levy, who had bought out my father’s CBS shares and now owned WCAU, called me in and said, “Elliot, when you graduate, I want you to take over the house band at the station.” Those were the days when most radio stations employed live orchestras. You didn’t play records on the air yet. So when I graduated from Penn in 1944, my asthma made me 4F with the draft and I took over WCAU’s band.

JW: Was the band any good?

EL: I made it good (laughs). Johnny Warrington had the band there first and was retiring. Before I took over, he said to me, “There’s this young guy who’s been dying to write for me. I think you two might get along.”

JW: Who was it?

EL: It was Gerry Mulligan. Gerry was a year older than me. He had quit West Philadelphia Catholic High School for Boys. A year later, in 1945, I formed my first band while still at WCAU and we played gigs all around the Philadelphia area. Gerry came on my band and wrote arrangements. He wanted to be jazz tenor saxophonist in the band, but we didn’t think he played well enough. That didn't stop him. Gerry always hung around and hoped that Frank Lewis, the jazz tenor player, would break a leg or something.

Gerry was on the outs with his family, so he’d come home with me, and my mother would feed him dinner. At other times, we’d hang out together in a little office I had at WCAU. That’s when he started writing for my band and when Red Rodney came along. Red was 15 or 16 when he came on my band in '45. We played jobs around Philadelphia.

JW: How were you discovered?

EL: Back then, CBS used to fill half-hour slots with broadcasts of name bands from ballrooms and clubs like the Café Rouge and the Meadowbrook. By this time, my father was program director at WCAU. At the beginning of the war, late-night slots were open at the remote clubs. A lot of hotels had closed. CBS asked my father if we could fill in and play the late-night spots, which was a national broadcast slot.

In March 1945, George Simon heard the band on the broadcast and gave us a big write-up in Metronome magazine. Mannie Sachs, Columbia’s head of recording, read the review, heard the band and recorded us in May 1946. Then we went on the road. That’s how I started my road band.

JW: How did you and Mulligan get along?  

EL: For the next 50 years, we had a love-hate relationship. There was a lot of friction. Early on, I had bought all of his arrangements. I paid him $50 per chart. If he wrote an original and arranged it, I’d pay him $150. Naturally, I signed up the publishing so they would remained with my band.

Over the years, Gerry wanted them all back. I said, “Gerry, this was the deal: I bought them from you. I didn’t steal them.” That was one of the things that created bad blood between us. He and Red Rodney left my band in 1946 to go with Gene Krupa. Gerry re-sold many of the arrangements I had bought to various bands. That was OK, since I didn’t lose control of what my band played. Gerry was trying to live.  But I’d go through a lot telling him what he could and couldn’t do.

JW: How did you come to record Elevation?

EL: The deal with Columbia was that if I recorded these dumb things they wanted in '49, they would give me a chance to record one of the originals Gerry had written and arranged that I wanted to record. That was the only reason I got Elevation out on record.

The trouble with being with Columbia in the early days and later on was that the A&R men wanted a pop sound. I was too young to be a bandleader. You needed more guts to stand up to the executives. Columbia put Mitchell Ayres in charge of A&R for my recordings. He wanted to sell records and his taste was Mickey Mouse. At my first recording session in ‘46, I had Mitch Miller on my band playing oboe and English horn. He was one of the best players ever on those instruments. Later, when I was paired with him at Columbia, I thought he’d have great taste. But it was for novelty songs, and we were given a lot of crappy material. I guess he did that with everyone.

Phil Urso was in my 1949 band and was one of the great natural players. He was a kid when he joined my band and couldn’t read a note. But it didn’t matter. We’d go through my whole book of arrangements and he’d have the tenor sax part memorized. The guys used to call him the Neanderthal Man. He had enormous musical talent and was a sweetheart of a guy, but he didn’t know much of anything else.

JW: Did tensions with Mulligan grow?

EL: In the 1950s, he had girlfriend whose father was a fine composer—Buddy DeSylva of DeSylva, Henderson and Brown. Gerry came by with an attorney and he wanted all of his arrangements back. I said no, I’m sorry. I paid for them and here’s the contract. Gerry wasn’t happy. Then he was on terrible drugs. One day in 1950 or ’51, Gerry called all his friends to meet him in front of the Paramount Hotel in New York. When I got there, Gerry was wearing a long robe and a skullcap pushing a baby carriage with his baritone sax in it. He was with Gale Madden, his new wife. He told everyone that they were walking to California. I think they got as far as the George Washington Bridge. That was a surrealistic scene. [See last item on Mulligan-Madden marriage

He must have eventually figured out it would be easier to travel by car, since they wound up hitchhiking out there, and the rest is history. He started his famous pianoless quartet at The Haig in Los Angeles in 1952. Between 1965 and ’74, Gerry was with Sandy Dennis. I couldn’t have him over to my place because she lived with 32 cats and I was terribly allergic. In the very early 1960s, Gerry called and asked if he and Judy Holliday, his girlfriend at the time, could come over to my apartment on Central Park West to play me some songs he had been writing with her. That was one of the greatest afternoons. Gerry played the piano and Judy sang. It was just fantastic. They played about five or six different songs. Imagine her singing to you. It was great.

Gerry later wanted me to help him launch a Broadway show. He said, “Here are the songs—now how do I raise the money?” I said I’d love to help. He finally got the money they needed and Happy Birthday was set in 1974 with a few of the songs. Unfortunately, the show never made it past a workshop production at the University of Alabama. I have no idea why.

After that, Gerry and I were on good terms again. In 1982, I was doing a TV show called Night of 100 Stars. The producer asked me to write an eight-minute jazz arrangement. So I did and called various musicians I knew to play it as a group. I called Gerry and he said yes. By this time, he was completely off drugs and he was with Countess Franca Rota Borghini Baldovinetti, a freelance photographer and the best thing that ever happened to Gerry. He did the show and it was great.

In the mid-1990s, my phone rang at 3 a.m. My wife answered it, nudged me and said, “It’s Gerry.” By then, Gerry had liver cancer and his wife had tried everything to get him cured. She even took him to South America to seek care. I got on the phone, and Gerry said, “Elliot, I just wanted to tell you one thing. The happiest time in my life was when I was 17 with you and we were working together on your band.”

JW: You gave up your band in 1956, yes?

EL: That's right. When I did, Down Beat wrote a small item about it. I was appearing at the Cafe Rouge then. Stan Kenton had flown in to beg me not to give up the band business. I told him I couldn't afford it anymore. I just remember him talking and me not having any words to answer him. That's how persuasive he was. But I had to give it up.

JW: Was Claude Thornhill a big inspiration of yours?

EL: I loved Claude’s band. He was an inspiration. But not nearly as much as many people said. My influence was classical music, given my formal background. I wanted to put an oboe, English horn, bassoon and French horn together in a band. The most exciting big band I ever heard was Woody Herman’s Second Herd. When that band came to Philadelphia, I stood in front of the bandstand the whole night.

JW: What are we seeing in those home movies on YouTube of your road band in 1950?

EL: People never talk about life on the road. Some of the bandleaders loved it. I found it almost impossible. As a pianist, you don’t take along your own instrument with you. You’re at the mercy of one bad keyboard after the next. Pianist Teddy Napoleon, who was with Gene Krupa’s band, went to a job out of town and couldn’t stand the piano. It was the last straw. He found a saw and removed all the strings the night before he left.

JW: Whose idea was it for you to record a full album of Gerry Mulligan’s arrangements in 1955?

EL: Sol Zaentz of Fantasy called us because we didn't have a recording contract with a label. He asked if I wanted to record for Fantasy. Those were the arrangements I had bought from Gerry. At the time, he needed money so he offered to write a few new ones for me. I said yes and I bought them from him. The album helped him raise some cash.

JW: You recorded a couple of great albums with singer Ann Gilbert.

EL: I loved Ann. I met her in the late 1940s, when she sang for me. By the mid-1950s, I was doing work for songwriter Frank Loesser’s Frank Music Corp. Before a Broadway show, they’d make a demo album of the songs. I did a lot of those. Producer Stuart Ostrow was my connection. He had married Ann and wanted me to back her on two albums. Eventually, Ann retired and became a church singer in Houston.

JW: What was Frank Loesser like?

EL: Frank was terrific. In 1960, I was conducting the Broadway production of By e Bye Birdie. Frank asked me to take on his upcoming show, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, opening in 1961. So I quit Birdie, but then they postponed How to Succeed in Business. I found myself without a job. When I told Frank, he said, “You’re going to work for me on a full-time basis.” I’d sit in his office at the piano all day and write down what he played and whistled for me. Then he’d take a nap. I couldn’t leave because his nap room was right in front of the door. But I learned a lot from Frank, particularly about copyrights.

I loved being around Frank. Conducting the band on How to Succeed in Business was one of the best experiences of my life. I’d see Frank, Abe Burrows and Bob Fosse all the time. When the show went on the road, we had some hysterical late night meetings. Those guys were so funny together. The fourth guy was producer Cy Feuer. The theater was a wonderful place back then.

JW: What was Tiny Kahn like?

EL: I first met Tiny in 1951 when I decided to leave the road and conduct my band locally, only on the weekends. I was playing New York’s Paramount Theatre then and heard that bandleader Ray Bloch had too much work on CBS-TV in New York. The station wanted me to put together a small combo to play between 6 and 9 a.m. I used Tiny on drums, Mary Osborne on guitar, Andy Fitzgerald on reeds and me on piano. The deal was Tiny would write an arrangement for each of the five mornings. He was paid $50 for each chart. He also was paid for playing the job. One day Tiny came to me and said, “You know, Elliot, this is the first steady job I’ve had in my life.” It was hard for him to get to the studio by 6, but he did.

The songs he arranged would come from the American songbook—a different song each day. During the morning show, he’d play drums and vibes. I was on that job for two years. It was the Jack Sterling Show. Tiny had the job for a year. Then he got married and soon died. Tiny was one of the great arrangers. Johnny Mandel and Al Cohn, who arranged for me, had introduced me to him. He was a loveable giant. Tiny was different than all the other arrangers who worked for me Tiny was the only one who was unschooled musically. He was completely intuitive. He'd hear it in his head and write. Tiny swung from the first bar, He was like a jazz Mozart.

JW: How did you meet Johnny Mandel?

EL: When I put together my last road band in 1950, trombonist Ollie Wilson and saxophonist Al Cohn brought Johnny around. If I made a list of all the arrangers I knew, Johnny was the most schooled. He was what I'd call a sublime writer. His arrangements were very special. He took longer to hand something in than Tiny or Al, but when he did, it was like a work of art. He arranged one of our great ballads, A Foggy Day. It was sublime. When he came on the band briefly in 1951, he was a trombonist but wanted to play bass trumpet.

JW: What about Swinging at the Steel Pier? It’s live, but you don’t really hear a crowd.

EL: You don’t hear crowd noise because there wasn't one (laughs). The only time we could get the booking was after Labor Day, when there weren’t that many people around vacationing in Atlantic City. The only people dancing there weren’t interested in jazz. We were just doing it for the live album.

JW: Whose idea was Trombone Scene in 1956?

EL: That album was my idea. I told producer Bob Rolontz at Vik records about my idea for an album of top trombonists on the East Coast playing together, and he loved it. Several months later, in 1957, I spoke with Bob about reuniting Woody Herman’s reed section on Four Brothers: Together Again. He loved the idea. Al Cohn and I started to talk about it. We knew that baritone saxophonist Serge Chaloff wasn’t in great health. But we decided to do it with him anyway.

RCA had a great downtown studio at Webster Hall. The problem was the studio was on the second floor and there wasn’t an elevator. The guys lifted Serge out of his wheelchair and carried him up the stairs. He wife brought up his baritone sax. But he had a great spirit about it. Serge died five months later. You’ll notice that only half the tracks were with Serge. The other half we had to use Charlie O’Kane on baritone sax.

JW: Why was Happy Over Hoagy with Zoot Sims and Al Cohn on Vik in 1958 released only recently?

EL: I made the album for Vik, and then RCA decided to shutter the label in late 1958. They held onto the reels. Someone must have pulled them later on. By the way, Bill Elton wasn’t the only arranger. Al Cohn did many of the charts.

JW: Music for Trapping in 1958 had quite a cover.

EL: My family never let me live that one down. Some guy asked if I would do a couple of mood records. I had no idea they planned to do a cover with women’s heads stuffed and mounted on the wall like deer. I hated it.

JW: How did Big Band Sound come about?

EL: Al Cohn wrote those arrangements. The album was done for Sesac, the third major music performing-rights company after ASCAP and BMI. They came to me and asked if I’d record 12 of Sesac’s songs for an album. I agreed, and they sent me a list of questionable stuff. Al and I picked a bunch. Then he used the original titles but came up with completely different melodies that would swing. By the way, the photo of me on the cover of Big Band Sound was taken at Sands Point on Long Island Sound, where we had a primary residence. We walked to the beach to do the shoot.

JW: Which arrangers who worked for you over the years were your favorites?

EL: I’d have to say Gerry Mulligan, Eddie Sauter, Johnny Mandel, Tiny Kahn, Nelson Riddle, Billy Byers, Peter Matz, Torrie Zito Ralph Burns and Al Cohn.

JW: What was Eddie Sauter like as an arranger?

EL: Eddie was a close friend and a great orchestrator. His charts were very difficult to play but well worth it. You’d get a chart and it wouldn’t sound good the first time through. But by the fifth time, it would sound terrific. Eddie, like everyone else on my list, wrote arrangements that sounded natural. That’s for me.

JW: Any arrangrs you wished you had worked with?

EL: Yes, Billy May and Gil Evans. Billy May was the only arranger Frank Sinatra feared. Sinatra would come in and Billy’s arrangements would be put up and they’d play them through. With some arrangers, Sinatra might say to move the saxophones or add strings. He’d never do that with Billy. Billy would have talked back.

JazzWax clips: Here's Elliot Lawrence's band playing Gerry Mulligan's arrangement of Elevation from 1949...

 

Here's a short from 1947...

 

Here's one of my favorite home movies of the 1950 Elliot Lawrence road band...

 

Here's the entire Elliot Lawrence Plays Gerry Mulligan Arrangements. Dig Mulligan's knockout pen and Elliot's band. Here's the band: Dick Sherman, Bernie Glow, Al Derisi and Stan Fishelson (tp), Eddie Bert, Ollie Wilson and Paul Selden (tb), Fred Schmidt (fhr), Sam Marowitz and Hal McKusick (as), Al Cohn and Eddie Wasserman (ts), Charlie O'Kane (bar), Elliot Lawrence (p), Russ Saunders (b) and Don Lamond (d)...

 

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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