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Hal McKusick: 1924-2012


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Hal McKusick
Hal McKusick, an East Coast jazz saxophonist, composer and arranger whose seductively smooth sound, tireless work ethic and flawless technique were admired by Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Clark Terry, Art Farmer, Johnny Mandel and every other musician he worked with since the early 1940s, died on April 10 of complications from a fractured hip. He was 87.

If all that you owned were the albums Hal recorded, you would have a sizable chunk of post-war jazz history. Though other jazz musicians appeared on more dates (Hal clocks in at 233 known sessions), few sidemen could rival the sheer number of significant recordings. Starting with Les Brown in 1943, Hal recorded with many of the most challenging bands of the decade—including Boyd Raeburn, Alvino Rey, Buddy Rich, Ralph Burns, George Handy, Tom Talbert, Claude Thornhill and Neal Hefti.

In the 1950s, Hal continued his band career with Elliot Lawrence, Bill Harris, Al Cohn, Quincy Jones, Ernie Wilkins, Gene Krupa, Manny Albam and many others. With the widespread adoption of the 33 1/3 LP in the early 1950s and growing demand by labels for inventive small groups, Hal again wound up on some of the most dynamic sessions—as a sideman and leader. His output in 1956 alone is daunting (go here). His recollections of recording with Charlie Parker in 1953 can be found here.

What distinguished Hal—in bands and groups—was his sound on the alto saxophone. Hal recorded on virtually all reed instruments and the flute, but the alto was his primary horn. Starting in the late 1940s, he pioneered a lighter, dryer tone —without sacrificing the aggression or inventiveness needed to hold the knowing ear.

His technique minimized vibrato and leaned on lyrical phrasing and the instrument's higher register, resulting in a appealing, whistful lightness. This approach wasn't lost on Paul Desmond, Lee Konitz and other cool masters of the instrument during the era.

Hal brought virtuosity to everything he did, including his many hobbies. Hal was one of those guys who bothered only if he could go all the way. In the 1970s, he became a pilot and flew to gigs, eventually earning a nice payday ferrying passengers down to St. Barts in the Caribbean, an island with one of the region's most difficult and treacherous runways.

As a woodworker, Hal crafted bowls, tables and cupboards in his workshop out back for clients, perfecting the craft's techniques by reading books. He also was a superb photographer, taking candids of many of the artists he played with, including Bill Evans, whose portrait sat over his piano in his studio.

On a personal note, Hal's passing leaves me with a particularly heavy heart. I never thought I'd ever be writing this appreciation. We spoke by email or phone almost weekly. Hal was the second jazz legend I interviewed for this site (baritone saxophonist Danny Bank was the first), and he is probably the source I turned to most for details and insights about other artists and jazz events.

I had known about Hal since the 1970s, after hearing Cross-Section Saxophones (1958). When I started JazzWax in the summer of 2007, I decided to start calling musicians I admired most for interviews. Many of my favorites weren't necessarily well-known. Instead, they were major players to me because they appeared on my favorite albums. I could hear what they were doing, and it was special. Hal was at the top of my list of desired interview subjects and, if I recall correctly, Rob Rusch, founder of Cadence magazine, pointed me in the right direction.

My multipart interview with Hal in October 2007 was done in the dark. Hal insisted I call him back so he could sit in his studio with the lights out, to better recall the events of his past. The result was a colorful, honest recitation of his career, giving readers a sense of his start and his life-long devotion to jazz.

Over time, the increasing frequency of our conversations drew us close, with Hal taking on the role of mentor and father-figure. He'd frequently call when he sensed from my blog that I was over-working, which was almost always the case.

“Hey, man, you're doing amazing things," Hal would say in that smooth, knowing voice of his. “But are you doing too much? Are you sure? I've been there, and you're there now. I know you can't help it. But pace it, and keep it cool."

Few artists I've interviewed have said the word “cool" as delightfully as Hal—as if he had invented the word. The middle of the word was extended ever-so-slightly but never to the point of ridicule. Just enough so that saying the word “cool" was truly cool.

Most days we'd talk late in the afternoon, after he finished giving a grateful high-schooler a lesson. There was something about talking to Hal on the phone that was similar to sitting in front of a fireplace. The sessions were relaxing, educational and hugely rewarding for me. Like many musicians, Hal sounded like he played—his voice was melodic and relaxed.

Last December, he asked me to come out to Sag Harbor. His lovely wife Jan was away with family, and he was looking for some musical company. “Come out. We'll just hang and listen to music." Neck-deep in writing assignments and my book, and just days from a trip to Venice, I couldn't pull away.

“Hal, I wish I could, but I'm tied three different ways," I said.

“I know. Would be fun, but I know you're busy," he said. “Keep doing what you're doing. You've made a big difference. You're preserving the music, and what you've done for the musicians is great. You won't realize how important your work has been until years from now."

Now, of course, I'm sorry I didn't drop what I was doing and spend the day out there. Nevertheless, Hal's voice remains in my head, urging me on, and his passion for doing a solid job is still awe-inspiring and a part of my own drive.

Hal has been a solid mentor, an inspiration, a kind soul and a very cool cat. But cool—the way Hal would say it.

JazzWax tracks: I have nearly all of Hal's recordings. So let me give you a list of 10 starter albums that are essential listening to fully appreciate the beauty of his playing and his artistry:

  • Easy Coast Jazz Vol. 8 (1955)
  • Terry Gibbs: Vibes on Velvet (1955)
  • In a 20th Century Drawing Room (1955)
  • Manhattan Jazz Septet (1956)
  • George Russell: Jazz Workshop (1956)
  • Hal McKusick: Jazz Workshop (1956)
  • Jazz at the Academy (1956)
  • Jazz Cornucopia (1957)
  • Triple Exposure (1957)
  • Cross-Section Saxophones (1958)

JazzWax clips: Here's Hal on Minor Matters, from East Coast Jazz...

Here's Hal directly behind Buddy Rich in 1948...

Here's La Rue from Hal's Cross-Section Saxophones...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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