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Interview: Al Stewart (Part 1)

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Al Stewart
You may not recognize Al Stewart's name. But back in the late 1940s and 1950s he was one of the most in-demand East Coast trumpeters in the big-band business. Over the past 55 years, Al has played trumpet along side the biggest names in post-War jazz, including Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Bobby Hackett, Lee Morgan, Charlie Shavers, Buck Clayton, Conrad Gozzo, Maynard Ferguson, Bernie Glow, Gene Krupa to name just a golden handful. [Photo of Al Stewart, August 2009, by Tandy Stewart]

In the 1940s and 1950s, there was only one type of trumpeter: exceptional. If you weren't great, you quickly found yourself doing something else for a living. As a trumpeter in those days, you had to be a superb player and sight-reader. You also had to have chops that could withstand two or three shows a day, week after week, plus rehearsals. And you had to have a strong stomach for the road, since bands often traveled hundreds of miles in one day, which meant you did your sleeping on the band bus and ate on the fly. Al did it all and saw it all. And played it all.

In Part 1 of my five part series with Al, 82, the big band trumpet great talks about growing up in Brooklyn, working with Louis Prima and Ray McKinley's bands, joining Benny Goodman's bebop band in 1948, and what he observed from the trumpet section:

JazzWax: Did you grow up in New York?
Al Stewart: Yes, in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn. My father was a lady's shoe cutter--meaning he was responsible for the upper parts of shoes. He had brothers who cut soles. Both of my parents came from Russia and Poland. Like all kids then, I grew up listening to the radio.

JW: When did you first pick up a trumpet?
AS: One day in high school, a friend came home with a trumpet mouthpiece. He told me he got it from the assistant principal, who also was the band director. I wanted to get into the band, too. My friend told me to go see Mr. Levy, the assistant principal. My friend said, “He'll look at your teeth and give you a mouthpiece for the instrument he thinks you should play."

JW: What did Mr. Levy think?
AS: He looked at my teeth and started to go for a clarinet mouthpiece. I said, “Wait, can't I play trumpet like my friend?" Mr. Levy looked at me for a second and gave in. He swirled a trumpet mouthpiece with disinfectant and handed it to me. From then I on I knew I'd play the trumpet.

JW: How did you do?
AS: I worked very hard and became good fast. Eventually my mother decided I could use a trumpet of my own. So my father bought me a Wurlitzer trumpet for 10 bucks. I could read music early on. My mother found a teacher who came from Brownsville. He took two buses and a train and walked 20 minutes to get to my house. He came once a week and charged a buck and a half. My mother gave him an apple. Within a short period I was playing first trumpet in the school band and listening to Harry James and Louis Armstrong on live radio broadcasts.

JW: What did you do when you graduated?
AS: I enlisted in the navy and went into the service in 1945. Toward the end of my 16-week basic training, they auditioned me for the Navy School of Music at the Anacostia Naval Receiving Station in Washington, D.C. I was accepted.

JW: How was the school?
AS: I was assigned a teacher, Leo Prager. I loved to practice. Scales, etudes, whatever. Soon I was sent as a single replacement to Admiral Pat Bellinger who had just come back from a tour at sea. I was to join his band--the Air Force Atlantic Fleet Band--in Norfolk, VA. We played officers' clubs and events on the base.

JW: Who in the band was most helpful to you?
AS: Bill Forest. He already had played with Del Courtney's band. Bill taught me a lot about phrasing. By listening, you learn.

JW: When were you discharged?
AS: In 1946. I went home to Brooklyn and started hanging out at Charlie's Tavern in Manhattan. That's' where all the musicians hung out. Trumpeters Jimmy Maxwell and Carl Poole told me about trumpeter and teacher Benny Baker. Benny had been Arturo Toscanini's principal player with the NBC Symphony Orchestra. A lot of my experience came through classical training. That's what guys studied then.

JW: But jazz required a different approach.
AS: It sure did. When I looked at a page of music, I taught myself to play the notes as though singing the phrase rather than just blowing into the horn. In 1947, someone in Charlie's Tavern told me that Louis Prima [pictured] was looking for a trumpet player. So I went over to the Strand Theater and auditioned for Jerry Greco, a trumpet player in the band. He gave me the first trumpet part to Chinatown, My Chinatown. The arrangement had a very involved four-trumpet soli. I read it down flawlessly, and the next thing I knew, I was replacing lead trumpeter Don Rose, who was leaving.

JW: How did your first appearance with Prima feel?
AS: Unbelievable. I remember the first time I was on the bandstand. The stage rose from the basement to four or five feet above the audience. As we came up, we were playing the band's flag-waver, Robin Hood, which was a big hit then. The spots were scanning over the band, the audience was screaming, and the instruments were gleaming. It was a very exciting moment for me. [Photo: Louis Prima at the New York's Paramount Theater in early 1948, courtesy of Al Stewart; click to enlarge]

JW: What were you wearing?
AS: Don Rose's band jacket [laughs]. He must have weighed about 250 pounds and I weighed 156. I just folded up the sleeves to keep them off my hands.

JW: How long were you with Prima?
AS: Nearly a year. At the time, I was rooming with lead alto saxophonist Harvey Nevins. When he left Prima to join drummer Ray McKinley's band, he brought me over. The trumpets in that band were Nick Travis, Joe Ferrante and me. We played Eddie Sauter's arrangements, which were more complicated and more exciting than what I had played with Prima. Marcy Lutes was the singer. She used to sing For Heaven's Sake with Mack's band. She had a good sound. [Photo of Ray McKinley by William Gottlieb]

JW: How long were you with McKinley?
AS: Only one road tour. In 1948, I joined Benny Goodman. I was one of the last guys to join Benny's new bebop band. Nick Travis, Doug Mettome, Howie Reich and me were the trumpets. The day I came to audition, Benny called the rehearsal short. He had just heard Stan Hasselgard, his protge on clarinet, had died in an auto accident. Benny was fairly shaken by that. [Photo, from left: Francis Beecher, Clyde Lombardi, Wardell Gray, Sonny Igoe and Benny Goodman in 1948 at New York's Stork Club]

JW: Was Goodman tough during your stay in this band?
AS: Not so bad. He was probably less tough because we were playing Chico O'Farrill's arrangements, which were bop charts.

JW: Did Goodman have trouble with them?
AS: Not with the notes but a little with the feel. Benny was Benny. He tried. He gave it his all. And Benny, of course, was beyond a fantastic clarinetist. He had the greatest time and flow. But he didn't quite capture the bebop nuance or attitude on the instrument. He was tough in that he expected from his players no more than what he expected from himself. Which is an extremely high standard. [Photo of Benny Goodman's band in early 1949 at New York's Paramount Theater, courtesy of Al Stewart; click to enlarge]

JW: Did Goodman get under your skin?
AS: No, he never needled me. He always treated me well. When we went to California, Nick Travis left the band to join Woody Herman's band, Benny called me in and moved me up to first chair and gave me a nice raise. From then on I played the lead chair.

JW: How was your relationship with Benny?
AS: For whatever reason, Benny liked me. He used to call me “boychick," which is a Yiddish term that means young boy. We occasionally played duets together from a practice book I had. Benny liked my lead sound. I wasn't a solo player. I played a couple of short solos on ballads in that band, like Don't Worry 'Bout Me and Intermezzo. Like any lead player, I was the guy who had the top notes in arrangements, so my horn stood out and I had to set sound for the section.

JW: On records, O'Farrill's arrangements sound tough.
AS: They were. Chico traveled with us on the road. He wrote one or two arrangements a week, and we'd rehearse along the way. Benny did have Chico update a few of his standard tunes, like King Porter Stomp. They were the most intricate of his charts, with fast figures. These ensemble things Chico wrote were different than the kinds of swing Benny was used to.

JW: Were you familiar with bebop?
AS: I didn't have much experience playing bop at this point. Just after I got out of the navy, I used to go to 52nd Street to see Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. But I was still too young to get into the clubs. So I'd have to stand outside, and when the doors opened I'd hear some bars of a bop song. But it wasn't tough for me to make the switch from swing to bop once I had the feel. [Photo by William Gottlieb]

JW: Was Benny generous?
AS: [Laughs] Sometimes, but that wasn't one of his big traits. One time when we were at the Riverside Theater in Milwaukee, Benny invited Buddy Greco [pictured] and me in between shows to Mader's [pictured], a popular German restaurant. When we sat down, Benny ordered a liver steak. When they brought him the plate, the plate was loaded with mashed potatoes and peas. As Benny cut into the steak, he applied too much pressure and the meat slipped. Everything on his plate went flying into his lap [laughs]. He looked like an omelet. He just calmly cleaned himself up.

JW: Who paid?
AS: [Laughs] Benny made us split the bill three ways. Benny always took the bill and figured out who owed what, even though he was loaded. And the bill always wound up being a few pennies in his favor [laughs]. When we got back to the theater for the next show, I took my seat in the trumpet section. When the curtain started to come up, Benny walked out in an old three or four-button double-breasted suit from the 1920s. I looked like it was made before the Charleston. Someone backstage must have loaned it to him. Wardell [Gray] looked over, put his hand over his mouth and started laughing. It was the funniest thing.

JW: What was Wardell Gray like?
AS: Wardell [pictured] was a fantastic player. He was the only black guy in the band, and it must have been hard on him given where we toured. They wouldn't let him stay in any hotel. In fact, when we played in Columbia, S.C., we were staying at the Wade Hampton Hotel, and Wardell had to stay at a private home. The place we were playing was an arena. At the time, Benny's band traveled with a couple of Katherine Dunham Dancers, Walter Nicks and Frances Taylor, who later was married to Miles Davis. They were modern dancers and both were black.

JW: What happened?
AS: The audience saw a white band with Wardell sitting there in the sax section and the black dancers and went nuts. A riot almost broke out. The band was quickly hustled back to the bus by the police. We didn't even play the concert.

JW: Was race an issue in the band?
AS: Not at all. As musicians, we didn't think anything of race. Nor did Benny. Musicians always played together no matter what color. Benny had broken the barrier before and just assumed the race thing wouldn't exist. But these were still tough times down South. I can't imagine Wardell felt too good about that. Doug Mettome used to stay with Wardell sometimes in the rooming houses so he didn't feel completely like an outcast.

JW: Did you ever get Benny's famous glare?
AS: Not me. I think the famous ray thing was a bit overdone by the press and publicists. That blank glare only came when Benny was firing someone. All other times Benny was just in a fog. He lived and breathed music from the moment he got up to the time he went to sleep. Little else registered. Most of the time that ray was really a daze. He was distracted.

JW: For example?
AS: One time we were in Detroit. Benny was staying at the Book Cadillac Hotel [pictured] while the rest of us stayed at the less expensive Detroiter Hotel. Benny called and asked me to come over. When I got to his room, he took out this box of six new custom-made white shirts. Each one cost $75 back then, which was a fortune. He said, “How do you like them?" I was puzzled. I said, “Yeah, Benny, very nice, very nice." And that was it. There was no other purpose for him calling me over [laughs].

JW: Was Benny oblivious?
AS: No. But he knew he was prone to fogging out, and he liked to snap out of it and catch people goofing off. When we were playing the Hollywood Palladium, Benny left early one night. Naturally the band after the show started cracking up, playing things we wanted to and imitating Benny. Maybe Wardell and Doug Mettome were doing that. What they didn't realize was that Benny was watching from the back of the ballroom. He told us that later.

JW: How did Goodman treat Wardell Gray?
AS: Benny had huge admiration for Wardell, and he needed him for the bop sound he wanted. Benny liked Wardell so much he gave him a Bundy Selmer clarinet, which was a student model. But something happened.

JW: What do you mean?
AS: Benny had one big scene with Wardell, and I have no idea what it was about. In early 1949, we stopped in Las Vegas to play the Flamingo Hotel for a couple of weeks. Hotels out there had terrible segregation rules, and Wardell had to go through the kitchen to enter the club. One night during this engagement, while Wardell was playing a solo in the spotlight. Benny walked up to him and said, “Get off the bandstand--and leave the clarinet." This is while Wardell was playing in front of the audience. I have no idea why Benny did that. Benny was moody, Wardell often drank to ease the pain of all that racism, and Benny could be very cold.

JW: How did trumpeter Ziggy Schatz wind up in the band?
AS: When trumpeter Howie Reich left, I moved over to first chair and got trumpeter Ziggy Schatz on the band to replace me.

JW: Schatz was a bit of character wasn't he?
AS: And how. In August 1949, after Benny took a break and re-formed the band, we played the Cavalier Hotel [pictured] in Virginia Beach, at the Surf Beach Club there. It was a big club on the beach. In those days, when you arrived at a new location, the guys who used drugs all scored on the various things they needed.

JW: In Benny's band?
AS: Yes. Now in the back row you had Sonny Igoe on drums. Next to Sonny was the trumpet section starting with Doug Mettome in the jazz chair. I was in the lead chair next to Doug, next to me was Johnny Wilson and next to Johnny was Ziggy Schatz. Next to Ziggy on the wall was a big ship's bell, which was in step with the club's theme. During the set, somebody in the audience requested Mission to Moscow, an old Benny Goodman tune.

JW: Did the band play it?
AS: Well, Benny called it up, but the band had never rehearsed it. And the song had a very difficult sax soli and syncopated things, and brass peck notes here and there. Most of the band at this point was totally out of it, because they had dropped the stuff they scored. Personally I never touched the stuff. It never interested me. So Benny calls off the tune, and we start playing.

JW: How did the band do?
AS: One by one guys start falling out. A couple of saxophones stop playing. A trombone stops. Sonny Igoe stops keeping time. The band falls completely apart.

JW: What did Benny do?
AS: Benny whips around, and he's the color of a tomato. He's absolutely enraged. He was about to say something, but then Ziggy stood up. He always wore dark horn-rimmed glasses and had pushed them off to the side of his face, so the left lens covered the right eye. He reached back and grabbed hold of the bell's rope and pulled it three or four times. It was the loudest gong you ever heard.

JW: What happened next?
AS: Ziggy lost his balance and teetered back against the wall. He quickly steadied himself and said with his pronounced lisp, “We an-ther all re-quethsts." There was a momentary pause, and the band broke up [laughs]. Ziggy, with that comment, had cut through all of Benny's rage. The band had been so out of it that the notes ran together. To play those charts, you had to have your wits about you.

JW: What was Benny's reaction?
AS: He fired the whole band that night. But he hired us back in a week or so. By the end of October 1949, Benny broke up the bebop band for good. Business was down for everyone, even Benny.

Tomorrow, Al talks about a challenging bus ride with bandleader Billy May, joining the Benny Goodman-Louis Armstrong All Stars Tour, Benny's snippy interactions with Louis, why Benny forced Ziggy Elman to give up the first trumpet chair at Carnegie Hall, and the real reason why Benny quit the tour after the Carnegie Hall performance.

JazzWax tracks: Benny Goodman's bebop band of 1948-1949 was an interesting experiment and launched the career of arranger Chico O'Farrill. But by the summer of 1949, Goodman had decided to abandon bop, a difficult fit for the clarinetist. Instead, he had O'Farrill arrange more traditional fare for the band, which stayed together until October 1949. Much of the band's studio output between these two years with Al Stewart can be found on a French Classics CD here.

Some of the band's live radio transcriptions are on the CD Benny's Bop Vol. 1 (Hep Records). You can find it as a download at iTunes or Amazon here. Benny's Bop Vol. 2 is available on the Tokuma Japan label here.

JazzWax clip: To hear what Goodman's bebop band sounded like at the Hollywood Palladium in early 1949 (the clip's title is incorrect), dig this rare live recording of Chico O'Farrill's Undercurrent Blues. Pay particular attention to the trumpet section, which had to carry the bop flavor...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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