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Interview: Al Stewart (Part 2)

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Al Stewart
Trumpeter Al Stewart spent much of 1948 and 1949 touring with Benny Goodman's bebop band. Al was classically trained, and Benny appreciated his hard work and rock solid sound in the trumpet section. But by late 1949, Goodman was fed up with bop. So he folded the band, assembled a quartet and went on a tour of the Philippines. Al moved on and spent the next three years in other major bands. Then in early 1953, Benny asked Al to join an all-star group he was forming that would include Louis Armstrong and other jazz greats. Al said he couldn't believe his eyes when he arrived at New York's Fraternal Clubhouse studio to rehearse in the spring of 1953. [Photo: Al Stewart and Louis Armstrong applying Louis' lip salve during their tour in 1953; courtesy of Al Stewart].

Part of Goodman's motive in 1953 for forming a swing band and uniting with Armstrong was to capitalize on his revived fame. By 1953, the 10-inch LP album that Columbia had released in 1950 of Goodman's famed 1938 Carnegie Hall concert had sold 1 million copies. To commemorate the concert held 15 years earlier, Benny planned a Carnegie Hall concert jointly with Armstrong that would be followed immediately by a tour. Jazz fans who had only heard about the concert had been buying the LP to hear the earlier excitement for themselves and looked forward to live appearances by the two jazz greats.

Buoyed by the album's success, Goodman assembled a crack band featuring Charlie Shavers, Ziggy Elman and Al Stewart (trumpets); Vernon Brown and Rex Peer (trombones); Clint Neagley and Willie Smith (alto saxes); Georgie Auld and Sol Schlinger (tenor saxes); Teddy Wilson (piano); Steve Jordan (guitar); Israel Crosby (bass), and Gene Krupa (drums), with Helen Ward [pictured] on vocals. Louis Armstrong and His All-Stars would be the other featured attraction.

In Part 2 of my interview series with Al, the big band trumpeter talks about his years between Goodman bands, recording with Charlie Parker, Chico O'Farrill and Jerry Wald, touring with Billy May, and an ego-clashing encounter between Goodman and Armstrong early on that poisoned the well for the pending tour:

JazzWax: After Benny folded his bop band, what did you do?
Al Stewart: Around this time, Chico O'Farrill wrote his Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite for Machito, and he brought me into the band that recorded it with Charlie Parker. Parker was a total phenomenon. He was fantastic, but Parker could also be out. All I can remember from that date is that Parker was standing, and that [trumpeter] Harry “Sweets" Edison was sitting next to me on the band.

JW: You were one of only a handful of jazz artists who could play Latin-jazz comfortably early on.
AS: You had to get used to the rhythms, since they were very different from swing and bebop. Almost the opposite. The Afro-Cuban music revolution hadn't fully taken hold yet, but these guys were the pioneers. Soon after the Charlie Parker session, [Clef Records producer] Norman Granz gave Chico his own date, and Chico put together an orchestra to record his Second Afro-Cuban Suite and a whole bunch of originals. Chico was some writer. Very tricky parts. That was like old home week. The trumpet section, in addition to Mario Bauza, included me, Doug Mettome, Jimmy Nottingham and Nick Travis.

JW: In 1952 you recorded with Billy May's band.
AS: Billy had already had a hit recording for Capitol called Big Band Bash. So Capitol sent the band out on the road from Los Angeles to New York. Conrad Gozzo played lead trumpet and defined what a lead player should be during that period. I got a call from Billy May asking me to cover Goz for seven or eight weeks because he had to complete the Dinah Shore Show on TV. Then he rejoined the band later at the Steel Pier in Atlantic City.

JW: How did you feel?
AS: I flipped. To cover for a player like Goz [pictured]? This guy was a monster. I joined Billy's band in New York. Billy had custom-tailored suits made for all the players. Then we left New York to go out on the road. It was a drinking band more than anything else. When the bus driver would pull up to a light or crossing in the middle of the night, you'd hear all the empty cans and bottles roll forward and backward [laughs]. Billy was a hard drinker and fell out several times on the floor. All those bottles would roll back and forth and hit him whenever the bus stopped and started.

JW: How heavy a drinker was May?
AS: We played at Frank Dailey's Meadowbrook in Cedar Grove, N.J., for a weekend. I was standing at the bar when the bartender handed Billy his tab for two days. It was $109 [$875 in today's dollars]. Imagine how much booze you had to drink to get to that dollar amount.

JW: In 1952 you also were in clarinetist Jerry Wald's band. Was he good?
AS: Yes, but he wasn't in the same class as Artie Shaw or Benny Goodman. Chris Connor was in Jerry's band at the time. Chris was a good singer, but she didn't hang out much with the band or at Charlie's Tavern. The band had a great trumpet section: Ed Badgley and Al Porcino would switch off, Dick Sherman and me. We recorded three songs with Chris, and they still sound great.

JW: In 1953, Benny Goodman asked you to join another one of his bands.
AS: Yes, Benny Goodman and Louis Armstrong were going to take both of their bands out on a tour. I knew that it was going to be special. When I showed up to rehearse in New York, here I was in the trumpet section with Ziggy Elman and Charlie Shavers. Plus there was Teddy Wilson, Gene Krupa, Georgie Auld and Willie Smith. I mean, wow.

JW: Why did Benny choose you?
AS: Benny respected my playing, having been with his bands between 1948 and 1950. Years later I heard that Benny originally called Harry James [pictured] but James wanted $10,000 a week plus a percentage of the gate. So Benny called me--for $350 a week [laughs]. Hey, it was still three times what my father was making at the time.

JW: When did you first meet Louis Armstrong?
AS: We were rehearsing on the first or second day when Louis came by. He said hello to some of the guys who knew him. Everyone knew him, of course, except the younger guys--me, Sol and Rex. Then Louis walked off to the side and sat down.

JW: Did he say hello to Benny?
AS: Benny never seemed to acknowledge Louis from the moment he walked in the door. He had to have seen Louis. Louis had said hello to everyone. Louis was there to set up the songs with Benny. After an hour or two of rehearsing, Benny said, “OK boys, tomorrow morning at Carnegie Hall, 9 o'clock."

JW: Did he say hi to Louis then?
AS: No. Then slightly audible, Louis said, “Only place I'm gonna be tomorrow morning at 9 o'clock is bed."

JW: What did Benny say?
AS: Nothing that I recall. The next morning at 9, everyone was there at Carnegie Hall to rehearse except Louis. He walked in around 11. Benny started telling Louis how it would go as though nothing had happened. Benny said, “Then Pops, you'll come out and play with my band."

JW: What did Armstrong say?
AS: Louis said, “I ain't comin' out with your band." Benny was taken aback and already getting flustered. He said, “Why? I'll come out with your band." Louis said, “I'm not asking you to come out with my band."

JW: What was Goodman's reaction?
AS: Benny got even more flustered. Finally Benny became exasperated and said, “Jesus Christ, let's get this goddamn show on the road." Louis walked over to the trombone riser and sat down with his elbows on his knees and his chin in his hand. Glancing up at Benny, he said, “Man, I been trying to get this show on the road now for two days now. But it seem like some asshole done snuck in here somewhere" [roaring laughter].

JW: What did Goodman say?
AS: Benny didn't say anything that I can remember. Benny had this hit record so he couldn't understand why audiences loved Louis more. He knew Louis was great, but he didn't understand his tremendous appeal, especially given how Louis added that entertainment component, which seemed to bother Benny.

JW: How rattled was Goodman?
AS: At one point, after our tune-up concert on April 16, 1953 at the Mosque Theater in Newark, N.J., I saw Benny alone walking around in the theater's rotunda. It was all made of stone. He had a glass of some liquid in his hand. Suddenly he flung the glass against the wall, and the glass shattered all over the place.

JW: The Carnegie Hall concert was the next night. How did it go?
AS: Great. We were there to do a replay of the 1938 Carnegie Hall concert. I got there early. The stage was all set up with the music parts on the stands. When all of the musicians arrived, we were on the bandstand looking things over. Charlie Shavers sat next to Gene Krupa, Ziggy [pictured] sat in the middle, and I sat on Ziggy's left.

JW: Which trumpet part were you playing?
AS: Third trumpet. Ziggy was playing first. But Ziggy was a bit out of it. He was a pretty heavy drinker at this point. A short time before the concert started, poor Ziggy knocked his music stand and all the music off the riser and onto the floor. The whole thing came crashing down. Everyone was on edge given Benny's short fuse and the concert.

JW: What did Benny do?
AS: That was the last straw. Benny had had it with Ziggy. With his forefinger, Benny pointed to Ziggy and pointed to my chair, motioning for us to switch positions and parts. That's the way it was for the rest of the tour. Charlie played the jazz part, I played lead, and Ziggy played the third chair. [Pictured: Benny Goodman and Ziggy Elman]

JW: Was Ziggy angry?
AS: No. It was what it was. But I felt terrible. Here was a guy whose playing I had the utmost respect for during the days when he was with Tommy Dorsey and Benny's bands. I felt sad. Ziggy was a guy who was a marvelous musician and wonderful trumpet player. I had heard he even played baritone saxophone in Tommy's band for a while until a spot opened for him.

JW: For readers who don't know, explain the lead trumpet's role.
AS: The lead trumpet sets the concept. The lead plays the top note of the chord formed by all the trumpets. It's the one people hear most. So the lead trumpeter is listening to the bottom of the band--the bass and the bottom horns--to set the feel. The third chair plays more of a supporting role, and the second trumpet takes the jazz solos. Every one of those chairs is important.

JW: Did the tour start well?
AS: The next day Benny's band went up to Providence, R.I., with Louis and his All-Stars. But Benny wasn't with us. I think the newspapers said he had been stricken with a mild heart attack in his hotel room. I had heard he canceled himself out of the tour. Gene Krupa took over and led the band for the rest of the tour through the end of May.

Tomorrow, Al reflects on the Benny Goodman-Louis Armstrong tour (without Goodman), growing friendly with Armstrong, riding in the Armstrong band bus, Charlie Shavers' concerns about the bus driver, the big lesson Armstrong taught Al, and the flawed advice Armstrong gave Al about his horn.

JazzWax clip: Strangely, there was no commercial recording made of the Benny Goodman-Louis Armstrong Carnegie Hall concert. But to give you a sense of how Goodman and Helen Ward sounded just two months before the concert in April 1953, here's a clip...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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