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Interview: Anthony Ortega (Part 3)

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Lionel Hampton loved Anthony Ortega's playing in 1953, likening his sound on the alto sax to Charlie Parker's. There are indeed similarities, notably the yearning, bluesy tone and pushing off on the high notes. Anthony wound up in Hampton's band at just the right moment in time, when an amazing collection of musicians had assembled—including Quincy Jones, Art Farmer, Clifford Brown, Gigi Gryce, Jimmy Cleveland and Monk Montgomery. 

In Part 3 of my four-part series on Anthony Ortega, the alto saxophonist talks about the Hampton band of '53—an experience that not only allowed him to meet his future wife but also a few future employers...

JazzWax: How did you wind up in Lionel Hampton's band in 1953?

Anthony Ortega: Through Gil Bernal [pictured], one of my high school friends in Los Angeles. I first met Gil at a talent show at Jordan High School. He did impersonations of singers and comedians. He also would hum sax solos from Woody Herman's recordings. I thought he was pretty talented. Gil used to come over to my house all the time. Humming those solos made me think.

JW: About what?

AO: I said, “Gil you have a good ear. You should get your mom to buy you a saxophone." The same line my cousin used on me [laughs]. So Gil asked, and he got a tenor sax. In 1948, I decided to enlist in the Army. One of my other sax friends, Maurice, talked me into it. He thought we would be able to get into the Army band if we enlisted rather than waiting to be drafted.

JW: How does Gil figure into Hampton?

AO: Hang on. Maurice and I were told that if we enlisted, after basic training we would be able  to play in the band in Pasadena [Calif.]. So we enlisted, took basic and then wound up in band training school. I was in the Army for three years. When I was discharged in '51, Gil had already become an excellent player and had auditioned for Hampton [pictured], landing the chair. When I ran into Gil two years later, he told me that Hamp needed an alto saxophonist.

JW: What did you do?

AO: Gil told me to come down to a rehearsal. So I went, and Hamp hired me. I started playing one-nighters with the band.

JW: What did you think of Hampton?

AO: He was great. His wife handled all the business, while he was totally into the music end of things. He was unpredictable, which is why crowds loved him. He would jump up on the drums and then start playing the vibes. It was wild. Hamp used to ride on the bus with all the guys while his wife rode in their Cadillac with the dancer Curley Hamner. [Pictured above: Anthony Ortega soloing in Lionel Hampton's band, courtesy of Anthony Ortega]

JW: Was Clifford Brown with the band yet?

AO: Not yet. Art Farmer was in the trumpet section. Quincy Jones, too. Quincy was arranging for the band. When we'd get on the stand, the band would really let it go on the solos. What was great about Hamp was that he loved to have guys play solos and cut loose. The only thing I didn't like was having to walk around on stage playing my Flying Home solo [laughs]. Hamp's music was between jazz and R&B at the time. [Pictured: Anthony Ortega playing clarinet with Lionel Hampton, courtesy of Anthony Ortega]

JW: What was Gigi Gryce like?

AO: Gigi [pictured] was a very mellow guy. Hamp didn't care for his modern arrangements because they didn't pop off enough. Quincy and Gigi were on opposite ends of the personality spectrum. Gigi was very quiet while Quincy was pretty outgoing. He was always working and arranging and writing on the bus.

JW: What about Clifford Brown?

AO: He was very shy when he first joined the band. He was kind of quiet, almost like he had a complex. He was just into his music. But he was very friendly and modest. He hung around a lot with Gigi. Gigi had gone to the Boston Conservatory, and Clifford was from the East Coast, so they had a lot in common. [Photo: Gigi Gryce and Clifford Brown]

JW: Why didn't Bobby Plater and Benny Golson go with the band when it left for Europe in the fall of 1953?

AO: Hamp didn't want to pay the guys that much money. So Bobby didn't go. Neither did Benny. Hamp put me on lead alto, taking Bobby's place. Gigi was the other alto. I picked up a more modern sound on that band.

JW: Where was the band's first European stop?

AO: Oslo, Norway. That's where I met my wife Mona [pictured]. She was a jazz pianist and later took up the vibes. I met her at the Penguin Club in Oslo. It was a jazz club. We were there standing around watching a trio with a clarinet, piano and drums. I asked her to dance. We danced a little, but I couldn't dance very well. We became friendly, and I took her home in a cab afterward.

JW: When did you see her again?

AO: Hamp's band was going to appear at the Penguin Club a month later. When we came back, Mona was there.

JW: Yes, and in the meantime, Hampton's band went to Paris, where a bunch of you snuck off in the night.

AO: [Laughs] Yes. Gigi was approached by the FrenchVogue label to record compositions that were quite different from Hamp's foot-stompers. We recorded over a series of days in September and October. They were done from around 2 a.m to 6 p.m. It was a secretive thing.

JW: Because if Hampton had found out, you guys would have been in big trouble?

AO: That's right. We didn't want Hamp to find out. We had played those arrangements once in a while with Hamp but they were headier than the kinds of things fans were turning out to hear so he never really built them into the book.

JW: What was it like in Paris?

AO: Oh, we were so enthusiastic. It didn't matter that we didn't get much sleep. We were in Paris, which was so uplifting. I have a solo on Purple Shades. Quincy had composed and arranged the song, and I Iearned later that Cannonball Adderley recorded it the same way as I did.

JW: That band had some trumpet section.

AO: Yes, Clifford and Art were both there with Quincy and Walter Williams. But there was no animosity. We were one unit, and everyone got along. You could really feel what was happening. The harmonies in those charts were so great.

JW: How did you wind up soloing on Purple Shades?

AO: When we had been traveling on the bus, I heard the arrangement and remarked to Quincy [pictured] how much I liked it. I didn't know it was his. When it came time to record, he had me take the solo.

JW: Did Hampton find out what was going on?

AO: Yes and he was furious. The band's road manager George Hart had a fistfight with Clifford Brown on the bus. He  was so angry that we had done this around Hamp, he grew belligerent. Hamp didn't want guys in the band gaining too much exposure. Hamp didn't fire us while we were in Europe, but everyone understood that the band was finished as soon as we got back to the States. And when we got back, we did disband, with everyone going their separate ways.

JW: How did Hamp find out?

AO: He got wind of it somehow. It was hard to keep the recordings a secret for too long, since we were sneaking out in the middle of the night and creeping back into the hotel in the early morning. Guys who weren't invited must have found out.

JW: What about Mona?

AO: I called her from Germany before I left for the States. Over the phone I proposed to her.

JW: What did she say?

AO: She said, “Yes."

JW: What did you do next?

AO: I went home to my mother's place in El Monte, Calif. Mona and I continued to correspond, and I saved up enough to go back to Norway, where we were married. Her parents took to me right away. Her father was a top violinist there—Gunnar Orbeck. All of her family members were musicians, so we got along well.

JW: How long were you there?

AO: I stayed in Oslo for a few months. When Mona got her visa, we moved to El Monte for a time before heading to New York.

JazzWax note: If you missed yesterday's installment, be sure to catch Andrew Rubin's The Street We Took (2007), a 15-minute documentary on Anthony and Mona Ortega. Go here.

JazzWax tracks: Anthony Ortega's tracks with Gigi Gryce are: Paris the Beautiful, Purple Shades, La RoseNoire, Brown Skins, Deltitnu, Keepin' Up With Jonesy, Strike Up the Band, Quick Step, Bum's Rush, Chez Moi and All Weird. These tracks are exceptional and in some respects usher in a new, romantic period of arranging that was deeply influenced by arranger-composer Tadd Dameron. You'll find these tracks on Gigi Gryce in Paris at iTunes and Amazon.

JazzWax clip: Here's Anthony Ortega's splendid solo on Purple Shades in 1953...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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