Interview: Danny Bank on BG


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Danny Bank is one of the most recorded baritone saxophonists in jazz history. According to Tom Lord's Jazz Discography, Danny has recorded on 416 sessions (studio and live dates). To give you an idea of how large a number that is, consider this: Gerry Mulligan recorded on 376, Count Basie's baritone saxophonist Charlie Fowlkes recorded on 370, Pepper Adams on 267, Cecil Payne on 187 and Serge Chaloff on 113. Harry Carney tops Danny and everyone else on the instrument at 1,058 sessions.

In his day, Danny was one of the most in-demand studio musicians and can be found on many of the best big band dates of the 1940s and jazz sessions of the 1950s and beyond. He recorded on the Charles Mingus Octet session of 1953, the Art Farmer Septet date of 1954 and with Clifford Brown and singer Helen Merrill in that same year. He also was in Gil Evans' orchestra that accompanied Miles Davis on Miles Ahead (+19), Sketches of Spain and Porgy and Bess. These examples are just a drop in the studio-session bucket for Danny.

Now 86 years old, Danny began his professional career with Charlie Barnet in 1944 and joined Freddie Slack's orchestra that same year before being hired by Benny Goodman in the winter of 1945. On Friday, after my two posts last week on the King of Swing, I spoke with Danny about his year and a half with Goodman in the mid-1940s:

JazzWax: When did you join Benny Goodman's band?
Danny Bank: In early 1945. All five of us in the sax section were hired on the exact same day. Al Epstein, the tenor saxophonist, and I were subbing at the time for guys in the reed section of Woody Herman's band who had gone home on vacation. It was Woody's Second Herd, and the band was just starting to blow. It turns out that Benny was there in the audience during my Woody performance. Popsie, Goodman's band boy at the time, was there with him. Popsie also was Benny's valet. Before the curtain would go up, Popsie would check Benny's fly to be sure it was up, brush his hair and get him ready for the show. Things like that.

JW: What happened during the Woody Herman gig?
DB: Popsie knew a lot of us from Brooklyn. He told Benny during the concert, “Hey, I know those guys." Benny told him to get a sax section together and he'd listen to it the next day. So all five members of the section that Popsie got together were hired the next day, on the spot. I think Benny was putting together a new big band after being off and playing with smaller groups for a while in '44. I played baritone, Al Epstein and Stan Kosow were on tenors, and Bill Shine and Aaron Sachs played altos.

JW: After you were hired, what happened next?
DB: We recorded some tracks with vocalists [in February] and then broke in the band playing around New York. By that time, the band was sounding really good. We recorded Love Walked In, Gotta Be This or That, Clarinade and others [in March].

JW: How did Benny rehearse the band?
BG: Benny liked to rehearse a lot. Not while we were on the road but in New York. He'd call rehearsals for very early in the morning, 7 am usually, and hold them on Carnegie Hall's stage. He liked the way the band sounded there. He had had success there in 1938, of course, and the acoustics were fantastic.

JW: What did Benny think of your playing?
DB: He liked me, though he had trouble hearing low notes. His brother played the bass and another brother, of course, played trumpet. Benny once told me that he had trouble making out low notes. He said to me,  “My brother's a bass player but he ain't a very good one. I'll tell you how he sounds when he plays: Thud, thud, thud [pause]. Thud, thud, thud."

JW: How did Benny recognize your ability?
DB: Early on Harry Carney and Duke Ellington [pictured] came to hear the band. Carney was Duke's baritone player and my hero from the time I was 13. I'd go hear him in Duke's band all the time when I was a kid. If there were four shows in one day, I'd go with four sandwiches and stay for the entire time. So that day, after we played, Harry and Duke came over. Right in front of me Benny asks Harry, “What do you think of the baritone player?" Harry says, “Yeah, he sounds like an organ." That was a great compliment for me because Benny loved Carney and so did I.

JW: What did Carney mean by sounding like an organ?
DB: He was referring to the low notes in relation to the rest of the band. As a baritone player, your sound has to be big but also cooperate with a lot of different instruments, like the bass fiddle and bass trombone. It has to have that texture, like an organ.

JW: What about Artie Shaw? Did Benny feud with him?
DB: Not that I saw. But I know they were rivals. Artie [pictured] and Benny worked together early in their careers for NBC in radio. They both played alto and clarinet. Artie played lead, first sax. Benny played third. By luck, Benny made it big first. A short time after he made it, Artie said to himself, “Gee whiz, if he can make it like that, I can too." So Artie went out and got a band and had all those hits in 1938 and 1939.

JW: Was Benny a tough boss?
DB: A lot of the guys were intimidated by him. Don't forget, the way he set the band up, I was furthest from him in the reed section. So I was at the other end of the band. I was always in that position in Benny's band, on the outside in front of the trombones. That's how he set us up. So I was out of Benny's reach, so to speak. But I watched him out of the corner of my eye all the time. You had to watch him. He was a conductor without a baton. He controlled the band's downbeats and the volume with the smallest movements. [Photo of Goodman conducting by Wallace Kirkland for Life, 1945]

JW: Who also passed through the sax section while you were there?
DB: Stan Getz. He replaced Stan Kosow, who didn't want to travel on the road any more. Stan Getz sounded great right off the bat. He got along with Benny pretty good but he didn't last long. When we got to the West Coast on one of our tours, Stan left to marry Beverly Byrne, a girl vocalist.

JW: Who was your best friend in Benny's band?
DB: Al Epstein. He sat next to me on the stand. I remember while we were playing the Paramount in New York, he got a case of hemorrhoids. On the Paramount stage, we sat on three-legged stools so we wouldn't take up much room. To ease the pain, Epstein went out and bought one of those inflatable pillows that look like a doughnut.

JW: Did it help?
DB: I guess, until Benny came by and saw it. He reached in his pocket, took out a pin and punctured the pillow. When Epstein came back to sit down, he saw that it was flat. He realized that Benny had punctured it, so he bought a repair kit and patched it up. On the next show, Benny saw the balloon was re-inflated. So he took out the pin and punctured it again. After a while, that little pillow was full of patches. I couldn't help laughing. Epstein wouldn't let him up. He'd just keep repairing it and Benny kept puncturing it. Al had a great sense of humor. We were from the same block in Brooklyn.

JW: How did Gerry Sanfino join the band on alto sax?
DB: We were playing in Columbus, Ohio. Benny called for a short rehearsal before the first show to break in Gerry. Poor Sanfino didn't know what was coming. When he sat down, he saw there was no music. Benny told him to play Star Dust, that he would play the introduction and that Sanfino would play the chorus with the band. Well we hadn't memorized the changes to the arrangement so we botched it up, with everyone was playing wrong notes. Sanfino didn't know what to do. So he just closed his eyes to block out the noise and played the chorus dead on, and he sounded great. He was hired.

JW: What was Benny like overall while you were with the band?
DB: He was a pain. In those days he hired and fired as soon as he had a great band. He was obsessed with trying to recreate his original band with Harry James and Ziggy Elman. So he'd fire and hire someone else, always tinkering, always trying to improve the band to his liking.

JW: How did Benny fire people?
DB: [Laughs] Well, if we were on the road you'd get two weeks' notice and carfare home.

JW: But how did he do it?
DB: Pretty coolly. He'd just say, “I'm going to replace this chair or that chair."

JW: What would trigger a firing?
DB: Sometimes a musician's sound would be off. Other times it was just a quirk or personality thing. We were playing at a club on 44th Street and Fifth Avenue in New York once. Benny was trying to decide what number the band should play next but couldn't make up his mind right away. In those few seconds, my friend Al Epstein said, “71, The Count,“ which was the song that was number 71 in our book. He did it sort of like he was predicting what Benny would say. And just as Al said it, it was like a miracle. Benny said “71, The Count.“ [Photo: Wallace Kirkland, Life, 1945]

JW: What did Benny do?
DB: When Al said it, Benny must have heard the echo of Al's voice and misunderstood. When he looked over at Al and gave him that stare, I could tell there was going to be trouble. I leaned over to Al and said, “Listen, you better pack your bag, I think you're gonna get out of here." Sure enough, Al got fired.

JW: Did Benny think Al was making fun of him?
DB: Who knows. He just decided to replace him. As we headed west, he kept replacing people. I saw about 45 saxophonists go through that band.

JW: Did Benny fire mostly for odd reasons or was he not hearing what he wanted to hear?
DB: He was always trying to build a better mousetrap.

JW: You survived a long time.
DB: I was with Benny for about a year and half. Finally, he did come over to me and told me, “Try to change your way of playing."

JW: How did he want you to play?
DB: I have no idea. But it made me angry, because that was after I was with the band for all that time. I gave him two weeks' notice right off the bat.

JW: What did he say?
DB: Nothing. But I heard from Alice Hammond, his wife. She pleaded with me to stay, saying that Benny felt bad about it.

JW: Was she that involved in the band?
DB: Yes, to an extent. She was [Columbia producer] John Hammond's sister.

JW: When she asked you to stay, why didn't you change your mind?
DB: I had already talked to Charlie Barnet [pictured] and was committed to going back with his band.

JW: Over the years, did you play again with Benny?
DB: Oh, sure, many times. I was with him on and off for about 50 years. We talked just before he died in 1986. It was an experience working with Benny.

JW: How so?
DB: Everyone will tell you the same thing. It was like working with Arturo Toscanini. Benny was a leader, a conductor. You had to keep your eyes on him the whole time. You grew and became better for it.

This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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