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Interview: Marshall Rogers on Shorty

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Ninety-eight years ago today, Milton Rajonsky was born in Great Barrington, Mass. Milton would later become better known as Shorty Rogers, a trumpeter and flugelhornist and composer-arranger who was one of West Coast jazz's primary architects in the early 1950s. He also pioneered a brassy cool sound for TV shows and his music inspired Henry Mancini. Rogers died in 1994 at age 70.

Among Rogers's milestone albums are Modern Sounds : Shorty Rogers And His Giants (1951), Cool & Crazy (1953), Shorty Courts the Count (1954), The Swinging Mr. Rogers (1955), Clickin' With Clax (1956), Wherever the Five Winds Blow (1956), The Big Shorty Rogers Express (1956), Plays Richard Rodgers (1957), Portrait of Shorty (1957), Chances Are It Swings (1958) and The Swinging Nutcracker (1960).

Here's Rogers playing flugelhorn on the TV detective series Peter Gunn in 1959...



What was Rogers like around the house as a father and a husband? Marshall Rogers, one of Shorty Rogers' four children, graciously made time for an email interview:

JazzWax: Where did your family live first in Los Angeles?

Marshall Rogers: My parents’ first home was in Burbank, at 1421 Catalina Ave, very close to several recording studios. I think they bought it in 1947. Saxophonist Jimmy Giuffre lived with them for a while there but eventually moved just up the street when my parents needed more space for their growing family.

JW: When did the family move?

MR: By 1952, with three kids, my parents had outgrown the Catalina Avenue house and they started looking for a larger one i the San Fernando Valley. One day, my mom drove to Van Nuys to buy eggs from a local chicken ranch and came across a home at 6724 Allott Ave., built by a local dentist in 1950. I was one year old when they bought that house and we moved there. At the time, it had three bedrooms and two bathrooms. Over the years, my parents expanded the house, adding a den, two more bedrooms and two more bathrooms. The house—known as “Jolly Rogers Ranch”—was in a former walnut orchard that still had plenty of walnut trees. There was quite a bit of space between neighboring homes back then.

JW: What did your parents like about it?

MR: The privacy. The half-acre lot included both upper and lower portions to the backyard. In the upper portion, my brother and I had a tree house that was featured on the cover of Dad's Way Up There album, photographed by William Claxton. The lower backyard was thick with bamboo and other sub-tropical plants. There was a pool and a small tiki style hut for card games, chats and  gatherings. Also in the lower backyard, my dad had his studio—a freestanding, converted two-car garage. Nothing fancy. The floor was linoleum over cement. There was an upright piano and a drafting board for composing and arranging, and book and album shelves. I remember there were plenty of ashtrays overflowing with cigarette butts and pictures of classical composers like Bach and Mozart. It was never a neat, tidy space but that was OK. As for the neighborhood, it was very relaxed. Kids who lived on Allott Avenue were all friends and got along well.

JW: How did your dad meet your mom?

MR: Dad met Marjorie during World War II at the Naval base in Newport News, Va. He was in an Army band that entertained troops before they departed for Europe. My maternal grandmother worked on the base driving a bus and my mom worked as a nurse’s aide at the base’s hospital. They met at a dance on the base. I believe trombonist Eddie Bert introduced them.

JW: What did your dad do after the war?

MR: He started touring with big bands led by Stan Kenton and Woody Herman. Along with other wives, my mom traveled on the band bus. When the bus stopped in Southern California, she and my dad rented a small place in Hermosa Beach. I think by that time, my dad’s sister had married Red Norvo and they settled in Santa Monica. Eventually, my folks moved to Burbank. Soon after, my dad’s parents also moved to Los Angeles and lived in Hollywood. My paternal grandfather worked at one of the movie studios as a tailor.

JW: Your dad gigged quite a bit in the early 1950s.

MR: Yes, mostly at clubs like the Haig in Hollywood and the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach, as well as at several others. He was very busy. I remember the phone constantly ringing. Dad would often have to take a break from our family dinner to take a call.

JW: How many in the family?

MR: There were four children: My sister, Michele, is four years older than me. My brother, Mike, was two years older and died of cancer about 15 years ago. And my sister, Mia, is 13 years younger. I once asked my mom who I was named for, thinking it was for Marshal Royal, the great alto saxophonist in Count Basie’s band. Dad was an enormous Basie fan. She told me that I wasn’t named for anyone in particular. She just liked the name and it fit with all names beginning with the letter M in the Rogers’ family. My dad’s given name was Milton.

JW: When did you first realize your dad earned a living as a musician?

MR: It’s hard to say. I remember noticing that all the other dads in the neighborhood would leave for work at around 8 a.m. while my dad continued to sip coffee at the kitchen table and read the newspaper. Then he’d walk down to his studio and disappear for hours. Because he practiced every day in his backyard studio, we would hear him. And, obviously, when he was on the road, we knew he was performing. We missed him immensely.

JW: When did you realize he was an important musician?

MR: As a kid, I didn’t fully know. I knew his albums were popular, but he was a very humble guy and never bragged about his work. I was always impressed whenever I’d see him on TV, like a guest appearance on Frankly Jazz, the L.A. TV jazz show in the early 1960s, or a quick appearance on the Soupy Sales Show. At the time, I just thought of him as one of the many jazz musicians we knew.

JW: Did you have ambitions to become a musician?

MR: As a preteen, Dad taught my brother and me to read and write music. I took trumpet lessons from Ollie Mitchell, the lead trumpeter at MGM, and stuck with it for a few years. But at about 14, I got braces and put down the trumpet. I still practice occasionally, but I’m not very good. My brother, Mike, became a professional drummer. He eventually grew tired of being on the road and went to work at Universal Studios as a music supervisor. Mia also worked in music-rights clearance.

JW: In the larger scheme of things, I bet playing the trumpet made you appreciate how special your dad was.

MR: I’m often asked why I didn’t go into the music business. My glib answer is that I wanted a steady paycheck and that the family had enough members in the music business. In truth, I think my parents had mixed feeling about encouraging their kids to become professional musicians. It’s a tough life. To this day, I wish I’d stuck with it, even though I think I ended up better off financially.

JW: Was your dad’s life as glamorous as people think?

MR: I don’t think of my dad’s life as glamorous. Yes, it involved travel and performing on stage to appreciative crowds. But the truth is the experience of being on the road and away from your family got old for him quickly. And as far as film scoring went, the studios were apprehensive about hiring jazz musicians to score their films, given how meticulous that responsibility was and how much money was on the line in budgets. So it was an upward struggle. For example, Marlon Brando was a big fan of my dad’s music and had a big say in getting him involved working on the film The Wild One. Apparently when Brando asked the studio to use Dad, the studio dressed up a couple of security guards to look like beatniks and sent them to the Lighthouse to observe a Sunday jazz session. The studio brass were concerned that the Lighthouse was a drug den and wanted it checked out. In beatnik costume, the security guards must have looked hilariously out of place but they returned to the studio on Monday and said all was well.

JW: Did you father like his nickname?

MR: As far as I know he liked Shorty, insofar as it was considered much hipper than Milton. I don’t know who gave him the name Shorty. My folks always called each other “Dad” and “Mom” around the family. Some of his closest friends sometimes referred to him as Shorts.

JW: What brand of aftershave did your dad wear and what did he drive?

MR: He didn’t wear aftershave. He said it gave him headaches. The first car I remember Dad driving was a Jaguar XK120. When I was probably about 7, he would load my brother and me into the car for a quick ride from the Valley to Hollywood. It was always thrilling, especially when we sped down Vine Street to Capitol Records. After plenty of mechanical problems, he sold the Jag but regretted it later. The family then had a Ford station wagon that was eventually replaced by a Chevy station wagon. After the wagons, my dad drove a ’63 Thunderbird, a very cool car. I was always proud when he dropped us off at school. He subsequently had a Nissan 240Z and a Datsun 280Z. He loved sports cars.

JW: What was you dad like?

MR: Very easy-going. His world was focused on music and his family. Despite his busy career, he was always there for us. But in truth my mom deserves much of the credit for managing the daily responsibilities of raising us and running the music publishing business that my parents started. In thinking about their division of labor, Dad never wrote a check or opened the mail. Mom did that, as well as all the paperwork related to the business side. She was smart enough to give him all the time he needed for his work and didn’t nag him about business matters. He knew he had a good, loving partner.

JW: Were there family vacations?

MR: Yes, but these were usually domestic trips. My parents loved the ocean. In the late 1950s, they'd rent a home in Newport Beach, Calif., for a week each summer. After a few years of that, we got more adventurous. A mobile home-style trailer was rented and hooked up to the back of the station wagon. We then drove down to Baja, Calif., for a week of beach time.

JW: Those were still the days of owning one home.

MR: Yes, until the day in the early 1960s when my mom took a Sunday drive by herself. The story goes that she needed a break from everything—also known as the kids—and decided to drive up to Santa Barbara. This was before the Ventura Freeway was completed, so she only got as far as Ventura. She liked it and started looking at beach homes that were for sale. When she got home that night, she announced that the Rogers family was now the proud owner of a beach house—a small, two-bed, one-bath place about five houses from the ocean.

JW: How long would the family stay there?

MR: For several summers, Dad took a three-month break from work and the family moved to the Ventura beach house for the season. Dad loved fishing, so after a while my parents bought a 30-foot cabin cruiser they named Jolly Rogers. They kept it at the Ventura Marina. During this period, my younger sister, Mia, was born. Eventually, the boat was moved south to Newport Beach and we began regular boating vacations to Avalon on Catalina Island. After a few years, they traded up to larger boats, ending up with a 1946 trawler, also named Jolly Rogers. They joined the Catalina Island Yacht Club and spent much of their summers in Avalon.

JW: What was school like for you? An amazing time to grow up in Los Angeles.

MR: I enjoyed both grammar school and high school, although I wasn’t a serious student. I received good grades but really didn’t work hard. Mom and Dad weren’t “helicopter parents.” They didn’t insist that we get outstanding grades. They just wanted us to pass our classes and stay out of trouble. When my brother, Mike, passed the California driving test at 15½, our parents thought it would be a good investment to buy him an inexpensive used car so they didn’t have to drive us to school or music lessons. At the time, used cars typically cost a couple hundred dollars. They also provided transportation to after-school jobs, such as a box boy at the local grocery store or working at the nearby McDonald's. The used car was handed down to me when I turned 15 ½ and passed the driving test. I was very proud of the ’57 Chevy wagon I inherited when my brother turned 18 and by then drove a VW bus. As teens, we had plenty of freedom. Summers were really fun with plenty of beach time for surfing, skateboarding and cruising.

JW: What did you listen to at home?

MR: I listened to the albums that were popular among my friends. This included the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Cream, the Doors, Canned Heat, the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Jethro Tull. Also, quite of bit of blues by Muddy Waters, B.B. King and John Mayall, just to name a few. Eventually I started to dig deep into jazz after my initial interest in the genre was sparked by my dad’s music as well as by Dave Brubeck, Roger Kellaway and Dizzy Gillespie. As an undergraduate, my first course in music appreciation was very disappointing, largely because it focused on classical. Later, after finishing a Ph.D. program in psychology, I took a class in jazz appreciation with Mia as a fellow classmate. We both really enjoyed it. The class gave me what I needed to dig deeper into the jazz musicians that seemed to be fading from the scene, like Blue Mitchell, Carmel Jones and Clifford Brown. Also Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker. Surprisingly, I didn’t listen much to the music by my uncle Red Norvo.

JW: Did your parents have parties?

MR: Our parents weren’t big on throwing them, maybe because my dad’s performing life was a constant social scene. Nevertheless, they enjoyed going to parties hosted by other jazz musicians, like Terry Gibbs, or they went to dinner at trendy restaurants with Andre Previn and Mia Farrow, for whom my younger sister was named. At some point, I think my mom lost interest in even these parties and events. As a result, my dad would sometimes go with me or Mia but most often with my brother Mike. At the various events he took me to, he would introduce me to musicians who I had not previously heard of, like guys from the Central Avenue scene. Having met them, I’d ask my dad about them on the drive home and then listen to their music. It was a great way to deepen my knowledge of jazz.

JW: Did musicians come over to the house to hang out?

MR: They did, but after coming inside, they’d soon all huddle in my dad’s studio to check out a new chart he'd written. Trombonist Harry Betts and Mike Nesmith were frequent guests. Mike and Dad were together at the house when Mike got the call informing him he had been chosen to be one of the Monkees.

JW: Do you listen to your dad’s records now?

MR: As a teen, I listened to Dad’s music but not nearly as much as rock. As a graduate student, I dialed down the rock and dialed up the jazz. Similarly, I started going to jazz performances rather than rock. Ones that stick out in my mind were Dizzy Gillespie, Dexter Gordon and Red Norvo.

JW: Did your dad ever talk about his vision for West Coast jazz?

MR: I remember having a conversation with him about the whole East vs. West jazz issue. While he acknowledged the different styles of the two coasts, he thought the “which is better” argument was hollow. He pointed out that most of West Coast musicians grew up on the East Coast and spent a significant portion of their performing years living there. He felt that it wasn’t a matter of which coast music came from. What mattered was whether the music was original and good. He especially liked the use of instruments that one doesn’t normally associate with jazz. Some examples are the French horn—John Graas—and the cello—Ed Lustgarten. Worth noting here is the bassoon on the song Everybody Loves a Lover from his Chances Are It Swings album.

JW: Tell me about the cover of Chances Are It Swings.

MR: Dad wasn’t one to focus on clothing. While he loved all things modern and was an early adopter of stereo equipment and electronics, he didn’t pay much attention to the impression made by his daily choice of clothing. On those occasions when he was in front of an audience, he sought my mom’s advice. Judging by the array of trendy suits he wore for album cover shots, I think she did a great job. I do remember him saying that while the sweater on the cover of the Chances Are It Swings album looked good, he didn’t like wearing sweaters. That was probably my mom's choice.

JW: And The Big Shorty Rogers Express album cover?

MR: Bob Willoughby was the photographer, and when the label decided on the name for the album, Bob wanted to take a concept-relevant shot of my dad adjacent to a train locomotive. They made arrangements with Union Station in downtown Los Angeles. When they arrived to do the shoot, Dad and Bob were told the train would pull in a few minutes but that it would have to depart 10 minutes later. As soon as the train arrived, Bob had my dad climb up and sit on the front of the locomotive's hood. My dad told me that the engine was very hot and he had his hands full just trying to avoid getting his butt burned while sitting there.

JW: What did your dad’s stereo system look like and which albums by your dad are favorites of yours?

MR: In addition to my dad’s backyard studio, where all the real work was done, our home in Van Nuys had a large den that housed his system. There were big, wall mounted speakers amid bookshelves, which held a sizeable vinyl collection. By today’s standards, the amp and turntable were modest. When I was a kid, I really favored Dad’s The Wizard of Oz and Other Harold Arlen Songs. Later I gravitated to Chances Are It Swings. I still love these and listen to them often. Currently I’ve been listening to his An Invisible Orchard, recorded in 1961 but not released until 1997. Also, I’ve been playing Dad’s Collaboration, with Andre Previn.

JW: How did your dad navigate the rock era?

MR: After the Beatles became popular and jazz took a back seat to rock, Dad used his talents as a composer and shifted from composing and performing to scoring films and TV shows. That meant less limelight, but little did I know then that he was giving music lessons to people like Sonny Bono and Michael Nesmith and working with Herb Alpert and the pop-rock studio musicians known as the Wrecking Crew. I did occasionally see Dad’s name in TV credits for shows like the Partridge Family and the Love Boat. But based on the shows’ plots and storylines, I thought very little of them. Years later, in the early 1980s, Dad started performing again. By then, I was living in the Midwest and able to catch his shows in Chicago at the Blackstone and in New York at the Blue Note. For me that’s when I started to think of my dad as professionally important. He could still fill those clubs with fans so many years after his heyday.

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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