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Interview: Mike Barone

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I last posted about trombonist, composer and arranger Mike Barone at the start of November. As you may recall, Mike had just released Live at Los Angeles City College, 1967, a previously unissued live recording of his big band, and the arrangements and band knocked me out. So I reached out to Mike for an e-interview to find out more about him and his passion for jazz and big bands.

Mike is a self-made arranger, which seems hard to believe given his stunning gift for the craft. He didn't have formal training. Instead, he worked hard to figure out how the arrangements he loved were written and then began to score big band charts, clawing his way up the competitive ladder in Los Angeles. Among his accomplishments were ghost-arranging for Gerald Wilson and composing and arranging for the monster big bands he led.

But it was a hard climb. By the 1960s, when Mike came up, the market for big bands was almost nonexistent. Household-name bandleaders continued to tour and record, but new ones were out of luck. Record labels no longer had the money for music ignored by a counterculture that embraced electric instruments and rock and soul. Having listened to more than a dozen albums on which Mike's charts are featured, it's clear to me that he has always loved writing for big bands, leading them and using every opportunity to be inventive and swing like crazy. What's also clear is the amazing quality of Mike's writing.

Today, my e-conversation with Mike Barone; tomorrow, I'll have a post of my favorite tracks from more than 12 albums:

JazzWax: You were born in Detroit. What did your parents do for a living?

Mike Barone: My father was a trumpet player and taught students privately. He had played in Bob Crosby's band in the 1930's and in other gigs. We moved to Cleveland in 1946, after my father was discharged from the Army. My mother ran a gift and millinery shop there. My brother, Gary, and I were close as kids. He was five years younger. Gary became a great jazz trumpet player and died in 2019 at 78 in Germany, where he had been living for almost 20 years.

JW: How did you come to music as a kid?

MB: When I was 6, I started playing the trumpet. But it was too difficult, so I quit. My brother began playing the trumpet at age 7 and was a wiz. I was 12 then,and his success motivated me to jump back in. My father brought home a trombone, and when I put the instrument to my lips, I was able to hit high notes right away because of my trumpet embouchure. I knew I could play that horn.

JW: Did you learn to play in school?

MB: My father tried to teach me, but that didn't work out. I then took private lessons for a short time. I played in the high school concert and marching bands. We didn’t have a jazz band. My father, brother and I played written Dixieland songbooks together at home. I became interested in jazz and copied solos from records by trombonists Jimmy Cleveland, Frank Rosolino, Benny Green and others.

JW: Did you practice?

MB: Every night for two years. Then I worked on my writing lessons and then the guitar, which I had just started to play. My father had a friend who played bass and taught the Schillinger System, so I went to him for quite a while. It was a total waste of time, except I did learn to play the bass along with Schillinger’s strata harmony and voice leading. I graduated from high school at age 17. I went to work at a local shoe store and lived at home.

JW: How did you wind up in the service?

MB: To avoid winding up in the infantry, I joined the Ohio National Guard Band in Cleveland at 18. For the first chart I ever wrote, I took part of a Les Brown record and wrote my own song and chart. We used it in the band, and the arrangement came out great. A year later, in 1956, I joined the Army and became a member of the West Point Band after auditioning. I started arranging for he band. I was totally self-taught. While I was in the band, I took trombone lessons from Lewis Van Haney for about a year. Those lessons took place every Wednesday at New York’s Carnegie Hall under the stage after the New York Philharmonic rehearsed.

JW: What did you do after the Army?

MB: A fellow soldier I'd met while stationed in Germany told me I could go to college in Los Angeles for free under the G.I. Bill. After I was discharged two months early, I applied to San Fernando Valley College and was accepted. I arrived in L.A. in September of 1959, at age 22. At college, I took some useless music-writing classes. By luck, I ended up with one of the best jazz music educators at that time—Bob MacDonald. I spent about a year and a half with his college big band, and it all came together for me, both playing and writing.

JW: What was your first professional gig?

MB: It was with Si Zentner’s big band, but the gig lasted only a week. The band had booked a three-month minimum of hotel gigs, but something fell through. I had driven back east with two other guys from Si's band. There, I was notified that the gigs were cancelled. I have no idea why. I was in Cleveland visiting my parents at the time and had to borrow money to get back to L.A. and start all over again. Trombonist Dick “Slide” Hyde recommended me to Louie Bellson's manager, Nick DiMaio. He hired me for a three-month tour with Pearl Bailey and Louie's band. After that tour, I worked with Louie around L.A. and recorded with him on Around the World in Percussion, in 1961. That was my first record date.

JW: What was it like playing behind singer Johnny Hartman on a couple of albums?

MB: I was Gerald Wilson's ghostwriter for about three years in the mid-1960s. It was no secret. I wrote 7 of the 11 charts on Johnny Hartman's album Unforgettable in 1966. I also arranged five tracks for a smaller band behind Johnny. He was a real gentleman. Gerald was a laid-back guy and a very warm person. He said I could write just like him. I played in his band and could hear his voicings were a lot like mine. Other artists I arranged for were Julie London, Earl Grant, Al Hirt and Nichelle Nichols, a singer who would up playing Uhura in TV’s Star Trek.

JW: And your Joe Castro big band recordings in 1966?

MB: I met Joe though Bob Edmondson, who was a good friend of mine. They were close friends. Joe was easy to work with. Arranger Oliver Nelson was one of my all-time favorite musicians, so recording with him on Sound Pieces and a Johnny Hartman album in '66 was pure joy.

JW: When did you form your big band?

MB: I had my first band when I was in 11th grade. We had two saxophones, a trumpet, a trombone, piano and drums. No bass! I played in a good big band at West Point for dances and wrote all the charts for an Army show in Augsburg, Germany, when I was stationed there in the 1950s. We toured other bases in the region. I worked hard in the Army, playing and writing. I didn’t waste my time and learned a lot. I formed my first band in L.A. around 1964. We rehearsed at the local union hall. I wrote the charts and copied some just to have enough material so we could rehearse.

JW: How did you pull in so many top players?

MB: For my first rehearsal, I called in trumpeter Al Porcino, who was highly regarded. Then I used his name to get other players and built on that. I ended up with a great band that included Al and trumpeters Conte Candoli, Ray Triscari and Stu Williamson, along with trombonists Bob Edmondson, Herbie Harper and two others. The rhythm section was Lou Levy on piano, Buddy Clark on bass and Mel Lewis on drums. I can’t remember the saxophones. They all came to the date, but they didn’t know who I was! It was a big success. I never really wanted to be a band leader. I just wanted to hear my charts played right. I was working in town as a player and writer, and I made a living.

JW: How did your famed Donte's gig come about?

MB: My band started working at the North Hollywood club in 1968, every Wednesday night. We never rehearsed because the gig was like a rehearsal.

JW: Which arrangers did you admire most?

MB: My all-time favorite was and still is Bill Holman. There are many others, like Billy May, Neal Hefti, Don Costa, Nelson Riddle, Frank Foster, Thad Jones, Bob Brookmeyer, Gerry Mulligan, Billy Byers and Duke Ellington. But by the 1960s, it was difficult to get recorded in L.A. All the record companies were too busy using their budgets to chase after rock bands. I finally recorded a demo session at Amigo Studio in Burbank in 1968. Four of the charts are on my Class of '68 album.

JW: How did your band fare with critics?

MB: We had many good mentions from reviewers, including Leonard Feather. Many show-biz and jazz stars would come in along with local jazz regulars. Imagine, it cost $1.50 then to see the band then at Donte's.

JW: You recorded on Supersax Plays Bird, the band's first album, in 1973. How did the group come about?

MB: I always felt that the idea for Supersax started in my band. But Terry Gibbs said it started earlier in his band. In my band, we used to play Just Friends with just the saxophones. That’s before Med Flory wrote the chart for Supersax. We rehearsed every week at Med’s house. I don’t remember the recording session, but the saxophones were well rehearsed. Med told me he never used any diminished chords in writing those sax parts.

JW: How was your album at Donte's recorded?

MB: It was done by George Jerman, a photographer and jazz-fan friend of many musicians. He just brought his tape machine into Donte's and hit the record button. I don’t remember if he even told me he was going to do it. The two nights he recorded were not our best, because key players were missing. But it still came out well. The 1967 City College recording was done by Bob MacDonald, the teacher who hired us. I didn’t know he was going to do it. Now it looks like it was this band's first recording.

JW: Was Rhubarb Records your label?

MB: Yes, and it was named after our all-time favorite family cat (above). As a rule, I always hated live big-band recordings because the quality of sound was often so badly miked. Then I did a recording with the Bud Shank Big Band at a Ken Poston-produced event in Los Angeles. The results were great. I called the engineer, Tim Pinch, and asked him how he did it. He told me the details about his home-studio equipment. I realized I could do the same at my house.

JW: What software did you use?

MB: Tim used Sony Vegas, which cost less than half of Pro Tools. So for the next two years, Tim taught me over the phone how to mix my own big-band albums using that software. It was a tough learning curve. From then on, I got Tim to record my band. There were 32 tracks, and it would take me up to four months to mix because there was so much leakage the way we set up. I didn’t mind. We did six albums in all, from 2005 to 2020. All low-budget union dates. I paid for them and never made a profit. After I moved where I’m living now, I started rehearsing my band in 2004 every Tuesday morning, which was a three-hour drive to the union hall.

JW: What was the purpose?

MB: My goal was to record my music so I'd leave something behind. I had been on so few recordings. Our last album was recorded on February 1, 2020. Covid hit about a month later. We had rehearsed every week for 15 years at the union hall except for holidays. That’s why the band always sounded so good.

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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