Sol Schlinger: 1926-2017


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Sol Schlinger, a baritone saxophonist who played in several major big bands in the 1940s and was part of the East Coast sax section that handled a sizable amount of studio recording in the 1950s and beyond, died last week. He was 91.

Among producers, contractors, arrangers and musicians, Sol was considered a rock-solid anchor in reed sections that recorded jazz and pop in New York in the 12-inch LP era, starting in 1955. Back then, many orchestral record dates began with the arranger, who knew the musicians who could handle their music flawlessly and fast. Other baritone saxophonists who recorded in New York on jazz recordings of the 1950s included Danny Bank, Al Epstein and Charlie O'Kane.

Sol's strength was his relaxed sense of humor, his ability to swing and his ability to sight-read the most complex music flawlessly. In the early days of JazzWax, I had the time to track down many obscure musicians from the 1950s, like Sol, and interview them for the blog. My feeling was that I owed this to jazz to document the work and words of artists who were never going to be household names but deserved to be more than just names in a set of liner notes.

In 2011, I interviewed Sol, and in the years that followed, we kept in touch, especially when I wanted to know more about a recording he was on. Little known to most is that Sol was a very funny lyricist, often taking familiar songs and re-working the words to poke fun at the business and musicians such as Benny Goodman. He sent many of those lyrics along to me along with a recording of him singing them. I still get a laugh listening to it.

Here is my multipart interview with Sol in 2011 combined into one post...

Mention the “East Coast sax section" to fans of '50s jazz, and you'll be talking about one of the most in-demand and prolific studio saxophone units of the era. It was comprised of Hal McKusick and Gene Quill on alto saxophones, Zoot Sims and Al Cohn on tenor saxophones, and Sol Schlinger on baritone saxophone. Often times, Phil Woods and Sam Marowitz subbed for McKusick, or Eddie Wasserman might be in for Sims.

One reason for the high demand of these reed players was their collective sound. The altos often had a nippy, urgent tone on top; the tenors had a mellow, Lester Young-like sound in the middle; and Sol was the maple-smooth, swinging anchor. And they all were killer readers. Their sessions included dates led by Al Cohn, Quincy Jones, George Williams, Manny Albam, Urbie Green and other arranger-conductors.

JazzWax: Where did you grow up?

Sol Schlinger: In the East Bronx. Other guys I knew up there growing up were Stan Getz, Bernie Glow and Lenny Hambro.

JW: What did your parents do?

SS: My dad was an entrepreneur. He wasn’t very successful, though. He booked concerts in Europe, and his partners stole from him. My mom was a grade-A cook. She earned the money for the family. I have a brother, Izzy, who’s a year and a half older than me.  

JW: What was your first instrument?

SS: Tenor sax. Every summer my family rented a small hotel in the Catskill Mountains a few hours north of New York. There was always a band playing there, and I couldn’t stop listening and watching them. One summer, my Pop asked if I wanted to learn to play music. I said, “Yes.” He said he would tell the bandleader to give me lessons.

JW: What happened?

SS: The bandleader asked what instrument I wanted to play. I went for the sax. I liked the neck strap, of all things. The guy who played the sax in the band agreed to give me lessons but he told the bandleader, “He can’t use my mouthpiece.”

JW: So what did you do?

SS: The guy took a piece of shirt cardboard and drew rings for the sax’s notes. I took lessons on the cardboard and never touched an instrument that summer. At the end of the season, my father saw how dedicated I was, even though I hadn’t played a note yet.

JW: What did your dad do?

SS: Back in the Bronx, he took me to a pawnshop. In broken English, he told the guy behind the counter, “Do you have a sax for my son?” The guy went upstairs and returned with a case.

JW: How was the horn?

SS: When the guy opened the case, it smelled like the case hadn’t been opened for about 100 years. Inside was an instrument, a mouthpiece and a reed. I just knew the fingering for a C scale, since that’s all we went over on the shirt cardboard. I put the horn in my mouth and made a honking noise. The pawnshop cat said, “That boy is talented. One day he’ll be in Carnegie Hall.” Well, years later I was at Carnegie Hall with Benny Goodman [laughs].

JW: What kind of sax was it?

SS: A C-melody horn—which isn’t a tenor or alto. In fact, the instrument wasn’t being used in bands anymore at the time.

JW: Did you take lessons?

SS: Yes, with Bill Sheiner. I heard of him through a neighborhood guy. Sheiner taught in the Bronx on 174th St., in a studio behind the Bronx Musical Mart on Southern Boulevard. Sheiner taught for $1 a lesson. Stanley [Getz] was his star pupil. Bill had this theory about the need to have a close mouthpiece. He had equipment to close the facing, so the reed and the mouthpiece itself were close together. That became known as the Sheiner sound. If you had a band and employed a Sheiner reed section, you had a great sound. 

JW: What made the sound special?

SS: How many vibrations you got. A close mouthpiece would allow you to better control the sound and make it more mellow. If I hadn’t studied with Sheiner, I wouldn’t be talking to you now. That’s where I got my start.

JW: Did you bring your C-melody sax?

SS: Yes. But as soon as I took it out, Sheiner said, “You have a C-melody. That’s no good. I’ll sell you a tenor for $75.” I then studied with Sheiner for about four months. Through gigs, I eventually paid off the cost of the horn. Many of those early gigs were at the Chester Palace on 177th St. and Tremont Ave. in the Bronx.

JW: How did your studies work out at Sheiner’s?

SS: He had a saxophone octet—four altos, two tenors, a baritone and a bass. Once a week he’d have rehearsals. Stanley [Getz] had already progressed and was out on the road with Jack Teagarden’s band. In Sheiner’s studio, there was a bulletin board. Guys would send Sheiner postcards from the road. One day Bernie Glow sent a card. He was out with Dick Himber. Bernie’s card said, “Bill, we’re coming to New York soon. We’ll need a saxophonist. I’ll let you know when we’re coming. Please send someone up.”

JW: What happened?

SS: Sheiner sent me. I was 16 at the time. The audition was at the Essex House on Central Park South. I had never been in a fancy place like that. I got up to the room and rang the doorbell. A voice told me to come in. When I walked in, Himber was sitting in a chair looking out the window. When he wheels around and sees me, at age 16, he says, “God, what is this war doing to me?” [laughs].

JW: What happened next?

SS: Himber asked me to take out my horn and play him some songs. So I played Night and Day and some others. He liked what he heard and said, “I’ll tell you what. Do you belong to the [musicians’] union? No? I’ll get you in. Come out and sit in the empty band chair and learn the book. I’ll pay your expenses.”

JW: When did you start?

SS: I didn’t. The job didn’t sound so good.

JW: Why not?

SS: Himber was just going to pay my expenses. I knew that on the road, musicians got $125 a gig, and $75 in town. Paying my expenses didn’t sound fair. But I left there happy as a lark.

JW: Come on—you walked out on your first job?

SS: I was probably a little scared, too. But I also had friends in bands, and I knew the going rate. It was for the best considering how things turned out.

JW: What was your first paying job?

SS: When I was in high school, I heard that Henry Jerome needed a tenor player. So I went to audition at the Pelham Heath Inn, which was where Eastchester Road met Pelham Parkway South in Pelham, N.Y. After I auditioned, Jerome said, “You start.” Once I started playing with the band, I just stopped going to school. My parents didn’t mind. They knew I loved music and it was the only way I was going to earn a decent living.

JW: Why?

SS: The Pelham Heath Inn was close to my high school in the Bronx. I kept thinking a teacher was going to come in and see me and have me arrested.

JW: How old were you when you started playing professionally?

SS: I was 16 ½ years old. I played fourth tenor with Henry Jerome & His Stepping Tones in 1941. Sid Cooper, who played the third alto chair, was the straw boss and band arranger. Irv Butler played the hot jazz parts. Jerome ran a sweet band at the time.

JW: The Pelham Heath Inn was a pretty steady gig?

SS: Yes. But my chair was behind a pole. When Butler left, Jerome hired another tenor—Leonard Garment, a Brooklyn guy who went on to become a big Washington, D.C., lawyer in the Nixon White House. He was already playing like Prez [Lester Young]. I said to Jerome, “Wait a minute, I’ve been here longer. I should have that seat.” Jerome gave it to me, and I moved away from the pole. I guess you could say I won a case against Leonard Garment [laughs].

JW: What happened when World War II arrived?

SS: I was 4F-ed three times because of flat feet. During the war I toured with Shep Fields, including a trip to Europe to play for the troops. After the war ended in Europe, I got a fourth call to go down to the draft board. When I arrived, there were two guys with lots of my papers. I told them that I had been there several times and that flat feet had kept me out. I was happy to serve if needed. One of the guys told me to take my papers to a specific colonel, who carefully screened people who had been marked 4F in the past.

JW: What happened?

SS: I went to him with my papers He looked at them and asked what I did. I told him I was a musician. He asked what I played. I told him the saxophone. He asked if I was a professional working musician. I said yes, that I was playing with Shep Fields. He asked how long, and I told him. He looked up. “I was in Le Havre when you guys were there. I was billeted with you.” He took my papers, bamped it with a stamp and said, “Go back to the guys who saw you when you came in.”

JW: What did they say?

SS: When I got back there, they looked at my papers with puzzled faces. They couldn’t understand what had happened.

JW: What was Shep Fields like?

SS: He was very commercial. His Rippling Rhythm sound was hot. This was before Lawrence Welk. Fields had come up with this idea for a saxophone band, which is what I was in. But he never quite made it. In one of the write-ups the band received, someone commented, “The leader looks out of place, like a dentist.”

JW: What did you think?

SS: Fields was a nice guy. We played in New York a lot on weekends. I became the band’s contractor [the person who hires the musicians]. All this time guys were getting drafted. The war was still on in Japan.

JW: Who helped you get to the next stage in the band world?

SS: Saxophonist Hymie Schertzer. Hymie was much older than I was. When he heard me play, he said, “How did you get that feeling? You’re playing like we play.” I wasn’t a bebopper. I played what I had heard and what my ears had told me to play. He started talking me up.

JW: When did you take up the baritone?

SS: In 1948. After I went out on the road with Charlie Barnet’s band, I returned to New York and heard that Buddy Rich’s band was at Birdland and needed a baritone. So I borrowed one and sat in with the band next to Jimmy Giuffre. He was a lovely, quiet guy. I said to him, “Jimmy, I haven’t played Buddy’s book. If there’s anything you want to tell me, I’d appreciate it.” Jimmy said, “Yeah. Shut up and play” [laughs]. After that gig, Buddy put me in the band. There were all good players and swinging charts in the book.

JW: What’s one of your earliest memories of Stan Getz?

SS: When we were both studying with Bill Sheiner up in the Bronx, Bill put us in his sax band. At the time, Bill was writing arrangements for Maria Kramer, who managed the Lincoln Hotel. One day Sheiner and the band were auditioning our material for Kramer at Nola’s rehearsal studio. After everyone got in their chairs, I saw Kramer on the far side. She asked Sheiner to start. We played Night and Day, which featured a solo by Sheiner.

JW: What did Kramer think?

SS: Halfway through, she says, “Hold it a moment. Can you do it again with that boy in front?” That boy was Stanley. She could hear how special he was and wanted him to front the band.

JW: Did the band get the gig?

SS: No [laughs]. But Kramer knew Stanley was a winner. Sheiner’s problem, like Shep’s, was an issue of body language. Both were large in the belly and didn’t quite look like the bigger-name bandleaders.

JW: Was Getz a nice guy back then?

SS: Not particularly. We were playing the Starlight Ballroom one night. On a break I was standing with him. Three women walked by. Stan watches and says to me, “Those chicks are trying to make it with me.” They never had even looked at him.

JW: Strange.

SS: Stranger still. Years later, I was in California, and Stan was living there. He asked me to come up to his house in the Hollywood Hills at a specific time. When I arrived, I rang the bell. A little kid came out and said, “Shhh, my daddy’s sleeping.” So I had to wait. After a while, Stan walked out in a white bathing suit, like in the movies, and starts rudely ordering his wife around. He had ego issues. It was a stupid afternoon.

JW: What was Tommy Dorsey like when you played with him in the late ‘40s?

SS: Tommy was as uptight as his playing. His intonation was always a little sharper than where you’d think he’d be,and he ran the band like the Marine Corps. His time was on top of the beat. Jimmy's band played behind the beat and on the flat side. It was good training. During downtime with the band, saxophonist Doc Clifford, Jimmy Dorsey’s straw boss, asked if I would fill in on Jimmy’s band.

JW: What did you say?

SS: I said, “Sure, where should we meet?” He said, at Grand Central Station. When I arrived to catch our train with the band, Jimmy’s wife and mother were there to see him off. That always struck me as odd.

JW: How was the train ride?

SS: We boarded and tossed our stuff into our bunks in the sleeper and met in the dining car. We ordered drinks andtalked about the band. Jimmy gave me the rundown on everyone. Meanwhile he got wacked out. Doc had to carry him to his sleeper. The next day we arrived in Chicago. Getting off the train, we were walking toward the front of the station when a woman came toward us. It looked she was coming straight to Jimmy. But she went by him. “Lost another one,” Jimmy said. He was a lonely guy who viewed himself as constantly missing a break.

JW: He sounds like a sad guy.

SS: He was. When we were breaking down the band, I went to talk to him. Jimmy was sitting in a chair by himself. I said, “If anyone wants to know who the real musician is, Jimmy, you are.” He looked up at me and said, “Get out of here kid.” He lived his entire life in his brother’s shadow. With Tommy, he liked to get you. When a dance gig started, there were four or five tunes he might call first. He would keep you on your toes. With Jimmy, you had to keep him on his toes.

JW: But Tommy Dorsey was no picnic, right?

SS: When we toured, I drove with drummer Louie Bellson, bassist Red Wootten and trumpeter Charlie Shavers. Tommy traveled in a converted bus called the Silver Bullet. It was always parked right outside the gig. At one stop, we drove up in the car. Out I came with these guys, and Tommy saw us. The next thing I knew, the band manager came up to me and said, “Gee Sol, I don’t get it, but Tommy told me to give you the axe.”

JW: Why?

SS: The manager said, “Everything has been fine, but I think I know what it is. He doesn’t think you’re enjoying the music. He doesn’t see you tapping your foot.” I said, “I am—inside my shoe.” He said, “Look, do me a favor, come early, come up on the stand and look over charts. Tommy will like that.” So I did that a few times and wound up with the band another year and a half.

JW: What do you think triggered Dorsey’s move?

SS: Tommy had made a dumb connection. When he saw me get out of the car with those heavyweights, he asked himself, “What is this young guy doing with my stars?” He thought I was conniving or something. Tommy could be paranoid when he wasn’t in control.

JW: What about the people he liked?

SS: Same treatment. For example, Tommy loved Charlie Shavers. But every chance he got, Tommy would put himdown. Tommy would take uppers and downers. Charlie liked whiskey. They were two different types. Everyone knew that Charlie had narcolepsy and fell out but always woke up for his solo. But one time he didn’t wake up. When we finished the song, Tommy told him to get off the bandstand.

JW: What happened?

SS: Charlie took his horn and took the long walk to the bandroom. He told me later that once he got there he said to himself, “What the heck am I listening to that for?” So he walked back out and sat in his chair, and nothing else happened for the evening. Tommy was just a control freak. Tommy obsessed over how long it took to get from one place to another and how fast he could do it. But if anything was confusing or out of his control, he had to get rid of it.

JW: You recorded with Sauter-Finegan, yes?

SS: Yes. The music at the time in the early ‘50s was fresh and exciting. I did their first record date [New Directions in Music, 1952]. The music was very pop but almost classical. The guys in the band could swing, even though the music wasn’t meant to swing. It was a writer’s band, like Claude Thornhill’s orchestra.

JW: Tell me about the East Coast sax section.

SS: It was Hal McKusick, Gene Quill, Zoot Sims, Al Cohn and me. Sometimes Phil Woods and other sharp players would be hired.

JW: How did it come together?

SS: Jack Lewis was RCA’s A&R man in California in the early ‘50s when Manny Sachs, who was in charge of recording for RCA, told Jack that he wanted the label to start a jazz line with a stable of guys. Sachs told Jack to go to the East Coast to see what he could put together. Jack would wind up starting the Jazz Workshop series for RCA.

JW: What did Jack do?

SS: In L.A., he went over to see Shorty Rogers. Shorty was originally from the Bronx. He asked him, “Who should I see in New York to put together guys for a band?” Shorty said, “See Al Cohn. He’ll know.” On the first album Jack put together, Al recommended me. It was Hal McKusick and Gene Quill on altos, Al Cohn on tenor and me on baritone. But I still don’t know how I got in there. When I had some jazz solos, I closed my eyes and prayed. I wasn’t a jazz player. But it worked. After a while of working steadily with Al, he wrote Solsville for me in 1956.

JW: What was it like playing with those guys?

SS: As close to bliss as you can imagine. You hadfive guys, each different than the other—but we played well together. Everyone’s personality was different, too. Hal had been in all the bands, and Gene played like a truck driver. He’d punch you, and it would hurt.

JW: How did other sections respond to the reeds’ spirit?

SS: We always changed the whole vibe in the studio. During mic checks, the brass would play its parts and the sax section would smile in admiration. When we did our check, the brass would be smiling. There was a warmth that comes only if you have the right combination of sounds and guys. 

JW: Which album is the best example of this?

SS: Without a doubt, The Jazz Soul of Porgy & Bess [1959]. Bill Potts arranged, contracted the band and conducted. It remains one of the great sessions for this ensemble. Every guy in the band was a giant—and the result of everyone together was terrific. There’s one spot where Zoot’s part called for a low C held for four bars in slow tempo. Now how can anyone hold that note for that long?

JW: You recorded often with trombonist-arranger Billy Byers. What did you think?

SS: I liked him. He was a real swinger. He came from well-off parents. One time when I was with Jimmy Dorsey, we played Catalina Island off the coast of California. The only way to get out there was on a boat. When we pulled in, who do we see but Billy Byers. He said his folks had a boat.

JW: How were his charts?

SS: Great. Billy did a lot of ghostwriting for Quincy Jones. Quincy had so many gigs that he had to have ghostwriters. Billy didn’t say much about it. He said he just wanted the money. He said that working that way gave him a chance to try out what he heard in his head without having to hire guys to play it. We used to be together, and the ghostwriting thing would come up.

JW: How did he say the ghosting worked?

SS: Quincy would write a scratch arrangement and then farm it out to Billy. Al Cohn did a lot of that kind of work, too. Billy’s horn was very good. He wasn’t Urbie Green, but playing wasn’t really his big thing, though he had a lot of solos. For Billy, writing was where it was at.

JW: What was it like playing with Benny Goodman?

SS: The charts were swingable, the band was great but Benny was so uptight—you never knew whether he was just dumb or doing nasty stuff on purpose.

JW: What do you mean?

SS: One time I was with the band for a run at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel and I gave him the ray. Billy Byers had analbum to do that night and called me in. I wanted to take off early to make the session. Of course, I couldn’t because Benny’s manager wouldn’t let me. At some point toward the end of the show, Mousie Alexander was playing the drum solo to Sing Sing Sing, the last number.

JW: What happened?

SS: Benny came over in the middle of Mousie’s solo. I guess the band manager had told him I wanted to split to make Billy’s date. While Mousie was playing his solo, Benny asked me, “What happened to the old pepper, Sol?” He meant my spunk. I thought what he was doing given that we were still playing was obnoxious. I said, “Gee Benny, I don’t know. I think it turned into salt.” Benny said, “If you don’t like it, you can get out of here.”

JW: What happened next?

SS: Benny told me to get off the bandstand while the band was still playing. I told him I’d wait until after the show. Later, after I packed up, I got a phone call in the band room. The manager was on the phone and wanted me to come up to Benny’s room. I told him I couldn’t. The next day I left. I had had enough. Even still, Benny always called me first to play other gigs.

JW: What was the deal with him?

SS: The thing with Benny was that if he thought you looked up to him, he’d look down on you. 

JW: Pretty brassy on your part.

SS: I thought I was a calm, naive kind of guy. And there I was fighting the establishment. I just didn’t like being insulted. I never considered myself and still don’t think of myself as a jazz player. Did I play jazz? Yes. Did I work as a jazz player? No.

JW: What do you remember about Benny Goodman’s 40th anniversary concert at Carnegie Hall in 1978?

SS: Benny held three days of rehearsals at a Midtown hotel in New York. On the first day, John Bunch was playing piano. On the second day, Jimmy Rowles was playing. On the night of the concert, Mary Lou Williams was at the piano. Strange. But you just knew that Benny was being Benny. 

JW: Speaking of Carnegie Hall, what was it like playing with Tony Bennett there in June 1962?

SS: I did many concerts with Tony in New York. To workwith Tony was to experience the joy of music. He respected everyone, and he was happy about the whole darn thing. At every recording session, he’d have a table set up with food and drinks for after the date. It was a party. Tony was out to groove the musicians.

JW: How far back do you go with him?

SS: The late ‘40s. I can remember way back at Charlie’s Tavern, he used to come by and talk to everyone. At the time, he used the name Joe baritone. He’d go from table to table to get with the guys. At that point, he was just a singer from Queens. After he made it, he showed his appreciation. He came up through the ranks of many of the jazz musicians.

JW: And the Carnegie Hall concert?

SS: All I remember is that my wife Shirley was seated on the stage that night. They used to put chairs on the stage when the hall was sold out. When that album came out, I’d always tease her that she did an album at Carnegie Hall with Tony.

JW: And the years that followed?

SS: Every time I went to work with Tony, it wasn’t work. It was a groove, and this groove was spread around the whole band. It was impossible to have any negative feelings. A bunch of years ago he was down in Florida performing near where I live now. I knew the drummer so I asked him if I could come back and say hi to Tony after. The drummer said sure.

JW: What happened?

SS: I waited backstage with other people who were waiting to see him. The first thing he did after coming out of the dressing room was to come over and give me a bear hug. It made me feel so good to be a musician.

JW: Last question: Was it hard to play the baritone sax?

SS: Hard? Not for me. There was a spell when the musical establishment made a distinction between the late Danny Bank and me. I have the most respect for that man. Before you even get to his superb musicianship, he wore leg braces as a result of polio, he traveled on the road in bands and often had to stand up. He never once complained or said, “You guys have it easy.”

JW: What was the difference between you two?

SS: He was a studied musician. I didn’t study. He practiced various horns, but the baritone was his instrument. The tenor was my first instrument. It’s higher in tonality so I liked to play the baritone lighter. A lot of baritone players liked to honk on the bottom. I never did that. It wasn’t part of my playing.

JW: What did it feel like playing baritone in those great bands?

SS: It felt so good to play and hear what was coming out. It was like driving a great car. Your foot is on the gas so you know you’re moving it forward. But you’re still in awe of the engine.

Here's It Ain't Necessarily So from The Jazz Soul of Porgy & Bess with a terrific solo by Sol Schlinger at 2:33 in...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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