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Nick Travis: A New York Studio Jazzman


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It may well be that in the world of the Internet, no one is ever truly forgotten. That's obviously true of people commonly known as "the great and the good." Yet even in the more obscure branches of human endeavor, the principle holds.

Nowhere, more so, it seems, than in music, and even in jazz, the taste of a distinct minority. Especially in jazz, apparently, seek and you shall find, somewhere, sooner or later. This is the historian's blessing.

Trumpet player Nick Travis (1925-1964) can hardly be called forgotten, even though he died more than a half century ago. In 2005, there was a broadcast about him on WBGO in Newark. Most recently, Marc Myers, the well-known jazz writer and journalist, featured Travis in one of his blog plots, Jazz Wax (August 30, 2011), "Nick Travis: The Panic Is On." It is an extremely good piece, pointing out that Travis was on 350 recording sessions (at least!) even though he was only 38 years old when he died. At the same time, Myers notes that Travis recorded only one album as a leader, and his source for the interview, Hal McKusick, passed away soon after in 2012. There are handful of players still around and active who played with Nick, but, fifty years is a long time. In the same way that Doug Mettome (read profile), Travis' exact contemporary and sometimes band mate, left a mark on the music and on the people who knew him, albeit with far fewer recordings left behind, Travis was part of a generation of players who died too young to have accumulated anything resembling a big reputation. Yet both Travis and Mettome left an awful lot of good music to which to listen, and from which to learn. And some pretty compelling, if sad human stories, as well. Ironically, Mettome's history may now be somewhat better known. Nick Travis deserves as much as well. He was a different kind of player from Mettome, to whom the word "genius" was often applied by those who knew or played with him. Nick was a fine player, but certainly not a genius, whatever that means. He was, as someone put it, "a New York Studio Jazzman," and a very good one.

Travis' roots were more modest than Mettome's distinctly middle-class background. He was born Nicholas Anthony Travascio (sometimes spelled Traviscio as well) in the Olney section of Philadelphia. His father, also Nicholas, was an Italian immigrant who had been born in 1893 and was employed as a tailor at Strawbridge and Clothier's in Philadelphia. His, mother, Sadie, was an immigrant as well, born in Ireland, and employed as a seamstress. According to one source who knew Nick in Philadelphia, he was "very serious" about the trumpet from a young age, but he was still living at home in 1940. He apparently lost his mother around that time, and, perhaps not coincidentally, began his career as a professional musician soon after. He seems to have been an only child, although some bandmates mention a sister. His first experience seems to have been with Vido Musso, although the band broke up in 1942 when Musso, apparently out of money, rejoined Benny Goodman. He then joined Woody Herman in late 1942. He would have been just seventeen. At some point, he was with Bob Chester and Larry Elgart as well. Travis was drafted in January 1944 and back home on furlough in April of the same year. He then went to Europe as a musician in November of 1944. Nick is pictured in a photo in uniform playing at the Badinage Club in Paris in 1946. According to Charlie Byrd, he jammed with Travis in Paris as well. He was as honorably discharged and got out in May of 1946. That's when his career in the United States really began in earnest. His first gig was with Les Elgart, but he left in short order for Ray McKinley. There he took what may have been his first recorded solo on "Jiminy Crickets," twenty-four bars of muted jazz, well-conceived and constructed that leave the impression of a Dud Bascombish influence on a swinging Eddie Sauter chart. It is an auspicious debut. Travis was already beginning to attract attention in the trade press. He showed up in the 1948 Metronome poll on trumpet, well behind Dizzy, but ahead of Billy Butterfield and Yank Lawson

1949 found Travis with Benny Goodman in what has been labelled Goodman's "bop" band, in which he played lead. He was called "the mainstay of the brass section." "He boasts a strong tone," in a section that included Doug Mettome, Howard Reich and Al Stewart. It was a powerful back row. A good sample of Travis' work comes through on "Undercurrent Blues," in which he can be clearly heard driving the section and the band along with drummer Sonny Igoe. He was, at this point, twenty-four years old. Like a number of other guys in the band, he had a falling out with Benny on the infamous, ill-starred California trip. He wasn't without work for long. He joined Woody Herman again, The Third Herd, a trumpet player's paradise if there ever was one, that featured Doug Mettome and Don Fagerquist as soloists. There were a number of extraordinary lead players in that band, and it is impossible to know just when Travis was playing, although he appears to have been back in New York City by February 1951, "to sit out [his] 802 [union] card." We do know that by 1953, Nick had joined Sauter-Finegan, a band in which he was to do some of his most notable solo work.

It's a bit difficult for us to realize that Sauter-Finegan, which was conceived as a recording band for arrangers Eddie Sauter andBill Finegan both considered well ahead of their time musically, made such a big splash in the early to mid-1950s. To contemporary tastes—a la 2020—much of the music sounds contrived, a bit gimmicky, and even Mickey Mouse, with toy trumpets, a "symphonic" percussion section, unusual instruments, human sound effects and the rest. It hardly registers as a jazz band, although it was, at least by some, so characterized. The band recorded with RCA Victor, was widely admired by the big city disk jockeys who played their hits—"Doodletown Fifers," "Midnight Sleighride," "Nina Never Knew," among others—and had any number of top flight instrumentalists, although Travis was not originally among them. It was a studio orchestra: Bill Finegan said there was originally no thought given to touring, but in 1953, it took to the road, which was when Travis joined the band. The trumpets were first rate: Bobby Nichols, a wonderful pretty player who had been with Glenn Miller's service band, Joe Ferrante, Nick Travis, and Al Derisi, who alternated with Doc Severinsen. On the road, Sauter-Finegan alternated "concert" with dance music in an attempt to larger crowds. Nat Hentoff's verdict, which probably should be taken as definitive, was that "[the band] represented musical cybernetics of a high order. It has the heart of a smartly dressed tin soldier."

Tin soldier or no, it was a job, and a good one, well compensated, and with television appearances to boot. Jazz or no, the avant-garde air that surrounded the band's novel use of electronics—it apparently used 10 microphones in the studio—hurt Travis not one bit. Hentoff called him "an important jazz talent" "currently wired for sound in the Sauter-Finegan band." Most importantly, the band seemed to be viable, played (and jammed after hours) in Las Vegas, and did the Hollywood Palladium too. This was a high visibility, high prestige gig. And it probably led to Travis' one recording as a leader in 1954, which came on RCA, the same label that had taken a chance on recording Sauter-Finegan when it was formed. In a Soundflight Air Force Reserve Broadcast, probably in 1959, Travis told the host, Jim Lowe, that Sauter-Finegan was the band he had, to date, most enjoyed playing with. To genuine laughter, he called the band "100 years ahead of its time."

Let's take a look at some of Travis' work with Sauter-Finegan and his one recording as a leader. We can, at best, sample a few highlights, because Nick recorded a great deal, including some on valve trombone, on which he capably doubled. If you're looking for a "trumpet player" piece, one that surely highlights why Travis was highly regarded as a lead trumpet, it was called "The Land Between," a tone poem on the recording "Concert in Jazz" that showcases Travis' gorgeous tone, especially in the middle register, as do few other of his recordings. This is a recording that is so plush and accomplished that Billy Butterfield praised it in a Downbeat Blindfold Test as "wonderful," and Butterfield was not especially free with his compliments. On the recording "The Sons of Sauter-Finegan," there are a couple of exceptionally pretty duets with Bobby Nichols, including "Nip and Tuck," "Non-Identical Twins," and "Two Bats in a Cave." They are, for the most part, nice exercises in counterpoint, and "Two Bats" was apparently an improvisation. They may not be jazz, but they are lovely music and on Bobby Nichols' "Easy to Remember," Travis plays valve trombone. On "Inside Sauter-Finegan," Travis finally gets to play some up-tempo stuff, notably on "Finegan's Wake," 32 bars of solid jazz. And there was Nick's signature tune, "How About Choo (How About You?), basically a very swinging vehicle for Travis that has held up very well for more than a half century. It is assertive, muscular, ironic in places and hard blowing, if pre-bop.

"Panic" features Nick at the head of a very good quintet, with Al Cohn, with whom he frequently recorded, Johnny Williams, Teddy Kotick and drummer Art Mardigan. The critical verdict on the recording was mixed, mostly good, but not great. In truth, that seems fair enough, although some of it is very good indeed, and one reviewer flatly stated, "the results are marvelous." The liner notes from "Panic" suggest a blowing session, and while not exactly a classic of the genre, tunes like "In the Nick of Time," "Travisimo" and "Tickletoe" are worth listening to more than once. Cohn sounds his usual self, Travis perhaps a little less assured than customary, as if he had not quite got all the changes down. I think his work with Sauter-Finegan was better, but that was mostly written, rehearsed, and performed repeatedly. As one reviewer of the recording accurately noted, Nick played more than a few clams, although he also called Travis "a man to watch." Another called attention to "attack, tone, power, range and flexibility," which really describes a lead more than a jazz player.

In mid to late 1957, The United States economy entered a recession, and the economics of a big band, always chancy, simply became impossible. In debt, Sauter and Finegan broke up the band and Nick was back to free lancing full time. He was much in demand both as a crack reader and experienced lead player, and when you try to reconstruct his schedule in 1957-58, the results are nothing short of amazing. In no particular order, an incomplete list of people or outfits he recorded with reads as follows: Bob Brookmeyer, Zoot Sims, Urbie Green, Jimmy Giuffre, Beverly Kenney, Lee Wiley, Joe Newman, Manny Albam, Coleman Hawkins, and Tito Puente. And that's not exhaustive. Some of the recordings actually came in 1956, and a few probably deserve the qualification of "historic," like his work with Maynard Ferguson's Birdland Dream Band, where his work on, for instance, "The Wailing Boat" was really something special. A lot of the stuff was, by its nature, anonymous. He led his own quartet, mostly weekend gigs in Westport, Connecticut (it seems) with a rotating cast of players like Trigger Alpert, Deane Kincaid, Don Lamond, and Ed Shaughnessy. Perhaps he was working too much. Critics always complain, and in the 1950s, they seemed to take a certain kind of vituperation to new heights in the trade press. Still, one observed that Travis "nearly hangs himself" on a recording with Richard Wess (where he nevertheless played a lovely, expressive solo on "Lover Man"), while another—more significantly—complained that Nick sounded "thin and insecure" on a recording with Zoot Sims, which sounds like a problem with chops, and, maybe, overwork. The infamous story of Nick's being awakened out of a sound sleep by a call from Zoot Sims and responding with a groggy, "Zoot who?" may date from a slightly later period, but all told, point to a crowded life.

Yet perhaps, this strikes a wrong note. In mid-1956, Travis had made what is now considered, among trumpet players at least, a classic recording with Conte Candoli, Don Stratton, Al Derisi, Bernie Glow and Dick Sherman called "Cool Gabriels." This is a classic, if little known recording, and the versions of "Elevation" and "Happy Hooligans" with Candoli suggest that Travis could more than hold his own with a jazz heavyweight. If you required further evidence, you might well watch a very rare recording of Travis and Rex Stewart "battling" on November 1958 broadcast of Art Ford's Jazz Party, with Stewart cast and the Champ and Travis as the Contender. The "vehicle" was "There Will Never Be Another You." Really, it's probably best to let the reader (viewer) judge the results, if contests intrigue you. Stewart plays everything, while Travis, cigarette in hand, looks on with a bemused expression. Nick plays nice clean lines, as was his wont, and since trumpet battles are always won in the upper register, clearly emerges victoriously. Humor, of course, so you have to see for yourself. There are probably more than a few modern players who could play big band lead on a cornet, but this was 1958. In any event, if Rex intimidated Nick, Travis didn't look it. And he showed no signs of problems with his chops. He had also joined Elliot Lawrence, with whom he made more than a few recordings, including "Blues Alley," on which he played a good solo. Lawrence was doing the college circuit as well, and was very, very busy.

In reality, by the beginning of the 1960s, Nick Travis was basically a young player on the way up. Unlike, say, Doug Mettome, who peaked around 1956 or so, Travis' star continued to rise. There are imperfect ways of trying to measure these things, but of the cohort of young, white East Coast trumpet players who were on the radar screen, only Doc Severinsen seems to have become better known. Don Ferrara was in the mix too, but behind Travis. Doug was already in the beginnings of a sad physical decline that would kill him. And the British invasion would hurt everyone, but that was still in the future. As for Travis, he had landed as a staff musician for NBC and specifically, for Jack Parr's broadcasts. This was a dependable gig by jazz musicians' standards. It was going to take something awfully attractive to move him, but something did, Gerry Mulligan's Concert Jazz Band. The Mulligan group, which ultimately became a showcase for Mulligan and Bob Brookmeyer, made an enormous splash when it got up and running in 1960. Its debut recording was immediately called one of the best jazz recordings of 1960. In 1961 the band started to tour. At that point, it featured sidemen like Travis, Clark Terry, Mel Lewis, Bill Crow, Gene Quill, and on occasion, Zoot Sims. With a jazz soloist like Terry around, Nick, not surprisingly, played lead and had organizational responsibility for the trumpet section. Terry's nickname for him was "Kasavubu," in honor of Joseph Kasavubu, then President of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Rank, it seems, has its privileges.

Jazz stories have a way of unending unhappily, or at least, as Gunther Schuller once suggested, they tend toward the tragic. In Travis's case, the tragic would seem to be summed up in the old-fashioned obituary notice, "suddenly." One night in early October 1964, Travis was playing at Condon's where he was taken ill with a gastroenterological problem. He ended up in Roosevelt Hospital, where informants report, he greeted visitors in good spirits. There was no inkling of trouble. But as Bill Crow sadly reports, he hemorrhaged from what was reportedly an ulcer, and died on October 7, 1964. As Downbeat noted, the much-esteemed Conrad Gozzo, one of the best-known lead trumpets of his generation, died two days later on the West Coast. Their deaths left the world of jazz, and of trumpet in particular, in shock.

Much of what transpired after Travis's death remains a mystery. He had a family, but was divorced from his wife, Pat Turner, and no ceremony was originally planned. But, apparently at the behest of some of his colleagues, the Rev. John Gensel agreed to hold a memorial service which was quite crowded. The service began with Nick's recording of "These Foolish Things" with Sauter-Finegan. Gerry Mulligan made some remarks. At the end, Mulligan, Billy Taylor and Joe Newman played "Motherless Child." Unusually for that time, Nick was cremated, because we know the urn appeared at the memorial service according to a family member. The disposition of his ashes remains unknown.

A death this sudden and at this age brings a story to an end not only in mid-sentence, but in mid-paragraph. It feels incomplete because it is incomplete. What you make of it becomes a matter of perspective. In this case, Travis died just as the popular music world was undergoing a dramatic change, the British Invasion, in early 1964. How Travis would have dealt with this is anyone's guess, although one thinks of Gerry Mulligan's "If You Can't Beat 'Em, Join 'Em" in 1965, a recording that told a lot of aspiring jazz musicians that there were rough times ahead. It's also easy to forget the Travis represented a younger link to the Swing Era, its music and sensibilities. Say what you want, no one had quite given up on big bands yet, but losing dynamic young musicians who would replace the players moving into later phases of their careers certainly didn't help. Some, like Doc Severinsen, negotiated the transition very well. What Travis would or wouldn't have done is pure speculation, although his later work saw him moving in a Conte Candoli -like direction. It is revealing that in early 1965, a concert played by Tony Bennett and Stan Getz in New York turned into a benefit for Travis' family, whose subsequent fate is hard to determine. A jazz musician's life is rarely easy, and Nick Travis passed from the scene just as it was becoming, if anything, even more uncertain. He was an all around fine jazz trumpet player whose time was passing even as it had just arrived. Travis was, as they say, a work in progress. Nick Travis, and others like him, should not be neglected. They were a crucial link to an older generation of players. Their stored-up knowledge could ill be afforded to be forgotten, and yet, it apparently was. We are the poorer for it.

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