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Ron Aprea: Passion Supreme

Nicholas F. Mondello By

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AAJ: Can you tell us a little about your background and playing history?

RA: I was fortunate to play in a lot of great big bands. The early part of my career was spent touring with Woody Herman, Lionel Hampton, Les Elgart, Buddy Morrow, Nat Adderley (big band gospel), Frank Foster, and others. Actually, Lionel's was a small band with just three horns. But, I also worked a little bit with Tito Puente's band, subbing for both Don Palmer on alto and Dick Meza on tenor. I also did some Broadway stuff. I did subs for Jon Gordon on the "Song Of Singapore" show. Great show. The band was on stage and it was like playing a jazz concert to a full house every night. Lots of improvised solos and with great players—Oliver Jackson was on drums, Earl May on bass, Dennis Wilson on trombone. I mean this was serious. That's pretty much my background. I did step out of the jazz scene and did an album with John Lennon called "Walls and Bridges."

AAJ: In listening to the ballads on Remembering Blakey—"Goodbye," "Sophia," "My Foolish Heart" and "Lover Man," you play very passionately. Who were some of your playing influences?

RA: OK, I guess, thinking back early on, Johnny Hodges—when I was in high school—"Rabbit" banged it home for me. Later, of course, the usual players—Charlie Parker and in the 60s, John Coltrane. I loved Trane's "outside" high-energy style. I played in Frank Foster's big band which was sort of an "outside" kind of big band, and the only big band really doing that kind of stuff. Other influences were Lou Donaldson, Jackie McLean, Eric Dolphy, Sonny Stitt—I love Sonny's stuff—also Phil Woods. You probably hear a lot of Charlie Mariano in my playing. I spent years studying Charlie's recordings. He did an album called Portrait of an Artist that I totally fell in love with.

AAJ: "Goodbye" is on "Remembering Blakey." I know that you did a "Goodbye" You Tube solo as a dedication to your long-time friend, Frank Foster. Please tell me about your friendship with Frank and how that came about.

RA: When I was old enough to get my driver's license, I'd go to Birdland all the time. I was living in Astoria, Queens, outside of New York City, and Basie's band would always be playing at Birdland. When Basie was in town, I would go down there two or three nights a week and just listen to that band. Frank Foster had already become an international star—an up and coming monster! And he was writing all these great charts for the Basie Band, such as "Blues in Hoss' Flat," "Discommotion," "Shiny Stockings," "Who Me," and many more. And I remember going down there with a couple of my friends around the holidays. We gave the announcer/maître d,' Pee Wee Marquette, a few bucks and he put us at a table right in front of the band...on the "50-Yard Line," sitting right in front of Marshall Royal.

And I remember this photographer gal coming over and wanting to take our picture. One of my friends asked: "If you bring Frank Foster over, then you can take our picture," never thinking that would ever happen. Well, she leaves and about 10 minutes later, when the band took a break, she comes over with Frank Foster—she was determined to make that sale! So Frank then comes over, sits down at the table, and we started chatting. Of course, we took the picture.

I had just put a big band together. My first big band—a rehearsal band. We were playing stock arrangements—you know, Johnny Warrington stocks. In those days, if you needed an arrangement, you wrote your own or bought stock arrangements. So, in talking to Frank that night, I asked him if he had any old arrangements. Frank then said for us to come back one night and he's give us some stuff. So, I went back by myself, and Frank comes over and says "Sorry, I forgot the music. But I don't want you to leave empty-handed." So, the next thing I know, I look up at the bandstand, right before the next set and I see Marshall Royal, Sonny Payne, Frank Wess, Benny Powell, Snooky Young—all my heroes—pulling music out of the book and handing them over to Frank. And he hands me his arrangement of "Speak Low." And, then he apologized—which I never understood, since he had just given me a chart—but he said he wanted to help me get my band going. Then he invited me up to his apartment—he lived on Central Park West. So, I called and eventually went up to his house and he started pulling out all of this stuff—brand new arrangements that the Basie band had just recorded. He allowed me to copy them and asked that I bring the score back when I was done copying. Those early manuscripts were pretty bad, but I eventually became a decent copyist, plus I learned a whole lot just copying his scores. So, that's how the relationship got started.

Frank had two small kids and so did I. Sometimes we'd just get together and take the kids for a walk in Central Park and just hang. But always talking about music. Frank, after more than a decade of playing with Basie, started getting tired of touring and doing one-nighters. He made up his mind to leave Basie and put his own big band together. Since I knew the local scene, he asked me to give him a hand with the contracting, which I did. I also did some copying and was happy that I finally had an opportunity to repay Frank for all that he had done for me.

That was over fifty years ago. We stayed great friends. I played in his band for a couple of years. Got to play with Elvin Jones. We did a gig for the Left Bank Jazz Society in Baltimore. We went down there with Frank's big band and we totally rocked the place. We had Blue Mitchell, Jimmy Owens, Jimmy and Benny Green, Arnie Lawrence, Al Daly, Frank Wess, Major Holley—a star-studded lineup. It just exploded. You know, with most big bands during that period, with the exception of Duke Ellington, and maybe Tito Puente, the band was the feature and the soloists were used sparingly or to set up ensembles. In Frank's big band, it was totally different—the features for him were the improvised solos. So he would open everything up and we would make up riffs behind the soloist and Elvin would be doing his thing. Frank ran his band closer to a small group concept with the emphasis on the soloists—and, never played the form of an arrangement the same way twice.

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