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Shorty Rogers: Short Stops

Richard  J Salvucci By

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In the 1980s, trumpeter and Kenton alum Mike Vax put together a Supersax-type group called TRPTS. It released an album of harmonized trumpet classics, one of which was "Short Stop." There are lots of great tunes including "Night in Tunisia," "Trumpet Blues and Cantabile," and "Heckler's Hop." Oh yeah, one I never heard, Shorty Rogers' Short Stop. Really? How do you get to 35 years of age, listen to jazz almost daily, and not know about Shorty Rogers? I vaguely knew that Rogers had made an appearance on the TV series Peter Gunn, but that had been in the late 1950s, but it was the show's theme I remembered. Beyond that, not much registered. When Buddy Rich recorded "Rotten Kid" with his big band in the mid-1960s, I heard (or read, or was told) that the unison trumpet break was "reminiscent of a Shorty Rogers band," whatever that meant.

Trouble was, Shorty had put down his horns in the early 1960s to concentrate on arranging for television and the movies. This was a lot like Billy May or Neal Hefti, a player by reputation, but little else, because I was just too young to have heard either perform. When Rogers resumed performing in the 1980s, I knew about it, but was too busy listening to other people more my age. Rogers remained a name—a big one, to be sure—but a name nonetheless. How much do we learn by sheer serendipity. Going back into the recent history of the music from the 1940s and 1950s, and especially, of "West Coast Jazz," I started hearing a lot of players that my Right Coast upbringing had missed. And for that, thank the boom in CD reissues. Some of the players, like Don Fagerquist, were simply wonderful, but there were others, like Stu Williamson as well. And then there was Shorty Rogers. It took a while, but when the Shorty-bug bit, it bit hard.

The vehicle was the reissue of several vinyl albums on one CD, remastered as Shorty Rogers and His Giants, Short Stops (RCA). Some of the tunes I knew indirectly, like "Short Stop" (courtesy of TRPTS) and "Chiquito Loco" (courtesy of an RCA anthology of 1950s jazz). But I had never heard "Infinity Promenade."

A lot of recordings collected on the CD are very good, although since 1953, the date of the originals, the novelty of some of the charts has surely diminished. Particularly with the orchestra or big band, the charts are impressive, a sort of blend of Stan Kenton and Woody Herman, not a surprise in view of Rogers tenure as a player with both. Some were pretty conventional features for outstanding players, especially Art Pepper and Milt Bernhart, whose solo playing on "Contours" is really lovely, and not the rock-em-sock-em Bernhart of Frank Sinatra's "Got You Under My Skin" fame. Some of the small group playing ("The Giants") was also interesting, but I couldn't shake the impression from the polyphony that this was really "Birth of the Cool Goes West," a point the liner notes makes as well. Very good, but hardly unique and independent of East Coast Jazz, whatever that was.

Then you get to "Infinity Promenade." Full Stop. Here is something very different and completely arresting, even though more than sixty years have passed. A deceptively simple composition it is.

Some people have characterized "Infinity Promenade" as a very different kind of animal because of its instrumentation and the supposed "double lead" of Conrad Gozzo and Maynard Ferguson. Admittedly, I don't know what double lead trumpet(s) are: a split lead, yes; a relief lead, that too. But the idea of "double lead" eludes me because the lead trumpet sets time, phrasing, interpretation, dynamics and links to the rhythm section: he or she doesn't simply play high. I've heard some players unflatteringly referred to as "screech leads," but I don't think that's what was going on here. It's really semantics, I guess, but as an unnamed friend of mine with ample big band experience says, if the high note player is a good section player, he or she sits second, If not, fourth, "and cue the crazy stuff." Since the section consisted of Ferguson, Gozzo, John Howell and Pete Candoli I'm not sure anyone in that bunch would have been odd person out. How this got sorted is not clear to me, but maybe someone knows.

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