Jazz Professional               



Hip music from the Horn of Plenty

I never studied
Making the Best of the Single Life
Hip Music from the Horn of Plenty

The week at the Bull's Head, Barnes in February turned out real nice—it's always fun to go there and play. It's a jazz joint—there aren't too many places like that any more. Germany still has them; I was there recently, and they have their Jazzkellers. You walk into a jazz place and it feels like: "Okay—let's play!" Last year's short tour of Germany, plus one concert in Italy, resulted from my previous time over here. Gaby Kleinschmidt came into the Bull's Head, and she wanted to know if I would be interested in doing something with Conte Candoli and a bunch of people from the West Coast. But the farther down the line we got, the more people started backing out, due to various other commitments. So we wound up putting the band together with Chuck Findley on trumpet, Frank Strazzeri on piano, Frank De La Rosa on bass and Jimmy Smith on drums.

It turned out to be quite an eventful tour, to say the least. The first concert in Hamburg and the last, at the Berghausen Jazz Festival, were televised. Then after the tour Frank Strazzeri and I went to Barcelona, Spain, where we did some recordings for the Fresh Sound label. Frank did a trio album, and I did a duo album with him—all ballads. Just me on tenor and Frank on piano. Hearing the record, one doesn't miss the bass and drums; it's very complete musically, very laid-back. We did all beautiful standard tunes, such as "My Foolish Heart", "You're My Thrill", "Darn That Dream", More Than You Know" and "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes", plus a jazz standard, "Soultrane", which Tadd Dameron wrote for John Coltrane, and a slow blues, "Blues In The Dark", which still has all that relaxed ballad feeling. It was a one-shot deal; we went in and did twelve tunes in a couple of hours—it came out nice.

The ballad album has already been released; it's here in London—I had to sign a few copies for some people at the Woody Herman Tribute concert. Also we did a quartet album, which will be released very shortly; I understand they're going to release both of them on CD—so that'll put it out there for a while.

Since then, I've been doing some dates with Louie Bellson—some small group things. I went to Boston with him last September, and then in October we were in Chicago for a week at the Jazz Showcase—we did a live album there for Concord. That was a quartet, with Louie, myself, John Heard on bass and Larry Novak, a Chicago piano player; it turned out nice—that's going to be out on CD as well. They're also reissuing the "Horn Of Plenty" album, with Chuck Findley, Bill Reichenbach and myself, and a rhythm section.

In December Louie and I did a week at Fat Tuesday's in New York. Then the following week we went in the studio for two days and made a big band album, with all New York musicians. I did a bunch of writing for that; we wound up recording five tunes of mine, including a big band ballad arrangement on "My One And Only Love" and a three-part suite that was originally written for an all-star New York State youth band—which played it magnificently as well. It's called "Blues For The Uncommon Kids"; the title refers to the acoustic kids—they're all into bebop. Anyway, Louie recorded that; we also did a thing of mine call "Tenor Time", and a new arrangement of "Caravan" which sounded really good— this one is definitely different! That album will be out soon on Music Masters; I think that'll be strictly CD. I had a chance to play some on there, as well as to write more—it made it worth-while.

I just came back from a week in Cologne with the West Deutscher Rundfunk band; Chuck Findley and I went, with Terry Clarke, the drummer from Rob McConnell's Boss Brass. We had three or four days' rehearsal, did some back-up tapes on two-track in the studio, and then on the Friday night a live concert which they recorded. They're already talking about a return thing; the concert was a very big success—the band played real good.

Rick Kiefer was on trumpet with the band; he's been in Germany for about twenty-two years now. I went over in March of '64, and he showed up around October that year. He seems to be doing well. It was fun being back in Cologne, and to see some old friends—I hadn't played there in twenty years. Everybody I talked to seemed to be working—especially the jazz players, the people that have managed to stay out there and keep playing.

All of a sudden the studio thing seems to be dwindling slightly, for whatever reason. People blame it on electronics and everything—I'm not so sure about that. It may have a little bit to do with it, but I don't think we can point our fingers at that. Maybe—the jury is out on the real reason why. Thank God I can still play; I'm still writing, and I still have a big band in Los Angeles.

It was hard for me to get the band started again after Nick Ceroli died—finding a drummer that really had what I was looking for. Frankie Capp played with the band a couple of times—of course, he plays with his own band, although it's a completely different style of music—but he made our band sound really good. He's rather busy workwise; so I decided to try Roy McCurdy. He played with Cannonball, and he's been out with Nancy Wilson for a long time. I didn't want anybody to be so wrapped up in reading that they forget about the jazz thing—and above all Roy's a jazz drummer. That's what I needed first, and it seems to be working out. It's hard , to find somebody who's got both ends of the spectrum covered. We had a couple of rehearsals, and he was doing great. Sensational The last time we worked at Donte's, the band was sensational. Although we did it without piano, and everybody sort of missed it. In a big band I don't miss piano at all—I don't miss it in a trio. Either it gets swamped or it gets miked so hard that it winds up sounding louder than the whole band—and there's no way acoustically that a piano sounds that loud. If you get it to where the piano player feels comfortable, then it wipes the band out, out front. And if it gets to the point where the guys in the band can hear the piano when they want to stand up and play, then it's too loud out front—and I've never been able to figure out a way of doing it so that both sides are happy. If it is that way, then when I'm hearing the band playing, I hear too much of the piano part. So it's crazy. And I don't want that thing where I need somebody back there controlling dials—the band should be able to do that acoustically.

Is the California scene a productive one? Well, I don't find the most sophisticated jazz audiences in Los Angeles, by any means. No, sir—I don't see it that way at all. On the other hand, there are some opportunities to play. But there are some clubs where you walk in and play, and you may as well be in a Las Vegas lounge. It doesn't work. I mean, there are people there that talk all the way through a solo, and at the end of the solo applaud, because they know the guy's done— and : "Oh, doesn't he play beautiful!" Yes, it's a facade—exactly. It's all part of what that town is—and it is showbiz, it is Hollywood.

Then again, on any given night at Donte's it can turn out to be a really, really good jazz audience—you never know.

Carmello's was fantastic when it was happening—it was really a good jazz scene when it was going on. This whole thing with Donte's...he finally sold the club; I'm not sure who bought it, but I understand they're going to renovate the place and keep it running under the same name. Hopefully, we'll still have the same privileges we've had for the last twenty-five years. You could walk in there any night, and the musicians didn't have to worry about paying a ten-dollar cover charge.

Everybody knew everybody there. This is also the nice thing about Alphonse's: there's never a door charge or a cover charge; you walk in and drink—that's in Toluca Lake, in the San Fernando Valley, North Hollywood. I just had a couple of calls from some people; I don't know if the Baked Potato is about to start their Sunday night bebop thing again. Don Randi called while I was out, and I'll get back to him when I get home.

But I'm still basking in my Cologne recollections—specially that Friday night. We opened with music from the Louie Bellson album, followed by some new charts. I did a ballad version of Henry Mancini's "Moment To Moment", which is normally a flugelhorn solo; Rick Kiefer played it on trumpet—as he knows how to do that soft, airy, Ben Websterish kind of thing, and he broke it up. Same thing with Chuck Findley's solo on "Estate", which is an Italian pop tune that Gilberto recorded a few years ago with Claus Ogerman—the people loved it. All the new ballads have very lush woodwind writing, with flutes, bass clarinets, muted brass—almost symphonic in nature. They really went for it, and then when we played the hot things—the burning, up-tempo, two-tenor battle—the people snapped even more, because of the contrast.

I think learning how to programme it has been real important for me. And writing mood pieces, that have other sounds other colours. Just because you have fifteen horns doesn't mean that they have to all be playing at the same time. I've used the Latin feel a lot; we played "Sambaandrea Swing", which Louie recorded here, when we did a live album at Ronnie Scott's some eight years ago. In the last chorus the rhythm section goes into a straight-ahead four-four, but the rest of it is all samba. And burning samba too; the way that band played it was dynamite.

There seems to be a lot happening, all of a sudden. Some people are interested in the out-takes from the "Hip Pocket" album, which was done live at Carmello's. That was with Shelly Manne, Andy Simpkins, Frank Strazzeri. I only played alto and baritone on that; I didn't play any tenor. Sal Nistico played tenor—which may have been a real good reason why I didn't! Everybody said: "Why didn't you play tenor, man? It would have been sensational—you could have doubled up..." I explained that the book was originally written for tenor, trombone and trumpet, and we were going to do it with myself on tenor, Carl Fontana on trombone and Sam Noto on trumpet. Carl couldn't do it—or we never could get in contact with him, and time was running out. I had the rhythm section set, I had Sam set; so finally I said: "I'll tell you what I'll do—I'll play the trombone parts on baritone or alto. Let's get Sal to come in from New York." Sal flew in, we did it, and it was as simple as that. I could have just as easily played it on tenor, but the sound of the trumpet/tenor/baritone seemed to work a little better. It was an on-the-moment decision, and we went with it. And the colours, the different sounds of the instruments made it a little nicer, I think. Anyway, I've got enough for two more albums, and I'm talking about that to the same people that are reissuing "Horn Of Plenty".

I enjoyed the Woody Herman concert, on which I was a last-minute substitute for A1 Cohn. I'd been a sub in Woody's band for quite a while, probably starting around '72; since then any time Woody needed help he would call. I remember I got a call from my wife while I was working one time, saying the band was on its way to Disneyland, and they'd called to say they needed a tenor player, as somebody had got hung up. I got into my car after work, drove to Disneyland, and jumped up on the bandstand just in time to play "Caldonia".

I was never really a permanent member of the band; I was never on the payroll per se, but I managed to keep working with the band—any time Woody wanted me, I'd put whatever I had aside. I went to Hawaii with the band for two or three weeks; then San Francisco, and we worked our way down from there to Los Angeles with a bunch of one-nighters. At one point Sal had to leave for a while, and I found myself on the band for about six weeks. It was beautiful; Woody would say: "Here he is—my sub for all seasons!" I've played two of the three tenor chairs—I always enjoyed it.

I'm sorry I never got a chance to write for Woody's band—it would have been nice. Because I understood that concept, and from listening to that band I learned a lot about writing.

Actually, that Disneyland week was the first time; Woody had really never heard me play before that. I remember running through crowds of little kids, balloons and everything, with my tenor over my shoulder. As I got to the bandstand, they had already started "Caldonia"; I stepped over the stand, and it was time for the tenor solo. Woody was pointing at Frank Tiberi, but Frank pointed to me: "Let him play." I played for ten minutes, at that breakneck tempo, and I could see Woody looking at me, with a big smile on his face; when it was over, he called out; "Yeah—Don Menza!", as only he could. After the applause had died down, he came over, looked at me and said: "Another upstate New York tenor player!" Of course, he had a history of upstate New York tenor players—including Sal Nistico, Joe Romano, Jay Migliori—all from that Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse area.

When they had the Benefit Night for Woody last October, Shorty Rogers asked me to play; he had "More Moon", about three or four things he wanted me to come out and play with the band. But I couldn't do it; I was on the Norway, out in the Caribbean somewhere. The night of the concert, the radio man came down and told us: it had just come across that Woody had died.

I saw Woody maybe six months before he died; he was still out on the streets, and going into Donte's, Alphonse's, wherever. Anywhere there was some jazz music, he'd come in to hear people play. One night he went in to hear Joe Romano play; Joe was working at a place which was then the China Trader, also in Toluca Lake—which is walking distance from Donte's. And it was just down the street from Alponse's; then a little further on was the Money Tree.

At a certain point, it was like the late 'forties in New York—I mean, there were a half-a-dozen jazz clubs real close to each other. It was wild. I'd leave Cats, I'd be in the Valley by 11.30, and there was any one of five or six places I could stop. All of a sudden it's changed now: we're back down to two or three. But that's okay—at least it's happening. There are people that have learned a lot from it—if you're going to run a club, you'd better run it.

That's another story—learning how to run a jazz club; having a bit of consideration for the people. If you don't have that nucleus of the society, of the jazz peop(e, that feel good about the club, it isn't going to work. If the musicians don't feel comfortable playing there, they don't play good, and the people can tell the difference.

The closest we've come to the Bull's Head kind of ambience would have been Donte's, really. And Carmello's was when it started: one long bar, they'd fit a big band in a small area, and the entrance was right at the far end of the place. You'd walk in, and there it all was in front of you.

Concert halls tend to lose that intimacy; when you play bars and everything, and people are, like, looking down the bell of your horn, it's a different feeling, absolutely. And anybody that doesn't feel that, but feels that it's become a black tie affair...I'm sorry. It's great that jazz has made its steps in becoming more intellectual, with people studying it harder, finding out what made it work. But jazz is an experience, a lifestyle. I'm not sure that I have all the answers, but I see it real clear, from people that learned how to play that way—and you can hear it- as opposed to the people who have the socalled `schooled' approach. Regardless of the style you're playing in, it has to be music that arouses the emotions, that brings forth a great spiritual reaction.

Copyright © 1988, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.