Sunday, April 7, 2013

Who's The Leader Of The Band?

Not THAT band. We all (of my generation) know that that would be Mickey. I had that revelation reinforced during my eleven+ years working/playing with the Disneyland Band, with Mickey frequently leading us down Main Street, USA.

No, the band I'm referring to -- well, let me backtrack a little. When we first moved to Los Angeles, I found I had dived headfirst into a huge melange of music. There were numerous big bands, small bands of every ilk, brass and woodwind groups, orchestras seemingly in every community large and small, and on and on. One of the first bands I hooked up with, for a week of work, was led by the inimitable Bill Berry, the cornetist who played with the great Duke Ellington from 1961-1964, a rare example of a white player in a black band. Bill later led his own band, and I was called to join the group for this outing.

We played three or four nights at a theater in Oxnard, California, northwest of L.A. Then we did a couple of nights at what was then the jazz mecca of Los Angeles, Carmelo's Jazz Club in Sherman Oaks (Bob Florence famously dedicated a song to it, the title a nice play on the famous "Carmel By The Sea" -- Carmelo's By The Freeway). The amazing trumpeter, Cat Anderson, sat behind me, and played with such intensity that I wondered if I would ever hear again. There were other luminaries in the band as well, such as lead alto saxophonist Med Flory, the founder and leader of the amazing group, Supersax.

Which brings me to the title of this tome: Who's The Leader Of The Band? After our nights in Oxnard, we went into Carmelo's. Med Flory was replaced by the great Marshall Royal, who had just left relative stardom with the Count Basie Orchestra. And things changed. Marshall was such a domineering (and I mean that in a good way) player, such a natural, strong leader, that the entire feel of the band hand changed. It amazed me that one player, who was not the lead trumpeter or the drummer, could effect such a change (and for the better, I thought). It just somehow added something to the cohesiveness of the band. Med is a great player, and I certainly don't mean to disparage him or his musicality, but it was just...different. It was quite a music lesson for me.

I had the distinct pleasure of working and hanging out with Marshall many times, as he became the lead alto saxophonist with the Ray Anthony band, with which I played for ten years.


While I'm on the subject of leading, I am reminded of when I played lead trombone with the Toshiko Akioshi/Lew Tabackin Band for a while in the early 1980s. My first gig was three nights at the Chicago Jazz Showcase, followed by a concert at the Boston Globe Jazz Festival, held at the Berklee School of Music. The first night, I thought I should kind of lay low and see how the bone section did things. And it was a relative disaster! Starting the second night, I just played lead the way I know how, and everything was fine from then on. I coincidentally learned about dedication: when we hit the hotel in Boston, I think I hadn't even opened my suitcase when I heard Lew practicing down the hall. Lesson noted.

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