Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Bill Cosby... an American icon. Most, if not all, of us have followed his career with interest. Going way back, my Hawaiian jazz singer friend Jimmy Borges told me once about being the resident host and singer at a club in San Francisco called the Hungry I (, which was the jumping-off place for the careers of many entertainment luminaries, including Cosby. But my story picks up a little further along:

In the early 1970s, I played trombone in the orchestra of Don Ho, the famous Hawaiian entertainer. Don was always on the lookout for celebrities in the audience whom he could ask to join him (or goad into joining) onstage and wow the audience. Cosby was in one night, and Don invited him up. Cos came onstage and looked for a place he could comfortably stand and deliver his routine du jour. The stage was crowded with musicians, as Don had added a string section, and Cos looked around, then down at me (I was seated in the front of the orchestra), grinned, and settled his rather large foot right on top of mine. And proceeded to do fifteen minutes, while standing on my foot.

Cosby went on to become a superstar in the true sense of the word, but he is a jazz lover at heart, and one of his regular "gigs" has been hosting the Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl. On one occasion when I was performing there with the Gerald Wilson Orchestra, Cos introduced the band, and as the turnstile cranked us around to face the audience, I jumped up, ran over to him, and said something like, "Hey, Man, I'm the dude whose foot you stood on at the Don Ho show thirty-five years ago." He responded, "Was that You??" and gave me a big bear hug.

Therein lies the tale of my close encounter(s) with one of my favorites: I Spy, Fat Albert, The Cosby Show, etc. Perhaps there'll be another meeting down the road. Fond memories...

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Night With A Legend

Oh no! Not another "legend!" It seems so easy to drop that handle on someone, some movie star, singer, or whatever. They are legendary, they are great, they are one of a kind, etc. But, this night, I rubbed elbows with a true legend of jazz--again. The legendary, great, one-of-a-kind jazz artist Gerald Wilson rides again. I've played lead trombone with Gerald's big band for sixteen years now, and it's as fresh and exciting as it was the very first time. Gerald was born in 1918 in Shelby, Mississippi, found his way to Detroit, studied music at Cass U., was one of the first black (may I use that term for a "person of color?") men in the U.S. Navy in a non-menial job (he, along with the late trumpet legend--see, there's that word again--Snooky Young, were in the Navy band at Great Lakes Naval Center). He later played with the legendary (oops, it's becoming a habit; but there are legends in jazz, some of whom are not mentioned as frequently as they should) Jimmy Lunceford band, then with Count Basie. He wrote for both bandleaders, and also for the legendary Duke Ellington. He was the first bandleader to record in Capitol Records, on an album accompanying the legendary singer Nancy Wilson in 1963. Gerald started his own big band in Los Angeles in 1947, I believe, and still leads it today at age 93. He is as spry as a youngster when he's in front of the band, and still knows exactly what he wants to hear and how to get it out of the band. I listened to recordings of the band while a college student in the 1960s, and when I was in the Air Force, a hot dog stand behind the PACAF band room at Hickam AFB, Hawaii, had a juke box with Gerald's recordings on it. I would listen and wonder how someone might possibly ever get to play with such a wonderful band. My own career advanced, and I was recruited by the legendary Buddy Collette to perform with his band. In 1996, the Library of Congress brought three West Coast bands from L.A. to Washington, D.C. to perform in the then newly renovated Lincoln Theater. Buddy's band played the first night, Gerald's the second, and the legendary Benny Carter the third night. Gerald attended the performance of Buddy's band, heard me play, and asked his contractor to begin calling me for his own band. In those intervening sixteen years I have missed only one performance with the band, when I was on tour in Japan and couldn't get back to the States for a concert.

Tonight we performed to a very receptive crowd at SOKA University in Aliso Viejo, California. Gerald was his usual precocious self, keeping the audience laughing at his stories and enthralled at his music. And afterward, Gerald, as always, thanked me for being there and told me what a great musician he thinks I am. I couldn't be more proud. One of my fondest memories as a player is of playing at the Detroit Jazz Festival, where we participated in a Battle of the Bands with the legendary Count Basie Orchestra. After the performance, as I was looking for a safe way off of the high riser the trombone section was perched on, I looked down and saw then 90-year-old Gerald Wilson, extending his arm and saying, "Let me give you a hand, Les; we can't afford to lose you." Of such stuff legends are made.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

What's In A Nickname?

Names are fun to research, sometimes, to find the derivations or hidden meanings. But what about nicknames? Many are obvious. In my own past I have known a "Fats" (obvious origin), "Chubby" (the same), "Red" (hair color), "LeanJean" (the opposite), and many more. One in particular stands out in my memory, because of the circumstances that led to it.

One of my dear friends in college, a fellow trombonist who played in the faculty brass quintet as a student (I played tuba), was Horton Monroe. Horton hailed from Old Hickory, Tennessee, home of President Andrew Jackson and named for Jackson's nickname, interestingly enough. Horton had blazing red hair, but somehow that monicker never seemed to stick to him. But read on...

There was an area of Cookeville, Tennessee, our college town, known as the Triangle (gee, another nickname--who'da thought?), where three streets met to join that shape. It was home to several establishments where students liked to hang out (for food, of course). One such place featured "fast food," but also had a patio area with a juke box and several coin-operated critter-based rides for the kids. One of the rides was a red pig, and of course one night we dared red-headed Horton to ride the pig. He climbed on, and the poorest one among us, Steve McBride (another trombonist), who never had enough money to even eat regular meals (he was paying his own way through school, as his farmer parents wouldn't support his desire to become a music teacher), whipped out a dime (big bucks in those days) and stuck it in the slot. Horton rode the entire dime's worth, uttering an occasional "Heeyah, Pig."

Apparently the word got out quickly about Horton riding the pig. The Belle of the Music Department, Patty Raines (later Ferrell), walked into the student lounge the next day, and seeing Horton sitting there, quietly intoned, "Pig-gy." And Horton was "Piggy" from that moment forward. He hated it, but he had no say in the matter. Patty had spoken.

Now that we've reached our Golden Years, everyone seems to have finally relented, and Piggy has become Horton once again. But the memory of "ride-em piggy" will never fade. Long live Piggy (er, Horton).

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Can you say "simpatico?"

I'm not certain that I can, after attempting to decipher the pronunciation marks in  (sɪmˈpɑːtɪˌkəʊ, -ˈpæt-). But I'm sure that I experienced it today, while participating in adjudicating a high school jazz festival and conducting a master class, with the day culminating with a combination jazz clinic and concert with all the clinicians participating. It was a sterling example of interaction among all of us, both musically and educationally. Each one had something to contribute as we explained what happens within a group improvising jazz, how we listen to and play off each other, and how each wind instrumentalist and rhythm section player complements the soloists and the group effort.

The guilty parties were: John Proulx (Grammy winner) on piano and vocals; Larry Holloway (Red Mitchell Scholarship Award winner) on bass; Dave Tull (Chuck Mangione band), drums; Jay Mason (Gordon Goodwin's Big Phat Band), alto sax, Frank Potenza (University of Southern California faculty), guitar; and Jeff Jarvis (Chair of Long Beach State jazz department), trumpet. I played trombone, but I did have one tuba player in my clinic. Four bands participated (a fifth was a no-show, but that gave us more time with the one that did make it). We all adjudicated each band's performance, then we took turns, three at a time, pointing out to the students what we thought they could do to improve. The kids were all very receptive and respectful, which made our job easier and more worthwhile. The band directors all seem very dedicated, and were grateful for the help we gave their students, which makes their job easier too, I'm sure. All in all, it was a very good day.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Yet Another Mouthpiece Story

I know, one tale is probably enough when one is writing about mouthpieces, contrary to the subject of my previous blog, but since it's such a serious subject with brass players, I thought another might not be too over the top.

I was playing with the Bill Watrous Big Band in a performance for the International Association for Jazz Education (IAJE) Convention at the Long Beach Convention Center. My daughter, Mikie, was visiting and went with me, and we got there early, way before the other band members. Bill was the only one there, setting up the band, so I was getting my trombone out and checking out the music, when the door of the large room we were in opened and a lone gentleman walked in. He shuffled slowly down the aisle toward the bandstand as if he had some trouble walking. As I watched him approaching, I realized I recognized him from having seen him on TV: it was Al Grey, the legendary trombonist who played with the great Count Basie for many years. I asked Bill if it was really him, and Bill said, "Yes, go and introduce yourself." (The walking problem was because of surgery he had had on his feet, the result of his diabetes.)

Mikie and I did just that, and we talked with him for some twenty minutes or more. One of the things he told us was about his mouthpiece; hence this tale presents itself. One of my trombone heroes was Trummy Young, whom I had known when I lived in Hawaii (I actually played on his very first album as a leader, and my brother, Dan, who was visiting at the time, took photos of the four trombonists during the recording session, one of which was used on the back of the album). James (Trummy) Young was famous from his years of playing with Louis Armstrong, and his appearances in movies with Satchmo's band. But his path began years before, when he played with the popular and highly regarded Jimmy Lunceford Orchestra in the 1930s, along with such future luminaries as Gerald Wilson and Snooky Young. When Trummy left the Lunceford band, Al Grey took his place. In those days, bandleaders knew their audiences expected to hear songs as they were played on their recordings, so soloists were required to play the same solos they did on the records, note-for-note. When a new player joined the band, he had to memorize the recorded solos of the previous player.

Thus Al had to memorize Trummy's solos. And he said he could play them all, including the challenging "Annie Laurie," but Trummy's solo on "Margie" presented a dilemma for him: at the very end, Trummy played a low D (in the staff) and "glissed" or "ripped" up nearly 2 1/2 octaves to high F sharp. Al said he had no problem with the F sharp, but the tessitura of the entire solo was so high, he coudn't play the low D: his embouchure was locked into playing in the high register. When he bumped into Trummy a few months later, he related the problem, and Trummy reached into his pocket and handed Al a mouthpiece and told him, "Here. Try this."

And try it he did. For some fifty years. He called it "the magic mouthpiece." He said he could play anything and everything on it. Then tragedy struck. He had just done a Master Class at N.Y. University, and the music teacher invited him for coffee afterward. While they were having coffee, someone broke into Al's van and stole his horns -- and the magic mouthpiece! Al was, of course, devastated. He tried many replacements, including some fifty mouthpieces that people sent him from all over the world. And none worked. They were the wrong size, the wrong shape, didn't feel right, struck his dentures in the wrong place, or something.

Some time later, I remembered a mouthpiece that Trummy had given me years before in Hawaii, when his wife was making him get rid of extra stuff he didn't use. I located it and started thinking about a way to get it to Al for him to try out. Meantime, another celebrated trombonist passed away. Melba Liston was one of the few women to make a name for herself in jazz, both as a trombonist and as an arranger. I attended a service for her in Los Angeles at O.C. Smith's church, and performed with saxophonist Ann Patterson's band. After we played, I sat in a pew to hear the speakers and the other performers, when who should walk in and sit right in front of me, but Al Grey. I leaned forward and whispered a reminder of who I was and told him I had a mouthpiece for him to try. He was concerned because he had a high profile recording session with Tony Bennett coming up in a few days, and was worried about how well he would be able to play. We arranged to meet at his hotel the next morning.

When I showed up at his room at 9 AM, he had his horn out and was practicing. I handed him Trummy's mouthpiece, a plain one with no maker's name on  it; it simply was stamped with the initials "TY." Al stuck it in his horn and played a few notes, and his face lit up with an angelic smile. He said, "Now Les, you be thinking about how much you want for that mouthpiece. I replied that I couldn't charge him for it; I was merely the messenger. Trummy had come through for him again.

I phoned Al in New York the following Tuesday to ask how the previous day's session had gone with Tony, and he said it went great. Al played that mouthpiece the last year of his life, and after his death, his wife donated it to a museum, along with other memorabilia. I was unable to attend his memorial service in New York, but I wrote the story of the mouthpiece and his wife had it read it at the funeral.

The TY mouthpiece may have been a true match for the "magic mouthpiece," or it may have simply been psychological on Al's part. But it worked for him, and I'm happy to have been a catalyst to his happiness in his last days of the great player he was.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

If One Is Good...

...two are better. Right? Depends, but in this case, better for musicians.

The UCLA Medical School graduation ceremony for years has utilized brass music. It's perfect for outdoors, where the rites are held, and can be stylistically diverse, upping the entertainment value. At first they hired one quintet, but the promoter complained about the time between numbers, and the players' "phbllllth" sound, buzzing and flapping their lips to try to get some blood back before the next tune. He asked if it was necessary (yes) and what could be done about it. Chris, the leader, being the wily businessman he is, immediately said, "Hire two quintets." They did, in subsequent years, and five more musicians had an extra job each year.

The groups alternate, segue-style, leaving no down time between numbers, and plenty of time for one group to "rest their chops" while the other group performs. There's 30 minutes of "atmosphere" music consisting of classics, pop, and some light jazz, leading up to the start of the ceremony. Then a fanfare kicks off the start of the event, the speakers and the reading of names of the graduates, and the band takes a break for an hour or so. Then it's back to play a little exit music.

The highlight of the afternoon, for me, follows the announcement, "As you go forth, let us listen to the diverse voices of the class of Two Thousand and Eleven, as they bless us with the rainbow of languages represented in this outstanding class and medical school. Each physician graduate will say the same phrase in a different language. Listen to the different languages united in one common mission."

Each graduate representing a different culture steps to the podium in turn and recites the phrase in his or her native tongue. (The first graduate steps up and announces, "English,"to gales of laughter.) The phrase, "May we leave here to cure when possible, to care always," is then spoken in Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, Tagalog, Vietnamese, and a great many others. It's inspiring, and we would hope they never forget that beginning of a career and life of service.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Oh Clare

A Giant of the Music World has left us. Clare Fischer passed from this plane yesterday, and was heralded in the Los Angeles Times this morning (,0,7091789.story ). All things Clare can be read elsewhere, except personal stories, so I'll share some of mine.

I received a call from Morris Repass, who contracted musicians for Clare at the time (until Clare's son, Brent, took over). Morris and Clare were old army buddies and had been friends for all those many years. Morris related that Clare had become enamored of bugles after hearing a corps performance, and purchased umpteen-thousand dollars-worth of bugles of all sizes. Bugles come in the keys of G and D, and are largely unfamiliar to players of more traditional orchestral brass instruments, like trumpets, trombones, French horns and tubas. As a result, Clare had run into a wall finding someone to play the contrabass bugle, which is pitched in the key of G, below the tuba, which is tuned mostly in either BBb, CC, EEb or F. Moreover, the contra is heavy and unwieldy, since it has to be somewhat delicately balanced on one's shoulder, protruding fore and aft, and still manipulated in a way to be able to find the mouthpiece with one's lips and somehow make music. Morris knew that I "doubled" on various brass instruments, including tuba, and asked if I would like to give it a try. I'm always game for a musical adventure, and it would additionally give me a chance to meet Clare, whom I had admired since I discovered the Hi-Lo's while in college in the '60s (they recruited him out of college to be their musical director).

I met Morris at Clare's house in Studio City, California, and we met Clare inside. After the usual pleasantries, we got down to business, and I was introduced to the bugle. Morris had designed and built an amazing contraption to hold the instrument so the player would not have to, but it was clumsy and bothersome, and I ended up discarding it at some point. I hefted the clumsy beast, found a fundamental pitch and fooled around with it for a couple of minutes, orienting myself to the strange tonality, then embarked on a tune which Clare had composed and which the Hi-Lo's had recorded while Clare was their Music Director. Clare smiled, and I became his contrabass bugler. I played it on some recordings, including with Prince (for whom Clare orchestrated compositions). Then one day, I had to be out of town when Clare had a session, and I recommended my friend, Rod Mathews, who was a much better bugler than I, since he had played in a corps in high school. After my return, I played "real" tuba on a recording of Clare's symphonic works ("After The Rain"). (An aside: Clare was notorious for having a temper, and yelling at players and others. During this recording, he made one of his famous off-the-wall remarks, and the orchestra went silent, until Rod and I looked at one another and laughed out loud. Clare smiled down at us from the podium, as if we were the only ones who "got it.") When he formed and recorded his "Jazz Corps," a hodgepodge of some twenty various brass instruments (some players refused to play the bugles) and woodwinds, I played Eb helicon tuba, Eb alto flugelhorn, and Eb cornet.

All this time, Clare had never heard me play trombone. I had a trio gig (with Frank Marocco on Accordian and Larry Klein on drums), and emailed announcements. I included Clare on the list, but didn't expect to see him. He surprised me; he and his wife, Donna, showed up and apologized for being late, and stayed for two sets. On the break, we talked about my influences on trombone, including Lawrence Brown, Duke Ellington's wonderful trombonist for many years. At one point, Clare asked if we could play "Yesterdays" as a ballad, which we did, after which I told Clare I had never played it before (but I knew it from having heard it so many times), and Clare responded, "You tell me you've never played it before, and I'm sitting here with tears in my eyes?" Soon after that night, Brent, who was contracting for his dad by then, called to ask if I could play on an upcoming recording. It turned out to be a solo feature on a tune that Lawrence Brown had recorded with Duke in 1947, for Clare's Clarinet Choir (eight clarinets, trumpet, trombone and rhythm). He subsequently did another recording with that group on which I had several solos. (Another aside: when we were doing the first recording, lots of things were not going well, like the recording equipment failing to lock up in order to do overdubs--this at a major studio in Hollywood; and the cartage company bringing the wrong keyboard and Brent trying to get them to go the Clare's house and bring his keyboard. Clare was understandably upset. He was rehearsing the clarinets on a passage, and Brent started quietly tuning his bass. Clare yelled, "Brent, stop tuning! I'm rehearsing the clarinets right now! Brent moved further away, turned down his volume, and continued tuning. Clare again yelled, "Brent, stop tuning! I said I'm doing something else right now!" Gentle Gary Foster, Clare's long-time friend and lead alto sax/clarinet player, said, "Clare, I can't believe you're yelling at your son like that." Clare responded, "I'm not yelling at my son! I love my son, and I couldn't get anything done without him. I'm JUST YELLING!)

We'll miss the true genius of Clare, the breadth of his music and musicianship, the love and respect he showed those he admired, and yes, even his yelling. You always knew where you stood with him. He was praised and lauded, damned and condemned, but he lived life to its fullest. His home abutted an elementary school, and I asked him once if the noise the kids made bothered him, and he said that was one of the things he loved about living there: the sound of the kids playing. He was separated from the love of his life while in his high school years by objections from her family, but they managed to find each other later in life and spent their last years together. Thank you, Donna, for the love and care you gave him; I know that made him better for all of us. Long live the legacy and the memories of Douglas Clare Fischer!

               Clare and Donna in the booth at a recording session.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Longest Day

July 31, 2006. 40 hours long. 'Nuff said.

Well, I guess a little explanation is called for. That was the last day of my tour with the Billy Vaughn Orchestra in Japan, nearly three weeks of traveling all over, on bullet trains and locals, buses and taxis, and even one plane trip to save time over the ferry. We finished the tour in Osaka, and the morning after our last performance began early, a 6 AM departure from our hotel. We had an early flight to Narita (Tokyo), a long layover, then a flight back to the States. I had arranged with the contractor and the promoter to fly separately from the orchestra, to San Francisco instead of Los Angeles, because I had a very special event lined up -- a live Blue Note recording with the Gerald Wilson Orchestra and jazz guitar great, Kenny Burrell, in celebration of Kenny's 75th birthday. Other luminaries were to include Hubert Laws and Joey DeFrancesco.

I caught the flight to San Francisco International Airport, where I was met my my wonderful sister, Mikie, and her husband Charles. They drove me to Oakland, where the recording was to take place that evening at Yoshi's Jazz Club. In the course of the flight, I had crossed the International Date Line, where it was still July 31 on the eastern side, so the date didn't change after 24 hours; it remained July 31. We got to Oakland, had lunch, and then I went on to a sound check, dinner and a change of clothes, and two sets that evening which were recorded with a live audience. By the time we finished at midnight, my day had lasted 40 hours! By the end of the evening, I was fighting sleep and trying to keep from falling off my chair, but I wouldn't have missed that event for anything.

I definitely slept well that night, but the next day had to bum a ride to Santa Cruz, where we recorded an additional night at Kuumbwa, a local jazz club. From there I rented a car and drove home to Los Angeles, where I repacked my suitcase and headed off to Hawaii for another trombone adventure. Whatta life!

Editorial Reviews

Kenny Burrell turned 75 on July 31, 2006. That night he finished a five-day run at Yoshi's in Oakland and then the next day played with the Gerald Wilson Orchestra in Santa Cruz. This CD commemorates the occasion with performances from both nights, presenting Burrell’s sparkling guitar in settings that range from an intimate trio to fronting Wilson's 17 –piece band. The material reflects Burrell's long career and broad associations. Among the small group tracks, there's a beautiful quartet sequence of Wayne Shorter's "Footprints," J.J. Johnson's "Lament," and Miles Davis's "All Blues," each demonstrating Burrell's consummate lyricism and absolute mastery of the mainstream modern. The big-band tracks pick up on associations with Duke Ellington, including the elegant "Sophisticated Lady" and "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," with the 88-year-old Wilson providing a sparkling foundation that has Burrell and company soaring. Best of all is the extended "A Night in Tunisia" with a septet that has organist Joey DeFrancesco and flutist Hubert Laws. --Stuart Broomer

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

What's The Best?

We all have favorite "things" -- those of us who cook have favorite pots, pans, or utensils, like our old plastic  stirring spoon with a chunk out of the tip, or our wooden salad fork with a tine missing. Musicians have a favorite edition of some special music, or a favorite recording, or some accessory to our instrument of choice. With us brass players, mouthpieces come to mind. They sometimes take on legendary proportions in our perception of greatness; some players will hang onto a particular piece forever, guarding it jealously against loss or damage. We'll have our favorite mouthpiece maker copy it so that we have a backup, even though we know the copy can't hold a candle to the original.

Which brings me to the meeting of one of jazz's most memorable and wonderful trombonists, Frank Rosolino, and his collaboration with Terry Warburton, one of the premier makers of brass mouthpieces. Terry told me the story when I saw him at the International Trombone Workshop in Nashville in June 2011. Frank spent a day in Terry's shop, trying variations that Terry would make for him, until the end of the day, when Frank declared that Terry had made the greatest mouthpiece. And to prove he meant it, he gave Terry his old favorite mouthpiece that he had been playing for decades. Terry had the actual mouthpiece in his pocket, and showed it to me as he was telling the story. Sometime after that momentous meeting, Terry's shop was destroyed by fire. As he was sifting through the ashes afterward, he found the mouthpiece Rosolino had given him -- the only thing to survive the fire!

Someone sent me a link to a YouTube video a few days ago, which was really a slide show of covers of albums Frank had headlined or appeared on. Near the end was his last, appropriately titled "The Last Recording." It features a photo of Frank playing his trombone, and I noticed that he was playing what is obviously (to me, at least) his Warburton mouthpiece. I forwarded it to Terry; that's a great feather in his cap to have provided a "favorite" mouthpiece for one of the world's greatest players. I'm glad to have been able to find that, on a number of planes: first, I play Warburton mouthpieces on my various brass instruments; I think they are the greatest for sound, versatility and ease of playing. And I promote them; I tell others about them, and have influenced a number of people to switch. Terry is very creative and inventive, and he seems to just have a special touch. And he's an all-around good guy, funny and pleasant, and generous to a fault. His wife, Ann, is much the same, and I've enjoyed my relationship with the two of them. And I'll have the pleasure of seeing them again in a couple of days at the NAMM show in Anaheim, where they'll be extolling the virtues of TW mouthpieces, and his new invention, a custom saxophone gooseneck. I told another legend, Plas Johnson (the original tenor sax voice of "The Pink Panther"), about them, and he is now playing one, and going on and on about how great it is (fodder for another tome, I guess).

Frank, and his Warburton Mouthpiece

Yours Truly, with Ann & Terry Warburton