October 3, 2012
Eddie Bert, 1922-2012
Eddie Bert was a trombone player whose large tone and swagger with his instrument belied his small stature. He passed away September 27, 2012 at his home in Danbury, CT, at the age of 90. I had the good fortune to interview Eddie in Danbury on November 20, 2001. During my Archive interviews I’ve been able to hear countless diverse stories about how musicians of his era got their start on their particular instruments, and Eddie shared his experience:
MR: What made you gravitate — was trombone your first instrument?
EB: Not really. You see I grew up in the Bronx. Then when I was ten I moved to Mount Vernon. And in the Bronx they didn’t have any band so I didn’t know where that radio stuff came from. I heard the radio and I heard music but I didn’t know anything about it. So then when I got to Mount Vernon they had a band in the school, in the elementary school. And the teacher said here, try this trumpet. So I played the trumpet. And she said yeah, you’d be a good trumpet player, tell your father to get you a horn. Nothing. So I had to take what was there. And they had an E flat alto horn. And you don’t do too much with that. When the tuba goes oomph, you go pah. Oomph-pah, oomph-pah, oomph. And that got kind of boring. So one day we were playing a concert in one of the schools and we were playing the “Skater’s Waltz,” and the drummer couldn’t play three-four. So I said let me play that, because I had some friends in the drum section you know. So anyway I started playing bass drum and we were right in back of the trombones. And they had these counter melodies in the marches and stuff like that. And I said yeah, I like that. So I had a broken umbrella. And, you know the part that goes up? So I did that, and I had a razzer. You know what a razzer is?
MR: I think so.
EB: One of those big rubber things brrumph, brrumpt, brrumph. So I’d walk down the street going like that. So finally my father says what are you doing? I says playing trombone. But it isn’t a trombone. I said yeah but I don’t have one. So he finally got me one of these stupid, it was like what we call a pea shooter. It was made by Wurlitzer. And it was a terrible horn but it was a horn. So I played it for a little bit.
MR: It was a trombone but just a lousy one?
EB: Yeah. But then after about a year he bought me a horn. So that’s how I started.
MR: That’s a great story. Wouldn’t it be cool to have a picture of you going down the street with that umbrella? You know it’s funny too, a lot of guys, did you say it was a Sears trombone?
EB: No, a Wurlitzer. It was like Sears & Roebuck.
MR: Sure. A lot of those early instruments came from them, and the catalogue, and cost five or six dollars.
His career in music was inspired by listening to a 78 rpm in one of the booths of a record store. He loved the tenor sax player. Turns out it was Lester Young and the band was about to make their now-famous appearance at The Famous Door in New York City. Eddie managed to get a lesson with Basie trombonist Benny Morton, and he was on his way.
Eddie played with an amazing number of big bands — stylistically from one end of the spectrum to the other. These included Benny Goodman, Stan Kenton, Thad Jones-Mel Lewis, and even Charles Mingus. When you look at the resumes of some of these musicians, it looks as if they got fired after six weeks, because they’ve played with so many bandleaders. I asked Eddie about these seemingly short stints with so many bands:
MR: Was there a particular reason that musicians seemed to go from one band to the other quite often?
EB: Yeah. In other words I’m from New York, right? So you’re based in New York. When Kai Winding left Stan Kenton, this was in ’47, he called and said “I’m not going back with the band so why don’t you call Stan.” Because he had seen me with Red [Norvo] when we were at The Aquarium in New York. He came in with his band. That was when that band debuted. And I was with Red at that time, with the small band. And he heard me and he was friendly and all that. So I wrote to him and he said yeah, come on the band. So that’s California. So I had to go to California, right? I knew he was coming to New York because we worked at the Commodore Hotel for a month and then we went to the Paramount Theater and we did a lot of recording. This was in ’47. So then he started back out to California. And meanwhile I had a baby with my wife and I said I’ve got to jump off. So I had to jump off. So that’s what happened. I joined him three different times and I kept jumping off when he’d go back to California. Because, you know, the family situation. That’s the way you stay married.
EB: So anyway, that’s why I was with a lot of bands. Because I’d always do that. When I went with Benny Goodman, he was going out, but he was going to stay out there for six months he told us. He stayed for six weeks and then started coming back. So that was kind of a drag.
MR: What was it like to be on the road at that time? Was it a tough life?
EB: Yeah. I mean you don’t eat right and all that. Because you’re traveling by bus mostly. And when you stop, you stop. You’re liable to stop in some place that don’t have that good food and stuff like that. So it’s kind of a scuffle.
MR: And a typical day, would the bus leave after you’re done playing?
EB: It depends how far the trip is. If it’s 300 miles or 500 miles, you’ve got to leave after the gig. And you had to pay for your own hotel in those days. So a lot of guys ghosted. In other words, you had two in a room instead of one. Or three. Whatever you can get away with.
MR: Yeah. Okay. And what was the salary like? I mean I know it varied from band to band.
EB: Yeah. From a bill and a half to two bills. But your expenses had to come out of that. So it wasn’t like today. Today they put you up. It’s different.
The romanticism of being a big band musician on the road has been debunked by many of our interviewees. With a family at home, Eddie decided he needed to stop jumping on and off of bands. The circle of musicians and contractors called these kind of people roadies, in other words, don’t hire him for a long term job, he’s a “roadie” — at any moment he might pick up and join whatever big band. At his wife’s urging, Eddie used the GI Bill and went back to school for a music teaching degree.
EB: So I went to Manhattan School of Music and it took me seven years to get a master’s but meanwhile they heard I was in town so guys would call up and say can you do a date, like and I’d have to borrow a horn and run down and do a date. But finally I got in with the thing and I got established.
MR: But you weren’t taking jazz courses, right?
EB: Oh no, no. They couldn’t understand that.
MR: So you got a degree in teaching?
MR: Right. Did you ever really use it?
EB: When I was doing my student teaching they had me go to Yonkers to do — a guy was doing jury duty. So they said you go up there for two weeks. So I went up there and about the second or third day I went to the principal and I said “I got a record date can I take off tomorrow?” He said “what’s a record date?” I said oh, Jesus, not for me. So I got out of that. I never used it.
MR: Oh that’s funny, what’s a record date.
EB: Yeah. If he didn’t know what a record date was, I don’t belong there. I had to get out. You can’t turn record dates down. I mean then you end up a roadie.
MR: Okay. You’re right back where you started.
EB: Yeah. So that was that. I forgot about the teaching.
MR: But you did get the degree.
EB: Yeah. I’ve still got it.
After his briefest of stints in the world of education, Eddie found multiple niches and was able to stay more or less in the New York area. He became part of the pit orchestras for many Broadway musicals, played on countless radio and television commercials, and was a member of the Dick Cavett television show house band. He always kept his jazz chops, as evidenced by his participation in the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra and his gigs with Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus. The sometimes volatile Charles Mingus recruited Eddie to play in what became known as the “Town Hall Concert Fiasco” in 1962. The brilliant Mingus asked a lot of his sidemen:
MR: Did [Mingus] require some things from his sidemen that other leaders wouldn’t?
EB: Well yeah. I mean he wanted you to play his music. And the way you played his music with a small group, he didn’t write it out. You go up to his apartment and he’d play it for you on the piano, and you’d learn it in your head. And that’s how you learned it. Because he said “if I write it out you’re going to play it different,” which you do. If it’s written out you play it different. But if you get it in your head and you play it like you want to play it. And he says “play it your way.” He didn’t say any specific thing. Here it is. Like for instance “Jump Monk.” When I first learned that, it was by rote. I just learned it. And when we went on “The Bohemia,” there was no music.
MR: No music.
EB: And he’d change things during the night, you know change little things. You’d be playing and he’s singing in your ear “play this,” and he’s singing. So you play it as he’s singing it.
EB: Oh yeah.
MR: You had to be on your toes.
EB: Oh yeah.
MR: Very interesting. Did they ever record, was it the Town Hall concert or something?
EB: Yeah. ’62.
EB: Yeah they recorded that. But what happened was they pushed the date up a month, which hung him up about writing the music. That’s when he punched Jimmy Knepper in the mouth. And I asked Jimmy how did that happen. He said he was copying music for him and he went up to bring him some music and Mingus says “write me something.” So he says “it’s your concert, it’s not my concert.” Bamm. You know.
MR: I guess he was under a little pressure.
EB: Well yeah. But Jimmy didn’t play the concert. He wasn’t in the band. But he was doing the copying I guess.
MR: The concert was kind of a rough affair, wasn’t it?
EB: Well we ended up, we were rehearsing while the audience was there. And then he went out and made this announcement, he said “ladies and gentlemen this is a recording it’s not a concert so if you want to get your money back go to the box office.” And the producer’s in the back saying what is he talking about? And half the audience left. But they had copyists copying the music while we were rehearsing it on the spot. And they were recording it. It ended up so like this — and then the stage hand said “it’s eleven o’clock and at eleven o’clock we’re pulling the curtain.” So like that ended that. So like I don’t know, either Clark Terry or Ernie Royal went [scats] and we started playing “Mellow Tone.” And that was the last tune on the concert. And as I went off I had a plunger and I went [scats] and it’s on the tape. I mean it was all like tension.
MR: Was Mingus even still on stage at that point?
EB: I don’t know. I wanted to get out of there before they threw the tomatoes or something.
MR: Or something worse. Wow.
EB: It was a fiasco.
Eddie continued to work with challenging groups including the New York Jazz Repertory Company in the 70’s and the American Jazz Orchestra in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s. He was playing into his 89th year, and demonstrated an uncanny ability to remember how far he had to travel for his gigs, during this clip from 2001:
MR: What’s in the near future for you?
EB: Yeah well it’s just day to day. I do what I can. A lot of rehearsal bands and stuff to keep chops. But that’s what you have to do, and then do a lot of traveling. You know last Friday I worked in Morristown, New Jersey and that’s like 100 miles each way. And what was it yesterday, no day before yesterday I worked in Lambertville, which is outside of New Hope. That was 150 miles each way. And then I make some rehearsal bands, I do a rehearsal in Emerson, New Jersey, that’s 65 miles each way. That’s no pay. That’s a rehearsal. Then I rehearse with another band in Berlin, Connecticut, and that’s 45 miles each way.
MR: Looks like you’ve got your mileage down anyway.
EB: Oh yeah.
Eddie surprised me by sending a collection of lead sheets to his original compositions, another of his talents. I enjoyed playing through them while reminiscing for this blog entry. They are very hip tunes, and as diverse as was the arc of his career.