May 25, 2017

Dave Pell, 1925-2017

Dave Pell passed away on May 8 at the age of 92. He was not a familiar name to the casual listener, but he carved himself multiple niches in the West Coast music scene. While Dave was mainly known as a tenor saxophonist, he was a man of many hats, and applied his talents to producing records, taking photographs for album covers, arranging music for large and small ensembles, including the Dave Pell Octet, and organizing the Lester Young based group called The Prez Conference.
I’m sure those who knew Dave would comment on his high energy and healthy sense of humor. While he was born in New York, he never returned after leaving on a trip to the West Coast with the Tony Pastor Orchestra. He did not suffer mediocre musicians gladly, and had a unique way of getting solo space, even as a young man.
DP: I was with Tony Pastor getting there. And the story about Tony Pastor, I get to California and I say, “Gee Tony, this is great. Good-bye. I’m quitting.” He says, ‘you can’t leave me in L.A., this is wilderness. There’s no guys. I can’t get a guy that’ll leave California, they don’t want to come here.” I said, “good-bye.” And so he says, “well stay with me until we leave California and then you can quit. So six weeks later I left the band. But I had fun with Tony because I’d run out to the microphone to beat him to his own solos. Because he didn’t really like to play. But the only way I could get to play was to be a cocky kid and run up to the mic when he’s ready to play and I’m up there playing already. “Sorry, Tony.”
MR: Sounds like you didn’t lack for self confidence.
DP: Oh, no, I was a smart ass, it was terrible. I was just terrible. But that’s kind of a thing that you have to do. It’s almost like the sidemen on the band, they keep watching the leader. And watching all the mistakes he makes. And all the wrong things he does. Because in the back of his mind, I’m going to be a leader some day and I ain’t never gonna put myself — I mean Les Brown, I had a great time with Lester’s band and played on every tune, you know I had a great, great book to play, and we had [Don] Fagerquist and all the good players. And I remember as I went out every time to play a solo out front, we’d just didn’t stand up, we’d go out front — show biz. And I remember kicking over Lester’s horn at least once a night. “Oh, I tripped, ohhh, I’m so sorry, Oh, Les I’ll fix it later.” Well he didn’t play too well. And we didn’t like him playing in the band with us, because the saxes sounded so good. But when he played he played awful. And so if his horn didn’t work, he wouldn’t play. And Les after years and years he finally figured out I was doing it on purpose. You know, “I’m so clumsy, Les, I’m sorry.” But I was kicking over his horn so he wouldn’t play. Terrible, terrible.
Like other Los Angeles-based musicians, Dave was a passionate golfer. He decided there was a niche market for custom-made golf clubs, and he was the man to fill it. In his own words, he stated: “I found out that if I hit the ball and missed the shot that couldn’t be me, it must be the equipment.” This gave birth to yet one more project for the always active Mr. Pell.
I have the feeling that Dave did not enjoy what we call “down time.”
DP: I loved it. I think I would have been happier just playing. But it wasn’t enough for me. It wasn’t enough of a challenge. I figured it’s like sitting there in the band and watching the leader and then realizing all the things he did wrong, and saying I’m going to be the leader now. All right I’m the leader, now what? Well I got 30 albums. Well now what? You know? You keep on wanting to spread out. It’s like improvising. Exactly like improvising. It’s making something happen.
You can watch the entire interview I did with Dave in April of 1996, fresh off the presses on the Fillius Jazz Archive Channel. Click here.