October 31, 2012

Mat Domber, Friend of Jazz

Mat Domber

The history of recorded jazz is, of course, the story of its players. But by the very nature of the business, producers, and record company owners also play a role. Invariably even the best of producers clashed with their artists over business matters or the aesthetics of the jazz being produced. Mat Domber (and his wife Rachel) were founders and owners of Arbors Records, and Mat was a man well-loved in the jazz business, and a highly respected producer. I have met and interviewed many Arbors artists and Mat always received the highest praise. He passed away on September 19, 2012, and he will be sorely missed by jazz musicians and their audience.
Mat started producing jazz recordings for the best of reasons. He simply loved the music. Mat was a self-described “Eddie Condonite” and, as a youth, heard live jazz at Nick’s in New York. He tried to emulate Pee Wee Russell on the clarinet for a brief time, and wisely decided to make his career in law and real estate. But jazz remained a passion for him, and years later he found himself in a position where he could help some under-recorded musicians become more known to the public. Arbors Records was founded in 1989 and since then has produced over 300 recordings.
Mat didn’t like to label music, although if you need to categorize the music on Arbors it is mostly in the traditional jazz mode. Here are his thoughts on the subject of labels, from our interview conducted on January 12, 2007 at the International Association of Jazz Educators:
MR:      You said some significant things [this morning] in that you don’t necessarily care for labels in marketing jazz or in jazz in general?
MD:      That’s right. We don’t. Because good music is good music. And if you label something as let’s say Dixieland for example, people think of Shakey’s Pizza Parlor and they think of sleeve garters and they think of striped shirts. And they forget the musical importance of that style of music and actually the difficulty of creating it. It’s a kind of music that’s so easy to play poorly and so difficult to play well.
MR:      That’s a great statement.
MD:      But that’s only one aspect of it. I mean jazz has become so broad that it’s even very difficult to define. What is jazz today? I mean Kenny G, is he jazz? Is polytonal New Orleans music jazz? I mean and everything in between. Music is music.
MR:      You said something this morning about a collection of sounds that is supposed to elicit some kind of emotional response.
MD:      Right. And that I think is one of the important things about music, music in general, whether it’s classical music, whether it’s jazz. It’s related to emotion. And one of the problems that I think has happened to the way in which even jazz has been moving is that it’s lost its soul. It’s lost that emotional impact. It’s become a technical exercise. It’s become something to display the virtuosity of the musician but it doesn’t expose his heart and soul. And earlier jazz did just that. It didn’t have quite the virtuosity but it had feeling, it had soul, it had something that you take away that’s memorable. Something that’s — even with the early musicians — as somebody commented, Wycliffe Gordon commented this morning — it has, you could recognize a musician by his tone, by his phrasing, as an individual.
A lot of that is lost.
Producers varied in the amounts of hands-on manipulation they felt was necessary to produce a sellable product. Part of Mat’s role seemed to be making people comfortable and dealing with egos, but he mainly left musical choices up to the artists themselves. When he was actually asked his opinion by his musical heroes, he was somewhat taken aback.
MR:      As a producer of these things, did you ever have to deal with personality conflicts between the musicians?
MD:      Sure.
MR:      They are people too, right?
MD:      Well when you’re dealing with musicians you’re dealing with artists. When you’re dealing with artists there are always personality issues, there’s always ego — this guy doesn’t like the other guy, this guy had a gig but he never invited me to play with him so I don’t want to play with him. You know you always have things of that kind that go on. Usually you can help smooth it over. Sometimes you just make sure that they stay separated.
MR:      When you make a new CD, are you the producer in the sense that do you direct the music that’s going to go on the —
MD:      I’m not a musician. I don’t know one chord from another if push came to shove. I decided that what I would do is leave the music to the musicians. So normally what I will do is choose somebody who I’d like to record or choose a group that I’d like to record. And I ask the leader to select the musicians that will help him to present his music the way he wants to present it, or, we record women as well as men. And I leave the choice of tunes to them, I leave the editing of the music to them, although occasionally I might have an opinion, but I don’t think that I know as much about music as Ruby Braff did or know as much as Kenny Davern or any of these people, so why should I try to tell them? But the strange thing that started to happen with the recordings that we did, that they would ask me for my opinion. And I was always very flattered when Kenny Davern would say “well which take did you prefer?” And I’d think to myself my God, you’re asking me? And sometimes I came up with an answer that he agreed with and sometimes I didn’t.
In addition to a steady output of recorded jazz, Arbors Records also sponsored an annual Florida jazz event called the March of Jazz, was co-founder of the group The Statesmen of Jazz, and more recently was involved in producing the Jazz Alive cruises.
Mat was well aware of the importance of jazz in twentieth century America, and the complicated issues involving the music and race. If you’ve ever delved into the jazz party circuit, you would have noticed that the musicians — and especially the audience — were predominantly white. Mat addressed this issue in our interview:
MD:      We’ve always had black musicians or at least we’ve tried to have black musicians at our parties. I felt that the music is color blind and gender blind. We have women who we think are good performers who fit in. The whole issue is fitting in. I mean you know, Milt Hinton was at our parties while he was alive of course, and came — we honored him on his birthday as one of our — we had Benny Waters and we had Benny’s, I think he was 95 at the time, and we presented a tribute to Benny as part of our March of Jazz. We’ve had Joe Wilder. But the problem has always been to find musicians that would fit in, who would be able to play with the group as a whole, would know the tunes and would be able to perform. And with our Statesmen of Jazz group we’ve been able to reach out to more and more musicians. I mean we have people like Norman Simmons who play regularly with us and we put Norman together with Warren Vache you know, and they play together beautifully. Rufus Reid playing bass in our group, Bobby Cranshaw playing bass, so that we try to do that. But it is a problem. And of course I have to say that you know if you bring up the subject of race I mean that raises other issues. There aren’t too many black people who come to our parties as audience. I can’t speak for why but there are very, very, very few. And in terms of jazz producers, building a bottom line, they’re looking at inviting musicians who they think will have a following, who they think will bring an audience to them, and that too is a factor in how many black musicians they want to invite. Now on the other side of the coin you have the group that puts on cruises where they have a lot of black musicians who are playing on the cruises, with white musicians I mean, and they get a large black audience. But it’s funny, when you go on those cruises you see that most of the black audience will go to those performances where the black musicians are playing, and not too many of them come in to where the white musicians are playing, which is a shame because in the early days of music, the early days of jazz, although the country was segregated, the music wasn’t. And very often in the recording studios you’d have white and black musicians who were recording together while they couldn’t appear together on stage. And they jammed together and they learned from each other, and that was very, very interesting. Plus the fact that so many of the black musicians had teachers who were white. Buster Bailey, for example, went to the same music teacher that Benny Goodman did in Chicago. And I’m sure that there are many, many, many more examples that you could quote. So it’s an unfortunate thing but I think that part of it too related to economics. I think that the black musicians, with justification, felt that they were, for a long, long time, excluded from the better paying jobs and the better hotel work, from the jobs that white bands were getting. And when the circle turned I think they felt that they wanted to do their thing and take advantage of their thing and why should they bring in other people to participate in what they felt was their chance to make a few bucks.
MR:      Yeah. It’s a really complicated issue for sure.
MD:      Yes it is. And it’s cultural as well as musical.
MR:      Were you saying that you can’t really separate American culture when you study jazz history? It’s all one and the same?
MD:      I think I made that comment. But others might have said the same thing. Yeah it’s true, it’s true. You can look at, I’ve always felt that our segregated society had a lot to do with the evolution of the music during those times. I think also the rise of the black power movement after World War II had a lot to do with the direction that music took at that time. And in that sense the music was really related to the culture and the cultural phenomena that were taking place at the time.
Arbors Records produced recordings from many of the great jazz artists — Warren Vache, Bucky Pizzarelli, Dick Hyman, Ralph Sutton, Kenny Davern and Bob Haggart — not bad for what Mat called a “Mom and Pop” operation. Mat and Rachel were especially important to those jazz artists in the “middle generation,” the players who were neither the new young stars nor the celebrated elder veterans. Mat was one of the good guys.

October 3, 2012

Eddie Bert, 1922-2012

Eddie Bert

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.
MR:      Yeah.
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?
EB:      Yeah.
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.
MR:      Cool.
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.
MR:      Right.
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.