May 31, 2015

Inheriting a Big Band

My normal schedule as a working musician includes multiple duties at Hamilton College in Upstate New York. Those duties encompass private saxophone lessons, directing a saxophone ensemble, and overseeing the Fillius Jazz Archive. Playing gigs and writing the occasional arrangement for local groups supplement my day-to-day schedule.
This past spring semester I had a welcome addition in the form of directing the Hamilton College Jazz Ensemble. This is an opportunity presented to me every five years when the college jazz professor takes a sabbatical. I am familiar with big bands. The bands of Glenn Miller, Count Basie and the like were my first inspiration to pursue music. In college I was a member of the SUNY Fredonia Jazz Ensemble; I led a high school jazz ensemble in the Utica area; and I’ve played on and off with local big bands over the years.
Jazz bands do not require “conducting” per se. The groove should already be there from the rhythm section, and the waving of arms in a traditional sense is perfunctory. As band leader Bill Holman stated in our February 1999 interview, “well, things that are in tempo, dance band or jazz band charts, conducting is kind of a grand word for it, because what you do is get them started and get them stopped.” For me, a few cues from the hips, hands and eyes suffice.
Most instrumental teachers from the middle school level and up are now expected to direct a jazz ensemble. They learn that the standard instrumentation consists of five saxophones, four trumpets, four trombones, and one each of piano, bass, drums and guitar. A vocalist is optional.
This year at Hamilton the band I inherited consisted of six saxophones, two trombones, one trumpet, three guitars, three drummers, a pianist, and three vocalists (two male and one female). Both Hamilton student bass players were spending the semester abroad. And while I avoid hiring ringers, I did engage a local bassist, Sean Peters, to fill in. No bass, no band! I sought out a second student trumpet player and recruited a tubist from the brass ensemble. This gave me a marginal brass section, significantly out of balance with the six hard-blowing saxophonists. To be honest, I welcomed the challenge and would have been disappointed if I had inherited a band with the requisite person in each chair ready to read store-bought arrangements as written. I have always loved arranging music as much as playing it, and here was my opportunity to get my licks in, both writing charts and tweaking others for the band’s strengths and weaknesses.
From our first rehearsal I made it clear that learning by ear and spontaneity would be part of our process. We learned Ellington’s “C Jam Blues” and James Brown’s “I Got You (I Feel Good)”  without written music or lyrics. To keep the extra drummers, guitarists and singers engaged, I arranged a piece that included a part for rhythm sticks.
Our two weekly rehearsals were leading to two on-campus performances in May. My eclectic tastes in music were reflected in our concert program, which ultimately ended up in a healthy number of tunes, 14 to be exact, in multiple styles. A gig in the college café served as a warm-up for the main event in a concert hall on May 5.
I have always had faith in the blues to catch people’s ears, so our first two numbers of the performance were 12-bar blues: Cannonball Adderley’s “Sack O’ Woe” and Bobby Troupe’s “Route 66,” giving one of our vocalists his first appearance. The rest of the concert consisted of classic swing from the 1930s, a ballad “At Last” to feature our girl singer, and a premier performance of an upbeat Latin chart composed by our one music major in the band. I was cognizant of the fact that our five-man brass section was going to need a break during the middle of the concert, and also that variety and changes in groove are an integral part of a successful performance. With that in mind, we featured each section of the band. Guitarists played Django Reinhardt’s “A Minor Swing”:
The saxes ripped through Woody Herman’s “Four Brothers” (which I can tell you can survive without any brass at all).
The singers exactly mirrored the vocal trio of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, so we gave the audience what was most probably their first exposure to the extremely catchy tune “Yeh Yeh” with lyrics by Jon Hendricks.
The brass were featured on Horace Silver’s “The Preacher,” and our three drummers engaged in a tom-tom battle on the Benny Goodman classic “Sing Sing Sing.”
The band then reconvened for a medley. I think it’s safe to say that this was the first combination of these particular songs. Trombonist Al Gray wrote a wonderful ear worm called “Echoes of New Orleans,” written to reflect his experience of hearing marching bands pass by his hotel room during Mardi Gras. The planets aligned for this particular song. One of our saxophonists played decent clarinet, a New Orleans staple, and a guitarist fortuitously doubled on banjo. With the tuba, these additions added the exact right touch. I had an intuition that our “I Feel Good” vocalist might know how to really play the tambourine — the kind with the head on it. At one rehearsal I handed it to him and said, “when I give you the nod, let me hear what you can do.” And he really captured the sound of the street. A fade out ending, mimicked the band disappearing down the street, and we transitioned into controlled cacophony. A shouted, “one-two-three-four-WHAP” “I Feel Good” announced our last tune. In a dress rehearsal that afternoon I told the horn players to feel free to rise up out of their seats, since there was no written music. They took me at my word and their impromptu dance around the stage helped inspire a standing ovation at the end of the concert.
Invariably an unexpected situation occurs at such events. I took considerable care in discussing the appropriate dress, the banning of cell phones during the concert, no practicing on stage, etc. I failed to announce, “no shorts,” which apparently can be part of a collegiate dress wardrobe. When three male band members appeared with bared legs, the only thing to do was seize the moment and stage an impromptu “fashion show,” complete with improvised piano accompaniment.
Music teachers are not often taught about arranging. It’s a skill that can be learned from books, but is better experienced by doing, starting with flute duets, transitioning to saxophone quartets, followed by two and three part choral arrangements. You have to learn what to do and what not to do, depending on the age level you are writing for. Computer programs like Sebelius and Finale help. But the musical intuition you learn throughout your career is the best aid.
Leading a band every year is much like having a sports team. Your best and your worst players eventually will move on. And what you get from one year to the next will vary, sometimes immensely. Arranging skills can help you use this situation to your advantage by customizing charts for the strengths and weakness of the players in any given ensemble.

May 8, 2015

Marty Napoleon, 1921-2015

Pianist Marty Napoleon passed away on April 27 at the age of 93. He was born in Brooklyn, NY of Sicilian immigrants as Matthew Napoli, later legally changing his name. Marty came from a long line of musicians. His familial situation was atypical. In his case the scenario of the young musician who finds disfavor with his girlfriend’s father was reversed.
MR:    Can I assume that it was okay with your parents that you were going into this field?
MN:    As a matter of fact that’s funny you lead me into that. Because when I started going with my wife, I met my wife when we were both 18 years old. Obviously we were the same age just about. And we kept company for about two years. But after about a year, my father said to me, “you can’t keep company with that girl.” I said, “why not?” He says, “you’re planning on marrying her?” I said, “yeah.” He said, “well you can’t even think about that.” I said, “why?” He said, “she’s going to keep you away from studying the piano.” How would you like to have parents like that?
In today’s jazz world, the majority of musicians are well skilled in all facets of music, and are expected to be able to read the most complex arrangements. Such was not the case in Marty’s time, and he was well into a career as a pianist before he learned to interpret notes on a page. Marty landed a gig with Chico Marx of Marx Brothers fame, and literally learned to read on the job.
MN:    To get back to Chico, I couldn’t read. I hadn’t learned yet, because I was like scuffling. So when we got to Chico’s band and I was like playing these shows with comedians and dancers, I was lucky that we had an 18-piece orchestra. And fortunately I had what they called a piano/conductor part. And on the top, in red ink, was what the lead trumpet was playing, see? So now I would fake through the first show and from the second show on I would follow the red notes on the piano sheets see? And I would notice like whenever the band had an eighth rest and a dotted quarter, I know it always went [scats] and I said, hey that’s great, you know. By the time I left that band I was reading music.
MN:    The funny thing was, only about three years ago, my wife and I were sitting in the living room and I said, “well you know I scuffled during Chico’s band because I couldn’t read.” She said, “you didn’t know how to read when you were with Chico’s band?” She never even knew I couldn’t read.
Musicians of the 30s and 40s in particular seem to have played musical chairs throughout their careers. Marty played with a long list of well-known jazz artists, including Gene Krupa, Red Allen, Joe Venuti, Charlie Ventura and in bands with his uncle Phil and brother Teddy. Prominently listed among Marty’s credits are his multiple stints with the Louis Armstrong All-Stars. Marty was able to witness why Louis Armstrong had the nickname “Ambassador Satch” and how his God-like presence overseas did not always translate into the same respect at home:
MR:    Were there certain places that you’ve played that were particularly memorable overseas?
MN:    Mostly all the places because especially, like I say, I wrote everything down. So I remember every place. One of the most exhilarating experiences was when we got to Switzerland, the first time I played in Switzerland. The first time I went into Europe with Louis was in October of 1952. ’52 or ’53.
MR:    ’52 ’53 the first time around.
MN:    Yeah okay.
MR:    Sweden, Denmark, Finland.
MN:    Yeah the first place was Sweden, and we got into this town and the place was closed. There wasn’t a thing in town. I met a guy and he could speak English and he spoke to me, “you with Louis Armstrong?” I says, “hey where is everybody?” He says, “what do you mean?” “I don’t see anybody in the streets, nobody walking, the shops are closing.” He says, “Louis Armstrong’s here.” I said, “what do you mean?” He said, “they closed the whole town,” they were getting prepared to go see Louis at the concert. I swear to God, man. He said, “what do you mean, Louis Armstrong’s here.” I said oh, okay. So anyway it was Sweden, then we went to Denmark, then we were here and we traveled a lot, but it was so rough I’m telling you. Because we were doing not only like we’d play one country here today and then go to the next country, we would play two shows, one in the afternoon and one in the evening and sometimes a second one would even be in a different country.
MR:    Did you ever have any problems with the fact that it was an integrated band racially?
MN:    We were in Texas and we were playing in a place called the Seven something, and we had taken a break and I went outside to get some fresh air, it was very hot in the room even though it was air conditioning, you know it gets hot. So I went outside and while I was sitting like this getting some sun, it got dark and I opened my eyes and I saw about four big Texas guys with the big necks like this, and they said, “hey man.” I said, “yeah?” “How come you play with a nigger band?” I said, “what?” They said, “you heard me.” I said, “what the hell are you talking about, man?” I said, “you know who that is? That’s Louis Armstrong.” “So what?” I said, “what do you mean, so what? Didn’t you pay to come in to see him?” The guy says, “yeah.” I said, “how much did you pay?” I forget, ten dollars? I said, “I’m getting paid to work with him, you’re a bigger jerk than I am, aren’t you?” And just as I said that, Cozy [Cole] was coming out to call me or something, and he heard me say that. He says, “Marty, telephone.” So he came to grab me and he pulled me in. He says, “are you crazy?” I said, “what?” He says, “didn’t you see the size of those guys?” I said, “yeah but did you hear what they said, I mean, come on, Cozy.”
Like many musicians who made their living playing jazz-based music, Marty was mystified by the pop music of the 80s and 90s. The melodic elements and the rhythmic swing that he so loved was missing, and he never lost the belief that there was still a fan base out there, although it was more likely to be overseas.
MN:    I feel sad because you know how I know there’s a market for it? I went to Europe about five years in a row with Peanuts Hucko. We were doing a tribute to Louis Armstrong. We had Peanuts, Trummy Young, Billy Butterfield, Jack Lesberg and Gus Johnson. When I tell you we went to Portugal for one night, and we played opposite a kid who was a local hero, who had a hit record, he was about 23 years old, and he was fantastic. He had all kinds of amplifiers. Three guys they sounded like a whole orchestra. It was great. And he had a hit record and he was from that town, and they loved him. And we had to follow him. So now he breaks it up, I mean completely. Now to introduce us and we come out, and we get [sparse applause]. We started to play “Back Home Again Indiana,” well you never heard anything like that in your whole life. Clomping, Stamping, Cheering, Whistling, “hey you guys are great man.” They went crazy. We tore it up. We had to do four encores, they wouldn’t let us off the stage. I said man this is fantastic. These six old guys come on here and they say what’s going on. I was with the world’s greatest band too, the world’s greatest. Everybody in the band was great. People loved it. They were swinging. I mean when the band is swinging it gets to the people, I don’t care what you say.
Marty possessed excellent recall for details about his musical adventures, and we were fortunate to have captured a lengthy interview with him in New York City in 1999.