The last straw for alto saxophonist Hal McKusick and pianist/composer/arranger George Handy came in late 1944, when bandleader Boyd Raeburn took away yet another one of Al Cohn's sax solos and gave it to rising star and alto saxophonist Johnny Bothwell. So Hal and Handy packed up their gear and left the band in Boston.
By this time, Hal had developed a pure alto sound that was as relaxed and laid back as Charlie Parker's sound was edgy and frantic. Having started in music early, Hal had been playing professionally since age 15. By late 1944, he had become a masterful sight-reader. In just two short years, he was a veteran of five major bands—Don Bestor, Les Brown, Dean Hudson, Woody Herman and Boyd Raeburn.
Hal's Raeburn period was especially fortuitous, since he wound up playing with many budding jazz giants of the day, including Oscar Pettiford, Dizzy Gillespie, Bennie Harris, Serge Chaloff [pictured], Al Cohn and Trummy Young. With his band chops and reputation firmly established in late 1944, Hal was ready for a change.
Here's more from my phone interview with the 83-year-old Hal:
"The day George Handy and I left Boyd in Boston, we flew into New York’s LaGuardia airport and were taking a cab to his home in Brooklyn. In the cab, George was going on and on about how great the West Coast was. He had already been at Paramount Pictures but had gotten bored and came back to New York to write arrangements for the Herbie Fields band and for Boyd.
As we’re driving on Eastern Parkway, George said we should go to California. I said great. So he leans forward in the cab and tells the driver to turn around. We went back to LaGuardia and flew out to Los Angeles that afternoon.
Why didn't Al Cohn leave Boyd's band at the same time? Al moved quietly. He loved playing in that band, and he just swallowed the fact that Boyd was taking his solos away. But he left soon afterward.
When George and I arrived in Los Angeles, George started writing arrangements almost immediately for Artie Shaw [pictured]. We moved into a hotel and were there for about a month before finding our own apartments.
For the next few months I played club dates and put together a band with Stan Getz. I rejoined Boyd's band for a period in 1945 but late in the year, I quit to join Alvino Rey [pictured], a steel guitarist with a double-brass big band. Rey was an electronics genius. He hooked up this device that fit on the throat of his girl singer. She would go behind the bandstand and mouth words that would come out of his steel guitar.
I was on the road with Rey for six months and then quit his band. I wanted to get back to Hollywood. From 1946 to 1948, I played what they used to call “casuals.” These were pickup gigs. Jazz musicians would hang out on Vine Street and get together to work in nearby clubs. I jammed at the Key Club with virtually everyone who was out there at the time. Chet Baker [pictured] was out there, too. He was maybe 16 years old and could play even then. In the 1970s when I played in New York, I saw him sitting in the back and asked him to come up and play or sing. He just said softly, "No, no, I'm OK, I'm OK." He was a very gentle guy.
During this period in Hollywood I played regularly with Johnny Otis [pictured], a white drummer who had long hair and looked like Tarzan. He was hard driving and went on to become one of the most prominent guys in rhythm and blues. At the time we were the only two white guys in this band that played regularly at the Club Alabam on Central Avenue. There would be a fashion show on Sundays, and Lena Horne would sing with us. I had to join both the black and white unions.
By 1948 I was tiring of the Hollywood scene and wanted to get back to New York. So I joined Buddy Rich’s [pictured] band at the Palladium in Hollywood. He was going out on tour and finishing up in New York. Dizzy Gillespie's band was hot then, and Buddy wanted a bop arranger.
I knew Jimmy Giuffre [pictured]could write those types of charts backward and forward. But when I asked Jimmy to come on, he turned me down. This was before he joined Woody Herman and became huge. He said he was working at J.C. Penney and was hoping to earn $5,000 a year within five years. It sounds funny now, considering it's Jimmy, but he and his family were just eking out a living then.
By the time Buddy's band had reached northern California, we were desperate. So I called Jimmy again. I said he could write Buddy's entire book if he wanted to. I told him I'd even stay up all night with him copying his charts for the band. He finally gave in and told me to wire him money. He joined us in the Northwest. Warne Marsh [pictured] was in that band, too, playing alto parts on his tenor.
We went across Canada doing one-nighters and came back into the U.S. through Niagara Falls and then down into New York City. We went into the Clique Club on 52d Street and Broadway. A year later the club was renamed Birdland.
In mid-1948, Lee Konitz gave notice in the Claude Thornhill [pictured] band. He was going to play in Miles Davis' Birth of the Cool band. After he left, Claude replaced him with a few different alto saxophonists. Then I got an audition with Claude in late 1948. So I went to Nola Studios across from Carnegie Hall and brought my horn. Claude didn’t ask me to audition with the band. He sat down at the piano and played, and I blew with him. When we were done, he asked if I could leave on Friday. That's how I started with Claude.
Claude's charts could be both complex and soft. I remember one night we were playing this number called the Easy Living Medley. It was slow and went on forever, with Easy Living and other tunes built in. Billy Exner was the band's drummer, and he used to play with his eyes closed. Billy used the brushes on this tune, and when we came to the end of it on this night, Billy was still playing the brushes. He had fallen half asleep.
So Claude puts his finger to his lips so we wouldn't wake Billy. Claude called another tune with the same beat, and we just started playing again in time with Billy's brushes. Then Claude kicked up the tempo and volume, and Billy woke up with a jolt and started swinging without missing a beat. It was so funny.
Claude was a highly intelligent guy but very quiet. He kept his emotions to himself. You never knew if he felt good or bad. One time when were touring just across the border in Mexico, the band was staying at this beautiful hotel. Just as I got out of my clothes and climbed into bed after playing with the band, I heard pebbles hit my window. I went to the glass and saw Claude down in the courtyard near the fountain.
Claude was beckoning for me to come down. He was used his hands to say I should bring my horn. When I got downstairs, Claude took me to this bar he had found where there was a rinky-dink piano. Claude sat down, and we played until 3 or 4 am. I don't think the people in there cared one way or the other. Claude was like that. He loved to play. It didn’t matter where or at what hour.
Claude had this tenor saxophonist named Johnny Andrews who was an amazing musician. He could play like Bird, but on tenor. Now Claude was very disciplined. He wouldn’t’ stand for guys on junk. I was always clean, my entire life. I smoked cigarettes and that was dumb enough. But so many guys went on junk and somehow were able to play. I never understood how that was possible.
At any rate, Andrews wasn’t using but he had a bad reputation—bad enough that Claude was worried. So late one night, in the middle of Iowa, I’m driving one of the new cars Claude had bought for the band. Andrews was in the back seat asleep. All of a sudden, headlights came up behind me and started blinking. It was Claude’s Chrysler. I recognized the grille. So I pulled over.
Claude got out of his car and walked around to the passenger side and tapped on the window, pointing at my keys. So I turned off the ignition and gave them to him. Claude opened the trunk, took out Andrews' things. Then he tapped on the passenger side where Andrews was sleeping. Andrews got out of the car, in the middle of nowhere. And that was the last I saw of him. I think he eventually left the music business and became a repairman someplace. Claude was like that.
Eventually the work stopped for Claude's band. When we returned to New York in 1950, Johnny Mandel and Al Cohn, who had been with me in Boyd’s band, asked me to join Elliot Lawrence’s band. So I left Claude and was with Lawrence for five years before gong out on my own to record.
Elliot had one of the most underrated bands of the early 1950s. The guys that passed through there were amazing—Bernie Glow, Eddie Bert, Charlie O’Kane, Ernie Royal, Urbie Green, Fred Zito, Billy Byers, Zoot Sims and Don Lamond. The charts were written by Mandel, Cohn and Tiny Kahn. Sensational stuff.
Elliot's band was a turning point for me in many ways."
Tomorrow I'll have Part 3 of my interview with Hal McKusick, with a focus on tenor saxophonist and longtime bandmate Al Cohn.
JazzWax tracks: Hal's period with Thornhill is captured on Claude Thornhill: 1949-53 Performances and can be found here. Hal's years with Elliot Lawrence are well documented on two stunning CDs that are musts for anyone who loves big bands. They are Elliot Lawrence Plays Gerry Mulligan Arrangements, which you can find here, and The Elliot Lawrence Big Band Swings Cohn and Kahn, which is here.
JazzWax videoclips: There isn't much of Claude Thornhill's on YouTube, except an oddity here called Count Me In from before Hal's time.
And here's the Elliot Lawrence band in a still shot from April 1949, with a recording of the band playing Gerry Mulligan's Elevation in the background.This photo and recording are from just before Hal joined the band but they will give you a sense of Lawrence's sound.