I spent the past week tracing the long and vibrant career of
saxophonist Hal McKusick, whose enormous body of work as a leader and sideman speaks volumes about his place in jazz history. During Hal's nearly 70-year career in jazz, he has had a knack for being in the right place at the right time. Much of his good fortune has been the result of hard work, superior talent, a unique sound, unrestrained generosity, and a relentless devotion to the art form.
There's probably a French word for Hal's personality. I know one doesn't exist in English, because I have to push together a bunch of words to capture it. In short, Hal is tough and distinctly aware of how good he is and what he has accomplished. But he's also genuinely humble, soothing, funny and highly aware of other people and their needs—especially if you dig jazz. Yet he isn't overly sensitive or sentimental. He just loves jazz and the joy it brings, pure and simple. You won't find him staring at his own musical reflection or dwelling on his long shadow. He's just a nice guy who knows who he is. And that's what makes Hal so interesting—Hal is an accessible giant.
Over the course of the past five days, Hal was more than generous with his time and candid about his own life and the people he knew. He also was extremely grateful to hear from everyone who sent their regards and was happy to hear that so many readers of this blog had discovered or rediscovered his recordings. When I told him about the emails, Hal's reaction was classic: "Really? Wow, isn't that something. Man, that's beautiful."
For this final installment, Hal reflects on some of the many jazz greats he has known and played with over the years:
Barry Galbraith—"He was one of the most gifted human beings that walked on this earth. Gifted, quiet and never stopped playing. He would play three sessions a day. We did a lot of film and TV commercial dates tougher. If I had a date, I’d always call him first. If Barry couldn’t make it, I’d call Chuck Wayne. And he'd do the same for me. I used to go out to his apartment in Hollis, Queens. He'd call me up and tell me to come over. When I'd get there we'd just play for hours. It was beautiful. I had a knack of laying out melodies in ways he liked and we'd build on them. I’d always go home from Barry's place feeling good. Barry died in 1983. I miss him greatly."
Eddie Costa—"What an unbelievable pianist, not to mention vibraphonist. Eddie's on my album Triple Exposure from 1957. What a player. Wow. And what a shame he died so young. In July 1962, Eddie got into his Volkswagen Bug convertible and drove down Riverside Drive in New York. He must have been driving too fast because when he tried to hook onto the West Side Highway at 72d Street, his front left wheel caught the curb and the car flipped over. He must have died instantly. What a terrible tragedy."
Manny Albam—"He's probably one of the most underrated and unrecognized arrangers in jazz. He wrote for everyone, and his charts were delights. Every one of them. Some of his best works are on my Complete Quartet recordings. Manny loved writing for a small group. Manny, George Handy and Jimmy Giuffre were tops."
Bill Evans—"Bill was always interesting and funny, and his music was always rich. Bill was very soft-spoken. it was always about the music with him—and with all of us, really. That's all we talked about. We did much of our communicating through the music. Bill was clean when he went into Miles' group. I was very surprised when he went Miles' way and got hooked on junk. After that his complexion was never great. I remember in the mid-1950s, Bill and I used to play with Paul Motian in Paul's brownstone apartment near Central Park West. I have a great photo of Bill sitting on a piano bench, cross-legged, listening to me play. Milt Hinton is peering over. Bill wanted to hear what I was playing during one of our rehearsals because he had a line on the piano that went against it."
John Coltrane—"I only knew Trane from the New York, New York session in 1958 for George Russell. The reed section was Trane on tenor, I was on alto and Sol Schlinger was on baritone. Coltrane was an excellent reader and was very serious and very quiet. I find that most people who have something going on don't have a big horn to blow personally."
Dizzy Gillespie—"Playing with Dizzy was a thrill. I played with him in Boyd Raeburn's band in 1944. I also played with his big band at Birdland in the early 1950s. Dizzy's second alto would get sick and call me and say, "Dizzy said he likes you. Will you cover for me?" When I came to that date, I couldn’t wait to play. I could site-read anything. The only problem is I'd turn a page and the whole corner of the chart would be torn off with six or seven bars missing. That was because the musicians who read the band's charts would memorize the arrangement and then, if they met someone on the stand and needed to get in touch, they tear off the corner and jot down their phone number. So when I was reading the chart at Birdland and saw the bars were missing, I just leaned over with my horn—like I was looking at the other side of my chart—and read the first alto's part and harmonize. At the end of the number, Dizzy said in that slow, cool voice of his, 'McKusick can read around corners.' "
Art Farmer—"Art played in my Quintet. I heard Art play in the mid-1950s and his tone knocked me out. He had a big velvet sound. It was like a flugelhorn, but on trumpet. I think someone recommended Art to me. As soon as I heard Art, I said that's a sound I like to hear. He could read and transpose everything. Like Coltrane, he was very soft-spoken. Art practiced like crazy and was way into the music. He was completely smooth, quiet, a great dresser and his playing was impeccable. We never did a lot of takes with the Quintet. Maybe one or two, that's it. These guys were on top of the music. Everyone was thinking music, music, music. If you were bummed out, it didn’t matter. The music took you up. I recall I once had Art come out to Long Island in the 1990s to play as a guest soloist. When it was time for him to go on, he wasn't anywhere to be found. I went looking for him and found him way back behind the curtains sitting there, quietly. I said to him, softly, 'Hey, Art, we’re looking for you.' He looked up and said calmly, 'Great, I’m ready.' Nothing ever rattled him. He was very laid back and very much into his sound."
Dinah Washington—"I played with Dinah on The Swingin' Miss D in 1956. I remember she was heavier than she should have been but she was very happy because she had just gotten married. I know she had a reputation for being difficult, but not with that band. Are you kidding? You had Joe Wilder, Ernie Royal, Charlie Shavers and Clark Terry on trumpets, Jimmy Cleveland and Urbie Green on trombones, Tony Ortega and I were on altos, Lucky Thompson and Jerome Richardson on tenors, Danny Bank on baritone, and Barry Galbraith, Don Elliott and Milt Hinton were on there. And Quincy Jones was the arranger and conductor. The whole session went very neatly and clean. Man, what a date!"
Quincy Jones—"Quincy was always a joy to work with. Back in the mid-1950s, he found a voicing that he liked very much. He'd always have the first flute play the same line of music as the first trumpet, but an octave higher. Recorded properly, it was a very pleasant sound."
JazzWax track: To hear Quincy Jones' voicing with Hal McKusick on flute, take a listen to Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye and But Not for Me from Dinah Washington's The Swingin' Miss D. It's available at iTunes or here. This entire album is beautifully framed by Quincy Jones' writing.
Barry Galbraith on guitar is easy to hear as well. He lays out positively beautiful lines, proving he was as much of a monster in bands as he was in quartets. A perfect mid-50s studio session with some of the best guys in the business reading down the charts and the Queen of the Blues letting loose on ballads and swingers.
JazzWax clip: Here's a clip featuring Art Farmer (and Gerry Mulligan) blowing on Moonlight in Vermont from 1959. Go here.
JazzWax addendum: A special word of thanks to Doug Ramsey, whose blog entry on Hal McKusick back in August (here) was the inspiration for this series (as are all of Doug's blog entries). Also, a thanks to Bob Rusch of Cadence Magazine (here), who pointed me in the right direction.