Few alto saxophonists alive today have seen and played as much jazz as Hal McKusick. His first paying job was in 1939, at age 15. Then, starting in 1943, he played alto in many of the most challenging bands of the time—from Les Brown, Woody Herman and Boyd Raeburn to Claude Thornhill and Elliot Lawrence.
Hal also played with virtually every major jazz great—including Art Farmer, Al Cohn, Bill Evans, Eddie Costa, Paul Chambers, Connie Kay, Barry Galbraith and John Coltrane.
What made and makes Hal significant is the purity of his sound and his ability to handle and swing the most complex arrangements. Even Charlie Parker in 1945 was wowed by Hal's feathery tone. And Lee Konitz and Paul Desmond surely must have been taken with Hal, since they seemingly adapted virtually the same delicate, melodic phrasing that Hal pioneered.
I spoke with Hal by phone last week and, interestingly, his voice and personality are strikingly similar to the sound of his horn—calming and lyrical yet firmly in command.
These days, many jazz listeners are unfamiliar with Hal McKusick's name or his music, which is a shame. That probably owes something to the fact that Hal spent 1958 through 1972 with the CBS Staff Orchestra doing studio work for popular television shows of the time. Today, Hal performs selectively and teaches at a local private school, where he writes and arranges for the student band.
Back in the 1940s and 1950s, Hal had a sound all his own and one that was much in demand. During this period, altos with a distinct sound included Parker, Benny Carter, Johnny Hodges, Art Pepper, Lee Konitz, Paul Desmond, Phil Woods, Jackie McLean, Cannonball Adderley and Hal McKusick—and that's not an overstatement.
To understand Hal's significance, you have to look at his rapid rise and strong relationships early on with many of jazz's most influential players. Hal was born in 1924, in Medford, Mass., and his story is remarkable. Let Hal tell it:
"When I was young, my family moved from Medford to Newton, where my father managed Noble's Milk Farm. While my dad ran the farm, we bred and raised horses. When I was 8, my mother asked me what I wanted for a Christmas present. I said a clarinet. She agreed to buy one only if I promised to practice seven days a week and take a lesson once a week. I promised. [Pictured: Franklin Park in Medford, MA.]
When she gave me that instrument, I wouldn't let it go. I practiced for hours and was really fortunate to have a terrific teacher at school—Frank Tanner. He used me in the school band to play clarinet and alto at age 9. For some reason I caught onto reading music very quickly.
When I was 15 years old, I played at the Old Howard Theater in Scollay Square in Boston. It was a big burlesque house back in the late 1930s. That same year I formed my own band, and we played a bar-club in Dorchester backing a guy whose act consisted of shooting cigarettes out of his wife's mouth as she stood sideways. She had an indentation between her eyes caused by a grazed bullet. He'd also throw knives at her while she stood against a board, with the knives landing around her outline.
One night, the guy's wife got sick. So he offered me an extra $5 to stand in for her. That was more money than I was making playing on the job, so I said sure. He said he wouldn't use the pistol, he'd just use the knives. He said he'd blindfold me so I wouldn't flinch. [Pictured: Boston's Scollay Square]
So he covered my eyes and stood me up against the board. He was wired but he was steady so I trusted him. What did I know at 15? So he starts throwing the knives at me and just then, my mother showed up to get me. She never allowed me to go back there again. She must have freaked out seeing those knives fly at my head.
My first big-band break was in 1942 with Don Bestor [pictured], who had a handful of hits in the 1930s and backed up Jack Benny on the radio. We toured on the road that summer when Bestor wasn't playing with Benny.
Don retired in early 1943, but because he liked my playing so much he made an appointment for me to see Joe Glaser in New York. Glaser was a huge music agent and Louis Armstrong's manager. So I took the train from Boston to New York and sat in Glaser's waiting area from 10 am to 5 pm.
Finally Glaser came out and said, "What are you doing here?" I said "I have an appointment with you." He asked what I played. I told him alto sax. He asked if I had my horn. I said I did. He went back into his office and came out with Don Kramer, Les Brown's manager. Don asked if I had time to go over to Newark, N.J., to the Adams Theater to audition. I said I did. So off I went. [Pictured: Louis Armstrong and Joe Glaser]
When I got there, Les Brown's [pictured] band came off the stage, and I went down into the basement with the sax section to audition. The guy who was leaving was the second alto player—Hank D'Amico, who was going into the service or into Benny Goodman's band, I can't recall exactly.
I auditioned for Les, he liked they way I played, and I got the job on the spot. I was 18. I was with Les for about six months, into mid-1943. That's when I received my draft notice. I left the band in Chicago and took the train to Boston. When I got to the draft office there, they gave me a choice of going into the Army immediately or waiting to be called later for the infantry. I decided to take my chances by deferring until the next round. Eventually I was able to do my service in a band entertaining troops in the U.S.
By the time I wrapped up the draft issue, Les Brown was in California, and I got a nice offer to be lead alto in Dean Hudson's band and to write charts. I stayed with Hudson for a few months until Woody Herman needed an alto.
I joined Woody's band around Christmas and was with him for two or three months into 1944. Then alto saxophonist Johnny Bothwell called me to join Boyd Raeburn. Bothwell had been in Woody's band and liked my sound. So I left Woody just when Allen Eager was being replaced by Ben Webster.
I joined Raeburn [pictured] at the Lincoln Hotel in New York. Raeburn was far out. His band was probably one of the best orchestras in the mid-1940s . Man, what a band. Dizzy Gillespie was there. So was Benny Harris, Al Cohn, Serge Chaloff, Trummy Young, Tadd Dameron and Don Lamond. The arrangers were Johnny Mandel, George Handy and Johnny Richards. We were the first to record Dizzy's A Night in Tunisia. It was beautiful playing with those guys.
Oscar Pettiford [pictured] also was in the band. We were roommates on the road. He was a great guy but was tough to handle when he drank, and he drank often. Benny Harris and I had to hold him down many times. Oscar was way into the music, and we shared a lot of it together. He was a good buddy. I was very taken with his playing and honored to share private time with him. We'd talk music. It was so sad how he died. He loved riding his bike, and one day in 1960 he was riding stoned and hit a curb in Copenhagen. He went over the handlebars and never recovered.
Raeburn was way ahead of his time. He wasn't much of a player on the tenor, baritone or bass saxes, with the last one largely for show. But he enjoyed music and brought together an amazing group of musicians.
Boyd was friendly but there was an edge. I think he recognized his failings as a musician. He wasn't really a top player. He always ran out of money and work. And then there was that fire at Palisades Amusement Park in Jersey in August 1944 that burned up many of his charts. That was tough.
After the fire, things started to turn with Raeburn. We were at the Raymore-Playmore Ballroom in Boston before Christmas in 1944. Al Cohn was in the band then. I loved Al's playing but he was losing all his solos to Johnny Bothwell, and that didn't make me happy. So I split from the band with pianist George Handy [pictured] right after a performance. The two of us went out to California, and that was the start of a new life for me.
Raeburn called in mid-1945 to ask me to rejoin in the band. He said Johnny Bothwell was no longer in the band and that he wanted me to take the solo spot. So in May 1945, I rejoined the band for five months.
During this period, Raeburn was dating his vocalist, Ginnie Powell [pictured]. She was beautiful, and they had a stormy relationship. Once she left him for another band and was rumored to be having an affair. When she came back to Raeburn's band, Boyd roughed her up at the hotel. After that, the two of them were back together as if nothing had ever happened and they eventually married.
Not too longer after we were in Hollywood recording V-Discs—those records made by the government for soldiers overseas. Dizzy, Bird, Milt Jackson and Stan Levey were there recording, too. I was playing a ballad for alto that George Handy and I had written. A beautiful orchestration.
I was playing with my eyes closed and when I was done, I opened them and there was Charlie Parker sitting right in front of me. He had just come out to California. Bird said, 'Oh man, man, jeeze, what a sound, what a sound!' I was blown away. I said to him, 'Do you realize what you're saying?' I had heard everything he had recorded up until that point, which wasn't a lot. What he said to me that day was so inspiring. Afterward, I used to go to Billy Berg's on Vine Street to hear him and Dizzy every night. He was incredible out there."
Tomorrow, I'll have more of my interview with Hal on his band days with Claude Thornhill, the quirky humor of Al Cohn, a critical meeting with George Russell in a Greenwich Village shop, working with Bill Evans, Art Farmer and others.
JazzWax tracks: In 1944, Boyd Raeburn's band was ahead of Stan Kenton's when it came to experimenting with jazz and roaring band arrangements. Raeburn's charts were complex, textured swingers, and his sound was for listening and marveling rather than for dancing, which is probably why the orchestra never caught on with the buying public.
As a side note, Chet Baker's brilliantly sentimental recording of Forgetful is nearly a direct lift from the version recorded by Raeburn's vocalist, David Allyn, in 1945.
Raeburn's 1944-45 band—featuring Hal McKusick and many of the top musicians mentioned above—can be found on many excellent CDs here. Among the best ones are Jewells (Savoy) and Boyd Raeburn: 1944-45 (Circle). Jewells is available at iTunes for $11.99.
JazzWax video clips: There are two interesting Boyd Raeburn clips on the web. One is here and features vocalist Ginny Powell. The other is a bio clip that will give you a full sense of why Raeburn was so important to the development of jazz. It can be found here.