A teenage passion for jazz pushed Eddie Bert to ask band legends Benny Morten and Trummy Young for trombone lessons. The two veteran trombonists were only too happy to lend a hand, and by late 1941, at age 19, Eddie was playing with Red Norvo.
But 24 hours after his first gig with Norvo, Pearl Harbor was bombed and World War II began. As the months wore on, the draft began to eat into bands. Then in the late summer of1942, the powerful musicians' union prohibited all of its members from making records in a brash standoff with the record labels over a range of new, threatening technologies.
By the end of 1942, Norvo folded his band, and Eddie was looking for full-time band work.
In Part 2 of my interview with Eddie Bert, he talks about his experiences with Charlie Barnet and Woody Herman, his two years stateside in the army performing for soldiers, the 1945 Town Hall Concert for Commodore Records and his work with Stan Kenton, Miles Davis and Benny Goodman between 1947 and 1949:
"Around late 1942 I needed a job. I had a chance to go with Harry James’ band but turned him down. The music was too schmaltzy. When Charlie Barnet asked me in May 1943, I thought that would be better.
We played a month at the Park Central Hotel near Carnegie Hall. Dizzy Gillespie used to come by and we became friends. He asked me, Trummy Young and Danny Bank to come up to his house where he showed us all the bop changes he was coming up with. We dug it.
While Barnet was at the Park Central, Tommy Dorsey came in to see the band. Dorsey asked me to join his orchestra, but before I could object he asked me to at least come up his room at the Hotel Astor to hear him out. I really didn’t want to play in his band. What does a trombonist play with Dorsey? Nothing. The guy's always going to be the lead trombone.
But I wanted to see his room at the Astor, which was a swanky place. When I got up to his room, I was surprised. It looked pretty ordinary. Dorsey handed me a contract. I looked it over and saw that it said I was guaranteed work for only 32 weeks of the year. I thought to myself, finally I have a way to get out of signing.
'What about the other weeks?' I asked. Dorsey said he’d find work for the band. I said, 'Forget about it,' and left. I also knew Dorsey was a pain. Vibraphonist Terry Gibbs told me he had played one set with Tommy in California and gave Tommy notice. Tommy said no one quits on him, adding that Terry was fired. Terry said, 'Great, if you’re firing me, you owe me two weeks salary and my transportation home.' Tommy quickly told Terry, 'No, no, you quit!' Dorsey was cheap.
In 1943, bassist Chubby Jackson and I were friends from Barnet's band. Chubby had just joined Woody Herman and said that a new thing was happening in music in Woody's band and that I should join. Chubby also said Woody would give me more bread. I told Chubby it sounded good to me.
Soon afterward I got a telegram from Woody while I was with Barnet at the Royal Theater in Baltimore asking me to join the band in Washington, D.C. I gave Charlie two weeks' notice and joined Woody.
Woody was great in front of a band. He knew how to run an orchestra that had terrific players. The band had trumpeters Ray Wetzel and Cappy Lewis, tenor saxophonist Allen Eager, alto saxophonist Johnny Bothwell and vocalist Frances Wayne, and tenor saxophonist Ben Webster sat in.
Woody was real relaxed—not like Benny Goodman or Tommy Dorsey, who were very uptight. Woody just let the guys in the band blow.
Then in January 1944, I was drafted. I took basic training down South, and afterward they sent me to a special camp in Alabama for entertainers. Cappy Lewis, who also had been drafted, got me a place working at a Virginia military hospital.
Then I was transferred to Camp Lee in Virginia, where I met pianist Jimmy Rowles. Finally I was transferred to Camp Shanks in Orangeburg, N.Y. It was about a half-hour's drive north of New York City, on the other side of the Hudson River. Camp Shanks was an embarkation point for soldiers going to Europe and coming back. We were there to entertain them and raise their morale.
The orchestra at the camp was led by arranger Bill Finegan. The weird thing was that no one was in charge of us. We had a barracks with houses on two ends where we'd sleep. We would perform daily in a revue at Victory Hall, which had a couple of hundred seats. But there were no officers who told us what to do.
Jo Stafford and Ethel Merman performed, we had a dog act, Jackie Paris sang, Vincente Gomez played classical Spanish guitar, and many other entertainers appeared with us.
During 1945, me and Shorty were still in the army but we’d play concerts in uniform, since we were so close to New York. In June, we played with Red Norvo at New York’s Town Hall. Red's band included me, Shorty, Aaron Sachs on clarinet, Flip Phillips on tenor, Red on vibes and xylophone, Teddy Wilson on piano, Remo Palmieri on guitar, Slam Stewart on bass and Specs Powell on drums. That was a great group.
The concert was put on by producer Timme Rosenkrantz and recorded by Commodore. Also on the bill was Gene Krupa, Billy Taylor, Stuff Smith, Bill Coleman and Don Byas.
In 1946, when I got out of the Army, I joined Herbie Fields’ band—which had Neal Hefti on trumpet and Manny Albam on baritone—guys who went on to become great arrangers. One day I ran into trombonist Kai Winding. He said he wasn’t going back to Stan Kenton’s band. So I wrote Stan about joining. Stan wired me to come out to California.
I joined Kenton in September 1947. It was my first trip to California. But as soon as I got out there, I hated it and wanted to return to New York. The whole scene wasn’t real. Shorty was already there and wanted me to stay at his house while I worked off my union card.
Back then, the union wouldn't let you play in clubs for six months right after you got to California. The rule kept new guys from coming in and taking away other guys' jobs. Joining nationally touring bands was different. So you'd usually join a band and wait six months before gigging locally.
But I just wanted to get out of there. I went out on tour with Kenton, who was heading for New York. Pete Rugolo was arranging for the band then. He'd rehearse us for hours before Stan would come in to join us. The beautiful thing about Pete is he knew how to arrange for trombones and all of the instruments. He knew how the trombone worked and where the best positions were. Those charts were still hard to read, but we made it.
Stan was pretty rigid about what he wanted out of the band. On the tour, we played at the Mankato Ballroom in Mankato, Minnesota. Usually, the band was spread out to look like a bigger act. But the stage at the ballroom was small, so we were virtually touching elbows. Being close together, the band's energy level was very high, and we started to swing. Stan stopped the band and said, 'This isn’t Basie. This is Stan Kenton.' Stan didn't know anything about swing. He had a very special sound that he wanted.
I roomed with Art Pepper on that tour. Wow, was he unpredictable. The guy was very taken with himself and wanted to be the greatest alto player in the world. He even had acetates of his playing to listen to on the road. He was a smart guy who unfortunately got hung up on drugs young. But he had a great sound and great jazz ideas.
I think the best solo I played with Kenton during that period was on How High the Moon, with vocalist June Christy. We recorded it for Capitol on December 21, 1947 after we got back to New York, before the second AFM [American Federation of Musicians] recording ban in 1948.
June was a real hip chick—and she had a great voice. She was a pro. June was married to tenor saxophonist Bob Cooper and got along great with the guys in the band.
I left Stan in early 1948 and played a bunch of different gigs in New York, including a session with singer Frankie Laine. I recorded behind him on his hit, Rosetta, with Carl Fischer’s Orchestra. I didn’t’ really like the way Laine sang. He didn’t sing like Frank Sinatra or Billy Eckstine. Laine was kind of a rough singer. Buck Clayton was on that date. We were friends. I had recorded with Buck in Horace Henderson's small group while I was still in the army.
Later in 1948 I began rehearsing with eight guys Miles Davis put together at the Nola Studios near Broadway. We rehearsed together four times. Then one day I came in and they told me Kai Winding would be playing trombone, not me.
It turned out to be Miles' 'Birth of the Cool' band. I never understood why I had been bumped. Some 20 years later I ran into Junior Collins, the French hornist who played in the group. He asked me, 'Hey, did they ever tell you what I told Miles you said?' 'No, what did you say?' I asked. Junior said, 'I told Miles you said the band was out of tune.'
I couldn’t believe it. I told Junior, 'But I never said anything like that—why would you say something like that?' He said, “I don't know. It was getting boring.'
Yeah, boring. That was some joke. It kept me off what would become a great recording date. But that’s how some guys were back then.
Funny enough, everything worked out for the best. When I walked out of the studio room after Miles put in Kai, I went over to the next studio to see who was there. When I looked inside, there was Benny Goodman rehearsing what would become his 'Undercurrent Blues' bop band with Chico O’Farrill’s great arrangements. Benny remembered me from Red Norvo’s band, so he added me to the band.
In truth, Benny wasn’t really comfortable playing bop. When you’d solo, he’d be playing behind you trying to figure out what you were doing. Everything on the date would wind up sounding like a clarinet.
Benny was slow to understand bebop. After he moved out to California in 1948, he got to know Wardell Gray and saw things differently. Benny also liked the Swedish bop clarinetist, Stan Hasselgard, and took him under his wing. He signed both Wardell and Stan to his bop group.
Benny really dug Stan. I was at a rehearsal with the band in late November 1948 when Benny got a call telling him Stan had died in an auto accident in Illinois. Benny went white and canceled the rehearsal.
Benny was a weird guy. When the bop band went out to California in early 1949, he said we’d be out there for six months. So some of the guys sublet their apartments in New York. We played the Hollywood Palladium for a month in March and some other Hollywood dates in April.
Then Benny said he was going fishing up at Lake Mead near Las Vegas and that the band would have off for a couple of weeks. I asked Benny, 'What about our salary for those weeks?' Benny said he’d give us a record date to hold us over until he got back.
Benny had a rep for leaving guys hanging. All he thought about was his clarinet. I remember we were working at the Waldorf Hotel in New York and he didn’t like how one of the guys in the sax section was playing. So he grabbed the guy’s horn and told him not to play. That was rough for the guy. Another time Budd Johnson was late for rehearsal and Benny wouldn’t let him play a solo.
By the end of 1949, I was tired of playing with Benny. It was time to move on."
Tomorrow, in Part 3 of my interview with Eddie Bert, he talks about his recordings with Charlie Parker, Artie Shaw, Woody Herman's Capitol band, trombonist Bill Harris' odd obsession with a movie theme song, Eddie's Latin-jazz dates with Chico O'Farrill, Rudy Van Gelder's fetish for white gloves, and what prevented Eddie from becoming J.J. Johnson's trombone partner instead of Kai Winding.
JazzWax tracks: Eddie Bert spent part of 1943 in Charlie Barnet's band. An example of Eddie with Barnet can be heard on The Moose, which is available at iTunes under Barnet's name.
Eddie also recorded a series of radio transcriptions for Woody Herman's band in late 1943 and early 1944. You can find most of the tracks from these sessions on the LP, Woody Herman: The Turning Point (1943-1944). The Decca Jazz Heritage Series LP recently was available here at eBay for about $10.
Eddie at the 1945 Town Hall Concert can be found here, on two Atlantic LPs called The Commodore Years: Town Hall Jazz Concert 1945.
Frankie Laine's recording of Rosetta with Eddie Bert can be found here, on a $7.35 CD import, Frankie Laine: Original Studio Transcriptions.
Eddie's brash key-modulating solo on How High the Moon with Stan Kenton in 1947 can be found at iTunes. You'll find it under June Christy's Tampico: The Classic Years of June Christy. (Click on the track to sample it and you'll hear the start of Eddie's solo, just after June stops singing.)
Eddie's Capitol studio dates with Benny Goodman's bop band can be found here on Benny Goodman: Undercurrent Blues.
In addition to Benny's Capitol sessions, Eddie appeared with the Goodman band during a series of radio broadcasts from the Hollywood Palladium in March 1949. I have nearly all of these broadcasts on two CDs made for me by a friend, Ivan Acosta, from a private collection.
Admittedly, there isn't much variation from one live broadcast to the next—Benny was a ruthless perfectionist. So if you own one of the dates, you pretty much own them all. You will find some of these Hollywood broadcasts here and here, on Benny's Bop, Volume 1 and Volume 2.
The good news is that Benny's Bop Volume 1—perhaps the best compilation of Benny's bop band—is at iTunes. Be sure to check out Mary's Idea (Mary Lou Wiliams) and Eddie Bert's pedal-to-the metal solo on Undercurrent Blues.
JazzWax flick pick: Eddie Bert can be seen with the Charlie Barnet band playing Cherokee in Jam Session, a 74-minute film released in 1944. The film (details here) turns up from time to time on the Turner Classic Movie channel.