I spent much of this week looking at the career and recordings of one of my favorite trombonists, Eddie Bert—who will be appearing tonight at Swing46 (349 W. 46th St. in New York's theater district) at 8:30.
Up until today, I've focused on Eddie's prolific career in the big bands of the 1940s. But in 1952, Eddie's talent had outgrown the limitations of large orchestras. With the number of big bands shrinking and the demand for small-group jazz rising among record labels eager to fill the new 10-inch album format, Eddie started to branch out.
Eddie's small group work in the early 1950s is remarkable. His tone was warm and his ideas tasteful and compelling. His solo work was crisp and clean, and he sustained notes as if drawing them through honey.
In Part 4 of my interview with Eddie, he talks about his most significant small-group dates between 1952 and 1955:
"After recording with Chico O'Farrill's orchestra in 1951, I wanted to play and record more with small groups. I continued to record on big band sessions, but more small group opportunities were coming up. Back then, if you got a date for a small label, they left you alone. I had more freedom to explore what I wanted to do.
In early March 1952 I recorded New Faces, New Sounds with the Gil Melle Sextet. Gil was on tenor sax, I was on trombone, Joe Manning on vibes, Max Roach on drums, Red Mitchell on bass and George Wallington on piano.
Gil worked a lot of gigs around New York and New Jersey back then. He also was an artist who created many famous jazz album covers. Later he moved to California to compose for the movies and TV—he wrote the Columbo theme. He wound up living in Malibu and getting rich out there.
On that spring date for Blue Note, we recorded Four Moons, The Gears, Mars and Sunset Concerto. After recording, I figured if Gil could lead a session, so could I. I had tunes and arrangements, too.
So I went to Jack Bergman at Discovery Records and told him that I used to room with Art Pepper. Art had recorded for Discovery. Bergman gave me a date right off the bat. I recorded as the leader in late March with Harrry Biss on piano, Sal Salvador on guitar, Clyde Lombardi on bass and Frank Isola on drums. The album was The Eddie Bert Quintet.
My second date as a leader for Discovery was in June 1953. The album was Kaleidoscope, and the group featured Duke Jordan on piano, Sal Salvador, Clyde Lombardi on bass and Mel Zelnick on drums. I also recorded in July with Vinnie Dean on alto sax, Duke Jordan, Clyde Lombardi and Art Mardigan on drums.
In January 1953, Gil Melle, me, guitarist Tal Farlow, Clyde Lombardi and drummer Joe Morello went out to Rudy Van Gelder’s house in Hackensack, N.J., to record additional sides for Blue Note. Rudy used to make holes in the wall for wires. His wife eventually told him he had to take the studio someplace else, which is why he moved to Englewood Cliffs.
I liked Rudy’s Hackensack studio better. The studio was in the living room, and it was a relaxed setting. But you couldn’t’ touch anything. Rudy would walk around with white gloves and handle the mikes, wires and equipment. He was kind of weird like that. He had his own ways. You couldn’t touch anything. You’d have to wait until he moved it. Rudy had those quirks but he always got the effect he wanted. However he did it, he did it.
In August 1954, J.J. Johnson was doing a date for Savoy and wanted me to play with him. But Jack Bergman at Discovery wouldn’t let me out of my contract. So J.J. asked Kai. The record they made wound up being Jay & Kai, which kicked off their duet career. That was a drag, but what are you going to do?
Then in November 1954 I played on a record date led by Coleman Hawkins. Hawk was on tenor, Emmet Berry on trumpet, me on trombone, Billy Taylor on piano, Milt Hinton on bass and Jo Jones on drums. Everyone dug Hawk. He was his own guy. He started playing the sax when there was nobody to listen to. He had to make his own style.
When we recorded, Hawk had just come off the plane from Europe, and his horn had been shipped back. It was cold stiff, and he had to oil it in the studio, which took time. Hawk also didn’t have any charts for us.
The producer on the date was getting nervous. He said, 'What's going on? You don’t have any charts and you haven’t recorded for 45 minutes.' So Hawk picked up his horn, and we played the date—without music. We just used head charts—meaning the music was all in our heads. We all knew what to do, and we got the session done in three hours.
When I got home from that session, my feet were tingling. I wasn’t feeling well and turned out to have a temperature of 104. Even though I felt terrible, I wasn’t about to walk out on that recording date. I did it sick.
The album was Timeless Jazz, and when it came out, it got great reviews. Not long after I ran into drummer Eddie Locke, who used to work with Hawk. Eddie told me Hawk said Timeless Jazz was really Eddie Bert’s date. Man, I wished Hawk had told me that himself.
In 1955, I won Metronome magazine's Musician of the Year. Savoy’s head of A&R, Ozzie Cadena, called and asked if I wanted to do a date with two trombones. ‘Who’s the other trombone?’ I asked. He said, ‘You. We’re going to overdub you.’ So I taught myself how to overdub and showed Rudy Van Gelder how I'd do it—playing the straight line first and then recording a second track over it that harmonized with the straight line.
The album was Musician of the Year and was recorded in May 1955 with Hank Jones on piano, Wendell Marshall on bass and Kenny Clarke on drums. When the album came out, Jimmy Cleveland took a blindfold test and said it was J.J. and Kai at their best. That was funny.
In October 1955, I recorded with Gigi Gryce’s Orchestra. Talk about a band—Art Farmer was on trumpet, I was on trombone, Julius Watkins on French horn, Bill Barber on tuba, Gigi on alto, Cecil Payne on baritone, Horace Silver on piano, Oscar Pettiford on bass, Art Blakey on drums and Ernestine Anderson was the vocalist. This was the model Oscar would use for his big band. The album was Gigi's Nica's Tempo.
It's too bad about Cecil's passing last week. He was great. I worked with him a lot. He was quiet. He had his own thing. He played light. Everyone else pounded down on the baritone. He floated. He played like he was dancing.
Gigi's Social Call was one of the tracks we recorded on that date. It’s a real pretty song. The beauty of it is you can blow it up or down [fast or slow]. Gigi wrote a lot of tunes and tried to publish them. But things got all mixed up about who gets paid. He finally got disgusted with the business and left the scene. He was a great arranger but didn’t get the money he should have for his tunes.
In December 1955 I recorded Mingus at the Bohemia. I first met Charlie when I was working with Benny Goodman in the mid 1940s. Charlie was working in San Francisco. The next time I saw him he was in Red Norvo’s trio with Tal Farlow in 1950.
Charlie's personality changed after a dumb problem over a TV appearance in the early 1950s. I was there taking pictures when it happened. Mingus was with with Red and Tal and they were going to play a TV show. But Charlie wasn’t a member of Local 802. I don’t think he ever joined.
The union rep wouldn’t let him play on the show. Red said to the rep during rehearsals, ‘What do you mean he can’t play? He’s my bass player. He’s part of my trio. I have to have Mingus.’ The guy from Local 802 said no way. So Red had to hire Clyde Lombardi for the date. It was a drag for Charlie, but it pushed him in new directions.
In 1955, before we did Mingus at the Bohemia, tenor saxophonist George Barrow and I went over to Charlie’s house and Charlie played the stuff he wanted to hear on the piano. Charlie told everyone to learn the music by heart and said, 'Play it in your style. If I write it down you’ll play it different.’
The whole Mingus at the Bohemia date was like that. Charlie was a great musician and leader. He’d open the window at rehearsal and tell us, ‘You hear that sound out there? Imitate it.’ Charlie and I got along. He knew I wanted to interpret his music and that I understood it.
During the early 1950s, I had been with many big bands and small groups but couldn’t break into the New York scene. There was a clique of musicians who recorded all the time. Most of the leaders had me pegged for a roadie—someone who was always going out on the road. They figured I’d get a touring gig and split, leaving them hanging. So they didn’t hire me to play as often as I would have liked.
So I went to the Manhattan School of Music part time on the GI Bill starting in 1952 and graduated in 1957 with bachelor and masters degrees. This type of training gave me a more schooled approach and helped me break into studio recording sessions in the late 1950s and 1960s."
Eddie is off to London later this week. When he returns, we'll talk about his late 1950s dates and the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis band of 1969 and 1970, which recorded Central Park North and Consummation.
JazzWax tracks: Eddie Bert's recordings with the Gil Melle Sextet on CD are here on a copy of the original 10-inch record for about $30. They're also available here on a used two-CD set, Gil Melle: Complete Blue Note 50's Sessions (Thanks Jim!). To learn more about Gil Melle and his jazz album covers, go here.
Kaleidoscope is available on CD and can be found here from Fresh Sound.
Timeless Jazz—the date Coleman Hawkins said was really Eddie Bert's—can be found here on the CD, Coleman Hawkins and His All Stars from Fresh Sound.
Eddie's overdubbed album, Musician of the Year, can be found here as a used CD or here on a two-CD set called Crosstown. I strongly recommend Crosstown, since you'll get not only Musician of the Year but all of Eddie's recordings from the period with Hank Jones, including those with tenor saxophonist J.R. Monterose. Every track on the album is drop-dead great.
Eddie's recordings with the Gigi Gryce Orchestra are on Nica's Tempo (Savoy). It's available here and at iTunes.
Mingus at the Bohemia featuring Eddie Bert can be found here.
JazzWax video clips: To hear Gil Melle's theme for the TV show, Columbo, go here.