Few jazz trombonists who came up in the 1940s sounded as hungry and as imaginative on the horn as Eddie Bert.
Eddie's forceful, full-throttle attack pre-dates Frank Rosolino's by about five years. And while there were plenty of brilliant trombone players with round sounds and sharp techniques, only a handful could match Eddie's passion and energy level in big band settings and small groups.
Eddie was old school—like Jack Teagarden, Miff Mole, "Tricky Sam" Nanton and Benny Morten. Every note had to be strong and clear to stand out, and Eddie's exciting, high-energy solos set new standards for blowing.
Eddie's list of record dates is lengthy. From 1942 onward, he recorded relentlessly with virtually every major band and group. He's with Red Norvo at the famed Town Hall Concert of 1945 recorded live by Commodore Records. That’s Eddie’s trombone solo on Stan Kenton’s How High the Moon with June Christy in 1947.
In 1955, Eddie recorded one of the earliest overdub sessions on his Musician of the Year album featuring Hank Jones and Kenny Clarke. His Hambone solo from Trombone Scene (1956) still stuns. And his section work on Mulligan Stew from Gene Krupa Plays Gerry Mulligan Arrangements (1958) blows the roof off.
Eddie's also on The Thelonious Monk Orchestra at Town Hall date in 1959 and Buddy Rich's now-rare Richcraft from the same year. In 1969 and 1970, Eddie's in the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Big Band for Central Park North and Consummation. There's even a great photo of Charlie Parker with his arm around Eddie in 1950. Bird knew.
Today, while many of the great trombone players of the 1940s and 1950s have retired or passed on, Eddie, at age 85, is still going strong gigging in New York. Last week Eddie played the Rainbow Room atop Rockefeller Center. This Thursday he’s at Swing 46 at 349 W. 46th St. The following week he's in London. Who says you can’t hear the greats anymore?
I spoke with Eddie last week. In Part 1, we spoke about his early setbacks and how he overcame them to break into the New York jazz scene:
“I was born in Yonkers, N.Y., on May 16, 1922. When I was three months old, my family split to Mundy Lane in the Bronx, right on the Westchester County border. My father worked for the phone company driving the bosses around and taking care of the wires. He was heavily into baseball—which is why I can’t stand the sport. It’s like watching grass grow. My mother was a housewife.
When I was 10 years old, we moved to Mount Vernon, N.Y., which was practically across the street from where we lived in the Bronx. We needed a bigger apartment.
In school, they tried me out on trumpet. My teacher thought I was OK but switched me to an e-flat alto horn, which is like a baritone but smaller. The stuff we played was boring. The tuba would go ‘oomp’ and I’d play ‘pah.’ So I tried playing drums for a while.
One day I saw a trombone on a stand next to the drums and picked it up. As soon as I gave it a try, I fell in love with the instrument. It was like a human voice. My dad could tell I was serious and bought me a Wurlitzer trombone. It was a peashooter. Narrow, with a slide made of brass, not chrome. It was a terrible horn but I messed with it for a while.
Then my dad got me a Martin, which was better. In those days—the late 1930s—they wouldn’t let you play jazz in schools. It was forbidden. My cousin had a jazz band and lived nearby, so I’d go there. We'd play stock arrangements of popular songs of the day. I was getting better and better, and loved to play.
When I was in 10th grade, I quit high school to join a band led by a guy named Wilbur Wheeldin that played in nearby New Rochelle. Soon I quit and joined another band led by Doug Moye. I was working seven days and making $17 a week, which was good bread in 1939. My parents didn’t care that I quit school. I had to do what I had to.
Everyone except me in Moye’s band was African-American. My friend—Howard Washington—was the baritone player. We used to jam at a Mount Vernon record store and eventually played at a bar called the Ship Ahoy in New Rochelle and then the Post Lodge in Larchmont. Both places were pretty well known locally.
In 1940 a friend of mine said bandleader Sam Donahue needed a trombone player. I took the train up to Boston to play with the band but when I got there, I found I couldn’t read the charts. I had learned to read music differently in Moye’s band. We had played stock charts, modeling the band after the Savoy Sultans, the house band at the Savoy Ballroom. That band had three saxes, two trumpets and four in the rhythm section. There were no trombone parts. So the trumpet in Moye's band had me play the same notes he played.
Sam Donahue liked my solos but said he needed someone for a record date who could read music. So he let me go and hired trombonist Tak Takvorian. Sam told me I needed to spend time learning to read, so I went back home to New York to take lessons.
One of my favorite trombonists at the time was Trummy Young, who was in Jimmy Lunceford’s band. When I returned from Boston, I heard that Lunceford was playing at the Fiesta Danceateria on 42d and 7th. So I recorded their live dates off the radio using a Wilcox-Gay recorder console my father had given me. It had a radio and built-in turntable and arm that could cut acetate discs of broadcasts.
Then me and a bunch of friends went down to the Fiesta to see Lunceford. My friends included Shorty Rogers, who was from the Bronx; Al Porcino, who was from Weehawken, N.J.; and Bernie Glow, who was from the Bronx. Charlie Colin, the trumpeter who wound up as a music publisher, took us to the club and got us in.
That night I was able to meet all the guys in the Lunceford band. They were friendly and only too happy to help kids who wanted to learn and play. Out in the street, I ran into Trummy Young. I told him the name of the guy I was taking lessons from. Trummy frowned and said, ‘Let me send you to a real teacher.’
Trummy sent me to Miff Mole, a trombone virtuoso of the 1920s and 1930s. When I first came to see Miff, he asked me to play Honeysuckle Rose. I played it great. I knew how to jam. You learn that in your head, not in school. So Miff took me on.
I studied on and off with Miff for about two months at a studio on 48th and Broadway. Within a year of hard practicing, night and day, I learned how to read music.
In 1941 I took my trombone down to a bar called George’s on Bleecker St. and 7th Ave. Leonard Ware was on guitar, Luther Henderson was on piano, and there was a bass player named Slim. Many up-and-coming guys would go there to jam with them.
One night Red Norvo came in with Mildred Bailey. After they heard me play, Red invited me to join a band he was starting. Red rehearsed the band for three moths to get it in shape. Arranging for the band was Eddie Sauter and Johnny Thompson, who wound up writing for Harry James.
We went into the Blue Gardens in Armonk, N.Y., on December 6, 1941. The next day, of course, was Pearl Harbor. I thought, man, I finally get a gig and a day later there’s a war. We were at the Blue Gardens for a month and half after that. During that time, Benny Goodman came in to hear us, and we broadcast live.
I was already married by then—my wife’s name is Molly—and I taught her how to use the Wilcox-Gay recorder. Molly recorded me off the radio with Red at the Blue Gardens in January 1942. These recordings were released on CD in the early 1990s.
Then Red’s band toured the Midwest and returned to play the Apollo Theater in New York and the Adams Theater in Newark, N.J. Jimmy Durante was on the tour with us. He was a funny cat, and he knew every place to eat. Even way upstate in Rome, N.Y., he knew where all the Italian restaurants were or he knew somebody’s house where we could eat.
As 1942 wore on, the draft started to eat up Red’s band. He finally broke it up in April 1942 and formed a smaller group with me and a bunch of the other guys. He said he needed a trumpet player who played jazz and asked if I knew anyone. I recommended Shorty Rogers, who at the time was playing with Will Bradley, whose band was breaking up, too.
Shorty came on, and Red’s small group went into the Famous Door on 52d St. That place brought back memories for me. In 1936, when Basie was in Chicago heading to New York to record for Decca, Vocalion Records wanted to record him. But Decca had him under contract. So Basie recorded under an assumed name—Jones Smith Inc. That was Basie’s first recording date. Lester Young’s, too.
When I heard those Vocalion records on the radio, I said I had to meet Basie and his band. I had always listened to tenor players. The great jazz ideas came off the tenor players because tenors played melodies. Trombones played tricks.
When Basie went into the Famous Door in July 1938, I couldn’t get in because I was 16. I hung around outside and when Benny Morten came out on a break, I asked if I could take lessons with him. He said yes—if I came back the next day to hear the band rehearse. That’s how I met Lester Young in 1938 and all the guys in Basie's band.
Lester didn’t’ talk too much. I remember they were rehearsing London Bridge Is Falling Down, Stop Beatin' Round the Mulberry Bush and Jumpin' at the Woodside, which was just a head chart. That was just before they made those records for Decca. Afterward, Benny Morton gave me lessons.
Fast forward to 1942. There I was, on the same bandstand at the Famous Door, with Red Norvo. Wow, that killed me. Our small band included Aaron Sachs on clarinet, Specs Powell on drums, Clyde Lombardi on bass, me on trombone, Shorty on trumpet and Red on xylophone. He didn’t start playing vibes until later in the year.
In late 1942, the American Federation of Musicians banned the making of commercial recordings. The ban lasted until 1944. So Red's group went to George Simon’s house, and we recorded for two days. Soon afterward Red broke up the band.
George Simon gave me the acetates, and I recently gave them to Jerry Roche of Mosaic Records. Hopefully he'll release them."
Tomorrow, in Part 2, Eddie talks about how he blew off Tommy Dorsey, the famed 1945 Town Hall Concert, his year with Stan Kenton, rooming with Art Pepper, and how Junior Collins' practical joke got him bounced from Miles Davis' "Birth of the Cool" band—but landed him in Benny Goodman's "Undercurrent Blues" bop group.
JazzWax tracks: Eddie Bert's trombone work with Red Norvo in 1942 can be heard here on The Red Norvo Orchestra Live from the Blue Gardens.
For a taste of the Count Basie Orchestra in 1938, go here. What was this event at New York's Randall's Island? In a 2005 interview at JerryJazzMusician, Dan Morgenstern, director of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University, sheds some light:
"One event that would have been fascinating to attend was the Carnival of Swing on Randall's Island in 1938. This was really the first big outdoor jazz festival, although it wasn't called that then. It is an event that is not sufficiently remembered. It was sponsored by the Daily News and by Martin Block, who was basically the first important radio personality – you could say he was the first disc jockey. I believe there were twenty-four different groups, including the Count Basie band at its peak with Lester Young, and there was Duke Ellington playing Crescendo and Dimunedo in Blue, with the people dancing in the aisles to the point the cops had to calm them down. There was Stuff Smith, and there was John Kirby, and there was Hot Lips Page, and there was Roy Eldridge. This event led to a whole new way of presenting jazz, and it would have been something to see."