In the late 1940s Russ Garcia studied extensively with cutting-edge European theorists and composers in Hollywood. Yet he always retained his jazz sensibility. After arranging a series of terrific albums in the early 1950s that established him as one of the West Coast's fastest and most complete orchestrators, Verve producer Norman Granz tapped him in 1957 for Porgy and Bess. The session paired Ella Fitzgerald's warm maternal sound with Louis' gravelly vocal style, and the result remains a classic. [Pictured: Louis, Ella and Russ]
In the years that followed, prior to his 1968 New Zealand relocation, Russ arranged albums primarily for his own orchestra and vocalists. The list of singers is extensive and included Anita O'Day, Frances Faye, Helen Grayco, Bobby Troup, Herb Jeffries, Julie London, Tony Travis, the Axidentals, Margaret Whiting, Sylvia Mora, Blossom Dearie, Mel Torme and others.
In Part 2 of my three-part interview with Russ, the arranger recalls the West Coast trumpeters he worked with, vocalists Anita O'Day and Julie London, Ella and Louis, Stan Getz, and the album Russ recorded that he likes most of all:
JazzWax: You've worked with some of the West Coast's best trumpeters in the 1950s. Who did you dig most?
Russ Garcia: I loved Don Fagerquist [pictured]. We recorded many albums together. He played so pretty and could play strong lead. Most people didn't know that. He was just a natural, good musician who today is largely overlooked. I also loved Buddy Childers. He died in May 2007. When I came to the States on a visit last year, the first thing on my list was to call Buddy. When I did, I learned he had died a few days earlier. I was so sad to hear that.
JW: Is Buddy under-appreciated?
RG: Oh for sure. Buddy [pictured in the 1950s] had played lead trumpet with Stan Kenton when he was 16 years old. That wasn't an easy chair. That was just before Maynard came on the band. I always used Buddy as a lead player. He could play such pretty jazz. I heard him playing in the early 1990s with just guitar and bass. Afterward I said we should do an album with strings. The next day he called and asked if I was serious. So we did a CD, Artistry in Jazz. It turned out quite well. We did it on spec. Buddy paid for the musicians and the studio and I did the arranging and conducting. Then Buddy sold it to a record company.
JW: Who else?
RG: I loved the strength of Maynard. Conrad Gozzo also played great lead. There were so many good brass players in Hollywood and New York in the 1950s.
JW: When you arranged back then, you were thinking about these guys the way a painter thinks about different colors, yes?
RG: That's right. I would write one way or another depending on who I was writing for and who would be on the date. I also knew many of those guys personally, which added another dimension to my writing.
JW: What was singer Julie London like?
RG: When I worked with her on About the Blues, Julie had recorded Julie Is Her Name a year earlier with only guitar and bass. It sold very well. It was a very easy-going album. She had a soft, sexy voice. In most cases, I get with a singer and we pick the keys that the singer is comfortable with. Some singers know what they want. For example, Mel Torme would tell me he wants specific chords to go up a half step and so on. Sammy Davis Jr. said, "Surprise me." He'd come to the date not knowing what to expect and fit in beautifully. With Julie, for About the Blues, I knew how she sang, with a soft easy approach, so I built on that. I guess I got a pretty good contrast with that screaming brass behind her.
JW: In 1957, Norman Granz brought you in to arrange Porgy and Bess for Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong.
RG: I loved both of them. Louis was such a wonderful, nice person. He loved everybody. Nothing could wipe that beautiful, loving smile off his face. Which is amazing considering what he must have gone through with racism when he was young. When we were recording Porgy and Bess, I ran down the orchestra part for the first tune, and Louis said in that rough voice, "Russ, you're a genius. If I ever get rich I'm going to put you on salary." Louis didn't know he was already extremely wealthy. His agent would give him $400 or $500 to keep in his pocket and then pay his hotel and restaurant bills. Louis didn't want to hear about money.
JW: How were Louis and Ella in the studio?
RG: They were a joy. We'd record all day. It took us two days to do the album. After the first session, Louis had dinner and then went down to Central Avenue in Los Angeles and jammed half the night at the clubs. The next morning he came in and pointed his trumpet against the wall. He tried to blow through it, but air came out from the sides of his lips. No sound. He'd keep this up, and then all of a sudden—bang, the sound would come, and his lips would be vibrating and he'd be off and doing fine.
JW: He had quite a prep process for his lips, didn't he?
RG: Did he ever. Louis always had two or three guys along with him carrying suitcases filled with stuff. He had lip salve, gargle and Swiss Kriss, a laxative he was always pushing. I told him he should stop by the Thrifty Drug Store to see if they needed anything. [laughs] There was one tune on the Porgy session that he didn't know, Bess Oh Where's My Bess. He had never heard it before. So I had the orchestra play the background while I sang, and recorded onto a tape. Louis took the tape back to Las Vegas, where he was working, to listen and learn the tune. He called me at midnight one night and said, "Russ, I'm listening to you every night before I go to sleep." Then he flew in and we recorded it.
JW: So he picked up the song from your vocal?
RG: Yes. I did this with a lot of singers. I had done it for Frances Faye, Mel Torme and Johnny Hartman a year earlier for The Complete Porgy and Bess for Bethlehem. In later years, Frances would play the tapes for people up at her house and ask, "Guess who's singing." I don't think anyone ever guessed correctly. [laughs]
JW: Why did those singers need help on Porgy?
RG: The Porgy production I did with Frances [pictured], Mel, Johnny Hartman was different. It has become a cult classic. There was so much weird music in there, incidental things. We did the whole opera, but with new arrangements. The singers didn't know a lot of the incidental music, so I had to sing and record lots of the parts for them. I brought in a piano man in and recorded the music. Then I gave it to Faye and Torme to learn. I did this with Johnny Hartman, too.
JW: How was Ella to work with on Porgy?
RG: She was a wonderful singer. You know, she was so shy. We'd be at a jazz festival in Europe and before she'd go on she was in a complete panic. But the minute she'd get that mike in her hand and sing her first note, she'd be into her song and sing like an angel.
JW: Do you think the stage fright was fear she'd forget the words to songs?
RG: I really don't know. Here she is, the world's champion singer, and she's worried about singing in front of an audience. Once she was into the music, she forgot herself.
JW: How did she play off of Louis on the Porgy date?
RG: Louis annoyed her a little bit. When she was singing a beautiful passage, he'd come in with his growling. [laughs] She'd shoot him a sharp look and go on. It would throw her for a second. But it came off beautifully. Some people call that album "Whipped Cream and Sandpaper." [laughs]
JW: You arranged Anita O'Day Sings the Winners. How was she to work with?
RG: I loved how Anita sang. So many singers dragged behind the beat, which interfered with the harmony exchange. Anita was always right on. And she always made the band swing. She sang like an instrument would play. But she was kind of a kook.
JW: How so?
RG: She walked into one of the first sessions we did for that album and Bud Shank was warming up on the flute. She says to me, "Who's that? I don't like his embouchure." Bud Shank—can you imagine! I think she was showing off a new word she had learned and was trying to act tough. Of course, she backed off her attitude as soon as she heard him play.
JW: Did you have any difficult moments with anyone else?
RG: Not really. I was warned in advance to watch out for Buddy Childers. I was told he was tough, that if he didn't like your arrangements he'd say so out loud. That never happened. Or trombonist Bill Watrous was the same thing. When I walked into a session with him, he said, "I can't use this mike. I've got to have an X4." Then he looked at the charts and said, "We'll never do all this music in five hours."
JW: What did you think?
RG: I thought this guy was going to give me trouble. But the minute we started the music, he was an angel. Buddy was always an angel, too.
JW: And Anita?
RG: She loved music and was a natural. A wonderful artist. She sang with feeling and really swung the meaning of the lyrics. She could really go on with the scatting. I write differently for different singers. I just imagine them singing and write the background of what I think they're going to do.
JW: Were you a fast arranger?
RG: Extremely. I don't use the piano or any instrument to write. I just sit at my desk with score pads. Anything I hear or can imagine I can write down. I'm very lucky.
JW: How do you do that?
RG: You're a writer, so you can write down what I'm saying and what you think about what I'm saying. I can do that with music. I hear the whole work in my head. Then I just have to write it down. I do a lot of work in my sleep.
JW: In your sleep?
RG: That's right. It's so strange. If I have an arrangement or two to write, I'll go to sleep and wake up in the morning and they'll be all planned out. I just need a quick sit-down to sketch them out. It's kind of cheating I guess, working in your sleep. [laughs]
JW: You recorded Stan Getz's Cool Velvet in 1960. Why did you record it in Germany?
RG: That's where Stan was at the time. We had a lot of fun. He panicked in the beginning. We recorded the album with a symphony orchestra and did the date near Baden-Baden in Germany. Stan told me he was a bit nervous when he saw that big orchestra. But he's such a natural, good musician. He plays so beautifully. No matter what chord progression you write, he'll hear it immediately and play all those beautiful notes against it. The album turned out just fine.
JW: Who picked the songs?
RG: We picked them together. We were staying at a hotel 50 miles north of Stuttgart. We'd drive to the studio each day. He was like Anita. They could booze it or whatever half the night. You'd see them the next morning, and they look like all-American cheerleader kids. I don't know how they did it.
JW: If there's one artist you remember more than any other, who would it be?
RG: I loved Oscar Peterson as a person and as an artist. I enjoyed the album we did with brass.
JW: Which of your albums do you listen to most?
RG: The soundtrack to The Time Machine, which was made in 1962. Recently Film Score Monthly went to MGM and got the original 24-track tape I did for The Time Machine and Atlantis: The Lost Continent. FSM reissued both of them and did a wonderful job on the sound.
JW: Why do you love The Time Machine soundtrack so much?
RG: I think it's quite creative. I get emails from all over the world about it. There are clubs and web sites, and you can download plans to build your own time machine. It's still a popular film. The score gave me a chance to write something for me.
Tomorrow in Part 3 of my conversation with Russ, some breaking news. My research shows Russ arranged the score to Charlie Chaplin's Limelight (1952). Yet in 1973, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences appears to have mistakenly awarded an honorary Oscar for original dramatic score to the wrong arranger. Russ has never spoken publicly about the mix-up—until I brought it up last Friday. Tomorrow I'll feature the incredible story behind the misplaced Oscar, what Russ said when I spoke to him about it, and the Academy's response.
Two superb Verve albums Russ arranged for Oscar Peterson—In a Romantic Mood and Swinging Brass—are both out of print but have been combined on The Oscar Peterson Songbook.
Also, Russ arranged several albums that featured trumpeter Don Fagerquist. A roundup of these sessions can be found on the Fresh Sound CD, Don Fagerquist: Portrait of a Great Jazz Artist here.