During my interview with Johnny Mandel last week, we spoke about Boyd Raeburn's band and lead alto saxophonist Johnny Bothwell [pictured]. Johnny Mandel noted that Bothwell had left the band in 1945 after a flare up with Lenny Green, the band's other alto saxophonist. Bothwell's replacement was Hal McKusick, who at the time was in Los Angeles with pianist and arranger George Handy. The two had flown to California a year earlier after leaving Raeburn's band over another Bothwell incident involving Al Cohn. Hal and Handy were fed up with Raeburn handing solos written for Cohn to Bothwell.
So who was this guy, Johnny Bothwell? And whatever became of him? Jazz is peppered with artists who almost made it, made it for a few years, quit the business, wiped out for one reason or another or died young. Bothwell's name is virtually unknown today, but back in 1945 and 1946, he placed fourth in the Down Beat alto saxophone polls. He also was named the most promising new alto saxophonist of 1946 by Duke Ellington and Anita O'Day in the Esquire poll of musicians.
As Dan Morgenstern writes in his fine liner notes to the rare LP, What Ever Happened to Johnny Bothwell: "Always at the brink of really making it, [Bothwell] seemed somehow jinxed or handicapped—whether by fate, circumstances beyond his control or quirks of character we cannot fairly judge." Based on my conversations with Johnny Mandel and Hal McKusick, much of Bothwell's misfortune may have been due to a runaway ego.
Bothwell came to some musical prominence in Boyd Raeburn's cutting-edge band of 1943 and 1944. In addition to recognizing the appeal of bebop early, Raeburn featured African-American and white musicians, a bold move for a lesser-known band at the time. Raeburn's goal was to create a new sound with the finest instrumentalists and arrangers, and the result was a band far more advanced than most others at the time, including Stan Kenton's.
Raeburn provided artists with plenty of running room for experimentation. Which is why the band was able to attract brilliant writers and strong sight-readers. The list included Dizzy Gillespie, Lucky Thompson, Oscar Pettiford, Trummy Young, Earl Swope, Don Lamond, Roy Eldridge, Juan Tizol, Serge Chaloff, Al Cohn, Shelly Manne, George Williams, Ed Finckel, Ralph Burns, Johnny Mandel, Hal McKusick and other rapidly rising stars of the new music.
According to Dan Morgenstern's fine liner notes:
Bothwell said that the split had been peaceful, and denied that he had taken with him arrangements belonging to the band, as Raeburn had claimed. The leader also said that it wasn't Bothwell's 'superior attitude and insults to other members of the band, but his loudness and inconsistent manner of leading the section' that had caused the split."
After leaving Raeburn's band with singer Claire Hogan, the pair went to New York, where Bothwell joined Gene Krupa and recorded Boogie Blues, one of the band's biggest hits on which Bothwell had a strong solo, Dan writes. Bothwell led his own band for a time and then joined a series of other lesser-known bands as well as smaller jazz groups. But mostly Bothwell faced more bad luck. By 1950, Bothwell exited the music business. What happened to him after his departure remains a mystery. [Pictured: Bothwell, on stage, left, fronting his band circa early 1946, when his band featured vocalist Claire Hogan and the Dave Lambert Singers.]
Earlier this week I asked Hal McKusick [pictured below] to shed light on Bothwell:
"Johnny Bothwell was a highly social guy when I knew him in Boyd Raeburn's bands, and he had major star eyes. He was always pushing for recognition, which is OK in moderation. I've always thought it's far better to let that happen naturally.
Bothwell also created cliques in the bands he was with, including Woody Herman's in 1943. This often pitted one group in the band against another and created bad blood. The big underlying tension in Boyd's [pictured] band was that Bothwell wanted an Ellington sound while most of the guys wanted a Basie influence. If you listen to Bothwell, his playing style was based on Hodges' sound, but exaggerated. Basically Johnny was a good guy with unwise diplomatic judgment.
When Bothwell left Raeburn's band in 1945, I was playing with Johnny Otis [pictured] in Los Angeles. When Boyd called and asked me to rejoin the band, Otis said that if things didn't work out with Boyd I'd always have a place in his band, which was great.
When I rejoined Boyd at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, I wanted to get George Handy [pictured] back into the band. I knew Boyd had enormous respect for George's arranging work. I told Boyd that George was developing a whole new amazing approach to his compositions and arrangements. Boyd was hesitant at first, since George and I had left his band a year earlier. But Johnny Mandel, who was writing terrific material for the band, was hugely supportive.
The fact that the piano chair was vacated also made it easier for George to return. Boyd's pianist, Harry Biss, had to leave suddenly for New York after crushing a glass goblet in his hand with devastating results.
Boyd gave his approval, and we brought George up to San Francisco from L.A. with an agreement to write whatever he wanted. One of George's first charts was Out of this World, a Stravinsky-like rendition of the song featuring a new sound and David Allyn on the vocal."
JazzWax tracks: Street of Dreams, a CD featuring Johnny Bothwell and his band from 1946, is available at iTunes and Amazon. As for the George Handy arrangement of Out of This World that Hal mentioned above, you'll find it on Boyd Raeburn: The Radio Transcription Performances 1946 at iTunes and Amazon.
JazzWax video clip: While Johnny Bothwell isn't in this 1946 clip of Boogie Blues, it's too good to miss for Krupa's stickwork and Carolyn Grey's vocal.