My first encounter with drummer Brooks Tegler happened about a year ago, when a CD called That's It! arrived in an envelope. I was about to toss it onto the “maybe” pile when my eye spotted Pussy Willow in the CD's play list. I thought to myself, "Who in their right mind would take on Bill Finegan’s impossibly nuanced swinger for Tommy Dorsey’s post-war band?"
So I popped on Pussy Willow. Not only was the execution flawless but also the entire album was solid. That was then. Now Brooks has just released Uncommon Denominator, his small group tribute to the big band era. The result is equally smart and tasteful.
First, full disclosure: I wrote the liner notes for this CD. Which is neither here nor there, since I only write liner notes to albums I truly love. (See the list in the right-hand column as well as Nat Hentoff's mention of my notes to The Best of Benny Golson in today's Wall Street Journal). What I liked about Brooks' Uncommon Denominator when I first heard the demo was his dedication, musicianship and choice of material.
For me, bands that play the music of the big band era tend to fall into two camps: There are the wax museum nostalgia acts and then there are the restorationists who strive for creative authenticity. The problem is that too many bandleaders today who focus on the swing era are chronic romantics who merely copy the original recordings. To do this music justice, you need to hear and interpret what the original artists were doing. You also need great taste in song selection and arrangements.
Brooks can do both, probably because he knows his music. Rather than mimic the 78s, Brooks uses his deep knowledge of World War II to forge a modern sensibility without losing the ingredients that made the music special in the first place. Brooks is certainly an expert on the period. In Washington, D.C., his involvement in World War II-related events in the 1980s and 1990s was so extensive that sculptor Raymond Kaskey used him as a model for his bas-relief murals adorning the National World War II Memorial [pictured].
Brooks also is about grace. Tracks on the new album include such rarely heard numbers as Pam, Opus ½ and Black Market Stuff as well as ear-catchers like Easy Living, The Lady’s in Love, Speak Low and Frenesi. The musicians in Brooks' band also share the passion. Among the many standout soloists are Scott Silbert on tenor sax and Joe Midiri on clarinet and alto sax.
To give you an idea of how much thought went into each arrangement, Brooks told me that on Frenesi, they reversed the instrumentation that Artie Shaw used on his 1954 Gramercy Five recording, replacing the Tal Farlow guitar chair with a trumpet. Then they revived Benny Carter's 1954 arrangement, which Carter recorded with Oscar Peterson on Cosmopolite. Each song on Brooks' CD has this level of thought to detail.
I spoke with Brooks late last week:
Brooks Tegler: Not really. Benny showed volumes of taste and good sense in everything he played and wrote. I can’t think of anything that Benny recorded that anyone can take issue with. He's a hero.
JW: What do you hear in Carter's music and playing?
BT: Benny had so much influence on the era's big bands and small groups in terms of his phrasing, note choices and chords. It’s Benny's elegance that’s so special. I equate him with my other big heroes of the 1940s, the Tuskegee Airmen, the African-American flyers. These guys had huge battles to fight and had nothing to prove. They were very cool, graceful men.
JW: Your last album was a big band tribute. Why small groups now?
BT: Most of the big bands of the 1930s and 1940s had small groups within them. Each band had major players and only in these small groups could these players shine. Whether it was the Benny Goodman Quartet, Artie Shaw's Gramercy Five, Woody Herman's Woodchoppers or Tommy Dorsey's Clambake Seven, these small groups had a different personality. The bandleaders created them so the stars in their orchestras could shine. The big bands were primarily ensembles that functioned in unison, with a little soloing. The small groups, by contrast, were created so audiences could dig each player. They also were probably created so bandleaders could keep their stars happy and hold onto them longer [laughs].
JW: How do you ensure the authenticity of your executions?
BT: I’m constantly wrestling with this issue when choosing songs and arrangements. The way I've managed to avoid the trap is the same way someone who studies art avoids it. If you're a painter, you try to get into the nuts and bolts of how masterpieces were painted. Then you interpret the fundamental lessons. It's the same here. What we're doing is paying tribute to the way these bands played, not trying to sound like them. This requires a deeper understanding of why the musicians played the way they did back then.
JW: How so?
BT: The expressive way the bands worked had a lot to do with the fact that the music was new. They had had a lot to say and prove. They were anxious to show audiences what they could do and say with music. Showmanship and physical endurance played a big role in the sound because these bands were designed to perform almost nightly. Lionel Hampton, of course, exemplified this. The same is true of many drummers from the period.
JW: How does the physical component translate into the music's sound?
BT: The energy has to resonate. Hampton was highly enthusiastic and hugely proud of what he was able to do. Stage-ability has all but disappeared today. I wanted to capture that essence and physical feel in the music we recorded.
JW: How did you pull this off?
BT: By having a clear understanding of the historical counterparts, which gives you an understanding of what they did and how you can do it, too. If you get into the staid, boring, production-line trap of playing nostalgia, the execution will fall flat. There’s no love in that. It’s just a job.
JW: Who's your favorite drummer of the period?
BT: Gene Krupa. That’s because of the man himself and the things he did for the music. Gene had incredible time and knew his job. He also knew that by doing his job, he could bring attention to himself. He loved what he played. It came through. His personality and drumming style were linked. [Photo of Gene Krupa in 1941 by Gjon Mili for Life]
JW: In your mind, what specifically makes Krupa special?
BT: Gene on the drums didn't just keep time—he played the song with his sticks. Take Lover, for example, Ed Finckel's arrangement from the mid-1940s. Listen to Gene's solo. You actually hear the song's melody in what he's playing. Gene was among the most melodic big band players from the 1930s on up. Buddy Rich was, too, but Buddy's technical facility was so blindingly amazing that people lost track that he knew where he was no matter what. Gene knew the music and always played the song. His style was very melodic and cooperative. [Photo of Krupa in 1952 by Margaret Bourke-White for Life]
JW: Give me another example of Krupa's melodic style.
BT: Listen to the transcription of Benny Goodman's band in 1937 at the Manhattan Room playing an arrangement of Juan Tizol's Caravan. In this 13-piece band, Gene clearly is playing the ensemble riffs from the original Duke Ellington small group recording. Except he's playing it on the tom-toms. Incredible. [Photo of Krupa at the Manhattan Room in 1937]
JW: As a bandleader, how do you find and hold onto musicians who also understand the big band era?
BT: I’m lucky that I’m based in Washington, D.C., where there are many military jazz bands. A number of the guys in my band are in the service. Interestingly, there's a passion in D.C. for the music of World War II, so many musicians come to me asking to join. You have to find guys who really love this music. It's more than just playing notes on a page.
JW: You're a big Glenn Miller fan.
BT: Yes—Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman, too. Of all of these guys, Miller [pictured] was probably the greatest commercial success. But he was no fool. After he was handed the first gold record for I’ve Got a Gal in Kalamazoo, he said, “There goes the music business.” What he meant there was once awards were handed out for units sold rather than popularity and craft, new forces were going to enter the business. And he was right.
JW: What separates Miller, Basie or any of the leaders back then from later bandleaders?
BT: The guys in the 1930s and 1940s had an idea for a sound. And they succeeded in popularizing the sound through drive and determination. Miller had an idea, to use a Ray Noble clarinet lead style. But Miller also was smart enough to know there were arrangers like Jerry Gray and Bill Finegan—guys who could take his music and sound, and put it on paper for the band.
JW: What are your favorite Miller recordings?
BT: Probably Snafu Jump, recorded by Miller’s Army Air Force band, which he started in the service. What a great chart by Jerry Gray! It goes everywhere. Or My Buddy, recorded by Miller’s civilian band using a Gray arrangement that features fabulous trombone voicings. Or Boomshot, another civilian band chart with a great groove and drive. There’s a lot of jazz in that tune. [Photo of Glenn Miller in 1943 by Marie Hansen for Life]
JW: How do you keep from being overly romantic about this era?
BT: You have to know the history. It’s easy to look back and think of this time as it's depicted in the movies. In truth, it was a horrible period for many reasons. Have a long conversation with a World War II veteran. You’ll find yourself talking to someone who will tell you the event changed his life. But then the person will tell you once it was over, after they stepped up, they moved on. People from that era don't dwell on how great the war was or how they wish it was 1944 all over again. [Photo by W. Eugene Smith for Life]
JW: What do you love so much about this era?
BT: I love this period for its innocence. Through this innocence there was a lot more class. People were expected to dress neatly and behave a certain way. There was this ethos of making mistakes, learning from mistakes, and making things better the next time. Trial and error was an accepted practice. Also, the era wasn’t about making as much money as you could. People carved out a way of life for themselves. They didn’t’ get it from a TV set. I’ve always respected that. They were proud, and there was a higher level of honor then than you have now. [Photo of farmer Jim Norris and wife in 1940 by Russell Lee]
JW: What’s next?
BT: On April 18th I’m bringing a 17-piece big band to Calhoun High School in Merrick, N.Y., which is on Long Island. We're going to perform the songs of Glenn Miller’s civilian orchestra and Army Air Force Band. We'll be wearing air force uniforms from the period. This isn't romanticism; it's historical accuracy and helps remind us of the feel. We'll be performing 23 tunes, half with the full band and half with a trio emulating the Uptown Hall Gang, which featured Peanuts Hucko, Mel Powell and Ray McKinley. My drum set will be a precise replica of McKinley’s. Attention to details like that when performing can certainly be a hindrance at times and quadruples my personal workload and expenses. But I think it’s definitely worth it, as does the audience. Oddly enough, the replica uniforms are more comfortable than tuxes
JW: No Modernaires?
BT: [Laughs] It’s very difficult to find singers here who can pull off that material with credibility. It was a lot harder to do than it seems on the records. The best vocal ensemble I know for this is led by Belgian trombonist Jack Coenen. The band is called The Jack Million Band and vocal group is called The Millionaires. One day they’ll come over and we’ll put the two halves together.
JazzWax tracks. Co-produced by Margee and Jim Wardrop, Brooks Tegler's Uncommon Denominator can be found at CDBaby here. Brooks' earlier big band album, That's It!, can be found here. For more on Brooks and to listen to clips from Uncommon Denominator, go here.
JazzWax clip: Man, dig Gene Krupa in action keeping time and rapping out the melodies. Here, on this 1947 short, the band plays Lover and Leave Us Leap. As best I can tell, that's Charlie Kennedy on the alto sax solos, Johnny Bello on first trumpet, and the trombone solo on Lover is by Urbie Green...