After relocating to Los Angeles in the mid-1940s, Dave Pell joined Les Brown's band in 1947. In the early 1950s, when Dave wasn't playing in the band, he was developing a more linear West Coast sound in jam sessions with other jazz musicians. To earn a few extra bucks, Dave also began photographing his musician friends at record dates and in clubs. The musicians trusted him, and Dave had complete access.
One of Dave's most famous photographs was for the cover of Pacific Jazz Records' first release: The Gerry Mulligan Quartet. The photo is often mistakenly credited to William Claxton, who would become the photographer most responsible for documenting the West Coast jazz scene and advancing its hungry, sand-polished mystique.
In Part 2 of my three-part interview series with Dave, the tenor saxophonist talks about Gerry Mulligan's arrival in Los Angeles, his influence, photographing rising West Coast jazz stars, how the cover of Mulligan's album was shot, and why Los Angeles became a hotbed of jazz activity in the early 1950s:
JazzWax: You played with Gerry Mulligan at the Haig in May 1952, just three months before he recorded with his piano-less quartet.
Dave Pell: When I met Gerry just after he arrived in L.A., I was playing with [trombonist] Herbie Harper. We were doing jam sessions seven nights a week. Gerry came to one of those sessions and brought this little kid from high school with bad teeth. It was Chet Baker [pictured]. They just tore it up.
JW: Were you involved in helping to shape the Gerry Mulligan Quartet?
DP: We brought different guys together for Gerry’s demo date at Phil Turetsky’s house in June.
JW: Who’s “we?”
DP: Roy Harte and me. Roy was my cousin. When Roy started Pacific Jazz Records with Dick Bock in the summer of '52, Phil Turetsky was their engineer. They didn't have a studio yet so they made the demos at Phil's house.
JW: Harte was pretty active out there then as a drummer and entrepreneur, wasn’t he?
DP: Yes. Roy owned a popular drum store called Drum City on Santa Monica Blvd. Then he started Pacific Jazz Records. When I told him about Gerry and Chet at the jam sessions, Roy got them and Chico Hamilton and Bob Whitlock booked into the Haig. [Pictured: Actor Sal Mineo and Roy Harte at Drum City]
JW: What made Mulligan special?
DP: His knowledge of music and his chords and all those tunes. He played so differently than anyone else. One thing Zoot Sims always told me: “Make your own style. So when you play eight bars, everyone knows it’s you.” Mulligan was like that.
JW: So how did you and Mulligan wind up being recorded together at the Haig several months before he formed his quartet?
DP: That was one of those jam sessions Gerry attended. We didn’t know we were being recorded [laughs]. When Mulligan was playing at the Haig, there were two or three other nights when other guys would come in and have a jam session there. Unknown to everyone, there would be a tape machine rolling in the back room. The same was true at several clubs back then. Actually, I think we all kind of knew that was happening. That’s how the things I did with [tenor saxophonist] Wardell Gray and [pianist] Paul Smith got recorded.
JW: How did you come to take the photo for the Gerry Mulligan Quartet album?
DP: My cousin Roy asked me to take it.
JW: So many people think it was taken by Bill Claxton.
DP: I know. Nobody knew Clax at the time. He wasn’t photographing things like this yet. I had learned to use the camera several years earlier and had gotten to the point where I was a good amateur but a bad professional. I was using a Rolleiflex. I started shooting at sessions all over town. I’d find out what was going on from the union. I’d photograph without a flash by taking the shot with the speed pushed way up. I used a 3x5 lens, which was small. There was some light in the clubs but not much. The trade-off during the developing process was that the pictures would be grainier. Everyone thought it was very creative on my part. Bull. I just didn’t want to get in everyone’s way so I didn’t use a flash [laughs].
JW: So between the music and photography and developing pictures, you were pretty busy.
DP: [Laughs] I always had a full day. Back then, music was everything, and everything meant music—whether it was playing, recording or photography. With the camera, I was trying to do something different. When Clax started coming up, he and I used to shoot many of the recording sessions. Then he got really good and passed me by a country mile.
JW: Hey, you weren't bad.
DP: I had an aesthetic sensibility, which helped me push for interesting shots. When I played with Les Brown's band, I would take photos from my perspective on the bandstand, especially when celebrities were with us. I always had the camera by my side. Then I’d go home and develop the negatives. I loved using the enlarger because I could crop just what I wanted.
JW: How did you decide how to set up that Mulligan cover?
DP: Roy called me up. He said he needed a photo for his first LP. He said, “Go down to the Haig with Gerry's group and shoot something.” I said, “I can’t. The Haig is too dark. I won’t be able to get all four of them lit properly in the image.” Roy said I could use a spare room he had at Drum City. So I had the guys meet me there in the afternoon, when the room got good late-day light.
JW: What did you tell them to do when they got there?
DP: I knew what I wanted to do by then. I told them to lay on the floor with their heads together. They said, “What kind of cornball thing is this?” I said, “The photo has to be different. And hip.” I couldn’t shoot something anyone with a camera would take. I couldn't just line them up and shoot. That would be way too dull. You have to understand, the energy level out here then was high. Everyone was trying something new. I wanted to capture that feeling but with something out of left field. So I had them lie down on the floor with their heads together. I told them I was going to shoot down on them from a ladder. The guys were saying stuff like, "Man, this is a hip album. Why are we doing this corny thing for?"
JW: What did you do?
DP: I climbed up on the ladder and shot down. Just before I squeezed the shutter, Mulligan was yelling, “Come on, Dave! For Christ's sake. We can’t spend all day here.” For years Gerry would push me away playfully whenever I'd show up and say, "Get that camera away from me." Later, he told me of all the things he did, the wildest was lying on the floor with his horn in his lap looking up at me take a picture of them from the ladder [laughing]. The photo was pure luck.
JW: Were there outtakes?
DP: No. Just the one picture.
JW: Are you kidding? What would you have done if the image didn't come out perfectly?
DP: I would have had to have gone down to the club to shoot them.
JW: What do you think of the photo today?
DP: You and others see a great cover shot. I see four cranky guys who wanted to get out of there [laughs]. That’s why Bill Claxton [pictured] shot so many covers and got such great results. Clax had the patience to sit through a whole recording session and not get in the way. He waited and waited, and everything he shot was so creative.
JW: During this period, what was going on in California that created the conditions for the West Coast sound?
DP: Recording wise, you had the "Birth of the Cool" singles coming out of New York with Miles and Gerry. But the things we played several years later were a little different from what was going on in New York. New York was playing one kind of jazz. We were playing more cool, kind of nice and melodic jazz. That's not a knock. It's just what it was.
JW: Who were the ringleaders in the early 1950s?
DP: Shorty [Rogers], Mulligan and Chet. The Lighthouse [pictured] was also a hot spot, especially with Bob Cooper and Bud Shank. We all played there on Sundays. That's where musicians' different thoughts on music and the new sound came together. The music was about harmony, technique and playing pretty. I must have played there 100 times. The fact that Stan Kenton’s band was from out here also provided the clubs with a steady stream of sidemen eager to jam. We always had the clubs filled.
JW: What do you think the big turning point was that made L.A. so attractive to jazz musicians?
DP: The weather was great, and many guys in big bands were looking to settle down with families after 10 years on the road. So when the bands they were with came out here, many decided to stay. Besides, the studio work was plentiful and became even more so. If you got on the good side of Andre Previn, for example, you did all of MGM’s movies. If you got on the good side of Johnny Green, you worked on all the musicals.
JW: How did you and others maximize your studio opportunities?
DP: Bob Cooper, Bud Shank [pictured], me and others sensed something was changing here in the early 1950s. Movie and TV work was picking up. So we learned the flute, oboe and other reed and woodwind instruments. If you could double or triple on instruments, you'd get four to five studio calls a week, and you’d be killing. Then at night you’d play clubs. It was a great set up for a jazz musician.
JW: What caused the shift to smaller jazz groups? New labels?
DP: I think that was part of it. Smaller groups meant fewer odds of re-takes on sessions, and a lot of arrangers wrote swell stuff for six to eight guys. But overall, smaller groups just sounded great and everyone got to solo. A lot of us, including [bassist] Harry Babasin [pictured], hung around Drum City. All were great players. We were learning a whole new way of playing from each other. On the arranging side, Shorty Rogers and Bill Holman led the way. So much was recorded out there in the early 1950s, both in the studio and at clubs when tape became popular. I think Roy [Harte], before he died [in 2003], started to realize he had a ton of stuff still in the can. A lot of it has still not been released.
Tomorrow, Dave talks about his famed octet of the early 1950s, his Lester Young tribute band of the 1970s and how he wound up with Lester Young's tenor saxophone.
JazzWax tracks: One of my favorite recent Dave Pell albums is The Dave Pell Octet at the Lighthouse Cafe, recorded in 2005. It features Dave (tenor sax), Bob Efford (baritone sax), Carl Saunders (trumpet), Bill Reichenbach (trombone), Grant Geissman (guitar), Bob Florence (piano), Jim Hughart (bass), and Peter Donald (drums). The harmonies are rich, and it swings like mad all the way through. You'll find it here from Woofy Productions, a terrific label that specializes in West Coast jazz.