If you're unfamiliar with trumpeter Don Fagerquist [pictured], that's about to change. The now nearly forgotten West Coast trumpeter had one of the richest tones in the business in the 1950s and 1960s, and he made everything he played sound melodic and effortless. Fagerquist's solos were like tennis balls rolling out of a can onto a clay court. There was a soft, rich bounce to his ideas, and Fagerquist had enormous taste, playing just what the ear wanted to hear—no more or less.
For a West Coast comparison, where Chet Baker's tone could echo with haunting rumination and Conte Candoli's had a bop tinge, Fagerquist was a mood player. His triplets were like dance steps, and he could roll up or down chords with perfect precision. Fagerquist learned breath control in the big bands of Gene Krupa, Artie Shaw, Woody Herman and Les Brown [pictured] during the first 13 years of his career. By the mid-1950s, Fagerquist could add taut, piercing color to band trumpet sections and produce the most seductive, sterling solos. In 1956, Fagerquist left Les Brown to freelance on other artists' albums, finding time to record only two LPs as a leader.
What isn't as well known about Fagerquist is the scope of his studio work. He played on 85 Hollywood film soundtracks and had solos on 210 albums, including three by Sinatra (Ring-A-Ding-Ding, Sinatra & Swingin’ Brass and Softly As I Leave You). Between 1956 and 1974, the year Fagerquist died at age 47, he was one of the most in-demand Los Angeles studio trumpeters, often hired just for adding a solo.
One musician who knew Don well was tenor saxophonist Dave Pell [pictured], whose octet was one of the most successful small groups on the West Coast starting in the early 1950s. Fagerquist played in Dave Pell's group and recorded on more than 15 of Dave's albums. I asked Dave to reflect on the trumpeter, who was known to friends as "Dugan":
JazzWax: Where did Fagerquist get his start?
Dave Pell: Don played with strange bands early on, like Mal Hallett’s band in 1943. Mal was a jazz violinist who could swing, but audiences never caught on to his scene. Don [pictured at age 11] joined Mal’s band when he was just 16 years old. He did a radio show with Hallett in 1944 and then joined Gene Krupa’s band later that year. That’s when he started getting a whole bunch of solos. But he was a vanilla player then. He had chops, but he didn’t have the drive or the sound that Roy Eldridge had in Gene's band. Roy was a solid jazz player.
JW: Fagerquist moved around between several major bands in the late 1940s and early 1950s, didn't he?
DP: Yes. After Gene [Krupa], Don was with Artie Shaw’s band in 1949 and 1950—with that bebop band Artie had. He also was in Artie’s Gramercy Five with Jimmy Raney in 1950. Then he was back with Gene and after with Woody in ’51 and ’52.
JW: When did Fagerquist join you in Les Brown’s band?
DP: Don came on Les Brown’s band in ’52. By then he had moved out to the West Coast with his family. He was amazing from the start. He had gotten an incredible education in all those other bands. But I’m not sure in which band he became Don Fagerquist, the great trumpet soloist.
JW: Did your Les Brown bandmates like his playing?
DP: Oh, yes. We called him Dugan. Everyone who liked him called him that. I’m not sure why. When Don got into Les’ band, he was fluent in bebop and his solos were much more melodic. He wasn’t drinking then. Les’ band was more of an all-American band. It wasn’t as hip as Woody Herman’s or Stan Kenton’s bands. But we had enough of a feel that Donny fit in perfectly.
JW: What knocked you out about Fagerquist on the band?
DP: He had developed some kind of super listening capacity. He never let a chord in a chart go by without playing the right notes around it. A lot of us would skate by that by playing simpler. Not Don. He’d play every single chord change in the tune—running melodies on improvisations. He always turned a solo into a melodic thing.
DP: It’s one thing to improvise on chord changes. It’s another to create complete melodies on the spot during solos. These are like mini songs, and it's a much more difficult thing to do. Donny would go so far as to talk with the band's bassist, telling him to play this chord change and that change. Donny listened to the bass while he played.
JW: What made Fagerquist special?
DP: He played so beautifully and cleanly. Your ear wanted to hear more when he played. With Donny, it was like having a genius on the band. He was a class act. When the arrangers realized what they had in Don, he had solos on every tune. His sound was beautiful. He had chops to do anything he thought of. Most people don’t realize that Don was comedic. He always played something cute and funny. And he was always thinking ahead. He was so fast that he would mock his own initial solo in his second solo. It was incredible. The average listener might not hear what Donny was doing there, but a musician would.
JW: How can you explain his sound?
DP: First of all Don rarely missed anything. Some go for a high F and never get there. Donny could get there and do almost anything that came into his mind. He had a little fatter sound than most trumpeters, and what he played was always hipper. His tone was so full it almost sounded like he was playing flugelhorn. There was roundness there, and no one else had that sound.
DP: He was a character. In person, he was clever and funny, just like his music. But it was his playing that held your attention. The guys would talk about Don's playing all the time. When Don would start a solo, he knew exactly where he was going to end. He'd work it out in his head in advance. Then he’d play right up to that ending he had in mind and always wrap his solo on the note he chose. That’s why his solos always sounded planned out. Les would drive him crazy though. Don's first solo on a song would be so pretty that Les would want the same solo, note for note, night after night. Don would complain, saying, “But Les, it’s boring if I do that.” Les would reply, “Hey Don, you're the one who came up with the solo. That’s what I expect to hear. That's what the people who come to hear us expect to hear.”
JW: Did Don listen to Les?
DP: Not always. I remember on Our Love Is Here to Stay, Don had the solo. Every night the guys in the band would be on the floor as Don would take the solo differently each time. Most soloists don’t get that kind of collective reaction from the players in the band. You’d be sitting there after Don finished saying to yourself, “My god, did I just hear what I just heard"
JW: In 1953, you started your famed octet, which featured Fagerquist.
DP: Yes, I started that with guys from Les Brown's band, while we were all still in the band. In the octet, I always made sure to follow Don on a solo, so he'd give me something to build on [laughs]. He’d set me up with a figure on the ending of a solo, which was always sensational. [Pictured: Fagerquist in Mal Hallett's band in 1943]
DP: Yes. He was very easy-going. I had guys like Marty Paich, Shorty Rogers, Johnny Mandel and Bill Holman writing for my group. And guys like Claude Williamson, Ray Sims and Bob Gordon playing in there. Yet Donnie would steal the album again and again [laughs]. As a musician, you’d want to hear what he would do on every track. We did a thing featuring him in 1955, called Flying Down to Rio. Donny is fantastic on there.
JW: Fagerquist also did plenty of studio work, yes?
DP: After he left Les Brown in 1956 with other guys from the band to join my octet full time, Donny became the hit of the L.A. studios. He did every studio call for a jazz player. He did Sinatra dates after “Sweets” [Edison] stopped making those.
JW: Fagerquist began to drink heavily, though, didn't he?
DP: Yes. Don’s downfall was that he was a bad boy. He wasn’t a Boy Scout like me. He'd always drink on the stand. He’d have a bottle of Coke down there by his leg, but the cola would get lighter and lighter as the session or gig wore on. Eventually in the 1960s his drinking got real bad. By the end of playing dates he was so drunk you’d hope he’d show up for the next one. By the early 1970s, his body was destroyed. No one would hire him.
JW: Do you remember your last gig with him?
DP: In 1973 I got to direct the music for a TV show. It was an hour and a half talk show hosted by Tom Kennedy [pictured], who was a popular game-show host. The gig lasted until 1974. I had Jimmy Rowles on piano, Ray Brown on bass and Frankie Capp on drums. I wanted Donny on there, to give him some work.
JW: Were you concerned about his alcoholism?
DP: To protect against him drifting off to drink, I made sure his wife brought him to the studio each day and picked him up after so he wouldn’t mess up. We’d tape two to three shows a day. If we ran short on any one of them, I'd just point to Don and let him play. He played beautifully, even then. He was trying so hard to quit the booze. What a shame.
JW: What did Les Brown think of Fagerquist?
DP: For whatever reason, Les didn’t like Don. One time Les came over to me when I was still in the band and said, “You guys make such a fuss over Fagerquist. I don’t see it at all. He sounds ordinary.” When I left the band in 1956 and took many of the best musicians with me for my octet, including Don, Les wasn’t happy about that.
DP: He didn’t talk to me for 10 years after I left [laughs]. My octet was doing great featuring Don. Ten years later I went to see the Les Brown Band play. Afterward, Les came over to me and said, “Pell, I’ve been meaning to talk to you. I’ve been working on the ‘53 Palladium Concert tapes for release. I want you to know I’ve been listening to Fagerquist for five hours a day for weeks. You know, I want to take back whatever I said about Donny. He really is a player. He’s the best.” No one was around when Les told me that. It was just him and me. For Les to admit that was huge.
JazzWax tracks: Don Fagerquist can be heard on the albums of all the big bands mentioned above. But his brilliance is best heard in small-group settings.
Fagerquist's two leadership albums were The Don Fagerquist Nonette (1955) and the Don Fagerquist Octet: Eight by Eight (1957). Part of the first session and all of the second can be found on two splendid CDs: Don Fagerquist: Portrait of a Great Jazz Artist (Fresh Sound) here and Don Fagerquist Octet (VSOP) here. The first CD mentioned is an absolute must and features a mix of Fagerquist recordings with different artists, including Bill Holman and Russ Garcia. Dig the reed writing on The Way You Look Tonight. Or Fagerquist's solo on Bobby Troup's You're Looking at Me (which opens my interview clip by Bret Primack at the top of this blog).
Fagerquist with the Dave Pell Octet can be heard loud and clear on several excellent CDs, including The Dave Pell Octet: Jazz for Dancing and Listening (Fresh Sound), a double CD here, and Dave Pell Octet Plays Irving Berlin, Plays Burke and Van Heusen, and Plays Rodgers and Hart (all Fresh Sound). Two of the three are available at Amazon as downloads here and here.
JazzWax clip: Here's Georgie Auld's group in September 1959. At 5:30 into the clip, Fagerquist takes a nice muted trumpet solo...