By the mid-1950s, trumpeter Al Stewart was appearing as a sideman on a growing number of top big band dates and recordings. With the rise of the 12-inch jazz LP in 1956, album production ramped up as the larger format required more music per disc than had appeared on the smaller 10-inch LP releases. The change in disc size also meant longer, more complex arrangements, which in turn boosted demand for musicians who could read and play parts perfectly the first time around. Between 1956 and 1958, Al played and recorded steadily with a range of top East Coast bands, building his reputation with arrangers, contractors and producers. [Photo of Al Stewart with Quincy Jones in 2008 by Tandy Stewart; courtesy of Al Stewart]
In Part 4 of my interview series with Al, the big band trumpeter talks about his ongoing friendship with Louis Armstrong and playing in the trumpet sections of three top bands in the late 1950s led by Dizzy Gillespie, Maynard Ferguson and Johnny Richards:
JazzWax: Did you ever go out to Louis Armstrong's house in the Corona section of Queens, N.Y.?
Al Stewart: Yes. In the late 1950s, when Louis played New York's Basin Street East. I was working at the Paramount Theater with a band. After the show, I went over to hear Louis play and hang out at the club. While there I ran into [trumpeter] Bobby Hackett and [pianist] Lou Stein. We stayed until the club closed. Then Louis invited all of us out to his house [pictured].
JW: What did you do when you arrived?
AS: We went upstairs to Louis’ den. One wall was completely covered with trophies and awards. On a second wall was all of Louis' recordings and stereo equipment, which played constantly. On another wall, framed letters were hanging from famous fans all over the world, including kings and queens. On the fourth wall were different newspaper and magazine articles and photos of jazz musicians. But these weren't just clippings. Louis had added mischievous comments to them. It was purely playful.
JW: Like what?
AS: Let's say there was one of Ella [Fitzgerald]. The clip's headline might say that Ella was appearing nightly at some club in New York. Louis would add words to the clip in pen, like, “I knew her when she could sing.” Stuff like that [laughs]. There was no malice there. Louis didn't have a mean bone in his body. This was just fun, one musician needling another.
JW: When did you leave Louis' place?
AS: Just as dawn was just breaking. When we all went downstairs to leave, the door leading to the outside was at the end of this 30-foot living room. But before we reached the door, Louis said, “Hold on you cats, I want you to dig this.” The room was dark, but when Louis flipped the switch, a light illuminated a mural that covered an entire wall on the far end. An artist had painted it for him.
JW: What did the mural depict?
AS: Duffy Square [located at the northern triangle of Times Square at 47th St.]. The perspective was as if your back were against the old Latin Quarter nightclub looking south. The scene was a rainy night, so there were lights reflecting in the gutters. You saw the Astor Hotel on the Broadway side and the Lowe's State theater marquee on the 7th Ave. side. And people were walking across the street. [Photo of Times Square by Andreas Feininger for Life]
JW: What did you guys say?
AS: Nothing. There was dead silence. We were astonished and were taking it all in. After a little silence, Louis said, “Sometimes I get so high I see somebody I know walk by” [roaring laughter].
JW: In 1956 you played in the band Dizzy Gillespie formed for the U.S. State Department tours.
AS: Yes. I never recorded or traveled with them, though. I just played Storyville in Boston and Birdland in New York with the band. E.V. Perry, the lead player, left the band, and Diz asked me to take his spot at Birdland. [Photo: Dizzy Gillespie's band in 1956 at Birdland. From left (visible): trumpeters Lee Morgan, Al Stewart, Dizzy Gillespie; saxophonists Phil Woods, Jimmy Powell, Benny Golson and Marty Flax; trombonists Bill Elton and Rod Levitt; drums: Charlie Persip. Courtesy of Al Stewart; click to enlarge]
JW: How were your interactions with Gillespie?
AS: Great. The trumpet section was Lee Morgan, me, Carl Warwick and Burt Collins. The saxes were Phil Woods, Jimmy Powell, Benny Golson [pictured], Billy Mitchell and Marty Flax. The trombones were Melba Liston, Bill Elton and Rod Levitt. The rhythm section had Wynton Kelly on piano, Paul Chambers on bass and Charlie Persip on drums. Every night we opened with Ernie Wilkins' arrangement of Walkin'. A great way to start the evening.
JW: So you were at Birdland for a couple of weeks?
AS: Yes. One time, trumpeter Pauly Cohen came down to the club to hear the band. I went over to Dizzy and said, “Hey Diz, Pauly’s down here. Can he sit in for a set?” Dizzy said, "Sure." So I sat out and let Pauly play.
JW: How did Cohen do?
AS: Beautifully, and those charts weren't easy. After the set I went over to Dizzy and said, “Man, Pauly sure can sight-read." Dizzy laughed and said, “That mother can see around the corner” [laughs].
JW: In September 1956, you recorded with Maynard Ferguson's Birdland Dream Band, which became the model on which many late 1950s powerhouse bands were built.
AS: Yes, but I didn't go out on the road with them. We just recorded in the studio. I remember it was early in the morning when we did it. At 9 a.m., there's Maynard [pictured] hitting all those high notes. I said, “Maynard, where the hell do these notes come from so early in the morning?”
JW: What did Ferguson say?
AS: He said, “I’ll tell you Al, they feel like they’re coming from the bottom of my feet.” That means his whole being was playing that instrument. Everyone has their own thing. Maynard had something that was congenital. You don’t practice to get what he had. You feel it all the time. When I was studying with Benny Baker in late 1946, he told me he went up to Canada once a month to teach. One time he told me there was a kid who brought his entire lesson up an octave. That kid was Maynard Ferguson.
JW: In 1958, you were playing with Johnny Richards' Experiments in Sound band.
AS: Johnny Richards was a great orchestrator. He could take a bass sax and a fife and make it sound like a 100-piece orchestra. And nearly everything for that band was orchestral. There were only 17 guys in there, but it sounded like a symphony orchestra.
JW: How were the charts?
AS: They were many pages long. I don't think there was a single two-page arrangement in that book. The charts were all four pages long, and many were six and seven pages. They went on and on. What's more, it was a hard-blowing book. That kind of work could take its toll, especially when you worked with the band at Birdland for six hours a night.
JW: Were the arrangements tough to record?
AS: Not really. By the time you walked into a studio with that band, the arrangements have been played many times. When we recorded Experiments in Sound, we were working at Birdland playing until 2 a.m. every night. We got up early in the morning to do those dates. It was a hard blow.
JW: What do you mean?
AS: Your chops were swollen from the night before. Johnny's tunes were elaborate compositions, not basic arrangements. Johnny composed a few original tunes, like Young at Heart, which had that great trumpet solo by Doug Mettome. But Johnny's arrangements were like originals considering how involved the charts were. Your fingers moved all the time in Johnny's book. The trumpet section was Ray Copeland, Burt Collins, me and Johnny Bello. [Photo: Johnny Richards' orchestra at the Apollo Theater in 1958, featuring Burt Collins, Al Stewart, Jerry Kail and Doug Mettome (center). Courtesy of Al Stewart; click to enlarge]
JW: How was it to play Richards' arrangements live?
AS: Hard work. The ceiling at Birdland where the trumpet players stood up was padded. So you had to blow pretty hard to project. One night I had a big scene with John at Birdland.
JW: What happened?
AS: At about 2 a.m., after spending the night blowing our heads off, Johnny called the last tune—one of the heaviest ones in his book. And he wanted the trumpets to stand through the tune.
JW: What did you say?
AS: I think I grunted or grumbled or something. So Johnny and I had words after we came off the stand, and we nearly came to blows. The guys had to come between us. I didn't play with the band for a while after that.
JW: Did you ever run into Richards again?
AS: Yes. One night in the early 1960s, the band was playing at New York's Village Gate. Trumpeter Jerry Kail was back with the band. The rest of the horns were Burt Collins, Doug Mettome and Ray Copeland. Jerry couldn’t make it one night for some reason. He was playing lead. So Burt spoke to John about calling me.
JW: What happeend?
AS: Burt talked John into letting me come down for the night to cover Jerry. I already knew the book and I knew John's style, how to conceive his arrangements.
JW: How did Johnny great you?
AS: We had a courteous hello. I got on the bandstand, and even though many of the charts were new, I sat up there and blew with a vengeance. I think I played better with the band that night than I had ever played before. After the gig, John hugged and kissed me, and took me for a drink. I just came in and did what I had to do.
Tomorrow, Al reflects further on his recording schedule in the late 1950s and shares anecdotes about riding in a car with Charlie Barnet, Barnet's legendary temper, what Barnet did to trumpeter Dale Pierce, and how Al resolved a confrontation with a top studio legend in Gordon Jenkins' orchestra.
JazzWax tracks: Between 1956 and early 1958, Al can be heard on several terrific albums. These include Phil Sunkel's Jazz Band (ABC-Paramount, 1956), Maynard Ferguson: The Birdland Dream Band Vol. 2 (Vik, 1956), Nat Pierce: Big Band at the Savoy Ballroom (RCA, 1957), and Johnny Richards: Experiments in Sound (Capitol, 1958).
The Phil Sunkel album is hiding out at iTunes as a download for $5.99. The Maynard Ferguson album is available on the complete Birdland Dream Band (Fresh Sound) here. Despite its title, the Nat Pierce album with Buck Clayton actually was recorded in a studio and is available here. All of Al's work with Johnny Richards can be found on the now out-of-print Mosaic Select: Johnny Richards box available from independent sellers here.
JazzWax clip: Here's an audio clip from the Maynard Ferguson Dream Band album, featuring Johnny Mandel's Little Girl Kimbi, a blues with Count Basie overtones. Dig the trumpet section, featuring Maynard Ferguson, Stan Fishelson, Joe Ferrante and Al. The solos are by bassist Milt Hinton, alto saxophonist Herb Geller and Maynard Ferguson...