In the spring of 1966, Timothy Leary praised the virtues of LSD, an H-bomb was lost at sea in Europe and Gemini 9's two-man crew began the first of its 47 orbits of Earth. And if these events weren't spacey enough, Buddy Rich, at age 48, decided to start a big band. Not a trendy rock or folk band but a hard-driving jazz orchestra with a swing beat and overheated soloists. One musician who was with the band from the start was Las Vegas studio trumpeter Bobby Shew.
The band that Rich formed in 1966 played gigs and recorded with different musicians until 1987, achieving cult status along the way. Even back in the 1970s, I recall the shock and awe among teenage jazz fans who cranked up the volume when West Side Story Medley or Channel One Suite came on, forcing everyone in the room to shut up when time came for Rich's extended solos.
In Part 1 of my three-part interview with Bobby Shew, 68, the big band studio trumpeter talks about coming up through the big bands at the tail end of the era and how he wound up in Rich's Las Vegas rehearsal band:
JazWax: Where did you grow up?
Bobby Shew: In Albuquerque, NM. I originally wanted to be an architect. I discovered Frank Lloyd Wright [pictured] at age 10. While most kids were reading junk, I was buying house plans [laughs]. I think my passion for architecture started because I grew up in a horrible old house without heating.
JW: When did you turn to music?
BS: I started playing guitar at age 8—unsuccessfully, I might add. When I switched schools in the fifth grade, a teacher came around and asked if anyone wanted to play in the band. I came home and talked my parents into letting me join. My stepfather had a Montgomery Ward trumpet in the closet and let me use it. So I joined. Funny thing is the trumpet was really easy for me. My stepfather taught me how to read music and form an embouchure. I thought everyone learned to play that easily.
JW: Were you listening to jazz at the time?
BS: No, not in 1952. In school the band just played marches, Old McDonald Had a Farm and things like that. We didn't have a phonograph. When I was 12 years old, one of my neighbors, a senior in high school who played the trombone, asked me to play on a dance band. I said, "I’d love to but I don't know how to dance" [laughs]. He said, “No, no, the band plays for dances.” That's how naive I was.
JW: How did you do?
BS: I could read the music instantly the first night we played. My stepfather had done a good job preparing me.
JW: What did you do in college?
BS: I studied architecture. But after two years, I realized I wasn’t going to be the next Frank Lloyd Wright. While I was in college I played in Stan Kenton's summer clinics in 1959 and 1960. That's where I met bandleader Sam Donahue [pictured]. When I left college in 1960, I was drafted by the Army.
JW: What did you do in the Army?
BS: I was sent to play in the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) band at the Ent Air Force Base in Colorado Springs. All I did all day was hang out in a pizza shop and play in the band. The NORAD band had the cream of the Army's musicians, like Phil Wilson and Paul Fontaine. We were on the road for 230 days a year playing concerts. NORAD was new and we were sort of doing its public relations. Then in 1964, we were sent to play at the New York World's Fair.
JW: When did you get your first big break?
BS: While I was at the World’s Fair in the NORAD band. One day, after we played a daytime concert, my commanding officer said to me, “What are you doing tonight?" I asked why. He said, "Sam Donahue is leading Tommy Dorsey’s band and he’s looking for a trumpet player.”
JW: How could you do this if you were in the Army?
BS: I was at the end of my term. My commanding officer said, "Go over and see if you can audition. If you get in, you can play with them. I’ll find a way to get you out." So I went into Manhattan, to the old Americana Hotel on 7th Ave., and listened to the band rehearse. Sam remembered me from the Kenton clinics and had me sit in. I read down a few things and played a few solos. He liked what he heard and said I was in. I went back to base and my commanding officer made good on his promise. I had just a little time left in the service anyway.
JW: What happened after you were discharged?
BS: I went right into the Tommy Dorsey band. Tommy had died in 1956, of course, but his orchestra was still going strong, led by Sam Donahue. We had the Pied Pipers, Frank Sinatra Jr. and Jeannie Thomas.
JW: Who was in the trumpet section?
BS: Charlie Shavers [pictured]. I roomed with him for a month. He was a great guy. Charlie had narcolepsy and used to fall asleep in the middle of a solo sometimes. Someone had to keep an eye on him when his wife wasn’t around. He and I shared a two-bedroom apartment. He cooked for me.
JW: What was his best dish?
BS: Gumbo with red beans and rice. I still remember it. He always wanted to take a bath, not a shower. He’d fill the tub up with scalding water, grab a bottle of vodka, light a cigar and climb in. Man, I couldn’t even stick my foot in that water. Because of his condition, I had to pull up a chair and watch him bathe, to make sure he didn’t fall asleep.
JW: Who else was in the band?
BS: Trumpeters Everett Longstreth and Bobby Findley, and tenor saxophonist Al Almeida. Then trumpeter Bill Chase called me. He was playing in Woody Herman’s band. Phil Wilson from NORAD was in the band, too. Phil had suggested me. So I left Dorsey for Woody. Funny, I had no intention of becoming a musician. I had been planning to go back to school. But one thing led to another.
JW: How did you wind up in Buddy Rich’s band in 1966?
BS: Buddy had formed a band in the spring in Las Vegas. I was living there at the time playing shows. I had met my wife the day I got out of the Dorsey band in Vegas. She was a dancer there. I also had a place in New York, so I was back and forth between the two cities for a while. I was a pretty well known trumpeter around Vegas.
JW: What happened?
BS: Steve Perlow was Buddy's band manager. He asked me to join. I played the jazz chair during rehearsals. The jazz chair is the second trumpet and gets to play the solos. The band didn’t play any gigs at first. It just rehearsed. [Photo by Herman Leonard/CTSImages.com]
JW: Did all go well at the rehearsal?
BS: Yes, except Buddy didn’t like the lead trumpet player. After three tunes, Buddy was grumbling, and Perlow said to him, “Why don’t we try Bobby on the lead chair.” Buddy growled at me in that Marine Corps voice of his to move over a chair. The problem was I wasn’t really a lead player. The lead has to set the section’s pace and play the section high notes in arrangements. I had a little experience playing the lead part, but I never held the chair full time.
JW: What did the band play?
BS: The first chart they called when I moved over was Step Right Up arranged by Oliver Nelson. The trumpet part only went up to a high F, so it wasn’t too bad. I got comfortable pretty quick.
JW: Then what was tough about the first chair?
BS: As section leader, you have to have the right feel since everyone else in the section is taking your cue. Fortunately I grew up playing drums as well as guitar and trumpet. So I had a good feel for Buddy.
JW: What happened after the tune?
BS: Buddy liked what I did and said, “You’re the lead player.” I protested, saying, “Buddy, wait, I don’t have lead chops.” Buddy barked, “Don’t be a crybaby. Go home and get the lead chops" [laughs].
JW: What did you think?
BS: Part of me was scared. But the other part said to do as Buddy suggested. When I got home, I pulled out this Gardinelli mouthpiece I had bought years earlier for $8. It had a smaller opening, which kept the air velocity up, which is what you need to hit the higher notes. It worked like a charm.
Tomorrow, Bobby talks about playing in Buddy Rich's band, the albums they recorded, the roots of Rich's grouchiness, where West Side Story Medley and Channel One Suite originated, and how he came to leave the band after 21 months.
JazzWax tracks: One of Bobby Shew's prettiest albums as a leader is Metropole Orchestra. Arranged by Lex Jasper and conducted by Rob Pronk, the 1988 recording features Bobby soloing and soaring through standards backed by this super-sized Netherlands orchestra with strings. It's absolutely gorgeous. You'll find it as a CD or download here.
JazzWax clip: Here's a taste of Bobby Shew with the Metropole Orchestra...