From his earliest small-group recording session with trumpeter Tony Fruscella in February 1952, Herb Geller's sound on the alto saxophone was distinct and vibrant. There was enormous power, spidery speed, seamless ideas and a soaring tone that immediately commanded attention. Though he would be thought of as a West Coast musician in the years to follow, Herb's approach and vibrancy actually was forged in New York.Herb's move East in 1949 changed him as an artist, giving him greater confidence as a section player and soloist. He also came in contact with many of the top bebop and cool artists of the period, interactions that imbued him with a new level of ambition and drive. Marriage to pianist Lorraine Walsh in 1952 also gave him fresh purpose.
In Part 2 of my five-part interview with Herb, the hard-charging, smooth-toned alto saxophonist talks about buying a hot horn, meeting his future wife, jamming in New York, and playing in the bands of Claude Thornhill and Jerry Wald:
JazzWax: With your style on alto saxophone coming into focus by 1948, what was your first extended gig on the instrument in Los Angeles?
Herb Geller: I joined trumpeter Jimmy Zito’s band. He had been playing lead trumpet with Les Brown on the West Coast. His marriage to actress June Haver had given him greater name visibility. Russ Freeman was on piano and Freddy Greenwell was on tenor sax. Freddy is largely forgotten today, but he played like Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray. [Pictured: Jimmy Zito and June Haver]
JW: Did the Zito band tour?
HG: Yes, we worked all over. After the gig, some of us went to this little club in the Fillmore district of San Francisco to jam. After the third night, at around 5 a.m., a 12-year-old kid came up to me and asked if I wanted to buy a sax and clarinet.
JW: What did you tell him?
HG: I said, “Let me see what you have.” So the kid brought me outside and showed me a Selmer alto and Buffet clarinet. I had no need for the clarinet but always had wanted a Selmer. The kid said, “I’ll sell it to you for $75.” I knew it was hot but I figured if I didn’t buy it someone else would. So I paid for the sax with my gig money and took the horn home to the hotel where the band was staying.
JW: Did you play it?
HG: Almost. That afternoon I had an appointment to meet Bob Kesterson, who had played bass on Charlie Parker’s Lover Man session for Dial in 1946. I told Bob, “I bought a Selmer alto sax this morning.” He said, “Really? I’m working with a guy whose Selmer was stolen last night.” I asked him the musician’s name. He said, “Paul Desmond.”
JW: What did you do?
HG: I took this guy Paul’s number and gave him a call. He had a serial number that matched the one I had bought. When he came over, I asked if I could get back the $75 I had paid for it. Paul said, “No, and if you make trouble you’ll be arrested for buying a hot instrument.” So that was that.
JW: You were back to your old alto?
HG: Yes. At that time, I was eager to go to New York. Everyone was there, and the music was hot. That’s when I heard that pianist Jack Fina was putting together a band in Los Angeles to travel East. I joined the band on tenor about a week after I got back from working with Jimmy Zito in San Francisco. When some of the musicians picked me up in a car for our first gig in Salt Lake City, one of the guys said we had to pick up another musician who was joining the band.
JW: Who was it?
HG: Jack said, “A guy named Paul Desmond” [laughs]. I was hired to play tenor.
JW: How did you two work out?
HG: We actually became very good friends. We joked about that hot sax incident for years. When I was sweating out my union card in New York, Paul would say, “Herb, I want to do something for you. Here’s $75.”
JW: How long did you tour with Jack Fina’s band?
HG: Not long. We toured for a while, including a month's stay at New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel and another month at a Chicago ballroom. Then Paul and I quit around the same time. Paul went back to San Francisco and I went back to Los Angeles. This was 1949. Back home, I called my friends and asked if there were any jam sessions in town. At one of the clubs, a girl was playing piano during the sessions. She was terrific. I spoke to her afterward. She was very, very modest about how good she was. We quickly became friends.
JW: Who was it?
HG: Lorraine Walsh, my future wife [laughs]. [Photo of Lorraine Geller by Ray Avery/CTSImages.com]
JW: What was she doing there?
HG: She told me she was with the Sweethearts of Rhythm, a 10-piece, integrated, all-girl band. She said the band had just finished a week-long stay at a theater in Watts, an L.A. suburb, and that she was heading back to Portland, OR, where she was from. She said she planned to rejoin the Sweethearts in New York after a break.
JW: When did you see her again?
HG: After Lorraine left Los Angeles, we kept in contact. I decided I was going to move to New York. Gaining experience was my motivation to head East but Lorraine was a close second. In New York, Lorraine and I began dating. In September 1949, after I arrived in New York, I bumped into O.B. Massingill, a trombonist in the Claude Thornhill Orchestra who managed the band. [Pictured: Claude Thornhill]
JW: Did you already know him?
HG: Yes, back in 1948, Claude’s band had come to Los Angeles to play the Hollywood Palladium for a month. A few days into their engagement, alto saxophonist Hal McKusick [pictured], who was on the band, called me and said he had a family emergency—his wife was ill back in New York and he needed to return to help with their children. Hal asked if I would take his place on alto. So I joined the band for the remainder of the engagement. That was the best band I had played in up to that point, and we wound up doing a recording and a film short subject.
JW: What did Massingill want that day in New York in late 1949?JW: Quite a few great musician passed through that band.
HG: He asked if I still played tenor. I told him I had my tenor, alto and clarinet with me. He asked if I’d re-join the Thornhill band. “Claude always talks about you,” he said. So I joined Thornhill on tenor for nine months and sat next to Med Flory [pictured], who was on solo clarinet. Claude had an amazing book. There were things like Gerry Mulligan's Five Brothers, and Moon Dreams—the same Gil Evans arrangement from the Birth of the Cool session but written for a full orchestra. Gil had written it as the third part of a medley that began with a vocal on Everything Happens to Me. Gil had cut down his Thornhill orchestration for the Birth of the Cool date and just used Moon Dreams. When we played the medley with Thornhill, Med Flory sang Everything Happens to Me.
HG: There were several different tenor players on the band while I was there, but the best one was Herbie Steward, who played beautifully. But Herbie was unhappy with the one-nighters. Who wasn't? He didn't stay long. Herbie was an influence for Stan Getz and Zoot Sims but was an extreme introvert. He disappeared from the scene and the last time I saw him was in San Francisco. What an enormous talent cut short.
JW: What did you do after you left Thornhill in 1951?
HG: I decided to stay in New York and put in for my Local 802 union card. Lorraine and I planned to get married. I played at all the jam sessions. I even played piano and got good at it. I never could play super well but I could pound out the chords.
JW: Where were you jamming?
HG: Alto saxophonist Joe Maini [pictured] and trombonist Jimmy Knepper shared a little basement apartment on 152d St. and Broadway. They had a piano and drum kit set up to accompany anyone who might drop by, 24-hours a day. There were two beds and after a few days of jamming they’d go to sleep. I played piano on some of those sessions. The piano had notes missing, but it worked.
JW: Who came by?
HG: Everyone. One time I was playing alto sax on Out of Nowhere. I used to play with my eyes closed. When I opened them, less than a foot from my face was Charlie Parker staring at me. I blinked a few times and finished the chorus. Bird didn’t sit in. He had just dropped by to buy some pot or something.
JW: What did you do to pay the rent?
HG: After about six months of jam sessions, I finally received my New York union card in 1950 and had my choice of three jobs: One was going with Lucky Millinder's band. The other was playing was at a strip club with drummer Roy Hall. And the third was the one I took: Playing with clarinetist Jerry Wald’s [pictured] band.
JW: How did you know Wald?
HG: In 1948, Jerry had come out to L.A. to put together a band to play at the Casino Gardens. He had 26 arrangements by Al Cohn, and I was thrilled to play lead alto sax in the band, which meant I had quite a few solos.
JW: So Wald called you in New York in 1950?
HG: Yes. The band was playing at the Paramount Theater, with Gene Quill [pictured] on lead alto. Jerry phoned me and asked me to meet him in his dressing room at the theater. That's where he told me he wanted me to replace Gene. The band was going into the Arcadia Ballroom for a month. Wald and Quill didn’t get along.
JW: Why not?
HG: Jerry had something of an inferiority complex. He didn’t have a real solid clarinet sound. The guys in the band would always kid around by saying, “Here comes the Wald-o-phone with the plastic reed.” I think Gene Quill's talent just rubbed Jerry the wrong way. Also, in New York Jerry had to use only Local 802 union musicians for tax purposes, and Gene was not a member for some reason. So I was hired. Al Cohn rehearsed the band. I had first met Al on my first day in New York with Jack Fina’s band.
JW: How did you come to record with Tony Fruscella in 1952?
HG: Pianist Bill Triglia got a septet together that included me, Tony on trumpet, Phil Urso on tenor and Gene Allen on baritone. Bill said, “Let’s make a record for fun. I know a guy whose hobby is recording musicians.”
JW: Who was it?
HG: Rudy Van Gelder.
JW: What happened?
HG: We went out to Rudy’s [pictured] house and recorded four tunes. We played together as a group several times. We’d chip in 50 cents each and rent a studio at Nola’s for a few hours. Those were lean times.
JW: How soon before you and Lorraine were married?
HG: Lorraine and I got married at the end of February 1952, shortly after that Fruscella recording. Lorraine and I took a small apartment up on 165th St. and Broadway.
JW: How was playing with Jerry Wald?JW: What happened?
HG: Good. One day Jerry asked me to find a jazz piano player for the band. Later I bumped into pianist Joe Albany [pictured], who looked real good. He said he had recovered and was in great shape. I said, “Maybe I can get you a gig with Jerry.” Joe said, “Great.”
HG: Joe showed up on time at the band bus being used for the tour and I introduced him to Jerry. Evidently Jerry had known about Joe’s struggles or that he felt he wasn't dependable. At any rate, Jerry said to me, “No way—get him out of here. And get me another piano player. I need one fast.” I felt bad. After Joe left, I told Jerry that my wife Lorraine was available. Jerry agreed. So Lorraine joined the band at the last second. We played some one-nighters together.
JW: Why did you quit Wald’s band?
HG: Wald had a history of not paying the musicians. Money that he earned he needed to pay his last road band. Everyone was always filing claims against him to get their money. The whole process became exhausting.
Tomorrow, Herb talks about the night Tony Scott told Billie Holiday to stop singing, joining Billy May's band, reaching Los Angeles and sending for Lorraine, meeting Shorty Rogers and taking on studio work in Hollywood, and forming a quartet with Lorraine.
JazzWax tracks: Herb Geller recorded four tracks with trumpeter Tony Fruscella in 1952: P.U. Stomp, Darn That Dream, Tangerine and Loopadoo. The group has a decidedly Miles Davis Nonet sound. One of Herb's earliest recorded solos is on Tangerine, and it's a beaut. You'll find these tracks on Tony's Blues (Jazz Factory) here or on Tony Fruscella: The Complete Works (Jazz Factory), a four-CD set, here.
Herb also recorded four r&b tracks in New York with vocalist Bull Moose Jackson. Two of them—There Is No Greater Love and Bootsie—can be found on Bull Moose Jackson 1950-1953 (Classics) here. Or on Bull Moose Jackson compilations.
JazzWax clips: Here's Herb in 1956 on Mel Torme Sings Fred Astaire, featuring the Marty Paich Dek-Tette. Dig how Herb's alto comes in strong and solid, weaving in and out with inventive twists and turns. Can you guess the trumpeter?...
And here's Herb in 1958 blowing a clean, fresh solo on the Hi Lo's Agogically So from All That Jazz, again backed by Paich's Dek-Tette...