By the early 1950s, the number of big bands that traveled the country's roads to perform was dwindling. The reasons were a matter of economics and fizzling demand. Transporting, housing and feeding upward of 18 musicians required solid money, and with married couples going out less often to dance and preferring to stay home and play records, fewer band opportunities remained. In New York, with the rise of the suburbs, the once booming club business was shrinking as well, and the talent pool was outstripping venues. Newly married in early 1952, Herb Geller had some choices to make. [Photo by Michele Giotto]
Herb couldn't have been happier. By the early 1950s, his sound had matured and he was doubling on a wide range of instruments, including the alto and tenor saxophone and the clarinet. But so were other musicians, and New York was awash in musicians competing for jobs and hoping that the jazz business would pick up. Eventually work opportunities would expand with the rise of the 33 1/3-rpm long-playing record. But in 1952 and 1953, jazz was in a period of transitional uncertainty.In Part 3 of my interview with Herb, the saxophone giant talks about jamming in New York, encountering clarinetist Tony Scott, joining Billy May's band and traveling to Los Angeles, where he and wife Lorraine began to play clubs together and record LPs:
JazzWax: While you were in New York in the early 1950s, where else did you jam?
Herb Geller: On 49th St. and Broadway, at Georgie Auld’s Tin Pan Alley in the Hotel Markwell. Every Sunday the club had a 12-hour jam session, from 4 p.m. to 4 a.m. Paul Desmond and I went there at 4 p.m. with our horns to sit in and listen. My first day there I met Gerry Mulligan, Red Mitchell, Ed Shaughnessy, Allen Eager [pictured] and others. There would always be three or four horn players on the stage at the same time.
JW: Did Charlie Parker ever come in?
HG: Yes. I was there the night Tony Scott wouldn’t get off the stage [laughs].
JW: What happened?
HG: Tony was playing a set. In fact, he played every set. There was no break for him. When Parker came in, all the musicians left the bandstand—except Tony [pictured], which was weird. Everyone who got off wanted to hear Parker play. And who in his right mind wanted to compete with him?
JW: What happened?
HG: Parker and Tony started the first tune. Tony insisted on playing the first jazz chorus before Parker. Parker just smiled and stopped, letting Tony play for 10 minutes. Tony played a lot of dull nonsense. Then it was Parker’s turn, and he played beautiful music.
JW: Was Scott humiliated?
HG: Tony? You couldn’t humiliate Tony [laughs].
JW: Was Scott always like that?
HG: Most of the time. There was no shame. One time I was at a club in New York where Billie Holiday was asked to sing. Billie got up and called out some simple tune and asked, "Who's going to accompany me?" Tony Scott jumped up before she finished her sentence and said, “I’ll play.” After about 16 bars, Tony got lost. He needed to take a look at the music. [Tony Scott and Billie Holiday]
JW: What did he do?
HG: He told Billie to stop for a second. Then he pulled sheet music out of his bag on stage before she restarted. She was in shock. Everyone was in shock. Can you imagine?
JW: How did you join Billy May’s band in 1952?
HG: I ran into trumpeter Al Stewart, who told me that Billy [pictured] needed a second alto. Billy’s band was playing at an air base down South someplace. The band would play a concert for the Air Force, and in return the Air Force would fly the band wherever it had to be for the next gig or concert. I joined the band when they got back and played three of those flying gigs before the band went into the Paramount Theater for a while.
JW: What did you think of the band?
HG: It was terrific. There were a lot of sharp players in there. On the first night, when I was first introduced to everyone, I met alto saxophonist Willie Smith [pictured]. We were sitting next to each other in the band. He was drunk, but he performed perfectly. I remember he had a long solo on Sophisticated Lady. He played it beautifully, with a cadenza that ended on a high note. The second night was exactly like the first: Willie was loaded but again played perfectly. On third night Willie was sober. When I sat down, he turned and said to me, “Oh, hi, you’re the new guy!” [laughs].
JW: How was Billy May?
HG: Billy was a genius. He wrote so well and so fast. We once had to play the Buckeye Lake Amusement Park about 45 minutes from our hotel in Columbus, Ohio. We got on the bus and Billy started writing. He didn’t have a score pad—which has room for all the instruments and gives you an overview as you're writing. He just had blank sheet music. First he wrote out all the trumpet parts, then the saxes, then the trombones and so on. By the time we pulled into the park, the arrangement was done. It was amazing.
JW: Did you take the job on the Billy May band so you could travel back to Los Angeles?
HG: Yes. I wanted to visit my family. The band arrived in Hollywood in May 1953. Then Lorraine flew out. She had never met my parents before.
JW: Which musicians did you see out there?
HG: A lot of guys who were new to the West Coast. Most had quit the big bands that they were with to stay out there. On that visit I met trumpeter Shorty Rogers, who said to me, “Too bad you don’t live out here. You could be recording with my band.” Shorty said there was a ton of recording going on and that I would fit right in.
JW: Did you and Lorraine consider relocating?
HG: Yes. At end of the Billy May tour on the West Coast, Lorraine and I flew back to New York, closed our apartment and took an apartment in Hollywood. Lorraine had to sweat out her union card in California. I was offered a job in a strip club in South Los Angeles making $120 a week, which was good money. The club also needed a piano player. Lorraine took the job but we used different last names. Lorraine was waiting out her L.A. union card so she wasn't officially entitled to play a steady engagement. Each week we asked different friends of ours if we could use their names for her.
JW: You played a lot of L.A. strip clubs.
HG: It was good work if you knew the routines, and I did. If you knew Night Train, Harlem Nocturne and a boogie-woogie, you were set [laughs]. Every time we played a tune twice, we’d just do it in another key. Strip music was the best thing for training your stamina and building chops. The routines were the same and so was the music—a slow tune, a medium-tempo tune and a fast tune. We also played a lot of standards to a strip beat, like Stompin' at the Savoy. Every song we played got the same treatment.
JW: During this time in 1953, you and Lorraine recorded your first session together.
HG: Yes, four tracks for Imperial. Bassist Harry Babasin and drummer Roy Harte, who owned a store called Drum City, started this small little record company. They asked me to record four titles with Lorraine. By the way, John Simmons was on bass, not Curtis Counce, as the discographies say.
JW: Whose idea was it for you and Lorraine to form a group?
HG: We were always playing together in clubs. We just decided to get a quartet together. There was a club in Hollywood called Zardi's. We played there every Tuesday night. It was right on Hollywood Boulevard, so a lot of people who weren't necessarily jazz fans were lured in while walking by. The club had Sunday jam sessions that started at 2 p.m. and ran until 6 p.m. Then there was a mad dash to Hermosa Beach for the last set at the Lighthouse.
JW: Who got you going with studio work?
HG: Not long after Lorraine and I relocated, I ran into Shorty Rogers again. He said, “I have a recording session coming up and you’re on it.” I think it was Hot Blood in the summer of 1953.
JW: Just before that you played a jam session at the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa Beach that was recorded.
HG: Yes. He didn’t have much material for that date, and we didn't have time to rehearse. He brought in six charts, half of them blues, and we faked the rest. Talk about a trumpet section: Maynard Ferguson and Conrad Gozzo split the first chair. [Photo of Shorty Rogers by Bob Willoughby]
JW: You recorded quite a bit with Shorty—including Courts the Count and Clickin’ with Clax.
HG: Shorty was a prince. He was lovely guy. Very modest. I personally feel he didn’t go as far as he should have with the music. Shorty’s big thing was the Count Basie band. He wanted to emulate Basie's thing, but with a West Coast feel. I always found his tunes a little too naïve and simple in how they build and resolve. I wouldn't have written things like that. My tunes were more a little more interesting, harmonically.
Tomorrow, Herb talks about Jimmy Giuffre, Art Pepper, Don Fagerquist, Maynard Ferguson, Frank Butler and buying a house in the Hollywood Hills.
JazzWax tracks: Herb's recordings with Billy May are on a CD called Billy May: Studio Recordings (1951-53). This is mostly pop fare with frisky punches, work that came just prior to May's arranging for Frank Sinatra and other singers at Capitol. Herb's tracks are on Disc 2. You'll find the CD here.
Herb and Lorraine's recordings together are a must-own. Lorraine Geller was a superb pianist with impeccable technique and a solid jazz ear. Herb's sound and ideas are solid and soaring throughout. They recorded together in small groups on the Herb Geller Quartet (1953), Leonard Feather Presents Best From the West (1954), The Gellers (1955), the Herb Geller Sextet (1955) and Herb Geller Plays (1955). Some of these can be found at iTunes. Or most are on Two of a Kind: Complete Recordings 1954-55 here.
JazzWax clip: Here's Herb soloing on a Dinah Washington jam session for EmArcy in 1954. He comes in right after Keter Betts' bass solo, 4:57 into the clip...