In the big band era of the 1950s, the jazz trumpeter was perhaps the most important musician of all in an orchestra, along with the band's drummer, of course. The first trumpet was the section's leader and set the tone for the horns. But the third chair, or jazz trumpet, had the solos and gave a band its personality and flavor. Once the LP era started in earnest in the mid-1950s, the jazz trumpet played an even more vital role, delivering a sound that stood out on home phonographs and served as the band's de facto vocalist. Among the greatest jazz trumpeters of this period was Dick Collins. [Photo of Dick Collins in Woody Herman's band, courtesy of Capitol Records]
Dick isn't as well known today among jazz fans as Don Fagerquist [pictured], Conte Candoli and other West Coast band trumpeters, probably because Dick largely stopped recording in 1962 to pursue other interests. But during his recording days, Dick's warm sound was signature in the bands of Woody Herman, Les Brown and others. Dick recorded only three albums as a small-group leader, one of which wound up being credited to Nat Pierce by mistake. These albums—Horn of Plenty, King Richard the Swing Hearted and Nat Pierce and the Herdsmen, Featuring Dick Collins—are works of art.
In Part 1 of my two-part interview with Dick, 85, the tasteful trumpeter talks about growing up on the West Coast, taking trumpet lessons from Red Nichols' father, studying with Darius Milhaud at Mills College, playing in the Dave Brubeck Octet, teaming with Kenny Clarke in Paris and playing with Charlie Barnet:
JazzWax: Where did you grow up?
Dick Collins: I was born in Seattle. My family moved to San Jose [pictured] when I was 5 years old. My father was a photographer and the leader of a dance band. He played piano and banjo and taught violin and piano. I was his band’s mascot. I was just 6 years old when he first put me on stage. I couldn’t hold up the trumpet because it was too heavy. So he built a tripod and mounted the instrument so I could blow and finger the valves.
JW: Did you choose the trumpet?
DC: My dad chose it for me. He handed it to me and said, “Here, kid. Learn how to play this thing.” I have two sisters and two brothers. I was the baby of our family, so I caught hell all the time. One of my brothers played trombone and one of my sisters played guitar. We’d all learn songs together, and they were all over me until I could play a tune. But my brother's arms were too short to get to the seventh position on the trombone—the slide all the way out. So he had to go to the euphonium [pictured] with valves. When his arms grew, he changed back to the trombone and eventually played in bands with me and we recorded together.
JW: Were you afraid of the stage early on?
DC: I never had stage fright. I was forced into appearing with my father's band and got used to it. People would drop by the house, and my dad would say, “Dicky, get out your trumpet and play for the folks.” That used to drive me nuts.
JW: Did you take trumpet lessons?
DC: Starting at age 6, I took lessons from Red Nichols’ father, who lived in San Jose. When I first went over to his place, he tied a trumpet from the chandelier. When I reached out to grab the horn, he said not to touch it, that I had to learn to play the trumpet while it hung there without putting my hands on it. The point was to teach me the right way to blow. So I had to approach the instrument delicately.
JW: How did you do it?
DC: I had to learn to blow without pressing my mouth into the mouthpiece. The whole idea was hands off, easy treatment and no force. Nichols was a great guy. He'd take three or four kids out to the park, and we'd sit around a tree. He’d have a half a crate of apples out there, and we'd eat them while we talked. I ran into Red Nichols [pictured] years later and told him I had studied trumpet with his father. Red said, “Yeah, so what?”
JW: Didn’t he get along with his dad?
DC: Apparently not. I think Red’s father gave him hell. Like trumpeter Conrad Gozzo’s father, who told him, “If you make one mistake that’s one. Second mistake, that’s two." After the third mistake, his father would whack him with rolled up paper.
JW: When did you start to come into your own as a trumpet player?
DC: In high school. I was playing all the time. As a result, I never learned how to dance because I was always in the orchestra playing [laughs]. I turned pro when I was 15. My father pulled strings to get me into the local musicians' union. Then I started playing in all the local bands.
JW: What did you do after high school?
DC: I was drafted into the Air Corps in 1943 and came out of the service in 1946. I was in bands the entire time and never went overseas. I learned a lot about music in the Air Corps. We played legit music in concerts, and we played marches when a general would fly in.
JW: After the war, did you attend college?
DC: Yes. I moved to San Francisco. The city was bigger than San Jose and more was happening there. There also were better musicians in San Francisco. San Jose was just a farming town back then. There were no real clubs. In San Francisco, I heard that Darius Milhaud was teaching at Mills College. So I enrolled.
JW: Did you study with him?
DC: Milhaud was still on campus when I enrolled. I took a couple of classes there on the G.I. Bill, studying music analysis. That’s all they let you take if you were an undergrad and a guy. Mills was an all-girls school. If you took a masters, that was different, you could take more involved music courses.
JW: What was so special about Milhaud?
DC: He was a great classical composer who loved jazz. Many jazz musicians in the San Francisco area were drawn to him, including Dave Brubeck and Pete Rugolo. Dave Brubeck’s brother Howard was teaching at Mills. We all got tangled up together. I remember one time Milhaud had a birthday. He was Jewish and had escaped the Nazis in the late 1930s, emigrating to the U.S. We played Happy Birthday in a minor key, which is funny to hear that way. I met Dave Brubeck [pictured] on campus and Paul Desmond soon after.
JW: You were in Paris in 1948. Why?
DC: Milhaud was leaving Mills College after the war to return to Paris. He said, “Why don’t you come to Paris and study with me?” He suggested I study with him there on the G.I. Bill. So I did for a year and stayed until 1949, playing often with drummer Kenny Clarke.
JW: What did you play in Paris?
DC: We just played bebop in clubs. I wasn’t really a bebop player, though. I was in a group called The Bebop Minstrels, but I was never comfortable in the idiom. Bebop was the word then, and you didn’t use any other word to describe jazz. I could play it, but my style wasn’t that way.
JW: What was Kenny Clarke like?
DC: He was a prince of a guy. As gentle as could be. He was one of my best friends. His drumming was impeccable. I heard him play with Dizzy Gillespie's big band and he swung it right off the stage. He would go into more intimate, reflective patterns than other drummers.
JW: Who else was in your group in Paris?
DC: We had Jack Weeks on bass and saxophonist Dave Van Kriedt. We all would hang out at Darius Milhaud’s apartment. Kenny and Milhaud got along swell. Milhaud loved his playing, the way Kenny put in small accents and played with soft brushes in small groups. With big bands Kenny would use clubs. He was so flexible and versatile.
JW: Why did you return to the U.S.?
DC: Before I left the U.S. in 1948, I met the girl I was going to marry at Mills College. She was a junior when I left. We wrote letters and stayed in touch. Eventually our letters grew more serious. So I packed up and came home. I was so sad to leave France. Paris was so beautiful, and all the guys I’d become friends with were still there. I had played on the Riviera and sailed and played out in the open air for dances. It was a great time to be in France.
JW: In 1950 you were back with Dave Brubeck's octet.
DC: All of the members of that group kept in touch with each other whenever any of us went away. When we got together again, Dave Van Kriedt wrote arrangements and we recorded early 10-inch LPs. Dave Van Kriedt was a slow thinker but a beautiful jazz player. Bebop broke his back in a way.
JW: How so?
DC: You grow up and have your own style and go straight ahead with that. But all of a sudden, when bop came in, everyone was playing it. You had to if you wanted to keep working. But Dave [pictured] couldn’t fit into that at all. He was more melodic. He wrote Fugue on Bop Theme for the octet, which was a mixture of classical ideas put in a jazz form. He just did his own thing, which tangled him up and stopped him from doing anything for a while. He tried to fit in with that but he couldn't. Finally, he did start playing bop and his writing was always great.
JW: In 1951, you were with Charlie Barnet.
DC: I learned so much from Barnet [pictured]. I was playing cornet in a small group that Barnet had. You had to listen like a hawk to everyone. With the big band, Barnet would go into another world. He liked to wail. I remember he turned around once while we were playing and said, “Hey, in the back row there, blow it out. I can’t hear it here. Just shout. Let me hear it. Bring it out more.” This got me from sucking on the horn to blowing on it—but not over-blowing.
Tomorrow, Dick talks about playing with Woody Herman and the Third Herd, Les Brown's band, and leaving the music business in the early 1960s.
JazzWax tracks: The earliest recordings by Dick Collins can be found on the Dave Brubeck Octet sessions of 1946-48 for Fantasy. They also include his 1950 recordings with the group. You'll find these on Dave Brubeck Octet, which is available as a download here. Dick's sessions for Swing Records in Paris with drummer Kenny Clarke are on the French Classics label, Kenny Clarke 1946-1948 (tracks 12-19). They are available as a download here.
Dicks' leadership dates in 1954 are all must-owns. They include Horn of Plenty, a stunner featuring Dick Collins (trumpet), Med Flory (alto sax), Al Cohn and Dick Hafer (tenor saxes), Bill Perkins (tenor sax and flute), Jack Nimitz (baritone sax), Nat Pierce (piano), Red Kelly (bass) and Chuck Flores (drums). Also King Richard, the Swing Hearted with a larger ensemble featuring Al Cohn's arrangements, and Nat Pierce and the Herdsmen Featuring Dick Collins, for which Pierce was mistakenly credited as the leader. You can find them here, here and here.
Dick also recorded in 1954 with Cal Tjader on Tjader Plays Mambo, featuring Dick, John Howell, Al Porcino and Charlie Walp on trumpets. You'll find this album at iTunes or here.