In the 1950s, Dick Collins was one of those rare trumpeters with a gorgeous round sound and smart, simple ideas. Both qualities made him ideally suited for the big bands of Woody Herman and Les Brown—orchestras in the 1950s that focused as much on style and sensitivity as on power and swing. Dick could effortlessly roll up a scale to create drama, linger ruefully on a note before tagging a few others on his triplet descent. The melodies Dick invented on solos were so lush and sublime that you'd think they were written out or rehearsed. They weren't. [Photo of Dick Collins in Woody Herman's band courtesy of Capitol Records]
Some of Dick's best-recorded band work came while he was in Woody Herman's orchestra from 1954 to 1956. Writer Doug Ramsey, in his superb liner notes for Mosaic's Complete Capitol Recordings of Woody Herman box (now out of print), quoted arranger Ralph Burns: "Dick was one of those musicians who never got the praise he should have. He was wonderful." Wrote critic Ralph J. Gleason about Dick in December 1955: "Collins' solos are his best recorded work to date."
In Part 2 of my two-part interview with Dick, the sensitive and ever-hip trumpeter talks about the bands of Woody Herman and Les Brown and why he left the music business in 1962:
JazzWax: How did you come to join Woody Herman’s “Third Herd” band in late 1953?
Dick Collins: The band came to San Francisco and went into a club for a week. I went to listen a few times, and someone mentioned my name to Woody. So Woody asked me to sit in. The jazz trumpeter got off the stage and I took his seat. I think it was Stu Williamson. I started to play, and Woody loved what he heard. He likened me to Bix Beiderbecke. To keep me, Woody had to let Stu go.
JW: What was Herman like on the bandstand?
DC: Woody was very quiet and never made any comments. He’d give you a look, either a good one or a “what are you doing?” look. Woody was intellectually sharp. He was up on everything and had a great memory. For instance, Les Brown had a big chart, like a folded menu, with a numbered list of all the tunes in his book. He’d use the chart to select songs for each set. Woody didn’t have such a chart. He had it all in his head.
JW: Who did you room with?
DC: Trumpeter John Howell. I learned a lot from him about playing trumpet in a section. Certain things you learn by sitting next to a guy in a band. Not talking but by listening and locking into what the lead player is doing. I was the jazz trumpet. The first chair in Woody’s band was John or Al Porcino.
JW: What’s special about the lead trumpet?
DC: When you have four trumpets playing, they all have to move around on a sheet of music like one instrument. In the trumpet section of a good band, you learn how to play intuitively. You learn how to make the same mistake the lead trumpeter makes. That’s how close the horns have to be and how hard they have to be listening to the lead player.
JW: Was trumpeter Burt Collins a relation?
DC: Not at all. We just happened to have the same last name. Woody used to drive him nuts. Woody would fool around by announcing, “That was Burt Collins, Dick Collins’ Jewish brother.” That was Woody. It really burned Burt to be compared to anyone.
JW: You were featured on Nat Pierce and the Herdsmen for Fantasy in 1954.
DC: Actually, that was my session but Nat took over the whole thing. It was my date. He just arranged it. But somewhere along the way he became the leader instead of just the piano player. He just made himself the leader, New York style [laughs]. I just let it happen. Nat never said anything and neither did I.
JW: You toured with Herman in Scandinavia in April of 1954.
DC: That was beautiful, man. I didn’t’ take my wife on that trip. It was too grueling. We were gone for a month playing all the time. Ralph Burns was with us. He was fantastic. What a writer. Ralph was a very quiet guy and never said much of anything. We went through Europe like a thunderstorm. Those days were wild. The war was over and fans went nuts when we showed up. They couldn’t believe what we were playing. We were fresh and knew it, so we let it all go. We didn’t hold anything back. [Photo of Ralph Burns and Woody Herman by Popsie Randolph]
JW: Was Herman an active leader on the bandstand?
DC: Only when he turned around and lowered his hand in the air, which meant to bring it down. We’d hawk him while we played, listening for every nuance. We had memorized the book. He’d call a tune by name, and we’d know it by heart. All he had to do is yell, “Brothers” and we knew to play Four Brothers.
JW: How was the drug situation in that band compared to Herman’s Second Herd in 1947?
DC: Everyone was clean. A little alcohol and some pot but nothing serious. One of the trumpeters got on a kick once in a while. I’d have to nudge him with my kneecap to keep him from slumping over. Then when it was his turn to play, I’d shout his name, he’d wake up and nail the part right away. It was amazing.
JW: Did you ask Woody about that 1947 band and the rampant drug use?
DC: Yes. One time when we were getting drunk, Woody said, “They’d throw beer cans at me. They were ruthless bastards. I couldn’t control them.” He knew they were all using but said he couldn’t do anything about it. The whole reed section was that way. Woody told me, “All I could do is call a tune.” Woody said he once called the band together and said, “Whatever you do, do it on your own time, not on the stand.” Of course, guys showed up stoned out anyway.
JW: You were on Tjader Plays Mambo, a strong session that emphasized the trumpets and Tjader's vibes.
DC: Cal [pictured] was insane. What a marvelous guy and player. He was originally a tap dancer as a kid. We roomed together in San Francisco with my older brother Bob. Cal and I played together with Brubeck.
JW: Do you remember your recordings of Horn of Plenty and King Richard the Swing Hearted for RCA in 1954?
DC: Not much. It’s so long ago.
JW: You knew Al Cohn, who was on both albums.
DC: Al and I got along real well. One night he came up to my hotel room. I had no booze or pot. Al didn’t ask for anything. He just sat down and wrote a chart on the bed. We talked and he wrote while we talked.
JW: Which song was it?
DC: The Long Night—on Horn of Plenty. He had nothing to drink, not even a Coca-Cola. He just wrote and talked. It was amazing to watch him work.
JW: Who introduced you to Cohn?
DC: Trumpeter Al Porcino. I remember the three of us were standing together. Al Cohn turned to me and said, “That’s Cohn, without an ‘e’ ” [laughs]. That’s pure Al. I mean, who would even bother to say that? Al, that’s who. Al would just sit down and blow. He was amazing.
JW: How did you come to join Les Brown in 1957?
DC: Butch Stone, the baritone saxophonist on Les' band and the band’s manager, came up to me while I was with Woody. He said, “Dick, I’m with Les Brown. Any time you leave Woody or want a change, we want you on the band. We’ll get rid of the guy we have to make room for you.”
JW: Who did you replace?
DC: Bobby Styles.
JW: Did you know Don Fagerquist?
DC: Oh sure. Don and I played together on record dates. I was so sick when I heard he had died. He was such a lovely guy.
JW: Before you’d solo, did you think first about what you were going to do or where you wanted to wind up?
DC: No. Once I tried to work that out in advance but screwed up. From then on, I just started playing when it was time for my solo. I felt the way I felt and it came out when I started to play.
JW: How did Les Brown's band differ from Herman's in the 1950s?
DC: Les had more of a society band. But he had some good jazz players and would let us blow. He always played for country clubs out west and things like that, never for joints or clubs. His charts also were stricter and totally different from the kinds of things Al Cohn would write and arrange. Al had a looseness and natural feel. A lot of things with Les were not natural.
JW: For example?
DC: As a trumpet player, Les wanted you to play staccato all night long. If you didn’t, you’d hear him bark, “Short! Short!” He always wanted the trumpets to be crisp, which wasn't necessarily a natural or warm feel. The guys would come off the stand mimicking Les by saying to each other, “Short! Short!”
JW: Why did you cut back and stop recording in 1962?
DC: The business was slowing down. I said to myself, “Someday you’re not going to be 30 anymore. You’re going to be 65 and then 70, and everything will have changed. What will you be doing?” The answer, invariably, was, “Nothing.” I had no real skills other than playing the horn. I only had an undergraduate degree.
JW: What did you do?
DC: I decided to get a masters degree in library science. I went back to school and became a librarian in the pubic library system in Los Angeles. I worked there for 15 years and today I’m living on that pension. I don’t have to worry about a Saturday night, as some older musicians do.
JW: Did the people who worked with you at the library know who you were?
DC: No. I kept those worlds separate. I was still playing locally at night. I’d work during the day at the library and play at Disneyland at night in Anaheim for a week or a month. I joined the local union in Orange County so I could do that.
JW: Did you enjoy being a librarian?
DC: I loved it. Too many people look down on the job but it’s as honorable an occupation as any other. Eventually I was hired by Cal Tech to help the university create a special library for earthquake engineering. I had to read all the books to determine which ones we should have on the shelves. I jumped right in and had a ball.
JW: Do you have any regrets?
DC: Just one. I wish I didn’t drink so much early on.
JW: How did you manage to play so beautifully?
DC: Thank you. Maybe because I liked to memorize song lyrics before blowing on the melody. My dad raised me that way. A new piece of sheet music would come in and we’d start learning the lyrics and melody at the exact same time.
JW: How would you describe your own sound?
DC: Lyrical, or at least I hope so [laughs].
JazzWax tracks: Dick Collins with Woody Herman's Third Herd can be found on The Complete Capitol Recordings of Woody Herman, one of Mosaic's finest boxes. Sadly, it's now out of print but I see a set is going for $149 at Amazon. Dick not only brings enormous flavor to the band's trumpet section but also squeezes off stellar solos on Sleepy Serenade, I'll Never Be the Same, Trouble in Mind, 9:20 Special and others.
Some of these recordings are on a two-CD set called Woody Herman and His Orchestra: 1956 here.
Dick's period with Les Brown spans from 1957 to 1962. Among his finest recordings with the band are on Les Brown's Jazz Song Book and Swing Song Book (both albums are on one CD here) and Les Brown: Lerner and Loewe Bandbook here.A JazzWax thanks to Han Schulte of the Netherlands for the red Woody Herman Third Herd brochure cover at the top of this post and interior page with a photo and bio of Dick Collins.