You could say that trumpeter Nick Travis was the East Coast Don Fagerquist. Blowing with a warm tone and lyrical style, Travis could swing. And like Fagerquist, Travis was always busy in the studios. Though he died at age 38 in 1964, he was on 350 jazz recording sessions, which is quite a significant number over roughly 20 years. Fagerquist, who started at about the same time as Travis in the early '40s and played until the late '60s, was on 362 jazz dates. Yet Travis recorded just one album as a leader—The Panic Is On—for RCA in March 1954. [Photo of Nick Travis in 1947 by William P. Gottlieb]
I spoke with saxophonist Hal McKusick about Travis yesterday. More with Hal in a minute.
The Panic Is On was a quintet date that featured Al Cohn on tenor sax, John Williams on piano, Teddy Kotick on bass and Art Mardigan on drums. One senses that the arrangements were largely by Cohn to showcase Travis' story-telling solo style.
Travis could gently but insistently climb improvisational ladders and joyously roll down the chord changes. This is certainly the case on Travisimo and Jazzbo's Jaunt, which beautifully showcase Travis' soloing grace. Of course, having Cohn along on the date gave the tracks smoky heft and mobility.
Travis and Cohn often played together throughout the 1950s. Collaborative albums include Al Cohn Quintet (1953), The Jazz Workshop: Four Brass, One Tenor (1955), Billy Byers: Lullaby of Birdland (1955), Manny Albam: The Jazz Workshop (1955), Elliot Lawrence: Plays Tiny Kahn and Johnny Mandel (1956), Joe Newman: Salute to Satch (1956), Maynard Ferguson: Birdland Dreamband (1956), Terry Gibbs: Swingin' (1956), John Benson Brooks: Folk Jazz USA (1956), Manny Albam: Jazz Greats of Our Time (1957), and on and on.
The swinging stuff is great kicks, but dig Travis on the ballad, You Don't Know What Love Is, a song that always separates the passionate poets from the high poppers. Travis' lines here are sultry and sublime, rendering Cohn's presence on the track almost unnecessary, if that's even possible. [Photo, from left, of Don Goldie, Nick Travis and Al Stewart in 1962 courtesy of Al Stewart]
Hal played on 30 dates with Travis:
"Nick was a great player and a great guy. He was so busy in the 1950s. He'd get done with work at 2 a.m., head off to his home in New Jersey and be back the next day in a New York studio at 8 a.m. Zoot told me a funny story. Nick was so tired one day that he slept in. His phone rang early that morning. Nick sleepily answered: "Hello?" "Hi Nick, it's Zoot." Nick paused and said, groggily, "Zoot who?" [laughs] [Pictured: Hal McKusick]
"I remember Nick as being quiet and intelligent. He spent a lot of time with his instrument. When you’re working the way we did, you didn't have a lot of time to practice, so work was practice. He was a great lead horn player and quite a soloist. Nick was always there on a date in every way. Efficient, on time and he never hit a bad note.
"Ultimately, Nick probably had too much work. We all did. Nick was in such great demand by so many different orchestrators and contractors at the time that he probably had a hard time handling the stress internally. He kept a lot of it bottled up, I guess. I didn't realize he had passed from ulcer troubles.
"As sounds go, Nick's was down the middle. You'd hear his horn and if you didn't know who was playing you'd say, 'Wow, who is that? That sure sounds good.' He caught your attention. Nick also was a wonderful reader, which was why he was in such demand. Nick played caringly."
JazzWax tracks: Like most of the RCA jazz catalog from this period, The Panic Is On is out of print. Fresh Sound issued it in 2004, and CD copies are available here and probably at some download retail sites.
JazzWax clip: How good was Nick Travis? Dig him here with Zoot Sims on Fools Rush In. Tasty and strong but never overbearing or imposing. And dig Zoot's Glad to Be Unhappy tag!...