Al Porcino is easily one of jazz's greatest living trumpet players. In addition to playing on 342 recording sessions since 1942, he is the last known surviving member of Charlie Parker's first strings date—Neal Hefti's recording of Repetition in December 1947. Al also has the distinction of having played first trumpet in nearly every major big band of the '40s, 50s, '60s and '70s—from Tommy Dorsey, Woody Herman and Charlie Barnet to Count Basie, Stan Kenton, Gene Krupa, Chubby Jackson and Elliot Lawrence to Buddy Rich and the Thad Jones & Mel Lewis Orchestra.
Today, Al Porcino (pronounced Por-SEE-no) lives with his wife in Munich, Germany, where he has resided since 1977.
In Part 1 of my three-part interview with Al, 86, the high-note specialist talks about growing up in New York and his early big band experiences:
JazzWax: Where did you grow up?
Al Porcino: In Brooklyn and Weehawken, N.J. In Brooklyn, I lived with my mother and brother and sister, my grandparents and some of my nine uncles and aunts. When I was 10 years old, my parents, who had been separated for five years, got back together, and our immediate family of five moved to Weehawken. It was the best thing my parents could have done because it was the best place to live in the metro area. There were nice, conservative families there—largely Italian, German and Jewish. The high school had the best teachers in the state. I was lucky. [Photo of Al Porcino in 2006 in front of his family's former Brooklyn home, courtesy of Erna Tom]
JW: What did your father do for a living?
AP: He worked in the big Post Office in Manhattan on 34th St., so he just took the ferry from Weehawken to 42nd St. He had been in the Navy but injured his eye. I went to the Post Office to see him once sorting mail. He’d stand in front of this board with compartments with different parts of the city. Holding a whole handful of letters, he knew when he saw the address of a letter what post office slot it had to be slipped into. He knew all that.
JW: Tough job?
AP: Oh yes. He would take a test once a year, and we’d help him with that. He’d ask us to name a street, and he’d have to tell us what post office was near there.
JW: And your mom?
AP: She was a manicurist, and a very successful one. She also was a great cook. We always had guests for dinner, and they were knocked out by her food.
JW: Brothers and sisters?
AP: A brother and sister. Both older. I was the youngest in the family. My brother Anthony was the oldest. He went to a military academy school upstate. Then he went into the Navy. My sister’s name was Teresa. We called her Toddy.
JW: Where did you listen to music?
AP: I always had the radio on. My grandparents and uncles were always listening to it. My favorite show was the Make Believe Ballroom on WNEW in New York with Martin Block [pictured]. He was on for two hours, devoting 15 minutes to each band—Tommy Dorsey, Gene Krupa, Woody Herman and so on.
JW: This convinced you to be a musician?
AP: I originally wanted to be a drummer. I had some drumsticks that I had made. While a radio show was on the air, I would be drumming on a pad. But my father’s job didn’t pay enough to buy me drums. So I started on a $12 trumpet.
JW: Did you play trumpet in high school?
AP: Yes. In the band. And the marching band. I dug the trumpet because there were some pretty famous horn players around then, like Ziggy Elman [pictured] and Harry James.
JW: Where did you study?
AP: My very first teacher was Mr. Hartman, who helped me develop a good embouchure. Later, at the Wurlitzer Music School on 42nd St., just east of Times Square, Charles Colin taught me about diaphragm breathing. If you use the diaphragm, you can control how much air and pressure you put through the mouthpiece.
JW: Which band was your first professional job?
AP: Right after high school, in 1943, I joined Louis Prima’s band. He was a good trumpet player. Leon Prima, his brother, was good, too. I was lucky. Right out of high school I got the job. It was mostly one-nighters, from coast to coast. Louis Prima [pictured] was a great showman. He knew how to put on a show. I was lucky. He took me under his wings and taught me a whole lot of things about bands and playing. He was a true mentor.
JW: Did you have a nickname?
AP: No, I never did in the bands. The only nickname I had was in high school: Porky—short for Porcino.
JW: Did World War II effect you?
AP: I received a draft notice, but I wasn’t inducted because I’m colorblind. Imagine that. I was lucky. But I played at a lot on Army bases for the troops. The big impact of the war on me was that I was called for an audition with Louis Prima when I wasn't yet 18 years old. That's because all the older guys were in the Army fighting. And that was the start of my career.
JW: You were with Georgie Auld in 1946?
AP: Yes. Georgie was a swinger. He had great arrangers, including Tadd Dameron, Turk Van Lake, Budd Johnson, Hugo Winterhalter, Al Killian and Neal Hefti. Georgie had good time and could swing whenever he played. He was all right off stage if you didn’t mess him up. He could come on pretty strong if he wanted to. He was one of the best tenor men around.
JW: What about Charlie Ventura and Flip Phillips?
AP: They weren’t great swinging tenor men. They made a name for themselves. Georgie was really a swinger. He made it sound effortless.
JW: Do you recall Neal Hefti’s Repetition session in December 1947?
AP: A little. He wrote the piece and arranged it. The band was there in the studio. But Bird wasn’t there at first. I think we were waiting for him to show up. We rehearsed it. Then he came running in and we made a take. [Photo of Neal Hefti by William P. Gottlieb, circa 1946]
JW: What did you think?
AP: It was very fresh and extemporaneous. Bird was Bird—gorgeous. It was midnight, at Carnegie Hall. Everyone was sight-reading.
JW: You also played in Gene Roland’s rehearsal band, also known as The Band That Never Was, in April 1950.
AP: That band was a joke. It never came together. Gene was a good arranger. We rehearsed in a big rehearsal studio at Nola’s. Bird was in the band. A nice guy. We’d talk baseball at a bar nearby.
JazzWax tracks: To hear Al Porcino in Georgie Auld's band in the summer of 1945, you can download the last five tracks of Jump Georgie Jump (Hep) here.
JazzWax clip: Here's Georgie Auld's Daily Double, arranged by Budd Johnson, from January 1946, featuring a rare solo by Al Porcino. Dig the high notes...