If you own a big band album from the post-war years, chances are Al Porcino is playing first trumpet on the recording. Al often was featured in that chair for his swinging leadership skills, the clarity of his playing, his sight-reading abilities and his knack for hitting screaming high notes. A trumpet section's job is to punctuate a big band arrangement, and the first trumpet always needs to be rock solid and distinct.
Al spent much of the early and mid-1950s in bands led by Woody Herman and Stan Kenton. Throughout this period, musician friends on the West Coast repeatedly told him about abundant work in Los Angeles. So in 1957, he decided to relocate there. In 1968, he moved to New York. But as big band work dried up, Al moved to Germany in 1976 after meeting his current wife.
In Part 2 of my three-part interiew with Al, the trumpet legend talks about the 1950s and why he moved to Germany in the 1970s...
JazzWax: In August 1950, you played a concert at the Apollo Theater in New York that is remarkable for its personnel.
Al Porcino: We were there for a week, playing four shows a day. The Apollo was always a kick. Audiences were very, very receptive and enthusiastic. They were getting the best of the best during that run. First you had a powerhouse band led by Stan Getz and then Charlie Parker with strings.
JW: Did you enjoy Parker playing with strings?
AP: As great as Bird played, the strings made him sound even sweeter. Bird was one of the most listened to of all the jazz musicians. His musicianship was astonishing. No one could play jazz on the alto saxophone like Bird. What’s more, he was really a nice guy. There was no big ego with him.
JW: You were in Count Basie’s band in 1951?
AP: Yes, Neal Hefti was writing for him. There was an opening and Neal suggested me. Basie was a beautiful guy. He was easy to work for and we used to hang out and go to the racetrack together. I've loved swing my whole life.
AP: From a musician’s standpoint it’s one of the biggest thrills you can have when a band is swinging. Swing doesn't come easily. It’s not so easy to get 16 musicians all swinging on the same beat and moving that way. Basie was great, the original swinger. He was so relaxed. He’d sit at the piano and just play a few notes, and you’d know what song he wanted.
JW: You started recording with Stan Kenton in 1947, then joined Woody Herman from 1948-50 before returning to Kenton.
AP: Stan had good bands in ’47, ’50 and ’54. But he didn’t really want a swing band. That was frustrating for me. He wanted to turn the band into a big jazz-classical thing. But he was successful with it. “Progressive jazz” he called it. Kenton did a lot of weird stuff. He wasn’t content to just have a swing band. He wanted to do his own thing and got far-out arrangers like Bob Graettinger and Pete Rugolo. They were overrated.
JW: Was playing with Kenton fun?
AP: Oh, sure. He had a big following. Kids waited at the stage door for my autograph. We were celebrities.
JW: What was Kenton like?
AP: A nice guy. That was one of his traits. He knew that playing in that band on the road was hard on the guys. He always had sympathy for the players.
JW: Did you copy parts for Kenton?
AP: Yes, I was an art student in high school, so copying came easy for me. Copying is a form of art. You have to make sure that lines of notes are straight. You can always tell a professional copyist by how straight the lines are. I did the copying for Bill Holman’s Stompin’ at the Savoy and his other charts for Contemporary Concepts when we were both on the band in 1955.
JW: What did you think while you were copying Stompin' at the Savoy? You could hear how good it was?
AP: Of course! I couldn’t wait to play it.
JW: You also played often with trumpeter Shorty Rogers in different bands.
AP: Yes, in Woody Herman, Stan Kenton and Maynard Ferguson’s bands. Shorty was a nice guy and a big talent—but more of a businessman. He had a big house and liked to make money. He gave me a lot of work. That was the benefit of playing in so many bands. Musicians kept moving on to bigger and bigger opportunities and always recommended me. We recommended each other.
JW: In 1957, you recorded on Rogers' Portrait of Shorty, with quite an amazing trumpet section.
AP: Who was on the band?
JW: Shorty Rogers, you, Conrad Gozzo, Don Fagerquist, Conte Candoli and his brother Pete.
AP: Wow, that's right. We called that "fruit salad"—one of each. Each of us had a different blowing style. The contractor on that date probably didn’t really know about session playing and just brought together a bunch of top trumpeters. But our styles couldn't have been more different. In a situation like that, you show up, look around and just hope everyone in the section plays well together.
JW: This was right around the time you relocated to Los Anegles.
AP: Yeah, I was pretty much finished with the East Coast and I thought I’d try my luck out West. Everybody out there knew that I could play and said there was a lot of work.
JW: What did you think of Los Angeles?
AP: It liked it yes and no. The upside was the weather and the coast for swimming and sailing and a nice, relaxed lifestyle. The downside was the studio scene. There were swinging bands there, but to earn a living you had to get into the record and movie studios.
JW: Was that hard for you?
AP: I did a lot of record dates in bands, but I wasn’t a regular in the studio scene—meaning guys who would be called to play on different dates all day long. That was another clique.
JW: Who got that work?
AP: Guys like Goz [Conrad Gozzo, pictured], Mickey Mangano, Don Fagerquist and Cappy Lewis. It was hard to break into the studio clique. Each arranger had his own favorites. The only times I got called to record as a studio player was when arrangers wanted me for the date. Arrangers like Bill Holman, Lalo Schifrin, Shorty Rogers and Johnny Mandel. They would tell the contractor to call me.
JW: Speaking of Bill Holman, you recorded on Anita O’Day’s Incomparable—and on Travelin’ Light, which was arranged by Johnny Mandel.
AP: Anita was a character. We got high together—on grass and other stuff. I didn’t get into stuff until late in my career. I didn’t use in the beginning.
JW: I've always wondered, how could musicians use drugs and still pull off those kinds of recordings and performances?
AP: Believe it or not, you can concentrate more on grass and hard stuff. You concentrate on the notes more.
JW: In 1961, you were on Ray Charles’ Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music.
AP: Ray Charles could really swing. He was beautiful. I used to get him high on grass.
JW: You were on two Frank Sinatra albums—
Count Basie-Frank Sinatra in ’62 and It Might as Well Be Swing in ’64.
AP: Imagine those two together. Those albums really swing. I traveled quite a bit with Frank. Everywhere we went we traveled first class.
JW: Why did you move to Germany in the late ‘70s?
AP: I fell in love with Europe and Germany on my first trip over there with Woody Herman in 1954. I was going through a divorce at the time and I wanted to stay abroad but couldn’t. The band had a group ticket.
JW: What changed in the ‘70s?
AP: In 1976 I was in the trumpet section of the Thad Jones & Mel Lewis band. I was disenchanted with the music scene in the States. I had had a wonderful engagement with Mel Torme at the St. Regis Hotel in New York. We recorded an album, and I thought that was the start of a long-lasting relationship. But that never happened. So I decided to stay in Germany at the end of the tour.
JW: What did you do?
AP: I gigged in Zurich, Switzerland and then Stuttgart, Germany, where I met my current wife Erna in March 1977. We soon moved to Munich, where I’ve been ever since.
Tomorrow, in our rapid-fire finale, Al reflects on a wide range of musicians and events.
JazzWax tracks: Al Porcino recorded on a stunning series of dates in 1951 and 1952. Al's four tracks with Count Basie in April 1951—Little Pony, Howzit, Beaver Junction and Nails—can be found here. Al and Roy Eldridge can be heard together in Chico O'Farrill's band in August 1951 on Dance One, Bright One, Flamingo and Last One here.
In January 1952, Al is playing with Charlie Parker on Charlie Parker with Strings, the big band and strings session featuring Temptation, Lover, Autumn in New York and Stella by Starlight as well as the rest of the tracks here.
Sessions with Neal Hefti, Elliot Lawrence and Charlie Barnet followed. That takes us only to September 1952.
JazzWax clip: Here's Charlie Parker with a studio big band on I Can't Get Started in March 1952. This gives you a sense of Al Porcino's muscular, dramatic trumpet sound and why band leaders wanted him in their sections. His section-mates on this date were Jimmy Maxwell, Carl Poole and Bernie Privin, and the piano break is by Oscar Peterson. The song was recorded in one take...