Tell most big band trumpeters from the '50s that you dig jazz, and they'll likely correct you by saying that they didn't play jazz. A majority of musicians who played in the trumpet sections of prominent bands viewed themselves as highly skilled readers who added a particular flavor to the whole ensemble, not improvisers. Except, that is, the fourth trumpet, who usually played the jazz solos. Al Porcino was a first chair trumpeter, and his job was to lead the pack by playing a song's melody, which typically appeared as the top note. [Photos of Al Porcino: Top, by Jan Scheffner; left by Ken Rhodes]
Few trumpeters from this era who are around today have had as much experience with big bands as Al Porcino. Since the early 1940s, Al has played in many leading bands, taking a solo every now and then.Throughout the decades, he has always separated bands and arrangers by how hard they could swing.
In Part 3 of my three-part interview with Al, the trumpeter talks about a range of musicians:
JazzWax: Did you ever want to play jazz trumpet?
Al Porcino: I suppose I did originally. But I knew I couldn’t get into that. You have to start early, while you’re young. I was concentrating on being a lead player and didn’t have time to learn chord progressions for jazz playing. I wish I had, though. Instead, I was a screamer. I made my reputation as a high-note player, before Maynard Ferguson came to the States. [Photo of Al Porcino in 1947]
JW: You played with many great bands. Couldn't hold a job?
AP: [Laughs] I never stayed with one band too long. If you got on one band and stayed too long, you could have trouble adjusting stylistically when you had to play with other bands. As a trumpeter, especially a first trumpeter, you really had to learn all of the styles of different bands.
JW: What’s the job of a first trumpet?
AP: You play the melody, and your horn is heard on top of the band. You’re the high note. As a result, you can’t afford to make a mistake. If you’re in the section, a clam [mistake] won’t matter that much. It’s hidden by the other trumpets' notes. But the first trumpet is different. Everyone hears him. It’s a lot of pressure.
JW: Who were your favorite arrangers?
AP: Al Cohn, Johnny Mandel, Bill Holman and Tiny Kahn [pictured]. When I played in Chubby Jackson’s band with Tiny, Tiny’s Blues was our big number. That outchorus was something else.
JW: And yet Kahn was a drummer.
AP: Yes, it was unusual for a drummer to arrange, let alone in such a swinging style. In Chubby’s band, we couldn’t wait to get on the bandstand, largely because of Tiny’s arrangements. Tiny was a pleasure. He was a big guy. But when he played that cymbal, you knew you were swinging.
JW: Did you know Miles Davis?
AP: Sure. We didn’t talk much though. I never got too close to him. I don’t think many people did. To be honest, he wasn’t my favorite jazz trumpet player.
JW: Who was?
AP: Dizzy [Gillespie], Fats [Navarro, pictured] and Doug Mettome were my guys. They were all nice guys. Dizzy was the king. Sadly, Fats died young. He was very good. Kenny Dorham, too. So was Brownie [Clifford Brown]. What made Brownie special was his fluidity and flexibility.
JW: And Johnny Mandel?
AP: One of the greats. His charts always swing, and they always make sense. He wrote some swinging stuff for Elliot Lawrence’s band in the early ‘50s.
JW: And your favorite swinging drummers?
AP: Tiny, Mel Lewis and Art Mardigan.
JW: You recorded with Buddy’s Rich’s band from 1968 to 1973.
AP: Buddy wasn’t a particularly nice guy. He came on real strong. He wanted everything his way and it had to be his way. The funny thing is he was right most of the time.
JW: Since the 1970s you've been leading your own band.
AP: I had a few big bands in Los Angeles sin. I was lucky: I had some great arrangements to start with. More than 20 were given to me by Al Cohn, and through the years I bought quite a few more. So now my repertoire consists of what I call the 100 best big-band arrangements ever written. You have to remember, I've led bands wherever I've lived—starting in the ‘70s. That includes Miami, New York, Berlin and Munich. My band in Munich now has been playing together for more than 30 years.
JW: What would you have changed about your playing?
AP: Not much. I never had great technique on the horn. But many different arrangers liked how I played their music and handled the trumpet section. I could swing.
JW: What is swing?
AP: Great question! It’s playing on the beat and making the right inflections to give the music a jazzy feel. If you grew up in the big band era, you lived and breathed swing. It was in everything—the music, the clothes, the way people walked. [Photo of Al Porcino by Dan Miller]
JW: What does swing feel like from the musician’s standpoint?
AP: You get chills in your back. Swing isn’t easy. It sounds easy. But when everyone in the band is exactly on, that’s when swing is easy to play. That’s when it swings. You have to stay loose. You have to feel the beat with the rhythm section. It was thrilling playing a swinging arrangement.
JW: Do you have any regrets?
AP: No, not really. Everything came up good for me. I had a good lip and was the only trumpeter who could play a triple high C. Me and Maynard.
JW: Who did you like better, Wardell Gray or Lucky Thompson? You played with both.
AP: Wardell's sound I liked. Lucky's I didn’t care for. He wasn’t a swinger.
JW: Roy Eldridge?
AP: One of the greats. The way Roy [pictured] could play the trumpet and swing. He was one of the greats.
JW: Neal Hefti?
AP: Good section player and better arranger.
JW: Nick Travis?
AP: A good jazz player.
JW: Bernie Glow?
AP: Didn’t impress me much. Straight studio player, strictly legit. Dependable but a technician.
JW: Conrad Gozzo?
AP: Goz was considered the top man in Hollywood. He was a strong player and could put some serious air into the horn. A nice guy.
JW: Don Fagerquist [pictured]?
AP: An excellent jazz player. And a very busy guy.
JW: Dick Collins?
AP: He also played nice jazz.
JW: Charlie Barnet?
AP: He was a swinger. He was rich, so having a band was like a hobby for him.
JW: Who won the Charlie Barnet vs. Woody Herman battle at the Rendezvous Ballroom in July 1949?
AP: [Laughs] I was in Woody’s band. They called it a tie—and it was. The bands had two different styles.
JW: Terry Gibbs?
AP: He led one of the great bands. He took over the band that Med Flory and I had started. Terry had heard the album Jazz Wave that we made and liked it so much he used the same guys to build his Dream Band.
JW: Jerry Wald?
AP: He wasn’t very good. He was the poor man’s Artie Shaw. But at least he tried.
JazzWax tracks: Fine section playing by Al Porcino can be heard on Woody Herman's recordings for Capitol in 1954. Also, on Dick Collins' King Richard the Swing Hearted (1954), Tjader Plays Mambo (1954), Bill Holman's In a Jazz Orbit (1958), Johnny Mandel's I Want to Live (1958), Shorty Rogers' Chances Are It Swings (1958), Art Pepper Plus Eleven (1959) and most of Terry Gibbs big band recordings.
JazzWax reader Peter Sokolowski notes that Al has gorgeous solos on Yesterdays from Stan Kenton's Contemporary Concepts and on Woody Herman's Non-Alcoholic, which was recorded in December 1946 when Herman was still with the Columbia label. Al's screaming pre-Ferguson high notes appear toward the end of the latter track.
As Peter points out, "Al's Yesterdays solo is just the melody, not an improvised solo, but there's a glorious, full high G."
JazzWax clip: Here's Al leading his big band at the Los Angeles Jazz Institute in 2008...