Mention the "East Coast sax section" to fans of '50s jazz, and you'll be talking about one of the most in-demand and prolific studio saxophone units of the era. It was comprised of Hal McKusick and Gene Quill on alto saxophones, Zoot Sims and Al Cohn on tenor saxophones, and Sol Schlinger on baritone saxophone. Often times, Phil Woods and Sam Marowitz subbed for McKusick, or Eddie Wasserman might be in for Sims. [Photo of Sol Schlinger in New York recording singer Carmen McRae's Something to Swing About in November 1959. Photo by trumpeter Al Stewart. ]
One reason for the high demand of these reed players was their collective sound. The altos often had a nippy, urgent tone on top; the tenors had a mellow, Lester Young-like sound in the middle; and Sol was the maple-smooth, swinging anchor. And they all were killer readers. Much of their recording work was for RCA and included sessions led by Al Cohn, Quincy Jones, George Williams, Manny Albam, Urbie Green and others. [Photo of Zoot Sims, left, and Al Cohn by Sol Schlinger]
In Part 1 of my rare multipart interview wtih Sol Schlinger, 85, the baritone saxophonist talks about growing up in the Bronx and taking saxophone lessons there...
JazzWax: Where did you grow up?
Sol Schlinger: In the East Bronx. Other guys I knew up there while growing up were Stan Getz, Bernie Glow and Lenny Hambro.
JW: What did your parents do?
SS: My dad was an entrepreneur. He wasn’t very successful, though. He booked concerts in Europe, and his partners stole from him. My mom was a grade-A cook. She earned the money for the family. I have a brother, Izzy, who’s a year and a half older than me.
JW: What was your first instrument?
SS: Tenor sax. Every summer my family rented a small hotel in the Catskill Mountains a few hours north of New York. There was always a band playing there, and I couldn’t stop listening and watching them. One summer, my Pop asked if I wanted to learn to play music. I said, “Yes.” He said he would tell the bandleader to give me lessons.
JW: What happened?
SS: The bandleader asked what instrument I wanted to play. I went for the sax. I liked the neck strap, of all things. The guy who played the sax in the band agreed to give me lessons but he told the bandleader, “He can’t use my mouthpiece.”
JW: So what did you do?
SS: The guy took a piece of shirt cardboard and drew rings for the sax’s notes. I took lessons on the cardboard and never touched an instrument that summer. At the end of the season, my father saw how dedicated I was, even though I hadn’t played a note yet.
JW: What did your dad do?
SS: Back in the Bronx, he took me to a pawnshop. In broken English, he told the guy behind the counter, “Do you have a sax for my son?” The guy went upstairs and returned with a case.
JW: How was the horn?
SS: When the guy opened the case, it smelled like the case hadn’t been opened for about 100 years. Inside was an instrument, a mouthpiece and a reed. I just knew the fingering for a C scale, since that’s all we went over on the shirt cardboard. I put the horn in my mouth and made a honking noise. The pawnshop cat said, “That boy is talented. One day he’ll be in Carnegie Hall.” Well, years later I was at Carnegie Hall with Benny Goodman [laughs].
JW: What kind of sax was it?
SS: A C-melody horn—which isn’t a tenor or alto. In fact, the instrument wasn’t being used in bands anymore.
JW: Did you take lessons?
SS: Yes, with Bill Sheiner [pictured]. I heard of him through a neighborhood guy. Sheiner taught in the Bronx on 174th St., in a studio behind the Bronx Musical Mart on Southern Boulevard. Sheiner taught for $1 a lesson. Stanley [Getz] was his star pupil. Bill had this theory about the need to have a close mouthpiece. He had equipment to close the facing, so the reed and the mouthpiece itself were close together. That became known as the Sheiner sound. If you had a band and employed a Sheiner reed section, you had a great sound.
JW: What made the sound special?
SS: How many vibrations you got. A close mouthpiece would allow you to better control the sound and make it more mellow. If I hadn’t studied with Sheiner, I wouldn’t be talking to you now. That’s where I got my start.
JW: Did you bring your C-melody sax?
SS: Yes. But as soon as I took it out, Sheiner said, “You have a C-melody. That’s no good. I’ll sell you a tenor for $75.” I then studied with Sheiner for about four months. Through gigs, I eventually paid off the cost of the horn. Many of those early gigs were at the Chester Palace on 177th St. and Tremont Ave. in the Bronx.
JW: How did your studies work at Sheiner’s?
SS: He had a saxophone octet—four altos, two tenors, a baritone and a bass. Once a week he’d have rehearsals. Stanley [Getz] had already progressed and was out on the road with Jack Teagarden’s band. In Sheiner’s studio, there was a bulletin board. Guys would send Sheiner postcards from the road. One day Bernie Glow sent a card. He was out with Dick Himber. Bernie’s card said, “Bill, we’re coming to New York soon. We’ll need a sax player. I’ll let you know when we’re coming. Please send someone up.”
JW: What happened?
SS: Sheiner sent me. I was 16 at the time. The audition was at the Essex House on Central Park South. I had never been in a fancy place like that. I got up to the room and rang the doorbell. A voice told me to come in. When I walked in, Himber was sitting in a chair looking out the window. When he wheels around and sees me, at age 16, he says, “God, what is this war doing to me?” [laughs].
JW: What happened next?
SS: Himber asked me to take out my horn and play him some songs. So I played Night and Day and some others. He liked what he heard and said, “I’ll tell you what. Do you belong to the [musicians’] union? No? I’ll get you in. Come out and sit in the empty band chair and learn the book. I’ll pay your expenses.”
JW: When did you start?
SS: I didn’t. The job didn’t sound so good.
JW: Why not?
SS: Himber was just going to pay my expenses. I knew that on the road, musicians got $125 a gig, and $75 in town. Paying my expenses didn’t sound fair. But I left there happy as a lark.
JW: Come on—you walked out on your first job?
SS: I was probably a little scared, too. But I also had friends in bands, and I knew the going rate. It was for the best considering how things turned out.
JW: What was your first paying job?
SS: When I was in high school, I heard that Henry Jerome needed a tenor player. So I went to audition at the Pelham Heath Inn, which was where Eastchester Road met Pelham Parkway South in Pelham, N.Y. After I auditioned, Jerome said, “You start.” Once I started playing with the band, I just stopped going to school. My parents didn’t mind. They knew I loved music and it was the only way I was going to earn a decent living.
SS: The Pelham Heath Inn was close to my high school in the Bronx. I kept thinking a teacher was going to come in and see me and have me arrested.
JazzWax tracks: One album that shows off Sol Schlinger's swinging deep sound is Manny Albam's Jazz Workshop from December 1955. It features Joe Newman, Nick Travis (tp), Bob Brookmeyer, Billy Byers (tb) Al Cohn (cl,as,ts) Sol Schlinger (bar) Milt Hinton (b) Osie Johnson (d) Manny Albam (arr,cond), with Hal McKusick subbing for Cohn on one of the sessions. He has a fine solo on Black Bottom. You'll find this one here.
A special JazzWax thanks to trumpeter Al Stewart (see my interview with Al here).
JazzWax clip: Here's Jon Hendricks narrating the start of George Russell's masterpiece, Manhattan, from 1958. The band featured Hal McKusick on alto and Sol Schlinger on baritone. Between them sat John Coltrane, who has a superb solo 7:25 in and at 10:30...