In the 1950s, the two baritone saxophonists who were most often called for studio sessions on the East Coast were Sol Schlinger and the late Danny Bank. Though Bank was a studied musician and tended to play forcefully in the lower register, Sol was a spirited swinger and sharp reader who favored playing a little lighter. Both were section players, meaning they were hired because their particular sounds would mesh beautifully with the rest of the assembled section. [Photo, from left, of Buddy Rich, unidentified, Sol Schlinger, Tommy Dorsey and saxophonist Babe Fresk, front, in the late 1940s, courtesy of Sol Schlinger]
What's more, Sol, like Bank, was an insider, in that he played so often with bands and in studios that he was a keen observer of leader personalities. Better players had to be part-time shrinks just to keep their jobs. There were plenty of great players during the '40s and '50s, but to stay employed for extended periods, you had to be musically gifted and able to read the moods and quirks of those who employed you, just to stay out of trouble. [Photo by Herb Snitzer]
In Part 2 of my three-part interview with Sol, the baritone saxophonist talks about his early professional years and his stints with Henry Jerome, Shep Fields, Tommy Dorsey and Jimmy Dorsey:
JazzWax: How old were you when you started playing professionally?
Sol Schlinger: I was 16 ½ years old. I played fourth tenor with Henry Jerome & His Stepping Tones in 1941. Sid Cooper, who played the third alto chair, was the straw boss and band arranger. Irv Butler played the hot jazz parts. Jerome ran a sweet band at the time. [Photo of Sol Schlinger, center, in high school in the late '30s, courtesy of Sol Schlinger]
JW: The Pelham Heath Inn was a pretty steady gig?
SS: Yes. But my chair was behind a pole. When Butler left, Jerome hired another tenor—Leonard Garment, a Brooklyn guy who went on to become a big Washington, D.C., lawyer in the Nixon White House. He was already playing like Prez [Lester Young]. I said to Jerome, “Wait a minute, I’ve been here longer. I should have that seat.” Jerome gave it to me, and I moved away from the pole. I guess you could say I won a case against Leonard Garment [laughs].
JW: What happened when World War II arrived?
SS: I was 4F-ed three times because of flat feet. During the war I toured with Shep Fields, including a trip to Europe to play for the troops. After the war in Europe ended, I got a fourth call to go down to the draft board. When I arrived, there were two guys there with lots of my papers. I told them that I had been there several times and that flat feet had kept me out. I was happy to serve if needed. One of the guys told me to take my papers to a specific colonel, who carefully screened people who had been marked 4F in the past.
JW: What happened?
SS: I went to him with my papers He looked at them and asked what I did. I told him I was a musician. He asked what I played. I told him the saxophone. He asked if I was a professional working musician. I said yes, that I was playing with Shep Fields. He asked how long, and I told him. He looked up. “I was in Le Havre when you guys were there. I was billeted with you.” He took my papers, bamped it with a stamp and said, “Go back to the guys who saw you when you came in.”
JW: What did they say?
SS: When I got back there, they looked at my papers with puzzled faces. They couldn’t understand what had happened.
JW: What was Shep Fields like?
SS: He was very commercial. His Rippling Rhythm sound was hot. This was before Lawrence Welk. Fields had come up with this idea for a saxophone band, which is what I was in. But he never quite made it. In one of the write-ups the band received, someone commented, “The leader looks out of place, like a dentist.”
JW: What did you think?
SS: Fields was a nice guy. We played in New York a lot on weekends. I became the band’s contractor. All this time guys were getting drafted. The war was still on in Japan.
JW: Who helped you get to the next stage in the band world?
SS: Saxophonist Hymie Schertzer. Hymie was much older than I was. When he heard me play, he said, “How did you get that feeling? You’re playing like we play.” I wasn’t a bebopper. I played what I had heard and what my ears had told me to play. He started talking me up.
JW: When did you take up the baritone?
SS: In 1948. After I went out on the road with Charlie Barnet’s band, I returned to New York and heard that Buddy Rich’s band was at Birdland and needed a baritone. So I borrowed one and sat in with the band next to Jimmy Giuffre [pictured]. He was a lovely, quiet guy. I said to him, “Jimmy, I haven’t played Buddy’s book. If there’s anything you want to tell me, I’d appreciate it.” Jimmy said, “Yeah. Shut up and play” [laughs]. After that gig, Buddy put me in the band. There were all good players and swinging charts in the book.
JW: What’s one of your earliest memories of Stan Getz?
SS: When we were both studying with Bill Sheiner up in the Bronx, Bill put us in his sax band. At the time, Bill was writing arrangements for Maria Kramer, who managed the Lincoln Hotel. One day Sheiner and the band were auditioning our material for Kramer at Nola’s rehearsal studio. After everyone got in their chairs, I saw Kramer on the far side. She asked Sheiner to start. We played Night and Day, which featured a solo by Sheiner.
JW: What did Kramer think?
SS: Halfway through, she says, “Hold it a moment. Can you do it again with that boy in front?” That boy was Stanley. She could hear how special he was and wanted him to front the band.
JW: Did the band get the gig?
SS: No [laughs]. But Kramer knew Stanley was a winner. Sheiner’s problem, like Shep’s, was an issue of body language. Both were large in the belly and didn’t quite look like the bigger-name bandleaders.
JW: Was Getz a nice guy back then?
SS: Not particularly. We were playing the Starlight Ballroom one night. On a break I was standing with him. Three women walked by. Stan watches and says to me, “Those chicks are trying to make it with me.” They never had even looked at him.
SS: Stranger still. Years later, I was in California, and Stan was living there. He asked me to come up to his house in the Hollywood Hills at a specific time. When I arrived, I rang the bell. A little kid came out and said, “Shhh, my daddy’s sleeping.” So I had to wait. After a while, Stan walked out in a white bathing suit, like in the movies, and starts rudely ordering his wife around. He had ego issues. It was a stupid afternoon.
JW: What was Tommy Dorsey like when you played with him in the late ‘40s?
SS: Tommy was as uptight as his playing. His intonation was always a little sharper than where you’d think he’d be, and he ran the band like it was like the Marine Corps. His time was on top of the beat. Jimmy's band played behind the beat and on the flat side. It was good training. During downtime with the band, saxophonist Doc Clifford, Jimmy Dorsey’s straw boss, asked if I would fill in on Jimmy’s band. [Photo of Sol Schlinger, far left, in Tommy Dorsey's band, circa 1950, courtesy of Sol Schlinger]
JW: What did you say?
SS: I said, "Sure, where should we meet?” He said, at Grand Central Station. When I arrived to catch our train with the band, Jimmy’s wife and mother were there to see him off. That always struck me as odd.
JW: How was the train ride?
SS: We boarded and tossed our stuff into our bunks in the sleeper and met in the dining car. We ordered drinks and talked about the band. Jimmy gave me the rundown on everyone. Meanwhile he got wacked out. Doc had to carry him to his sleeper. The next day we arrived in Chicago. Getting off the train, we were walking toward the front of the station when a woman came toward us. It looked she was coming straight to Jimmy. But she went by him. “Lost another one,” Jimmy said. He was a lonely guy who viewed himself as constantly missing a break.
JW: He sounds like a sad guy.
SS: He was. When we were breaking down the band, I went to talk to him. Jimmy was sitting in a chair by himself. I said, “If anyone wants to know who the real musician is, Jimmy, you are.” He looked up at me and said, “Get out of here kid.” He lived his entire life in brother’s shadow. With Tommy, he liked to get you. When a dance gig started, there were four or five tunes he might call first. He would keep you on your toes. With Jimmy, you had to keep him on his toes.
JW: But Tommy Dorsey was no picnic, right?
SS: When we toured, I drove with drummer Louie Bellson [pictured], bassist Red Wootten and trumpeter Charlie Shavers. Tommy traveled in a converted bus called the Silver Bullet. It was always parked right outside the gig. At one stop, we drove up in the car. Out I came with these guys, and Tommy saw us. The next thing I knew, the band manager came up to me and said, “Gee Sol, I don’t get it, but Tommy told me to give you the axe.”
SS: The manager said, “Everything has been fine, but I think I know what it is. He doesn’t think you’re enjoying the music. He doesn’t see you tapping your foot.” I said, “I am—inside my shoe.” He said, “Look, do me a favor, come early, come up on the stand and look over charts. Tommy will like that.” So I did that a few times and wound up with the band another year and a half.
JW: What do you think triggered Dorsey’s move?
SS: Tommy had made a dumb connection. When he saw me get out of the car with those heavyweights, he asked himself, “What is this young guy doing with my stars?” He thought I was conniving or something. Tommy could be paranoid when he wasn’t in control.
JW: What about the people he liked?
SS: Same treatment. For example, Tommy loved Charlie Shavers [pictured]. But every chance he got, Tommy would put him down. Tommy would take uppers and downers. Charlie liked whiskey. They were two different types. Everyone knew that Charlie had narcolepsy and fell out but always woke up for his solo. But one time he didn’t wake up. When we finished the song, Tommy told him to get off the bandstand.
JW: What happened?
SS: Charlie took his horn and took the long walk to the band room. He told me later that once he got there he said to himself, “What the heck am I listening to that for?” So he walked back out and sat in his chair, and nothing else happened for the evening. Tommy was just a control freak. Tommy obsessed over how long it took to get from one place to another and how fast he could do it. But if anything was confusing or out of his control, he had to get rid of it.
JazzWax tracks: To hear Sol Schlinger with Tommy Dorsey in 1950, download I Get a Kick Out of You, Piccallily Dilly and Comin' Through the Rye from the album Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra: The Post-War Era here. These are staggeringly great and difficult arrangements by Bill Finegan played by a top-notch band.