Sol Schlinger is a modest big-band legend. At first he was surprised I had tracked him down. Then he didn't quite understand why I or anyone else would care about his career. When it finally dawned on him that he must be worthy given my enthusiasm, he said, "Gosh, if I knew then I was going to be interviewed by you today, I would have kept a journal." That's the Schlinger touch. Other touches include saying, "Goodbye, babe" when getting off the phone and using the word groovy as naturally as the words "and" and "the." [Photo at top of Sol Schlinger to the left of Frank Sinatra's hand, courtesy of Sol Schlinger]
Sol is on many, many great recordings, including albums led by Bob Brookmeyer, Herbie Mann, Chuck Wayne, Elliot Lawrence, Teddy Charles, Art Farmer, Gary McFarland, Mundell Lowe, Chris Connor, Michel Legrand and dozens of others.
In Part 3 of my conversation with Sol, the baritone saxophonist talks about Al Cohn, Billy Byers, Gene Quill, Benny Goodman and Tony Bennett:
JazzWax: You recorded with Sauter-Finegan, yes?
Sol Schlinger: Yes. The music at the time in the early ‘50s was fresh and exciting. I did their first record date [New Directions in Music, 1952]. The music was very pop but almost classical. The guys in the band could swing, even though the music wasn’t meant to swing. It was a writer’s band, like Claude Thornhill’s orchestra.
JW: Tell me about the East Coast sax section.
SS: It was Hal McKusick, Gene Quill, Zoot Sims, Al Cohn and me. Sometimes Phil Woods and other sharp players would be hired.
JW: How did it come together?
SS: Jack Lewis was RCA’s A&R man in California in the early ‘50s when Manny Sachs, who was in charge of recording for RCA, told Jack that he wanted the label to start a jazz line with a stable of guys. Sachs told Jack to go to the East Coast to see what he could put together. Jack would wind up starting the Jazz Workshop series for RCA.
JW: What did Jack do?
SS: In L.A., he went over to see Shorty Rogers. Shorty was originally from the Bronx. He asked him, “Who should I see in New York to put together guys for a band?” Shorty said, “See Al Cohn. He’ll know.” On the first album Jack put together, Al recommended me. It was Hal McKusick and Gene Quill on altos, Al Cohn on tenor and me on baritone. But I still don’t know how I got in there. When I had some jazz solos, I closed my eyes and prayed. I wasn’t a jazz player. But it worked. After a while of working steadily with Al, he wrote Solsville for me in 1956.
JW: What was it like playing with those guys?
SS: As close to bliss as you can imagine. You had five guys, each different than the other—but we played well together. Everyone’s personality was different, too. Hal had been in all the bands, and Gene played like a truck driver. He’d punch you, and it would hurt. [Photo of Phil Woods by Sol Schlinger]
JW: How did other sections respond to the reeds’ spirit?
SS: We always changed the whole vibe in the studio. During mike checks, the brass would play its parts and the sax section would smile in admiration. When we did our check, the brass would be smiling. There was a warmth that comes only if you have the right combination of sounds and guys.
JW: Which album is the best example of this?
SS: Without a doubt, The Jazz Soul of Porgy & Bess . Bill Potts arranged, contracted the band and conducted. It remains one of the great sessions for this ensemble. Every guy in the band was a giant—and the result of everyone together was terrific. There’s one spot where Zoot’s part called for a low C held for four bars in slow tempo. Now how can anyone hold that note for that long? [Photo of Gene Quill, with Manny Albam in the background, by Sol Schlinger]
JW: You recorded often with trombonist-arranger Billy Byers. What did you think?
SS: I liked him. He was a real swinger. He came from well-off parents. One time when I was with Jimmy Dorsey, we played Catalina Island off the coast of California. The only way to get out there was on a boat. When we pulled in, who do we see but Billy Byers. He said his folks had a boat. [Photo of Billy Byers by Sol Schlinger]
JW: How were his charts?
SS: Great. Billy did a lot of ghostwriting for Quincy Jones. Quincy had so many gigs that he had to have ghostwriters. Billy didn’t say much about it. He said he just wanted the money. He said that working that way gave him a chance to try out what he heard in his head without having to hire guys to play it. We used to be together, and the ghostwriting thing would come up.
JW: How did he say the ghosting worked?
SS: Quincy would write a scratch arrangement and then farm it out to Billy. Al Cohn did a lot of that kind of work, too. Billy’s horn was very good. He wasn’t Urbie Green, but playing wasn’t really his big thing, though he had a lot of solos. For Billy, writing was where it was at.
JW: What was it like playing with Benny Goodman?
SS: The charts were swingable, the band was great but Benny was so uptight—you never knew whether he was just dumb or doing nasty stuff on purpose.
JW: What do you mean?
SS: One time I was with the band for a run at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel and I gave him the ray. Billy Byers had an album to do that night and called me in. I wanted to take off early to make the session. Of course, I couldn’t because Benny’s manager wouldn’t let me. At some point toward the end of the show, Mousie Alexander was playing the drum solo to Sing Sing Sing, the last number.
JW: What happened?
SS: Benny came over in the middle of Mousie’s solo. I guess the band manager had told him I wanted to split to make Billy’s date. While Mousie was playing his solo, Benny asked me, “What happened to the old pepper, Sol?” He meant my spunk. I thought what he was doing given that we were still playing was obnoxious. I said, “Gee Benny, I don’t know. I think it turned into salt.” Benny said, “If you don’t like it, you can get out of here.”
JW: What happened next?
SS: Benny told me to get off the bandstand while the band was still playing. I told him I’d wait until after the show. Later, after I packed up, I got a phone call in the band room. The manager was on the phone and wanted me to come up to Benny’s room. I told him I couldn’t. The next day I left. I had had enough. Even still, Benny always called me first to play other gigs.
JW: What was the deal with him?
SS: The thing with Benny was that if he thought you looked up to him, he’d look down on you.
JW: Pretty brassy on your part.
SS: I thought I was a calm, naive kind of guy. And there I was fighting the establishment. I just didn’t like being insulted. I never considered myself and still don’t think of myself as a jazz player. Did I play jazz? Yes. Did I work as a jazz player? No.
JW: What do you remember about Benny Goodman’s 40th anniversary concert at Carnegie Hall in 1978?
SS: Benny held three days of rehearsals at a Midtown hotel in New York. On the first day, John Bunch was playing piano. On the second day, Jimmy Rowles was playing. On the night of the concert, Mary Lou Williams was at the piano. Strange. But you just knew that Benny was being Benny.
JW: Speaking of Carnegie Hall, what was it like playing with Tony Bennett there in June 1962?
SS: I did many concerts with Tony in New York. To work with Tony was to experience the joy of music. He respected everyone, and he was happy about the whole darn thing. At every recording session, he’d have a table set up with food and drinks for after the date. It was a party. Tony was out to groove the musicians.
JW: How far back do you go with him?
SS: The late ‘40s. I can remember way back at Charlie’s Tavern, he used to come by and talk to everyone. At the time, he used the name Joe Bari. He’d go from table to table to get with the guys. At that point, he was just a singer from Queens. After he made it, he showed his appreciation. He came up through the ranks of many of the jazz musicians.
JW: And the Carnegie Hall concert?
SS: All I remember is that my wife Shirley was seated on the stage that night. They used to put chairs on the stage when the hall was sold out. When that album came out, I’d always tease her that she did an album at Carnegie Hall with Tony.
JW: And the years that followed?
SS: Every time I went to work with Tony, it wasn’t work. It was a groove, and this groove was spread around the whole band. It was impossible to have any negative feelings. A bunch of years ago he was down in Florida performing near where I live now. I knew the drummer so I asked him if I could come back and say hi to Tony after. The drummer said sure.
JW: What happened?
SS: I waited backstage with other people who were waiting to see him. The first thing he did after coming out of the dressing room was to come over and give me a bear hug. It made me feel so good to be a musician.
JW: Last question: Was it hard to play the baritone sax?
SS: Hard? Not for me. There was a spell when the musical establishment made a distinction between the late Danny Bank [pictured] and me. I have the most respect for that man. Before you even get to his superb musicianship, he wore leg braces as a result of polio, he traveled on the road in bands and often had to stand up. He never once complained or said, “You guys have it easy.”
JW: What was the difference between you two?
SS: He was a studied musician. I didn’t study. He practiced various horns, but the baritone was his instrument. The tenor was my first instrument. It’s higher in tonality so I liked to play the baritone lighter. A lot of baritone players liked to honk on the bottom. I never did that. It wasn’t part of my playing. [Photo of Sol Schlinger playing the tenor sax with Perez Prado, left, courtesy of Sol Schlinger]
JW: What did it feel like playing baritone in those great bands?
SS: It felt so good to play and hear what was coming out. It was like driving a great car. Your foot is on the gas so you know you’re moving it forward. But you’re still in awe of the engine.
JazzWax tracks: Solsville featuring Sol Schlinger can be found on Al Cohn's The Sax Section (1956) here. The band featured Sam Marowitz, Gene Quill (as) Al Cohn, Eddie Wasserman (ts) Sol Schlinger (bar) John Williams (p) Milt Hinton (b) Osie Johnson (d).
Bill Potts' The Jazz Soul of Porgy & Bess (1959) can be found here. The band: Art Farmer, Harry "Sweets" Edison, Bernie Glow, Marky Markowitz, Charlie Shavers (tp) Bob Brookmeyer (v-tb) Frank Rehak, Jimmy Cleveland, Earl Swope, Rod Levitt (tb) Gene Quill, Phil Woods (as) Zoot Sims, Al Cohn (ts) Sol Schlinger (bar) Bill Evans (p) Herbie Powell (g) George Duvivier (b) Charlie Persip (d) Bill Potts (arr,cond)
JazzWax clip: Here's Sol Schlinger with Benny Goodman and Harry James in 1958, on King Porter Stomp. Sol is all the way to the left in the reed section but all the way to the right in the flipped saxophone closeups...
Here's It Ain't Necessarily So from The Jazz Soul of Porgy & Bess with a terrific solo by Sol Schlinger at 2:33 in...