Starting in the late 1940s, Dick Hafer (pronounced HAY-fer) was one of the finest big-band tenor saxophonists and soloists. Dick's sound rested somewhere between Lester Young's smooth linear delivery and Wardell Gray's eely bop attack. [Pictured: Dick Hafer in Woody Herman's 1952 band]
As a result, Dick wound up in the sax sections of some of the finest bands of the period—Charlie Barnet, Woody Herman, Nat Pierce, Larry Sonn, Jimmy Dorsey, Urbie Green and Benny Goodman. On small group sessions, Dick was featured on recordings led by Ruby Braff, Herbie Mann, Bobby Hackett and Hal McKusick among others. And then there was Charles Mingus in the early '60s.
In Part 1 of my three-part interview with Dick, 84, the velvety tenor saxophonist talks about growing up with Gerry Mulligan, auditioning for Elliot Lawrence and playing with Charlie Barnet's '49 bop band...
JazzWax: Where did you grow up?
Dick Hafer: Just outside of Reading, Penn., in a town called Wyomissing.
JW: What did you parents do?
DH: My father was a foreman in a local knitting mill that made silk stockings. He had 200 guys under him. My mother was a homemaker, and my brother Don was a trumpeter who wound up playing with Tex Beneke and Ray McKinley. [Pictured: Berkshire Knitting Mills in Reading, Penn.]
JW: Did your father approve of your interest in music?
DH: At first he didn’t want me to bother. He wanted me to work where he did, because it offered stability. One summer he got me a job at one of the other mills. They put me to work cleaning windows. After two weeks I quit.
DH: I couldn’t stand the horrible noise of those machines running. That’s when I decided I was going to become a professional musician. I had started playing the clarinet when I was 9 years old and I played it until I was 13. Then my teacher brought a tenor sax to my lesson. I realized I could play it before I even took my first lesson. I always could improvise fairly easily from a young age. [Pictured: Interior of Berkshire Knitting Mills in the '30s]
JW: Did you play locally?
DH: At first I had my own band, doubling on clarinet and sax. I also played in a dance band in high school in 1942. We used to play sweater dances—that’s what they used to call them. The girls—“bobby soxers”—wore tight sweaters. I eventually formed a working band with guys from the high school band.
JW: Were there other major musicians living nearby?
DH: Gerry Mulligan. He lived in Reading. His father was a troubleshooter for the government. During the war, he went around to factories to make sure they were up to snuff on production. Gerry was going to a Catholic school. When he started challenging the nuns with questions like, “Prove to me there’s a God,” they threw him out. He was 16. So he started writing arrangements.
JW: How did you know him?
DH: We used to play sessions at the local union hall every Sunday afternoon. He knew all the hip tunes that were on the radio and could arrange them by ear in a flash. He was a great guy, a born genius. When a local band rejected his charts, Gerry took them to Philadelphia and Elliot Lawrence wound up playing them on the radio [laughs]. [Pictured: A teenage Gerry Mulligan]
JW: How did you get out of Wyomissing?
DH: Through Gerry. Gerry and I were friends. Gerry was already writing for Gene Krupa. He would come home with charts he had written and try them out on our band. One summer he took me to New York. This was before he joined Elliot Lawrence [pictured] in 1945. Gerry told me he was writing for Ike Carpenter and asked me to come with him and audition. Since it was summer, I was out of school. We just got on a train and went.
JW: How did you do?
DH: I tried out and got the job. But my parents said I couldn’t go out on the road. Gerry said, “Tell them to get lost. I walked out on my parents a long time ago.” But I couldn’t do that to them. Gerry didn’t talk to me for a while as a result. Eventually we got back together.
JW: What did you do after high school?
DH: I played gigs and studied with a clarinet teacher. He asked me what I wanted to do. I told him I wanted to go into the band field. He said that was certainly better than studying to be a band director, like him. So I began playing locally.
JW: Did you audition for Elliot Lawrence?
DH: Yes. A trumpet player I knew, Walt Stuart, had married a local girl, a singer named June Kay. Walt got me an audition up in New York in ‘47. After the Lawrence band played the last set, I sat in and read the music, which was no problem for me. Elliot liked what he heard and told me to stick around for a jam session. He said he wanted me to stretch out.
JW: Did you impress him?
DH: A little too much [laughs]. I was playing a lot of Charlie Parker’s riffs at the time. When Elliot asked me what I wanted to play, I said Donna Lee, which was brand new at the time. Elliot said, “Donna Lee?” I told him it had the same chord changes as (Back Home Again in) Indiana. So we started, but Elliot couldn’t keep up. He finally said, “Let’s play something else.” I said, How about C-Jam Blues?”
JW: What happened?
DH: The guys in the band started laughing. I basically had called for a simple blues in the key of C—the most basic music you could play. So I had inadvertently humiliated him. As a result, I didn’t get the job. I also auditioned for Sam Donahue’s band around this time, but the drummer didn’t like bebop. Sam was a great tenor saxophonist. He could play the upper register of his horn so smoothly, which was very difficult. Only Ted Nash with Les Brown at the time could do that. Long story short, saxophonist Phil Urso got the job. [Photo of Sam Donahue in 1946 by William P. Gottlieb]
JW: Must have been pretty frustrating.
DH: It was. I was about to give up music. I went back home and played a New Year’s Eve dance at the end of ’48 at the Abe Lincoln Hotel in Reading. It was the best hotel in town. As fate would have it, alto saxophonist Vinnie Dean had checked in and just finished up for the night with Charlie Barnet [pictured] at the Rajah Theater. He heard the band as he walked through the lobby and came into the room to listen. I was the local hot shot there.
JW: What happened?
DH: On a break, Vinnie came up to me and said , “I’m Vinnie Dean. I’m playing lead alto with Barnet. Do you want to try out?” By then I was down on bands and tryouts but, hey, it was Barnet. I said, “Yeah, if it’s on the level.” He said, “Come by the theater, and you’ll sit in between shows.” At the time, saxophonist Dave Matthews was leading the band and arranging. They called me the next day, and I went on the band. Barnet carried five trumpets—I had never heard a band that big. The first day, we rehearsed. Charlie [pictured] said, “We’re recording tomorrow. Dave’s going to do his arrangement of Portrait of Edward Kennedy Ellington. He’ll record that and then we’ll fit you in.” [Pictured: Dick Hafer, far left, with Charlie Barnet]
JW: What happened?
DH: On the session, Charlie said, “Get your horn. You’re going to play my solos.” Gil Fuller’s Afro-Cuban bop arrangement of O’Henry was first. That was my first recorded solo with the band.
JW: The ’49 Barnet band was quite something, wasn’t it?
DH: I think it was the greatest band I ever played in. The trumpet section was Rolf Ericson, Maynard Ferguson, John Howell, Lammar Wright and Doc Severinsen. The band was ridiculously together. The camaraderie was unbelievable. A great bunch of guys. Only thing wrong was that we didn’t get recorded properly. Capitol didn’t know how to capture the band’s sound.
JW: The band had a pretty fabulous lineup of arrangers.
DH: Oh yes. Manny [Albam], Pete [Rugolo], Gil Fuller, Dave Matthews and Johnny Richards. And Bobby Sherwood.
JW: Barnet treated you well, didn’t he?
DH: Yes, he did. I did three years with his band. He featured me when we went into Bop City. I had the solos originally written for Dave Matthews. Barnet would announce to the audience, “Dick Hafer is going to play something, She’s Funny That Way, with variations.” I used to ride with Barnet in his Cadillac. I was a Yankee fan and so was Barnet, and he liked that. Charlie loved women. Every time he showed up he had someone else on his arm. He was married 11 times.
JW: So who won the Battle of the Bands on July 30, 1949—Barnet or Woody Herman?
DH: Barnet, hands down. We had Tiny Kahn on drums. He joined the band in Atlantic City after Cliff Leeman couldn’t get with the bop charts. Tiny had offered to join Woody Herman’s band, but Woody didn’t like the way he played, if you can believe it [laughs]. Tiny coming onto Barnet’s band ignited us even more.
JW: How did that battle come about?
DH: We traveled across country doing one-nighters—all the way to the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa, Calif., and then stayed there for six weeks. They booked the two bands. Woody had his Second Herd at the time. The bands were set up on the same stage but on different sides. When one band played, the other was off the stage. Trumpeter Al Porcino was with Woody at the time. After the battle, Al came up to Tiny and said, “Hey, can you get me on the band?” The consensus was that Barnet’s band had won it.
JW: What did Woody think of that battle?
DH: Funny, a few years later I was with Woody’s band. We were hanging out in his dressing room one night when I said, “Hey Woody [pictured], remember the Battle of the Bands? I think Barnet’s band blew you into the ocean.” He said, “Well, maybe.” Barnet’s band had more exuberance than Woody’s did at the time. We had a looser feel.
JW: And yet Barnet broke up the band at the end of ‘49.
DH: All bands were starting to skid then. Their popularity was waning. Charlie carried 17 guys in that band. He was wealthy. His father had left him a $250,000 annuity that came due in ’49. He decided to have some kicks. So he kept the band going for about 10 months, winding up at the Apollo Theater in New York. [Pictured: Charlie Barnet in 1946, by William P. Gottlieb]
JW: Pretty tight.
DH: We called ourselves the Cherokee Raiders. When we rode the bus, we carried cap guns. Once we played a date in Wyoming. Cowboys came to the club on horseback. It was wild. On the bus out there, we would shoot the cap guns out the window, like in the movies when people rode the trains. The driver pulled over and started yelling at us to knock it off. The other tenor player, Kurt Bloom, did the payroll. He told the driver to shut up and drive the bus, that if the guys wanted to shoot off the guns, they could. Then he shot the cap gun at the driver. The driver shut up and drove.
JW: You were with Claude Thornhill briefly after Barnet, yes?
DH: Yes. I had gotten a call to play in Artie Shaw’s late ’49 band but I had already told Claude I would join and had to keep that obligation. I would have liked to have played in that Shaw band, which some consider one of his best. But everything worked out because Shaw didn’t keep that band long. Zoot Sims took the chair I was asked to fill. Thornhill’s band in early 1950 wasn’t very successful. Someone had suggested he put together a society-style band, but the new charts he got in from arrangers weren’t very good. Claude [pictured] would play the melody forever anyway.
A special JazzWax thanks to trumpeter Al Stewart. Also, a special thanks to Dick Hafer for sharing photos of himself in bands.
JazzWax tracks: Barnet's Capitol bop band was terrific: Rolf Ericson, Doc Severinsen (tp) Ray Wetzel (tp,vcl) Maynard Ferguson, John Howell (tp) Obie Massingill, Dick Kenney, Ken Larson (tb) Ken Martlock (b-tb) Charlie Barnet (sax,ldr) Vinnie Dean, Ruben Leon (as) Dick Hafer, Kurt Bloom (ts) Manny Albam (bar,arr) Claude Williamson (p) Eddie Safranski (b) Tiny Kahn (d) Carlos Vidal (cga). You'll find many of the band's tracks on Charlie Barnet: Big Band Sessions at Amazon.
The Battle of the Bands—a shoot out between Woody Herman and Charlie Barnet in 1949—is available on Battle Royal at Amazon. The battle was moderated by Stan Kenton. If you want to hear what Claude Thornhill's band sounded like with Dick Hafer in it briefly in 1950, go here and click on Embraceable You.
JazzWax clip: Here's Dick Hafer with Ruby Braff and His Men: Salute to Bunny in Hi-Fi (RCA) in March 1957. The band features Ruby Braff (tp) Benny Morton (tb) Pee Wee Russell (cl) Dick Hafer (ts) Nat Pierce (p) Steve Jordan (g) Walter Page (b) Buzzy Drootin (d). Dick's solo starts at 1:34...