After tenor saxophonist Dick Hafer left Woody Herman's band in 1955, he spent eight years recording top-shelf albums as a sideman on other musicians' dates. From 1964 on, Dick played in the orchestras of Broadway musicals and television shows. What's interesting about his 1956-63 period is that all of the albums are terrific. Not a dud among them. What's more, the breadth of his work during this period ranged from big bands and Dixieland to small-group swing and the music of Charles Mingus.
In Part 3 of my three-part interview with Dick, he talks about his recording sessions during this vital period, including two albums with Mingus...
JazzWax: What did you do after you left Woody Herman in 1955?
Dick Hafer: I did a lot of freelance recording sessions. I recorded with Ruby Braff, Herbie Mann, Nat Pierce, Hal McKusick, Don Stratton and others. I also recorded again with Charlie Barnet and Woody.
JW: How did you patch things up with Herman after your falling out over your cold?
DH: Ralph Burns was writing a lot of stuff for Broadway and I was playing in the pit orchestras. On a break, I told Ralph what Woody had said to me. Ralph told me that it was actually a compliment. He said, “Woody really liked you. He was mad that you left. He was trying to get you to stay.”
JW: In 1957 you recorded with Bobby Hackett, yes?
DH: Funny, I met Bobby when I was playing in Washington, D.C., with Woody and Louis Armstrong and Trummy Young. That’s where I had a cold and had to leave. [Saxophonist] Spencer Sinatra took my place.
JW: How did you meet Hackett?
DH: Bobby came up to me and asked if he could sit in with Woody’s band for a few numbers. I asked Woody and he said, “Sure.” What was he going to say—it was Bobby Hackett? [laughs]. Bobby doubled up with one of the horns and read the charts perfectly. Then two years later in 1957, Bobby called me to join his band for a series of dates. The one at the Voyager Room of the Henry Hudson Hotel in New York was recorded.
JW: Hackett’s style of jazz must have been a bit of a change for you.
DH: It was. I had never played a lot of that New Orleans stuff. Bobby called for Struttin’ with Some Barbecue. I said, “Bobby, I really don’t know that tune.” Bobby said, “Don’t worry, Dick, you’ll hear it. Just don’t get in my way” [laughs]. Actually I took Ernie Caceres’ place. He had some drinking problems and Bobby had to let him go. His part was for the baritone sax. Bobby offered to have the parts transposed to tenor but I said, “Nah, I’ll buy a baritone sax and play them.” That’s why you hear me on baritone on the recording.
JW: How about Herbie Mann?
DH: I was on Salute to the Flute in ‘57, which I was just listening to earlier. Herbie had good taste.
JW: In March 1958, you were on Hal McKusick’s Cross Section Saxes.
DH: That was a great reed section: Hal and Frankie Socolow on altos, me on tenor, and Jay Cameron on baritone. The lines we played on Ernie Wilkins’ arrangement of Now’s the Time were fabulous—a real tight harmony and before Supersax did that kind of thing. That was a great album. We had a great sound on there.
JW: The rhythm section wasn’t too shabby either.
DF: [Laughs]. Yeah, Bill Evans, Paul Chambers and Connie Kay. I remember when Paul rolled that bass in. He was like walking on air. He was so loose. He had a long brown raincoat on and looked very, very, very cool.
JW: How well did you know Bill Evans?
DH: Pretty well. We played on Cross Section Saxes, of course. When I was playing with Mingus in ’63 at the Vanguard for a month, Bill was working opposite us as a solo. Every time we got through, I’d sit and listen to Bill play. He was so good.
JW: Did you ever spend time talking to Evans?
DH: Not extensively. When I was playing on How to Succeed in Business (Without Really Trying) in 1961, I stopped into a coffee shop on 46th St. across from the theater. When I came out with my coffee and doughnut, I ran into him. He had been rehearsing upstairs. I hadn’t seen Bill in some time. Bill asked what I was doing. I told him playing in a Broadway show. He said, “Why are you wasting your time on that for?” I told him I had two kids to support. He was a very nice guy and very sharp. But he loved heroin. He’s the only guy I knew who actually loved it. He was really hooked.
JW: You recorded twice with Charles Mingus in ‘63—on The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady and Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus.
DH: Bob Hammer, the pianist and arranger, had written some charts for Woody so we became friendly. In the early ‘60s, he started writing for Mingus. I was working with Peggy Lee at Basin Street East at the time. Bob called and asked me if I could join Mingus at the Village Vanguard. I said, “Sure,” and took the gig.
JW: What happened when you got there?
DH: There wasn’t much music to read down. We were basically practicing on the bandstand, especially during Sunday afternoon matinees there.
JW: Did the audience catch on?
DH: One day, a woman in a mink coat was sitting in the front row. She said, “I declare, I thought you people were prepared. You’re just rehearsing.” Mingus didn’t hear her clearly and asked, “What did you say?” She said, “I thought you were prepared but you’re just practicing.” Mingus said, “Lady what do you do when you get ready for love? Foreplay. That’s what we’re doing up here.”
JW: What did the woman say?
DH: She was so shocked she got up and left [laughs].
JW: How did Mingus treat you?
DH: Great. He just said, “Dick, I don’t want too much Stan Getz in my band. You guys stole everything from Lester Young.” I said gently, “No we didn’t” and let it go. I didn’t want to argue with him. I had heard that he had hit Jimmy Knepper the previous October  and broke his tooth and wrecked him on the trombone.
JW: Was Mingus’ freer approach to jazz tough for you?
DH: Not at all. Every time we played Black Saint, it was different. There was a lot of improvising. Mingus’ band was one of the early free-jazz bands, and I just felt it. The band was on the cutting edge. Miles Davis came in to hear us. So did Maynard Ferguson.
JW: No issues with Mingus?
DH: Actually the opposite. I was supposed to get paid $150 a week but Mingus gave me $175. When I told him he had overpaid me, Mingus said, “No man, you’re my studio cat—you play all the instruments. You need more money.”
JW: Eric Dolphy was on the band. What was he like?
DH: He was very cold. He wasn’t very talkative and played pretty wild. But he knew what he was doing. He was a great player.
JW: You played with Herman in the early ‘60s.
DH: Yeah. Sal Nistico [pictured] nicknamed me the “Golden Tone.” I had worked with Sal once before, so I knew how good he was. I told Woody, “Don’t put me on the band. This kid [Sal] is hot. He should do it.” Woody put him on.
JW: Did you ever address Herman directly on what Ralph Burns told you?
DH: Yes. When he was alone, I said, “Woody, you told me to get lost after years of playing with you.” Woody said, “Well, I was mad. But Ralph told me about how you felt. I’m sorry.” And that was it.
JW: Your only leadership date is Prez Impressions, from 1994, for Fresh Sound.
DH: Actually, I did another one first—In a Sentimental Mood for Progressive in 1991.
JW: Why did you play so often on Broadway shows and on TV from the 1960s onward?
DH: I had to build some pension money. The band business was glamorous but it was financially dangerous. The money you were paid wasn’t that good to begin with. What’s more, it didn’t really add up in your union pension. After 10 years of my life on the road in the late ‘40s and ‘50s, I had nothing to show for it. I needed to build my pension at that point. If you didn’t do that, you could really be in trouble later. Poor Nat Pierce, when he died, his small pension was paying him only $50 a month. He was practically destitute.
A special JazzWax thanks to trumpeter Al Stewart. Also, special thanks to Dick Hafer for sharing his photos.
JazzWax tracks: I know what you're thinking: If I'm going to make the kind of claim I did up top, I had better back it up. Well, here goes...
- Nat Pierce—And the Herdsmen Featuring Dick Collins (1954)
- Dick Collins—Horn of Plenty (1954)
- Dick Stratton—Modern Jazz With Dixieland Roots (1956)
- Larry Sonn—It's Sonn Again (1956)
- Ruby Braff—Salute to Bunny in Hi-Fi (1957)
- Herbie Mann—Salute to the Flute (1957)
- Nat Pierce—Big Band at the Savoy Ballroom (1957)
- Urbie Green—Jimmy McHugh in Hi-Fi (1958)
- Charlie Barnet—Cherokee (1958)
- Nat Pierce—The Ballad of Jazz Street (1961)
- Charles Mingus—The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (1963)
- Charles Mingus—Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus (1963)
- Dick Cary—California Doings (1981)
JazzWax clip: Here's Ruby Braff's tribute to Bunny Berigan with Dick's swinging tenor sax solo 1:34 into Did I Remember. The band: 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)...