Personalities don't come much sunnier than Anthony Ortega's and his wife Mona's. Every time I call, I'm welcomed by enormous warmth and kindness. But their dispositions go way beyond words. You can hear an orange glow in the sound of their voices, how happy they are to be with each other and how grateful they are for everything. It's the joy of living, something that has been forgotten over the past five years. [Pictured top: Anthony Ortega conducting, courtesy of Anthony Ortega]
In Part 4 of my four-part interview series with Anthony, the saxophonist talks about his work in the 1950s and beyond...
JazzWax: Your first leadership date came in May 1954, when you recorded with a quartet in Oslo, Norway.
Anthony Ortega: Yes, that was a radio broadcast that was taped. I recorded on that session when I returned to Oslo to marry Mona.
JW: When you returned to California with Mona, you didn’t stay there long.
AO: There was no work out there. Many contractors assumed that because I was Mexican-American, I couldn’t read music or was difficult. Neither was true.
JW: You were the first Mexican-American jazz musician and the only one for some time.
AO: Yes. As a result of my heritage, I had a difficult time proving myself as a jazz player. At the time, mostly white musicians got the recording jobs, with black players next. It was sort of unspoken that Mexican-American musicians should be playing in Latin bands. That kind of thing.
JW: Was there a marketing issue as well?
AO: How so?
JW: That a Mexican-American playing jazz didn’t quite fit the stereotype and as a result wouldn’t be credible?
AO: Oh, sure. In some of the Los Angeles clubs that featured jazz, they didn’t think that having someone with a Mexican-American last name playing there would come off as authentic. As a result, I didn’t have that big of a name.
JW: So you headed to New York? What prompted the move?
AO: Soon after we were living in the Los Angeles area, Luis Rivera, an organist, needed a saxophonist. So we went back East with the band in 1955. Quincy Jones and Jimmy Cleveland were already urging me to come East. When Mona [pictured] and I arrived in New York, we took an apartment on 91st Street just off Central Park West. Nat Pierce lived a few doors down, which is how I came to record some things with him. I had known Nat from the days when I was with Lionel Hampton and he was with Woody Herman, and the bands used to run into each other on the road.
JW: Your first date in New York was Sonny Stitt Plays Quincy Jones.
AO: Quincy contracted me for the Stitt date. Sonny had always been one of my idols. Serenade to Sonny on my first leadership date in Oslo was dedicated to him. I used one of his licks in the tune.
JW: Jazz for Young Moderns in 1956 for Bethlehem?
AO: The first side was instrumentation that was more straight ahead, with Dick Hafer on tenor and others. Ahmed Abdul-Malik was on bass. I met him at a Harlem after-hours club. He wasn’t a fast player but he had a nice heavy sound. Bob Zieff arranged the jazz-classical tracks and I handled the straight-ahead ones. At first I was a little disappointed in how the jazz-classical charts came out, but hearing them later I realized how good they were. I met Bob when he was hanging around the musicians' union hall in New York and invited him to handle one of the album's sides. I remember that drummer Ed Thigpen was late for the session, so we wound up limited for time. Everything was a little rushed—done in one take. Sometimes it's better that way.
JW: The Swingin' Miss D in November and December of 1956 with Dinah Washington?
AO: Dinah was a partier—let the good times roll. But she did take care of business. She was relaxed, and that relaxed everyone else on the date. She was really down. The reed section Hal McKusick contracted was something, wasn't it? Hal, me, Jerome Richardson, Lucky Thompson and Danny Bank [laughs].
JW: You were on Billy Taylor’s My Fair Lady Loves Jazz in January 1957.
AO: I remember the date—a lot of heavy guys. I wound up with a couple of solos that Gerry [Mulligan] didn’t want to play. I played tenor on the date. Quincy had written space for Gerry to take solos, but Gerry said, “I don’t want to play them.” I don’t know why he said that. So they went to me. Quincy had brought me into the date.
JW: What was it like working with Jackie Cain & Roy Kral on Bits and Pieces?
AO: They were great. Real fun people. Very relaxing to be around. It wasn’t a nervous situation by any means.
JW: In July 1957, you recorded on Maynard Ferguson’s Boy With Lots of Brass. How was it with alto saxophonist Jimmy Ford?
AO: I had just two solos on the album, on The Lamp Is Low and Love Me Or Leave Me. Jimmy and I had a competitive thing going with the solos.
JW: What was Ford like?
AO: Kind of strange. He used to talk kind of fast, with a Texas drawl. I would have liked more solos but Jimmy was in the band before me, so I understood. Then my son had an accident with his throat.
JW: What happened?
AO: He had been playing with a plastic flute and fell down and injured himself. The band was in Boston. I left to fly home to New York to be around him. After that I was afraid to be on the road.
JW: Herbie Mann's Salute to the Flute from April 1957?
AO: : I liked Herbie. I didn't care much for his flute playing. It wasn't adventurous enough for me. But he was neat in everything he did. Everything always fell into place. One time when I was working at Harrah's in Lake Tahoe in the 1960s, I saw him in the casino. We were chatting, and he said, "Anthony, I want to give you the secret to making a hit album." I said, "You wouldn't BS me, would you?" He said wouldn't and that he'd let me know. But I never heard from him. His secret was choosing a good rhythmic sound, adding a Latin-type beat and not going too far out. It was good stuff.
JW: Then came your A Man and His Horns, on which you play six different instruments.
AO: Quincy got me that date. I was completely broke at the time. I had 25 cents to my name. The label, Herald, had an idea to have me overdub all the instruments. The recording session at Rudy Van Gelder's was 12 hours straight. First we recorded the lead part, then the alto, then the tenors and the baritone. I overdubbed them all with headphones. Rudy was the only one who could have blended it all together. Nat Pierce wrote the arrangements but was never given the credit.
JW: You were with Gerald Wilson for 10 years.
AO: Yes, I recorded all of his Pacific Jazz dates. Gerald’s writing kind of grabbed you. His chordal structures, the way he voiced chords in the background. He knew how to write to enhance the soloist.
JW: You recorded three unreleased tracks with Miles Davis and a Gil Evans orchestra in April 1967 at the University of California Jazz Festival at the Greek Theater in Berkeley.
AO: Yeah, we did some stuff near San Francisco. It was kind of strange. Miles was a nice person but he stayed off to himself. Gil was dressed all straggly and needed a shave and pants were falling down. When he was conducting, you could see a plumber’s crack [laughs]. At rehearsals, I bet someone he was going to be dressed up for the concert. But he didn’t. He showed up exactly the same way.
JW: Did you know Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie?
AO: I met Parker once but didn’t have a chance to play with him. Dizzy requested I play with him when he was appearing with Lalo Schifrin at the Hollywood Bowl. Another time Dizzy called me to sub in his band in 1958 just after Ernie Henry passed away. [Pictured: Anthony Ortega, courtesy of Anthony Ortega]
JW: By 1958, you had moved back to California, yes?
AO: Yes. By that time we had two kids, and since I was born and raised in Southern California, I wanted to raise my children there. I missed home. But it was kind of a mistake, musically speaking.
AO: Because I was really getting into things there with Maynard and record dates. I would have been better off career-wise had I remained in New York. When I returned to California, nothing was going on for me for a long time. I had to gig with Latin bands to earn. [Photo courtesy of Anthony Ortega]
JW: Did Mona like L.A.?
AO: Los Angeles was hard on Mona at first. We had been in Norway for a while and then New York, so there was a lot of energy. In California, there weren’t many jazz opportunities and the social scene was very spread out.
JW: There must have been a lot of competition out there.
AO: There was. The area was packed with talent, and trying to get studio work was very difficult. With my Latin background, contractors stamped me as being unable to read well or that I wasn’t good on doubling up on other instruments. [Photo courtesy of Anthony Ortega]
JW: How did your situation change?
AO: Saxophonist Buddy Collette [pictured] helped me a lot. He used to take me with him for some of his work on TV shows at NBC, like The Flip Wilson Show. He did this so I could meet different people there. Al Lapin did the contracting for the TV things at NBC.
JW: Did you talk to him?
AO: One time I got up the courage to walk into his office. When I went in, he was very congenial. I spoke to him and said that I thought my Latin background was holding me back and that I didn’t see any other Latin jazz musicians in the studio. I also told him I had had experience playing big shows up at Lake Tahoe. Soon after we met Al started calling me for jobs. Later on, he really grew to like me.
JW: What movie soundtracks did you record on?
AO: I played soprano sax on The Pawnbroker; tenor on
Diary of Unmarried Woman, handling all the solos, I played tenor on Bad Boys with Sean Penn and on Lalo Schifrin’s score for Boulevard Nights.
JW: Did you play with Buddy Collette?
AO: I remember Buddy and I were playing on a film. We were both on alto, Buddy was playing first chair and I was playing second. Al Lapin asked Buddy to let me play first chair. Buddy wasn’t upset, which tells you how much class he had.
JW: Thinking back, what’s your favorite album?
AO: I would have to say A Man and His Horns—for the sheer variety. From a creative standpoint, I would say Bonjour, my quartet album recorded in France in 2001. Jazz for Young Moderns, too. And A Delanto, the quartet album I recorded in L.A. in 1998 with Mona, Harry Babasin and John Dentz. The material was so inspirational. Mona’s tunes were so good to jam on. [Photo at top courtesy of Anthony Ortega]
JazzWax note: If you missed Part 2 in this series, be sure to catch Andrew Rubin's The Street We Took (2007), a 15-minute documentary on Anthony and Mona Ortega. Go here.
JazzWax tracks: Anthony Ortega's albums need to be re-issued. It's an absolute shame that so much of this artist's catalog is languishing out of print or selling for a fortune as an import.
Here's what I could find: A good chunk of Jazz for Young Moderns is at iTunes on Anthony Ortega: Earth Dance. Sonny Stitt Plays Quincy Jones, My Fair Lady Loves Jazz, Nat Pierce's Big Band at the Savoy Ballroom, Gerald Wilson: The Complete Pacific Jazz Recordings, New Dance!, Afternoon in Paris, Scattered Clouds and Bonjour,
JazzWax clip: Here's Anthony Ortega on Blues for Ortega in July 1954...