One of the finest (and rarest) big band recordings of the late 1950s is Ted McNabb & Co. for Columbia's Epic label. Arranged and conducted by Marion Evans, the session was recorded over three days in November 1959 and featured the cream of the New York studio scene.
On the date were Burt Collins, Bernie Glow, Doc Severinsen, John Bello (tp); Sy Berger, Frank Rehak, Urbie Green, Dick Hixson (tb); Dick Meldonian, Gene Quill (as) [pictured]; Al Cohn, Zoot Sims (ts); Sol Schlinger (bar); Nat Pierce (p); Barry Galbraith (g), Milt Hinton (b) and Osie Johnson (d). When a few musicians couldn't make it for the second and third dates, Al Derisi and John Frosk (tp), Herb Geller (as), John Drew (b) and Don Lamond (d) stepped in. Not too shabby.
But who exactly was Ted McNabb? The notes on the reverse side of the LP simply say that McNabb had long-time ambitions to record such an album and as a youngster had studied piano, clarinet and drums. Not only isn't McNabb listed anywhere else on the album, he isn't listed in any jazz discography. Hmmm. A pseudonym?
JazzWax loves a mystery, so I gave legendary arranger Marion Evans [pictured] a call yesterday afternoon. As Marion talked, I took notes. Here Marion reveals McNabb's identity and how his name came to appear on this swinging album. I promise it's a doozy...
"Back in the late 1950s, I was living in New York City. One afternoon, I received a phone call from someone named Ted McNabb. The guy said, 'My girlfriend sings, and I want to record an album of her accompanied by a top band. Cost isn’t a problem.' We spoke for a bit, and I told him that not only would such a recording be expensive, it also would likely be a waste of time.
"Ted pushed all that off and asked me to meet him that evening at the bar in the Pierre Hotel, where he was staying. So I went over to the hotel. He was a nice guy, and soon after we ordered drinks his beautiful girlfriend joined us. Ted said, 'Is there a room here with a piano that we can use?' I found one with a white baby grand, and we settled in. I sat down and played a couple of songs while Ted's girlfriend sang. Musically, she was tone deaf.
"When she finished, Ted asked, 'Will you do the album?' I said I would, but I told him there was a problem. I said, 'We won’t be able to get top musicians unless we do it for a record label that the union recognizes.' But leading labels weren't demo shops that recorded what you wanted to record. A record had to be commercially viable to justify the cost, and Ted's girlfriend wasn't much of a singer. Ted told me to ask the top labels anyway, that he’d pay.
"That night I thought about it and came up with an idea. I called Ted and told him that if he could send over $10,000 in $100 bills, I might be able to work something out.
"The next day the money was delivered to my place. I took the envelope and went up to Columbia Records to see my contact. I closed the guy’s door and took out the envelope. The guy jumped up startled, and locked the door. That’s when I started to put down the $100s, one at a time. I wasn't paying him off but offering to pay for the session.
"I said, 'You and I are going to make a big band album with someone named Ted McNabb. If you haven’t pulled out a contract and signed it by the time I finish putting down the rest of these bills, I’m heading over to RCA, and they’ll do the album.'
"Out came a contract and the guy signed it. Why was I bothering with someone named Ted McNabb? The guy was offering to pay me a fortune to get the job done—an amount that was a lot more than an album I would have made with a singer like Rosie Clooney or someone else at that level.
"When I told Ted I had secured a contract with Columbia, he was overjoyed and left a sizable check for me as an advance. I picked up the check at his hotel and took it over to Manufacturers Hanover Trust Bank nearby to open an account.
"But when I handed the bank officer the check for the account, he looked at it strangely and then looked at me before excusing himself. When he returned, he had a couple of guys with him. 'Do you know Ted McNabb?' the bank officer asked. I said, 'Of course I do, he told me he's a salesman with the Bell & Howell Co. in Chicago.'
"The bank executive said, 'A salesman? Mr. McNabb isn’t a salesman. He’s a board member and a major shareholder.” Apparently Ted’s father, J.H. McNabb had purchased half the company early on. When his father died in 1949, Charles Percy replaced him, and Ted became a wealthy heir and a board member. Among J.H. McNabb's holdings was a financial institution in Chicago that was affiliated with Manufacturers Hanover, which is how they knew Ted. At any rate, they opened my account and deposited the check.
"I went back to see Ted and told him I knew who he was. He said, 'Yeah, this happens all the time. I try to keep things low-key but eventually it comes out. Let’s go have a drink.' Ted was constantly plastered. Over the next couple of days, we hit all the jazz clubs in New York. Ted loved music.
"To see if we could get Ted's girlfriend in shape for the session, I leased out a Capitol studio, wrote some arrangements and contracted a band. At the session, we recorded four sides and then took a break.
"The musicians, of course, headed across the street to the bar, and Ted went with them. Bassist Milt Hinton told me later what happened. When they got to the bar, Ted said to Milt, 'This is some band.' Milt said, 'Yeah, but the girl singer is terrible.'
"Of course, Milt [pictured] didn’t know the connection between Ted and the woman, but Ted wasn’t bothered by what he heard. Ted said to Milt, 'Why don’t we go back to the studio and have just the band record without her?' Milt said, 'You can’t do that. Marion's charts are written to accompany a singer. They’d have to be re-worked for a band.' So when they all came back, Ted told me that he wanted to do the album with just a band.
"I set to work writing an album’s worth of big band arrangements. In November, we went down to Columbia’s 30th St. Studio [pictured]. We got there early, and when I walked in there was a long bar set up with two bartenders and everything imaginable to drink.
"I said to Ted, 'What are you doing? We’ll never get this album recorded.' Ted said, 'Gee, I’m sorry. I arranged for all this because I figured it would be good for the guys.” We recorded over three days—November 19, 23 and 25, and Ted was there the entire time. He loved every minute of it.
"Fortunately, the musicians I hired for the date were among the absolute best sight-readers in town. At the second session, we were running out of time and hadn’t recorded Lover yet. I said to the band, 'We have only a few minutes left. We have to do this in one take—no run-downs or anything.' Al Cohn played the tenor sax solo, and the band nailed the chart. [Pictured, from left: Al Cohn and Zoot Sims]
"When the album was released, Ted bought 100,000 copies to give out to everyone at Bell & Howell. He said, 'Tell Columbia that I want to do another one.'
Not long afterward, Ted called to tell me he was sending a plane for me to come out to Las Vegas. I flew out. He had about 40 people there. He was marrying his high school sweetheart named Margie. He wanted me to play Margie and other songs on the piano at the Sands Hotel as he walked into the reception.
"I remember that the room on the second floor of the Sands had a series of buttons. You pressed the one corresponding to the religion of the person getting married. Then chairs moved and paintings automatically changed for the ceremony based on the religious background of the couple. It was wild.
"Unfortunately, we weren’t able to do another album. Ted died suddenly at age 40. He had bad problems with varicose veins. They had told him about them, but he was a Christian Scientist and didn’t seek medical care.
"Ted was the one who wanted the album’s title to read Ted McNabb & Co.—without any explanation as to who he was. Just his picture appears on the cover, where the asterisk is. I have no idea what Ted's contribution to Bell & Howell was while he was there. But he did manage to leave a great legacy—this one album.
A special JazzWax thanks to Hank O'Neal.
JazzWax tracks: I'm sorry to say that Ted McNabb & Co. isn't available on CD, but you may find it at download sites or copies of the LP at eBay. It remains one of the swingin'-est, punchiest big band albums of the period—thanks to the gorgeous pen and vision of Marion Evans.