For nearly his entire recording career, Billy Usselton was a big band saxophonist. He spent most of his early years with Ray Anthony (from 1949 to 1953) and then Les Brown (from 1955 to 1960). In the years that followed, he recorded with many different bands, including Bob Hope's U.S.O. touring orchestra. Amazingly, Usselton recorded only one album as a leader, heading a sextet. He also recorded a handful of tracks with the sextet for a compilation album.
Usselton's sole album was His First Album, recorded for Kapp in June and July of 1956. For the sessions, he brought together a Hollywood sextet comprised of Bob Burgess (tb), Billy Usselton (ts), Abe Aaron (b-cl), Paul Moer (p), Mel Pollan (b) and Lloyd Morales (d). Then Buddy Clark (b) and Frank Capp (d) were in on the second session, followed by Larry Bunker (d) on the third. The sextet for the handful of tracks on the Capp compilation album, Modern Jazz Gallery, included Bob Burgess (tb), Billy Usselton (ts), Abe Aaron (b-cl), Paul Moer (p), Buddy Clark (b) and Mel Lewis (d).
Sextets were enormously popular in 1955 and '56. Record labels had just launched the 12-inch jazz album and were in need of affordable material. Sextets of crack musicians with the right arrangements could sound like larger ensembles. Among the many artists leading sextets in 1955 and '56 were Dave Pell, Jack Montose, Herb Geller, Seldon Powell, Lennie Niehaus and Hank Mobley.
In Hollywood, there was no shortage of sextet arrangers. Med Flory (above) arranged Tangerine, Sweet Sue, Georgia on My Mind, Miss Annabelle Lee and Smokey; Jerry Fielding arranged Coquette, Cleone, Margot and There Will Never Be Another You; Paul Moer arranged Delilah, Dinah, Liza, Jill and Blooz; Shorty Rogers arranged Angel; and Wes Hensel arranged In From Somewhere.
Usselton had a clean, lyrical sound on the tenor saxophone and tended to favor the instrument's higher register. In this regard, he probably sounded most like Stan Getz. His solos were bouncy and distinctly West Coast in their airiness and optimism.
It's hard to know why Usselton didn't record additional sextet albums as a leader. My guess is that after his first experience, he realized the entire proposition was a pain in the neck. You had to hire the arrangers, choose the musicians, get them to rehearse, and execute in the studio, even if recording the album ran over several days. Back then, some of the guys you used on the first session would likely be busy with other recording projects, and you'd have to find able substitutes. Which meant begging a pleading.
Usselton also may have figured that life would be a lot easier if he stuck to the comfort of a major band, letting the leader assume all the risks while he just showed up. By doing this, he could play beautiful saxophone, clarinet and oboe, and then pick up his paycheck and go home to his family.
Fortunately for us, Usselton made one great album. It's a highly sensitive and melodic recording in the West Coat jazz tradition. Something is better than nothing.
Billy Usselton died in 1994.
JazzWax tracks: You'll find Billy Usselton: His First Album and his sextet tracks for the Modern Jazz Gallery on one Fresh Sound CD here.
The album, the Billy Usselton Sextet, also is available on Spotify.
JazzWax clips: Here's Med Flory's arrangement of Smokey...
Here's Paul Moer's arrangement of Delilah...