talks to Gordon Jack
[Note: This interview appeared in Jazz Journal International, March 1999, Vol 52 No. 3. Headings have been added to the original. The interviewer's coments are in italics.]
Eddie Bert was born in Yonkers, New York on May 16 1922 and is an interviewer's dream because he has a written record of every musical engagement he has played in more than 50 years as a professional trombonist. He also has the well deserved reputation of having played with just about everyone in the music business. At the 1998 Kenton Rendezvous in Egham, he looked back on some of the highlights of his long and varied career.
Eddie Early Study and Benny Morton
'When I was young I used to fool around with a tenor sax and Lester Young was a big influence on me which is why I try to play tenor style on the trombone. I love that feeling he had which sax players seem to achieve better than anyone and I particularly liked his playing on those 1936 Jones-Smith Incorporated recordings.' (This group featured Young with Carl Smith, Count Basie, Walter Page and Jo Jones.) 'When I found out that he was in Basie's band at the Famous Door on 52nd Street I went along to listen and it was here that I met Benny Morton who had a great knowledge of the trombone and he agreed to give me some lessons. I used to study with him after the band finished rehearsing at the club and I was there when they and Jimmy Rushing rehearsed London Bridge Is Falling Down, Stop Beating Around The Mulberry Bush and Jumpin' At The Woodside for their 1938 recording.
Teen Age Band
Around this time I was playing in a kid's band led by Hal Gill with people like Shorty Rogers and Manny Albam who played baritone; they were neighbours of mine because I lived in Mount Vernon and they lived in the Bronx. Shorty and I also had a group playing Savoy Sultan arrangements but we couldn't get gigs because we didn't have any saxes.
First Union Job With Sam Donahue 1940
I played my first union job with Sam Donahue's band in 1940 and although he liked my soloing, my reading was not good enough so he replaced me with Tak Takvorian which is when Trummy Young sent me to Miff Mole who taught me how to read. I also used to jam with Herbie Fields at a place called George's near where Sweet Basil's is now, and
Red Norvo 1941
. . . one night Red Norvo and Mildred Bailey came in and Red asked me to join his new big band which opened on December 6, 1941 in Armonk about 30 miles north of New York. Of course the next day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor - I finally get a steady job and they start a war! We managed to do a 12-week tour with Jimmy Durante travelling by train because of gas rationing but eventually the band got hit by the draft so Red broke down to a small group with Aaron Sachs, Clyde Lombardi and Specs Powell and as he needed a jazz trumpeter, I recommended Shorty Rogers who joined us at the Famous Door. Red is 90 now and can't play because his left arm is paralysed, but otherwise he is doing great and still talk to him because he loves chatting on the telephone.
Charlie Barnet - 1943
'By 1943 I was getting all sorts of offer from different bandleaders but I decided to join Charlie Barnet because Trummy Young was in the band and he had been favourite of mine since I had heard him with Jimmy Lunceford; Al Killiam, Howard McGhee, Buddy DeFranco and Dodo Marmarosa were all there-it was wild band! We had two basses for a Phil Chubby Jackson and Oscar Pettiford, until one night Chubby told Oscar that they were going down front to do a feature at a dance and Oscar said "I'm a bass player-bye!"
I left Charlie to join Woody Herman which is when I got drafted along with Nick Travis. Allen Eager, who was great player, was with Woody at the time and a few years ago he made a comeback He lives in Florida but I don't know where he is doing now.
Stan Kenton - 1947
After the war I went back with Sam Donahue for a while but Kai Winding, who was a friend of mine, told me that he was leaving Stan Kenton who was reorganising in California. I knew band was coming to New York to play the Commodore Hotel and the Paramount Theatre so in 1947, I wrote to Stan who I heard me with Red's group in 1942, and said "How about a gig?" I stayed with 1 for about nine months while he worked the East but when he started returning to California I dropped off in Chicago because my wife was expecting our second child. The band was like one big family and when the baby was born in March; 1948 I got a card signed by everyone saying "Congratulations".
While I was with Stan I roomed with Art Pepper who very studious because he wanted to be the world's greatest saxophone player a little later when he got his recording contract with Discovery Records I thought that maybe I could get a contract too, so I said "Hey, I used to room with Art Pepper!". They gave me a contract and my first date as a leader was in 1952 and the group featured Sal Salvador, Harry Biss and Clyde Lombard!. I asked Clyde who we should use on drums, because if the bass player and drummer don't get along you are in trouble and Clyde recommended Frank Isola, who was great.
Birth of the Cool - 194?
'When I left Stan's band I used to visit Nola's studios which was on the other side of the street from Birdland. Nola's was where you would meet people and get your gigs and this is where I started rehearsing with what became known as the Miles Davis Birth Of The Cool band. I ended up making four rehearsals but when I showed up for the fifth, Kai Winding was there. It was only 20 years later that I found out what had happened when I ran into Junior Collins who played French horn in the band. Apparently he had told Miles that I had said the band was out of tune which was quite untrue, but Junior liked to stir things up. Miles though, was always friendly with me after that and never mentioned it.
Benny Goodman bebop band.
I also rehearsed with Benny Goodman at Nola's when he had a bebop band with people like Doug Met-tome, Buddy Greco, Wardell Gray, Sonny Igoe and Eddie Wasserman but it wasn't very successful and the band folded in 1948. Benny could be tough but it was work and I played with him off and on over the years until he did the last TV show, Let's Dance, just before he died. 1949 was also the year I worked with Bill Harris when he had a group with a three trombone front line; Milt Gold was the other horn and we played at the Blue Note in Chicago with Lou Levy, Bob Carter and Shelly Manne.
Charlie Parker's 1950 The Band That Never Was
In 1950 I rehearsed with another band at Nola's organised by Gene Roland as a feature for Charlie Parker. It was an enormous band with eight saxes, five trombones, eight trumpets and four rhythm but Gene was like that-he liked to be different. It became known as The Band That Never Was because it never worked, just rehearsed.' (There are some fine photographs taken by Eddie at one of the rehearsals reproduced in Ken Vail's book Bird's Diary.)
Paramount Theatre With Buddy Rich and Frank Sinatra - 1953
'In the early fifties I worked at the Paramount Theatre with Buddy Rich's band backing Frank Sinatra. This was just before From Here To Eternity in 1953 when Frank's career had taken a big dive so the audiences were small; his voice was sometimes hoarse and we didn't always know if he was going to show up-it was weird. Harry Edison, Zoot Sims and Davey Schildkraut were in the band and Ava Gardner was there too; I used to ride up in the elevator with her and even without make-up she looked fantastic.
Metronome Musician of the Year 1955
A little later, in 1955, Metronome magazine nominated me as one of the musicians of the year along with John LaPorta, Bud Shank and Barney Kessel so I figured I would use that title on an album with Hank Jones, Kenny Clarke and there is a funny story behind it concerning JJ Johnson.
J.J. Johnson Story
He wanted to make a two trombone album for Savoy with Benny Green who was unavailable so he called me but I was contracted with Discovery who wouldn't let me do the date. Jay Jay then called Kai Winding and that is when they made their first album and although the name Jay and Kai sounds better it could have been Jay and I together. Getting back to my album, a month after Discovery refused to let me record with Jay Jay they went bankrupt so Ozzie Cadena of Savoy called and asked if I would do a two trombone album myself, only I would be the only horn because they were going to overdub. Remember that this was 1955 so I didn't know what overdub meant but I went to Rudy Van Gelder' s studio and put down the basic track with the blowing and added another part later when Rudy figured how to do it. On Stompin' At The Savoy I played open and with a solo tone mute which was the type of mute used by Tommy Dorsey for that commercial sound, and when Jimmy Cleveland heard it on a Leonard Feather Blindfold Test he said that it sounded like Jay and Kai at their best and gave it five stars. I did get to record with Jay and Kai later when they did their octet album.
'Lester Young was a big
influence on me which is why
I try to play tenor style on
Meeting Charlie Mingus
'Around that time I was working with Charlie Mingus whom I had first met in San Francisco when I was with Benny Goodman; I remember Clyde Lombard! saying that we just had to see this bass player who was at the International Quarter in a group with four basses and drums and there was Charlie playing lead bass! When we both got back to New York I started rehearsing and working with his Jazz Workshop along with Art Farmer, John LaPorta, Teo Macero and Teddy Charles and I found that as long as you did the right thing, you could get along with Mingus.
Mingus Bohemia Recording 1951
In 1951 recorded with him at the Cafe Bohemia when he was starting to formulate his ideas and George Barrow, Mal Waldron, Willie Jones and I would go to his house where he would play something on the piano which we had to learn by rote because he wouldn't write it down- instead of just reading it you can get more feeling into a piece when you have it in your head. The funny thing is when Fantasy included the Bohemia material on a 12-CD box set there were 11 previously unissued titles, so I called them and asked for a cassette to be made of the unissued material but they wouldn't do it; they wanted me to buy the whole set for 175 dollars which I really did not want to do. Eventually they agreed to sell me the box set for 60 dollars and when I checked what T made on the original date it was 60 dollars.
'I have kept a written record of everything I have ever done and people often telephone asking if they were on a date and did we get paid? If I was there, I know who was on it and what we played. I also have all my records; I get them when they come out as you never know when they will be deleted.
1954 Coleman Hawkins Recording
'In 1954 I recorded with Coleman Hawkins and Emmett Berry and Hawk had just flown in to New York with his horn stored in the luggage compartment where it gets very cold. At the date he was oiling his tenor and I remember the producer complaining that we had been in the studio for 45 minutes without recording anything because he was fooling around with his sax. I only mention this because there is a good picture of Coleman and I taken at the session by Milt Hinton and you can see it in Milt's book.
'In 1956 I subbed for Jimmy Cleveland in Seldon Powell's group. Seldon and I were good friends and he was a very busy guy and years later he got me into the band for Ain't Misbehavin' on Broadway because he was the contractor. The band played on stage and the music sounded like Fats Waller's band jamming but it was all written- and everyone had their own part so if you lost your place, you were hung! I sight-read the show but the producer, who was Richard Maltby's son, said: "He sounds fine, but he is white-it is supposed to be a black show." Seldon just said: "Do you want a prop or do you want a trombone player?" So I kept the job!
Bert's Birdland and Bohemia Group
'When I was with Mingus I also had my own group playing Monday nights at Birdland as well as at the Cafe Bohemia, and I usually had Vinnie Dean, Duke Jordan and Clyde Lombard! with a variety of drummers like Ed Shaughnessy, Gus Johnson and Osie Johnson. Osie of course was a great drummer and for a while he, Milt Hinton and Hank Jones were known as the New York rhythm section. My group did an album for Savoy with Joe Morello on some tracks and it may be Joe's first recording.
Manhattan School of Music
'I should mention that for most of the fifties I was also studying for my masters degree in music. Back in 1951 I decided that I really wanted to stay home because I had a family but it was difficult to break into the New York scene as I had a reputation of being a road musician having played in a lot of bands. I had been in the army so my wife suggested that I enroll at the Manhattan School Of Music using the GI Bill Of Rights and at the time it was almost like a jazz school, because some of my fellow students were Joe Wilder, John Lewis, Max Roach and John LaPorta. While I was at the school I did some one-nighters with the Sauter-Finegan orchestra and I sometimes went out of town with Charlie Barnet; when I was on the road, the school would send me homework to complete and I finally graduated in 1958.
Commercial Work in the Fifties
'Once I had my degree, contractors knew that I was established in town and unlikely to be going on the road with every band that came to New York, so I started to do a lot of commercial work. I was still playing in the clubs though and in the late fifties I worked a lot with Gil Melle the baritone player who was scuffling around trying to get gigs and earn a living, and I remember one date at the Bohemia when we had a pianoless quartet with Tommy Potter on bass. Now Gil wrote way-out changes on practically every beat which Tommy had to make but he really took care of business, except every now and again he would say: "Can't you guys afford a piano player!" I was on one of Gil's first albums which actually helped me get my own contract with Discovery. Eventually he went to California and made a lot of money writing film music and when I visited him at his house in Malibu he had four Rolls Royces, a Morgan and an Alpha Romeo but he is still a New Yorker at heart-he hasn't fallen for that plastic stuff out there! He is a great guy and still into jazz, messing around with a soprano and manzello because he wants to get back to playing.' (Melle was a fine baritone player but is ignored by the Grove Dictionary Of Jazz. He is mentioned in Feather's Encyclopedia where he lists his favourite instrumentalists as Stan Getz and Lars Gullin. He is featured in a 1997 German film documentary on the Blue Note label which includes reminiscences by Johnny Griffin, Lou Donaldson and Max Roach among others.)
'I also worked a lot with Cecil Payne in those days and he has a completely different sound to any other baritone player-he sounds as though he is dancing while he is playing. He lives in Lower New Jersey and he is still playing and sounding wonderful although he has trouble seeing and walking now.
Theloniuus Monk Town Hall Concert
'In 1959 I played on Thelonious Monk's Town Hall concert. We had originally met in 1955 when we were guests on Steve Alien's show and when I was packing my trombone away after the broadcast, I heard Monk say to Steve "What do you mean scale?" which is when I left, before the knives came out! Anyway he asked for me to be on the Town Hall date as well as a concert at Lincoln Centre in 1963.' (Discussing the Town Hall concert with Bill Crow in a recent interview, Eddie said that prior to the concert the band rehearsed at Hall Overton's apartment on Sixth Avenue. Monk was in another room dancing and when Hall asked him if he was ever going to play the piano Monk said 'When the tempo's right!')
Broadway Shows and Elliot Lawrence
'In 1960 I was working weekends with Elliot Lawrence when he decided to take the band into the Broadway theatres to play in the pits and we did a whole series of hit shows like How To Succeed with Rudy Valle, Golden Boy with Sammy Davis and Golden Rainbow with Steve
Eddie displays his instruments in the mid 1970s
and Eydie and I was always able to take off and put a dep in if something else came up. Elliot had a fine band with people like Aaron Bell, Jimmy Crawford, Kenny Burrell, Art Farmer and Frank Wess and this lasted until the 1980s which was wonderful as I could do my commercial work in the daytime and the show in the evening.
The Trombone Scene Album
I did an album with Elliot called The Trombone Scene with Jimmy Cleveland, Sonny Russo, Jimmy Knepper, Urbie Green and Willie Dennis. Willie had a unique style and sound, playing some notes out of the usual position and doing something we call "crossing the grain". The trombone was seven positions and each one has a series of overtones that start with an octave, a fifth, a fourth and a third and as you get higher the intervals get smaller so moving quickly from the first to the fourth position for example, you can play these overtones up high and cross the grain which Willie did a lot.' (Willie Dennis was killed in a car crash in 1965 in New York and in the June 1996 issue of JJI, I quoted Peter Ind as saying that Don Fer-rara had told him that Willie had committed suicide by jumping out of a car in Central Park. I later heard from both Don Ferrara and Bill Crow that Peter's memory was at fault because Willie did not commit suicide but was killed in the crash which was an unfortunate accident. I quoted the story from Peter in good faith after double checking it with him and I apologise for its inaccuracy.) 'I saw Willie the night he was killed because we were both in Joe Harbor's bar across the street from Birdland and there was a sailor there who was pretty juiced and kept asking if he could take Willie home even though Willie didn't want to go. Eventually they left and the sailor was driving so fast in Central Park that he lost control and hit a tree, sending Willie through the windscreen, killing him instantly.
Thad Jones and Mel Lewis
'On Monday nights I worked with Thad and Mel at the Village Vanguard which I would do after my theatre gig and I did the European tour with them in 1969. That was a really great band but one night Thad had a meeting in the Vanguard kitchen and told us that we had to go on the road if the band was going to function which was when a lot of guys like Snooky Young, Eddie Daniels and I left because we had commitments in town. It was never the same when Thad and Mel split up because Thad knew how to run the band. He was out front and even though we played the same arrangements every night they sounded different because Thad would change things around on the spot, something Mel couldn't do from behind the drums.
Bobby Rosengarden and Dick Cavett Show - Lena Horne
'While I was working in the theatres I also did the Dick Cavett show for four years with Bobby Rosengarden which unfortunately prevented me from taking up an offer to join Duke Ellington for a Far Eastern tour. During the fifties and sixties I worked a lot with Lena Horne and I was on her album Lena At The Waldorf, which won an award. We had first met back in 1941 at the Cafe Society because she was there one night when my friend J. C. Higginbotham persuaded me to sit in with Red Allen's band. Lena was truly amazing but she was always just one of the guys.
I said earlier that saxophone players like Lester Young were very important to me and two more influences were Willie Smith, who taught me a lot about phrasing, and Budd Johnson-I used to work and hang around a lot with Budd who had a great knowledge of music. My early influences on trombone were Trummy Young, Vic Dickenson and Benny Morton and my favourite writers are people like Bill Finegan, Ernie Wilkins and Sy Oliver.
The Human Factor
I must mention though Duke Jordan, who I have worked a lot with over the years because he is my favourite pianist. He plays great solos that sound like a horn and when he accompanies you it is like an arrangement, never getting in the way, just 'goosing' you. He played on my last Fresh Sound album along with Jerry Dodgion, Carmen Leggio, Ray Drummond and Mel Lewis and it was one of Mel's last recordings. Mel and I had first worked together years ago in Boyd Raeburn's band and his playing might have seemed laid-back, but the time was always going on underneath like a drone-it was fantastic. We called the album The Human Factor because there were no electronic tricks or splices and we did the entire CD in one day, from 10 in the morning until five in the afternoon.
'I am still very busy and in 1997 I did a European tour and an album with T. S. Monk who is a fine drummer and we did a lot of Thelonious's new material that T. S. had found around the house. He hired me because I had played with his father-if you hang around long enough, you find that you have played with everyone's father!'
Eddie Bert Talking, Crescendo by Les Tomkins.