Julie Kelly at Catalina's Bar and Grill

Julie Kelly at Catalina's Bar and Grill

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Herb Geller

In January 1958, my family re-settled in Southern California arriving from Providence, RI via a four engine TWA “Constellation” after 10 hours flying time only still, slightly frost-bitten.

I became a mid-year enrollee in a local high school where I was soon fortunate enough to join its dance band [although the band director thought it might be a good idea if I’d learn to read music so that I could stop and start with the rest of the band!].

The enterprising first trumpet player and first alto sax player in the dance band put together a quintet in which they asked me to play drums. They booked it for gigs at dances and weddings in and around the greater Hollywood area.

The first gig I ever played was with this combo in the Hollywood Hills, outside on a terrace belonging to a Japanese restaurant that is located just down the driveway from The Magic Castle [a world-renown, magicians-only nightclub].

I got $8.00 bucks for that gig and with most of these earnings I purchased my first Contemporary Jazz LP: More Swinging Sounds: Shelly Manne & His Men, Vol. 5 [S-7519; OJCCD 320-2].

It was love-at-first-listening. I was fascinated by the cool, crisp sound of the original compositions on this recording such as pianist Russ Freeman’s The Wind, Johnny Mandel’s Tommy hawk and Bill Holman’s four part-suite Quartet, the wonderfully involved and complicated arrangements and the distinctive blend that the group achieved from Stu Williamson’s brilliant and brassy trumpet tone and Charlie Mariano’s plaintive wail on alto sax.
For a fledgling Jazz drummer, what the rhythm section of Russ Freeman on piano, Leroy Vinnegar on bass and Shelly Manne was laying down was something to aspire to; they just swung so hard!

Later in 1958, I began studying drums with Victor Feldman, who was working with Howard Rumsey’s Lighthouse All-Stars at the time and I was also religiously watching the Blake Edwards production of Peter Gunn on Monday nights [NBC at 9:00 PM; not too many gigs on Monday night, besides which it was a school night].

Imagine how delighted I was when a year later Victor informed me that he had recorded an LP with Shelly’s group based on Hank Mancini’s tunes from Peter Gunn: all of my heroes in one place!

Shelly Manne with Victor on vibes playing Hank’s hip, slick and cool music from Peter Gunn became my next Contemporary LP purchase when the album was offered for distribution in 1959 [S-7569; OJCCD 946-2].

But what Victor had failed to mention was that Stu and Charlie had since left the group and been replaced on trumpet and alto sax by Conte Candoli [whom I had heard on occasion at The Lighthouse Café in Hermosa Beach] and Herb Geller, respectively

And while I missed Charlie Mariano [whom I gather wanted to return to Boston, his hometown], my first introduction to Herb Geller’s alto sax playing was immensely satisfying and I have sought out a number of his recordings from this period.

At the age of 80, Herb is still with us, living in Germany and playing in both big band and small group settings.

In May 2002, the Los Angeles Jazz Institute sponsored a 3-day festival celebrating West Coast Jazz which was held in North Hollywood, CA and I had the immense pleasure of visiting at length with both Herb and Charlie and boring them to death with these tales of a teenager’s admiration for their music.

However, I assure you will not be bored as you read the following highly informed and cogent interview with Herb that is reprinted from Gordon Jack’s highly recommended Fifties Jazz Talk: An Oral Retrospective [Oxford: The Scarecrow Press, 2004, pp. 88-98].

[c] Copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Herb Geller, who was born on November 2, 1928, is a regular visitor to the United Kingdom, and this interview took place in March 1994 prior to an evening's engagement at the Bull's Head in Barnes. Geller wittily reminisced about a career that has spanned more than forty years, and he had fresh and original observations on people as diverse as Clifford Brown, Art Pepper Ornette Coleman, Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman, and Stan Getz.

"The first well-known bandleader I worked for was Joe Venuti in 1946, when I was seventeen years old and on vacation from Dorsey High School in L.A. We did two weeks at a theater in San Diego, and of course I found him to be a marvelous musician and a real character. Eric Dolphy and I were fellow students at Dorsey High, and we were very good friends, but the best saxophone player at the school was Vi Redd, who played better than either of us. She sounded very soulful and could play Benny Carter and Johnny Hodges solos, note for note, with a nice sound.
I also played with a band run by trumpeter Jimmy Zito off and on for about a year. He was a fine player and a good friend of mine whose claim to fame was that he had been married to June Haver, a big movie star at the time. I remember when the band was playing at a dance hall in San Francisco and every night, after work, we would go to the Filmore district to jam in after-hours clubs. One night we were packing up to go home and a little boy, no more than twelve years old, asked me if I wanted to buy a saxophone and a clarinet. I looked at them and they were both better than mine, and although I was a little wary, I took a chance and paid him the $75 he was asking. The next day I met Bob Kesterton, who was a friend of Charlie Parker's and had played on the 1947 "Lover Man" session with Howard McGhee. I told him that I had bought a sax and clarinet early that morning and he said, "I'm working with a guy who lost his last night!" We both realized what had happened and he said, "If you like, I won't say anything," but I couldn't do that, so Bob gave me the guy's telephone number and it turned out to be Paul Desmond, who confirmed they were his instruments. He came to my hotel to collect them, and this was the first time we had ever met. I mentioned the $75 I had paid, which I would like to get back, and he promised to talk to his insurance company. When he phoned me he said, "They say I shouldn't pay you, but instead I should lodge a police complaint against you!" Luckily he didn't, but a few years later I saw him in New York when he was with Dave Brubeck and I didn't have too much money. He said, "I never did give you that $75," and he paid me, which was nice. I really needed it because I was working out my union card and had very little work.
[In this 1950 photo of the Fina band taken at the Waldorf Astoria in New York Herb Geller is second from the right and Paul Desmond is fourth from the right]

After meeting him about this stolen saxophone business, I returned to L.A., where Jack Fina was organizing a band to go to New York. I was hired after auditioning, and on the drive to the first engagement in Salt Lake City, I asked who else was joining the band, and someone said, "An alto player from San Francisco called Paul Desmond." I said, "Oh no. I've just had a big experience with him!" Anyway Paul and I were roommates on the tour and became very good friends, and over the years I often saw him. He was a wonderful player - very original, with excellent melodic phrases and a very good harmonic sense. He was also a fine piano player. In the late forties, Joe Maini and Jimmy Knepper lived in an apartment in New York which became famous for all-night jam sessions. We were all friends from L.A., and Jimmy and I had grown up together, as we were both born there. Joe was born in Rhode Island but moved out with his family when he was about fourteen years old. About a year or two after the Jack Fina trip, I had returned to New York and they had an apartment on the corner of 136th Street and Broadway. It was like a twenty-four-hour jam session, where you could visit at any time and there was always music being played, together with all kinds of nefarious activities going on. The music was wild, and as I could play a little piano, at least 1 knew the right chords, I would very often end up as the pianist. Once, though, I remember playing "Out of Nowhere" on the saxophone when Charlie Parker walked in, and of course I froze. I turned to the guys and said, "I can't think of anything interesting to play!" Everybody used to go there - Dizzy, Joe Albany, Max Roach, Miles, Warne Marsh, Gerry Mulligan. In fact, if you went to Joe's, you would meet the entire "who's who" of jazz. They had two beds in the middle of the room, and sometimes you would be blowing, and Joe or Jimmy would say, "I've been up for about four days now. I'm going to bed." They would go to sleep and snore and everybody else would still be playing.

I was with Claude Thornhill for about nine months in 1950. I recorded with him in Chicago, and we also made a "Band Short" in L.A. for Universal. These were filters between movies and usually lasted about fifteen minutes. Med Flory was in the band, and a legendary character by the name of Red Kelly was on bass. What I really wanted to do at that time was to get my union card in New York, but during the six months it took to get it, I was not allowed to work. I did some playing illegally in clubs in Nyack, New York, with people like Tony Fruscella, Red Mitchell, Phil Urso, Bill Triglia, Bill Crow, and Ed Shaughnessy, and we once did a rehearsal which was taped. Years later it was issued on Xanadu Records under Tony's name, but I never did get paid for it.'
Anyway, six months to the day after applying, I got my union card and was offered three jobs. I took the one with Jerry Wald because he had a good library of At Cohn arrangements and At was to rehearse the band. Jerry played clarinet like Artie Shaw, though not nearly as well, and he wanted me to replace Gene Quill on lead alto, because they didn't get along and Gene didn't have a union card. The band was playing at the Arcadia Ballroom, where there was a strict Local 802 policy for tax reasons. Of course at first there was some resentment, because Gene was very popular with the guys and he was an excellent player, but quite soon I was accepted and everything was fine. Gene, though, was angry at me for taking his job. A couple of years later I had another unfortunate incident with him concerning a studio date with Nat Pierce. I was having dinner with Nat at his apartment, and he had to leave early for the recording. I had my alto with me, as I was going to a jam session, and about a half hour after he left, Nat telephoned to say Quill hadn't shown up and could I get down to the studio straight away. I took a cab, and as I arrived, another cab pulled up and Gene came running in. Nat was waiting and said, "Listen, Gene. Herb is going to do the date because whenever I use you, you're either late or you don't show up at all." Gene of course flipped out and said, "You can't do this" and told me that I was always taking his jobs. I felt bad and told Nat to use Gene, but he wouldn't change his mind, and naturally Gene was very bitter towards me and I can understand why. Many years later, after I moved to Germany, I heard that he was very ill. He had been badly beaten up, could never play again, and desperately needed money for his family. I sent him $100 and received a well-typed letter, signed in barely legible handwriting, "Thank you, Gene Quill." He was a wonderful player.
Another fine altoist from that period was Dave Schildkraut, who was quite superb and was one of the greatest. I don't know what happened, but he just seemed to stop playing and started working for his father, who had a grocery store and didn't like jazz musicians. It was a sad situation because there was no drug or alcohol problem; he was just a nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn who played great alto and fantastic clarinet. He was very creative and original with his own sound, and he had made a recording with Miles. I never heard of him again, but he was one of the best saxophone players I knew, just sensational.'
Early in 1952 I married Lorraine Walsh, who was an excellent jazz pianist. She could play every tune in any key, tempo, or style, and she had a very rhythmic feel, so of course she was much in demand as an accompanist. I was with Jerry Wald at the time, but quite soon I had an offer to join Billy May, who was coming to the New York Paramount Theatre, which was very well paid. Willie Smith was the other alto, and to sit next to him was a great thrill for me. I was with Billy May for about five months, and when the band went back to L.A., I took Lorraine with me to meet my parents. We decided to stay, because suddenly L.A. was very promising. There was a lot of jazz going on and general recording activity, as this was the beginning of what the critics were calling West Coast Jazz.
When I first arrived there, I sometimes worked in striptease clubs, because I knew "Night Train" and "Harlem Nocturne," which I suppose qualified me! Lenny Bruce was the comic at several clubs, and we got to know each other real well. He loved jazz music and jazz musicians, so we would hang out together, and sometimes Joe Maini and I would split a job. If I had a jazz gig, he would cover for me at the strip club, and vice versa. It was a wild scene, and all three of us were very close. Later on I worked with Lenny at an infamous burlesque club called Duffy's Gaiety near Santa Monica Boulevard. He was the M.C., his wife Honey Harlow was stripping, and I was the bandleader, with Lorraine on piano. We also had different drummers at various times, like Philly Joe Jones and Lawrence Marable. Philly Joe became very tight with Lenny, who taught him his Dracula routine, which Philly Joe recorded as "Blues for Dracula." During the drum solo, he did a monologue imitating Lenny imitating Bela Lugosi. Jack Sheldon was there every night, because Lenny was really infamous then, not quite a star yet, but "in" to the real hip people. Bob Hope, Hedy Lamarr, Ernie Kovacs, and a lot of movie people came, and I remember Bing Crosby's son Gary used to date the girls. Someone should write the story of Duffy's Gaiety, because every night was an adventure .
I played a lot with Chet Baker, and we got along real well. We made an album together in 1953 with Bob Gordon and Jack Montrose, and despite what you hear, Chet could read music, although he was not a sight-reader. After playing the part through slowly a few times, he could play it perfectly. In fact, nobody could play it better. Early in 1953, when he and Gerry Mulligan were at the Haig, Gerry eloped with a waitress from the club and Chet asked for me, because he needed another horn in the quartet to keep working. We played for about three weeks, until Gerry got back from his honeymoon, by which time he was probably divorced already!
Bob Gordon was a wonderful baritone player who was just establishing himself when he was killed in an automobile accident. In 1988, when I was in New York for a recording session with Benny Carter, I met a young man who said, "You knew my stepfather, Bob Gordon." The youngster played alto, and he played very well. I saw Jack Montrose as recently as 1992 in Las Vegas, where he and his wife, who is a violinist, work in the shows. He is a dear friend and I like him very much personally, but jazz-wise, I don't know what happened. He is semi-retired now, but for a long time he was writing classical music. He studied the twelve-tone system and has written lots of twelve-tone music that will never be played, and he knows it will never be played. But he owns his own house, has a lovely wife, and they are O.K. in Vegas.

In the mid fifties, Lorraine and I would often play Tuesday nights at Zardi's. Tuesday was the off-night for the main visiting attraction who would play the rest of the week there. Of course the management left the star's name outside all week, and people would come up to me thinking I was Dave Brubeck. One time, I swear to God someone said, "You are Miles Davis, aren't you?" He was there for the other six nights, and they mistook a white saxophone player for Miles Davis. That's how much they knew about jazz.
In 1954, I recorded with Clifford Brown and Dinah Washington . We were all under contract to Mercury, who wanted to use several of their artists in a jam-session setting with a live audience, rather like "Jazz at the Philharmonic." The highlight for me was playing with Clifford, who was a marvelous, extraordinary human being and musician. He was one of the nicest people you could meet, and a complete "natural" who could play anything. Rather like Chet, he could pick up any instrument and fool around for a while, and then play it real well. I remember once when Max Roach, who had been playing at the Lighthouse with Lorraine, decided to have a party. A lot of jazz people were there, and everyone was smoking and drinking except Brownie, who didn't smoke or drink at all. He never swore and was just a lovely person: clean-cut, unassuming, and modest. Anyway, Max had been carrying a set of vibes with him everywhere he went, but he never touched them, just set them in a comer. Clifford started fooling around with them, and in about an hour or so he was playing with four mallets. Max was furious. He'd had them for years and couldn't even play a scale, but Clifford learned to play them while everyone was getting drunk. He was such a loss, because there is nobody today to match him. I mean Freddie Hubbard is wonderful, Wynton Marsalis can play, but I don't hear in anyone what I heard in Brownie. His sound was so beautiful and soulful, with such a sparkling way of playing.
One of the records Lorraine and I made together was with Ziggy Vines, who is probably almost forgotten today. He was even obscure at the time, and Leonard Feather, who did the sleeve-note for the album, thought he was actually a pseudonym for Georgie Auld, but he really did exist. He came from a very rich family in Philadelphia and had a natural, unbelievable talent. He was a legend in New York when I first met him, although he never seemed to have a horn, but he sure could play. One day in 1955, out of a clear blue sky he telephoned, saying, "It's me, Ziggy Vines. I'm in L.A., and I need some money. Have you got any work for me?" Lorraine and I were just about to do a quintet album with Conte Candoli, and I thought it would be a good idea to rewrite it for a sextet using Ziggy. Two days before the date, he phoned again and said, "I need a horn, a mouthpiece, some reeds, and a place to stay." I lent him my tenor, bought him some reeds and a mouthpiece, and arranged for him to move in with Lorraine and me. Anyway, he came to the date, and although he hadn't touched a saxophone for quite a time, he played just great because he was a natural, swinging musician. I don't know what happened to him after that, but there is a rumor that he was taped playing with Clifford Brown the night before Brownie was killed in Philadelphia.
In the late fifties Don Cherry stayed at my house for a while, when he and his wife were evicted from their apartment, but I never really cared for his music. He was playing in a "free" way even then, because he couldn't play normally. People said that he and Ornette Coleman could play changes, but I don't believe it, man. I heard Ornette's recording of "Embraceable You," and it's a laugh. I'm sorry, but that's not "Embraceable You." I mean, put him to the test - the Emperor has no clothes. They both played some nice, folksy, rather primitive, naive-sounding things that had a certain charm, but I couldn't take their approach seriously, even to this day. Ornette came to my house once because he wanted to have his music corrected. He showed me his tunes, and they were a catastrophe, because the bar lines were in the wrong place and there were no chord symbols. He took his saxophone out, and I notated what he played. I asked him what chord he was using, and he blew the arpeggio of a G chord thinking it was a B minor. He just didn't know anything about chords. Years later he was talking about George Russell's Lydian Concept, so I asked him if he had found out the difference between B minor and G yet! I liked Omette as a person, and he did a sweet thing after my wife died. He wrote a piece which I think he called "Lorraine," and I was very touched by that.' Some of his tunes have haunting melodies, but I don't really care for that type of playing. I can play "free," but it's just a lot of meandering about, and anyone can meander; you buy an instrument and make a record in two weeks! Charlie Mariano and Art Pepper were very active in California during the fifties. Charlie and I were always friends, and I took his place with Shelly Manne's group when he wanted to go home to Boston. I have always liked the way he plays, and among my contemporaries, I would say that he is my favorite. He is very original and plays with a lot of soul in a completely different style to me, which is great. I don't bother him, and he doesn't bother me! Regarding Art Pepper, I have to say that there was never any love lost between us, or between Art and Joe Maini, or Art and anyone else for that matter, because nobody liked him personally. Musically it's a matter of taste, but I was never much of a fan, to tell you the truth. He played well, but I don't think there was any great content, and Joe was of the same opinion.

I'll tell you a funny story concerning the three of us. Both Art and Joe had been to jail, and there had been rumors that Art had named names. You get arrested and the police say, "Just give us some names and we'll let you off." The word for that is a "fink" and that's what people were calling Art. Anyway, there was an after-hours club in the fifties on Hollywood Boulevard where Bill Holman had the group, along with Lorraine, Mel Lewis, and a bass player whose name I have forgotten, and musicians would go there after their gigs to jam. Joe Maini and I would usually go together, and one night we met Art in the parking lot, getting ready to go in, and it's, "Hi, Art," "Hi, Herb, Hi. Joe," bla, bla, bla. Art's wife, Diane, who was a pretty out-front woman, said. "How can you be so friendly, when you know that you all hate each other?" Art said to Joe, "Yeah, you've been going around telling everyone that I'm a fink and that's not true." Joe said, "Listen, I was in the joint too, and I would never call anyone a fink, unless I really knew for sure. I didn't call you a fink: all I said was that you couldn't blow shit, man. I've been telling everyone that!" They were going to start fighting, and Joe whispered quietly to me. "Hold me back." I grabbed him real tight while he shouted out loudly, for Art's benefit, "Let me go, let me at him!" Diane did the same thing with Art. saying, "Don't do it, don't do it." Luckily they were being held by two strong people so nothing happened, but it was a wild incident.

I joined Benny Goodman's band thanks to Andre Previn, who was a good friend of mine. Benny, who idolized Andre, had asked him for a lead alto player and he recommended me. I did three tours with the band, but the first one in November 1958 was a big event in my life because, after I was rehearsing all day, my mother called to say that Lorraine had died. I left the band in New York for the funeral and to make arrangements for my one-year old daughter to be adopted by my sister. Later I telephoned Benny and asked if I could come back, and he said, "Great. We miss you." He was so nice, and I know you hear many bad stories about him, but he was just wonderful to me at a very trying time, really taking care of me. He paid very well, and whenever he was interviewed, he would mention me and praise me a lot. I also recorded with him when he wanted to re-record some of his original classics in stereo, which was a great thrill.
Of course I was emotionally distraught with the death of my wife and the adoption of my daughter because I couldn't provide a proper home for her, but I kept busy. One night I had a call from a lady who said that a friend of mine was in town and wanted to surprise me at the club where I was playing, and would I give her the address? I was working in a burlesque club on Santa Monica Boulevard called the Pink Pussycat. Later that night, I was playing "Night Train" or some boogie-woogie thing with my eyes closed, and I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was Stan Getz, a very old and dear friend who I loved very much. Just like Benny Goodman, I've heard a lot of terrible stories of what he did to other people, but to me, he was just a great human being. During the intermission we talked, and he suggested that I go to Europe for a while. I had already given some thought to that, because L.A. had too many memories, and Stan said he would contact the owner of the Montmarte club in Copenhagen to get me some work while I decided what to do, and that's how I came to leave the U.S.A.
One of the first people I met in Europe was Brew Moore, who I was very fond of. I remember during the Berlin Jazz Festival they had a theme called -'The History of the Tenor Sax," and Brew represented the Lester Young school. All the guys got completely drunk after the concert, and the next morning he called me over to his hotel in a panic. Apparently he had been so drunk that he had left his horn, coat, and wallet in a taxicab and had thrown up all over his clothes. He had sent his suit out to be cleaned, and when I arrived, he was sitting in his underwear. He said, "Herb, I can't speak German and nobody here speaks any English. I've lost my horn; I don't have my passport, and I can't get out of Berlin without it. What am I going to do?" Luckily the story had a happy ending because he sobered up, recovered everything, and got out of Berlin alive! Do you know the sad story of how he died? He inherited a lot of money from his grandfather I think, gave a huge party to celebrate and, in the middle of everything, fell down some stairs and died of a broken neck. It could only happen to a jazz musician. He was a wonderful, natural player, like Zoot. It was strictly talent and intuition with both of them.
Getting back to Stan Getz, we first met in L.A. in 1946 or '47. He had left Benny Goodman in New York, and he was waiting to get his union card, so he didn't have too much work or money, and of course he had his first wife, Beverly, and a child to support. We were both playing tenor in a band led by Dick Pierce. Stan played lead and I was on second, although I never really was a tenor player, but I was so fascinated by the way he played, I asked him for a lesson to show me some of the things he was doing. I had never heard a style like that because at that time, when I played tenor, I had Ben Webster and Don Byas in mind, but Stan had a different approach. I spent several hours at his house, and he showed me many things to practice, and at the end of the lesson, he gave me a mouthpiece, saying, "That will help you get the sound you want." Now Stan didn't have any money, and I wanted to pay him for the lesson, because I had learned a lot, but he wouldn't take anything; he was just great.

There's very little in jazz today that I enjoy. When I get depressed or nee a mood change, I put on some old Billie Holiday and she does it every time for me, because immediately I'm touched. Of course I listen to Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, Bill Evans, Art Tatum, and Clifford Brown. I have exotic tastes; I also listen to Mildred Bailey and Stephen Sondheim musicals as you know, but I don't listen to my own records because it makes me nervous and I never like what I play. I like Don Byas, who is almost ignored no

but nobody plays that good. He had such a beautiful, musical sound, which tenor players don't have today. Everybody thinks that "baagh!" is the sound and that's not for me. [Here, Herb imitated a high-pitched whine, so popular with many post-Coltrane tenor players.] Two more of my favorites are Zoot Sims and George Coleman. One of the greatest jazz musicians of all time was Artie Shaw; his records still sound great. The two biggest disappointments it my life were that I never played with Artie Shaw or the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Once in Las Vegas, when I was with Louis Bellson and Pearl Bailey I played with Basie's band because Frank Wess was sick. That was exciting but nothing like playing with Shaw or Duke.

At this stage of the interview, I showed Herb a copy of Leonard Feather' 1956 Encyclopedia of Jazz, where one hundred and twenty leading player. were asked to name their favorite instrumentalists. He was one of those canvassed, and I asked him who his choices would be now.

As I made clear earlier, it would be Clifford Brown and Chet Baker on trumpet, along with Roy Eldridge, Dizzy, and Fats Navarro. On trombone, I like Teagarden, J.J., Jimmy Knepper, Bob Brookmeyer, and Slide Hampton. On alto, my favorites haven't really changed; they're still Parker, Sonny Stitt. Johnny Hodges, Benny Carter, Willie Smith, and Charlie Mariano. Tenors are Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, Don Byas, George Coleman, and Stan Getz. On baritone, I like Gerry Mulligan very, very much. Pepper Adams was a wonderful player, as is Nick Brignola, but the most musical of all has to be Gerry, because he doesn't just play a lot of bebop hot licks. He is composing when he plays, and that's what I like.' On clarinet, it's Goodman, Artie Shaw, Ken Peplowski, and Eddie Daniels. And on flute, I think Hubert Laws is marvelous. Milt Jackson is terrific, but my all-time favorite on vibes is Victor Feldman. Pianists are Tatum, Bud Powell, Horace Silver, Bill Evans, and Joe Albany. And bass has to be Jimmy Blanton, Ray Brown, Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen, and Red Mitchell. Red was a one-man rhythm section. I could play all night in a duo with him, and it would be terrific. Drummers I like are Kenny
Clarke, Philly Joe Jones, and Sid Catlett. And Mel Torme and Tony Bennett are my favorite male vocalists. I saw Tony Bennett recently and he is singing better than ever, and he has such taste. I'm not really a fan of Frank Sinatra, although in the old days he sang well, and "Only the Lonely" was nice. But for me, Bennett is far superior. Girl singers I like are Carmen McRae, Helen Merrill, Ella, and Peggy Lee, but Billie is my all-time champion. She is the only one who can make me cry or laugh within eight bars; she reaches that much of a spectrum of emotion. The best arrangers are people like Gil Evans, John Lewis, Billy May, George Russell, A] Cohn, Bob Brookmeyer, and Gerry Mulligan. Kenny Napper is also a fine writer.

Charlie Parker's music is very important to Herb, so I asked him what he thought of Med Flory and Supersax.

Med is an excellent musician, and we are old friends. He is a man of many talents, because he plays the saxophone, sings, arranges, acts, and he does everything well. All I can say is that I heard Charlie Parker's recording of "Parker's Mood" on the radio recently, and immediately after, they played the Supersax version. Bird's record moves me to tears, and Supersax left me cold. It's a tribute and a work of love, showing great dexterity and hard work transcribing, but I would much rather hear the genuine article. Also, I don't like the way they voice the saxes, with the baritone doubling the lead. As a result, :he inner voices are very dull, because they don't move well.

I liked Clint Eastwood's film Bird, and I have it on video. Lennie Niehaus and I have been friends for years, and I think the way he recreated the string parts on "April in Paris" was masterful. The whole film was a work of love, and my hat is off to Lennie. I still remember his first arrangement on "Seems Like Old Times" for a non-union Latin band that we worked for in the early fifties in L.A.
I have just retired after twenty-eight years playing for the North German Radio Orchestra, but I like to keep busy, because I'm a workaholic. I teach a lot and I'm a professor at two universities, and I have also been involved in two musicals. The first one concerns all these stories I have been telling you. About five years ago, a friend told me that I should write my memoirs, and I said that if I ever did, it would be in the form of a musical. Soon afterwards I heard that Joe Albany had died, and he was a very important figure in my life. He was the first avant-garde jazz pianist, if you like, playing across bar lines ignoring strict tempo, and playing wild chords. He was very emotional and sometimes played poorly, but when he was "on," it was just fantastic. The Herald Tribune, however, gave him about three lines. Soon afterwards Chet Baker and Al Cohn died, and I was very touched. I wrote songs with lyrics for all three, and I thought, "What am I going to do with these songs?" That was when I decided to turn my memoirs into a musical, and I put words to an older original of mine called "Playing Jazz," which has become the title of the show. I came up with a story, writing twenty songs in all, and recorded it for the N.D.R., but I am not too happy with the results, as it needs more work.

I was also asked to write the music for a show based on Josephine Baker, called Josephine for a Day, which opened in Frankfurt in February, and I have just heard that it is a hit. One of the reviews called it "A show that nobody should miss." I hope that with the success of Josephine I will be able to have my own show, “Playing Jazz,” staged.

1 comment:

  1. I met Herb Geller in Holland about a year ago. He was a very nice, suave, soft spoken chap and a great alto player.
    This article is really fantastic.
    Wish it could be the standard for jazz writing.It's on the Whitney Balliott level.
    My compliments!

    ReplyDelete

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