BMHOF Class of 2005
Don Menza is a powerful tenor saxophonist who, although able to effectively imitate most of the top stylists (from Coleman Hawkins to John Coltrane), has a distinctive sound of his own. Menza started playing tenor when he was 13. After getting out of the Army, he was with Maynard Ferguson's Orchestra from 1980-1982 as both a soloist and an arranger. A short stint with Stand Kenton and a year leading a quintet in Buffalo preceded a period living in Germany from 1964-1968. After returning to the U.S., he was with Buddy Rich's big band in 1988, recording a famous solo on "Channel One Suite" that utilized circular breathing and was quite classic. He settled in California and has worked with Elvin Jones (1969), Louie Bellson, as an educator, and in the studios. Don Menza, who has made far too records of his own, recorded as a leader for Saba (1965) in Germany, Discwasher (1979), Realtime, and Palo Alto (the latter two in 1981). Some of his many studio credits include work on albums by artists in all genres, such as Henry Mancini, Shawn Phillips, Lowell Fulson, The Righteous Brothers, Jimmy Witherspoon, Neil Diamond, Rita Coolidge, John Lee Hooker, Leonard Cohen, Bette Midler, Manhattan Transfer, Boz Scaggs, Kenny Burrell, Donna Summer, Phil Spector, Toto, Natalie Cole, Tito Puente, Chicago Metropolitan Jazz Orchestra, Glen Campbell, Keely Smith, Ron Davies, just to name a few. Don Recently recorded a project with another Buffalo Music Hall of Famer, Bobby Jones and local drummer John Bacon, Jr. He recently performed here in Buffalo before leaving for an extended teaching residency in Europe.
Following is an interview with Don Menza by Les Tompkins from 1968:
I'm from Buffalo—that's upstate New York. It's funny, a lot of tenor players come from around there—Sal Nistico, Joe Romano, J, R, Monterose. And Nick Brignola, the baritone player.
Nobody in my family had ever played, or was even musically inclined. One day I heard a jazz record—"Body And Soul". Then the next day somebody let me listen to a Gene Ammons record. And three weeks later I had a tenor saxophone. That was it. I was 15, and I hadn't played till then. I never studied; it was something I went after, and there it is. I learned by practical experience only.
In the army I got a chance to do a lot of experimenting, and to meet a lot of other good musicians. Stationed in Stuttgart, I was in the 7th Army band that is legendary now. Don Ellis was in the band, Leo Wright, Lex Humphries, Cedar Walton, Lanny Morgan, Eddie Harris. Ooh, what a band that was. One of the best I ever played on. I couldn't believe it. I had the opportunity to write for the band; so it was a beginning for that.
Don Ellis was into his experimental things then. He was writing in 5/4, and all kinds of times and sounds. It was quite an experience. Having got to know Don, after the army he invited me to stay in New York with him. And I quit playing. All the way through the army, I'd just told myself I didn't want to play any more. When I got out of the army I was going to go into a normal life. At some kind of day job. So I did—I quit for almost a year, between 1958 and '59. Before the end of 1959 I had started playing again.
In 1960 I went with Maynard Ferguson's band for a year and a half. Wonderful. I did a lot of writing there, too, The great thing about that band was the enthusiasm—bubbling over. Even when everybody was really dragged and depressed and down, making a one-nighter from New York to Chicago—boy, the band used to get up on the bandstand and really cook.
I don't know what caused that enthusiasm. I can't figure it out. We didn't make any money; when we didn't work, we didn't get paid. You know, it wasn't a band where they guaranteed you so much a week, or where you could live off it. It was like a hobby jazz band.
The important thing was, I think, that everybody really had a chance to stretch out and play what and how they wanted to. Maynard let them do that.
I, for one, used to get really depressed on the band. And, now that I look back at it, I guess I was more bugged at myself than anybody else. Because there were many things that I couldn't make, and I'd really get up tight about it; I'd find all kinds of excuses to put down other things.
Sectionwise, it was fantastic. Lanny Morgan was playing lead alto, with Willie Maiden and Frank Hittner. The band was fairly stable while I was in it—almost two years. The trumpets were Don Rader, Chet Ferretti and Rick Keifer. Rick's in Cologne now. He was in the Greger band with me; he's with Kurt Edelhagen now.
As well as being, like, one of the cats, Maynard was a great leader. It was very, very conducive to playing good jazz; he was beautiful for the whole spirit of the band. Outside of the money thing; that was the only drawback. It seems like you've really got to pay some dues if you're dedicated to jazz.
It wasn't like a big band—that was the idea of it. He kept it small; and everybody in the band was a soloist—with the exception, I think, of the lead trumpet player. And sometimes the lead trombone, who really couldn't stand up and play a whole bunch of jazz. But even then, he used to have that when Slide Hampton was in the lead chair, and a few of the other cats.
So it was no easy problem for Maynard, with the band never becoming a big commercial success. It's a shame; because when they look back on it in another ten years, it will be considered one of the really great bands. I'm glad to see that he's getting a little active again in Europe.
I left Maynard to go to a money job. I went to play with Stan Kenton—and stayed for about six weeks. It was such a letdown; not because the band wasn't good or anything. It's just that I didn't get to play as much as I did on Maynard's band, and I was making all kinds of money. I suddenly realised what I had done, and panicked. I left Stan Kenton, went back home—and quit playing again.
Well, I didn't really stop playing. This time I went home and did a lot of practicing; we started a small group in Buffalo with Sam Noto and a few more local musicians. It enabled me to get myself a little bit more together.
Right then, in 1964, I just didn't know what I wanted to do. I didn't want to go in Woody's band at the time. Nor did I want to go back with Maynard's band; they were starting to scuffle even more about bread. I knew Dusko Goykovich from 1956 when I was in the Service; he gave me Max Greger's address, and said: "Write him a letter." So I wrote Max, told him who I was and what records he could get to hear me on. Three weeks later I was in Europe.
What a switch that was! Now I was working and I was getting a chance to play jazz on my own. I couldn't believe it. I had so much time off from my studio gig, almost every night I was running some place to play. Not immediately—it took me four or five months to really get the jazz thing going. But once I did, it was beautiful. I was given my own record date while I was there; then after a year and a half I made the record with Max. Not to mention all the commercial things that we did. My writing had full scope, too.
The four years in Europe was priceless experience. Through working in the studios, I learned to play all the saxophones and flutes. I hadn't played flute before, other than a very small amount with Maynard.
Musicianship, I found, was of a high general standard. The only thing was the studio. The band really wasn't a jazz band; so it was kind of hard when Max decided he wanted to make jazz things. As far as the small groups were concerned, there are quite a few good rhythm players in Germany. Which was no surprise; I knew that from the army days. It was just a matter of getting back, finding out who were the new young cats, where they were and how to get them together.
And in Munich, at the new jazz club, the Domicile, an awful lot was going on jazz-wise. I was able to play every night for the last two years of my stay. Really beautiful; a very exciting scene. That I really miss. Since I left Munich, I haven't had any chance of stretching out the way I could there.
Of course, I get to play quite a bit on Buddy's band. But it's a completely different kind of playing in big bands. You talk to Sal Nistico, or any jazz player, he'll tell you this. It's the way it should be; you should listen to what's going on around you and build upon that. Because if it has nothing to do with the overall context, what's the sense of playing it? Buddy has a pretty straight-ahead band. I sit there, and he plays right in my ear. And I dig it. I dig drummers that really beat on them, you know. I think that’s the way drummers should play. There comes a time to get sensitive; but when it’s time to swing and to really lay it down, he does it.
The British tour last year was my first trip over here since October,'79, when I came as a member of the Louie Bellson band. It was also my very first time as a single. It looked like I was going to try to put it together about three years ago, when I went to Scandinavia. I was in Sweden for almost two weeks, and then I went on to Helsinki—that was my third time there as a single. In Sweden, I did a single in a club, made an album with Hector Bingert, a Uruguayan tenor player who has a jazz/salsa band, and toured with a Swedish big band at all the various folks parks that they have. In Helsinki I played a jazz club, the Club Groovy, and did a live album there also.
I don't know why I didn't put the British thing together earlier—or even Germany, for that matter. It always seemed like I was so busy, getting involved in different projects in the States. I always said: "I'll work on it six months from now; I'll try to set it up for next Spring"—and there was always something else that came up. Last year's trip was arranged six months in advance, and it worked out real good.
For a couple of years I've been playing the first flute chair in Cats in Los Angeles; that's at the Schubert Theatre in Century City. It's been very nice to get a steady pay-cheque, and to play my flute all the time—the book is ninety per cent flute. L.A. is really not a theatre town; it's probably been one of the longest running shows they've had there.
This was another first for me—I hadn't done pit work before. And it's a totally different set of rules. I thought it would just be: go there, play the music, smile through it all—but night after night playing the same music involves an extreme amount of discipline. You start to memorize all the cues real quick; what is essential is: not to get bored with it, to keep it sounding fresh—to keep it interesting is the big thing to do, I think.
A lot of the guys sit there and read—and it bugs the hell out of me. I feel they should be listening, and constantly aware of where the pitch is. I don't know—maybe I'm taking it too serious. But I take music very seriously—and music has been my whole life.
Of course, you can't get too creative with notes that are expected to be the same, and phrasing that you have to adhere to every single night. There are a couple of little things that are just out-and-out solos, which have absolutely nothing to do with anybody else except you alone. At the beginning of the second act there's this short one—well, you consider it short by jazz standards, but when you're playing it al1 alone in front of a theatre packed with people, it suddenly becomes very long! But I try to take a little bit of liberty here and there, and play it slightly different. You keep trying things—you know, nothing ventured, nothing gained. You have to take chances—but when you do, sometimes you'll slip. I am an interpretative artist; so I'm liable to do it that way. And sometimes I'll get the high sign from the conductor; sometimes not! It's okay, though.
It gives me an extra interest—and people around me. There's a short tenor solo in the first act, and I promised myself that every night I was going to play it different. It's a rock 'n' roll, honking tenor solo, with a lot of high notes in there. They want it in the contemporary vein, and that's the way I do it. I use that pinched, squealy sound—it works perfectly. I've been having more fun with it; every night it's a different trip.
Listen, I've played on a lot of rock 'n' roll records. I've played solos that in a million years people wouldn't think that it was me. Nobody would pick it out and say: "Oh, that's Don Menza". It doesn't work that way. I turn into a chameleon; I wouldn't dare go in there and approach it like I do when I'm on the stand playing "Airegin" or something—that would be totally out of context. And if you've got a rock 'n' roll tenor solo to play, you give it that contemporary thing. I'm not talking about a 'fifties tenor sound; I'm talking about the sound that's right here and now—there's a certain element in it that you should have.
But after more than a year in this job, you can imagine how much I needed a little break, to go out and play some jazz again. I started to feel that irresistible urge to do something else—oh, I had a terrible appetite for playing. When you're not out playing every night, you start to get the feeling: "Gee, am I forgetting how to play?" It took one night; the next night everything started to get very clear again, and I felt much better.
Working with changing rhythm sections is no problem, really—it's the same situation in L.A. Somebody comes to town, and if they're going to work a club for, let's say, four or five nights, any given night you'll never know who's going to be in the rhythm section. They'll hire one rhythm section, and when any of them can't make it they have to worry about their own deps (or subs, as we say).
For me, going out as a single has always been very good—whether it's up in Toronto or Buffalo or Phoenix or San Francisco or San Diego. They always understand that, in spite of those anonymous records, I'm not there to play rock 'n' roll. So long as they pick a good jazz rhythm section that is fully acquainted with the jazz concept—fine. And I'm talking about anywhere from early Swing to Avant Grade—I don't care which direction they go; so it makes it easy. But I can usually sort it out—and I'll usually go their way.
I've talked to some people about it, and they've said: "Why don't you play more of your original tunes?" That's difficult; I come to a town, and if I have one rehearsal with one rhythm section, that means I have to rehearse every day, any time there's a new player—unless they're tremendous readers. It's not worth it—it's far better to go in, have everybody have their best foot forward and play it as relaxed as possible. I know sometimes for the people it's not as interesting, because they wind up hearing the same tunes from everybody that comes in. Sorry—but that's the way the whole thing is set up.
If I went to other towns, or came over here, with my rhythm section, or with my piano player and drummer, or piano player and bass player, it would be easy to ask one or two of the guys to start to follow what we were doing. When I play with my own group, if I play one standard a set, that's a lot. Back home we usually wind up playing three sets—here it's only two. So, in the single set-up, I try not to repeat tunes, and try to dig into the past and come up with a whole bunch of different songs to play.
No, I don't carry a note of music, nor a list of tunes and keys—nothing. It's more exciting that way. Just start playing, and everybody jumps in. And I try to treat things in a different way—either play a tune as a fast samba or a bossa nova, or something that normally would be played very fast played very slow, or play it on flute. It makes a more interesting show for the people out there, because, like Buddy Rich said: "We don't play requests".
When I've psyched out where they're at, I try to pick tunes that will make the other guys feel comfortable. By the same token, I don't like to play a tune that I don't know, and I don't expect anybody else to. If there's music to it, that's simple— I can read changes real fast. We simply find a common ground. Well, these are musicians that are playing every night— they understand it all. I have to say that sometimes I have to take a deep breath and try to get my composure together, because it tends to be a little boring. I am tired of playing "Green Dolphin Street"; I am tired of playing "Stella By Starlight"—but under these conditions, you do the best you can. You try to make it sound fresh. I'd rather do that than not play for the people, I'll tell you.
Is there a kind of a 1950 barrier for songs? Well, there are certainly a lot of sensational songs that were written pre '50. I started playing around '51-'52, and most of the ballads I learned originated before that. And I still play them: "I Can't Get Started", "Body And Soul", "These Foolish Things", "My Foolish Heart", "Fools Rush In"—I think most of those songs were from the 'forties and earlier. They were the war ballads—the love songs. And everybody seems to know them; it makes it simple.
But if you're going up and playing a jazz ballad, there's a lyrical approach to it that you should have. I think all the great players knew how to do that. You can separate the men from the boys real quick: let somebody play a ballad, and you can tell right away who knows how to sing, who has all that lyric quality. I'm a stickler about that; I'll talk to young students all the time—I'll tell 'em: "Learn how to play long notes. Do you know the words to the song? If not, learn those words.
Listen to a good singer, and imitate what he does." That's all the instruments are, anyway—they're just an imitation of the human voice.
I know many of the songs I play are songs whose lyrics I've learned. Then you learn how to phrase and how to sing. The whole thing about vibrato or non-vibrato—I don't care about that. There's some singers who will sing a note dead on. Joao Gilberto's a prime example of that; most people would probably say he's got a terrible voice—but, boy, can he tell a story! Does he know how to get that lyric quality happening! He has that beautiful, easy approach to it. He's one of my heroes of all time—then on the other hand I'm a Pavarotti fanatic. How does it add up? Well, it's all music. Absolutely.
As to whether the older songs are the best ones—I don't know. Lionel Richie's come up with a whole bunch of beautiful songs. "Lady" is a wonderful song to play. It's just that it seems like... how much do I listen to contemporary pop things these days? Not a lot—I've discovered Mahler; so I'm going even farther back now, and all of a sudden I'm into a whole different aspect of music.
I have been putting the majority of my time and effort into learning how to write film scores—I went to school for that. I studied conducting and orchestration; I'm still doing that, and I'm anxious to get into it. I've started knocking on doors, and it's funny now, the answers I get: "Well, we always considered you a jazz writer." Well, they never commissioned me to write any jazz scores either! Now I'm interested in the area of dramatic film writing—suddenly I'm a jazz tenor player and writer. Well, then hire me for that! But it's been extremely rewarding. I'm finding I know more about music than I gave myself credit for—and I'm winding up with a bit more confidence. Now I want to get into music that much deeper. I've started writing a whole bunch of new charts. It sounds like I've taken a step... I don't know if it's forward, but in a slightly different direction. Harmonically it's turned into something else. I'm writing a lot more for woodwinds, mixing colors and instrumentations far better, and getting some contrasting things happening.
I just wrote a new chart on "Caravan", and it's a totally different approach to that song from what anybody has ever done.
Hopefully, it'll be on the next album with my big band. All the ballads have woodwinds; there's no high notes, screaming and everything—it's all very nice. The ballads sound like ballads. It's all acoustic, for five, five and five, and three rhythm—but at times you'd swear you could hear strings, or you can almost hear French horns. I do it by different couplings of instruments, different colorings.
I may work some electronic instruments in there eventually—but there's something sacred about it, and I've made very few compromises in my life, as far as music has been concerned. Sometimes maybe I should have. If I were to say which ones did I make—I raised a family, and I definitely had to make compromises for that, in some of the music that I had to play. Playing in a studio is much the same as being on the Ford assembly line, or working in a factory somewhere. But I raised a son and a daughter, and I still have a beautiful wife—I have a lot to be thankful for. On the other hand, I'm anxious to get on with it now. Here comes another phase of it.
I don't think the dues-paying aspect was too bad, really. The music that I played, for the most part, was very good; I worked for most of the good writers in Los Angeles. The Munich years were certainly very productive; I had a steady job there, and they treated me as one of their own. I never felt like I was a foreigner when I was there—it was sensational.
And I have a lot to thank Max Greger for—to hire a jazz tenor player—well, he knew my reputation somewhat from when I was in the Army; I sent him a couple of records that I had done with Maynard Ferguson, and on the strength of that he hired me. Those were four very productive years.
I didn't play the flute with Max – I would say its in the last five or six years that I got real serious about that instrument.
But that came from going out with Henry Mancini, and not wanting to have to sit there all the time while the full symphony orchestra was playing. I said: "Well, print up a fourth flute book, so I don't have to read over somebody's shoulder." I learned how to play all the parts, and I started to hear all the great flute players sitting next to me in all the orchestras-and it didn't take long at all. I mean, I learned how to play saxophone that way—from listening to records. So once the sound got in my head, I knew what I was doing wrong. It's been very worth-while, the last fifteen years with Mancini. That's an education in itself—watching him conduct, and listening to the music that he's written. Aside from his jazz awareness, I'm talking about his approach to the orchestra—how he treats all that. Yes, he has his own sound; his colors are very lush, very beautiful. He's very much aware of what's happening.
Concerning my own band—I must mention the "Burnin' " album on the Real Time label, because I don't believe that showed up over here, due to distribution problems. The saxophone section was great: Joe Romano, Ray Reid, myself, Larry Covelli, Gary Herbig, Jay Migliori; Jack Nimiz played all the baritone parts. There were three dates, and the four saxophones varied in different chairs. I fronted the band; I didn't play in the section, because I felt at that point in the studio I'd have a little more control over it. The trumpet section was real good; it was Frank Szabo, Bobby Shew, Ron King, Chuck Findley and Don Rader—not bad at all! The rhythm section was Frank Strazzeri, Nick Ceroli and Frank De La Rosa. On trombones were Charlie Loper, Bill Reichenbach, Dick Hyde, Myo Tiana and Dana Hughes. I did all the writing; there was one standard—Duke's ballad, "Don't You Know I Care?"—which Louie Bellson, I understand, recorded here. Now I've got enough music for two more albums—I'm looking forward to them.
The week at the Bull's Head, Barnes Tin February turned out real nice—it's always fun to go there and play. It's a jazz joint—there aren't too many places like that any more. Germany still has them; I was there recently, and they have their Jazzkellers. You walk into a jazz place and it feels like: "Okay—let's play!" Last year's short tour of Germany, plus one concert in Italy, resulted from my previous time over here. Gaby Kleinschmidt came into the Bull's Head, and she wanted to know if I would be interested in doing something with Conte Candoli and a bunch of people from the West Coast. But the farther down the line we got, the more people started backing out, due to various other commitments. So we wound up putting the band together with Chuck Findley on trumpet, Frank Strazzeri on piano, Frank De La Rosa on bass and Jimmy Smith on drums.
It turned out to be quite an eventful tour, to say the least. The first concert in Hamburg and the last, at the Berghausen Jazz Festival, were televised. Then after the tour Frank Strazzeri and I went to Barcelona, Spain, where we did some recordings for the Fresh Sound label. Frank did a trio album, and I did a duo album with him—all ballads. Just me on tenor and Frank on piano. Hearing the record, one doesn't miss the bass and drums; it's very complete musically, very laid-back. We did all beautiful standard tunes, such as "My Foolish Heart", "You're My Thrill", "Darn That Dream", More Than You Know" and "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes", plus a jazz standard, "Soultrane", which Tadd Dameron wrote for John Coltrane, and a slow blues, "Blues In The Dark", which still has all that relaxed ballad feeling. It was a one-shot deal; we went in and did twelve tunes in a couple of hours—it came out nice.
The ballad album has already been released; it's here in London—I had to sign a few copies for some people at the Woody Herman Tribute concert. Also we did a quartet album, which will be released very shortly; I understand they're going to release both of them on CD—so that'll put it out there for a while.
Since then, I've been doing some dates with Louie Bellson—some small group things. I went to Boston with him last September, and then in October we were in Chicago for a week at the Jazz Showcase—we did a live album there for Concord. That was a quartet, with Louie, myself, John Heard on bass and Larry Novak, a Chicago piano player; it turned out nice—that's going to be out on CD as well. They're also reissuing the "Horn Of Plenty" album, with Chuck Findley, Bill Reichenbach and myself, and a rhythm section.
In December Louie and I did a week at Fat Tuesday's in New York. Then the following week we went in the studio for two days and made a big band album, with all New York musicians. I did a bunch of writing for that; we wound up recording five tunes of mine, including a big band ballad arrangement on "My One And Only Love" and a three-part suite that was originally written for an all-star New York State youth band—which played it magnificently as well. It's called "Blues For The Uncommon Kids"; the title refers to the acoustic kids—they're all into bebop. Anyway, Louie recorded that; we also did a thing of mine call "Tenor Time", and a new arrangement of "Caravan" which sounded really good— this one is definitely different! That album will be out soon on Music Masters; I think that'll be strictly CD. I had a chance to play some on there, as well as to write more—it made it worth-while.
I just came back from a week in Cologne with the West Deutscher Rundfunk band; Chuck Findley and I went, with Terry Clarke, the drummer from Rob McConnell's Boss Brass. We had three or four days' rehearsal, did some back-up tapes on two-track in the studio, and then on the Friday night a live concert which they recorded. They're already talking about a return thing; the concert was a very big success—the band played real good.
Rick Kiefer was on trumpet with the band; he's been in Germany for about twenty-two years now. I went over in March of '64, and he showed up around October that year. He seems to be doing well. It was fun being back in Cologne, and to see some old friends—I hadn't played there in twenty years. Everybody I talked to seemed to be working—especially the jazz players, the people that have managed to stay out there and keep playing.
All of a sudden the studio thing seems to be dwindling slightly, for whatever reason. People blame it on electronics and everything—I'm not so sure about that. It may have a little bit to do with it, but I don't think we can point our fingers at that. Maybe—the jury is out on the real reason why. Thank God I can still play; I'm still writing, and I still have a big band in Los Angeles.
It was hard for me to get the band started again after Nick Ceroli died—finding a drummer that really had what I was looking for. Frankie Capp played with the band a couple of times—of course, he plays with his own band, although it's a completely different style of music—but he made our band sound really good. He's rather busy workwise; so I decided to try Roy McCurdy. He played with Cannonball, and he's been out with Nancy Wilson for a long time. I didn't want anybody to be so wrapped up in reading that they forget about the jazz thing—and above all Roy's a jazz drummer. That's what I needed first, and it seems to be working out. It's hard , to find somebody who's got both ends of the spectrum covered. We had a couple of rehearsals, and he was doing great. Sensational The last time we worked at Donte's, the band was sensational. Although we did it without piano, and everybody sort of missed it. In a big band I don't miss piano at all—I don't miss it in a trio. Either it gets swamped or it gets miked so hard that it winds up sounding louder than the whole band—and there's no way acoustically that a piano sounds that loud. If you get it to where the piano player feels comfortable, then it wipes the band out, out front. And if it gets to the point where the guys in the band can hear the piano when they want to stand up and play, then it's too loud out front—and I've never been able to figure out a way of doing it so that both sides are happy. If it is that way, then when I'm hearing the band playing, I hear too much of the piano part. So it's crazy. And I don't want that thing where I need somebody back there controlling dials—the band should be able to do that acoustically.
Is the California scene a productive one? Well, I don't find the most sophisticated jazz audiences in Los Angeles, by any means. No, sir—I don't see it that way at all. On the other hand, there are some opportunities to play. But there are some clubs where you walk in and play, and you may as well be in a Las Vegas lounge. It doesn't work. I mean, there are people there that talk all the way through a solo, and at the end of the solo applaud, because they know the guy's done— and : "Oh, doesn't he play beautiful!" Yes, it's a facade—exactly. It's all part of what that town is—and it is showbiz, it is Hollywood.
Then again, on any given night at Donte's it can turn out to be a really, really good jazz audience—you never know.
Carmello's was fantastic when it was happening—it was really a good jazz scene when it was going on. This whole thing with Donte's...he finally sold the club; I'm not sure who bought it, but I understand they're going to renovate the place and keep it running under the same name. Hopefully, we'll still have the same privileges we've had for the last twenty-five years. You could walk in there any night, and the musicians didn't have to worry about paying a ten-dollar cover charge.
Everybody knew everybody there. This is also the nice thing about Alphonse's: there's never a door charge or a cover charge; you walk in and drink—that's in Toluca Lake, in the San Fernando Valley, North Hollywood. I just had a couple of calls from some people; I don't know if the Baked Potato is about to start their Sunday night bebop thing again. Don Randi called while I was out, and I'll get back to him when I get home.
But I'm still basking in my Cologne recollections—specially that Friday night. We opened with music from the Louie Bellson album, followed by some new charts. I did a ballad version of Henry Mancini's "Moment To Moment", which is normally a flugelhorn solo; Rick Kiefer played it on trumpet—as he knows how to do that soft, airy, Ben Websterish kind of thing, and he broke it up. Same thing with Chuck Findley's solo on "Estate", which is an Italian pop tune that Gilberto recorded a few years ago with Claus Ogerman—the people loved it. All the new ballads have very lush woodwind writing, with flutes, bass clarinets, muted brass—almost symphonic in nature. They really went for it, and then when we played the hot things—the burning, up-tempo, two-tenor battle—the people snapped even more, because of the contrast.
I think learning how to program it has been real important for me. And writing mood pieces, that have other sounds other colors. Just because you have fifteen horns doesn't mean that they have to all be playing at the same time. I've used the Latin feel a lot; we played "Sambaandrea Swing", which Louie recorded here, when we did a live album at Ronnie Scott's some eight years ago. In the last chorus the rhythm section goes into a straight-ahead four-four, but the rest of it is all samba. And burning samba too; the way that band played it was dynamite.
There seems to be a lot happening, all of a sudden. Some people are interested in the out-takes from the "Hip Pocket" album, which was done live at Carmello's. That was with Shelly Manne, Andy Simpkins, Frank Strazzeri. I only played alto and baritone on that; I didn't play any tenor. Sal Nistico played tenor—which may have been a real good reason why I didn't! Everybody said: "Why didn't you play tenor, man? It would have been sensational—you could have doubled up..." I explained that the book was originally written for tenor, trombone and trumpet, and we were going to do it with myself on tenor, Carl Fontana on trombone and Sam Noto on trumpet. Carl couldn't do it—or we never could get in contact with him, and time was running out. I had the rhythm section set, I had Sam set; so finally I said: "I'll tell you what I'll do—I'll play the trombone parts on baritone or alto. Let's get Sal to come in from New York." Sal flew in, we did it, and it was as simple as that. I could have just as easily played it on tenor, but the sound of the trumpet/tenor/baritone seemed to work a little better. It was an on-the-moment decision, and we went with it. And the colors, the different sounds of the instruments made it a little nicer, I think. Anyway, I've got enough for two more albums, and I'm talking about that to the same people that are reissuing "Horn Of Plenty".
I enjoyed the Woody Herman concert, on which I was a last-minute substitute for A1 Cohn. I'd been a sub in Woody's band for quite a while, probably starting around '72; since then any time Woody needed help he would call. I remember I got a call from my wife while I was working one time, saying the band was on its way to Disneyland, and they'd called to say they needed a tenor player, as somebody had got hung up. I got into my car after work, drove to Disneyland, and jumped up on the bandstand just in time to play "Caldonia".
I was never really a permanent member of the band; I was never on the payroll per se, but I managed to keep working with the band—any time Woody wanted me, I'd put whatever I had aside. I went to Hawaii with the band for two or three weeks; then San Francisco, and we worked our way down from there to Los Angeles with a bunch of one-nighters. At one point Sal had to leave for a while, and I found myself on the band for about six weeks. It was beautiful; Woody would say: "Here he is—my sub for all seasons!" I've played two of the three tenor chairs—I always enjoyed it.
I'm sorry I never got a chance to write for Woody's band—it would have been nice. Because I understood that concept, and from listening to that band I learned a lot about writing.
Actually, that Disneyland week was the first time; Woody had really never heard me play before that. I remember running through crowds of little kids, balloons and everything, with my tenor over my shoulder. As I got to the bandstand, they had already started "Caldonia"; I stepped over the stand, and it was time for the tenor solo. Woody was pointing at Frank Tiberi, but Frank pointed to me: "Let him play." I played for ten minutes, at that breakneck tempo, and I could see Woody looking at me, with a big smile on his face; when it was over, he called out; "Yeah—Don Menza!", as only he could. After the applause had died down, he came over, looked at me and said: "Another upstate New York tenor player!" Of course, he had a history of upstate New York tenor players—including Sal Nistico, Joe Romano, Jay Migliori—all from that Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse area.
When they had the Benefit Night for Woody last October, Shorty Rogers asked me to play; he had "More Moon", about three or four things he wanted me to come out and play with the band. But I couldn't do it; I was on the Norway, out in the Caribbean somewhere. The night of the concert, the radio man came down and told us: it had just come across that Woody had died.
I saw Woody maybe six months before he died; he was still out on the streets, and going into Donte's, Alphonse's, wherever. Anywhere there was some jazz music, he'd come in to hear people play. One night he went in to hear Joe Romano play; Joe was working at a place which was then the China Trader, also in Toluca Lake—which is walking distance from Donte's. And it was just down the street from Alponse's; then a little further on was the Money Tree.
At a certain point, it was like the late 'forties in New York—I mean, there were a half-a-dozen jazz clubs real close to each other. It was wild. I'd leave Cats, I'd be in the Valley by 11.30, and there was any one of five or six places I could stop. All of a sudden it's changed now: we're back down to two or three. But that's okay—at least it's happening. There are people that have learned a lot from it—if you're going to run a club, you'd better run it.
That's another story—learning how to run a jazz club; having a bit of consideration for the people. If you don't have that nucleus of the society, of the jazz people, that feel good about the club, it isn't going to work. If the musicians don't feel comfortable playing there, they don't play good, and the people can tell the difference.
The closest we've come to the Bull's Head kind of ambience would have been Donte's, really. And Carmello's was when it started: one long bar, they'd fit a big band in a small area, and the entrance was right at the far end of the place. You'd walk in, and there it all was in front of you.
Concert halls tend to lose that intimacy; when you play bars and everything, and people are, like, looking down the bell of your horn, it's a different feeling, absolutely. And anybody that doesn't feel that, but feels that it's become a black tie affair...I'm sorry. It's great that jazz has made its steps in becoming more intellectual, with people studying it harder, finding out what made it work. But jazz is an experience, a lifestyle. I'm not sure that I have all the answers, but I see it real clear, from people that learned how to play that way—and you can hear it- as opposed to the people who have the socalled `schooled' approach. Regardless of the style you're playing in, it has to be music that arouses the emotions, that brings forth a great spiritual reaction.
Back - 2005