It’s sort of funny, but because I played bass for ten years in Rob McConnell’s big band The Boss Brass (and later, about another decade in his Tentette), some people may think of me as this ace big band bass guy. I suppose it makes sense in a way, they were both very good bands and playing in them became part of my skill set and profile. For sure, I learned a lot about playing in big bands from being in those two groups, and knew a lot more about it with a few years in the Brass under my belt than I did when I joined. And I don’t mind people thinking of me as a good big band player, I’m enormously proud to have played in those bands and miss them now that they and Rob are gone. It’s just that if people had seen me in my first year in the Jazz Programme at Humber College, well…….let’s just say that if there had been a yearbook, I’d have been voted “Person Least Likely To Succeed In A Big Band.”
By the time I first attended Humber in 1975, I’d improved some as a bass player. I had some basic technique and could play a little jazz, walk a bass line and get through some tunes, though I hadn’t done many professional jobs yet. And thanks to my guitar studies with Gary Benson, I had a good grounding in theory and harmony, understood how chords worked and so on. My audition at Humber went pretty well and on the strength of this, the bass teachers – Lenny Boyd and Murray Lauder – slotted me into the top big band ensemble, known as the “A Band”, run by the great veteran trumpet player and teacher Don Johnson. I guess Lenny and Murray had their reasons and meant well, but there was one big problem – my limited skills were all geared toward playing jazz by ear in a small group and would prove useless in this big band.
For one thing, I had a string bass with no pickup on it, so there was no means of amplifying myself enough to be heard and this band played some pretty loud music, along the lines of Maynard Ferguson and Buddy Rich, who were pretty hot stuff at the time. (Actually, considering how badly I played and how many mistakes I made, being inaudible was probably a blessing.) And I didn’t have an electric bass yet, which a lot of the charts we played were written for. But the biggest problem was my sight-reading, I could barely read my name. I was okay at reading notes, it was the rhythms that were sinking me. I’d done some reading playing cello in my high school orchestra, but the music we’d played was much simpler, plus I was in a section and could hide in the weeds and kind of follow along by ear. Here I was all on my own, and the charts were full of complicated syncopation which looked like Greek to me, I’d had no experience reading anything like this.
It also didn’t help that I was petrified to the point of nausea – if you expect to fail, you’re going to fail even more. To make matters even worse, my incompetence stood out in stark contrast to the many very capable young players in this band. Along with John MacLeod in the trumpet section there was a really strong lead player named Rick Waychesko who was just a bull, with high-note chops to rival Arnie Chycoski’s. The sax section had some guys who were already good professional level players, like Vern Dorge, Bob DeAngelis and Bob Leonard, who was a great reader and doubler. The trombones were even better, with three aces in Al Kay (who needs no introduction), Pete Coulman (also a very gifted arranger) and Ernie Pattison, who was probably the best bass trombonist in the city even then. And the other guys in the rhythm section really made me look bad too. There was a powerhouse drummer named Dave James with Buddy Rich chops and a pianist named Mark Hukezale who could read anything, ditto for Tony Zorzi on guitar.
Needless to say Don Johnson picked up on all this pretty fast and I flopped badly, just flamed out after a couple of rehearsals. He was very nice about it, but I had to go and we both knew it, I just wasn’t ready and would only hold the band back. It was a little humiliating and a pretty public failure, but at least this was just school and not the real world. The bass chairs of the other big bands – B through E – were already filled and it didn’t make sense to drop me into one of these when I couldn’t read, so I didn’t play in a big band for a while. Then Freddie Stone started a renegade, after-hours big band of misfits that we called the “F Band”, which played a lot of his very interesting charts. He grabbed me for it because I could play a little jazz and he didn’t much care about my iffy sight-reading.
Humber was total immersion in music and I learned a whole lot there my first year and did a lot of playing. I also made a breakthrough in sight-reading, thanks to Roger Flock, who was the head of the drum/percussion department. He ran a kind of remedial class for guys who didn’t read music well, using Louie Bellson’s great book “Modern Rhythm Reading in 4/4”. This didn’t involve playing any notes, but rather tapping out or singing rhythms and gradually I came to unravel the mysteries of syncopation. I began to divide each bar in half and distinguish the upbeats from the downbeats and recognize rhythm patterns. I also got hold of a book by the bass trombonist Alan Raph, which very practically explained the difference between how syncopated swing phrases are written and how they’re actually played, with hundreds of practice examples and etudes, it was invaluable. I’m still not a great sight-reader, but thanks to what I learned back then I was on my way to at least being able to get by.
Early in my second year I decided to quit Humber because I thought the three hours I was spending each day getting there and back on public transit would be better spent on practising, something it was hard to find enough time to do. I put this time to good use, spent a lot of time woodshedding and playing at sessions almost every day with guys my age, while continuing to take lessons from Lenny Boyd. I also started getting some work, some of which would give me some real big band experience.
A clarinet player named Ron Bagnato secured a long contract to play with his big band on Friday and Saturday nights at a place called the Embassy Ballroom and for some reason he called me out of the blue to do the gig on a regular basis. The Embassy was located right downtown at the corner of Bellair and Cumberland, but all that was visible from street-level was a door with a marquee sign over it. You went through this door and ………..It’s a funny thing, but for the life of me, I can’t remember if the stairs went up or down – did they ascend to Heaven or descend to Hell? Either way, after negotiating the stairs, you stepped into the 1940s – the Embassy had been a regular dance-hall/nightclub where many name bands played back in the day. It was a long rectangular room with a bar at the front and a large elevated stage at the back. Separating these was a huge parquet dance floor, complete with the spinning crystal ball hanging over the centre, and surrounded on either side by tables and chairs. Behind the stage was a long hallway that led to some dressing rooms and many notable sidemen from bands of the past – Tex Beneke, Toots Mondello, Eddie Safranski, etc. – had carved their names into it for posterity.
Believe it or not, I’m not going to go into a lot of detail about this band or gig because I plan to write a separate piece on it. Suffice it to say it was a strange, motley band stocked with good players and so-so ones, hardened characters and forgettable straight men, most of whom were at least twice my age. I played the gig for about a year and there were many odd and hilarious moments, as well as a couple of tragic and momentous ones – I look back at the whole thing in disbelief sometimes and there were a lot of guys on that gig who I haven’t seen since. Bagnato had a huge book of stock arrangements from the Swng Era – Goodman, Dorsey, Barnet, Shaw, Basie, Herman – and some of these were so old that they were brown/yellow and felt like papyrus.
At 19 going on 20, I still needed a lot of seasoning, some of which this gig would provide, I learned a lot on it. Some of it was just the general experience of hearing and feeling what playing in a big band was like, getting used to the weight and sound of it and getting some steady playing and reading under my belt, gaining a little confidence along the way, plus learning how to drink and so on. The biggest thing I learned though was that sometimes it was better to not play the bass parts exactly as written, but to adapt them to what was going on in the moment by adding some stuff of my own when warranted. For example, a lot of the bass parts on the stocks had long sections where the bass played a polite two-beat. This was all well and good when the drummer was somebody like Gene Krupa or Don Lamond, who really drove the original charts by laying down a solid, surging beat. But in the early days of Bagnato’s band, we had a drummer (who shall remain nameless) who was probably the stiffest, clumsiest one I’ve ever heard and he dragged the tempos down like a stone. It also didn’t help that Bagnato’s actual count-ins themselves often slowed down. Playing a polite two on the bass didn’t make a lot of sense given these problems and I developed the habit of playing a hard four whenever possible, willing the tempos to not slow down too much and to hell with the written parts.
A lot of the bass notes were written in the middle register or higher and I also got in the habit of sometimes dropping these down low to where they’d have more weight and power. And most of all, I noticed that a lot of the written walking bass lines were just plain dumb – they were spread out all over the place in arpeggios, which were awkward and tiring to play, plus they didn’t swing much. I started playing more step-like walking lines like the ones I heard from bassists like Walter Page, Percy Heath and Oscar Pettiford. Far from getting in trouble for making these changes, the guys in the band encouraged this and seemed to like it – one night one of them said, “Whatever it is you’re doing different, it feels better than it used to.” I respect the sanctity of the composer and all that, but they have less sanctity in jazz than in other types of music, because jazz is ultimately a player’s music. Slowly I came to realize that, while notes are important, what the other guys really want to hear from the bass in a big band is some strong time, some bottom end, definition and forward motion and whatever I could do to contribute those was all to the good.
This quiet revolution I’d been staging on my own received a big boost when our ham-fisted drummer was replaced by his polar opposite: Spike McKendry. The first drummer came up through rudimental and military drumming and it showed – he had lots of technique, but about as much business playing jazz as I would have selling cars. Spike wasn’t a really smooth, polished technical drummer – and I mean that as a compliment – but everything he played had jazz feeling. He was a real character too, who stood out a mile from most of the other guys. He wore his long hair in a ponytail and beside his funky old drum kit, he set up his empty bass drum case as a table on which he always had a pitcher of draught beer, a glass, an ashtray and a hash pipe, loaded and ready to go. In keeping with these anti-authoritarian flourishes, he blithely ignored our fearless leader’s dragging count-ins and much of what was written for the drums on the stock charts, preferring to play the spirit rather than the letter of them.
And what spirit his playing had… There was a lot of Sid Catlett, Jo Jones and Kenny Clarke in him. He knew where the tempos were supposed to be and would often bring the band in with a snare drum rimshot/hi-hat splash or a press roll to negate the lame count-offs. He knew how to shape and phrase jazz time as if it were a flexible line – he’d tighten things up when needed by playing the ride beat on the cup of the cymbal, or widen the beat by using the hi-hat or a sizzle cymbal. He used different textures behind various soloists or depending on what the ensembles were playing – brushes here, a bass drum bomb there, some rat-a-tat snare fills in open spaces. Needless to say, this was all a tremendous breath of fresh air as he really lifted the band and after a couple of tunes I absolutely adored him, he was the answer to prayers I didn’t even realize I’d sent out.
Now I had somebody to play with and Spike and I developed an intuitive consensus about where the time was, after a few numbers we were locked in, now we were getting somewhere. Spike also gave me somebody to hang out with, he took me under his wing and we became fast friends and have remained so ever since. Often on breaks, we’d drink beer and talk music or tell stories, the gig was starting to be fun. This was a huge object lesson for me, one of the most important ones I’ve ever learned – namely, how much of a difference one guy can make in a big band if he plays a key instrument like the drums with conviction. It wasn’t just a matter of the difference in Spike’s playing, it was that his playing made other guys play and sound better, it was a cumulative thing. The section guys started leaning in to their parts with a little more edge and confidence and the soloists played with more abandon and fire now that things were swinging behind them. The band was now a happy band, had some life and spirit, sounded almost like a – dare I say It? – like a jazz band. This was maybe the first time I experienced something that I’ve come to learn is a constant truth: That good bands are built from the ground up, starting with the rhythm section, especially the bass and drums. No matter what else a band has going for it, if the bass player and drummer in it can’t play together, then it’s going nowhere fast.
I left that gig after about a year to work for a while in the trio backing singer Vic Franklyn and after that began freelancing around Toronto. I started to get some calls to sub for more established bassists like Don Thompson, Michel Donato, Dave Young and Rick Homme at jazz clubs such as Bourbon St. and George’s Spaghetti House. During the years 1977 to 1981, I did an awful lot of practicing, daily sessions with guys as well as gigging and as a result, my playing and confidence grew a lot stronger. When Michel Donato moved back to Montreal in 1978, he gave a strong recommendation of me to Paul Grosney, who booked Bourbon St. Paul started to call me for gigs there as well as for his own jobbing work, some of which was done with a big band. I began to get to know and play with some of the city’s better jazz players – people like Terry Clarke, Jerry Fuller, Bernie Senensky, Ed Bickert and many others.
Sometime in there I also got to know Rob McConnell, who often came to Bourbon St. to listen or sit in. Rob gave me one of the most meaningful compliments I’ve ever received one night at Bourbon St. sometime in 1982. Often musician’s compliments to each other, though sincere, take on a vague ‘courtesy’ form as in, “Yeah, you sound beautiful, man.” Not Rob though, he drew me aside one night after hearing a set with Fraser MacPherson and said, “Steve, you can’t have any idea how much your playing has improved over the last year, but I’ve been listening and I’ve noticed.” It was a proud moment and I also remember hanging out with Rob in the alleyway behind Bourbon St. one night after the gig till about 3 o’clock in the morning, drinking beer from a cooler he had in his trunk. The Boss Brass had just returned from their first, very successful trip to California and Rob, who was a great storyteller, regaled me with tales of the band’s adventures playing the Monterey jazz festival and a club called Carmelo’s.
So, I knew Rob liked my playing, but still it came as a shock when he asked me to join his band in 1983. I remember asking in disbelief – “What band?” – never dreaming that he meant The Boss Brass. Remembering my big band disasters at Humber, I was a little reluctant to accept and certainly didn’t feel ready, thinking to myself, If I fail this time, it’ll be the end of me. Turning down such an opportunity would have been madness though and Rob seemed to read my mind when he said, “If you wait till you think you’re ready, you’ll never say yes, so just say yes and get ready later.” He gave me the bass book and some cassette tapes of the band’s records so I could do some prep work. He also gave me some advice, saying, “I know what you’re gonna do, you’re gonna spend most of your time looking at the wild, fast stuff and some of the hairier charts where the bass plays those hard solis with the band and all that, but watch out for some of the slow numbers. You’ll be going along on a ballad and everything will seem fine, the guys will all be relaxed, smoking and drinking and it will seem like a party, dancing nightly. Then boom, you’ll have missed the key change, the double-time sign and you’ll be lost, just stepping all over your dick.” As I found out, he was dead right, the slow stuff was deceptively tricky. He also warned me that he could be thorny, could “go from being Jerry Lewis to Adolf Hitler in about half a second”, but not to take it personally.
There were general challenges to playing in The Boss Brass, having to do with its size (22 pieces, large even for a big band) and trying to come up to the very high musical level involved. I received a few specific pointers early on, like simplifying my playing on Latin feels (more straight two) and easing off on my attack on ballads (not so hard, Steve.) I also learned some unexpected things about musical notation. I noticed every once in a while Rob would write a chord symbol with “K.S.” after it, which I’d never seen before in any theory books. Whenever I saw this, the band usually played a pretty thick, dissonant chord. Finally, curiosity got the better of me and I asked Ed Bickert one day what the hell “K.S.” meant. He chuckled, looked at me like I was from Mars and said, “It stands for kitchen sink.” Slowly it dawned on me that this meant a chord with “everything on it but the kitchen sink”, i.e. an altered seventh chord.
Having replaced Don Thompson in the band – whose intonation was flawless – I was always worried about my pitch, especially with the radar-eared Ed Bickert sitting nearby. But after a while I stopped worrying about this because there was so much else to think about. The biggest challenge was dealing with the huge dynamic range of the band. When all 22 guys played at full blast, it could just take your head off and blow you into the next county, but the band could also play at a soft whisper and everything in between these extremes, often quite suddenly. Playing amplified string bass, it took me a while to figure out a general range of volume to play at and how to adjust this on the go. There were often guys on the far side of the band who would complain that they couldn’t hear me enough, but I was reluctant to turn up too much and bury the guys who were sitting closer. Eventually, we solved this problem by connecting an extension speaker to my amp and placing it on the other side of the band. But mostly I learned how to regulate my volume by how I played the bass itself.
Other than that, the Boss Brass was an easy band to play in, partly because everyone was such a good player that all I had to do was take care of my own business. But mostly, two factors made playing in the band quite easy for me – Terry Clarke’s drumming, and Rob’s writing.
I’d played with Terry a fair bit in small pick-up groups before joining the band; I’d always found him extremely easy to play with and it was no different in the bigger band – he’s just so damn good, so musical and strong. He has the sensitivity, flexibility and ears to play in a delicate, interactive trio such as Jim Hall’s or a driving one like Oscar Peterson’s and he certainly had more than enough power to kick along a juggernaut like the Boss Brass. Knowing his playing as I did though, I noticed that he didn’t play all that differently in the Brass than he did in small bands. Maybe during the louder ensemble passages when everyone was playing flat-out he might play a little heavier or simpler, but that was about it. Otherwise, he played drums as though he were in a small jazz band; certainly behind the soloists it felt like that, and that was a lot of the time. He also has mastery of different tempos and time feels – certainly Latin ones – which really helped. I never had to worry or even think about the time playing in the band with Terry. He and I had a natural consensus about the feeling of the time and this left me free to concentrate on other things, like playing my parts and listening for dynamics, pitch and so on. Actually the consensus was three-way – Rob was always worried things were going to slow down and liked the tempos to have an edge – so did Terry and I, so the three of us were on the same page. The chances of things slowing down when we were playing were less than a snowball’s in hell.
As for Rob’s writing making things easy, it’s not that everything he wrote was easy to play, far from it. Lots of his charts had tricky things for the rhythm section and often were a test of stamina. But most of the really difficult stuff he wrote was for the horn players – some nefarious sax solis, lots of reed doubling, some really angular lines and range-straining trumpet parts, some abrupt dynamic changes that were hard on everyone’s chops. And Rob was much harder on the horn players than he was on the rhythm section; often it was the horns who incurred his wrath and sternest lectures for playing too loud or not rolling their eighth-notes enough or whatever. Apart from occasionally beseeching Ed Bickert to turn up or chewing Terry out for constantly chattering around the drum set when he was trying to explain something at a rehearsal, Rob generally left the rhythm players alone. And the way he wrote for us left the rhythm section a lot of freedom. If there was something specific or important he wanted you to play with the band, he wrote it out, otherwise a lot of the rhythm parts were just chord symbols. This was like mother’s milk to me, it left me free to make up my own lines and decide which register to play in. It also helped that many of his arrangements were of good tunes that I already knew. When I first joined the band, Rob had written a new slew of charts and some of them had a lot more written out bass lines, which I dutifully played. When Rob heard this he explained, “Steve, don’t play that dumb shit I wrote – these are gonna be published charts, so I wrote those notes out in case some college kid is playing and doesn’t know what to do. Ignore all that and go for yourself, it’ll sound better.” Phew, what a relief, whatever you say, Rob. Sometimes he’d write rhythmic figures the band was playing on our charts as a reference, but that was mainly for the drums and the compers; I generally ignored these, with his blessing. Mostly what he wanted from me was a lot of “four on the floor” and, as that was my meat anyway, I was only too happy to oblige.
I got my feet wet with the Brass on a few out-of-town concerts and one of our first Toronto jobs after I joined was a week at Bourbon St. I looked forward with some relish to playing with the band in a small club I was so familiar with. The place was packed and on opening night after the first set I was headed toward the bar to get a drink, when who should I bump into but Don Johnson, who I probably hadn’t seen since I left Humber seven or eight years earlier. Beaming from ear to ear, he grabbed me and said, “Boy, was I wrong about you – when I first heard you at Humber I never thought you’d play shit, but listen to you now, you sound just great. Way to go Steve, lemme buy you a taste!” It was so nice of him and I really appreciated it. We had some laughs remembering Humber and how green I was, while I assured him I’d never had any hard feelings about him bouncing me out of “A Band”, it had to be done. Knowing such people has been the best part of being a musician all these years.
I haven’t related all of the above to blow my own horn or tell my musical life story. The point I want to make is that I went from being clueless in big bands to being able to play in them mostly from honing my musical skills – ears, time, confidence, etc, – by playing jazz in small groups. Even the experience of playing in Ron Bagnato’s big band was mostly a case of learning to apply small-group thinking to playing big band charts. I think it’s mostly been this way at large throughout jazz history. Small groups came first and big bands – the way people wrote for and played in them – followed their lead. It had to be this way, jazz is an improviser’s music and the smaller the group, the more improvising there is. Bigger groups with more written material came for a number of reasons – they were good for dancing to and provided a wider palette for the early jazz composers and arrangers such as Fletcher Henderson, Don Redman and Duke Ellington. A big part of the evolution of jazz has consisted of trying to strike a balance between the challenges of collective improvisation on the one hand, and bringing form and structure to these, usually by way of written music. Without some kind of organization, group improvisation can devolve into formless chaos, but too much structure can strangle the freedom and spontaneity out of the music. Obviously, having more musicians in a larger band means more written material, but in successful big bands this has been balanced by retaining jazz essentials – improvising soloists, swinging, a rhythm section that plays jazz time and so on. In keeping with this, Rob had never heard me play with a big band when he hired me to play in his. I’m sure he didn’t think to himself “Hmmm, I’ll bet Steve is a really good big band player, he’ll probably sight-read the crap out of everything I’ve written and keep his book all neat and in order.” Not bloody likely; he hired me because he liked the way I sounded playing jazz in small groups, liked my sound and beat, my bulldog attitude about playing quarter-notes and he figured I might add some swing and muscle to his band.
In my opinion, most of the best writing for big bands has been done by men with experience in playing jazz. There are a few exceptions – Eddie Sauter, Bill Finnegan and to an extent Gil Evans, Quincy Jones and Gary MacFarland, who each played a little, but not much. But Ellington, Gerry Mulligan, Marty Paich, Ralph Burns, Bill Holman, Jimmy Giuffre, Ernie Wilkins, Nat Pierce, Al Cohn, Bob Brookmeyer, Thad Jones, Rob McConnell and others were all jazz players. These men knew all kinds of ways to write for larger ensembles but also had enough jazz perspective to leave some room for spontaneous creativity from the players. Apart from writing, the way in which a big band is led has a lot to do with its success as a jazz unit. I’ll close with the following story which illustrates this point and will return with some more general commentary on the relative merits of small and big bands in Part Three.
In October, 1987, a guy from Pennsylvania named Edward McGinley III hired his two favourite big bands – the Boss Brass and the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra (led by Mel Lewis) – to play at his 60th birthday party. As the Roman numeral after his name suggests, Ed is from old, old money and lots of it, and lives in a fairly palatial home in Villanova. He’s a very nice fellow and a huge jazz fan, hiring these two bands was kind of his birthday present to himself and it proved to be one of those gigs we won’t soon forget. The Vanguard band took a chartered bus from New York and we flew into Philadelphia, where Ed and some drivers met us with a fleet of rented Volvo station wagons. We drove straight to set up at the venue, which was at one end of a huge marquee tent he’d had erected in his backyard. There was a hubbub of catering and logistical activity going on, it was going to be a large and splendid bash. I remember seeing a table with a mound of shrimp on it about the size of our band and a bushel-sized bowl of caviar. Ed was afraid a lot of people wouldn’t be listening as much as he’d like them to, but told us to ignore everybody, have a good time and help ourselves to whatever we wanted in the way of food and drink, we were guests as well. Before going to our hotel, the band set up and did a short sound-check and ran through a few things, we hadn’t played much for a while.
The two bands were going to alternate sets and as Rob’s band arrived earlier, we played the first one. The band has probably played better, I don’t remember, it was a typical set. We were all looking forward to hearing the Vanguard band, but I can’t remember what tune their first number was. It started with just the rhythm section – Kenny Werner on piano, Dennis Irwin on bass and Mel on drums – playing at a medium groove tempo. Kenny was soloing right off the bat and the bass and drums were locked in right away – Irwin with those relaxed, throbbing, gut-string quarter notes and Mel with that slow-burn ride cymbal thing of his – after about a chorus, they were just levitating. After three choruses, they were really steaming, sounding like one of the best piano trios you ever heard. Meanwhile, the rest of the guys were just sitting there cool as could be, grooving, smiling, occasionally hollering encouragement, while a palpable sense of tension mounted in their listeners – when the hell where they going to come in? I was standing next to Terry Clarke taking this all in, and he said with some feeling, “Jesus, are you hearing this? The band hasn’t even come in yet and they’ve already carved us a new one, every single guy in that band is a jazz player, even the ninth trombonist.” There were only four ‘bones, but I knew what he meant and he was right, I had to admit it. The trio played about six burning choruses altogether and the sense of release when the horns finally came in was overwhelming; they didn’t play loud or anything, but the effect blew the roof off the place.
I’ll never forget it, the power of this ‘less is more’ lesson. This is in no way to be seen as a slam on Rob or the band, I loved and admired Rob as much as anyone and was very proud to be in his band. It’s not that Mel’s band was better in terms of musicianship or writing necessarily, but on this night they were better because of the audacious looseness of Mel’s leadership and the jazz attitude this brought. I can’t think of anyone else who would have the guts to start a big band set with six choruses of just the trio playing. Rob could be pretty loose at times, but as a writer liked to control things in his band a little more than this, although there were many nights when we too burned joints down with our energy and spirit. More than anything, that evening illustrates the difference between a leader who is also the chief writer for his band and is more focused on the arranging aspect of things, and one who is just a player, and a rhythm section player at that. Mel never wrote a big band chart in his life, but sure as hell knew how to play them. I often think of that night when I consider how big bands can play and what they’re capable of – at their best, they should be like small groups, but with more guys providing an extra dimension of weight, colour and excitement.
© 2014, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.