A ‘Bone For All Seasons

Lester Young and Bill Evans are two examples of the rare breed who achieved an imperishable standing in jazz by creating unique, highly influential styles. Rarer still are those who were beyond category as visionary composers who virtually invented their own musical universe, such as Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk.

These are one-of-a-kind geniuses though, originals who come along once in a generation, maybe even once in a lifetime. But there are mere mortals among us who achieve a similar timeless profile in a more modest, sideman kind of way. Being a career sideman myself and – on my good days – a mere mortal, I reserve special affection and respect for these types of musicians. They have a multidimensional versatility which allows them to work in a wide range of settings and styles, with musicians who cut across generational and even racial barriers. Swing, mainstream, bebop, modern, big band, small group, experimental, straight ahead, tricky originals, standards, blues, ballads – you name it, they can play it, with conviction and authenticity. This range requires not only instrumental proficiency, but a musical open-mindedness, and it is the latter aspect that interests me the most. To play convincingly in such a wide array of ‘bags’, one must not only be able, but willing. Such musicians are both rare and exceedingly valuable and a definitive example is Eddie Bert, who I think of as the trombonist for all seasons.

Bert was never a star exactly, nor was he just a foot-soldier; mostly he was a highly prized, elegant and smart jazz trombonist. Those who have followed jazz or collected records for a long time will know him well, he turns up all over the place on hundreds of recordings. In the big bands he played regularly with, but also in ones that mostly existed only in the studio – Sauter-Finegan, Elliot Lawrence, countless RCA dates, Legrand Jazz. And with all kinds of smaller groups; a great 1954 Coleman Hawkins session (appropriately called Timeless Jazz), dates with Oscar Pettiford, Frank Socolow, Al Cohn, J.J. & Kai + 6 and many others.

It involves only a small cross-section of Bert’s amazing career, but to give you some idea of his range…..He played several stints with Benny Goodman and Stan Kenton, but also with Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk and later with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra. Now, that’s a motley crew, not a grouping anyone would put together off the top of their head. The only other musician I can think of who played with all of these groups is Pepper Adams, whom many think was the greatest baritone saxophonist who ever lived. Nobody would call Eddie Bert the greatest trombonist ever, though in my opinion he’s right up there. But, then again, trombone is a much more crowded field than baritone saxophone and not as easily dominated.

Eddie Bert was born Edward Joseph Bertolatus on May 16, 1922 in Yonkers, New York. The timing of his birth and his musical precociousness meant that he fully experienced the Swing Era first-hand, but was also a young and curious man when the innovations of bebop started, so he was also able to fully absorb these. He was interested in music from a young age and the Count Basie band was an early inspiration. Given the scope he would develop, this is interesting because the Basie band was grounded in deep tradition (the blues, swing and other Southwestern jazz roots) but was also forward-looking, with the first rhythm section to swing in a fully modern way and innovative, futuristic soloists like Lester Young and Dickie Wells. Bert took some trombone lessons with Benny Morton of Basie’s band and also a few with Trummy Young, one of the great trombonists of that time.

He must have been a quick study because by 1940, at just eighteen, Bert was out on the road with Sam Donahue’s good dance band. He spent most of the ’40s playing in a succession of increasingly prominent big bands – Red Norvo in 1941-42, Charlie Barnet and Woody Herman in 1943. He spent most of his military service in 1944-45 playing with the Army Orchestra of Bill Finegan. He was with Stan Kenton in 1947-48 (and again in 1950), and played with Benny Goodman’s bop-oriented band in 1948-49, which included players like Wardell Gray, Doug Mettome and Sonny Igoe.

By the early-’50s, Bert was road-weary, had married and started a family (he would eventually have three daughters) and decided to settle in New York. He quickly became one of the busiest musicians in the city, doing a lot of freelance playing and recording, valued for his quick sight-reading, flexibility, reliability, expert sectional playing and his ability to deliver good jazz solos at the drop of a hat in any context. Bert more than held his own in New York at a time when the city was teeming with excellent trombonists of similar age, ability and background – Urbie Green, Jimmy Cleveland, Frank Rehak, Tom Mitchell, Wayne Andre, Willie Dennis, Jimmy Knepper, Bob Brookmeyer, Billy Byers, Kai Winding and J.J. Johnson. He was also widely liked; a warm, personable, low-key character who, with his good looks and rakish moustache, resembled the movie actor Don Ameche. By 1954, he was so established that Metronome magazine voted him one of its four “Musicians of the Year”. In those years. He also studied composition and arranging at the Manhattan School of Music, eventually earning a Master’s Degree and a Teaching License in 1957. His own recordings featured his imaginative arrangements of standards as well as his many fine original compositions, which were always interesting in their structures and harmonies.

He had a lot of good years, but 1955 had to have been the busiest of his career. Apart from many sideman recordings, he made four records as a leader that year and did a lot of live playing in clubs. For a time, he led an interesting trio with guitarist Joe Puma and bassist Clyde Lombardi (two of his favourites) at a Bronx clubHe would also begin a long association that year with two great bassists – Oscar Pettiford and Charles Mingus. He worked with Pettiford’s sextet at the Cafe Bohemia and became a regular member of Mingus’s quintet, with tenor saxophonist George Barrow, pianist Mal Waldron and drummer Willie Jones. With Max Roach guesting on drums, this group would do two notable live albums at the Bohemia, which yielded acclaimed tracks such as “Haitian Fight Song”, “A Foggy Day”, “Jump Monk” and others. Bert’s work with the group demonstrated his openness to experimentation and risk-taking; he wasn’t just a trombonist, but also a musical thinker. His association with Mingus would continue later; with the 1960 album Pre-Bird and the notorious Town Hall Concert recordings from 1962. He would also reunite with Mingus for some special New York concerts recorded in the 1970s.

In 1959, Riverside recorded Thelonious Monk in a very special concert at Town Hal with a ten-piece band playing arrangements of Monk’s pieces done by composer Hall Overton. Bert was the trombonist in a brilliant band consisting of Donald Byrd, Phil Woods, Charlie Rouse, Pepper Adams, Robert Northern (French horn), Jay McAllister (tuba), with Monk and his trio of Sam Jones and Art Taylor. The arrangements were ingenious but very difficult, requiring a lot of rehearsal and the triumphant concert and record were feathers in everyone’s cap. Bert would also be in the band when Monk did this again in 1963 at Philharmonic Hall, this time recorded by Columbia. Bert is a little more prominent here as the French horn and tuba were replaced by a second trumpet and soprano saxophone, so he has the low brass register all to himself and sounds wonderful. Bert would also take part in various stagings of these concerts done on tours after Monk’s death, led by his son T.S. Monk.

As mentioned in an earlier post about the trombonist Bill Harris, jazz employment opportunities – particularly for trombonists – began to shrink in the 1960s, as the saxophone really took over. Bert didn’t skip a beat however, continuing with countless commercial recordings and jingles, while becoming very active in playing top Broadway shows from about 1960 on into the mid-’80s. He played on about a dozen of them altogether, including Bye Bye Birdie, How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Golden Boy, and Ain’t Misbehavin’. He took a break from this to join the excellent band led by Bobby Rosengarden on Dick Cavett’s TV show from 1968 to 1972. In those same years he joined the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra as a regular, also playing with the band periodically after 1972. A number of jazz repertory orchestras sprang up in New York from the 1970s on – the New York Jazz Repertory Company, The American Jazz Orchestra (directed by John Lewis), Walt Lewinsky’s Great American Swing Orchestra, the Loren Schoenberg Orchestra. Bert was a regular with all of them, prized for his deep grounding in all facets of the jazz tradition. Among his many skills was the art of survival.

As admirable as all this team-player activity was, it’s not really why I’m writing about Eddie Bert. What I most wanted to touch on is what a marvelous jazz player he was and how this has been somewhat overlooked. One reason for this was that Bert was far too busy as a working, freelance musician to regularly lead his own group, which may have cost him some exposure. And he may have been slightly overshadowed by a few other trombonists in his time. He wasn’t as daring or distinctive as Bill Harris, as fast or flamboyant as Jimmy Cleveland, or as architectural and compositionally insightful as J.J. Johnson. He was quite similar to Urbie Green, except Eddie didn’t quite have Urbie’s chops or range – but then again, nobody did. But Bert was no slouch, his mastery of the horn was never in doubt. And he had a little more grit and gumption than Green; whom it would be hard to imagine taking on the challenges – musical and otherwise – of playing with Mingus or Monk.

As an improvising trombonist, Eddie Bert deserves to be considered on his own terms. His playing was unfailingly eloquent, lucid and balanced, offering both passion and order. He wasn’t given to technical displays, preferring to play in the middle and upper-middle registers. He was very effective with various mutes, especially the Solotone, and his playing is very uncluttered – tasteful, but never dull. His skills as a composer/arranger made him a masterful line player, with fully formed melodies and a deftness with complex chord changes. He swung with an unhurried, loose-limbed sense of phrasing, a kind of debonair swagger. He could really play the blues and had an easy, lyrical way with ballads. All of this was capped off by his beautiful sound; a lovely, pure brass sound – big, but not too big. If I had to summarize Eddie Bert, it would be with the following: the musical virtues of pianist Hank Jones are well-known and if Hank Jones had played the trombone, he would have sounded a lot like Eddie Bert. Both of them were essentially open-ended bebop players, no-bullshit, ultra-professionals who shared the qualities of fluency, grace and consistency, while always playing to context. Hundreds and hundreds of times in his career, Bert stood up to take a solo and, while there is no one way to do so, he always managed to convince the listener that this was how jazz trombone was supposed to sound.

He wasn’t what you’d call over-recorded as a leader, but he did mange to make about a dozen records under his own name. About half of these came in a tight cluster between 1953 and 1957, followed by a long gap. The others were done later in his career, with sporadic issues between 1976 and 2002. Many of these have been made available by Fresh Sound Records, one of the many reasons it’s the most valuable jazz reissue label in the world today. I haven’t heard any of the more recent ones, something I plan to rectify, but I have six of his early recordings on four Fresh Sound CDs. His earliest three sessions from 1953-4 on Discovery have been issued on a CD called Kaleidoscope, each one a quintet with either Vinnie Dean on alto or Sal Salvador on guitar, Duke Jordan on piano, Clyde Lombardi on bass and various drummers.

His three Savoy dates from 1955 – Musician of the Year, Encore, and Crosstown – have been issued on a two-disc set called Crosstown. They’re all very good and worth having, with Musician of the Year being particularly intriguing. Savoy producer Ozzie Cadena called Bert and told him he wanted him to do a two-trombone date with Savoy’s house rhythm section of Hank Jones, Wendell Marshall and Kenny Clarke. Eddie asked him who the other trombonist would be, and Cadena answered, “You – you’ll overdub the second trombone part.” At that point, Bert had never even heard of overdubbing, but it went extremely well. He put on the melody track and a solo with the band, then overdubbed a second solo with some harmony parts and background lines, the results sound very natural and offer an extra-large helping of Bert as a trombone soloist. It’s a bit like J.J. & Kai, but with one guy and I can’t think of another trombonist who made a whole record this way. Encore features the trio of Bert, Joe Puma, Clyde Lombardi with Clarke added on drums, playing some very good originals by the leader and Puma. For Crosstown, Bert brought back Hank Jones with Lombardi and Clarke and made it a quintet by using another of his favourites, the very distinctive tenor player J.R. Monterose. As one can see, Bert was a “musician’s musician” and was most comfortable among the same – often using good jazz players who deserved wider recognition, like Jordan, Puma, Lombardi, Dean and Monterose.

His best record was also from 1955, on the Jazztone label – I Hear Music, Modern Music – and has been issued intact on its own by Fresh Sound, God bless them. It’s not famous and likely wasn’t critically acclaimed in its time as it broke no new ground, yet it has everything you could ask for in a jazz record. It’s a beautifully balanced septet date offering a nicely mixed program of ten tunes – three standards and seven originals – played by a wonderfully unified band. Bert did all of the arranging and, without falling into the trap of having everyone play on every tune, he takes great pains to make sure everyone is given solo space.

Good bands are built from the ground up, so I’ll start with the rhythm section. In those days there were four rhythm players who recorded so often together they were known as “The N.Y. Rhythm Section” – Hank Jones, guitarist Barry Gailbraith, bassist Milt Hinton and drummer Osie Johnson. Bert used three of them, substituting Oscar Pettiford on bass for Hinton. They’re a tower of strength throughout – swinging, cohesive, dynamically sensitive.

Osie Johnson was one of the most valuable drummers in New York then. He served a long time in Earl Hines’s band among others and was a good arranger and singer to boot, so he could read and play just about anything. There was a nice looseness about his playing, he swung with a very wide, rolling beat featuring a buoyant ride-cymbal stroke and lovely snare accents. Galbraith had been in the great Claude Thornhill band of the ’40s and was the busiest studio guitarist in New York, prized for his flawless sight-reading and rhythm guitar work. But he was also a wonderful jazz soloist, very similar to Jim Hall, as he shows here. Hank Jones has already been discussed and, while I’ve heard him sound as good as he does here many times, I’ve never heard him sound any better, he’s just scintillating throughout. And Oscar Pettiford was one of the geniuses of jazz bass and acquits himself accordingly.

Normally, a front-line of three horns would consist of trumpet, trombone and saxophone, but Bert opts for two saxophones – Vinny Dean on alto and Jerome Richardson on tenor and some flute. Dean and Bert played together in the Kenton band and remained close friends; he’s a light-toned, cool player along the lines of Lee Konitz or Hal McKusick and sounds very good here. Richardson was prized for his versatility, as he played flute and all of the saxophones. Often he’s heard as a flute soloist but here, his fluent, slightly funky tenor playing is also featured to great effect.

Four of the originals are Bert’s – “Walk With Me”, “Cardboard Coffee”, “Lom, Norahs and Enaj”, and “Me ‘n You”. They’re at medium or medium-up tempos, with attractive melodies, boppish rhythmic contours and interesting chord structures. They’re all good, but the standout is “Coffee”, with its dramatic shifts from minor to major. It features Bert, Pettiford, Dean, Galbraith and Jones.

There are two ballads – Neal Hefti’s ingenious “Falling In Love All Over Again”, which sounds like an old standard – and “All My Life”, which is an old standard, given over mostly to Galbraith and the rhythm section.

The album takes its name from the tricky standard “I Hear Music”, played here in a lively arrangement featuring Bert, Jones, Richardson on tenor, Galbraith and a nice round of fours with Johnson.

Alec Wilder’s seldom-heard “Moon and Sand” is given an exotic, Latin/Ellingtonian treatment, with the melody played by flute and muted trombone in tight harmony with just Osie’s tom-toms underneath. Wisely, Bert doesn’t have anyone stretch out on the song’s torturous form, letting Jerome and Osie play short, free interludes.

Amid all this variety and complexity, a simple blues would be nice and they oblige with “Jerome’s Blues”, a medium-slow, funky blues played by flute and muted trombone, with Pettiford and Galbraith playing great fills between the melody lines. Everyone solos on it and they achieve a classic mood of after hours relaxation, stretching out to over nine minutes. One gets the feeling that the reputation of each of these great players could rest with their playing on this track alone.

This record was made a year before I was born, a very long time ago, but it still sounds fresh and engaging, and more so every year. Bert’s playing and writing are a marvel throughout and this album shows the full range of what he could do. I urge anyone interested in him to order it from the Fresh Sound website and check it out – you won’t regret it.

As you’ve probably gathered, Eddie Bert had a long career, and was honoured for this several times – at Town Hall and the Kennedy Center in 2002 – and he’s in the Rutgers Institute of Jazz Studies Hall of Fame. Earlier I called him a trombonist for all seasons, and it turns out that this is literally true. He died at his Danbury, Connecticut home on September 27, 2012 at the age of 90. He played regularly, and well, right up till a year before he died. Think about that for a moment. This means his career lasted over 70 years – 70 seasons playing in the jazz big-leagues, that’s incredible. Very few played as well for so long and with so many great musicians. We’ve overused “awesome” these days to the point where it’s become a meaningless joke of a word, but Eddie Bert’s long, brilliant career truly was awesome.

© 2014 – 2016, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.

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