Sunday, March 29, 2009

the old days

I've been involved in a discussion on a Latin jazz email list about my old friend and mentor Barry Rogers. Barry, one of the all time great musicians of his era, was the trombonist and music director of Eddie Palmieri's original band, La Perfecta, and remained associated with Eddie (on and off) until his untimely death  in 1991. Barry is directly opposite me on the other side of the car (I'm holding the trombone). The discussion created so much interest that I am motivated to look back at my early experiences as a trombone player and share them with the readers of my blog.

I was 18 years old, playing bass with Larry Harlow in a Latin trio at Ben Maksik's Town and Country Club at the South end of Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn. The back of the club over-looked an undeveloped marsh (near the old Floyd Bennet airfield) and I used the area to practice the trombone before the gig started. I was doing my lip-drills when a slightly built man came up to me. "Are you the trombone player in the show band?" he asked. "No," I answered, "I play in the lounge band." "Too bad," he responded, 'is there a trombone player in the band?" He went on the explain that he was the star of the new show, the Jewel Box Review, a female impersonator show, that with all of the innocence of the 1950's was a favorite of middle aged female audiences, seemingly oblivious to the connection between female impersonation and homosexuality. They came to see the beautiful clothes and wonder at how gorgeous the 'girls' looked in their elaborate costumes. It turned out that a trombone player was needed. The star, Lynne Carter, did a Pearl Bailey imitation and the high (or low) point of the act was when the trombone would play a loud and inappropriate note while Lynne was singing 'I'm Tired.' He (she) called the trombonist (soon to be me)  on to the hexagonal stage, jutting out into the table area, who then had to chase after Lynne, who was holding the trombone part, hitting her (him) in the butt with the trombone slide. I was a perfect foil, young, tall, with long hair for the time, and totally embarrassed by the prospect. After a bit of negotiation, I was switched from the lounge band to the show band and my career as a trombonist was started. I played on and off in the show band all through college and got my trombone chops up to speed. The lead trumpet player, Bob Bonsang, much distressed by a young inexperienced musician holding down such a well-paying job, would look at me as I struggled with difficult passages and muttered what was to become my motto as a musician and even as an academic, "Earn while you learn."

It was my stint playing bass with Harlow that moved me into my major focus as a trombonist, Latin dance bands. Eddie Palmieri had recorded his first album and was working with his band La Perfecta, a unique sound, with a trombone and flute front line (modeled on the flute and violin popular charanga style, but with a trombone instead of violins). The trombonist was Barry Rogers. Barry had a chance to make some good money playing a wedding and needed a sub. He heard about a trombone player, me, who could read well and play Latin bass (by that time I had played bass with Randy Carlos and Harvito as well as Harlow) and figured that I could hold my own in a Latin rhythm section, so he called me to do a gig for him with Eddie's band. Eddie liked the way I played so much that he hired me on the spot to play second trombone. Bass was gone forever; I was a trombone player. More people in the Latin community still think of me as the trombone player with La Perfecta despite everything else I have ever done. That is because La Perfecta had a unique role to play in the development of cultural consciousness among the young Latinos of that era.

 The base for Eddie's popularity was a loft club in the South Bronx, the Triton Club, down the street from the Hunts Point Palace, a lavish dance hall catering to older Latino audiences and featuring name bands like Machito. The Triton Club, on the other hand, was a bare-loft, painted black with a few tables and chairs and a large area for dancing. It was here that the young Latino's came to be hip, to dance to the hot new bands, Eddie, Johhny Pacheco and Orlando Marin, and to come to consciousness as Latinos through music that they saw as their own, helped along by the cheer-leading of the self-appointed host Izzy Sanabria, later to publish Latin New York. 

Playing with Eddie was a peak experience, playing the Palladium, Birdland and the Village Gate in the early 1960's. But it had a major down-side. The band had good arrangements, but what made the band unique was the 'mambo' section. Latin dance band arrangements had a standard form, intro, melody, montuno (where the singer improvised against a chorus, the 'coro'), mambo, montuno and coda. The mambo section was generally massed horns, trumpets played in the high register to generate maximum excitement. But Eddie only had two trombones. Eddies' best mambos were not pre-arranged but were created on the bandstand. Barry sang coro, and during the singer's (Ismeal Quintana) improvisation Barry would often come up with a lick that he liked. He would motion to me over to the mic where he was singing coro, and he would softly sing the lick to me (moving the trombone slide to show me how it was to be done). I had to catch it right away and on Barry's cue begin the lick. After a few times of playing it on my own, Barry would join me in unison, then add harmony. George Castro, the flute player, would start playing on top of the trombones and the drummers would start playing harder. Then Barry would do his thing. My job was to play the basic line, over and over. Barry would start improvising against the line, almost Dixie-land style, playing wonderfully crafted, driving, counter-melodies, evolving with more and more complexity and with tremendous swing. The place would go crazy. Nobody, not even Tito Puente with trumpets and saxes, could match the sheer energy, the electric abandon, with which Barry could push the band. It was exhilarating, and very depressing. I wanted to be Barry so badly. I wanted to play the improvised part, to be at the center of the swing. But instead I had to selflessly destroy my chops playing at full volume, the same figure over and over, endlessly, for 10 minutes or more. I quit Eddie's band and went to Europe to try to succeed as a jazz trombonist.

Europe didn't work out. I landed in Rotterdam on Christmas 1963, one of the coldest winters on record and headed south, Paris, than Italy. There was little jazz being played and Paris had just made a rule limiting horns in small clubs, so there was not even a jam session scene. I put my tail between my legs and came back home to find out that in my absence there was a trombone renaissance in the Latin scene. I was in  demand. Ray Barretto asked me to join his band, but Charlie Palmieri had a 6-night steady gig at a club called the Havana-Madrid. An interesting band with Chombo Silva on sax, myself and Rod Sewart playing flute. It was a free-blowing band, modeled after the first recorded Alegre All Stars and I got to play solos almost every tune. That lead to my recording with the Alegre All Stars on their second album and to gigs with just about every other Latin band that used a trombone. Barry was always busy with Eddie as was Jose Rodriquez who became Eddie's long-standing second trombone player. So I was first call trombone player for Latin gigs. I made a good living,  playing, recorded and arranging. I continued playing and recording with Eddie as well as such great bands as the La Playa Sextet, Bobby Valentin, Tito Puente, Ricardo Rey and many others. I had so many gigs I ended up giving my extra gigs to some great jazz trombone players, especially Julian Preister and Garnet Brown. They, in turn, would turn me on to big bands so I got to play with bands led by Clark Terry, Joe Henderson, Kenny Durham and Duke Pearson which led to gigs with Maynard Ferguson, Lionel Hampton and Mel Lewis/Thad Jones.

The band that I made the biggest impact on, however, was my old friend of bass playing days Larry Harlow. Larry had a summer gig at Schenk's Paramount Hotel playing with  Latin quintet at the after-hours club, a hang out for musicians. He used me as the only horn player; trombone and rhythm section, something rarely seen. I got to solo to my heart's content, and since we hosted a jam session, I became well known among the jazz musicians playing in the Catskill mountains. One night Larry and I were laying around, toasted as usual, and Larry told me about his dream. A band with trombones like Eddies, but with a trumpet section to add fire and weight to the ensemble instead of the flute. He asked me to help him write the arrangements. His first album, Heavy Smoking did well on the newly formed record label, Fania, that was to dominate Latin recording for the next decades. I got the opportunity to write the next album, almost completely, Bajandote, which includes some writing and soloing that I am still quite proud of. I played with Larry for several years, playing solos and learning from the great trumpet player Chocolate, who played with the band. The trombone solo after the mass brass mambo, was Harlow's signature response to Eddie Palmieri and my tribute to what I had learned playing with Barry. You can compare Barry's and my playing on Eddie's album with Cal Tjader, Bamboleate. Barry and I both solo (on different tunes). 

A long-lasting stint with Herbie Mann grew out of this experience. Herbie wanted a Latin jazz band with trombones, and Barry wouldn't leave Eddie, so I was it. Herbie's band introduced me to Chick Corea and gave me some exposure on records, at clubs and at festivals. I started to meet some great musicians and recorded Cuban Roots. This led to me getting a taste of rock and roll with, among others, Mike Bloomfield and the Electric Flag. This, in turn, led to me getting called to put together a horn section for Janis Joplin, ironically, the immediate cause of my quitting the business. I had recorded Cuban Roots with Arnie Lawrence on alto saxophone. I was convinced it was a great album, but it only received one review (in a French jazz magazine) and almost no airplay. Worse, neither Barry nor Eddie was willing to tell me that it was a good album, and I worshiped those guys. I was really badly hurt by that. 

I had gotten a call from Albert Grossman, Janis' manager, about putting a horn band together for her. I was laying in bed with my wife Joyce watching the Tonight Show, and there was Arnie Lawrence playing in the band. Before the commercial the band had a feature, Arnie had played a few notes of a solo, when the band was cut off. I looked at Joyce and said, 'If I make it to the top and get to play on the Tonight Show, that is what I can look forward to. I'm not going to take the gig with Janis." In my head that was the turning point. I was out of the business! But there is a back-story. When I was negotiating to go with the Electric Flag (after a few gigs with the band in NYC) my wife had made all of these demands, that she had to go on the road, get her hotel room paid for etc. We had just had a baby, my daughter Rebecca, and Joyce did not want to risk her family while I led the rock and roll life. The Electric Flag didn't come through, the band was dropped by Columbia after one album, but Janis was going to pick up the concept, a hard driving blues band with horns. I was to write the horn arrangements and be music director, but Albert Grossman warned me not to make demands about my wife. I had to move to San Francisco and live at the band house while the band was being formed and rehearsed. I'd be on salary, but my wife and child would have to stay in New York. Joyce was freaked. I loved my daughter, and I was very, very unhappy with my marriage. To go to San Francisco would have meant the end of my family for sure. Joyce had a right to be freaked. The Tonight Show was the last straw, to leave my daughter to play rock and roll (when all I ever wanted was to play jazz), to have my solos cut off at the commercial break, to have my best efforts disregarded by the musicians I revered. It was all too much. I decided to go graduate school and get a PhD in Philosophy.