Some Thoughts on the Autobiography of Clark Terry, and Recollections of Larry Elgart.
I have recently read two books about notable musicians, an autobiography by the great jazz trumpeter Clark Terry (1920-2015), and the other, a book of recollections by the leader of many excellent dance bands, saxophonist Larry Elgart (1922-2017). Both men had successful careers in music stretching from the 1940s into the new millennium, and both worked in similar musical worlds and produced much worthwhile music. Coincidentally, both musicians worked closely with their spouses to get their books written.
Beyond these similarities, the life stories told in each of these books are vastly different, especially in tone and voice. The totality of Clark Terry’s story is unmistakably in his own voice. Though it begins in grinding poverty and Jim Crow segregation, and traces his later years, when a serious back injury caused him much misery, it is nevertheless unfailingly upbeat, genuinely humorous and very informative. It was a joy to read CT’s life story, and it brought happiness into my life, much like Clark Terry’s music has. I recommend Clark…The Autobiography of Clark Terry, with Gwen Terry, without reservation.
Larry Elgart’s story,The Music Business and the Monkey Business which is subtitled Recollections Lynn & Larry Elgart, is almost totally devoid of wit, and has precious little information about the wonderful music he so often made. (Note that Lynn gets top billing.) There is relatively little information about the various classic Elgart bands of the 1950s and 1960s, the time of many successful recordings made for Columbia Records. Nothing is to be found about Larry’s sound studio, and his experiments with recording his bands. And Lynn and Larry’s recollections of a number of people with whom Larry had interactions, including his first wife, Grace Sims, whose name is never used in the book, sometimes border on the malicious. The snide tone which is maintained by both Larry and Lynn Elgart throughout this book, permeates so much of Larry Elgart’s story that it made reading this book a chore. Unlike Clark Terry’s book, where his buoyant personality fairly leaps off most pages, it is difficult to discern the voice and personality of Larry Elgart in his recollections. Lynn Elgart’s voice and personality seem to come through quite clearly however. Unfortunately, many of her recollections have little to do with her husband’s career and music. No matter whose words one is reading, I have never read a book with poorer punctuation. This book represents a missed opportunity to really tell Larry Elgart’s story. I can recommend it only halfheartedly to anyone who wants to get a better understanding of his career or his music. If one has a certain morbid curiosity about him, the book may satisfy that, at least to some extent, if you can get past the poor punctuation, redundancies and the all too frequent expressions of resentment, disappointment, and rancor. (Note: There is infinitely more information about Larry Elgart’s career and music in the book/discography Les and Larry Elgart and Their Orchestras, by Richard F. Palmer and Charles Garrod, Joyce Record Club.)
I first became aware of both Clark Terry and Larry Elgart (and his brother Les), at about the same time, the early 1960s. I first saw Clark Terry on television as a member of what was then called Skitch Henderson and the N.B.C. Orchestra, the excellent band featured on the “Tonight Show.” I first heard many wonderful recordings by the Les and Larry Elgart Orchestra on radio, and later acquired many of them. The Elgart band of the 1950s and 1960s had a unique sound that, though it was highly stylized, was often very musical.
The glamour, sophistication and magic that was so very much a part of the “Tonight Show,” which emanated from Manhattan in the mid-1960s, definitely caught my fancy as I was growing up in the midwest then. In addition, my adolescent sense of humor was in perfect phase with the “Tonight Show’s” relatively new host Johnny Carson. (Carson became the host of the “Tonight Show” in 1962.) I was also fascinated by the “Tonight Show” band. It was a full-fledged big band that played music that to this day still sounds very good to me. Skitch Henderson was the leader of the band through the mid-1960s, and had much on-air interaction with Carson. Johnny, who loved big band music and was an amateur drummer (who idolized drum legend Buddy Rich), soon inaugurated a humorous feature where he, the band members and the audience would interact. He called it “Stump the Band.” By watching many “Stump the Band” sessions, I began to recognize the musicians in the band. Among them in addition to Clark Terry, were: trumpeters Doc Severensen, Jimmy Maxwell, Snooky Young, Mel Davis; saxophonists Hymie Shertzer,Tommy Newsome, Al Klink, Arnie Lawrence, Walt Levinsky and Don Ashworth; trombonists Will Bradley, Roland DuPont, Paul Faulise and Si Berger. Henderson played piano, Tony Mottola (and sometimes Gene Bertoncini), guitar, Bob Haggart, bass, and Bob Rosengarden, drums. Clark Terry and Snooky Young were the only Afro-Americans in the band then, but a few years later, they were joined by drummer Grady Tate. Terry’s stories about the whole atmosphere of the “Tonight Show,” the Manhattan music scene then, and New York in the 1960s, are wonderfully evocative of that time and place, and are recounted with great humor. I laughed out loud many times while reading his book.
In the mid-1960s I was just beginning to learn about music, jazz, and musicians. As I slowly stumbled my way through that process, one thing remained constant: I always enjoyed hearing music played by good musicians. As I slowly began to acquire L(ong) P(laying) records, i.e.vinyl, I not only listened to the music on them, but I also read with great interest the liner notes on the dust jackets, and carefully studied the personnel listings of musicians who had made the music, if that information was available. By doing this, I gradually became able to recognize the playing of individual musicians. For example, it was soon obvious to me that the playing of tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins was very different from that of Lester Young. Tommy Dorsey’s trombone playing was quite different from Jack Jenney’s. Benny Goodman’s clarinet playing was noticeably different from Artie Shaw’s, or Johnny Mince’s, or Buddy DeFranco’s. Dave Tough’s drumming was vastly different from Gene Krupa’s, or Buddy Rich’s, or Sid Catlett’s. I thought it was wonderful that so many great musicians had a strong individual instrumental identity. And of course the same thing applied to singers. Frank Sinatra, for example, would never be taken for Tony Bennett or Mel Torme’, and vice-versa.
I resolved to go to New York as soon as that was possible, to see and hear as many of the musicians I was listening to and learning about on records, radio and television. For probably two or three years, I thought about where I would go in Manhattan, and what I would see. Finally, by the spring of my senior year in high school, 1968, I was finally able to take that first trip to New York with a group of my high school friends.
I will not delve into the details of that trip here, though some highly amusing incidents took place. But I will recall specifically going to what was then the RCA Building (now called 30 Rock, which is short for the address of that same building, 30 Rockefeller Plaza), standing in line waiting to get tickets for the “Tonight Show,” lining up to wait to go up to the floor where the studio 6B was, and then waiting in line to get into the studio on a large staircase. I recall that there were framed photos lining the walls of famous performers who had worked at N.B.C. I recall images of Toscanini, Bob Hope, Steve Allen, Jack Paar, and of course Johnny Carson. After waiting for quite a while on this staircase, I saw a number of men dressed in dark business suits emerge from a door, and walk down a hallway. I recognized a number of them as musicians from the “Tonight Show” band. Among those I saw then were Jimmy Maxwell, Al Klink, Bob Haggart, and Clark Terry. I was thrilled!
When we finally entered the studio and were seated, the band started to play. They were fantastic. They played so easily, yet the sound of the band was powerful, brilliant and swinging. Then Carson’s sidekick/announcer, Ed McMahon, came out, bantered with Doc Severinsen, who by then had replaced Skitch Henderson as leader of the band, and finished warming up the audience. Then Ed announced: “Heeeeer’s Johnny…” the band played his theme, and the monologue began.
While I enjoyed every minute of watching the “Tonight Show” happening right in front of me that night, what I enjoyed most were the commercial breaks, because it was then that the band played. Here is an example of the kind of music they played. It is “So What Else Is New?,” which includes a tasty and characteristic plunger muted trumpet solo by Clark Terry. It was composed and arranged by swing era veteran Bob Haggart, who also composed the standard “What’s New?”
“So What Else Is New?”
Composed and arranged by Bob Haggart.
Recorded by Skitch Henderson and The Tonight Show Orchestra for Columbia, 1965.
Skitch Henderson, piano, directing: Carl “Doc” Severensen, first trumpet; Jimmy Maxwell, Eugene “Snooky” Young, Bernie Glow and Clark Terry, trumpets; trombones are uncertain, but probably include Will Bradley, Paul Faulise and Si Berger; Walt Levinsky, Arnie Lawrence, Al Klink, Tommy Newsome and Don Ashworth, saxophones: Tony Mottola, guitar; Bob Haggart, bass; Bob Rosengarden, drums.
Although saxophonist Larry Elgart (pictured at left) clearly has extremely negative feelings about his brother, trumpeter Les (and gives full vent to them in his book), the basic facts were that Les was the older brother by five years, he started his career as a professional musician before Larry, and he became a bandleader before Larry. There was a Les Elgart band for years before Larry’s name was used in the band’s billing. And whatever dynamics existed between these two brothers, the basic “Elgart sound” was in place years before Larry became a co-leader of the band.
Putting aside the sibling rivalry issues, it is truly unfortunate that Larry Elgart did not provide much information about the music and musicians who were a part of the “Elgart sound.” For example, almost nothing is said about Charlie Albertine, who was an excellent arranger who had much to do with the way the band sounded. Very little positive is said about the great arranger Bill Finegan, (pictured below at right), who contributed at least one masterpiece to the Elgart canon, his brilliant kaleidoscopic use of the instruments of the Elgart band in his arrangement of George Gershwin’s lovely song “Soon,” which is presented below. Instead, Elgart criticizes Finegan in a most graceless way, for his penchant for working very slowly. Nothing is said about Al Cohn, who also contributed many highly creative and extremely musical arrangements to the Elgart book. Indeed, almost nothing is said about Larry Elgart’s own splendid lead alto saxophone playing, which is most definitely an identifying characteristic of the “Elgart sound.” By page 42 (the book has 240 pages), the story of the Columbia era (and earlier) Elgart bands is over.
Regrettably, many subsequent pages of the story of Larry Elgart’s life and career are filled with the words of his wife Lynn about subjects as varied as what people wore at social events, and her opinions about people who had little or nothing to do with Larry Elgart’s life, career and music. Clearly, Lynn Elgart found it impossible to assist her husband to tell his story, one that is told in this book most incompletely, without larding it with her own thoughts and impressions. I think it would have been more accurate for the Elgart’s to have stated on the book’s cover that this was the story of Lynn and Larry Elgart. (Lynn and Larry Elgart are pictured at left.)
Despite the many shortcomings of Lynn and Larry Elgart’s book, I would like to put the spotlight on the music of the Elgart band, music that so very often was excellent. I am confident that people will continue to listen to and enjoy this music long after this sour-toned book has been forgotten. Here is their recording of George Gershwin’s wistful song “Soon,” in a magnificent arrangement by Bill Finegan. The orchestra is comprised of some of New York’s finest studio musicians. The alto saxophone solo is by Larry Elgart; the tenor saxophone solo is by Al Abreau.
Music composed by George Gershwin; arranged by Bill Finegan.
Recorded by Les and Larry Elgart and Their Orchestra for Columbia on October 4, 1966 in New York.
Les Elgart (not playing, and according to Larry not present), and Larry Elgart, first alto saxophone; directing: Al DeRisi, Alan Rubin, Lew Gluckin, and Michael Brecker, trumpets; Micky Gravine, Bill Watrous, trombones; Tony Salvatore, bass trombone; Richie Barz, alto saxophone; Al Abreau and Lew Tabackin, tenor saxophones; Ed Xiques, baritone saxophone; Barry Galbraith, guitar; George Duvivier, bass; Ed Shaughnessy, drums.
Both recordings in this post were digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.