Saxophonist Charlie Ventura has gotten a bum rap. For too long he's been thought of as a Coleman Hawkins clone and his vast contributions to jazz and R&B have been overlooked or ignored. His name no longer comes up in jazz circles, and his recordings are rarely heard or praised. I can't think of the last time a serious jazz radio show featured him. It's as if Ventura had been run out of town on a rail. What a shame.
After spending the past two days listening to a large chunk of Ventura's discography, I have a hard time hearing much Hawk in his blowing, and I find he's worthy of revision and restoration. Ventura brought enormous power and sensitivity to virtually every recording, and his technique and attack were extraordinary. He was a wonderfully slippery, gruff playerzipping around melody lines like a kid on a fast scooter. You can hear how good he was on his recordings with Gene Krupa and Jazz at the Philharmonic, fronting his own orchestras, with Jackie Cain and Roy Kral, and his small bop groups in the 1940s and '50s.
What's wild is that Ventura never seems to have made a bad record. And his confidence, bravado and stamina on the saxophone not to mention his swing and time certainly influenced flocks of saxophones on the R&B scene in the late '40sguys like Maxwell Davis and Paul Williams. From my interviews with musicians who knew him, Ventura could be abrasive and callous. What else is new? Ventura's recordings speak for themselves. [Photo above of vocalist Betty Bennett and Charlie Ventura]
Ventura was heard most often on tenor saxbut he also recorded extensively on baritone sax as well as soprano, alto and bass sax. But it's his baritone work that's most sublime. Ventura tended to work the lower register of his tenor sax, so these baritone tracks are, in a sense, Ventura with a colda much deeper, huskier sound that's just as agile and wiley.
When I interviewed Marty Napoleon in 2011, he had only praise for Ventura...
I loved Charlie. I was with his big band at New York's Arcadia Ballroom. I was one of the singers with Lucy Reed. We used to do vocal duets. Al Cohn wrote an arrangement for me for a Sicilian song called Dicitencello Vuie. In English it means You Tell Them. I still can't believe it. Al Cohn wrote an arrangement for me [laughs]."
Ventura's baritone sax recordings began in January 1946 in Los Angles with the Gene Krupa TrioKrupa, Ventura and Marty Napoleon. In May, the trio was at Carnegie Hall. But he was mostly noodling around on the instrument in these settings. Ventura starts to stretch out in October 1948 on his fabled National sessions, which also featured his brother Ben on baritone. Charlie Ventura can be heard on tracks like If I Had You and Once in a While. He was on baritone at the Royal Roost with the Charlie Parker All Stars in January 1949 and at the famed Civic Auditorium Bop for the People" concert in Pasadena, Calif., in May 1949.
By 1951, Ventura was employing the baritone more frequently. On In a Jazz Mood, a Clef release, he even worked the bass sax. Throughout the '50s, Ventura used the baritone and bass sax frequently on Norman Granz-produced sessions. He also played baritone on Plays Hi-Fi Jazz and The New Charlie Ventura in Hi-Fi in 1956. These two are terrific recordings.
In the '60s, Ventura recorded mostly on Jackie Gleason's Easy Listening albums, recording his final album, Chazz '77 (Famous Door), in 1977. He died in 1992.
Ventura's blowing style was seriously hip. Isn't it about time we cut the guy a break?
JazzWax tracks: Here's Ventura in the 1940s and into the 1950s on tenor and baritone...