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Interview: Don Sebesky (Part 1)

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Arranger Don Sebesky is among only a handful of musicians   today who toured and recorded with both Stan Kenton and Maynard Ferguson's big bands at the tail end of the '50s. Don also arranged Wes Montgomery's most popular recordings for Verve and A&M in the '60s, and in the '70s arranged and conducted many of CTI's best-known releases.

Don's signature touch is orchestral with surging power but also highly supportive of the soloist. Back in the '60s, Don was as familiar with the rock and pop genres as he was with jazz. This knowledge allowed him to arrange radio hits neatly for jazz stars without losing a sense of swing and drama. He also could slow-build an arrangement or set it to simmer—creating the sensation of a large ensemble in the background but never intruding on the album's overall theme or vision.

In Part 1 of my two-part interview with Don, 72, the arranger talks about growing up in New Jersey, playing and recording with Kenton and Ferguson, his favorite singer, and working with Wes Montgomery...

JazzWax: What was growing up in Perth Amboy, N.J., in the '40s like?
Don Sebesky: Perth Amboy was a nice little town in a Norman Rockwell sort of way. Most residents at the time were of Polish and Hungarian descent. 

JW: What did your parents do for a living?
DS: My father was a laborer who worked in a steel-cable factory. My mother was a housewife.

JW: Was the trombone your first instrument?
DS: Actually, my first instrument was the accordion.

JW: For real?
DS: [Laughs]. Yes, and it forced me to learn harmony. Once in a while I'll still do an overdub on accordion, but it's a pain to lug around. My favorites in the '50s were Mat Mathews and Art Van Damme. Many people may not be aware that Mat used the button accordion rather than traditional keyboard. There's a difference in the attack.

JW: How did you come to music?
DS: Music was the only thing I knew or cared about—from age 10. In high school, I took up the trombone to get into the marching band. Then I began commuting into New York from New Jersey to take trombone lessons from Warren Covington. He was working in the New York recording studios at the time, before he joined Tommy Dorsey's band. Through Warren I was introduced to trombonist Kai Winding. I also started absorbing what trombonists Frank Rosolino and Carl Fontana were laying down.

JW: How did you learn to arrange?
DS: I'm self-taught. And I worked very hard [laughs].

JW: Your first recording was Maynard Ferguson's Message from Newport in 1958. You arranged Humbug and Fan It, Janet. What's the origin of those two titles?
DS: I'm a huge fan of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. I have several copies of the book. I just love the story. So Humbug comes from Scrooge. Maynard named Fan It, Janet. I don't know who “Janet" was or if it's a name that was even significant to him.

  JW: What was working with Ferguson like?
DS: Maynard was a great guy and great leader. You came in with something and the band played it. Maynard was one of the cats. Most people don't realize that there were only 12 musicians on Message. That's relatively small considering the big sound. Everyone had to play longer and harder to achieve it.

JW: Did Ferguson ever lose his temper?
DS: Not really. The only time I saw him get angry was at a prom someplace. He was playing a ballad and someone who was a little loaded stumbled into him and bashed his horn into his mouth. He almost killed the kid. The band stopped, and he had to control himself. Some security guard came over and took the kid away.

JW: Did the band tour?
DS: We did our share of one-nighters, but we didn't travel far. We'd go up to Buffalo and come right back to New York after the gig. We'd go up with six guys in a car. I was stuck with them. Pot smoke would be swirling around our heads. We'd stop and someone would get out and steal a bottle of cough medicine to get high. The band was swinging, but I could have wound up on a chain gang [laughs].

JW: You recorded on Viva Kenton! in 1959, a magnificent Latin-themed album arranged by Gene Roland.
DS: Unfortunately I caught Kenton's band at the tail end of the Bill Holman era. We traveled a great deal on that band. The book was made up largely of Bill Holman leftovers. Arranger Gene Roland traveled with the band then and wrote new charts. He was a mini genius. His Cool Eyes from 1952 was so great. Gene wrote that chart in jail a year or two earlier—without a piano. He never could quite get a handle on his talent. 

JW: You arranged two albums for Chris Connor and Maynard Ferguson in 1960—Double Exposure and Three's Company.
DS: One was for Atlantic and the other for Roulette. Chris was with Atlantic, so a deal was worked out. I fell in love with Chris's voice listening to her in high school, when she was with Claude Thornhill's band. I think she sang Fine and Dandy. So much has been written comparing her with June Christy. They're from the same breathy, cool school. But Chris had a sound that was deeper and more like Lester Young's horn. Her voice had the quality of a tenor sax. It was a little lower than June's and had a cooler tone to it, too. Chris was the essence of coolness. I still compare everyone to her.

JW: How did you meet Creed Taylor?
DS: One day in 1965, I was writing in my home studio in North Branch, N.J., when the phone rang. Creed was on the other end. He said, “I heard something you did and want you to arrange an album for me."

JW: Was that Wes Montgomery's Bumpin'?
DS: Yes. On the first day of recording, we went into the studio with Wes, the rhythm section and all the strings. But nothing went well. The session wasn't happening. Wes, who always smiling, wasn't smiling.

JW: Why?
DS: I went up to him and asked what was going on. He said, “I can't compete with these cats. They all went to Juilliard." Wes didn't read music.

JW: What did you do?
DS: I sent everyone home except the rhythm section. I decided to tape them swinging on each track. Then later I recorded the orchestra and overdubbed Wes' tracks. Engineer Rudy [Van Gelder] liked the idea since we had contained Wes' guitar sound by recording this way. There wouldn't be any sonic leakage. Instead of writing complete arrangements, though, I'd write in a loose form so that orchestra would sound natural around Wes' solo playing.

JW: What did this do for you?
DS: On later albums, like California Dreaming, Herbie [Hancock] on piano would play a lick, for example, and Wes would react to that. The whole point was to give the rhythm section free reign and to capture the rise and fall of the emotional content with the orchestra. When we would do this and one of the guys in the rhythm section would create something inventive, I had a reference, a catalyst that I could use to bounce off of for the arrangement.

JW: In most other cases, recordings were done the other way around—orchestral tracks recorded first, followed by the soloist, wearing headphones, recording his tracks.
DS: I know. The albums I did for Wes sound as though every instrument was scripted. In fact, they were loose enough that I could change the form. We worked them out synergistically. We were kind of helping each other, Wes and the orchestra. The result was a sound that was very natural and breezy.

JW: How did the orchestra hear Wes' tracks when it recorded later?
DS: The entire orchestra was wearing headphones. The way it came off, it's almost as if these two halves were intertwining. A give and take on two tracks and a third track for solos. They'd always be reacting to each other.

JW: So how would you arrange a track Montgomery recorded?
DS: I'd take it home and listen to it. Then I'd write around what he was doing or echo his lines. A Wes arrangement became a dual force. It was both a background and a co-conspirator. The guys in the rhythm section who played on the initial tracks were completely unhampered and had complete freedom to come up with lines. My orchestration would then feed off of those lines. This made the orchestra an active participant in the fabric, like a tapestry.

JazzWax clip: Here's Don's arrangement of Humbug from Maynard Ferguson's Message From Newport (1958). Hope you're sitting down...


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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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