Dave Pell on Boots Brown

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Yesterday I posted about Shorty Rogers and his rock-and-roll recordings for RCA as Boots Brown and His Blockbusters. Those recordings included the cream of the West Coast jazz scene, including tenor saxophonist Dave Pell. Today, I gave Dave a buzz to find out why Rogers—and everyone else—bothered and shunned credit.

First, a word about Dave, who was an instrumental part of the West Coast jazz sound in the '50s. He was one of the first to have success with the contrapuntal octet sound. Dave Brubeck's octet in San Francisco was a bit different and largely under the influence of modern classical theory. Dave Pell's octet had a cool sound with the emphasis on the kind of harmony voicings found in Les Brown's band. I love talking to Dave. He's always upbeat, full of laughs and the walking and talking epitome of the West Coast jazz scene.

Here's what Dave told me today...

“Starting in the early '50s, Shorty [Rogers] was doing a ton of work in RCA's production department. They loved what he was doing and wanted to use everything he came up with, no matter what. That's how good Shorty [pictured above] was.

“When Shorty put us together for the Blockbusters sessions in the early '50s, it was for movie work. We were all trying to get back into recording music for motion pictures without hurting our reputations as jazz players. Technicolor movies had just begun rolling out and the opportunities for playing movie scores and themes grew.

“But the studios at first weren't using jazz musicians. The guys who contracted those dates tended to stick to studio guys. The contractors figured we would be uncomfortable playing along to movies, that the work would be too static for us or wasn't loose or hip enough. At a meeting for some movie that needed R&B music, Shorty, Bud and I pushed back and said, 'No, no, we'd be better at the R&B stuff than your studio guys. We'd get it right the first time and come up with music based on what was going on in the film.' [Pictured above: Bud Shank in the early '50s]

“So they let us do it. I can't remember which movies, but we'd go to the motion picture stage, look at the film and Shorty would tell me or one of the other guys on the session, 'When this guy comes on the screen, play something that matches what you see.' And we'd do just that.

Movie-studio work actually gave the good players a chance to earn extra income, especially if you provided a solo. For example, I played the sax solos for the movie Rock Around the Clock [1956]. I'd blow in the same spirit as the guy playing sax on the screen. You know, the way an actress in a movie mouths the words to a song while a professional singer did the overdub in the studio.

“The Boots Brown dates were for movies but then RCA released them as singles. I don't know why—maybe to make a double profit or to feed the pipeline for its new 45-rpm format. But you have to remember, at the time it wasn't cool to play that kind of music if you played jazz. That's why Shorty came up with a fake name. I don't know why he chose Boots Brown or what it meant. I know we didn't want our names on the records. We were too embarrassed.

JazzWax tracks: Here's a clip from Rock Around the Clock, with Dave Pell playing the soundtrack sax solo...