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Eddie Bert, a swinging bebop trombonist whose aggressive, bouncing playing style was deeply influenced by his love for the instrument's singing voice and who found himself in steady demand from 1942 on, appearing on 336 known recording sessions, died on September 28. He was 90.
Greatly assisted by fearless ambition and a quest for excellence, Eddie's early drive resulting in meeting Trummy Young outside a ballroom in New York in the late 1930s. Taken with Eddie's honest approach, Young sent Eddie to Miff Mole for lessons. In 1941 Eddie was discovered in Greenwich Village by Red Norvo, who hired him for his band. Eddie's wife Molly recorded him off the radio playing with Norvo in January 1942.
After joining Charlie Barnet in 1943, Eddie met Dizzy Gillespie [pictured above], who taught him bebop chord changes. When Barnet's bassist Chubby Jackson left for Woody Herman's band, Eddie soon switched bands as well. Drafted into the Army in 1944, Eddie spent the war as a musician, primarily in a band led by Bill Finegan.
Discharged in1946, Eddie joined Herbie Fields and became friends with arrangers Neal Hefti and Manny Albam. When Kai Winding told Eddie he was leaving Stan Kenton's band, Eddie wrote the bandleader and was hired in 1947. But Eddie was homesick and detested California, using Kenton's West-to-East tour in 1947 to return to New York. During this period, he recorded his first famous trombone solo in December 1947 behind June Christy [pictured above in 1947] singing How High the Moon.
His roommate while on the Kenton band was Art Pepper. Eddie told me during an interview:
Wow, Art was unpredictable. The guy was very taken with himself and wanted to be the greatest alto player in the world. He even had acetates of his playing to listen to on the road. He was a smart guy who unfortunately got hung up on drugs young. But he had a great sound and great jazz ideas."
Eddie left Kenton in '48 and began rehearsing at Nola Studios with eight other musicians assembled by Miles Davis. Eddie told me about a cruel trick played on him:
We rehearsed together four times. Then one day I came in and they told me Kai Winding would be playing trombone, not me. It turned out to be Miles' 'Birth of the Cool' band. I never understood why I had been bumped.
Some 20 years later I ran into Junior Collins, the French hornist who played in the group. He asked me, 'Hey, did they ever tell you what I told Miles you said?' 'No, what did you say?' I asked. Junior said, 'I told Miles you said the band was out of tune.' I couldn't believe it. I told Junior, 'But I never said anything like thatwhy would you say something like that?' He said, I don't know. It was getting boring.'
But bad luck was good luck. Eddie left the studio and walked into another where Benny Goodman was rehearsing his bebop band. Eddie was hired and remained with the band until 1949. After leaving Goodman, Eddie played in The Band That Never Was," a 27-piece rehearsal band that never officially recorded but featured a who's who of New York players, including Charlie Parker.
Eddie moved on to Artie Shaw's bebop band in 1949 and the following year was back with Woody Herman, rooming with trombonist Bill Harris. In 1950, he joined his friend Shorty Rogers in Stan Kenton's band, leaving the orchestra later in the year in New York with Conte Candoli to record with Chico O'Farrill, who had written many of the arrangements for the Goodman bop band.
In 1952, with the rise of the 10-inch LP and demand for musicians with new ideas, Eddie began recording as a leader. Throughout the 1950s, Eddie recorded in small groups and big bands, developing an ever-rounder sound that was distinctly East Coast in tone and power.
As the years passed, Eddie was featured on recordings by leading big bands, including Elliot Lawrence, Sauter-Finegan, Johnny Richards, Machito, George Siravo, Gene Krupa, Rex Stewart and many others. In the '60s and '70s, he was in band recordings led by Charles Mingus, Nat Pierce, Sy Oliver, Lionel Hampton, Thelonious Monk and the Thad Jones & Mel Lewis orchestra. [Pictured above, right, Charlie Parker and Eddie Bert]
Over the years I often called Eddie to chat about his band daysfirst spending time on the phone with Molly, who would fill me in on family doings. When Eddie came on, his voice always had an Old New York sound to it, like the guys who hung around boxing gyms in the movies. And he'd just pick up where we left off the last time.
One time I called to ask him about the album Trombones Inc. (1958), which was a shoot-out between the best 'bones on the East and West Coasts. Tracks were split by the two regional groups.
The East Coast session featured Eddie Bert, Jimmy Cleveland, Henry Coker, Bennie Green [pictured], Melba Liston, Benny Powell, Frank Rehak, Bob Brookmeyer, Dick Hickson and Bart Varsalonaall in one trombone section. They were backed by Hank Jones (piano), Wendell Marshall (bass) and Osie Johnson (drums). The arranger was J.J. Johnson. (Substitutions on the three different dates included Milt Hinton in for Marshall, and Bob Alexander in for Henry Coker.)
On the West Coast, two different sets of trombonists were used for the two dates. The sliders included Marshall Cram, Herbie Harper, Joe Howard, Ed
Kusby, Dick Nash, Murray McEachern, Tommy Pederson, Frank Beach, George Roberts, Ken Shroyer, Milt Bernhart, Bob Fitzpatrick, Joe Howard, Lewis McGreery, Frank Rosolino [pictured], Dave Wells and Bob Brookmeyer (working both coasts!). The rhythm section featured Marty Paich (piano), Barney Kessel (guitar), Red Mitchell (bass) and Mel Lewis (drums). The California arranging was handled by Paich and Warren Barker.
What did Eddie think?
I didn't like the date. I can't explain why. I just remember it was a drag. That's what sticks in my mind. We recorded it at Bell Sound on West 54th, and I remember it didn't lay right. It had absolutely nothing to do with J.J.'s writing. There were just too many trombones. Who needed so many? It was a drag. Some dates are like that. Hey, other guys who were may have a different opinion. That's just mine."
What made Eddie special is his love of jazz, all-in enthusiasm and love for life. Molly (who died some months back) idolized him and made the jazz life much easier for Eddie, who in later years wasn't shy about voicing disappointed in most musicians' inability to swing. I'm going to miss Eddie, who spoke like he played and always had a twinkle in his eye. [Pictured above: Eddie Bert]
JazzWax note: For my four-part interview with Eddie Bert in 2007, go here (links to additional parts appear above the red date at Part 1).
JazzWax tracks: Here's a partial list of my favorite Eddie Bert recordings:
I love jazz because anything is possible; it has few rules and the best jazz breaks those ones. I prefer free improv because it doesn't really have any rules at all.
I was first exposed to jazz in my teens (in the late sixties).
The first jazz record I bought was Filles de Kilimanjaro by Miles Davis, shortly followed by Extrapolation by John McLaughlin.
My advice to new listeners is to listen as widely as possible and not to make snap judgments--stick with it.