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Interview: Med Flory (Part 1)

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Med Flory
Med Flory is perhaps best known as the co-founder of Supersax, the commercially successful reed ensemble started in 1972 that plays transcriptions of Charlie Parker's solos. But before Supersax, Med was one of the most dynamic alto saxophonists, arrangers and bandleaders on the New York and Los Angeles scenes in the 1950s. If you listen to his leadership recordings from the mid- and late-1950s or his work with Terry Gibbs and Dave Pell, you'll be taken aback. I certainly was. Med's charts and the charts he motivated others to write for him are like pure rocket fuel. They take off and don't stop. Part of Med's gift was a knack for assembling just the right swingers. Like a kid who keeps tinkering with hot rods to get them to go faster, louder and cooler, Med routinely assembled groups that out-did the last ones. Musicians impressed into duty (often in the same band) included Al Cohn, Johnny Bello, Doug Mettome, Hal McKusick, Billy Byers, Urbie Green and so many others. Med's leadership dates bring new meaning to “dream band."

Today, Med lives in California and continues to play and record. He has a supercharged positive spirit and a snappy West Coast sense of humor. He slips words like “wig," “dig," “cool" and “hip" into the conversation so naturally you'd think he invented them. Med is among a fast-disappearing generation of highly aggressive West Coast jazz musicians who knew only one way--swinging hard until the arrow said “empty."

In Part 1 of my two-part conversation with Med, 82, the legendary alto saxophonist and arranger talks about Claude Thornhill, Al Cohn, Ray Anthony, and his late wife Joan Fry:

JazzWax: Is Med your real name?
Med Flory: No. It's Meredith. But I hated it. When I was a kid, no one could pronounce it, so they called me “Mary." I'd get the heck kicked out of me. One day my junior high school coach said, “Hey Med, come over here." So I grabbed that nickname.

JW: Where were you born?
MF: Logansport, Indiana. I started out on clarinet when I was 9 years old. When I was 12, in 7th grade, Bill Marocco, the band teacher, put me in the high school band. I played for five years in the first clarinet chair.

JW: How did you come to music?
MF: My mom was a real musician. She could sight-read three manual organ parts with pedals and everything. She had played for the silent movies when she was in high school. She never studied music but could memorize everything. She also could improvise. She was twice the musician I'd ever be.

JW: Did you study music in college?
MF: No. I only had a semester of music in college in the fall of 1944. Then I enlisted in the Army Air Corps. When I got out in 1946, I went to Indiana University in Bloomington. I was there for 3 years and graduated in May 1950. I didn't have anything to do with the music school there. I had a band at the time and was writing charts and didn't think I needed them. Instead I majored in philosophy and minored in sociology and French. I didn't want to take anything in college that would hold me back from being a complete idiot [laughs].

JW: You wound up in Claude Thornhill's band on graduation day, yes?
MF: That's right. A fraternity brother of mine, Tom Patton, a trumpet player, recommended me. [Tenor saxophonist] Dick Hafer was leaving the band, and Claude needed a replacement. I was with Claude for two years. The band was based in New York about half the time. I lived at the President Hotel on 48th Street, just west of Broadway. The other half we toured. We hit every state twice.

JW: What was Thornhill like?
MF: Claude was deep. A good guy, nice and everything. But there was a part of him you never got to know. He was a hell of musician, though. He had been Paul Whiteman's piano player.

JW: After Thornhill, you decided to stay in New York?
MF: Yes. In January 1952, I put my union card in New York. I was in New York freelancing from January 1952 to Christmas of 1955.

JW: Did you listen to other bands?
MF: Sure. One of my favorites was Elliot Lawrence. I caught the band at the Pennsylvania Hotel many times between 1952 and 1955. I didn't play on the band. I just danced to it or went to hear it. That was a great band. He had the best writers and arrangers, like Tiny Kahn, Al Cohn and Johnny Mandel. They wrote the Lawrence band book. Johnny Mandel was the best out-chorus arranger of them all. An out-chorus is the part at the end of a swinging arrangement where everything is jumping. Tiny Kahn was great like that, too. [Drummer] Sid Catlett was instrumental in helping Tiny Kahn develop his thing. Tiny's credo was “Play in four, but think in two."

JW: Who was your favorite tenor saxophonist at the time?
MF: Al Cohn.

JW: Not Zoot Sims?
MF: No, He wasn't in the same category as Al. Zoot was a good swing-time player. But Al was otherworldly. And he had a wicked sense of humor. Later, when Al was over in Europe, up in Denmark, they asked him, “What do you think of our Elephant beer?" Al said, “I like it. I also drink to forget" [laughs]. That was all. Fast. And funny. Those lines came out of the blue. He had a very fast mind. Al's writing and playing was above most everyone else.

JW: Your first recording as a leader was in 1953. That was some session.
MF: [Laughs] You dig that? New York had a lot of great players then. You just hung around Charlie's Tavern and got to know everyone. Al Cohn wrote two of those charts. Al and I had worked the Rustic Cabin together in New Jersey with Art Mooney's band. Duke Niles at Capitol Records heard me and took an interest. He got me a deal with Bobby Shad, the main man at EmArcy. We did the four tunes on one date in late 1953. [Pictured: Al Cohn, left, and Med Flory in the mid-1950s]

JW: Your other leadership dates in 1956, and 1957 were even more stunning.
MF: [Laughs] I recorded those for Albert Marx at Jubilee Records. They were great.

JW: Backing up a bit, you joined trumpeter Ray Anthony's band in New York in 1955.
MF: Yes, Ray [pictured] came to New York in the fall of 1955. His brother, Leo, was contracting the band. By then I was married to Joanie [Fry]. She was a singer, and we were working together at the time. Leo hired both of us.

JW: Where did you meet your wife?
MF: We met on a New York City bus in late 1952. A friend and I were out in front of the Dixie Hotel on 43d Street and Eighth Avenue waiting for a bus. It was cold. We got on the bus and headed to the back. Joanie was sitting there with a friend. We just started talking. Later Joanie told me she told her friend, “I'm going to marry that guy." When we went out the next day, she fell in the snow and I picked her up. It was love at first sight really. We were married for just over 48 years. She died in January 2001 of Parkinson's. [Pictured: Med, wife Joan, Henry Fonda and Joe Maini]

JW: You and your wife moved to California in 1956.
MF: Yes, we went into the Hollywood Palladium with Ray Anthony in January 1956. We loved it out there. It was a pretty nice place to live. The climate was perfect and it had a cosmopolitan atmosphere. So I got a few bucks from my folks, and we bought a home. With the Cold War heating up and everything, New York seemed like a bit of a trap. There were only a couple of bridges and tunnels out of the city.

JW: In 1956 you were in The Girl Can't Help It with Jayne Mansfield.
MF: We were in one scene, in prison outfits. The music was already recorded. We played as though we were playing.

JW: Then you did TV work.
MF: Yes, I did the Ray Anthony Show for 30 weeks. The gig got me going in Los Angeles. The contractor on the band started using me on baritone saxophone on studio dates. There was so much work in L.A. back then.

JW: Your 1959 band was similar to Terry Gibbs' Dream Band [pictured].
MF: Terry came to town, heard my group and thought we could make it bigger. So all those charts I had went over to Terry. Now I don't lend out charts any more. I don't blame Terry. He had landed the gig. But he heard my band and that's what got him going with that. Around this time I also met [tenor saxophonist] Dave Pell. I started writing charts for him and playing baritone in his octet for about three years. I also was working a lot of strip joints in the late 1950s. The Largo was the big one on Sunset Strip. This is just before I started acting on TV and in the movies.

Tomorrow, Med talks about actor James Coburn, Art Pepper, Charlie Parker and the birth of Supersax.

JazzWax tracks: I can honestly say that one of my best buys this year has been Go West Young Med!, (Fresh Sound), a compilation of Med and his orchestras from 1954-1959. Every single track is a blockbuster, and the quality of the arrangements and musicianship is nothing short of stunning. Charts are by Med, Al Cohn, Bob Brookmeyer, Bill Holman, Lennie Niehaus, Bob Enevoldsen and others. There's simply not enough room to get into all the players here. But rest assured the ensembles raise hairs. It's as good as Maynard Ferguson's late 1950s Roulette Records period. You can find it here.

Med with Claude Thornhill can be found on
Claude Thornhill and His Orchestra: The 1949-1953 Performances (Hep). He's on tracks starting with Mambo Nothing. The album is available as a download at iTunes and at other online retailers. Med's also on Ray Anthony's Capitol recordings throughout the 1950s.

Med's also in the sax section on Manny Albam's The Jazz Greats of Our Time (1957), which included Conte Candoli, and Jack Sheldon (trumpets), Stu Williamson (valve-trombone), Herb Geller (alto sax), Richie Kamuca and Med Flory (tenor sax), Charlie Mariano (alto, tenor and baritone saxes), Lou Levy (piano), Red Mitchell (bass) and Shelly Manne (drums). You'll find this superb album here.

Med is in the sax section of Terry Gibbs' Dream Band albums starting in 1959.

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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