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In November 1948, U.S. immigration laws required foreign nationals seeking residence and employment in the States to leave the country and renter, re-setting the legality of their stay under a new visa. If Swedish clarinetist Stan Hasselgard wanted to fulfill a new record deal with Capitol Records, he'd have to update his visa. One of the fastest and most direct ways to do this was to fly down to Mexico City and fly back, having the visa re-stamped with a new date at customs.
Hasselgard came to jazz fame in the States in 1948, when Benny Goodman took him under his wing. Hasselgard, in his mid-20s, first made a series of recordings in the U.S. in 1947 in Los Angeles with the Johnny White Quartet before recording for Capitol in December with Red Norvo (vib), Arnold Ross (p), Barney Kessel (g), Rollo Garberg (b) and Frank Bode (d). The following February, he recorded with vocalist Billy Eckstine for the Armed Forces Radio Service. It's unclear if this is when he first encountered Eckstine's wife, June.
In the spring of '48, Hasselgard's Norvo recordings came to the attention of Benny Goodman, who saw in him an eager and polished student and a way for him to learn bebop or feature Hasselgard playing bop in the Goodman style. Hasselgard's extensive touring and recording dates with Goodman through the early fall led to the Capitol solo offer.
In New York on Nov. 18, Hasselgard wrapped up a V-disc recording session featuring Barbara Carroll (p) Chuck Wayne (g) Clyde Lombardi (b) Mel Zelnick (d) and Jackie Searle (vcl). Several days later, on Nov. 22, Hasselgard left New York in June Eckstine's car. By then, June and Hasselgard were romantically involved. June was reportedly heading to Chicago to have her husband sign divorce papers. Billy was appearing in Chicago at the time.
Also in the car, according to Billboard in 1948, were Milt Ebbins, Hasselgard's mananger, and Bob Redcross, Billy Eckstine's driver and road manager. Unclear is whether Hasselgard actually planned to fly down to Mexico City from Chicago or whether he and June were going to drive on to Nevada to marry or if he was planning to travel to Los Angeles with Ebbins to sign his Capitol deal. [Photo above of June Eckstine]
What is known is that in the early morning hours of Nov. 23, June was behind the wheel just outside of Hammond, Ill., Hasselgard was in the passenger seat, and Redcross and Ebbins were in the back sleeping. Why the car wound up more than three hours south of Chicago instead of heading north after reaching Indianapolis is unclear. At some point, the car skidded—either because June hit ice, fell asleep or, as Billboard reported, a trailer truck forced the car onto the shoulder, causing the car to flip over. A combination of the three is possible as well.
In the days of limited driving skills (most people learned to drive as adults), overly fast vehicles (many could soar over 100 mph with ease) and zero safety features (there were no seat belts or air bags then), driving long distances at a single stretch could be treacherous.
When the car flipped, Hasselgard and Eckstine were thrown from the vehicle. Hasselgard, 26, was killed instantly and Eckstine suffered a broken arm and lacerations, Redcross broke a toe and Ebbins was apparently unharmed.
Whatever action June was supposedly due to take against her husband in Chicago was put off. According to Jet magazine in 1953, Billy rushed to her side at the hospital after the accident. She held off filing for divorce until 1952 and in 1953, she wound up with a $23,750 alimony payment (about $215,000 in today's dollars).
Given Hasselgard's limited number of solo recordings, it's unclear how exceptional he was or how important a jazz figure he would become had he lived. Clearly, Hasselgard would have had serious competition in Buddy DeFranco, and it's unclear how many clarinetists the market could support at a time when the reed instrument was fast becoming antiquated. Perhaps most important of all were Hasselgard's own limitations. According to guitarist Barney Kessel in Ira Gitler's Swing to Bop: An Oral History of the Transition in Jazz in the 1940s, Hasselgard couldn't read music. I noticed that he did not read music," said Kessel. He was completely self-taught, and I've been told—because I don't know the clarinet that well— by clarinetists that he played many incorrect fingerings, in which he just lipped the clarinet and just found a way to get these notes out. It was not really the right way at all, but he made it come out right."
Listening to Hasselgard's final four leadership recordings in November 1948, it's clear he had a warm bop sensibility. Interestingly, his quintet was similar in some respects to the quartet formed that year by Buddy DeFranco, George Shearing, John Levy and Denzil Best. in 1949, DeFranco and Shearing would go their separate ways, signing with different record labels, and Shearing would form his famed quintet.
While it's doubtful Hasselgard would have become a standout clarinetist in the years that followed, when reading and writing music would become all important, he was developing a keen bop-swing style when his life was cut short in November 1948. Just another jazz death in an auto accident caused by an exhausted, inexperienced driver. Eight years later, Nancy Powell, pianist Richie Powell's wife, would take the wheel of the car carrying her husband and trumpeter Clifford Brown. Also en route to Chicago, Nancy lost control of the car on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and all three were killed.
JazzWax tracks: You can hear Stan Hasselgard's California sessions here. You can download Hasselgard's group playing Chuck Wayne's Cotton Tophere from Hasselgard's last session on Nov. 18, 1948—or buy the CD here.
JazzWax clips: Here's Cotton Top. Interestingly, it's taken considerably slower than the George Shearing Quintet would record it...