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Tony Fruscella: Lost Trumpet

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Tony Fruscella
Tony Fruscella is among the least known trumpeters of the cool jazz movement. His dry tone sits somewhere on a sliding scale between Miles Davis and Chet Baker, with touches of Art Farmer. Yet Fruscella's sound was plenty distinct. With Fruscella, there were no piercing or bent notes or a fleshy romanticism. His improvised lines were highly melodic but his tone was introspective and dry, like fine sand. When you listen to him, you hear a horn expressing nocturnal introspection free of flash or showmanship. It's understated, sensitive and pure, with his lines more like a sketch than a fully rendered illustration. 

Fruscella recorded from 1948 to 1955, at which point drug and alcohol abuse caught up with him and undermined his sound and marriage to singer Morgana King. They were married from 1947 to 1956. How and why Fruscella succumbed to addiction is unknown. One can only assume there was an element of self-medication for some sort of mental illness or anxiety, or a foolish me-too experimentation that was rampant among many young jazz musicians at the time who were in awe of Charlie Parker and eager to remain subterranean artists understood only by other artists.

As bassist Bill Crow noted in his superb book, From Birdland to Broadway, Fruscella's sound was singularly engaging in small groups and intimate in clubs but didn't stand out in a big band, limiting Fruscella's New York employment options in the 1950s. In addition, Fruscella was routinely losing jobs by mouthing off to club owners or cracking wise to audience members.

Little is known about Fruscella's career after 1955. Addiction likely led to borrowing money and failing to pay it back, ruptured friendships, a lack of work, dwindling income and living in short bursts in the apartments of the few acquaintances left who still believed in him. To survive the 1960s, you needed powerful relationships in many different areas of the music business, you needed to be dependable, you needed to be a sharp sight-reader and you needed to be up for touring. Fruscella never seemed to have it sufficiently together to see tomorrow nor did he bother to protect himself against the perils of harder times.

There were two more Fruscella recordings, one in November 1959 at age 32 and one in August 1969 at 42 just before his death. The former was a live date with Phil Woods at Ridgewood High School in New Jersey. The second is a one-song duo recording of Lover Man with guitarist Bill Keck just 11 days before his death.

Tony Fruscella died in August 1969 at age 42.

JazzWax tracks: To acquaint yourself with Fruscella, I recommend working backward. Start with his album called Tony Fruscella for Atlantic in 1955 here. Then move on to The 1954 Unissued Atlantic Session (Fresh Sound) here. His first recordings in 1948 are on an album called Debut, which appears on a download Tony Fruscella: Essential Jazz Masters here, along with tracks from several other albums.

JazzWax clips: Here's Muy from Fruscella's Atlantic album in 1955...



Here's Minor Blues with saxophonist Brew Moore in 1954...



Here's Flues in 1948...



Here's Phil Urso's P.U. Stomp with Tony Fruscella (tp), Herb Geller (as), Phil Urso (ts), Gene Allen (bs), Bill Triglia (p), Red Mitchell (b) and Howie Mann (d) in 1952...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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