Sidney Bechet was born on May 14, 1897 in New Orleans, Louisiana to a wealthy Creole family. At age six he picked up his brother’s clarinet, learned to play by on his own, eventually playing at a family birthday party exhibited his new talent. Later he would study with renowned Creole clarinetists Lorenzo Tio, Big Eye Louis Nelson and George Baquet. He would be found improvising jazz in many New Orleans ensembles led by John Robichaux, Bunk Johnson and King Oliver.
By the time he was 17 Bechet was touring as far north as Chicago and two years later landed in New York playing with Marion Cook’s Syncopated Orchestra. This led him to Europe and the Royal Philharmonic Hall where he attracted attention with his playing. It was in London that Sidney found the straight soprano and quickly developed a style different from his warm clarinet.
Sidney became one of the first important soloists in jazz, eclipsing Louis Armstrong into the studio by several months, and was possibly the first notable jazz saxophonist. His forceful delivery and well-constructed improvisations characterized his distinctive and wide vibrato playing although his lively and unpredictable temperament did not gain him wide acclaim until well into the late forties.
Returning to New York in 1922 he began recording songs like “Wild Cat Blues” and “Kansas City Man’s Blues” with sessions led by pianist and songwriter Clarence Williams. Over the next three decades Bechet continued to record and tour although his success was intermittent. He relocated to France in 1950, got married and shortly before his death dictated his poetic autobiography “Treat It Gentle”. Sidney Bechet, clarinetist, saxophonist and composer died in Garches, France of lung cancer on May 14, 1959, his 62nd birthday.
Mario Bauzá was born on April 28, 1911 in Havana, Cuba and was classically trained. By age nine he was playing clarinet in the Havana Philharmonic Orchestra and would stay there for the next three years. In 1925 he ventured to New York to record with Maestro Antonio Maria Romeu’s band “Charanga Francesca”. He was fourteen. Five years later he returned to New York and reputedly learned to play trumpet in two weeks to become a part of the Don Azpiazu Orchestra.
Bauzá became lead trumpeter and musical director for Chick Webb’s Orchestra by 1933, and it was during his time with Webb that Bauzá both met fellow trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and discovered and brought into the band singer Ella Fitzgerald. 1938 saw Bauzá joining Cab Calloway’s band, later convincing Calloway to hire Dizzy as well, with whom Bauzá would continue to collaborate even several years after he left Calloway’s band in 1940. The fusion of Bauzá’s Cuban musical heritage and Gillespie’s advancements in bebop eventually culminated in the development of cubop, one of the first forms of what is commonly referred to as Latin jazz.
Bauzá became musical director of Machito and his Afro-Cubans in 1941, a band led by his brother-in-law, Frank Grillo, also known as Machito, and in 1942 he brought a young timbales player named Tito Puente into the fold. For the next 30 years Bauzá remained director of the band up until 1976 where he began working sparingly leading his own Afro-Cuban orchestra through the eighties and into the early 90s, where his last band made a guest appearance on The Cosby Show.
Mario Bauzá, who died in New York City on July 11, 1993, was one of the first musicians to introduce Latin music to the United States by bringing Cuban musical styles into the New York jazz scene. He was one of the most influential figures in the development of Afro-Cuban music, and his innovative work and musical contributions have many jazz historians to call him the “Founding Father of Latin Jazz”.
Charles Ellsworth Russell, much better known by his nickname Pee Wee Russell was born on March 27, 1906 in Maplewood, Missouri but grew up in Muskogee, Oklahoma. He began music studying the violin, followed by the piano and then drums. While none of these satisfied his musical acumen he became attracted to the clarinet when his father snuck him into an Elks Club dance and he witnessed the five-piece band. He bought an Albert-system instrument and took lessons from Charlie Merrill, a clarinetist in the pit band at the Broadway Theatre.
His family moved to St. Louis in 1920 and while in school at the Western Military Academy, Pee Wee played with various dance and jazz bands. By 1922 he was traveling and performing professionally with tent shows and riverboats but two years later settled in Chicago playing with notables as Bix Beiderbecke and Frankie Trumbauer.
Over the next two decades Russell built a career with his distinctive style that was somewhat unorthodox to his contemporaries and often was accused of playing out of tune. Yet he played with the likes of Coleman Hawkins, Louis Prima, Red Nichols, Art Hodes freelanced recording sessions and took up residence at “Nick’s” in Greenwich Village.
By 1940 Pee Wee’s health began to deteriorate exacerbated by his bout with alcoholism. In and out of hospitals and a breakdown was coupled with had periods when he could not play. In his latter years he played jazz festivals and international tours organized by George Wein including Newport in 1963 with Thelonious Monk. Playing Richard Nixon’s inaugural was his last gig with George Wein.
Clarinetist Pee Wee Russell died in an Alexandria, Virginia hospital just three weeks later on February 15, 1969. His greatly imaginative improvisations remain inspiration to clarinetists and in 1987 he was inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame.
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Buddy DeFranco was born Boniface Ferdinand Leonard DeFranco in Camden, New Jersey on February 17, 1923. By the age 14 he had won an amateur swing contest sponsored by Tommy Dorsey. Just four short years later he was working with the big bands of Gene Krupa in 1941 and Charlie Barnet in 1943. Those stints were followed with him playing off and on with Tommy Dorsey over the next few years.
Outside of a short-lived association with the Count Basie Septet in 1950, Buddy mainly lead his own bands from then on, playing and recording with Tal Farlow, Art Blakey, Kenny Drew and Sonny Clark, Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson as his sidemen, among others too numerous to name. He also played in some of Norman Granz’s Verve jam sessions and during the late 60’s DeFranco became the bandleader of the Glenn Miller Orchestra, an association that lasted until 1974. He has found more artistic success co-leading a quintet with Terry Gibbs off and on since the early 80’s and has recorded numerous albums.
Buddy DeFranco is considered one of the great clarinetists of all time and, until the rise of Eddie Daniels, he was indisputably the top clarinetist to emerge since 1940. It was DeFranco’s misfortune to be the best on an instrument that after the swing era dropped drastically in popularity and, unlike Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, he has never been a household name for the general public and while most jazz clarinet players were unable to adapt to fading popularity, Buddy Defranco was one of the few bebop musicians who successfully continued to play clarinet exclusively.
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Allie Wrubel was born in Middletown, Connecticut on January 15, 1905. He attended Wesleyan and Columbia Universities prior to playing saxophone and clarinet for a variety of famous swing bands. His musical career began in Greenwich Village where he roomed with his close friend and actor, James Cagney.
1934 saw Allie’s move to Hollywood to work for Warner Brothers as a contract songwriter. He was a major contributor to a large number of movies including Busby Berkeley films before moving to Disney in 1947. He also contributed to films such as “Make Mine Music”, “Duel In The Sun”, “I Walk Alone”, “Melody Time”, “Tulsa”, “Midnight Lace” and “Never Steal Anything Small”.
He collaborated with many lyricists such as Abner Silver, Herb Magidson, Charles Newman, Mort Dixon, Ned Washington and Ray Gilbert, the latter collaboration penned Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah from the 1947 film Song Of The South, which won Gilbert and Wrubel an Oscar for Best Song that year. A few recognizable songs from his huge collection of compositions, some that have become staples in the jazz catalog – Gone With The Wind, As You Desire Me, Music Maestro Please, I’ll Buy That Dream, Mine Alone, How Long Has This Been Going On and The Masquerade Is Over.
After a long and successful career Allie Wrubel was inducted into the Songwriters Hall Of Fame in 1970, just three years before his death on December 13, 1973 in Twentynine Palms, California.