MAKING IT SOUND EASY: BILLY BUTTERFIELD

The great jazz trumpet players all — and deservedly so — have their fan clubs (and sometimes Facebook groups): Louis, Bix, Bobby, Bunny and three dozen others.  But some musicians, remarkable players, get less attention: Ray Nance, Jimmie Maxwell, Marty Marsala, Emmett Berry, Joe Thomas come to mind.

Then there’s the luminous and rarely-praised Billy Butterfield, who navigated a fifty-year career in small hot groups, in big bands, in the studios, and more: lead and jazz soloist for Bob Crosby, Benny Goodman, and Artie Shaw.  When Dick Sudhalter asked Bobby Hackett who was the best trumpeter playing now (circa 1971) Bobby named Billy.

Billy at one of the Conneaut Lake Jazz Parties, perhaps early Eighties.

Coincidentally, Professor Salvucci and I have been discussing Billy (in the gaps in our conversations when we focus on the positive) and it is thus wonderful synchronicity to find my friend “Davey Tough” (who has perfect taste) having posted two beautiful examples of Billy’s playing on YouTube.

Here’s Billy in 1942, with the Les Brown Orchestra, performing SUNDAY:

And in 1955, something I’d never known existed:

and Billy on flugelhorn with the World’s Greatest Jazz Band:

My contribution to the great hoard of Butterfieldiana is this video (thanks to kind Joe Shepherd) of a session at the Manassas Jazz Festival, December 1, 1978, with luminaries surrounding Billy: Tony DiNicola, Van Perry, Marty Grosz, Dick Wellstood, Spencer Clark, Kenny Davern, Spiegle Willcox: savor it here.

And one other piece of beautiful evidence:

How many people have memorized that record, or at least danced to it, without knowing who the trumpet soloist — bravura and delicate both — was?

Here is an excerpt from a 1985 interview with Billy, so you can hear his voice.

Wondering why some artists become stars and others do not is always somewhat fruitless.  I suspect that Billy played with such elegant power and ease that people took him for granted.  Looking at his recording career, it’s easy to say, “Oh, he didn’t care if he was a leader or a sideman,” but he did have his own successful big band (recording for Capitol) and in the mid-Fifties, inconceivable as it seems now, his small band with Nick Caiazza and Cliff Leeman was a hit on college campuses and made records; he also led large groups for RCA Victor.

But I suspect he was just as happy playing LADY BE GOOD with a pick-up group (as he did at the last Eddie Condon’s) as he was reading charts for a studio big band or playing beautiful solos on a Buck Clayton Jam Session.  I also suspect that he wasn’t instantly recognizable to the general audience or even the jazz fans as were his competitors for the spotlight: Hackett, Jonah Jones, Charlie Shavers, Ruby Braff.  He didn’t have a gimmick, nor did he care to.

And once the big band era ended, other, more extroverted trumpeters got more attention: Harry James, Clark Terry, Doc Severinsen, Dizzy Gillespie, Al Hirt.  When I’ve watched Billy in videos, he seems almost shy: announcing the next song in as few words as possible and then returning to the horn.  Unlike Berigan, whom he occasionally resembles, he didn’t bring with him the drama of a self-destructive brief life.

Finally, and sadly, because he began with Bob Crosby, was an honored soloist at the Eddie Condon Town Hall concerts, and ended his career with a long glorious run with the World’s Greatest Jazz Band (where I saw him) I believe he was typecast as a “Dixieland” musician, which is a pity: he had so much more in him than JAZZ ME BLUES.

Consider this: a duet with Dick Wellstood that bears no resemblance to straw-hat-and-striped-vest music:

Billy should be more than a half-remembered name.

May your happiness increase!

3 responses to “MAKING IT SOUND EASY: BILLY BUTTERFIELD

  1. Amen, brother.

  2. Dan Morgenstern

    Well, you’ve opened a can of pearls with Billy B., not only a great player but also one of the most prolifically recorded under his own name. I am a BB fan so will bother you with a bunch of stuff. About the man, got to know him slightly at the Jazz Parties hosted by the man who later founded and named, unfortunately, The World’s Greatest Jazz Band…when the party moved up to Aspen, Billy coined, for brass players, “Gaspen at Aspen,” at an elevation not tailored for trumpeters Let me be presumptuous and add a footnote to our distinguished host’s summary. The great song that with words added became “What’s New”” was born an instrumental written for Billy by Bob Crosby bandmate Bob Haggart (an unsung giant) named and first recorded as “I’m Free”. Lots of fine Billy with Crosby notably the Bobcats. Billy’s big hit under his own name was “Moonlight in Vermont” with Maggie Whiting vocal, airplay galore, Capitol engineers capturing his sound. There’s an interesting sidelight to BB’s big band. I got hold of a London 78 of “Singin’ the Blues” arranged by Gil Evans, with whom I was quite friendly, among other things as a fellow Louis fan. Gil told me he wrote a book of charts for Billy but wasn’t sure how much was recorded. I did some searching and luckily found some on what we called 99 cent Lps, sold at that price in those stores, at the Institute of Jazz Studies. Easy to ID Gil’s work and one clue the French horn in band. This was decades ago and I should’ve made notes, aside from scribbles on back of albums, but listed in discos if without credit to Gil except for Singin’. So much BB in LP era under own name, much Very good. One neglected gem: Bobby, Billy Brazil think on Verve. Bobby of course is Hackett, and those two years before co featured on an Eddie Condon When Your Lover Has Gone, Tea too. A few more: Gorgeous solo on late 78 era Goodman big band South of the Border! And of course his lovely stuff behind Louis’ Blueberry Hill. (When asked by a critic, as only a critic would, to rate Billy and Bobby, Louis of course said “Bobby…he’s got more ingredients” but Billy’s would suffice to make some Rice and Beans too Pops’ taste.

    >

  3. What can I say except, “Thank you, Dan!”

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