Tag Archives: Al Hirt

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!

ON AND OFF eBay: THE PORTRAIT GALLERY (November 2010)

More from eBay!

On the left, Al Hirt (possibly during his fame in the Sixties).  More interesting is a very thin Bobby Hackett on the right, working hard, with someone I can’t identify standing behind him, looking quizzically at the invisible photographer.

At top, the King of Swing, possibly at the Madhattan Room — on the air for CBS.  Below, circa 1948: is that Wardell Gray to the extreme left in the saxophone section?

Early Thirties, on the West Coast — CREOLE REVUE . . .

Ellington in the Forties (the first band shot has Ben Webster, Sonny Greer, probably Junior Raglin — 1943?); the second is twenty years or so later, with Lawrence Brown, stalwart, on the far left.

Probably Chicago?  Earl Hines, Billy Eckstine on trumpet, Budd Johnson on tenor saxophone.  Are the two other musicians Scoops Carey and Shorty McConnell?

I have to say very quietly that I am less interested in Glenn Miller and his many orchestras than many people: what interests me here is not the ghost band below, but the top portrait that has a portly Irving Fazola sitting in the reed section on a gig in Texas, early in Miller’s bandleading career.

Who’s the pretty lady with the astounding hat sitting with Glen Gray on the right?  Looks like Miss Mildred to me, grinning happily.  Whatever Glen said to her must have been delightful!

Two unrelated Johnsons, J.J. and Gus (they both swung)!

Circa 1937 or 38 — Teddy, Hamp (concentrating hard), and Benny (paying attention): Gene got cut off, but we know he was having fun, too.

The top portrait is just amazing to those of us who are deeply immersed in this art — an autographed picture of Kaiser Marshall in 1938, in Europe (wow!); the second is listed as guitarist Jimmy McLin and saxophonist Earl Bostic, when and where I can’t tell.  The beautiful double-breasted suits say “late Thirties,” but that’s only a sartorial guess.

This portrait of the John Kirby Sextet lets us see the diminutive O’Neill Spencer in action — something more unusual than seeing Charlie Shavers, Russell Procope, Buster Bailey, and a pianist who’s not Billy Kyle. 

Clockwise: Benny Carter in a familiar publicity pose; a small band featuring Fats Waller’s reliably swinging drummer Slick Jones, and a famous shot from the Columbia studios, 1940, of John Hammond’s noble experiment melding the Basie and Goodman stars in what might have been the world’s finest small jazz band.

A famous Chicago studio portrait from 1936 but still gratifying: the rhythm section of Fletcher Henderson’s Grand Terrace Orchestra: Israel Crosby, bass; Bob Lessey, guitar; Horace Henderson, piano; Sidney Catlett, drums.

Late Twenties, early Fifties, perhaps for Ben Pollack?  Jack Teagarden and Benny in the first photo, perhaps Charlie Teagarden (and the Pick-A-Rib Boys) in the second.

Lee Young and J. C Higginbotham, both middle Forties if the suits are evidence.

There’s that Louis fellow again!  Ecstatically with Trummy Young (and an invisible Barrett Deems) at top, with Danny Kaye in THE FIVE PENNIES (1959) below.

GOING PLACES indeed!  Louis, Maxine Sullivan, Johnny Mercer . . . no doubt rehearsing JEEPERS CREEPERS.

And a delightful piece of memorabilia from Phil Schaap’s new website — which not only features artifacts autographed by Wynton Marsalis and jazz broadcasts from WKCR, but also tangible morsels of jazz history.  Can you hear Lips Page and Johnny Windhurst swapping lead and improvised countermelody?  I certainly can imagine it!  Visit http://www.philschaapjazz.com for more.