By January 10, 2014 0 Comments Read More →

Jazz’s leading men.

leadplayers(left to right): Al Porcino, Marshall Royal, Mario Bauza

The New York Times reports that trumpeter Al Porcino died on New Year’s Eve. Porcino was what is called in orchestral jazz a “lead” trumpeter. Unlike rock and roll, where the “lead guitarist” is the one who solos, lead players in jazz rarely do. Instead, the job of a lead trumpeter—or his counterpart in the saxophone section, the lead alto player—is to play the principal melodic part—the lead—of an arrangement.

This task is identical in jazz and non-jazz settings, and requires the best technique, volume, intonation and timbre of anyone in the section. Traditionally, the best improvisers typically had the worst reading abilities, so it was often an additional job of the lead player to teach the ensemble parts to those players needing help deciphering the arranger’s intent. The lead player in jazz bands needs to have a good feel for jazz rhythm, and the ability to play the stratospheric high notes that arrangers often favor, but improvisational ability is secondary, if required at all.

Some lead players, like Marshall Royal—the alto saxophonist with Lionel Hampton and later Count Basie’s great 1950’s orchestra—are in fact very good soloists, but choose to toil in relative anonymity as section leaders because their skills there are more useful and sought after. Basie‚Äôs original lead altoist, Earle Warren, was an anomaly in that he also soloed frequently and well, but that was more a function of Basie’s band in that era being more of a large jam band than one that relied on slick arrangements.

Porcino was one of a group of lead trumpeters who came to prominence in the waning days of big bands, when arrangements had gotten more complex and demanding, and the importance of good lead players was amplified. Lamar Wright, Ed Lewis, Doc Severinson, Ray Wetzel, Buddy Childers and Shorty Baker picked up where their older counterparts, like Jimmy Maxwell and Doc Cheatham, left off. The bands of Dizzy Gillespie and Stan Kenton, while playing in very different styles, both emphasized high trumpet notes, notes that required technique outside the ability of many otherwise talented improvisers. Porcino was Kenton’s solution for this, and his talents were eventually used by other bandleaders, like Woody Herman and Terry Gibbs.

Mario Bauza, who occupied the lead trumpet chair in Cab Calloway’s band for most of its existence, is an especially important example. A Cuban, Bauza eventually returned to his musical roots, and became mentor to many of the Afro-Cuban and salsa stars of the 1950’s, ’60’s and ’70’s. Dizzy Gillespie, who played in Calloway’s trumpet section in the late 1930’s, considered Bauza a huge influence, one which led to Gillespie’s groundbreaking experiments with Latin jazz starting in the late 1940’s.

Prominent lead alto players included Otto Hardwicke, who played with Duke Ellington for over 20 years, Gene Quill and Jerome Richardson, who appeared on literally thousands of recordings, but may be best remembered as the distinctive lead voice in that ultimate insider’s band of Thad Jones and Mel Lewis. Lead alto players are often the source of an orchestra’s “sound”. Their vibrato, or lack of it, colors the entire sax section and defines an ensemble’s sound in real and palpable ways. Willie Smith, who was one of the great transitional improvisors on the instrument in that era between Johnny Hodges‘ and Charlie Parker’s influences, was also a great lead player, as evidenced by his dual role with Jimmy Lunceford’s especially slick-sounding band in the 1930’s.

Lead players, then, while sort of the antithesis of the controlled anarchy that defines jazz, are the singular element that allows the music to be played by big bands at all. We can be thankful that some otherwise great jazz musicians chose a life outside of improvisation. Without them, the music would never have existed beyond the seven or eight piece ensemble.

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