Don Joseph, jazz poet /3

In this concluding third part, the trumpeter makes his mark with Gerry Mulligan, stops drinking and joins the Mormons

In 1954 Joseph recorded four titles with Art Mardigan’s sextet along with some other Open Door regulars plus trombonist Milt Gold, who was with Stan Kenton at the time. Joseph is inspired on a buoyant, foot-tapping session featuring Al Cohn’s heavy-duty tenor together with the rhythmic propulsion of John Williams on piano. The following year Mulligan wanted him for the sextet he was forming with Bob Brookmeyer and Zoot Sims. He didn’t turn up for the rehearsals so Idrees Sulieman was hired who was later replaced by Jon Eardley. His two recordings in 1957 reveal what might have been if only Don could have controlled those inner demons because his performances on both reveal an artist of uncommon sensitivity.

In April that year Gerry Mulligan recorded Mullenium which featured some of his new big band charts. Years later when I asked him about the date he still remembered that “Don played beautifully on All The Things You Are”. The arrangement is also notable for the leader’s delicate reconstruction of the theme in the last chorus. Bill Crow told me an amusing story about the recording. Apparently Don did not have a horn at the time so Mulligan loaned him a flugelhorn that someone had given him. When the date was over Gerry forgot to ask him to give it back. About a week later he got an envelope in the mail containing a pawn ticket with a note that just said “Sorry”. Gerry’s reaction to Bill was “Well, that just shows Don still loves me or he would have sold the pawn ticket.” Don’s behaviour might be explained by the fact that he was apparently a hard alcoholic at the time.


Three months later he was on Chuck Wayne’s String Fever session. Wayne, who was in the vanguard of post Charlie Christian guitarists, had just completed a three-year stint with George Shearing’s quintet. Don’s fellow Staten Islander Caesar DiMauro played some delightful Prez-inspired tenor and on some titles Gene Quill’s explosive alto is added. Don has some exquisite ballad readings on Embraceable You and Lover Man. Michael Morreale told me that Chuck Wayne might have had a similar experience to Mulligan’s regarding an unreturned instrument.

Michael Morreale told me about a club date where the leader was annoyed because Don had turned up in a tuxedo and brown shoes. Don’s solution was to play the gig with his shoes off

Don Joseph frequently left the jazz scene for lengthy periods because he just did not feel like playing. Larry Kart told me that he had a phobia about travelling from Staten Island to New York City either by car, over the bridge or the subway which of course made playing with his peers there difficult after his Open Door days. He did play with local Staten Island musicians at dances and lounges although his behaviour remained unconventional. Michael Morreale told me about a club date where the leader was annoyed because Don had turned up in a tuxedo and brown shoes. Don’s solution was to play the gig with his shoes off. Near the end of the evening on another booking the leader was asked if the band would play over-time. “Fuck no” screamed Don. Michael often performed with him along with Turk Van Lake at gigs where Don would surprise everyone by eloquently delivering passages from Shakespeare. He was a huge admirer of Sir Laurence Olivier.

He went to AA and stropped drinking in 1969, remaining sober until the end. He had his last methadone hit in 1981. He became an assistant band director at Farrell High School and sometimes he would sit outside the band-room playing bop licks on an Eb alto horn which amused all the students. Michael told me that Don was a big fan of Eddie Sauter. “He also spoke well of Artie Shaw, whose attitude to the music business he may have shared. He usually liked quiet drummers but he did say once that Art Blakey was the best he played with.” Apart from his literary interests he was also a boxing fan, numbering Roberto Duran and Benny Leonard among his favourites. Eventually he became a Mormon which gave him comfort and friends who helped him. He contributed to the religion by recording readings in a deep voice rich with resonance.

His last recording took place in 1984. Bob Sunenblick of Uptown Records was impressed when he heard him at a Staten Island club called Cana in a group led by local legend Caesar DiMauro. Bob offered him $2000 for the date. The money was certainly attractive although he was never totally comfortable playing after he had false teeth fitted. He selected some old friends from his Open Door days for the session including Al Cohn, Bill Triglia and Red Mitchell. He played a borrowed cornet and when asked who he wanted on drums he said “Just someone who can play quiet on brushes”. So Joey Baron was hired.

Don Joseph passed away on 12 March 1994. Two Mormon elders were with him at the end.

As leader
One Of A Kind – Uptown Productions (UP27.23)
As sideman
Lucky Millinder And His Orchestra (Classics (F) 1173 CD)
Gene Roland Orchestra – The Band That Never Was (Philology W845, two-CD)
Buddy DeFranco (Classics 1445 CD)
Gerry Mulligan – Mullenium (Columbia/Legacy CK 65678)
Chuck Wayne – String Fever (Euphoria 180)
A Tribute To The Jazz Poetry Of Don Joseph – Fresh Sound Records FSR-CD 919) 
The Fresh Sound CD includes three titles with Dave Schildkraut

See part one of this article
See part two of this article

David Chilver, son of guitarist Pete Chilver, supplied this fascinating footnote about Don Joseph’s little-known spell with Glenn Miller:

First of all let me say how much I enjoy Jazz Journal. It is a wonderful thing that you and your colleagues do to sustain the legacy of the magazine in the new digital world we find ourselves in. Thank you for all that you do.

I really enjoyed reading about Don Joseph in Gordon Jack’s recent fascinating articles about him. He was a complicated soul to be sure.

One reason for my interest is that I clearly remember my late father, former guitarist Pete Chilver, telling me about him. I thought you might be interested in his recollection too.

Dad told me that in 1944 or thereabouts, when Glenn Miller was in London with his band, Miller’s guitarist Carmen Mastren was indisposed with ’flu and he was asked to dep for him on a couple of radio broadcasts. He sat in with the band and they were very welcoming. One of the band members was Don Joseph and dad was knocked out by his playing, describing him as in his view the band’s best soloist.

He played with him (and others) subsequently in some jam sessions and was given a band photo signed by Don Joseph and most of the other band members. After my dad passed away I found the photo among his possessions. Interestingly, he also told me that while the band members were very friendly towards him, Glenn Miller was by contrast very aloof and didn’t even say thank you after he subbed for Carmen Mastren!

I haven’t seen reference elsewhere to Don Joseph playing with Glenn Miller so I thought you would find this story of interest. My father told me several other anecdotes about jazz musicians he had met and/or played with. I wish now that I had asked him more about his experiences.

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