Dave Pell, man of many parts

    A typical West Coast all rounder, Pell was a Lester Young inspired saxophonist, the leader of a sleek octet (shunned by the critical establishment), a studio pro, an original photographer and creative director for Motown California

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    The Dave Pell Octet with Tony Rizzi (g), Dave Pell (ts), Don Fagerquist (t). Photo © JJ Archives

    Dave Pell, who died on 7 May 2017, was a man of many parts – multi-instrumentalist, bandleader, photographer and creative director of Mowest (Tamla-Motown’s West Coast operation). He will be particularly remembered as an inventive tenor soloist with the Les Brown Band of Renown as well as his own octet and the Prez Conference. The latter was the group formed to celebrate his primary influence – Lester Young.

    He was born 26 February 1925 and he took up the clarinet around 1938. He became so accomplished that when Artie Shaw’s Concerto For Clarinet was released in 1940 he learnt to play it note for note. He told Marc Myers on JazzWax that the bandmaster in his high-school band moved Sol Yaged to the second chair so that Dave could play first, even though Yaged was three years older. Around 1943 he auditioned for Bobby Sherwood’s band at Nola’s Studio in New York and was hired on tenor where he sat next to Zoot Sims who was the lead alto. Sims really impressed Dave: “He showed that you didn’t have to play so many notes to sound great.” A little later he relocated to California by jumping aboard the Tony Pastor band who were working their way across country.

    Arriving in Los Angeles in 1944 he played with Bob Crosby on the Ford radio show. After freelancing for a couple of years with Tommy Dorsey and others he joined Les Brown’s Band in 1947 and that association defined his career for the next seven years. The band eventually had a 40-year association with Bob Hope and benefited from its high-profile role on his radio and television shows, not to mention 18 Christmas tours to Europe and Korea entertaining US troops. The comedian once said “I never leave home without Les Brown.” Pell was seen with the band on a few films known as Universal-International Shorts in 1949, 1950 and 1953. Les Brown also had a long residency at the Hollywood Palladium performing his highly popular brand of jazz-influenced dance music. During his time with the band Pell was probably the most heavily featured soloist on numbers like Montoona Clipper, Caravan, Speak Low, Rain, Invitation, Happy Hooligan, Laura, Jersey Bounce, From This Moment On, One O’Clock Jump and Cherokee. Les was obviously good to work for because in an article Pell wrote in the April 1955 issue of Theme Magazine he pointed out that most of the musicians had been with him for years.

    Around this time Pell began an interest in photography, taking pictures from the perspective of the bandstand. Several performers, such as Jerry Colonna, Bing Crosby and Hope, wanted copies because they were a little different. One of his earliest photos became quite famous soon after he had sat in with Gerry Mulligan at the Haig in May 1952 – Gerry played tenor that night. A few months later Pell’s cousin Roy Harte, who co-founded Pacific Jazz with Richard Bock, wanted Dave to photograph Mulligan, Chet Baker, Bob Whitlock and Chico Hamilton for the quartet’s first album cover. They met at Harte’s Drum City shop on Santa Monica Boulevard and the creative way Pell assembled the group resulted in a particularly memorable cover shot. This became the first of many because it has been estimated that his photographs are to be found on more than 200 CD and LP sleeves. 

    He was on Orson Welles’ A Touch Of Evil and he was still receiving an annual cheque for West Side Story until the day he died. Life was good on the West Coast – the weather was warm and sunny and when he wasn’t at the studio he could work on his golf handicap, which at six was very respectable

    With his radio, television and Hollywood Palladium commitments Les Brown didn’t really need to do out-of-town casual bookings. So in 1953 Dave formed his own group to take advantage of the dates that Brown didn’t want to do. He decided on an octet featuring many of his former Brown bandmates and in discussions with Shorty Rogers they agreed a guitarist playing double-lead with the trumpet would create a bigger sound than might be expected from just four horns. The leader together with Ronnie Lang on baritone and Ray Sims on trombone (Zoot’s brother) all made significant solo contributions but the stand-out soloist was trumpeter Don Fagerquist, who was one of the unsung giants of the instrument. He was a staff musician at Paramount studios and generally overlooked by the critical fraternity but he was readily appreciated by his peers, among them Gerry Mulligan (“I loved Don’s playing”), Herb Geller (“Marvellous – ahead of his time”), Dave Pell (“He was a genius. A class act”), Les Brown (“He’s the best”) and Phil Urso (“He was a great improviser. Everyone liked him”). The year it was formed, America’s Daily News and Mirror newspapers voted the octet the best new combo of the year and six of the personnel were included in Downbeat’s poll of top musicians.

    By 2005 the octet had recorded 15 albums with a varied cast of players but it was often criticised for what was dismissed as “Elevator Music” or “Mortgage-Paying Jazz”. At least three reference books fail to mention the group at all: Jazz The Rough Guide, Leonard Feather’s Encyclopaedia Of Jazz In The Sixties and The Penguin Guide To Jazz On CD. Of course the octet’s output was far from the hard-core, cutting-edge of the idiom but this was a highly musical group of great readers performing arrangements by some of the finest writers on the West Coast. André Previn, Bill Holman, Shorty Rogers, Marty Paich, Jimmy Giuffre, Jerry Fielding and Johnny Mandel were just some of the illustrious arrangers who provided charts that creatively exploited the octet’s signature sound of Tony Rizzi’s guitar doubling Fagerquist’s lead. Because of the calibre of the writing it became known as an arranger’s band. Avid’s Four Classic Albums finds the octet at its very best, performing little masterpieces of small-group jazz benefiting from the considerable presence of Bob Gordon. He was showing every sign of becoming a major voice on the baritone until his untimely death in 1955. The group also appeared on three occasions between 1956 and 1958 on the popular Stars Of Jazz TV show hosted by Bobby Troup.

    In the mid-50s Pell started getting booked for film soundtracks. He told Mark Myers “If you could play oboe, flute and other reed instruments you could do several studio calls a week. If you were friendly with André Previn you did all the MGM movies and if you got on the right side of Johnny Green you did all the musicals. At night you’d play the clubs so it was a great setup for a jazz musician.” He was on Orson Welles’ A Touch Of Evil and he was still receiving an annual cheque for West Side Story until the day he died. Life was good on the West Coast – the weather was warm and sunny and when he wasn’t at the studio he could work on his golf handicap, which at six was very respectable.

    The octet successfully pursued a similar musical policy to the Band Of Renown. Besides regular bookings at Zardi’s and Jazz City it became particularly popular at college dances and prom concerts, prompting Downbeat’s John Tynan to call it “the busiest small-group in California”. In 1957 Pell secured a residency at Gene Norman’s Crescendo nightclub on the Sunset Strip. The owner, an old school-friend, was happy to keep the group there until 1962, playing opposite top acts such as the Hi-Los, Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, Johnny Mathis, Eydie Gormé, the Mills Brothers and Bobby Darin. Gangster Mickey Cohen, who loved Lenny Bruce, was a regular at the club until his Alcatraz incarceration for tax evasion in 1961. By then Jack Sheldon had taken over on trumpet and just like Fagerquist he gave a trumpet masterclass every time he performed. Pell considered Sheldon to be “a phenomenon of our time”, which just might be an understatement. He was also a fine singer and a consummate stand-up comedian. A few years ago Alan Broadbent told me about a club date he did with Sheldon, who opened the set with a one-liner worthy of Woody Allen: “It’s so long since I’ve had sex, I’ve forgotten who’s supposed to get tied up” which convulsed not only the audience but also the band.

    Norman sold the Crescendo in 1963, which was around the time that jazz club bookings were becoming very scarce. Pell carried on with studio work but he also branched out into record production overseeing more than 400 albums on the Liberty, United Artists, Headfirst, Top Records and Reprise labels. He was closely associated with Vikki Carr in the mid-60s and produced 11 of her albums. In 1972 Berry Gordy hired him as the creative director for Motown Records’ partial move from Detroit to Los Angeles.

    Pell had always admired the way Med Flory’s Supersax played harmonised versions of Charlie Parker solos with a conventional saxophone section. He wanted to do something similar with Lester Young but with a difference. In discussions with Bill Holman, who did all the arrangements, they decided on a Four Brothers sound – three tenors and a baritone. The name of the project was the Prez Conference, which was the title of a Holman original that Woody Herman had recorded back in 1954. They sold the idea to Gene Norman, who recorded them in 1978 with Harry Edison as guest soloist and in 1979 with Joe Williams. Bob Efford on baritone made his USA recording debut with the group on the Williams date, which was nominated for a Grammy. That was the year the Prez Conference appeared at the Newport and Monterey jazz festivals and they also toured Japan with the MJQ and the Hi-Los.

    L-R: Dave Pell, Frank Foster, Joe Williams

    Pell collaborated with Lennie Niehaus on two Clint Eastwood films – Sharky’s Machine (1981) and Sudden Impact (1983). In the late 80s he reformed his octet for occasional bookings and a 1988 date at Alfonse’s on Toluca Lake and a 2001 booking at the Paradise Café in Los Angeles were both recorded. (Incidentally, Carl Saunders, who played on the 2001 performance and is one of the most in-demand trumpeters in Los Angeles, has claimed Don Fagerquist as one of his primary influences.)

    In 2008 Pell became the proud owner of one of Lester Young’s tenors when his good friend and golfing partner Lee Young (Lester’s brother) left it to him in his will. In his final years he carried on playing occasionally with the Johnny Vanna Alumni Big Band in the San Fernando Valley sometimes using Young’s tenor. His last public performance was at a San Diego concert arranged by Ken Poston in March 2017.

    Selected discography
    As leader
    Dave Pell: Four Classic Albums (Avid Jazz AMSC 1076)
    Dave Pell Octet: Jazz Goes Dancing (Fresh Sound Records FSR-CD 739)
    Dave Pell Octet: Jazz For Dancing And Listening (Fresh Sound Records FSR 2242)
    As sideman
    Les Brown: Live At The Hollywood Palladium (Jasmine JASCD 407)
    John Graas: Jazz-Lab 1 & 2 (Lonehill Jazz LHJ10148)
    Ronnie Lang: Basie Street (Fresh Sound Records FSR-CD 501)

    The author would like to acknowledge help received from Bob Weir and the Jazz Institute, Darmstadt Germany while researching Dave Pell’s career.