JJ 03/91: Marvin Stamm interviewed

Thirty years ago, the NTSU trumpeter, veteran of the Kenton Mellophonium Orchestra and Woody Herman band, talked to Stan Woolley. First published in Jazz Journal March 1991

Marvin Stamm, 1990. Photo by Martha Swope Associates-Carol Rosegg, from JJ Archive

In the UK, trumpeter and flugelhorn player Marvin Stamm is perhaps best known for the two years he spent in the early 1960s as the principal jazz trumpet soloist with Stan Ken­ton’s Mellophonium Orchestra. His incisive, tightly-muted statements on Kenton’s Sophisticated Approach (1) and Adventures In Blues (2) are models of concise musical expression.

In the late 1960s and 1970s Stamm was engrossed in the New York studios, but he is now back on the jazz scene with a vengeance. He is a member of several major American and international jazz orchestras, and in addition to being a first-class section man, enjoys nothing better than exercising his highly original solo voice with a small group.

He has made a number of visits to this country, conducting trumpet clinics and appearing at the Bass Clef and the Guildhall School of Music. There were also two mem­orable sessions with the BBC Radio Big Band, an orchestra which he holds in high regard.

Stamm was born in Memphis, Tennessee on May 23, 1939. He became interested in the trumpet at the age of 12 as a result of lis­tening to his elder brother’s record collec­tion. ‘He had a recording of Clyde McCoy’s Sugar Blues and I was very taken with the wa-wa muted trumpet on it,’ Stamm recalled. ‘I wish I could say it was Cootie Williams I heard first but I learnt to appreci­ate him later.’

Stamm’s destiny was ordained when he reached the seventh grade. ‘When you got to this grade you had to be in the school band, the choir or take art. Art and singing were not my strong points, so I opted for the band. The high school band director was very encouraging and I was lucky in those early days to have had that kind of education. It all served to heighten my interest in music and by the age of 14 I knew music would be my career.’

Between 1957 and 1961 Stamm attended North Texas State University and left as Bachelor of Music. While at North Texas he sat in regularly at local clubs and on one such occasion in Dallas, Buddy Morrow came in. The trombone-playing bandleader compli­mented Stamm on his playing and said he would call him.

‘My first knowledge of Buddy Morrow was when I heard his band at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis. Although it was a dance band, it was swing and jazz orientated and played in a modem manner. I knew a couple of people from Memphis who played in the band, one of them Charlie Loper, a fine trombonist who is now out in Los Angeles. A couple of months later Buddy did call me and I went on the road as his jazz trumpeter and he kind of took me over like a son. Buddy is one heck of a musician and a great trombonist in the style of Urbie Green, although Urbie is more a jazz player. But Buddy is a virtuoso and played with Paul Whiteman when he was only 16 years old. When I played with him, Buddy’s big hit was Night Train but most of his things were bal­lads and swing numbers. They were all well written and the kind of things that a musician had fun playing. So while it was a commer­cial dance band it was also excellent music­ally – and you got to play some jazz too.’

His spell as a Buddy Morrow sideman over, Stamm returned to his studies at North Texas State University where he was a mem­ber of the Lab Band for four years. In 1960, the band competed at the Notre Dame Jazz Festival at which Stan Kenton was one of the judges. The band carried off the Best Band At Festival award and Stamm won the festi­val’s Outstanding Instrumentalist and Out­standing Trumpeter prizes.

‘The following year, Stan invited the Lab Band to one of his summer jazz camps and I got to know him on a personal basis. He asked me to join his band there and then but I knew my father would insist I finish my edu­cation, as I still had one year left. Stan agreed and so I went back to school. In the fall, just around the Thanksgiving vacation, Stan called me. He told me that Sam Noto was leaving the band and asked if I could get leave of absence from college for three weeks to complete the tour. Well, I talked to my professors and as I had almost finished my academic work, they were very enthusi­astic about me going, so I went and finished off the tour with Stan. The band took a three month break after that but Stan said he wanted me back on the band as soon as I graduated.’

Stamm went back to college to conclude his studies and in due course Kenton reformed his orchestra, this time with a sec­tion of four mellophones. The leader hired Ernie Bernhardt on a temporary basis to fill the jazz trumpet chair until Stamm became available.

‘The day after I graduated, I drove to Memphis and stored away all my clothes and belongings at home and joined the Kenton band in New Jersey as the jazz trumpet player. Ernie Bernhardt stayed on but just sang with the band for the rest of the tour. And that’s the way I broke into the band.’

Of Kenton’s Mellophonium Orchestra: ‘I didn’t like that orchestra, because the mellophoniums were never played as the instruments they were. I felt they were just played as loud trumpets, bombastic and bellowy, and whatever characteristics they had of charm and musicality were lost’

The Kenton band that Stamm joined on a permanent basis was very different to the one in which he had replaced Sam Noto. On the occasion of his first spell as a Kenton sideman, the bandleader was still fronting his New Concepts In Artistry In Rhythm Orchestra; when Stamm reported for duty a second time, it was with the much larger mellophonium band.

‘I didn’t like that orchestra, because the mellophoniums were never played as the instruments they were. I felt they were just played as loud trumpets, bombastic and bellowy, and whatever characteristics they had of charm and musicality were lost. Occasionally on a ballad they would achieve this but on the up-tunes it was just four guys blowing their brains out on an instrument that was terrible. It was out of tune and the sound had none of the warmth and emotional quality of a French horn or trombone. Basically the mellophonium was poorly constructed. Had it been developed and improved upon and players came along who actually wanted to play the instrument because they liked it, things might have been different. But for the most part they were trumpet players who doubled rather than mellophonium play­ers.’

Stamm’s views on the mellophonium are not uncommon amongst former mem­bers of this particular Kenton orchestra. On one occasion, according to trombonist Jiggs Whigham, all four of these unpopu­lar horns were mysteriously dumped into the swimming pool of the band’s hotel! Among the fans, however, the Mellopho­nium Orchestra’s Adventures In Blues album is an all-time favourite. Recorded in 1961 and featuring compositions by the late Gene Roland, it showcased Stamm’s superb solo trumpet on Dragonwyck, Blue Ghost and Aphrodisia.

‘Gene was a real innovator, a real searcher but at the same time a very seat-of-the-pants kind of guy. A lot of times he never wrote scores for his tunes, just parts. That takes a lot of confidence. He was a very creative man both as a player and a writer. He was rooted in the swing era and came through the bop era and that gave him a beautiful foun­dation on which to base his work. In my opinion he was undervalued and never taken as seriously as he should have been. Gene, however, was the sort of human who pre­vented you taking him too seriously. I had a lot of respect for him even though he once knocked my favourite trumpet off the stand and ruined it! But he was sure some kind of musician.’

Stamm is heard on two other Kenton albums, the aforementioned Sophisticated Approach, also recorded in 1961, and Adventures In Time (3) which was made the following year and consists of a suite of pieces in complex time signatures by Johnny Richards.

‘It was hard to go in and do that music because no-one at that time was used to playing jazz in those time signatures. John, how­ever, could not only write that sort of music, he could sing it, dance it and live it. He was a marvellous man who believed wholeheart­edly in everything he did. I had great respect for John and loved him for what he stood for.’

Stamm’s muted work on these albums is outstanding. Precisely tailored to the mood of each piece, his solos have an eloquence all their own. But was his style prescribed by the leader?

‘No, it wasn’t. Stan never dictated how anybody in the band should play. At that par­ticular time in my development I’d been gravitating towards such a style of playing and I guess it was one which he liked. He gave you a lot of freedom, Stan was very good that way.’

In late 1962, domestic problems forced Stamm’s departure from the Kenton band and for a time he worked in Houston before returning to his hometown of Memphis. Here he made a living in the recording stu­dios and in January 1964 moved to Reno, Nevada. Although there was an abundance of work in Reno at that time, it was repetitive and undemanding. It was tenor saxophonist and arranger Dave Matthews, the first white man to play in the Count Basie Orchestra, who pointed this out to Stamm.

‘He made me look inside myself and ques­tion what I was doing, which was playing for nude shows or behind singers or comedians. Dave made me think about music and what I wanted out of life and I have a lot to thank him for.’

Perhaps sensing Stamm’s fresh resolve, Fate intervened in the shape of Woody Her­man.

‘Woody was another of those characters; there was nobody like Woody, he was his own person all the way. You could fight with Woody and you could love him but you couldn’t stay on the band if you didn’t do both at one time or another.

‘I was with Woody for just a year but it was a very interesting 12 months. For a while Carl Fontana was playing lead trom­bone and I really enjoyed playing with a wonderful jazz trumpet player by the name of Paul Fontaine. Bill Chase was the lead trumpet and he had a couple of charts in the book but most of the arrangements were by Nat Pierce and Ralph Burns. It was pretty much the Thundering Herd book and it was fun to play.’

The Woody Herman band, with its more modest eight-piece brass section, was a very different proposition to the Kenton Mello­phonium Orchestra. But did Herman’s somewhat unbalanced brass team of five trumpets and three trombones pose any problems?

‘No, I can’t say it did. A lot of the things written for the band would have Bill Chase lay out until it came to the climax, then the section would be voiced for the five trum­pets. The three trombones worked because as a section they could be both strong and light. Woody’s band was much lighter than Stan’s and did more uptempo stuff.’

Stamm left Herman at the end of 1966 and settled in New York. At that time there was no shortage of work on the east coast and the trumpeter spent the next 15 years or so as a studio musician. Quincy Jones, Oliver Nelson, Wes Montgomery, Paul McCartney and the Rolling Stones all had the benefit of Stamm’s talents.

Such was Stamm’s reputation that within a week of arriving in New York he was invited to join the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra which played every Monday night at the Village Vanguard. Although Jones ended his partnership with Lewis in 1979 and passed away in 1986, the Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra, as it is now known, still has that Monday date at the Vanguard.

‘At no time in my life have I experienced anything like that band. Thad Jones was probably the most creative jazz musician I’ve ever known, with the exception, maybe, of Bird. Compared to the music Thad wrote and the way those guys performed it, playing in Stan’s or Woody’s band was like working with a commercial dance orchestra.

‘At no time in my life have I experienced anything like that band. Thad Jones was probably the most creative jazz musician I’ve ever known, with the exception, maybe, of Bird’

‘At that time the personnel was pretty sta­ble and the quality of musicianship was unquestionable. In the trumpet section I was sitting next to Jimmy Nottingham, Richard Williams, Bill Berry and Snooky Young. It was fantastic. I never imagined I would ever be in the company of such people. It was a great period.’

Stamm was a member of the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Band for six years and was also associated with Duke Pearson’s orchestra for three years around the same time. During the 1960s and 1970s he also played with Michel Legrand and Benny Goodman and did three tours with Frank Sinatra.

When Bob Mintzer formed his big band in 1984, Stamm was a natural choice along with Randy Brecker to share the lead as well as the jazz trumpet chores. The 16-piece band plus Latin percussion has made three albums, all of which have been well received.

‘It’s an ensemble band and one of the best I’ve every played with. Everybody listens closely to one another and tries hard to bring the music together because there are a lot of subtleties in Bob’s writing. No matter what it plays – swing, Latin-style things or contemporary – the band has a down-home, swinging feel which carries everything off beautifully.’

Stamm is also a founder member of the American Jazz Orchestra. Formed in 1986 and the brainchild of John Lewis, Roberta Swann and Gary Giddins, the orchestra is dedicated to the performance of the big band jazz repertoire from Fletcher Henderson to Dizzy Gillespie via Duke Ellington.

‘It’s a very interesting group and kind of like a repertory orchestra. Personally I would like to see them expand more into the 1950s and 1960s; there were so many fine composers during those periods. You can only go so far with the music of Fletcher Henderson, the same with Jimmie Lunceford; but you could explore Duke Ellington’s music for ever. Basically what they are trying to do is play the classical music of jazz in the same way the New York Philharmonic performs conventional classical music.’

Stamm is also a member of the George Gruntz Concert Jazz Band co-founded by Gruntz and three kindred Swiss jazz spirits, Flavio and Franco Ambrosetti and Daniel Humair. Gruntz now leads the band under his own name with sidemen drawn for all over the world.

‘The orchestra began in Lugano about 17 years ago as a “kicks” band for European and American musicians. It was just a fun thing which they did at weekends. You can’t put a stylistic button on that group because it gets pretty “out” every now and then, really avant garde.’

On three occasions Stamm has gone into the recording studios in the capacity of leader. The first time was in 1968 when, with John Carisi as his musical director, he cut an album called Machinations (4). The project involved a conventional big band in combination with a rock rhythm section and, although Carisi’s writing cannot be faulted, the trumpeter feels the sound has dated. This isn’t the case with Stampede (5), a blowing album which has stood the test of time well. Both albums are long out of print but well worth searching out.

The third album, produced independently and still unsold at the time of writing, was recorded in January last year. The line-up was Bob Mintzer (ts), Phil Markowitz (p), Lincoln Goines (b) and Terry Clarke (c). This was something of a departure for Stamm and he feels it was musically very successful.

Stamm, like so many of his contemporaries, lists Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Clifford Brown and Fats Navarro among his all-time favourite trumpet players. There is, however, another strata of players which Stamm admires; among these he numbers Ira Sullivan, Kenny Wheeler, Randy Brecker, Tom Harrell and Tim Hagans.

‘The thing that these people have which makes their music so viable for me is a feeling in the heart. I hear many other trumpeters of fantastic virtuosity playing unbelievably complex things but I don’t hear the heart. I don’t hear those sort of guys turning me on as Miles did on his 1961 Carnegie Hall album when he went into Walkin’; but when I hear Ira, Kenny, Tim, Randy and Tom play, I hear that. I feel the same way about many of today’s lead trumpet players. Over the years I have made a lot of records with Bernie Glow, Snooky Young and Ernie Royal. There may be trumpeters who can play higher and louder than these guys but they don’t have that same kind of musical feeling.

‘All these people have taught me something, be it in improvisation or ensemble playing and that is, if your heart’s not in it, you are not going to feel it. That, to me, is what music is all about. It is feeling, I don’t know any other definition for it.’

(1) Creative World ST 1018
(2) Capitol ST 1985
(3) Creative World ST 1012
(4) Verve 68759
(5) Palo Alto 8022