Pete Candoli: trumpet superman

    The self-taught trumpeter rose from a modest background to play in major jazz bands and become a leading light in the Hollywood studios

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    Pete Candoli (trumpet), Lee Konitz (alto) and others including Stan Kenton, Ronnie Scott and Pete King. Photo by Lewis & Ranshaw / JJ Archive

    Despite stints with several A-list bands – Tommy Dorsey, Woody Herman, Stan Kenton, Alvino Rey, Charlie Barnet, etc, and playing on such prominent records as Apple Honey, Wild Root, Northwest Passage and Goosey Gander – Pete Candoli, whose centenary fell in June of this year, is best recalled – as is his younger (by four years) brother, Conte, as someone at the very centre of the West Coast session world, always available when a new album by Billy May (Big Fat Brass), or Pete Rugolo (Adventures In Jazz) required a little heft in the trumpet section.

    He was born Walter Joseph Candoli, 28 June 1923, in the colourfully named town of Mishawaka, Indiana, where his father, a factory worker, played cornet in a local marching marching band, and kept assorted instruments in the house. Perhaps not surprisingly, young Pete thrived in this environment and by the age of 12 he was proficient on both bass and French horn. At 13 he switched to trumpet, which he taught himself, and was soon playing at local dances and weddings.

    His first break came in his 18th year, 1941, when he held down the lead trumpet chair for two years in the big band led by Sonny Dunham, followed by sojourns with Will Bradley, Ray McKinley and Tommy Dorsey before joining what would become Woody Herman’s First Herd, in 1944. His ability to hit high notes, heard well above the band, earned him the nickname “superman”, and, a born showman, he exploited this by leaping out of the wings wearing a superman costume made by his then wife, actress Vicky Lane, and taking a solo littered with screaming notes. Around this time, he also played first trumpet on the world premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s Ebony Concerto, written specially for the Herman band, which made its debut at Carnegie Hall in 1946.

    In 1955 Candoli moved to Hollywood and settled there permanently, becoming active in film (The Man With The Golden Arm), television (Johnny Staccato), as well as being an in-demand session musician. He played on albums by Sinatra, Peggy Lee and Ella Fitzgerald, among others, and was part of the ensemble put together by Henry Mancini for the celebrated Peter Gunn television series, and he even appeared in a couple of episodes as an actor. Between 1957 and 1962 he was co-leader, along with kid brother Conte, of a small combo, which also recorded a couple of albums.

    Not unnaturally for someone so gifted he was no stranger to awards, coming top in polls conducted by such magazines as Downbeat, Metronome, etc and he as nominated by Look magazine as one of the seven all-time greatest trumpet players – the other six being Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, Harry James, Bunny Berigan, Dizzy Gillespie, and Bobby Hackett. These awards were arguably eclipsed when, with younger brother Conte, he was inducted into the International Jazz Hall of Fame in 1997, followed some six years later by induction into the Big Band Hall of Fame in 2003.

    Of his five spouses, three – numbers two, three and four – were actresses, ranging from the relatively obscure (Vicky Lane, best-known role as Paula Dupree, the “ape” woman in The Jungle Captive, 1945) to the internationally famous (Betty Hutton, Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun, 1950) to arguably the most gifted actress on both stage and screen, Eadie Adams, who studied at Juilliard, won a Tony award for her role as Daisy Mae in Li’l Abner on Broadway and shone in a dramatic supporting role in the award-winning film The Apartment. It was the longest – 1972-1988 – of his marriages. The couple played night clubs as a double act in the 70s, with Candoli singing and dancing alongside his wife.

    Pete Candoli died of prostrate cancer, 11 January 2008, in Studio City, California. He was 84 years old. Given the breadth of his achievements – he played with no less than 27 name bands and on 5,000 recordings – it is doubtful if he had many, if, indeed, any, regrets.