Terry Gibbs: bebop is my business /1

    Bird had flown the bebop scene by 1955 but his contemporary Terry Gibbs, 99, is still going and lives to tell the tales

    Left to right: Bill DeArango, Terry Gibbs and Harry Biss at the Three Deuces, New York in the summer of 1947. Photo by William P. Gottlieb

    To appreciate Terry Gibbs’ place in jazz history, it’s worth noting he was born just four years after Charlie Parker. Yet Bird flew the scene in 1955, nearly 70 years ago. Throughout those decades and years before, Terry Gibbs has been on the job, often where the latest styles of modern jazz were being hatched. By 1945, he was jamming on fabled 52nd Street with probably the greatest assemblage of jazz musicians the world has seen. Not long after, he was on the road with the bands of such renowned leaders as Chubby Jackson, Tommy Dorsey, Buddy Rich, Benny Goodman and, most famously, Woody Herman’s Second Herd, the Four Brothers band with what must be considered one of the great saxophone sections of all time: Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, Stan Getz and Serge Chaloff.

    By the end of the 50s, Gibbs stood at the helm of his own justly celebrated big band. The toast of southern California’s vibrant jazz scene of the early 60s, the Terry Gibbs Dream Band had the best players, the top arrangers and an inspired and energetic leader able to coax, charm and cajole the very best out of his personnel. In a profession with more than its share of early exits, Terry Gibbs’ 80 years as a journeyman jazz musician makes him rara avis indeed.

    I was able to track him down for a phone interview from his home in Sherman Oaks, California in December 2023. I found the 99-year-old lucid, engaged and happy to answer my questions, despite probably having heard most of them dozens of times before. While our chat may not add much to what has already been written about him, his are good stories worth hearing fresh one more time. Like a fine wine – and like the man himself – they have aged well.

    Gibbs is quick to respond when asked about his musical influences and allegiance. “I’m an out-and-out bebopper,” he told me. He is about the last of his generation to have come of age in the mid-40s, when bop spread like wildfire across the jazz landscape. In fact, his career began before he knew anything about Bird, Diz, Bud and the new sounds they were creating. In 1944, on a furlough from the United States Army, drummer Tiny Kahn – a friend since childhood – took him to 52nd Street to hear Charlie Parker for the first time. Gibbs explains the impact of that experience; “There was a record ban, so we never heard the name Charlie Parker, or the name bebop when I was in the army, so when I came home on furlough, he [Kahn] told me ‘You gotta hear a new music called bebop.’ So he took me down to hear Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and I honestly tell you, I had a bit of a nervous breakdown; it was like finding Shangri-la – that’s what I’ve been looking for my whole life.”

    Of course, his “whole life” had been only 20 years then. Born Julius Gubenko in Brooklyn, 13 October 1924, Gibbs grew up surrounded by music. His father, a Russian Jew, was a musician, and Terry began his musical studies on xylophone and percussion. At the age of 12, he took first place for his renditions of classical xylophone on the Major Bowes Amateur Hour, a popular radio show at the time. He did a tour with a Major Bowes outfit and also played drums with a bandleader called Judy Kayne, giving him an early taste of life on the road.

    Kicked out of school for hitting a teacher when he was 17, he turned down a scholarship to Julliard as he wanted to play jazz. In 1942 the U.S. Army called, his musical skills keeping him out of harm’s way: “I was a tank driver at first, ready to go overseas, and all of a sudden they called me out. And they shipped me to Dallas, Texas to audition for this band that’s going to make army moving pictures – and I got the job.”

    ‘I had the technique to do what they [beboppers] did, but I had to learn the language. I had to learn the syncopation. And they didn’t change the chords around, they just added more to it, so you could do much more’

    Gibbs made a beeline for 52nd Street upon his discharge from the service. As he recalled that scene to me: “It was unbelievable for a jazz player. There were four clubs on one side of the street, and right across the street, there were four other clubs. In one club it would be Oscar Pettiford and his group. There would be Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, Erroll Garner, Art Tatum – the best players in the world.” Though proficient on drums, his interest in harmony prompted him to make a switch to vibes, an instrument that would allow him to explore the harmonic and rhythmic facets of the new music. Of learning to play bebop, he says “I had the technique to do what they [beboppers] did, but I had to learn the language. I had to learn the syncopation. And they didn’t change the chords around, they just added more to it, so you could do much more.” In other words, he had to immerse himself in bebop harmony and rhythm. On the Street, he found himself in the right time and place to do just that.

    His first job on the Street was with hipster vocalist Babs Gonzales in 1945. Also in the band were pianist Bobby Tucker (who would go on to spend years with Billy Eckstine), bassist Gene Ramey and drummer Roy Haynes. “The atmosphere was great,” recalls Gibbs. “The people who came there wanted to hear jazz. You could buy one drink and stay all night.” He also worked in a combo with Bill DeArango, a guitarist who had played with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and others.

    Next Gibbs worked for a string of road bands, an invaluable learning experience that also increased his name recognition. In our phone chat, he recalled working with Chubby Jackson before Tommy Dorsey, but he told Ira Gitler (in Swing To Bop) that Dorsey called in 1946, the year before he went with Jackson. Leonard Feather in The Encyclopedia of Jazz confirms what he told Gitler.

    The story of his abbreviated tenure with Dorsey is most amusing: “I went to California from New York on a train because my mother wouldn’t let me fly – five days on the train [three days according to what he told Ira Gitler]. I got there, I set up my vibes about two songs before intermission, and they were playing songs like Boogie Woogie, Song Of India, and I said ‘What the heck am I doing here? I’m learning bebop.’ So I gave the manager my notice, and he thought I was crazy. After 10 minutes, I quit the band.”

    Tommy Dorsey: ‘You little shithead, you just quit my band?’ I tried to explain about Charlie Parker and bebop. He said, ‘I don’t care, nobody quits my band, you’re fired!’

    I asked him about Dorsey’s reaction. “Well, it was intermission. I got a chance to meet Louie Bellson, Charlie Shavers and Ziggy Elman (Gibbs would hire Bellson and Shavers for his sextet in 1950) and all of a sudden, I felt a whack on my shoulder. Now if I was in Brooklyn, I woulda turned around and swung at whoever did that. So I turned around and the guy looked like he was foaming from the mouth. And he [Dorsey] said ‘You little shithead, you just quit my band?’ I tried to explain about Charlie Parker and bebop. He said, ‘I don’t care, nobody quits my band, you’re fired!’ So I said ‘Well, if you fire me, you gotta pay my way home.’ He says ‘No, you quit.’ And he made me stay there two weeks – then I went home.” (In those days, if a leader fired a sideman, he had to pay his way home; but if a sideman quit, he had to pay his own way.)

    He wasn’t home for long, however, joining Chubby Jackson for a tour of Sweden (December of 1947, according to Feather.) Also on the Jackson band were Conte Candoli, Lou Levy, Frank Socolow and Denzel Best. “Lou Levy and Conte Candoli remained my best friends until they passed away,” recalls Gibbs.

    In 1948, he went on the road with Buddy Rich. Though he told Ira Gitler that Buddy could be “nasty” in those days, he and Rich later became good friends. In his will, Buddy asked that Terry play at his funeral. First came comments on Rich from Mel Tormé, Johnny Carson, Frank Sinatra (“When I joined Tommy Dorsey’s band, Buddy Rich was already playing drums, Tommy said ‘Now I have two assholes on the band'”), Artie Shaw (“When Buddy played in my band, I told him ‘You play loud bass drum, Buddy.’ And then I heard him about six months ago and he still played loud bass drum”), Jerry Lewis and Robin Blake. Then Terry played My Buddy. He told me “I had to hold my right hand with my left hand to play the first few notes.”

    Toward the end of 1948 Gibbs joined forces with what many would say was Woody Herman’s greatest band. He soon became an integral part of this unit, sharing solo honours with such remarkable talents as the Four Brothers – Al, Zoot, Stan and Serge – plus Shorty Rogers, Red Rodney, Bill Harris and Lou Levy, men on the verge of jazz stardom. On classic recordings such as That’s Right, Keeper Of The Flame, Lemon Drop (on the vocal, his is the low voice at the end) and More Moon, Gibbs holds his own with his heavyweight band mates, his solos technically assured, imaginative and swinging like mad.

    Travelling with an established bandleader like Herman – in addition to being musically rewarding – taught him valuable lessons that he later used with his own groups. One such involved the importance of ensemble playing to the overall band sound. Woody brought this point home to Gibbs and Stan Getz after a recording session: “We recorded Early Autumn and we made like eight takes, and Stan Getz and I both had solos on it, and Woody said ‘That’s a wrap.’ That was the end of the recording date, about 11 o’clock. And Stan and I were not happy with our solos, we thought take four was better. So we went to Woody Herman’s room in his hotel, and Woody used to drink a little bit. We showed up and he was a little out, standing there in his shorts. He says ‘What do you guys want?’ We said ‘Woody – Stan and I thought we both played better on take four.’ He said, ‘Yeah, but you gotta understand, on take eight, the ensemble, the whole band, sounded better.'” Gibbs has never forgotten this lesson.

    Benny Goodman: ‘He called everybody Pops because he couldn’t remember your name. But he loved my last name Gubenko, so he called me Gubenko. But if I asked for a raise, it went back to Pops’

    After Herman, Gibbs led his own sextet featuring Charlie Shavers and Louie Bellson. Then, beginning in June 1951, he spent six months in the Benny Goodman Sextet. Despite Goodman’s reputation as a difficult personality, Terry got on reasonably well with him. “Benny was very foggy,” recalls Gibbs. “He’d forget to comb his hair before he went on stage, forget to button his pants. He called everybody Pops because he couldn’t remember your name. But he loved my last name Gubenko, so he called me Gubenko. But if I asked for a raise, it went back to Pops.”

    See part 2 of Terry Gibbs: bebop is my business