Terry Gibbs: bebop is my business /2

    The 1950s brought Gibbs into contact with the intuitive pianist and vibist Terry Pollard and saw the formation of his showstopping Dream Band

    Terry Gibbs, appearing at the Capital Jazz Festival in Knebworth in July 1981. Photo © Brian O'Connor

    Gibbs worked a lot with a quartet in the 50s, one of the best featuring a Detroit pianist named Terry Pollard. He heard her by chance in 1953 after Dizzy Gillespie told him he should check out an unknown trumpeter named Thad Jones if he ever found himself in Detroit. In Motown for some gigs, Terry spotted Thad’s name in the paper, and together with an army buddy, went to hear him. Says Terry, “I’ll tell you who was in the band – they were completely unknown in 1953 – Thad Jones, Elvin Jones, Billy Mitchell, the tenor player… and this little girl. My friend and I were drinking at the bar, and I said ‘I don’t believe what I’m hearing, maybe because I’m drinking.’ She sounded that good.”

    Thoroughly impressed, Gibbs invited Pollard to audition for him at the club he was working. After she knocked Gibbs out on blues and Rhythm changes, he wanted to hear how she would accompany him on a ballad. “I said ‘Do you know a song called You Don’t Know What Love Is?’ She said ‘No, but I’ll try it.’ I said ‘Okay, hit an E minor 7 flatted five.’ And I turned around to play. She hit some cockeyed chord. I said ‘No, that’s the wrong chord, E minor 7 flatted five.’ She hit some cockeyed chord again. I said ‘I don’t know if you heard me.’ She said ‘I heard you – I don’t know chords.’ I said ‘How are we gonna play?’ She said ‘Why don’t you turn around and play the song?’ So I turned around and played; she played every chord change you can think of that goes with that song. And then she said to me ‘You know, I play some vibes also.’ I said ‘Really?’ So she played the vibes, and I didn’t believe what she was doing. She was that good! And I offered her a job immediately.”

    Pollard turned heads when she arrived in the Apple with Gibbs: ‘She scared everybody when I brought her to New York. She scared me when I heard her play’

    Pollard turned heads when she arrived in the Apple with Gibbs: “She scared everybody when I brought her to New York. She scared me when I heard her play.” Sometimes on a club gig, Gibbs would feature her on vibes, when she would play 10 or 12 hard-swinging choruses. “I didn’t want to follow her sometimes,” he admits. One who took note was the mighty Bird himself. “When I brought her to New York from Detroit, the first day Charlie Parker offered her a job. And the second day he offered her a job.” That she declined Bird’s offer to stay with Gibbs for four years speaks volumes about the kind of leader he was to work for.

    In fact, I had read in Ted Gioia’s book on West Coast jazz that Gibbs equated leading a band with being a psychologist, so I asked him about that. He answered with this story of how he conducted business with his Dream Band which he started at the end of 1959, a couple years after his move to Los Angeles: “I would wait by the door, and when any musician showed up, I would talk to them about two or three minutes, and whatever happened that day – if they couldn’t pay their bills or they had a fight with their wife – I would get their mind off it right away and onto what we were gonna do tonight – play jazz.”

    And with a lineup such as this band boasted, playing jazz – a lot of jazz – was an assured outcome. Gibbs had, quite simply, the cream of southern California’s jazz scene: trumpeters Conte Candoli, Al Porcino, Jack Sheldon and Stu Williamson; saxes Joe Maini, Charlie Kennedy, Med Flory, Bill Holman, Richie Kamuca, Bill Perkins, Jack Nimitz; plus Frank Rosolino, Lou Levy or Pete Jolly on piano, and the key to the band’s swing feel, drummer Mel Lewis – who has been quoted saying he rarely played better than he did on this band. Feeding this group of hungry jazz stars were the top arrangers: Al Cohn, Manny Albam Marty Paich, Med Flory and Bill Holman.

    The Dream Band grew out of an idea Gibbs hatched for a big band recording he wanted to do for Mercury, his label at that time. Having heard Mel Lewis rehearsing with a Bill Holman band at the musician’s union, Gibbs decided he’d like to build a band with a similar sound and feel. He would base his repertoire on well-known recordings by famous band leaders: “I’ll take two songs of six bandleaders, like I’ll take Flying Home and another song that Lionel Hampton wrote. I’ll take Illinois Jacquet’s chorus out and write it out for vibes and saxes; I’ll take Artie Shaw’s chorus out of Stardust and write it out for saxes and vibes, and two tunes that Benny Goodman made famous, and I’m Getting Sentimental Over You by Tommy Dorsey… and I hired six different arrangers.” Gibbs plugged his idea to Mercury who were at first reluctant to give him the green light, but he pleaded with them until they finally relented.

    Once he had Mercury on board and the arrangements and personnel ready, he needed a place to rehearse. Union rules forbade rehearsals at headquarters so that a studio would be used instead. (Working in a studio often involved overtime, good for the musicians, but expensive for whomever picked up the bill.) Then he discovered that the union allowed for rehearsals at an outside venue at considerably less expense than a studio. He approached the owner of a joint called the Seville on Santa Monica Boulevard, where he had been working with a small combo to pitch the big band idea. As the place had been struggling to attract customers, the owner agreed to give the big band a try, providing he’d only have to pay the same as he would for the combo. Gibbs accepted the offer.

    Dream Band debut: ‘We expected about 30-40 people… We walked out and the place was packed with 300 people. And you saw a lot of movie actors and actresses, and all the great musicians in town’

    “So we set up a bandstand – we thought we were only going to play there one night – and Steve Allen gave me a plug on television, and we told some musicians. We expected about 30-40 people. And we rehearsed that day at the club, and then went into the studio the next day and recorded all day, and came to the club [to perform], saw about 30 or 35 people.

    “We went in the back room because all I had was 12 arrangements, and they were all four minutes because those days you couldn’t get airplay if it was more than four minutes. I patterned my band after Benny Goodman because he didn’t have a section to play with, and I didn’t have a section, so everything was written around the vibes. But I had to open up each song to make it nine minutes, and I [had] learned from Woody Herman how to open up a song where you can let soloists play here and there.

    “We walked out and the place was packed with 300 people. And you saw a lot of movie actors and actresses, and all the great musicians in town.” As reported by Ted Gioia, among those present were Ella Fitzgerald, Johnny Mercer, Dinah Shore, Louis Prima, Steve Allen and Fred MacMurray.

    This charged atmosphere – combined with Gibbs’ hyperactive performing style – made the band an immediate sensation. Fuelling the flames, the leader made a joke that set the tone for the evening’s entertainment: “We’re starting a band tonight, and the first rule is there’s no drinking off the bandstand… We’re gonna have a party. We tore up the place – people screamed! Then we finished the album the next day, and the club owner said ‘You want to try it again next week?'” Again, they were greeted by 30 fans when they arrived the following week. Thinking the previous week had likely been a fluke, they again retreated to the back room. When they emerged, not only was the joint packed, but fans waiting to get in had lined up outside the club.

    As with the previous week, the excitement was palpable. “We were having fun more than the audience… I said ‘Listen, we’re gonna have fun; if you got something funny to say, like Jack Sheldon or Conte Candoli or Frank Rosolino, I’ll be the best straight man you ever had, but don’t fool with the music.'” That attitude – along with what can best be described as chemistry – made this band a sensation during its two-year existence.

    Throughout most of the 60s and 70s, Gibbs worked in television. As much of that work took place in daytime hours, he had evenings free to play jazz gigs. One association in the 60s was with a pianist named Alice McLeod – later to become Alice Coltrane, thanks to an introduction engineered by Gibbs. “I was the matchmaker of that marriage,” Terry told me. “I introduced John to Alice because she looked like she was in love with him when he played.” Another notable association during these years was a partnership with clarinet great Buddy DeFranco. Said Gibbs of his 17 years with DeFranco, “You’re not going to get anyone that’s better, and we were two beboppers; we both felt the same way ’bout music.”

    Gibbs continued to play jazz into his 90s. These days he no longer plays, telling me ‘I’m really good at doing absolutely nothing!’

    Gibbs continued to play jazz into his 90s. At the age of 92, he released his final album, 92 Years Young: Jammin’ At The Gibbs House. After that, he put away his vibes. These days he no longer plays, telling me “I’m really good at doing absolutely nothing!” With eight decades of hard work, excellence and achievement to his name, he is entitled to kick back and relax a bit.

    Ask Terry Gibbs, and he’ll tell you: bebop is his bag. No vibes player in the history of jazz played with a greater bebop sensibility than did Gibbs. He spoke that language fluently. No surprise then, whom he most idolised in jazz. “Charlie Parker is the greatest jazz musician who ever lived,” he told me in 2023. Fitting then, that I close this piece with a Bird tale. The story is set in 1951 or ’52. 

    I had asked Terry what Parker had been like as a person. “A new club opened up in New York City at this time, with Billy Eckstine when he was very hot. He was the headliner. And Harry James and his band featuring Buddy Rich, and my quartet. It was a month booking, and Monty Kaye, who owned the club, came to me and said ‘Terry, we’re bringing Bird out of the hospital to play here, and he wants to play with you.’ I said ‘Doesn’t he want to play with Bobby Tucker, or with Billy Eckstine, Buddy Rich?’ He said ‘No, he wants to play with you.’ I had played with Bird six or seven years before where I was scared out of my wits, but I learned the language fast and I couldn’t play as good as him but I could play. So the first show he played, I said ‘What do you want to play?’ He said ‘Anything you want to play, Terry.'” So Terry called tunes and they played.

    Whenever Terry Gibbs speaks about Charlie Parker, he does so with deference and respect. He’d never dare suggest he is in Bird’s class as a musician. Yet out of this assemblage of jazz stars, Bird wanted to play with Terry.

    The man knew artistry when he heard it.

    Note: Those wishing for more information on this remarkable musician are advised to seek out his ASCAP Deems Taylor Award winning autobiography, Good Vibes: A Life in Jazz.

    See part 1 of Terry Gibbs: bebop is my business