Dave Pell, a Los Angeles tenor saxophonist who was instrumental in promoting the West Coast’s contrapuntal jazz sound that emerged in the early 1950s through his leadership of his many octets and who owned one of Lester Young’s two saxophones, died May 8. He was 92.
Dave was a dear and remarkably upbeat and cheery friend. A call to his home in Canoga Park, Calif., would invariably lead to stories about the jazz life in Hollywood in the 1950s, punctuated here and there by a Santa Claus-like belly laugh. But Dave’s good cheer masked a steely attention to detail when leading his groups and a cone of intensity when improvising. A relentlessly dependable member of Les Brown’s reed section since 1947, Dave had a unique passion for Lester Young. He also understood early that Brown’s smooth dance-band feel could be efficiently reduced to eight players and then profitably taken to perform for college campus dances. In addition to recording some of the smartest West Coast jazz charts written by Shorty Rogers, Marty Paich, Andre Previn, Johnny Mandel and Bill Holman, Dave’s octet did well commercially during prom season.
His first octet album was recorded for Los Angeles’s Trend label in April 1953. Entitled The Dave Pell Octet Plays a Gallery of Seldom Heard Tunes by Irving Berlin, the group featured members of Brown’s band who were crack sight-readers and stylists: Don Fagerquist (tp), Ray Sims (tb,vcl), Dave Pell (ts), Ronny Lang (bar), Geoff Clarkson (p), Tony Rizzi (g), Rollie Bundock (b) and Jack Sperling (d).
What made this tight octet so smart was how they played the gorgeous harmony arrangements and its ability to swing. Dave was a big stickler on that. As he used to tell me, “You either can swing or you can’t. It can’t be taught.” Here’s This Year’s Kisses, a prime example of just how gorgeous the octet’s arrangements could be, with solos by trombonist Ray Sims, guitarist Tony Rizzi, trumpeter Don Fagerquist and saxophonist Dave Pell…
Dave was a long-time JazzWax reader and an ardent fan of mine, which for me was a special honor. I loved his music and treasured the sunny qualities of his personality. I quoted him extensively in my chapter on West Coast jazz in my book, Why Jazz Happened (2012). In tribute to Dave, here’s my entire three-part interview with him in 2009…
Dave Pell is one of the founding fathers of West Coast jazz. After relocating to Los Angeles in 1944, Pell played on Bob Crosby’s radio show and freelanced, joining Les Brown’s band in 1947. In the years that followed Dave became one of California’s most prolific studio musicians and ensemble leaders, forming a popular octet from the ranks of Brown’s orchestra. Dave was a virtuoso player at an early age, able to mimic the sound and tone of virtually any popular tenor saxophonist.
In the early 1950s, Dave was instrumental in developing West Coast jazz’s sound and mystique. An early developer of linear “storytelling” jazz solos, he also earned extra cash as a photographer at the start of the 1950s. With a Rolleiflex, Dave documented the emerging West Coast jazz scene. He took dozens of cover photos, including the famous Gerry Mulligan Quartet 10-inch LP, Pacific Jazz’s first release (pictured). Today Dave owns one of Lester Young’s tenor saxophones and plays it regularly in concert, much to the delight of audiences. Young’s only other known horn is at Rutgers University’s Institute of Jazz Studies.
JazzWax: Where did you grow up?
Dave Pell: I’m originally from Brooklyn, N.Y. In the 1930s, my family lived in Brighton Beach before moving to Manhattan Beach there. By the time I was 14, I was playing the clarinet. I had a terrific music teacher. He became thrilled with me and gave me a different exercise book every day. When I went to Abraham Lincoln High School, clarinetist Sol Yaged was there. The bandmaster liked me so much he insisted I play solo chair. So he moved Sol over to the second chair. I didn’t want to cause trouble, but the teacher insisted, saying he had never heard anyone like me before. I was very advanced at that age.
JW: How did you become so skilled so quickly?
DP: My brother would take lessons, and I’d sit on the floor. When his lessons were over, I’d take his horn, replace his mouthpiece with mine and play the lesson he had just taken. I had remembered the entire thing. I was something of a prodigy, I guess, or virtuoso. I used to say to myself, “Wow, this is fun” when playing and practicing, not “This is work or a pain.”
JW: Did you listen to jazz records as a kid?
DP: No. We couldn’t afford them. Instead, I’d come home from school and listen to the radio all afternoon. When you’re a mimic like I was, you can hear something and play and sound like it instantly. And you don’t know why it happens that way. When Artie Shaw’s Concerto for Clarinet came out in 1940, I heard it on the radio and played it note for note. Later, when I was at Capitol Records in the 1950s, I’d put together small bands and mimic all the great soloists, note for note. It’s a skill I’ve always had.
JW: How did you wind up in Bobby Sherwood’s band, your first professional gig?
DP: I was hanging around Nola Studios in New York in 1943, where all the rehearsing went on. I was 18 years old at the time and could play and read flawlessly. I was already getting a reputation for sounding like any of the big name soloists. If you wanted me to sound like Coleman Hawkins on Body and Soul, I could play Hawk’s solo, note for note. Sometimes I’d memorize the transcribed solos they printed in Down Beat magazine at the time. Someone told me Bobby [pictured] was auditioning tenor players. So I went and got the job.
JW: When was your first trip to California?
DP: With Tony Pastor’s band in 1945. I fell in love with the place as soon as we got there. I was young and having a lot of fun. Pastor’s band was a terrific experience. I knew every solo that was coming up in a chart. When the solo neared, I’d race up front and beat him to the microphone [laughs]. I was hungry. And I loved it.
JW: Pastor wasn’t angry?
DP: No, not at all. Pastor didn’t mind. He didn’t like playing. He preferred being a bandleader. The day we arrived in California, I told him I was going to leave the band. He flipped and said, “You can’t leave. Who am I going to get out in this part of the country to fill your part?” [laughs]. That sounds like a strange thing to say but it was still early in the evolution out here, before L.A. became a magnet for band talent. Pastor begged me to stay, so I stayed for a few months. When the Pastor band left California for the East Coast, I stayed.
JW: Why do you love it so much?
DP: L.A. looked so great in the 1940s. First of all, the weather was fantastic all year round, which meant I could play golf every day. I also knew Zoot Sims well. He was from out here, from Inglewood. We played in Bobby Sherwood’s band together in 1943. When I joined Sherwood, Zoot was playing tenor but wanted to play lead alto. So Bobby moved him into the alto chair and gave me all the Zoot features [solos]. Zoot was a year older than me and was by far the best tenor saxophonist I knew then—or ever. [Photo of Zoot Sims by Chuck Stewart]
JW: How did Zoot compare to Stan Getz in the late 1940s?
DP: Getz was good but nothing like Zoot. Zoot could swing and play better notes. He was a musician from the day he was born. All of his family members were musicians. Ray Sims, the trombonist, was his brother. Zoot knew how to swing. It was in his blood. He showed all of us that you didn’t have to play so many notes to sound great. Even more important, he taught me how to make up little stories on the tenor when soloing. We were the first of the storyteller players out there.
JW: How did the storytelling work?
DP: Guys who can compose little stories on the spot while they solo make listeners smile. If you were a storyteller player, you did this by being comedic without being corny. We’d take little riffs or bits from songs we were playing and use them in a solo.
JW: How did Zoot do this?
DP: He’d start with a little story, repeat it and then put an ending on it. So all of us would try to do the same thing. We’d play around with the melodies. The next generation of great players like Coltrane wouldn’t need this storytelling device. But Zoot and Al [pictured] and those of us who played like Lester [Young] used the story method. That’s what Jimmy Giuffre’s Four Brothers was about in ’47. Each guy soloing was telling a story on the tenor. The better the story, the easier it was to sing in your head. This was Zoot’s approach, which ultimately had a big impact on guys who played out here.
JW: After leaving Tony Pastor, you played with a lot of bands during the 1940s.
DP: Every time a band came into the Hollywood Palladium, the band’s leader would need three or four guys to fill in for regulars who were out sick or needed a break. So I’d wind up playing in 15 different bands, including Frankie Carle, Freddy Martin and so many others. Only a half dozen guys could do that and grab the band’s sound right off the bat.
JW: You also played with many small groups.
DP: Yes, there were all kinds of bands, including a Latin band led by Don Swan, who had done a lot of arranging for Xavier Cugat in the early 1940s. I also played in groups with Stan Getz in the mid-40s when he was with Stan Kenton. He’d play beautifully in the dressing room. You couldn’t believe what you heard back there. But he was a total dressing-room player. When Stan got on stage, he’d get scared. His comfort level would change. You had to be flexible back then. You had to be able to play every style to get the freelance gigs in L.A. At this point, I could transpose a lead alto part on the spot and read it down on the tenor.
JW: You joined Les Brown in 1947 and stayed with him off and on through 1955.
DP: Around 1946, I started my own group and we played in Alhambra, a town close to L.A. One afternoon I got a call. It was Les Brown. He wanted to know if I could make his show. One of his saxophonists had gotten busted for drugs. I told him I had a gig but that I’d get a sub for me.
JW: You must have enjoyed playing with Brown given how long you remained with the band.
DP: Les [pictured] gave me and a couple of guys in the orchestra a chance to make the band into something it hadn’t been. He had Don Fagerquist and Wes Hensel on trumpets, and fantastic arrangers like Hensel, Van Alexander, Skip Martin and Frank Comstock. The band started to get busy in the studios and accompanied Bob Hope on the radio. Then we were on TV shows with Hope, but TV shows needed more arrangements. Guys in the band started getting name value because there was so much work on a weekly basis.I gave up playing steadily with Les Brown in 1953, right around the time the small-group craze began in Los Angeles.
JW: You played with Gerry Mulligan at the Haig in May 1952, just three months before he recorded with his piano-less quartet.
DP: When I met Gerry just after he arrived in L.A., I was playing with [trombonist] Herbie Harper. We were doing jam sessions seven nights a week. Gerry came to one of those sessions and brought this little kid from high school with bad teeth. It was Chet Baker [pictured]. They just tore it up.
JW: Were you involved in helping to shape the Gerry Mulligan Quartet?
DP: We brought different guys together for Gerry’s demo date at Phil Turetsky’s house in June.
JW: Who’s “we?”
DP: Roy Harte and me. Roy was my cousin. When Roy started Pacific Jazz Records with Dick Bock in the summer of ’52, Phil Turetsky was their engineer. They didn’t have a studio yet so they made the demos at Phil’s house.
JW: Harte was pretty active out there then as a drummer and entrepreneur, wasn’t he?
DP: Yes. Roy owned a popular drum store called Drum City on Santa Monica Blvd. Then he started Pacific Jazz Records. When I told him about Gerry and Chet at the jam sessions, Roy got them and Chico Hamilton and Bob Whitlock booked into the Haig. [Pictured: Actor Sal Mineo and Roy Harte at Drum City]
JW: What made Mulligan special?
DP: His knowledge of music and his chords and all those tunes. He played so differently than anyone else. One thing Zoot Sims always told me: “Make your own style. So when you play eight bars, everyone knows it’s you.” Mulligan was like that.
JW: So how did you and Mulligan wind up being recorded together at the Haig several months before he formed his quartet?
DP: That was one of those jam sessions Gerry attended. We didn’t know we were being recorded [laughs]. When Mulligan was playing at the Haig, there were two or three other nights when other guys would come in and have a jam session there. Unknown to everyone, there was a tape machine rolling in the back room. The same was true at several clubs back then. Actually, I think we all kind of knew that was happening. That’s how the things I did with [tenor saxophonist] Wardell Gray and [pianist] Paul Smith got recorded.
JW: How did you come to take the photo for the Gerry Mulligan Quartet album?
DP: My cousin Roy asked me to take it.
JW: So many people think it was taken by William Claxton.
DP: I know. Nobody knew Clax at the time. He wasn’t photographing things like this yet. I had learned to use the camera several years earlier and had gotten to the point where I was a good amateur but a bad professional. I was using a Rolleiflex. I started shooting at sessions all over town. I’d find out what was going on from the union. I’d photograph without a flash by taking the shot with the speed pushed way up. I used a 3×5 lens, which was small. There was some light in the clubs but not much. The trade-off during the developing process was that the pictures would be grainier. Everyone thought it was very creative on my part. Bull. I just didn’t want to get in everyone’s way so I didn’t use a flash [laughs].
JW: So between the music and photography and developing pictures, you were pretty busy.
DP: [Laughs] I always had a full day. Back then, music was everything, and everything meant music—whether it was playing, recording or photography. With the camera, I was trying to do something different. When Clax started coming up, he and I used to shoot many of the recording sessions. Then he got really good and passed me by a country mile.
JW: Hey, you weren’t bad.
DP: I had an aesthetic sensibility, which helped me push for interesting shots. When I played with Les Brown’s band, I would take photos from my perspective on the bandstand, especially when celebrities were with us. I always had the camera by my side. Then I’d go home and develop the negatives. I loved using the enlarger because I could crop just what I wanted.
JW: How did you decide how to set up that Mulligan cover?
DP: Roy called me up. He said he needed a photo for his first LP. He said, “Go down to the Haig with Gerry’s group and shoot something.” I said, “I can’t. The Haig is too dark. I won’t be able to get all four of them lit properly in the image.” Roy said I could use a spare room he had at Drum City. So I had the guys meet me there in the afternoon, when the room got good late-day light.
JW: What did you tell them to do when they got there?
DP: I knew what I wanted to do by then. I told them to lay on the floor with their heads together. They said, “What kind of cornball thing is this?” I said, “The photo has to be different. And hip.” I couldn’t shoot something anyone with a camera would take. I couldn’t just line them up and shoot. That would be way too dull. You have to understand, the energy level out here then was high. Everyone was trying something new. I wanted to capture that feeling but with something out of left field. So I had them lie down on the floor with their heads together. I told them I was going to shoot down on them from a ladder. The guys were saying stuff like, “Man, this is a hip album. Why are we doing this corny thing for?”
JW: What did you do?
DP: I climbed up on the ladder and shot down. Just before I squeezed the shutter, Mulligan was yelling, “Come on, Dave! For Christ’s sake. We can’t spend all day here.” For years Gerry would push me away playfully whenever I’d show up and say, “Get that camera away from me.” Later, he told me of all the things he did, the wildest was lying on the floor with his horn in his lap looking up at me take a picture of them from the ladder [laughing]. The photo was pure luck.
JW: Were there outtakes?
DP: No. Just the one picture.
JW: Are you kidding? What would you have done if the image didn’t come out perfectly?
DP: I would have had to have gone down to the club to shoot them.
JW: What do you think of the photo today?
DP: You and others see a great cover shot. I see four cranky guys who wanted to get out of there [laughs]. That’s why Bill Claxton [pictured] shot so many covers and got such great results. Clax had the patience to sit through a whole recording session and not get in the way. He waited and waited, and everything he shot was so creative.
JW: During this period, what was going on in California that created the conditions for the West Coast sound?
DP: Recording wise, you had the “Birth of the Cool” singles coming out of New York with Miles and Gerry. But the things we played several years later were a little different from what was going on in New York. New York was playing one kind of jazz. We were playing more cool, kind of nice and melodic jazz. That’s not a knock. It’s just what it was.
JW: Who were the ringleaders in the early 1950s?
DP: Shorty [Rogers], Mulligan and Chet. The Lighthouse [pictured] was also a hot spot, especially with Bob Cooper and Bud Shank. We all played there on Sundays. That’s where musicians’ different thoughts on music and the new sound came together. The music was about harmony, technique and playing pretty. I must have played there 100 times. The fact that Stan Kenton’s band was from out here also provided the clubs with a steady stream of sidemen eager to jam. We always had the clubs filled.
JW: What do you think the big turning point was that made L.A. so attractive to jazz musicians?
DP: The weather was great, and many guys in big bands were looking to settle down with families after 10 years on the road. So when the bands they were in came out here, many decided to stay. Besides, the studio work was plentiful and became even more so. If you got on the good side of Andre Previn, for example, you did all of MGM’s movies. If you got on the good side of Johnny Green, you worked on all the musicals.
JW: How did you and others maximize your studio opportunities?
DP: Bob Cooper, Bud Shank [pictured], me and others sensed something was changing here in the early 1950s. Movie and TV work was picking up. So we learned the flute, oboe and other reed and woodwind instruments. If you could double or triple on instruments, you’d get four to five studio calls a week, and you’d be killing. Then at night you’d play clubs. It was a great set up for a jazz musician.
JW: What caused the shift to smaller jazz groups? New labels?
DP: I think that was part of it. Smaller groups meant fewer odds of re-takes on sessions, and a lot of arrangers wrote swell stuff for six to eight guys. But overall, smaller groups just sounded great and everyone got to solo. A lot of us, including [bassist] Harry Babasin [pictured], hung around Drum City. All were great players. We were learning a whole new way of playing from each other. On the arranging side, Shorty Rogers and Bill Holman led the way. So much was recorded out there in the early 1950s, both in the studio and at clubs when tape became popular. I think Roy [Harte], before he died [in 2003], started to realize he had a ton of stuff still in the can. A lot of it has still not been released.
JW: How did the idea for your octet come about?
DP: I was playing in Les Brown’s orchestra in the early 1950s. I just put together eight musicians from the big band. We originally had Don Fagerquist [pictured] on trumpet; Ray Sims, Zoot’s brother, on trombone; I was on tenor; Ronnie Lang was on baritone, Geoffrey Clarkson was on piano; Tony Rizzi was on guitar; Rollie Bundock was on bass, and Jack Sperling was on drums.
JW: How about the tight arrangements?
DP: That was Shorty Rogers’ idea to borrow ideas from Les’ big band arrangements written by Frank Comstock and Skippy Martin. Actually, we didn’t steal anything or anyone. This is why Les was so beloved by so many musicians. I went to Les and told him what I wanted to do. He was all for it. When Albert Marx started Trend Records, he came to one of the octet’s rehearsals and flipped when he heard us. We began recording for Trend soon afterward. [Photo: Dave Pell, standing, and Ronnie Lang in 1954]
JW: What did Shorty do?
DP: When we were just getting together, Shorty was very excited. He said he’d write charts with the guitar on the bottom and Don Fagerquist on top, with the rest of us voiced in between. He said, “We’ll do hipper stuff than the big band.” Two weeks later, Shorty finished the charts. The big idea was to take the new West Coast linear jazz sound and apply it in a more commercial format.
JW: How so?
DP: We kept the formula tight. We’d play a song’s intro and then each horn would take a short solo. I didn’t want 17 choruses. Just one solo each. It was very different for the time.
JW: In the beginning the albums had a theme.
DP: That’s right. I had a premise to take seldom-heard songs by major composers and give them the West Coast treatment. They had to be good songs, of course. So you’d have songs like Irving Berlin’s Better Luck Next Time voiced for the octet and they’d swing. The first albums we did starting in 1953 were Dave Pell Octet Plays Irving Berlin, Plays Burke and Van Heusen and Plays Rodgers and Hart. The personnel in our group changed a bit as guys came and went. Marty Paich was writing for me a lot then, too. I’d do all kinds of research and find the songs. Then Marty and Shorty would swing them.
JW: Was there a risk of being corny?
DP: Oh sure. People said the concept sounded nuts. It was elevator music, but hipper. The critics loved it. Some called the albums “mortgage-paying jazz” [laughs]. The octet got so hot that we wound up playing every prom in the country. Just when big bands were starting to die off, I had an eight-piece band that played everywhere.
JW: Why did you do so much commercial work?
DP: Because it paid well? [laughs] Seriously, though, when Les Brown’s band was on the skids, I convinced many of the guys who were playing with me to leave the band permanently. I said, “Come on, we’ll split the money evenly.” They came aboard, so I had to keep them employed. They all had families. I’d take anything that paid to keep the income flow going.
JW: Who else wrote for the octet?
DP: Marty [pictured] wrote about 75% of my book. I also had John Williams and Jerry Fielding. Bill Holman wrote some charts, too. Every week we’d finish an album. Two weeks later we’d do another one. And the albums sold well. Everyone digs harmony. And everyone knew the songs. It was a winning formula.
JW: You also became known for another group—Prez Conference, in the late 1970s.
DP: Back in the early 1970s, [saxophonist] Med Flory and [bassist] Buddy Clark came to me with the idea for a sax section that played orchestrated transcriptions of Charlie Parker’s solos. I was producing records at the time. It sounded interesting. Then they told me they wanted to get paid to write the charts [laughs]. That lost me right away. The charts were so long and required many, many pages of copying. It didn’t sound like it was going to be commercially profitable.
JW: What happened?
DP: I told them I could help them get a record deal but I couldn’t afford to put it on my label. So Med and Buddy copied all the parts themselves. They wound up at Capitol and had a huge success in the mid-1970s with Supersax.
JW: What did you think of Supersax?
DP: They sounded great. So great that I went to my old friend Gene Norman of GNP Crescendo Records. I told him that I had an idea. I said, “Given Supersax’s success, how about me having Bill Holman write up Lester Young’s solos for a Four Brothers-like band?” I told him I’d also get [Harry] “Sweets” [Edison] to break up the sax charts with those muted trumpet solos. There would be no tenor solos. The saxes would collectively sound like Lester Young.
JW: What did Norman say?
DP: Gene dug it. So I got my hands on every tune Prez [Lester Young] had ever played. I even had two versions of songs he recorded for different record companies. Then Bill wrote arrangements based on two or more Prez’s solos.
JW: What was the plan?
DP: We were going to follow in Supersax’s steps and create this big Lester Young sound, which meant it would be more melodic than Supersax. The first album in ’78, In Celebration of Lester Young, did very well. People who had bought the Supersax albums bought ours. When “Sweets” Edison heard the sound coming off the sax section in the studio, he cried. We all did. Sweets had been there when Lester played those solos.
DP: You recorded a second album in early 1979.
JW: Yes. Right after the first one came out, I ran into singer Joe Williams [pictured] and asked if he wanted to sing with the group. He loved the idea. So we got together with Bill Holman. The big difficulty we had was keeping the songs in specific keys so they’d be in the right range for the horns. The section had to sound like Prez, so they had to be in his keys. Those keys weren’t always ideal for Joe. But it didn’t matter. Joe knocked them out anyway. He was great. That second album was Prez and Joe.
JW: Did Prez Conference play concerts and clubs?
DP: Yes, absolutely. I booked all the festivals. We still tour. Back then, Joe tore it up. He’d even come out early just to sing on top of us. Every now and then Joe and I would play golf. Every time he’d come to L.A. to record or play a club, he’d call me. Whenever he’d perform with Prez Conference at clubs, we’d be up all night and then play golf the next morning. Joe was a hell of a golfer. He was the king of Chicago. We’d play every golf course in that town when we were there. They loved him there.
JW: Speaking of Prez, you own Lester Young’s Dolnet saxophone. How did you get it?
DP: From Lee Young [pictured], Lester’s brother. Lee and I used to play golf a lot. Lee was with some dumb record company that went broke. I was running Liberty Records at the time with eight different sub-labels. I said to Lee, “Come work with me, and I’ll give you a gig running Sunset Records.” He did, and we became close. We played golf every other day. We’d work and then play golf. Lee became my best friend.
JW: Did Lee Young hear Prez Conference?
DP: Oh yes. He used to come and listen to my octet. Then when I started Prez Conference, he came to listen and loved it. When Lee heard the band, he realized how much I loved Lester. One day he said, “I have Lester’s Dolnet horn, and you should have it when I die.” I was blown away. Lee’s kids wanted the horn but he was afraid to let them have it. He said, “I don’t want them to sell it or put it in a museum.” Lee said he’d will it to me so the gift would be legit. Then he said, “When you die, give the kids the horn by willing it to them.” I said sure.
JW: What else did Lee ask you to do?
DP: He said he just wanted the horn to be played every day, so people would hear the music of his brother.
JW: What happened when Lee died in July 2008?
DP: Lee’s son called and told me that the horn was mine, that Lee had indeed left it to me in his will.
JW: How was the horn to play?
DP: Tough at first. It has a Brilhart mouthpiece, which is great. But when I got it, the instrument played hard. The buttons were hard.
JW: How so?
DP: By the end of a night of playing Lester’s horn, my hands would be killing me, even after I had the horn restored the first time. It had been rusting after all those years in Lee’s basement. The problem was the pads wouldn’t cover the holes completely. Playing the bottom of the horn, I had to use a ton of pressure with my hands. The horn just wouldn’t make friends. Then one day I fell on the horn and bent it.
JW: What did you do?
DP: I took it to a pro named Steve Smith. He’s a repair guy at United Band Instrument in L.A. He looked at it and said I’d have to part with it for a few months. He redid all the holes and pads. I just got the horn back a few months ago. I just recorded with it for a CD still in the works.
JW: How do you feel when you play Lester Young’s saxophone?
DP: I’m scared to death. It’s such a thrill. I cry. People come over and touch it. Recently I played an event. Afterward, I took out the horn and left it in front of me on the table. I think about 200 people took pictures with it. All the musicians come by and finger it. Lester would have loved that.
JW: Do you feel Lester’s presence when you play it?
DP: I always feel Lester is looking over me. All I do is try to sound like Prez when I play it. There’s an aura about the horn. It has such a big sound. It’s scary. It’s off center the way they built it, but it plays a little bit better when I hold it sideways like Prez did [laughs].
JW: Why did Lester play the sax off to the side?
DP: Bassist Al McKibbon once asked Prez that question. Al said Prez said he plays like that so he can be closer to the horn’s bell, so he can get closer to it and hear it better.
JW: What’s your favorite Lester Young story?
DP: Someone once asked him why he gives everyone a nickname, like “Lady Day” and “Sweets.” Prez said, “First of all I never remember their real names. If I put a made-up name on them, I remember that and feel closer to them.” Prez was a comic.
JW: A comic?
DP: Oh sure. Prez told really funny stories. In fact, half the reason he played so well was his comedic background. There’s a lot of whimsy in there. Someone once asked him how he could play so well since it looked as if he was drunk all the time. He said, “I am drunk all the time.” The person asked, “How do you sound sober?” Prez said, “I don’t know, I’ve never been sober. This is my normal thing. I drink and I feel right.” Poor Prez.
JW: What’s the big lesson you learned from Prez?
DP: Lester would say you have to learn the lyric to play a song instrumentally. You can’t just play a song. The lyric lets you know the song’s story, so you understand it.
DP: Right next to my bed. It never leaves my side.
If you want to see my entire post on this TV special, go here.
JazzWax note: If you dig the sound of the Dave Pell Octet, I put together a pretty good accounting of his octet discography…
Dave Pell Octet Plays Irving Berlin (1953)
Dave Pell Octet Plays Burke & Van Heusen (1953)
Dave Pell Octet Plays Rodgers & Hart (1954)
I Had The Craziest Dream (1955)
Jazz And Romantic Places (1955)
Jazz Goes Dancing (1956)
Love Story (1956)
Swinging’ in the Old Coral (1956)
A Pell of a Time (1957)
Campus Hop (1957)
Swingin’ School Songs (1958)
In Old South Wails (1960)
Dave Pell Octet Plays Again (1984)
Live at Alfonse’s (1988)
Sunday Afternoons at the Lighthouse Cafe (2005)