Bud Shank: Saxophonist and flautist who pioneered West Coast jazz
Friday 17 July 2009
When I arrived in California in this car with the fella from New York I had a clarinet, I had a flute and I had a tenor saxophone and a toothbrush and no job and no nothin'". Bud Shank was 20 and unknown when he arrived in Los Angeles in 1946, but over the next 10 years he metamorphosed into one of the best-loved alto saxophone players in the world. He was also one of the founders of West Coast jazz, with which his powerful and eloquent alto solos were strongly associated, although this bewildered him: "I don't even know what the hell West Coast jazz is", he said. "It was something different from what they were doing in New York, so the critics called it West Coast jazz." Not conforming to the fashion for "cool", smooth-toned playing, Shank remained a hot player whose intense, hard-swinging style communicated exuberance and excitement with great directness.
Clifford Everett Shank Jnr was born in 1926 in Dayton, Ohio. He and his brother were raised on the farm that his father, a First World War veteran, had bought in 1931. "The folks bought it just as a place to be, really," Shank said. "It was very primitive, I mean, it didn't have plumbing in it when we moved there, no electricity, although that came relatively quickly."
When Shank was 10 he joined the music programme at his school, the Butler County Consolidated. He took so quickly to the clarinet that four weeks later his teacher presented him at a public recital in Dayton. His parents bought him a clarinet of his own, albeit an instrument so aged that the finger rings were worn through. Hearing Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw on the radio, Shank decided he would become a professional musician, soon transferring his affections to the alto and tenor saxophones. "After that I only took the clarinet out of its box when someone made me," he said.
Shank attended the University of North Carolina, majoring in business studies and music, for two years. In 1946 he quit, borrowing enough money from his father to buy a flute. "A pianist friend was driving from New York to California and I hooked up with him. I decided I'd rather be poor in a warm climate than a cold one." In Los Angeles he shared a room with a man who was studying flute, financed by the GI Bill of Rights. "He would come back to the room and tell me everything the teacher had told him, and we'd practice together. Those were my first flute lessons." Shank was to become a virtuoso classical and jazz flautist but, with some misgivings, gave up the instrument entirely 30 years later: "I wanted to be a saxophone player and you couldn't play both properly."
He returned to New York in 1947 to work in Charlie Barnet's band, where he played Barnet's tenor sax solos on the frequent occasions when the socialite bandleader left the stand. Then, abandoning the tenor for good, he joined Stan Kenton's band in 1950, playing flute and alto until he was drafted into the Marine Corps in January 1953. His military career lasted six weeks, which was how long it took the authorities to discover that he had only one good eye. He had been born cross-eyed and, as is typical of the condition, eventually lost the sight in one eye. Self-conscious, Shank would look at the ground when soloing rather than at his audiences. An operation in 1976 straightened the eye and, although it didn't improve his sight, it changed his life, giving him confidence that improved his playing.
Shank then returned to Los Angeles where he joined the Lighthouse All Stars and rode the tide of the newly fashionable West Coast jazz. He formed a partnership with the trumpeter and arranger Shorty Rogers, joining the Shorty Rogers Giants, and played a myriad of jobs with Shelly Manne, Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker and June Christy.
Shank was regularly given credit for having "invented" bossa nova on an album that he made with the Brazilian guitarist Laurindo Almeida in 1953. "I keep hearing that story. That's bullshit. Maybe the album might have helped in the evolution of bossa nova, but those Brazilian guys were quite capable of doing what they did without the help of Laurindo and me."
From 1954 he co-led bands with two other saxophone players, Bob Cooper and Bill Perkins. His international reputation by now assured, he toured Europe and South Africa with Cooper and his wife, June Christy.
In the early Sixties Shank led a band that introduced the talents of the inspired trumpeter Carmell Jones and the bassist Gary Peacock. By the mid-1960s the success of the Beatles had caused ravages in the jazz field, and in 1965 Shank took to the security of the Los Angeles studio scene, staying there for a decade and playing little jazz, except for concert work with Stan Kenton's Los Angeles-based Neophonic Orchestra.
But he returned to jazz with a vengeance in 1974 when he formed the LA Four with Laurindo Almeida. The quartet played smooth but lively jazz and became very popular, making a number of albums for the Concord label. But Shank tired of the formula and by 1983 he was touring Britain, Europe and Japan with Shorty Rogers's revived Giants.
In 1983 he moved to Port Townsend, Washington. The following year he established the Bud Shank Jazz Workshop as a local festival, bringing in musicians like Barney Kessel and Mark Murphy to teach students. A great success, the annual event became more and more popular over the subsequent decades.
Together with Rogers he led The Lighthouse All Stars from the late Eighties into the early Nineties, visiting Britain with the band and recording here for his long-time friend, the entrepreneur Vic Lewis, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra.
Over the later part of his career when, with assiduous help from his third wife Linda, he worked continuously in jazz clubs across the world, his playing became more and more fiery, always changing and influenced by new jazz styles. Latterly, due to his health, he had to play sitting down, but the power and authority of his work remained undiminished.
He contributed to more than 25 Hollywood films, including Assault on a Queen (1966), where he played to great effect with Duke Ellington and members of his orchestra, I Want To Live (1958) and The Sandpiper (1965).
Clifford Everett "Bud" Shank Jnr, musician: born Dayton, Ohio 27 May 1926; three times married (1957 Linda Jolly, 1994 Linda Alexander); died Tucson, Arizona 2 April 2009.
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