Eddie Bert: Trombonist whose 70-year career included stints with Davis, Monk and Mingus
Thursday 11 October 2012
With a career lasting the best part of 70 years, the trombonist Eddie Bert was part of the backbone of jazz. He was a fat-toned and imaginative soloist with a cosmopolitan style who worked with more bands and made more recordings than did any other jazz musician in New York.
His first recordings were with Mildred Bailey, who made her name as the singer in the Paul Whiteman Orchestra of the early 1930s and, typifying the enormous musical span of his life, Bert worked latterly in the band led by TS Monk, son of Thelonious. Often at the forefront of modern jazz, he'd played in progressive bands led by Monk Senior and Charlie Mingus – although, like many people intimidated by the bassist's violence, he left after a short but potent stay with Mingus.
Two trombone heroes of the '30s, Benny Morton and Trummy Young, gave him coaching as a small boy. He played in New York in an amateur band led by the 14-year-old Shorty Rogers. The band also included a saxophone-playing friend of Rogers who was the same age – Stan Getz.
When he was 18, Bert was hired by Sam Donahue for his big band, but soon left to rejoin Rogers in Red Norvo's band. He took his first solo on record in 1942 on Norvo's "Jersey Bounce". With the draft having swept up most adult musicians, there were plenty of good jobs for youngsters in the war years, and Bert played with many bands, including those of Charlie Barnet and Woody Herman. While with Herman he was drafted in January 1944 and worked in an army band led by Bill Finegan, later of Sauter-Finegan Orchestra fame.
Discharged in 1946, he played first for Herbie Fields and then Boyd Raeburn before joining Stan Kenton in September 1947. He was the main soloist in what was perhaps the finest trombone section that Kenton ever had. Kenton featured the singer June Christy, and Bert soloed on several of her finest records. By now he played with great authority, and emerged as an entertaining vocalist, recording duets with one of the Kenton trumpeters Ray Wetzel, including a hilarious "Save the Bones for Henry Jones".
In December 1948 Bert was with the Benny Goodman orchestra while also rehearsing with Miles Davis in what became the groundbreaking "Birth of the Cool" band. But he was out on the road with Goodman when the Davis band made its classic recordings, and his place on them was taken by another Kenton trombonist, Kai Winding. In 1950 Bert joined Artie Shaw's band before returning to Goodman and then to Kenton again
With his credentials truly established, Bert now played in innumerable small and large groups led by all the major figures on the New York scene. During the 1950s he studied at the Manhattan School of Music, where he obtained two degrees. Fluent in most kinds of jazz, he rejoined Goodman, appeared on television with him in 1958, and played with Thelonious Monk in his famous New York Town Hall concert of 1959.
He returned to the Town Hall in 1962 to feature with Charlie Mingus. For much of the 1960s and '70s he worked as a studio musician. He spent two years on Dick Cavett's television show, spending his nights as a member of the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Jazz orchestra. With the Jones-Lewis band he toured Europe and made the first of many trips to Japan and Europe, including England. I made several broadcasts with him for the BBC at this period.
He joined the New York Repertory Company, which held such stars as trumpeter Joe Newman and pianist Dick Hyman. The group toured the Soviet Union, following in the steps of a disastrously neurotic tour there by Benny Goodman. Bert recorded the band's Rostov-on-Don concert by putting a portable cassette machine on the piano. He sent me the tape and there's no doubting the overwhelming enthusiasm of the jazz-starved Russians.
Bert played one last concert with Thelonious Monk in 1981 and stayed with the tenor saxophonist Illinois Jacquet's band from 1984 to 1986 when he returned to Benny Goodman yet again. He was a founding member of the American Jazz Orchestra in 1986, joined Loren Schoenberg's big band the same year and played with Schoenberg until 1996. During that period he was a regular in Walt Levinsky's Great American Swing orchestra and twice toured Japan with that band.
In 1998 he returned to England to play at a celebration of Stan Kenton at Egham in Windsor and the same year toured in Japan with the clarinettist Ken Peplowski. He continued to work in and around New York until earlier this year when he suffered a stroke which left him unable to play or to speak.
During the 1980s Bert taught music at Essex College, Bridgeport University and Western Connecticut State University. He published The Eddie Bert Trombone Method in 1972. He was also an accomplished photographer, and his work appeared in To Bird with Love (1981), a book by Chan Parker and F Paudras, and in Jazz Giants: a Visual Retrospective (1988) by K Abé.
Eddie Bert, trombonist, teacher and photographer: born Yonkers, New York 16 May 1922; died New York 28 September 2012.
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