DICK CARY was the ultimate jazz journeyman, playing a key but usually anonymous part in the success of many of the great names. He was a skilled player of several instruments and worked for many of the best-known leaders, Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Jimmy Dorsey and Eddie Condon amongst them.
He is best remembered for his work as the pianist in Louis Armstrong's small group of 1947 onwards. Armstrong had been his idol and, when he was asked to join the trumpeter in a concert at the Town Hall, in New York, on 17 May 1947 he felt that he had achieved his ultimate goal.
It has always seemed odd that Armstrong, forever linked to the tradition in jazz, was the man who virtually destroyed collective improvisation, crudely described as 'when they all play together without sheet music'. Collective improvisation is the traditional purist's Holy Grail. By 1927 Armstrong so obviously towered over those playing with him in his Hot Five and Hot Seven that it became irrelevant for them to have anything to say and these improvising small groups were replaced over the next two years by a big band designed exclusively as a platform for Armstrong's solo work. The trumpeter persisted with this formula until 1947 when the promoter Ernie Anderson set up the Town Hall concert but, instead of booking Armstrong and the big band, hired the trumpeter with selected individuals, the trombonist Jack Teagarden, the clarinettist Peanuts Hucko, the cornettist Bobby Hackett and the pianist Dick Cary amongst them. The idea was that, after a brief rehearsal to familiarise the men with Armstrong's repertoire, all the music should be
As Cary was completely familiar with everything Armstrong had ever done he was chosen to rehearse the band. Armstrong was working elsewhere and only joined the group at six o'clock on the night of the concert.
The music which resulted, as can be heard from the recordings made for RCA Victor, was classic stuff. 'Rockin' Chair', done as a vocal duet between Armstrong and Teagarden, is one of the most relaxed and yet majestic performances in jazz, and the other selections were just as potent. Cary, with his discreet support from the piano, and Bobby Hackett, with lyrical obbligati behind Armstrong and Teagarden, played vital roles.
Such was the audience and critical acclaim that the big band was immediately put on notice (Armstrong never worked regularly with a big band again) and the following August, when Teagarden and Hucko joined the first regular version of the Louis Armstrong All Stars, Armstrong said that he'd like 'the kid who did the concert' on piano. Variations of the All Stars were to be led from then on by Armstrong until his death in 1971.
What on the face of it should have been the perfect job for Cary became, as it did for so many subsequent members of the All Stars, a treadmill. He remembered it by saying that he 'worked with Louis for several months - until it got routine. One night Teagarden played 'St James' Infirmary' as his feature instead of 'Basin Street Blues' and the management sent an urgent memo that we were only to do what was in the programme. That was the last straw.' Cary left and was replaced by Earl Hines.
By the time he was 11 Cary was playing violin in the Hartford Symphony Orchestra. When he was 18 he had switched to piano and was playing with local dance and jazz bands. He bought a second-hand cornet in 1939 and added that to his arsenal. Later he added the alto horn, a small French horn-like member of the tuba family. He moved to New York in the early Forties and hung around the jazz clubs in 52nd Street, listening to Art Tatum, Billie Holiday and the other luminaries of The Street. In Christmas 1941 he was given his first break, replacing the pianist Charlie Queener for two weeks at Nick's on Seventh Avenue in a band led by Wild Bill Davison with Brad Gowans and Pee Wee Russell. Queener never came back and Cary stayed until he was drafted in 1943.
During this time Cary wrote arrangements for Benny Goodman and after he left the army in 1946 recorded with some of the best Dixieland groups, including those led by Wild Bill Davison and Muggsy Spanier. He joined Billy Butterfield's band and with it made his first recordings on alto horn. After the job with Armstrong he played piano in Jimmy Dorsey's band and worked on and wrote the arrangements for Eddie Condon's series of television shows. He later worked as the regular trumpeter in Condon's club in Greenwich Village. From then on he played regularly with the cream of the New York club musicians. Unlike the Dixielanders, he was a progressive musician and his apartment became the centre for jam sessions with players like Zoot Sims, Bob Brookmeyer, Bill Evans and Jimmy Raney. From 1956 he worked in the progressive band led by Bobby Hackett.
Cary moved in 1959 to Los Angeles. He toured the Far East with Eddie Condon and Buck Clayton in 1964 and in 1975 and 1977 made tours of Europe.
Throughout his career Cary 'scuffled', taking whatever work he could and never becoming wealthy. His great gifts as a writer were not well recognised and these were probably best shown on the recordings of the 1956 Bobby Hackett band. Apart from the ones with Armstrong, his finest recordings in that idiom were in Eddie Condon's jam session groups. Cary visited London in 1978 and appeared at the Pizza Express restaurant.
Cary had built up a library of over a thousand of his own arrangements for big bands and until recently was working with five rehearsal bands in the Los Angeles area. As well as jazz he wrote music which was performed by the Rochester Symphony Orchestra.