Obituary: Johnny Carisi
Monday 12 October 1992
ALTHOUGH he was regarded primarily as a trumpeter, Johnny Carisi's greatest skills emerged in his composition and arranging work. He was assured of a small niche in posterity when the Miles Davis band of 1949 recorded his composition 'Israel', one of a series of pieces from different composers which eventually made up the legendary Birth of the Cool album.
The Birth of the Cool sessions were only nominally under Davis's name, and they encompassed the work of burgeoning young jazz composers like Gerry Mulligan, Gil Evans and John Lewis, as well as Carisi. 'Israel', a polyphonic variation on the 12-bar blues, was composed at a time when Carisi studied under the classical composer Stefan Wolpe and was also playing in the avant-garde Claude Thornhill Orchestra (1949-50).
Gil Evans was then the staff arranger for Thornhill, and Miles Davis, intrigued by the originality of the Thornhill band library, passed over to Evans the sheet music he was using as trumpeter for Charlie Parker's Quintet in exchange for the chance to study Thornhill's arrangements. It seems likely that Carisi, who must have learned much from Gil whilst with Thornhill, would also have benefited from this exchange.
The association between the three men continued in later years when Gil Evans gave his name as leader to the 1961 Into the Hot album, although the music consisted of three pieces arranged and composed by Carisi and played by his band and a further three by the avant-garde pianist Cecil Taylor. Carisi's works were typically stimulating and inventive, regarded as controversial amongst jazz fans of the time, and embodying many of the elements of his classical studies. He was annoyed by the attempts to classify his writing. 'If you need a term to describe what I compose,' he said, 'you can simply call it American music.'
Evans scored another of Carisi's compositions, 'Springsville', when Miles Davis and Evans came to record the sublimely successful Miles Ahead album (Davis's solos cushioned on sumptuous backgrounds played by the Evans orchestra).
A self-taught musician, Carisi's career began when he became a member of Babe Russin's band as trumpeter and arranger in New York in 1940. By the end of 1942 he had joined Glenn Miller's US Air Force band and, significantly, began to sit in at jam sessions held at Minton's night club. Minton's was regarded as the birthplace of be-bop, and musicians like Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Kenny Clarke and Charlie Christian, all young innovators, were regular players in the sessions.
Escaping from the Miller band in 1946, Carisi concentrated on arranging, and his scores were used by the orchestras of Charlie Barnet, Ray McKinley and Claude Thornhill before he joined Thornhill's trumpet section.
In 1956 Carisi scored all the themes on an album by the trombonist Urbie Green's big band. The music was supposed to be aimed at dancers, but Carisi's scores and fine solos by Green, Al Cohn and Joe Wilder, turned it instead into a potent jazz collection. He followed Green's album in 1959 with the music for a set by Harry Galbraith's Guitar Choir and 10 years later with a distinctive collection for the trumpeter Marvin Stamm.
Carisi was one of the trumpeters on a 1960 State Department tour of South East Asia and the Middle East. His experiences on the tour, notably at the Taj Mahal, inspired his compositions for Into the Hot. 'We not only got to see the Taj Mahal,' he remembered, 'but we saw it in a full moon and that one big stretched-out chord that keeps recurring in 'Moon Taj' was one I actually played inside that mausoleum with a flute player in the orchestra. You're not supposed to play alien music there, but we couldn't resist.'
Carisi continued to bestride both jazz and classical fields, with occasional forays into ballet and pop music. He composed a quartet for saxophones and a concerto for tuba on the one hand and scored music for Jerry Lewis's television show on the other.
In 1969 he joined the faculty of the Manhattan School of Music, a department of the University of New York, but continued to play jazz off and on until 1984.
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