Obituary: Red Mack
Monday 12 July 1993
RED MACK was with Kid Ory's Creole Jazz Band when it appeared in the 1955 bio-pic The Benny Goodman Story, helping to give authenticity to the actor Steve Allen's simulated attempts at traditional jazz. It was the trumpeter's reddish complexion and freckles which gave him the stage name he used throughout a long and musically distinguished career in black jazz in California.
Mack's family went West before the First World War hoping to pick cotton, oddly enough, but soon found other work and settled. He took up trumpet at school, inspired by a celebrated local player, Claude Kennedy, and was adept enough to work with territory bands while still in his teens. By 1930, he was with Louis Armstrong at the Cotton Club in Culver City and was called on to play his idol's solo specialities over the air while the great man was serving a nine-day jail sentence for marijuana possession, deceiving all but the best- informed of listeners. Mack later said of Louis, 'I tried to sing like him, play like him, walk and talk like him.'
From then on, he performed with every prominent black orchestra on the coast, including those led by Sonny Clay, Charlie Echols, Lorenzo Flennoy and the young Lionel Hampton. The Basie trumpeter Buck Clayton considered Mack 'the champion trumpet player in Los Angeles' in the Thirties and always spoke appreciatively of his beautiful instrumental tone. By the end of the decade, Mack had become a successful bandleader himself, participating in the entertainment scene on Central Avenue, the focus of the city's black night life.
He recorded frequently, appeared in the 1941 Fred Astaire film You'll Never Get Rich, was briefly with the tenor-saxophonist Lester Young and then with the clarinettist Barney Bigard's All Stars, a swing group which included bassist Charles Mingus and re-introduced the veteran trombonist Kid Ory to active performance. According to Bigard, Ory had been 'sweeping the city morgue for dollars 12 a week' prior to this engagement. Mack also gained some notoriety when he became one of a handful of top black musicians to play with otherwise all-white orchestras, touring as a featured artist with Will Osborne's band just prior to Pearl Harbor.
Mack's post-war career was more fragmented as bebop became the dominant force in jazz. He continued to front combos in clubs and on tour but achieved only modest success, even though he took up vibes and organ to supplement his trumpet and vocals. Later he chose to concentrate on his real-estate interests after his health failed, although he did visit Europe in 1963 to perform in Switzerland and Paris, stopping off in London. Among his last engagements were a number with the pianist-vocalist Nellie Lutcher, who was a regular guest at the jam sessions which he liked to host in the vast music room at his home in Central Los Angeles.
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