There are three European trumpeters who ranked with the classic great Americans - the Scot Jimmy Deuchar, the Yugoslav Dusko Goykovich and the Swede Rolf Ericson. All could easily make their way in the home of jazz, and indeed Ericson did from the time he emigrated to New York in 1947.
Drawn to jazz at the age of 11 when he heard Louis Armstrong play in Stockholm, Ericson turned professional in 1938 and during the Forties recorded with the eminent singers Valaida (also a trumpeter) and Alice Babs. Once in America Ericson was soon called on to play in the sections of the top name bands, including those of Stan Kenton, Charlie Barnet and Woody Herman. He also had radio work with Benny Carter and played with Wardell Gray, Elliot Lawrence and Charlie Ventura.
By the time he returned to Sweden in 1950 he was established as an accomplished soloist and he toured in Scandinavia with Charlie Parker that year, as well as forming his own band with the saxophonists Arne Domnerus and Lars Gullin. "It was a good group, and we had a ball, but the interest in jazz in Sweden was too limited, and I missed the United States." After a year he returned there. "It may be a rat race, but it's where it's happening."
Although he worked in small groups with the saxophonists Dexter Gordon and Harold Land, Ericson had to re-enter the sections of the big bands to make his living. He played with those of Charlie Spivak, Harry James, Les Brown, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey and with Woody Herman. He also put together a quintet which included the notable bassist Scott LaFaro, but it wasn't heard outside the Los Angeles area.
Ericson returned to tour in Sweden with his own American musicians in 1956. It was a fine group which included the baritone player Cecil Payne, the drummer Art Taylor and the pianist Duke Jordan, but it fell apart due to complications with the personnel.
After a short time with Stan Kenton, in 1959 he joined the trumpeter Maynard Ferguson's lively big band for a year. When in 1961 the drummer Buddy Rich was invited by President John F. Kennedy to take a sextet on a tour of the Far East for the State Department, he chose Ericson on trumpet. At the end of the trip the band recorded in New York.
Returning home again in 1962 Ericson played with a rhythm section at the Golden Circle, a Stockholm night-club, also working with the American tenorist Brew Moore in Copenhagen, where Moore lived. "Rolf is one of the best trumpet players I've worked with," said Moore, "and I've worked with a lot of them. He's trying to do his own things and he doesn't copy anybody."
"I like to be part of the whole thing in the States," Ericson said at the time. "There are a lot of good jazz musicians in Europe, but they don't get together like they do in New York."
Back in New York, he played with Benny Goodman and Gerry Mulligan and joined Charlie Mingus's 10-piece band from 1962 to 1963. In the meantime his girlfriend became pregnant. Ericson had no money and approached Duke Ellington for a loan. "How much do you want?" asked Ellington, opening his wallet. "I don't know how or when I can pay you back," said Ericson. "Come into my band and work it off," said Ellington. He joined Ellington's band on 18 April 1963 and stayed for two years, concurrently working as the trumpeter in Rod Levitt's distinguished octet in New York.
The pay in the Ellington band was low ("But you get the chance to play with me, Sweetie," Duke used to wheedle). On one occasion the trumpeter Leo Ball had just come out of customs at Amsterdam airport when he saw Ericson, an old friend of his, talking to someone outside. He rushed down the stairs and threw his arms round him. The other man vanished swiftly. "Leo, I love you," said Ericson, "But I'm not glad to see you right now. I've been trying for a year to get next to Duke Ellington to ask him for a raise. I finally had him cornered, and because of you he got away!"
From 1965 to 1970 Ericson worked in the studios as a freelance musician in radio, television and in the Hollywood film studios before returning yet again to Sweden where he was able to form his own big band for a while. Staying in Berlin for most of the Eighties, he made return visits to the States before settling in Los Angeles.
His life was disrupted when his German wife Evelyn, an accomplished vocalist, returned home to the States from a tour of Europe in the early Nineties. The American immigration authorities discovered that she didn't have citizenship and she was refused permission to re- enter the country. Ericson had no alternative but to sell up everything he owned and follow her back to Europe. They lived in Stockholm, where Ericson's health eventually deteriorated.
Rolf Ericson, trumpeter and bandleader: born Stockholm 29 August 1922; married; died Stockholm 16 June 1997.
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