BMHOF Class of 2005
Don Menza is a powerful
tenor saxophonist who, although able to effectively imitate most
of the top stylists (from Coleman Hawkins to John Coltrane), has
a distinctive sound of his own. Menza started playing tenor when
he was 13. After getting out of the Army, he was with Maynard
Ferguson's Orchestra from 1980-1982 as both a soloist and an
arranger. A short stint with Stand Kenton and a year leading a
quintet in Buffalo preceded a period living in Germany from
1964-1968. After returning to the U.S., he was with Buddy Rich's
big band in 1988, recording a famous solo on "Channel One Suite"
that utilized circular breathing and was quite classic. He
settled in California and has worked with Elvin Jones (1969),
Louie Bellson, as an educator, and in the studios. Don Menza,
who has made far too records of his own, recorded as a leader
for Saba (1965) in Germany, Discwasher (1979), Realtime, and
Palo Alto (the latter two in 1981). Some of his many studio
credits include work on albums by artists in all genres, such as
Henry Mancini, Shawn Phillips, Lowell Fulson, The Righteous
Brothers, Jimmy Witherspoon, Neil Diamond, Rita Coolidge, John
Lee Hooker, Leonard Cohen, Bette Midler, Manhattan Transfer, Boz
Scaggs, Kenny Burrell, Donna Summer, Phil Spector, Toto, Natalie
Cole, Tito Puente, Chicago Metropolitan Jazz Orchestra, Glen
Campbell, Keely Smith, Ron Davies, just to name a few. Don
Recently recorded a project with another Buffalo Music Hall of
Famer, Bobby Jones and local drummer John Bacon, Jr. He recently
performed here in Buffalo before leaving for an extended
teaching residency in Europe.
Following is an interview
with Don Menza by Les Tompkins from 1968:
I'm from Buffalo—that's
upstate New York. It's funny, a lot of tenor players come from
around there—Sal Nistico, Joe Romano, J, R, Monterose. And Nick
Brignola, the baritone player.
Nobody in my family had
ever played, or was even musically inclined. One day I heard a
jazz record—"Body And Soul". Then the next day somebody let me
listen to a Gene Ammons record. And three weeks later I had a
tenor saxophone. That was it. I was 15, and I hadn't played till
then. I never studied; it was something I went after, and there
it is. I learned by practical experience only.
In the army I got a chance to do a lot of experimenting, and to
meet a lot of other good musicians. Stationed in Stuttgart, I
was in the 7th Army band that is legendary now. Don Ellis was in
the band, Leo Wright, Lex Humphries, Cedar Walton, Lanny Morgan,
Eddie Harris. Ooh, what a band that was. One of the best I ever
played on. I couldn't believe it. I had the opportunity to write
for the band; so it was a beginning for that.
Don Ellis was into his experimental things then. He was writing
in 5/4, and all kinds of times and sounds. It was quite an
experience. Having got to know Don, after the army he invited me
to stay in New York with him. And I quit playing. All the way
through the army, I'd just told myself I didn't want to play any
more. When I got out of the army I was going to go into a normal
life. At some kind of day job. So I did—I quit for almost a
year, between 1958 and '59. Before the end of 1959 I had started
In 1960 I went with Maynard Ferguson's band for a year and a
half. Wonderful. I did a lot of writing there, too, The great
thing about that band was the enthusiasm—bubbling over. Even
when everybody was really dragged and depressed and down, making
a one-nighter from New York to Chicago—boy, the band used to get
up on the bandstand and really cook.
I don't know what caused that enthusiasm. I can't figure it out.
We didn't make any money; when we didn't work, we didn't get
paid. You know, it wasn't a band where they guaranteed you so
much a week, or where you could live off it. It was like a hobby
The important thing was, I think, that everybody really had a
chance to stretch out and play what and how they wanted to.
Maynard let them do that.
I, for one, used to get really depressed on the band. And, now
that I look back at it, I guess I was more bugged at myself than
anybody else. Because there were many things that I couldn't
make, and I'd really get up tight about it; I'd find all kinds
of excuses to put down other things.
Sectionwise, it was fantastic. Lanny Morgan was playing lead
alto, with Willie Maiden and Frank Hittner. The band was fairly
stable while I was in it—almost two years. The trumpets were Don
Rader, Chet Ferretti and Rick Keifer. Rick's in Cologne now. He
was in the Greger band with me; he's with Kurt Edelhagen now.
As well as being, like, one of the cats, Maynard was a great
leader. It was very, very conducive to playing good jazz; he was
beautiful for the whole spirit of the band. Outside of the money
thing; that was the only drawback. It seems like you've really
got to pay some dues if you're dedicated to jazz.
It wasn't like a big band—that was the idea of it. He kept it
small; and everybody in the band was a soloist—with the
exception, I think, of the lead trumpet player. And sometimes
the lead trombone, who really couldn't stand up and play a whole
bunch of jazz. But even then, he used to have that when Slide
Hampton was in the lead chair, and a few of the other cats.
So it was no easy problem for Maynard, with the band never
becoming a big commercial success. It's a shame; because when
they look back on it in another ten years, it will be considered
one of the really great bands. I'm glad to see that he's getting
a little active again in Europe.
I left Maynard to go to a money job. I went to play with Stan
Kenton—and stayed for about six weeks. It was such a letdown;
not because the band wasn't good or anything. It's just that I
didn't get to play as much as I did on Maynard's band, and I was
making all kinds of money. I suddenly realised what I had done,
and panicked. I left Stan Kenton, went back home—and quit
Well, I didn't really stop playing. This time I went home and
did a lot of practicing; we started a small group in Buffalo
with Sam Noto and a few more local musicians. It enabled me to
get myself a little bit more together.
Right then, in 1964, I just didn't know what I wanted to do. I
didn't want to go in Woody's band at the time. Nor did I want to
go back with Maynard's band; they were starting to scuffle even
more about bread. I knew Dusko Goykovich from 1956 when I was in
the Service; he gave me Max Greger's address, and said: "Write
him a letter." So I wrote Max, told him who I was and what
records he could get to hear me on. Three weeks later I was in
What a switch that was! Now I was working and I was getting a
chance to play jazz on my own. I couldn't believe it. I had so
much time off from my studio gig, almost every night I was
running some place to play. Not immediately—it took me four or
five months to really get the jazz thing going. But once I did,
it was beautiful. I was given my own record date while I was
there; then after a year and a half I made the record with Max.
Not to mention all the commercial things that we did. My writing
had full scope, too.
The four years in Europe was priceless experience. Through
working in the studios, I learned to play all the saxophones and
flutes. I hadn't played flute before, other than a very small
amount with Maynard.
Musicianship, I found, was of a high general standard. The only
thing was the studio. The band really wasn't a jazz band; so it
was kind of hard when Max decided he wanted to make jazz things.
As far as the small groups were concerned, there are quite a few
good rhythm players in Germany. Which was no surprise; I knew
that from the army days. It was just a matter of getting back,
finding out who were the new young cats, where they were and how
to get them together.
And in Munich, at the new jazz club, the Domicile, an awful lot
was going on jazz-wise. I was able to play every night for the
last two years of my stay. Really beautiful; a very exciting
scene. That I really miss. Since I left Munich, I haven't had
any chance of stretching out the way I could there.
Of course, I get to play quite a bit on Buddy's band. But it's a
completely different kind of playing in big bands. You talk to
Sal Nistico, or any jazz player, he'll tell you this. It's the
way it should be; you should listen to what's going on around
you and build upon that. Because if it has nothing to do with
the overall context, what's the sense of playing it? Buddy has a
pretty straight-ahead band. I sit there, and he plays right in
my ear. And I dig it. I dig drummers that really beat on them,
you know. I think that’s the way drummers should play. There
comes a time to get sensitive; but when it’s time to swing and
to really lay it down, he does it.
The British tour last year was my first trip over here since
October,'79, when I came as a member of the Louie Bellson band.
It was also my very first time as a single. It looked like I was
going to try to put it together about three years ago, when I
went to Scandinavia. I was in Sweden for almost two weeks, and
then I went on to Helsinki—that was my third time there as a
single. In Sweden, I did a single in a club, made an album with
Hector Bingert, a Uruguayan tenor player who has a jazz/salsa
band, and toured with a Swedish big band at all the various
folks parks that they have. In Helsinki I played a jazz club,
the Club Groovy, and did a live album there also.
I don't know why I didn't put the British thing together
earlier—or even Germany, for that matter. It always seemed like
I was so busy, getting involved in different projects in the
States. I always said: "I'll work on it six months from now;
I'll try to set it up for next Spring"—and there was always
something else that came up. Last year's trip was arranged six
months in advance, and it worked out real good.
For a couple of years I've been playing the first flute chair in
Cats in Los Angeles; that's at the Schubert Theatre in Century
City. It's been very nice to get a steady pay-cheque, and to
play my flute all the time—the book is ninety per cent flute.
L.A. is really not a theatre town; it's probably been one of the
longest running shows they've had there.
This was another first for me—I hadn't done pit work before. And
it's a totally different set of rules. I thought it would just
be: go there, play the music, smile through it all—but night
after night playing the same music involves an extreme amount of
discipline. You start to memorize all the cues real quick; what
is essential is: not to get bored with it, to keep it sounding
fresh—to keep it interesting is the big thing to do, I think.
A lot of the guys sit there and read—and it bugs the hell out of
me. I feel they should be listening, and constantly aware of
where the pitch is. I don't know—maybe I'm taking it too
serious. But I take music very seriously—and music has been my
Of course, you can't get too creative with notes that are
expected to be the same, and phrasing that you have to adhere to
every single night. There are a couple of little things that are
just out-and-out solos, which have absolutely nothing to do with
anybody else except you alone. At the beginning of the second
act there's this short one—well, you consider it short by jazz
standards, but when you're playing it al1 alone in front of a
theatre packed with people, it suddenly becomes very long! But I
try to take a little bit of liberty here and there, and play it
slightly different. You keep trying things—you know, nothing
ventured, nothing gained. You have to take chances—but when you
do, sometimes you'll slip. I am an interpretative artist; so I'm
liable to do it that way. And sometimes I'll get the high sign
from the conductor; sometimes not! It's okay, though.
It gives me an extra interest—and people around me. There's a
short tenor solo in the first act, and I promised myself that
every night I was going to play it different. It's a rock 'n'
roll, honking tenor solo, with a lot of high notes in there.
They want it in the contemporary vein, and that's the way I do
it. I use that pinched, squealy sound—it works perfectly. I've
been having more fun with it; every night it's a different trip.
Listen, I've played on a lot of rock 'n' roll records. I've
played solos that in a million years people wouldn't think that
it was me. Nobody would pick it out and say: "Oh, that's Don
Menza". It doesn't work that way. I turn into a chameleon; I
wouldn't dare go in there and approach it like I do when I'm on
the stand playing "Airegin" or something—that would be totally
out of context. And if you've got a rock 'n' roll tenor solo to
play, you give it that contemporary thing. I'm not talking about
a 'fifties tenor sound; I'm talking about the sound that's right
here and now—there's a certain element in it that you should
But after more than a year in this job, you can imagine how much
I needed a little break, to go out and play some jazz again. I
started to feel that irresistible urge to do something else—oh,
I had a terrible appetite for playing. When you're not out
playing every night, you start to get the feeling: "Gee, am I
forgetting how to play?" It took one night; the next night
everything started to get very clear again, and I felt much
Working with changing rhythm sections is no problem, really—it's
the same situation in L.A. Somebody comes to town, and if
they're going to work a club for, let's say, four or five
nights, any given night you'll never know who's going to be in
the rhythm section. They'll hire one rhythm section, and when
any of them can't make it they have to worry about their own
deps (or subs, as we say).
For me, going out as a single has always been very good—whether
it's up in Toronto or Buffalo or Phoenix or San Francisco or San
Diego. They always understand that, in spite of those anonymous
records, I'm not there to play rock 'n' roll. So long as they
pick a good jazz rhythm section that is fully acquainted with
the jazz concept—fine. And I'm talking about anywhere from early
Swing to Avant Grade—I don't care which direction they go; so it
makes it easy. But I can usually sort it out—and I'll usually go
I've talked to some people about it, and they've said: "Why
don't you play more of your original tunes?" That's difficult; I
come to a town, and if I have one rehearsal with one rhythm
section, that means I have to rehearse every day, any time
there's a new player—unless they're tremendous readers. It's not
worth it—it's far better to go in, have everybody have their
best foot forward and play it as relaxed as possible. I know
sometimes for the people it's not as interesting, because they
wind up hearing the same tunes from everybody that comes in.
Sorry—but that's the way the whole thing is set up.
If I went to other towns, or came over here, with my rhythm
section, or with my piano player and drummer, or piano player
and bass player, it would be easy to ask one or two of the guys
to start to follow what we were doing. When I play with my own
group, if I play one standard a set, that's a lot. Back home we
usually wind up playing three sets—here it's only two. So, in
the single set-up, I try not to repeat tunes, and try to dig
into the past and come up with a whole bunch of different songs
No, I don't carry a note of music, nor a list of tunes and
keys—nothing. It's more exciting that way. Just start playing,
and everybody jumps in. And I try to treat things in a different
way—either play a tune as a fast samba or a bossa nova, or
something that normally would be played very fast played very
slow, or play it on flute. It makes a more interesting show for
the people out there, because, like Buddy Rich said: "We don't
When I've psyched out where they're at, I try to pick tunes that
will make the other guys feel comfortable. By the same token, I
don't like to play a tune that I don't know, and I don't expect
anybody else to. If there's music to it, that's simple— I can
read changes real fast. We simply find a common ground. Well,
these are musicians that are playing every night— they
understand it all. I have to say that sometimes I have to take a
deep breath and try to get my composure together, because it
tends to be a little boring. I am tired of playing "Green
Dolphin Street"; I am tired of playing "Stella By Starlight"—but
under these conditions, you do the best you can. You try to make
it sound fresh. I'd rather do that than not play for the people,
I'll tell you.
Is there a kind of a 1950 barrier for songs? Well, there are
certainly a lot of sensational songs that were written pre '50.
I started playing around '51-'52, and most of the ballads I
learned originated before that. And I still play them: "I Can't
Get Started", "Body And Soul", "These Foolish Things", "My
Foolish Heart", "Fools Rush In"—I think most of those songs were
from the 'forties and earlier. They were the war ballads—the
love songs. And everybody seems to know them; it makes it
But if you're going up and playing a jazz ballad, there's a
lyrical approach to it that you should have. I think all the
great players knew how to do that. You can separate the men from
the boys real quick: let somebody play a ballad, and you can
tell right away who knows how to sing, who has all that lyric
quality. I'm a stickler about that; I'll talk to young students
all the time—I'll tell 'em: "Learn how to play long notes. Do
you know the words to the song? If not, learn those words.
Listen to a good singer, and imitate what he does." That's all
the instruments are, anyway—they're just an imitation of the
I know many of the songs I play are songs whose lyrics I've
learned. Then you learn how to phrase and how to sing. The whole
thing about vibrato or non-vibrato—I don't care about that.
There's some singers who will sing a note dead on. Joao
Gilberto's a prime example of that; most people would probably
say he's got a terrible voice—but, boy, can he tell a story!
Does he know how to get that lyric quality happening! He has
that beautiful, easy approach to it. He's one of my heroes of
all time—then on the other hand I'm a Pavarotti fanatic. How
does it add up? Well, it's all music. Absolutely.
As to whether the older songs are the best ones—I don't know.
Lionel Richie's come up with a whole bunch of beautiful songs.
"Lady" is a wonderful song to play. It's just that it seems
like... how much do I listen to contemporary pop things these
days? Not a lot—I've discovered Mahler; so I'm going even
farther back now, and all of a sudden I'm into a whole different
aspect of music.
I have been putting the majority of my time and effort into
learning how to write film scores—I went to school for that. I
studied conducting and orchestration; I'm still doing that, and
I'm anxious to get into it. I've started knocking on doors, and
it's funny now, the answers I get: "Well, we always considered
you a jazz writer." Well, they never commissioned me to write
any jazz scores either! Now I'm interested in the area of
dramatic film writing—suddenly I'm a jazz tenor player and
writer. Well, then hire me for that! But it's been extremely
rewarding. I'm finding I know more about music than I gave
myself credit for—and I'm winding up with a bit more confidence.
Now I want to get into music that much deeper. I've started
writing a whole bunch of new charts. It sounds like I've taken a
step... I don't know if it's forward, but in a slightly
different direction. Harmonically it's turned into something
else. I'm writing a lot more for woodwinds, mixing colors and
instrumentations far better, and getting some contrasting things
I just wrote a new chart on "Caravan", and it's a totally
different approach to that song from what anybody has ever done.
Hopefully, it'll be on the next album with my big band. All the
ballads have woodwinds; there's no high notes, screaming and
everything—it's all very nice. The ballads sound like ballads.
It's all acoustic, for five, five and five, and three rhythm—but
at times you'd swear you could hear strings, or you can almost
hear French horns. I do it by different couplings of
instruments, different colorings.
I may work some electronic instruments in there eventually—but
there's something sacred about it, and I've made very few
compromises in my life, as far as music has been concerned.
Sometimes maybe I should have. If I were to say which ones did I
make—I raised a family, and I definitely had to make compromises
for that, in some of the music that I had to play. Playing in a
studio is much the same as being on the Ford assembly line, or
working in a factory somewhere. But I raised a son and a
daughter, and I still have a beautiful wife—I have a lot to be
thankful for. On the other hand, I'm anxious to get on with it
now. Here comes another phase of it.
I don't think the dues-paying aspect was too bad, really. The
music that I played, for the most part, was very good; I worked
for most of the good writers in Los Angeles. The Munich years
were certainly very productive; I had a steady job there, and
they treated me as one of their own. I never felt like I was a
foreigner when I was there—it was sensational.
And I have a lot to thank Max Greger for—to hire a jazz tenor
player—well, he knew my reputation somewhat from when I was in
the Army; I sent him a couple of records that I had done with
Maynard Ferguson, and on the strength of that he hired me. Those
were four very productive years.
I didn't play the flute with Max – I would say its in the last
five or six years that I got real serious about that instrument.
But that came from going out with Henry Mancini, and not wanting
to have to sit there all the time while the full symphony
orchestra was playing. I said: "Well, print up a fourth flute
book, so I don't have to read over somebody's shoulder." I
learned how to play all the parts, and I started to hear all the
great flute players sitting next to me in all the orchestras-and
it didn't take long at all. I mean, I learned how to play
saxophone that way—from listening to records. So once the sound
got in my head, I knew what I was doing wrong. It's been very
worth-while, the last fifteen years with Mancini. That's an
education in itself—watching him conduct, and listening to the
music that he's written. Aside from his jazz awareness, I'm
talking about his approach to the orchestra—how he treats all
that. Yes, he has his own sound; his colors are very lush, very
beautiful. He's very much aware of what's happening.
Concerning my own band—I must mention the "Burnin' " album on
the Real Time label, because I don't believe that showed up over
here, due to distribution problems. The saxophone section was
great: Joe Romano, Ray Reid, myself, Larry Covelli, Gary Herbig,
Jay Migliori; Jack Nimiz played all the baritone parts. There
were three dates, and the four saxophones varied in different
chairs. I fronted the band; I didn't play in the section,
because I felt at that point in the studio I'd have a little
more control over it. The trumpet section was real good; it was
Frank Szabo, Bobby Shew, Ron King, Chuck Findley and Don
Rader—not bad at all! The rhythm section was Frank Strazzeri,
Nick Ceroli and Frank De La Rosa. On trombones were Charlie
Loper, Bill Reichenbach, Dick Hyde, Myo Tiana and Dana Hughes. I
did all the writing; there was one standard—Duke's ballad,
"Don't You Know I Care?"—which Louie Bellson, I understand,
recorded here. Now I've got enough music for two more albums—I'm
looking forward to them.
The week at the Bull's Head, Barnes Tin February turned out real
nice—it's always fun to go there and play. It's a jazz
joint—there aren't too many places like that any more. Germany
still has them; I was there recently, and they have their
Jazzkellers. You walk into a jazz place and it feels like:
"Okay—let's play!" Last year's short tour of Germany, plus one
concert in Italy, resulted from my previous time over here. Gaby
Kleinschmidt came into the Bull's Head, and she wanted to know
if I would be interested in doing something with Conte Candoli
and a bunch of people from the West Coast. But the farther down
the line we got, the more people started backing out, due to
various other commitments. So we wound up putting the band
together with Chuck Findley on trumpet, Frank Strazzeri on
piano, Frank De La Rosa on bass and Jimmy Smith on drums.
It turned out to be quite an eventful tour, to say the least.
The first concert in Hamburg and the last, at the Berghausen
Jazz Festival, were televised. Then after the tour Frank
Strazzeri and I went to Barcelona, Spain, where we did some
recordings for the Fresh Sound label. Frank did a trio album,
and I did a duo album with him—all ballads. Just me on tenor and
Frank on piano. Hearing the record, one doesn't miss the bass
and drums; it's very complete musically, very laid-back. We did
all beautiful standard tunes, such as "My Foolish Heart",
"You're My Thrill", "Darn That Dream", More Than You Know" and
"Smoke Gets In Your Eyes", plus a jazz standard, "Soultrane",
which Tadd Dameron wrote for John Coltrane, and a slow blues,
"Blues In The Dark", which still has all that relaxed ballad
feeling. It was a one-shot deal; we went in and did twelve tunes
in a couple of hours—it came out nice.
The ballad album has already been released; it's here in
London—I had to sign a few copies for some people at the Woody
Herman Tribute concert. Also we did a quartet album, which will
be released very shortly; I understand they're going to release
both of them on CD—so that'll put it out there for a while.
Since then, I've been doing some dates with Louie Bellson—some
small group things. I went to Boston with him last September,
and then in October we were in Chicago for a week at the Jazz
Showcase—we did a live album there for Concord. That was a
quartet, with Louie, myself, John Heard on bass and Larry Novak,
a Chicago piano player; it turned out nice—that's going to be
out on CD as well. They're also reissuing the "Horn Of Plenty"
album, with Chuck Findley, Bill Reichenbach and myself, and a
In December Louie and I did a week at Fat Tuesday's in New York.
Then the following week we went in the studio for two days and
made a big band album, with all New York musicians. I did a
bunch of writing for that; we wound up recording five tunes of
mine, including a big band ballad arrangement on "My One And
Only Love" and a three-part suite that was originally written
for an all-star New York State youth band—which played it
magnificently as well. It's called "Blues For The Uncommon
Kids"; the title refers to the acoustic kids—they're all into
bebop. Anyway, Louie recorded that; we also did a thing of mine
call "Tenor Time", and a new arrangement of "Caravan" which
sounded really good— this one is definitely different! That
album will be out soon on Music Masters; I think that'll be
strictly CD. I had a chance to play some on there, as well as to
write more—it made it worth-while.
I just came back from a week in Cologne with the West Deutscher
Rundfunk band; Chuck Findley and I went, with Terry Clarke, the
drummer from Rob McConnell's Boss Brass. We had three or four
days' rehearsal, did some back-up tapes on two-track in the
studio, and then on the Friday night a live concert which they
recorded. They're already talking about a return thing; the
concert was a very big success—the band played real good.
Rick Kiefer was on trumpet with the band; he's been in Germany
for about twenty-two years now. I went over in March of '64, and
he showed up around October that year. He seems to be doing
well. It was fun being back in Cologne, and to see some old
friends—I hadn't played there in twenty years. Everybody I
talked to seemed to be working—especially the jazz players, the
people that have managed to stay out there and keep playing.
All of a sudden the studio thing seems to be dwindling slightly,
for whatever reason. People blame it on electronics and
everything—I'm not so sure about that. It may have a little bit
to do with it, but I don't think we can point our fingers at
that. Maybe—the jury is out on the real reason why. Thank God I
can still play; I'm still writing, and I still have a big band
in Los Angeles.
It was hard for me to get the band started again after Nick
Ceroli died—finding a drummer that really had what I was looking
for. Frankie Capp played with the band a couple of times—of
course, he plays with his own band, although it's a completely
different style of music—but he made our band sound really good.
He's rather busy workwise; so I decided to try Roy McCurdy. He
played with Cannonball, and he's been out with Nancy Wilson for
a long time. I didn't want anybody to be so wrapped up in
reading that they forget about the jazz thing—and above all
Roy's a jazz drummer. That's what I needed first, and it seems
to be working out. It's hard , to find somebody who's got both
ends of the spectrum covered. We had a couple of rehearsals, and
he was doing great. Sensational The last time we worked at
Donte's, the band was sensational. Although we did it without
piano, and everybody sort of missed it. In a big band I don't
miss piano at all—I don't miss it in a trio. Either it gets
swamped or it gets miked so hard that it winds up sounding
louder than the whole band—and there's no way acoustically that
a piano sounds that loud. If you get it to where the piano
player feels comfortable, then it wipes the band out, out front.
And if it gets to the point where the guys in the band can hear
the piano when they want to stand up and play, then it's too
loud out front—and I've never been able to figure out a way of
doing it so that both sides are happy. If it is that way, then
when I'm hearing the band playing, I hear too much of the piano
part. So it's crazy. And I don't want that thing where I need
somebody back there controlling dials—the band should be able to
do that acoustically.
Is the California scene a productive one? Well, I don't find the
most sophisticated jazz audiences in Los Angeles, by any means.
No, sir—I don't see it that way at all. On the other hand, there
are some opportunities to play. But there are some clubs where
you walk in and play, and you may as well be in a Las Vegas
lounge. It doesn't work. I mean, there are people there that
talk all the way through a solo, and at the end of the solo
applaud, because they know the guy's done— and : "Oh, doesn't he
play beautiful!" Yes, it's a facade—exactly. It's all part of
what that town is—and it is showbiz, it is Hollywood.
Then again, on any given night at Donte's it can turn out to be
a really, really good jazz audience—you never know.
Carmello's was fantastic when it was happening—it was really a
good jazz scene when it was going on. This whole thing with
Donte's...he finally sold the club; I'm not sure who bought it,
but I understand they're going to renovate the place and keep it
running under the same name. Hopefully, we'll still have the
same privileges we've had for the last twenty-five years. You
could walk in there any night, and the musicians didn't have to
worry about paying a ten-dollar cover charge.
Everybody knew everybody there. This is also the nice thing
about Alphonse's: there's never a door charge or a cover charge;
you walk in and drink—that's in Toluca Lake, in the San Fernando
Valley, North Hollywood. I just had a couple of calls from some
people; I don't know if the Baked Potato is about to start their
Sunday night bebop thing again. Don Randi called while I was
out, and I'll get back to him when I get home.
But I'm still basking in my Cologne recollections—specially that
Friday night. We opened with music from the Louie Bellson album,
followed by some new charts. I did a ballad version of Henry
Mancini's "Moment To Moment", which is normally a flugelhorn
solo; Rick Kiefer played it on trumpet—as he knows how to do
that soft, airy, Ben Websterish kind of thing, and he broke it
up. Same thing with Chuck Findley's solo on "Estate", which is
an Italian pop tune that Gilberto recorded a few years ago with
Claus Ogerman—the people loved it. All the new ballads have very
lush woodwind writing, with flutes, bass clarinets, muted
brass—almost symphonic in nature. They really went for it, and
then when we played the hot things—the burning, up-tempo,
two-tenor battle—the people snapped even more, because of the
I think learning how to program it has been real important for
me. And writing mood pieces, that have other sounds other
colors. Just because you have fifteen horns doesn't mean that
they have to all be playing at the same time. I've used the
Latin feel a lot; we played "Sambaandrea Swing", which Louie
recorded here, when we did a live album at Ronnie Scott's some
eight years ago. In the last chorus the rhythm section goes into
a straight-ahead four-four, but the rest of it is all samba. And
burning samba too; the way that band played it was dynamite.
There seems to be a lot happening, all of a sudden. Some people
are interested in the out-takes from the "Hip Pocket" album,
which was done live at Carmello's. That was with Shelly Manne,
Andy Simpkins, Frank Strazzeri. I only played alto and baritone
on that; I didn't play any tenor. Sal Nistico played tenor—which
may have been a real good reason why I didn't! Everybody said:
"Why didn't you play tenor, man? It would have been
sensational—you could have doubled up..." I explained that the
book was originally written for tenor, trombone and trumpet, and
we were going to do it with myself on tenor, Carl Fontana on
trombone and Sam Noto on trumpet. Carl couldn't do it—or we
never could get in contact with him, and time was running out. I
had the rhythm section set, I had Sam set; so finally I said:
"I'll tell you what I'll do—I'll play the trombone parts on
baritone or alto. Let's get Sal to come in from New York." Sal
flew in, we did it, and it was as simple as that. I could have
just as easily played it on tenor, but the sound of the
trumpet/tenor/baritone seemed to work a little better. It was an
on-the-moment decision, and we went with it. And the colors, the
different sounds of the instruments made it a little nicer, I
think. Anyway, I've got enough for two more albums, and I'm
talking about that to the same people that are reissuing "Horn
I enjoyed the Woody Herman concert, on which I was a last-minute
substitute for A1 Cohn. I'd been a sub in Woody's band for quite
a while, probably starting around '72; since then any time Woody
needed help he would call. I remember I got a call from my wife
while I was working one time, saying the band was on its way to
Disneyland, and they'd called to say they needed a tenor player,
as somebody had got hung up. I got into my car after work, drove
to Disneyland, and jumped up on the bandstand just in time to
I was never really a permanent member of the band; I was never
on the payroll per se, but I managed to keep working with the
band—any time Woody wanted me, I'd put whatever I had aside. I
went to Hawaii with the band for two or three weeks; then San
Francisco, and we worked our way down from there to Los Angeles
with a bunch of one-nighters. At one point Sal had to leave for
a while, and I found myself on the band for about six weeks. It
was beautiful; Woody would say: "Here he is—my sub for all
seasons!" I've played two of the three tenor chairs—I always
I'm sorry I never got a chance to write for Woody's band—it
would have been nice. Because I understood that concept, and
from listening to that band I learned a lot about writing.
Actually, that Disneyland week was the first time; Woody had
really never heard me play before that. I remember running
through crowds of little kids, balloons and everything, with my
tenor over my shoulder. As I got to the bandstand, they had
already started "Caldonia"; I stepped over the stand, and it was
time for the tenor solo. Woody was pointing at Frank Tiberi, but
Frank pointed to me: "Let him play." I played for ten minutes,
at that breakneck tempo, and I could see Woody looking at me,
with a big smile on his face; when it was over, he called out;
"Yeah—Don Menza!", as only he could. After the applause had died
down, he came over, looked at me and said: "Another upstate New
York tenor player!" Of course, he had a history of upstate New
York tenor players—including Sal Nistico, Joe Romano, Jay
Migliori—all from that Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse area.
When they had the Benefit Night for Woody last October, Shorty
Rogers asked me to play; he had "More Moon", about three or four
things he wanted me to come out and play with the band. But I
couldn't do it; I was on the Norway, out in the Caribbean
somewhere. The night of the concert, the radio man came down and
told us: it had just come across that Woody had died.
I saw Woody maybe six months before he died; he was still out on
the streets, and going into Donte's, Alphonse's, wherever.
Anywhere there was some jazz music, he'd come in to hear people
play. One night he went in to hear Joe Romano play; Joe was
working at a place which was then the China Trader, also in
Toluca Lake—which is walking distance from Donte's. And it was
just down the street from Alponse's; then a little further on
was the Money Tree.
At a certain point, it was like the late 'forties in New York—I
mean, there were a half-a-dozen jazz clubs real close to each
other. It was wild. I'd leave Cats, I'd be in the Valley by
11.30, and there was any one of five or six places I could stop.
All of a sudden it's changed now: we're back down to two or
three. But that's okay—at least it's happening. There are people
that have learned a lot from it—if you're going to run a club,
you'd better run it.
That's another story—learning how to run a jazz club; having a
bit of consideration for the people. If you don't have that
nucleus of the society, of the jazz people, that feel good about
the club, it isn't going to work. If the musicians don't feel
comfortable playing there, they don't play good, and the people
can tell the difference.
The closest we've come to the Bull's Head kind of ambience would
have been Donte's, really. And Carmello's was when it started:
one long bar, they'd fit a big band in a small area, and the
entrance was right at the far end of the place. You'd walk in,
and there it all was in front of you.
Concert halls tend to lose that intimacy; when you play bars and
everything, and people are, like, looking down the bell of your
horn, it's a different feeling, absolutely. And anybody that
doesn't feel that, but feels that it's become a black tie
affair...I'm sorry. It's great that jazz has made its steps in
becoming more intellectual, with people studying it harder,
finding out what made it work. But jazz is an experience, a
lifestyle. I'm not sure that I have all the answers, but I see
it real clear, from people that learned how to play that way—and
you can hear it- as opposed to the people who have the socalled
`schooled' approach. Regardless of the style you're playing in,
it has to be music that arouses the emotions, that brings forth
a great spiritual reaction.