Incroyable musicien et arrangeur Américain, Dan Barrett, avec qui j’ai la grande chance de jouer régulièrement en Europe, a bien voulu répondre aux questions de Docteur Jazz et nous livrer une anecdote sur son métier d’arrangeur.
DJ- Dan, please give us a presentation.
DB- I was born near Los Angeles, in Pasadena, California 14 Dec 1955. I grew up one hour south of Pasadena, in Costa Mesa, California, where I now live with my wife Laura. We have one son, Andrew, who is an accomplished ragtime pianist and authority on piano music of that era.
Neither of my parents were professional musicians. However, they both loved music. We had an old upright piano, and my mother would often play waltzes and ‘30s popular songs; usually in the key of C. My father would sometimes join her, standing by the piano and singing in a musical baritone voice. He would often come home from work and play records; mostly music from the great Broadway shows. One of my two older brothers played guitar. Ten years older than me, my brother Mark was in high school when “surf rock” was popular. (“Surf Rock” is a blues-based style of early rock and roll, which started near the beaches up and down the coast of southern California.) Mark played credible surf rock-styled guitar, and showed me the three basic chords of “the blues.”
I began playing trombone in school in fifth grade, when I was eleven years old. I started the trumpet a year or so later. I discovered jazz during the summer between junior high school and my first year of high school. I was fourteen years old.
That same summer, I heard a “live” jazz band for the first time. I learned that a seven-piece group called the “South ‘Frisco Jazz Band” performed at a pizza house not far from me. The band played on Friday and Saturday nights at a local pizza house. It was a family restaurant, so minors were welcome.
A couple of my high school friends and I made the “Pizza Palace” our “home away from home” on those nights. The band was an excellent, exciting traditional jazz band, whose repertoire included songs by King Oliver; Jelly Roll Morton; Lu Watters; Turk Murphy; and others.
The musicians in the band were all serious about the music, and spent time with me, teaching me about the music and suggesting recordings I should hear. It was around this time that I learned of, and began attending, Sunday afternoon “jazz society” sessions in the Los Angeles area.
These Sunday afternoon sessions gave amateur players like me a chance to play a few tunes with professionals; usually retired (or semi-retired) professionals from the big band era. It should be noted that at that time, there was a large community of musicians (and their families) from New Orleans, who had settled in the Los Angeles area before and after World War II. What made the Sunday afternoon sessions unique at the time was, many of these New Orleans musicians would show up to play a few tunes with old friends.
Can you imagine being a fourteen or fifteen-year-old trombone player, and meeting—and getting to play with—men like: Joe Darensbourg; Alton Purnell; Mike DeLay; Andy Blakeney; Nappy Lamare; and Barney Bigard? Amazing!
Soon after, Joe Darensbourg began calling me for gigs around Los Angeles. I met more and more of these older musicians, and they helped me form my ideas and concepts about jazz and, indeed, life.
It was during high school that I first became interested in jazz arranging. I would write arrangements for my high school Dixieland band, and for the school’s “pep” band, which played for basketball games and other events.
In 1977, I made the first of many trips to Europe, to perform with the Sunset Music Company in the Netherlands, at the Breda “Oude Stijl” Jazz Festival. The band then toured Germany for a few weeks. That first trip to Europe changed my life. I have made life-long friends all over Europe and Scandinavia, and returned to Europe for performances, and tours almost every year since then. I continue to teach every July at the Jazzin’ July Workshop in Leende, the Netherlands where I have been an instructor ever since its inception, about fifteen years ago.
In 1983, Laura and I moved to New York City. In New York, the musical world really opened up for me. I began playing at jazz parties and festivals, and touring in Europe. I found myself playing and recording with many of my musical heroes, including: Roy Eldridge; Buck Clayton; Woody Herman; Benny Carter; Maxine Sullivan; Ruby Braff; Ralph Sutton; Kenny Davern; Milt Hinton; Dick Hyman; Scott Hamilton; Gus Johnson; and many others, including Benny Goodman.
We moved back to southern California in 1996 to care for my mother, who passed away in 2002. We’re still here in Costa Mesa. During the pandemic, composing and arranging (mostly the latter) has replaced performing on the trombone and trumpet. However, I look forward to the time when I can return to playing. I miss it, and miss seeing and hearing my friends all over the world.
DJ- Which are the arrangers who mostly influenced you ?
DB- As I mentioned, I first became interested in arranging in high school. I began wondering how musicians like Duke Ellington could put notes on paper, and get other men to make it sound like The Mooche!
I learned about jazz more or less chronologically. The first jazz I heard was traditional jazz. My interest in arranging developed along the same lines. After having heard the King Oliver Creole Jazz Band and Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers sides (along with many recordings by Turk Murphy and Lu Watters), I began wondering how those men wrote so wonderfully and effectively for their respective bands.
I soon discovered Bix and Tram, and the interesting things arrangers like Bill Challis and Fud Livingston were writing for their colleagues. Then it was on to the “Swing Era,” and these arrangers:
- Fletcher Henderson
- Horace Henderson
- Jimmy Mundy
- Alex Hill (a brilliant, often-overlooked early arranger)
- Sy Oliver
- Ed Wilcox (Jimmie Lunceford)
- Mel Powell
- Jerry Gray (Glenn Miller)
- Bill Finegan (Glenn Miller)
- Mary Lou Williams (Andy Kirk)
- Billy Strayhorn
- Buck Clayton
- Eddie Durham
- Benny Carter
- Spud Murphy (wrote many excellent “Stock” arrangements)
- Frank Skinner (also wrote many of the better “stock”arrangements of the 1920sand ‘30s. and wrote a very good book called Arranging For the Modern Dance Orchestra. (The second edition is perhaps more practical for today’s arrangers)
Little by little, my “ears” got a little bigger, and I began to understand and enjoy the bebop charts by Dizzy Gillespie and his colleagues. Then, there were the brilliant arrangers of the 1950s:
- Ernie Wilkins (Count Basie)
- Billy May
- Gil Evans
- Neal Hefti
- Robert Farnon
- Oscar Pettiford
- Many, many others!
DJ- What is the arrangement or project you wrote, you feel the most proud of ?
DB- I suppose I am proud of the three arrangements I wrote for my friend, clarinetist Engelbert Wrobel. At the time, he led a fine quintet called Swing Society. Engelbert asked me to arrange three pieces for his quintet, plus a string quartet. The occasion was a special recording to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of Swing Society. Engelbert and the band played beautifully, and the string quartet—all young women from the region of Bonn—played exceptionally well. Finally, it was recorded superbly. In addition, I contributed one original composition for the recording. It was composed shortly after Benny Goodman’s passing in June, 1986. I dedicated it to Mr. Goodman, and titled it Long Live The King. I tried for the happy, swinging feeling Mr. Goodman and his bands achieved on many of his small group recordings of the late ‘30s, and early-to-middle 1940s. Again, Engelbert and the band were superb!
I was also pleased with my 1987 octet date for Concord Records: The Dan Barrett Octet: Strictly Instrumental. It helps that the band was comprised of great players! I was very lucky to have recorded with them. A more recent CD (only twenty years old now, ha, ha) is of another octet I led for a while called Blue Swing, which is also the name of the CD, recorded for Arbors Records. It too was recorded exceptionally well, and the band played my charts beautifully. I would suggest Wedding Bell Blues as an example. (WBB features the soulful swinging singing of the great Rebecca Kilgore). Other albums featuring my writing:
- I Saw Stars (Rebecca Kilgore, with Dan Barrett’s Celestial Six); Arbors Records
- Moon Song (Dan Barrett and His Extra-Celestials, featuring Rebecca Kilgore);Arbors Records
- Night Owl (Bryan Shaw): Arbors Records
DJ- Just a simple phrase to define writing ?
DB- A“simple phrase to define writing” might be, “invisible arranging.” With a few exceptions, I prefer arranging that does not call attention to itself. Rather, it showcases a song (or band, or both) in a way that puts the listener’s attention on the song, or the band or singer or soloist, and does not call attention to the arrangement itself. It’s hard to do!
DJ- What is the arrangement (famous or not) you would have loved to write ?
DB- Here is a very incomplete list of arrangements I would have been proud to have written:
Annie Laurie (Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra, 1938; Sy Oliver, arr.)
American Patrol (Glenn Miller Orchestra, c. 1940; Jerry Gray, arr.)
A String Of Pearls (Glenn Miller Orchestra, 1939; Jerry Gray,comp./arr.)
A String Of Pearls (Benny Goodman Orchestra, 1942; Mel Powell, arr.)
Why Don’t You Do Right? (Benny Goodman Orchestra, 1942; MelPowell, arr.)
Down South Camp Meeting (Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, 1934; andBenny Goodman Orchestra, c. 1935; Fletcher Henderson, comp./ arr.)
From Ab To C (John Kirby Sextet; 1938; comp./arr. Billy Kyle)
Clarinet a la King (Benny Goodman Orchestra, c. 1940; Eddie Sauter, comp./arr.)
Take The A Train (Duke Ellington Orchestra, 1941; comp./arr. Billy Strayhorn)
The Good Earth (Woody Herman Orchestra, 1946; Neal Hefti, comp./arr.)
Shiny Stockings (Count Basie Orchestra, 1955; Frank Foster, arr.)
April In Paris (Count Basie Orchestra, 1955; Wild Bill Davis, arr.)
Humpty Dumpty (Frank Trumbauer Orchestra, 1927; comp./arr. Fud Livingston)
I’m Coming, Virginia (Frank Trumbauer Orchestra, 1927; Bill Challis, arr (?) Or maybe Don Murray (?)
I’m Coming, Virginia (Benny Carter in Paris, 1937; arr. Benny Carter)
Jumpin’ Punkins; Chloe; John Hardy’s Wife; In A Mellotone; oranything else by Duke Ellington or Billy Strayhorn !
DJ- What are your projects ?
DB- With all this time at home, I am currently writing almost every day. I have written many charts for my Spanish friend, Enric Peidro. Enric plays tenor saxophone, and leads a great six-piece band in the region of Valencia and Alicante in Spain. The band includes three horns and three rhythm, but at his request I include “optional” parts for alto sax and rhythm guitar. In addition to charts for his normal group, I have also written several charts for Enric’s full octet plus a string quartet, for a separate project he has in mind.
For my own “amusement” and education, I have just completed a transcription of a 1937 broadcast recording of Blue Hawaii by Benny Goodman’s band.
DJ- Can you tell us a personal anecdote about writing ?
DB- I mentioned earlier that my wife, son, and I lived for a while in New York City. We were there almost fourteen years, from early 1983 until the summer of 1996. I could often be found at Eddie Condon’s Jazz Club, in Manhattan. I played there many times, and if I wasn’t working on a given night, I would usually be at the bar, listening to whomever might be playing that particular evening.
Of course, New York is famous for its Broadway stage shows and musicals. Before computer programs for musical notation had been developed, composers and arrangers wrote music the “old-fashioned” way: pen or pencil on score paper. Of course, the individual parts then had to be “extracted” from the score by a copyist. The shows on Broadway and the countless recording sessions taking place around town provided work for many copyists who worked in various “music houses” around town.
Associated Music was a popular store which sold a wide variety of score and manuscript paper, and a selection of professional copying pens, ink, straight-edge rulers, and the other equipment used by composers, arrangers, and copyists in those days.
Whenever I would go there for paper and music supplies, I was impressed by the row of copyists—about seven or eight men and women—lined up against the far wall of the store. It seems that they were always there, at any time of day or night. Each copyist had his/her own small desk. A desk lamp was clamped to the edge of the table, and had an extension so the light could be brought directly over the top of the table. Most of the copyists wore dark green visors, like old-fashioned bank tellers wear in old movies. It was all something to see, and very interesting to me.
I learned through trial–and too many errors–that one simply can’t drink alcohol and try to copy accurately at the same time! The first glass of wine usually doesn’t pose any problems, but after the second or third glass, you will certainly begin making mistakes. When you are hand-copying a part in India ink, as copyists did in those days, this can be serious! (I had occasion to visit trombonist/arrangerBilly Byers, who was using pianist Joe Bushkin’s Manhattan residence as a workplace for a few weeks, while Joe was out of town.
Mr. Byers was copying in ink on vellum paper, which is also called “onion-skin.” Vellum is very thin, translucent paper which can be easily reproduced, and was used for Broadway show scores. It is very fragile, delicate paper, and writing on it requires great care, skill, and accuracy. Mr, Byers was a master, of course. (I actually remember the show he was working on: Private Lives.)
So, we’ve established that copyists work best when sober. This doesn’t change the fact that many of them enjoy a “taste” or two now and then, but always after they finish their copying for the night.
So now, let’s return to Eddie Condon’s Jazz Club. I was sitting at the bar when a tall, slender, grey-haired man sat down on the stool next to mine. His hair was styled more or less like Albert Einstein’s, and he looked very tired. He was wearing blue jeans, and some kind of red plaid flannel shirt. He had a long, handsome face, and a thick gunslinger’s mustache.
The bartender at Condon’s doubled very occasionally as a “bouncer.” He was a friendly guy whom we knew as “Big Jim.” Big Jim came toward us, and set a bar napkin down in front of the man who had just arrived. He looked at him and said, “Good evening, Brick! What would you like?”
“Hello, Jim. I guess I’ll have my usual…”
Jim nodded, and instantly returned with a vodka over ice. Brick took a couple of gulps, and sighed. He raised his empty glass, and Jim nodded.
While Jim was fixing Brick’s next drink, I turned to Brick and said, “Good evening, sir. I heard Big Jim call you ‘Brick.’ Would you by any chance be Brick Fleagle?” The old man raised his eyebrows, and considered me for a moment. Jim quietly placed his new drink in front of him.
Brick picked it up. He held it up to the light and turned it one way, and then around. I actually think he was admiring it. He took a healthy swallow, and set the glass down. He looked at me again.
“Indeed I am, young man. Brick Fleagle, in the flesh! And with whom might I have the pleasure of exchanging these pleasantries?”
“My name is Dan Barrett, Mr. Fleagle. I’m a trombone player. I moved here last year from southern California.”
“Ah,” he said. He set the second empty glass down on the bar quietly, and a little too carefully. “Welcome to the Big Apple. And how is it, young Mister Barrett, that you would know anything at all about me?”
“Well, sir,” I said, “I’ve known your name for years, from the records you made for HRS, with Rex Stewart and the Ellington guys…”
“Hmmm.” He grunted as he shook his head. “That frankly amazes me! Why, an unexpected, wonderful surprise like that calls for a drink!”
I laughed, and indicated to Big Jim that I’d get Mr. Fleagle his next round. I got another beer. I couldn’t let the old guy drink alone.
Over the next couple of drinks, Brick (he insisted I call him by his first name) told me about hanging out with Rex Stewart, who was an exceptionally close friend, He also spoke of Harry Carney, and my hero Lawrence Brown. He had nothing but praise and admiration for all of them.
I remember he told me of his excitement when the guys all agreed to come in and record his compositions and arrangements. I also remember the awe he expressed when he told me that as good as he thought they would make his writing sound, when they were all in the studio, he said, “When they began to play, it sounded so much better than anything I’d ever envisioned! I couldn’t believe I’d written that stuff! It was like magic, how well they all played it.”
We talked about arranging a little bit, and I told him how much I liked Fletcher Henderson’s writing, and the way he would use clarinet trios.
Brick took a sip of what must have been his fifth vodka. I’d love to say he didn’t show any signs of it, but to be honest, he was fairly hammered. He was still pleasant, however, and I was of course honored to spend time with him.
“Now, Daniel, those clar’nets. You know what all tha’ was about, don’t you?” Man, his speech was slurred by now.
“Well,” I said, “I thought it was an exciting, brilliant sound…er, no, I guess I don’t know. What was it ‘all about?’”
Brick said, “I knew Fletcher pret’ well. He was a very quiet, shy man. A real gentleman. His brother Horace was more…outgoing. But Fletcher, he was very religious. He was raised in a strict household, and went to church ev’ry Sunday.”
He took another sip of vodka.
“So, now do you know what all the clar’nets were about?” He tried to look at me, but his eyes weren’t quite tracking.
“I’m sorry, sir,” I said. “I really don’t understand where you’re going with this…” Brick slammed his hand down onto the bar. A couple of customers looked over, and then went back to listening to cornetist Ed Polcer and the great house band he led at Condon’s. I figured Ed would forgive me for talking to Brick instead of listening.
Brick composed himself, and went on.
“Look, man! Fletcher grew up in the Baptist church! He was a very religious man, and the music he heard at those services had a huge effect on him! Think about those clarinets he used. Those clarinet trios…see, for him, they were the WOMEN in the church choir, wailing away. And the riffing brass, with the plungers going…well, they were the MEN in the church, answering the women. See?”
I felt like someone had opened a door to a much deeper perception of what jazz was all about, or what it COULD be about, or maybe what it SHOULD be about.
I nodded. Then Brick nodded, satisfied that he’d finally gotten through to me. He dug some money out of a pocket, and placed it carefully on the bar. Brick slowly rose from his stool. He caught Big Jim’s eye, and indicated the money. Jim was counting change for another customer, but he nodded, and said good night to Brick.
I stood when I saw Brick getting up to leave. I thanked him for his time, and we shook hands. He walked out into the night. I knew there were taxi cabs right out in front, so I wasn’t too concerned about him. Besides, he’d made it this far!
It was an amazing story told by an amazing man. Now, whenever I hear a Goodman or Henderson record with a clarinet trio, I think of Brick Fleagle and those special insights he was kind enough to share with me that evening at Eddie Condon’s.
DJ- Thank you so much Dan ! Take care, and I hope I’ll have the great chance to see you soon and perform with you on European’s stages !
Engelbert Wrobel’s Swing Society: