© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
Dave Pell, one of the last of those musicians associated with the West Coast style of Jazz that developed primarily in California from about 1945-1965 died over the weekend and the editorial staff at JazzProfiles wanted to remember him on these pages with a few words in tribute.
Over the years with my own involvement in Jazz and commercial music in California during a portion of this period, I met Dave in so many different roles that sometimes it was difficult to discern who Dave Pell actually was.
In addition to his years as a tenor saxophonist with Les Brown’s Band of Renown from 1949-1955, Dave worked as a recording engineer, an Artist & Repertoire producer for a number of record labels and as a photographer. Many of his snaps were used as album covers and on the back jackets of Jazz LPs.
In addition to his long stint with Les Brown, Dave’s public face was best served as the leader of the Dave Pell Octet which was originally a-small-band-within-a-big-band comparable to Tommy Dorsey’s Clambake Seven, Benny Goodman’s Sextet or Artie Shaw’s Gramercy Five.
Such small groups gave the brass players in the big band a chance to rest their chops [lips and lungs], while also offering a change of pace to the audience and a chance for some of the band’s Jazz soloists to stretch out a bit.
Les Brown was so successful as a result of his close working association with comedian Bob Hope and his orchestra in residence status at the Hollywood Palladium Ballroom that he rarely worked the small group opportunities that came his way in the form of invitations to perform at college campus parties and proms.
With some of the best musicians from the Brown band in tow, Dave formed his own octet and took over these “casual” gigs for which he and a host of arrangers put together a collection of melodious arrangements that were marked by a bouncy swinging beat that students really enjoyed dancing to.
Many of the musicians ultimately left the Brown band and were joined by others exiting the Kenton, Herman and Charlie Barnet bands for the lucrative and regular work in the Hollywood recordings studios. Over time, these big band expatriates would also see their fair share of work making television commercials and radio jingles.
Many talented musicians got off the band bus, married and raised families working as on-call studios musicians.
The 1950’s was a time of population explosion in the Golden State. Many of the servicemen who had fought in the Pacific during World War II returned to the southern California’s warm climate, breezy palm trees and blue skies to work in the burgeoning aerospace, electronics and communication industries.
Affordable single family housing developments sprang up north and south of Los Angeles proper. With their two bedroom, one bath, den, dining and living room floor plan [and let’s not forget the all-important two car garage [attached, of course] - these residential developments were sold out before construction on them was completed.
Due to its easy access to the studios by car via the Hollywood Freeway - whatelse? - the San Fernando Valley northwest of downtown Los Angeles was a favorite of Jazz musicians and many of the guys in Dave’s Octet over the years, including Dave himself, would buy homes there and settle down to raise a family.
Because of the inversion layer that formed during the hot summer months, “The Valley,” as it came to be known, could become very hot and uncomfortable during the day. But this development became easy to deal with by taking out a second mortgage on the already-existing house mortgage and financing a swimming pool with it!!
Is it any wonder that after a time, Dave Pell began to describe his frequent Octet gigs as “pay-the-mortgage-music?”
Here’s more about the Dave Pell Octet from Dave himself and from Michael Cuscuna in the form of insert notes excerpts from the 1998 CD reissue of I Had The Craziest Dream [Capitol Jazz CDP 7243 4 95445 -2].
“Marty Paich, Shorty Rogers, Bill Holman, Andre Previn, Jack Montrose, Wes Hensel. Now that's some talent...some of the best arrangers on the West Coast. What fun it was to play these charts. You can't imagine the joy of putting the chemistry of great players and writers together in the studio, playing jazz that had a unique sound. That was the octet.
The Les Brown Band of the early fifties had some great players. Trumpeter Don Fagerquist became a legend. His sound and that of Tony Rizzi on guitar became the basic sound that arrangers worked with. Using amplified guitar and trumpet in unison, most of the time, made a different and pleasant big band sound out of eight men.
Four decades later, my life is still involved with the music we created on these sessions. I have requests from schools all over the world for copies of the arrangements. Young musicians today are learning to write and play jazz from these scores.
The octet is still out there, playing mostly concerts since clubs are usually confined to smaller groups. I have fun with the band...and that's what counts.”
—Dave Pell April 1998
“The Dave Pell Octet emerged in 1953 as a spin-off nucleus of the Les Brown Band, of which Pell had been a member since 1948. The group began its recording career with three songbook albums for Trend/Kapp.
In 1955, Pell made an album for Atlantic and cut eight sides for Capitol, three of which ("Mike's Peak," "Poopsie" and "Klump Jump") appeared on Les Brown's All-Stars album, which also included splinter groups led by Don Fagerquist, Ray Sims (Zoot's brother) and Ronny Lang.
A month or so later after the Capitol date. Pell left Brown to concentrate on the octet full time, recording for Atlantic and then RCA before returning to Capitol in September to record five more tunes. These and the remaining five tunes from '55 became I Had The Craziest Dream. which is probably the most important of the octet's recordings. Forty years later, Pell reports that this is the album for which he's had the most requests (both scores and copies of the album). It's no coincidence that this is the one richest in jazz content and not tied lo one composer or concept or thematic gimmick.
With the cream of LA's jazz arrangers, a healthy mix of standards and jazz originals, and legendary players like Don Fagerquist and Bob Gordon, these sessions capture the octet at its best.
By 1960, Pell's other careers as an A&R man, producer, photographer and big band leader look him away from the octet. But after leading the Pres Conference (a nonet with three tenors and one ban dedicated to the music of Lester Young) in the late seventies, he reorganized the Octet in the early eighties and leads it sporadically to this day.
Added to all 13 of Pell's octet sides for Capitol is the Don Fagerquist nonet session from the aforementioned Les Brown All-Stars album. Wes Hensel and Marty Paich each contribute two charts. "Play, Fiddle, Play" is issued here for the first time.
These and the remaining five tunes from '55 became I Had The Craziest Dream. which is probably the most important of the octet's recordings. Forty years later, Pell reports that this is the album for which he's had the most requests (both scores and copies of the album). It's no coincidence that this is the one richest in jazz content and not tied to one composer or concept or thematic gimmick.
By replacing Ray Sims's trombone in the octet with brother Zoot and Bill Holman on tenors, Fagerquist gets a Four Brothers sound (i.e. three tenors and one baritone sax). He and Zoot are the principal soloists.
Fagerquist, a veteran of the Woody Herman, Artie Shaw, Les Brown and Gene Krupa bands, made only one other session as a leader, a 1957 album for Mode with instrumentation more closely aligned with the "Birth Of The Cool" nonet of Miles Davis. An exceptional trumpeter and an important player on the West Coast scene, he died of kidney disease in Los Angeles in 1974.”
—Michael Cuscuna May 1998
The following video montage is set to Dave’s Dance for Daddy. It’s an ideal example of the Octet’s sound and it is also the first small group Jazz arrangement I ever played on.