© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
In view of how little tenor saxophonist Richie Kamuca [1930-1977] recorded under his own name over the years, I was immensely fortunate to hear him play in performance on an almost weekly basis from about 1958 - 1964.
Of course, this observation is made in retrospect because like everyone else who directly experienced the West Coast Style of Jazz which was in vogue from in California from about 1945-1965, I assumed that the music would go on forever.
From 1958 to 1960, I was an habitué of the Lighthouse Cafe at 30 Pier Avenue in Hermosa Beach, CA and although Bob Cooper was the resident tenor saxophonist, because Richie’s boyhood friend Stan Levey occupied the drum chair, bassist Howard Rumsey, who led the resident Lighthouse All-Stars, would often turn over the last set to Richie and a fabulous rhythm section made up of Victor Feldman on piano and Stan on drums, both members of the All-Stars, and a young bassist phenom, Scott LaFaro.
You can check out this group on the last two tracks of Joe Gordon and Scott LaFaro: West Coast Days [Fresh Sound FSCD 1030], recorded in performance, September, 1958.
A year later in, September, 1959, Richie, then a regular with drummer Shelly Manne’s quintet, would perform with Victor, who was subbing for Shelly regular pianist Russ Freeman on the classic 5 CD set that Shelly’s group recorded at the Blackhawk Cafe in San Francisco, CA [Contemporary, Original Jazz Classic CD OJCCD-656-660]. Needless to say, I wore out the original LP’s during repeated listenings and if you want to hear Richie at the peak of his powers, this is the set to get.
Shelly returned from the cozy atmosphere of the Blackhawk even more determined to open his own club which he did at 1608 N. Cahuenga Blvd. in Hollywood, CA in November of the following year.
Along with Conte Candoli on trumpet, Richie formed the front line of that band from about 1960-1962 and you can hear the exciting music this band made on a 2 CD set recorded in performance in 1961 and released on Contemporary as Shelly Manne and His Men at The Manne Hole Original Jazz Classics OJCCD 714/715-2]. If you look closely, you’ll find me garbed in a white polo shirt and blue slacks, seated in front of the bandstand with my chair turned around, staring at Shelly so I could pick up a few of his licks, fills and tricks. I caught the group every chance I could and was rarely disappointed in the quality of the band’s playing, especially Richie’s.
Oh, and while all this was going on, Richie was a member of vibraphonist Terry Gibbs’ Dream Band from about 1960-1963 which made regular “off night” [Monday night] appearances at club venues on Sunset Blvd. in Hollywood, CA.
Talk about a surfeit of riches - or should I say, Surfeit of Richies
The editorial at JazzProfiles had planned to do a feature on Richie, but when it received word that Gordon Jack had done just that for JazzJournal magazine, we reached out to Gordon about posting his piece on Kamuca on the blog.
As many of you know, Gordon Jack is a frequent contributor to the Jazz Journal and a very generous friend to these pages in his allowance of JazzProfiles re-publishings of his excellent writings. He is the author of Fifties Jazz Talk An Oral Retrospective and he developed the Gerry Mulligan discography in Raymond Horricks’ book Gerry Mulligan’s Ark.
The following article was first published in Jazz Journal August 2017..
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© - Gordon Jack/JazzJournal; copyright protected, all rights reserved., used with permission.
Richie Kamuca was already a stellar member of Woody Hernan’s Third Herd when he recorded Johnny Mandel’s Keester Parade with Cy Touff and Harry Edison in 1955. It became enormously popular and helped establish his reputation with jazz audiences especially when it was used as a theme by disc jockey Frank Evans on his Frankly Jazz Show on Mutual KHJ. In 1959 Marty Paich memorably transcribed Mandel’s chart for Mel Torme’ and the Mel-Tones on their Back In Town album (LoneHill Jazz LHJ10304). Keester was to undergo a name-change when Harry Edison performed it as Centerpiece in 1958 with Jimmy Forrest (Fresh Sound FSRCD 547-2). Just like Keester Parade, Centerpiece found favour with another vocal group when Lambert, Hendricks & Ross recorded it on their Giants Of Jazz release – The Hottest New Group In Jazz (CD 53127).
Kamuca was born in Philadelphia on 23 July, 1930. He studied at the celebrated Mastbaum Vocational High School where Red Rodney was a fellow student. In 1951 he began working with Stan Levey’s quartet along with Red Garland and Nelson Boyd at the local Rendezvous Club. As the house-band they had to be highly adaptable backing non-jazz acts like Burl Ives as well as visiting singers like Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. Richie and Stan became very close over the years and Kamuca was Godfather to two of his sons. It was thanks to a recommendation from the drummer that Kamuca joined Stan Kenton on 26 August 1952 – the same day as Lee Konitz. The band was appearing at the Moonlite Gardens, Coney Island, Cincinnati at the time.
Two weeks after his debut Kamuca performed on Kenton’s New Concepts Of Artistry In Rhythm album recorded for Capitol Records in Chicago. The opening title is Stan’s ambitious This Is An Orchestra! which includes his verbal introduction to each band member who then solos briefly. He highlights Kamuca’s ability to “Swing at the drop of a hat” which Richie ably demonstrates on his album features - Young Blood and Swing House. As Bill Holman said at the time, “Richie is a tried and true Lester Young person… with his own sound that nobody else had”.
During his early career with the band he did not get too many solo opportunities on studio dates but he makes an impressive contribution to Bill Russo’s chart on Fascinating Rhythm along with two of the band’s giants – Frank Rosolino and Lee Konitz. I still have the L.P. with Alun Morgan’s sleeve-note pointing out that this was the 37th. take yet the performance retains the freshness of a first run-through. Live performances though – well documented by Sounds Of Yester Year and Submarine – are replete with his contributions to Intermission Riff, It’s The Talk Of The Town, Eager Beaver, Too Marvellous For Words, Jump For Joe, The Big Chase, Royal Blue and Walkin’ Shoes.
Richie was a good looking young man and very popular with the girls who followed the band. Michael Sparke in his authoritative biography of Stan Kenton reveals that Rosemary Clooney and Johnny Mathis were once in the audience, both clearly enamoured with him. Andy Hamilton’s book on Lee Konitz points out that this probably occurred at the Blue Note in Chicago. Apparently Kamuca and Ms. Clooney eventually became an item for a while. Richie left Kenton soon after an engagement at Birdland in June 1953 and his place was taken by Zoot Sims. Count Basie apparently wanted him but there were union difficulties that prevented him joining the band.
Kamuca took over from Dave Madden with Woody Herman in October 1954 just as the band finished a two week engagement at the Hollywood Palladium. Jack Nimitz who played baritone with Kenton and Herman told me in a JJ interview (December 1997) that the money was not as good with Herman. One of Woody’s road-managers - trumpeter John Bennett – put it more bluntly to writer William D. Clancy, “The pay was atrocious…you have to save up for these kind of gigs!”. Travelling between jobs was certainly not as comfortable either. Kenton had an air-conditioned band-bus but Woody’s musicians frequently travelled in four Ford Sedans even on road trips of 800 miles or more. Trumpeter Don Rader who joined the band in 1959 put it quite succinctly to Clancy - “To say that Woody was operating on a shoestring would be an understatement”. Herman’s music though was more straight ahead and swinging than Kenton’s with less emphasis on the experimental.
Richie is heard on a driving Captain Ahab (his favourite solo with the band) and Nat Pierce’s arrangement of Opus De Funk but the highlight of his time with Herman was when Woody took an octet into the Riviera Starlight Lounge in Las Vegas on 8 September, 1955. He only used five horns - Dick Collins and John Coppola (trumpet), Cy Touff (bass trumpet), Kamuca (tenor) and his own clarinet. The engagement lasted three months and after performing nightly from midnight to 6AM the band was really tight as can be heard on the Fresh Sound release that documents the octet’s repertoire. There is a little bow to Basie with numbers like Every Day I Have The Blues, 9.20 Special, Jumpin’ At The Woodside and Broadway which are all perfect fits for Kamuca’s Prez-like tenor. There is plenty of the leader’s clarinet to enjoy and his vocals on Every Day and Basin Street Blues are an added bonus.
Richie finally left the band around July 1956 soon after their appearance at The Lagoon in Salt Lake City, Utah. The venue was an amusement park that also booked bands with Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Louis Armstrong all appearing there during the year. Incidentally, Leonard Feather once asked Herman which tenor players impressed him the most of the new generation and he replied, “Richie Kamuca and Bill Perkins”. After four years on the road he probably wanted a rest from travelling so he moved to Los Angeles where he was able to take advantage of all the recording opportunities there. These were the boom years for West Coast Jazz and his discography reads like a who’s-who of the Californian scene featuring albums with Bill Perkins, Marty Paich, Stan Levey, Chet Baker, Art Pepper, Maynard Ferguson, Bill Holman, Conte Candoli, Frank Rosolino, Shorty Rogers and Shelly Manne. Living at 1032, North Pass Avenue, Burbank he quite soon became a Lighthouse All-Star and from time to time he returned to the Kenton fold whenever Stan had bookings on the west coast.
One particularly memorable date took place when Manny Albam came to town to record the second volume of his Jazz Greats Of Our Time in August 1957. (The first volume had been recorded four months earlier with the cream of the New York set – Art Farmer, Bob Brookmeyer, Phil Woods, Al Cohn, Zoot Sims and Gerry Mulligan). Richie more than holds his own with the superior company assembled by Manny Albam including Harry Edison, Jack Sheldon, Herb Geller, Bill Holman and Charlie Mariano. He is at his most poignant on the moody Afterthoughts and his exchanges with Bill Holman on It’s De-Lovely call to mind Al and Zoot at their best. Another album I frequently return to is Just Friends with his good friend Bill Perkins. The title track finds them opening with an unaccompanied chorus of contrapuntal interplay that sets the scene for one of their finest collaborations. In a 1958 Downbeat interview Perkins generously said, “Richie is a much better jazz player than I am…he possesses the most original combination of tonal quality and ideas of any tenor player around”.
Unlike many former Kenton and Herman musicians who had settled In California in the fifties, Kamuca made very few movie recordings. He does appear however in a lengthy scene with Red Norvo and Pete Candoli in the 1958 Kings Go Forth film starring Tony Curtis, Natalie Wood and Frank Sinatra.
In 1961 he performed with Terry Gibbs’ Dream Band at The Summit in Hollywood. This was the band (with the great Joe Maini on lead alto) that had so impressed Bob Brookmeyer that he recruited Conte Candoli, Buddy Clark and Mel Lewis for Gerry Mulligan’s CJB. A little later he decided to move back east - not to his home-town of Philadelphia but to New York City where he lived at 780, Greenwich Street. Gary McFarland soon recruited him for his new sextet along with trombonist Willie Dennis. Richie introduced his oboe on the sextet’s only album and with Willie’s unique slide-work producing numerous overtones they created a distinctive ensemble sound. He often worked at the Half Note with Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, Jimmy Rushing, Jimmy Witherspoon and Roy Eldridge who was one of his favourite musicians. In January 1964 he performed at Birdland with Mulligan’s CJB playing new material that the band unfortunately never recorded like Al Cohn’s Mama Flosie, Gary McFarland’s Kitch, Wayne Shorter’s Mama G and the standard, I Believe In You. That was the year he became a member of Merv Griffin’s TV Show Band which was a home-from-home for some prominent jazz musicians like Bill Berry, Bob Brookmeyer, Bill Byers, Dick Hafer, Art Davis, Jim Hall and Jake Hanna. He remained with the band when Griffin relocated to Los Angeles in 1971.
Until his death Kamuca remained active on the Los Angeles scene with Mundell Lowe, Bill Berry’s Big Band, the Frank Capp-Nat Pierce Juggernaut and a quintet he co-led with Blue Mitchell. One of his final recordings in February 1977 took place with Dave Frishberg for the Concord label. Dave of course is a consummate songwriter and one of the titles Dear Bix has Richie singing Frishberg’s charming hymn to the trumpeter. It is yet to be released on CD but it can be heard on YouTube. The lyric’s opening line makes it clear just what the trumpeter meant to the composer – “Bix old friend, are you ever going to comprehend you’re no ordinary, standard Bb [B flat] run-of-the-mill type guy”.
When it was discovered in early 1977 that he had cancer a benefit performance was given for him that included Steve Allen, Milt Jackson, Doc Severinsen and others. Towards the end, his good friend Stan Levey used to wheel him to the car and drive him to the beach where he could sit and watch the birds. Richie Kamuca died the day before his birthday on July 22, 1977.
Cy Touff & Richie Kamuca Quintet & Octet (Fresh Sound Records FSR 2237)
Richie Kamuca & Bill Holman: Jazz Erotica (Original Jazz Classics 1760)
Richie Kamuca Quartet (V.S.O.P. 17CD)
Stan Kenton: New Concepts Of Artistry In Rhythm (Capitol Jazz CDP 7 92865 2).
Woody Herman: His Octet & His Band (Fresh Sound FSR 2238).
Frank Rosolino Quintet (Tofrec TFCL-88920).
Bill Perkins: Just Friends (Phono 870250).
Manny Albam: Jazz Greats Of Our Time Complete Recording (Lonehill Jazz LHJ10118).
Shelly Manne & His Men: Complete Live At The Black Hawk (American Jazz Classics 99009).
Terry Gibbs Dream Band: Main Stem Vol 4 (Contemporary CCD-7656-2).
Richie was often praised for the “appealing freshness" of his "tender ballad style." The following video shows off his affinity for ballads as he joins with Bill Holman perform on Bill's arrangement of The Things We Did Last Summer.