© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
“No matter what artistic credentials might be previously acquired, when a jazz musician takes a position of security or one of financial stability as opposed to accepting and living the rigors of the jazz life, the critical press often registers displeasure.”
- Gary Foster, multi reed and woodwind instrumentalist
Multi reed and woodwind instrumentalist Gary Foster “dropped by” the editorial offices of JazzProfiles recently and shared a copy of the following article that he wrote about clarinetist Abe Most.
The article first appeared in the February-March, 1996 issue of The Clarinet [Volume 23, No. 2].
In his piece, Gary included a technical transcription of Abe’s solo work on Mexican Hat Dance that have been omitted here because it would mainly be of interest to other clarinetists. But we have developed a video with Abe’s outstanding solo on Mexican Hat Dance as played by the Les Brown Band featured as part of the sound track and you can locate the video montage at the close of this piece.
In addition to his detailed treatment of Abe’s career, Gary’s essay contains a marvelous description of a musician’s life in the Hollywood studios following the Second World War. If you had the chops and the reading skills, the period from about 1945-1965 was a Golden Age in the Golden State for a studio musician.
Enter Abe Most.
© -Gary Foster: copyright protected; all rights reserved; used with the author’s permission.
“At age 75, Abe Most has been a working professional clarinetist for 60 of his years. Never a man to rust on his laurels, Abe is as concerned about the personal music he will play today and tomorrow as he has been about the music in his illustrious past. At an age when many of his colleagues have fixed their last reed or have long since become more interested in their golf game or rose garden, Abe is editing a recent recording for release as his first compact disc and, of all things for a veteran of the music wars, he is planning to take to the road. In mid-January 1996. Abe and his wife, Gussie. will board a bus along with a big band of 15, vocalist Julius La Rosa and the Ink Spots for a two-month national tour. Abe will conduct and will be featured soloist in a program tribute to Artie Shaw. The eagerness and enthusiasm Abe expresses for this on-the-road-again project is spoken in terms he might have used when he joined his first name band ... in 1941.
Except for the fact, proudly told by Abe. that his father, at age 65. became cantor of his synagogue in the Bronx, Abe's parents were not musical. Of his two brothers and two sisters, only one. brother Sam, developed musical interests. Sam Most, ten years Abe's junior, is a distinguished jazz artist in his own right. Sam's place in jazz history is uniquely secured by the fact that he is credited with being the first to record a jazz flute solo.
By the time Abe was nine, the family had moved to Atlantic City. The public schools there offered music instruction. and Abe, who had heard and liked the city band, saw himself with a trombone. It was a clarinet that his father brought home, however, and typical of the time, it was a metal clarinet just like the one many of us started out on. Saved for him over the years by his mother, that very instrument has been handsomely framed and has a prominent place on the Most's living room wall.
Soon, Abe had "strictly classical" lessons with Atlantic City clarinetist. Walter Parella. Abe's parents operated a grocery store and, with lunch an added bonus for the teacher, lessons often ran to three hours in length.
The neighborhood kids were listening to improvised jazz, especially to Bobby Hackett. and soon a small combo of sorts was trying to find the sounds of the music they were hearing. Long before anyone dreamed that jazz education would flourish and become a major movement in schools, Abe and his friends, in what has perhaps always been the best way to start, learned by trial and error and with their own good ears and strong desire.
The family moved back to New York City and, by his mid-teens, having acquired considerable skills and a repertoire of tunes of the day, Abe was able to work during the summers in the Catskill mountains, an area of resort hotels famous for entertainment just a short distance from New York. "We couldn't play in the big rooms." says Abe. "but we earned our room and board and made $10 a week." The valuable practical experience gained there was soon to pay off.
Joe Allard's teaching studio was well known by then and, now back in the Apple. Abe began to study clarinet and saxophone with Joe. "Lessons were again about basic. legit clarinet playing, but one day Joe stepped out of the room and I began noodling some jazz licks," remembers Abe. "Joe returned, listened a bit, and asked me to write some of those ideas out for him to show other students." Joe Soldo, another Allard pupil, recalled recently that Joe kept a large manuscript volume of excerpts and improvised jazz solo transcriptions for his students to copy for their practice.
By the mid-1930s, Benny Goodman was the preeminent clarinetist in jazz, and Abe soon fell under Benny's spell. In 1936, immediately after their triumph at the Palomar Ballroom in California, Benny returned to New York for a long stay at the Manhattan room of the Pennsylvania Hotel. "I used to hang out, under age of course, at the hotel to hear Benny and the band. Benny really made me want to play. One evening Benny provided a table for me and my family. That was the biggest thrill of my life," Abe recalls.
Abe's comment on how he felt when he first heard Artie Shaw is quite interesting. "Benny is the guy who got me practicing, but then ! heard Artie and said, 'What the hell is that?' ... him coming in with sixteenth notes. And he knew the harmony. Benny didn't always know the harmony."
By 1939. then barely 19, Abe was the clarinet player at Kelly's Stables, one of the most famous clubs on New York's legendary 52nd Street. Coleman Hawkins, king of the tenor saxophone at the time, was enjoying the success of his now famous recording of Body and Soul. Hawkins' first appearance in the United States, after a period of living in Europe, was at Kelly's Stables, and Abe played nightly opposite the saxophone legend. Abe remembers that the audience every evening included such stars of the music world as Billie Holiday. It must have been a heady experience for the young clarinetist.
At the time. Les Brown (and His Band of Renown) was only a few votes behind Goodman. Ellington and Basie in popularity polls. Les, a clarinet player himself, came often to hear Abe at Kelly's and, as soon as details could be worked out, Abe joined Les' band as clarinet soloist to play the solos Les had been playing. Discographies disagree, but in 1940 or '41, the Brown band recorded Mexican Hat Dance, one of its earliest hits. Abe's clarinet solo, which was, of course, improvised for the recorded performance, was stunning. The promise that Abe would receive label credit for his solo did not become a reality when the record was issued, however. Such errors cannot be corrected, and it is the irony of such an occurrence that more than 50 years later someone recently remarked to Abe. "That Les Brown was a hell of a clarinet player when he recorded Mexican Hal Dance." In spite of that unfortunate oversight. Abe's prior experience and reputation had placed him in the polls. In 1942, he placed number eight in Down Beat magazine's annual popularity survey.
With the country at war, Abe soon enlisted in the military and, after basic training, was stationed at Santa Ana, California. The military musical groups in California were quite famous at the time as postings for some of the best big-band musicians of the era. Along with Santa Ana, Catalina Island and Santa Anita had exceptional groups also. Ensembles of 70-plus musicians were capable of playing orchestral, concert band and jazz music. Abe, Billy May, Wilbur Schwartz, Manny Klein, Vince DeRosa. Harry Bluestone, Marshall Sosson, Jimmy Rowles. Chuck Peterson, Earle Hagen and many, many others who became the most successful writers and instrumentalists in post-war Hollywood studio orchestras were in the West Coast military groups.
At Santa Ana, Abe met brothers Art and George Smith, two highly-respected woodwind doublers in the decades following the war. With the Smith's encouragement, Abe began to study the flute and, a few years later when he joined the staff orchestra at Fox studios, found that his early efforts to double on that instrument gave him a valuable asset in the workplace.
Manny Klein, one of the most respected trumpet players in history and a generous friend to many musicians, urged Abe to stay in California at the end of the war. Abe was eager to return to the jazz scene in New York, however, and was soon heard again in the 52ND Street clubs. Work was not as plentiful in New York as Abe had hoped it would be and, with a bit more encouragement from Manny, he returned to Los Angeles.
In 1946, the most startling and forceful movement in jazz since Louis Armstrong was centered around the music of Charlie Parker. The music, called bebop, was played and virtually patented by Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and their New York colleagues. It had evolved in the early '40s but had been heard only on recordings on the West Coast. Parker and Gillespie's first live performances in Los Angeles were at the club called Billy Berg's. Abe and accordionist Milton DeLugg closed at Billy Berg's the night before the famous bebop musicians opened. Abe had not then heard Parker's music and knew of him only by reputation. A double shock came for Abe when he returned to the club the next evening for Bird and Dizzy's opening. The music was a thrilling new experience for him. He could hear instantly the beauty and originality of the new music and, very much to his surprise, the gregarious man who had been in the club listening to Abe the night before, and who had sincerely but anonymously complimented Abe on his playing, turned out to be Charlie Parker himself.
Bebop was a musical earthquake that divided swing-era musicians from those who. by the mid-'40s, were following the more modern approach. It was natural for some musicians like Abe. who liked what they heard in the new music but whose roots were firmly in the '30s, to embrace the new sounds. The sophisticated harmonic language of bebop was then, and remains, a real challenge. The playing of pianist Jimmy Rowles, a contemporary of Abe's, has clearly kept abreast of the periodic changes in the music for over 50 years even though, like Abe, he too was recognized for his originality before the 1940s came along.
In Los Angeles, Abe found that union regulations at the time did not permit steady work for a period of six months or until a union card had been "worked out." Abe sold wallets by day at a department store and played occasional single-night engagements as he could get them. Shortly after he became eligible for the steady job he had at Billy Berg's, Abe received a call inviting him to replace Buddy DeFranco, who was leaving Tommy Dorsey's orchestra. Tommy's clarinet book had been played by a distinguished line-up of players, and it was an excellent break for Abe to follow Buddy in that chair with one of the country's best bands. Saxophonist Sid Cooper had been composing Clarinet Cascades, a virtuoso piece for DeFranco. but the number was not finished until Abe joined the band. Abe recalls that Tommy always played the piece faster than usual if Benny, Artie or Tommy's brother Jimmy just happened to be in the audience. Jimmy Dorsey, on hearing Abe for the first time. said. "I'd like to break your fingers." From one clarinetist to another that remark, of course, can only be taken as the ultimate compliment. Tommy Dorsey disbanded in 1947 and, after only a short time back in L.A., Abe rejoined Les Brown. From his work with Bob Hope, successful tours and many recordings, Les Brown was at the peak of his popularity in the post-war big band world.
In 1950, during an engagement at the Hollywood Palladium with Les, the opportunity to stay in Los Angeles permanently and with full employment was presented to Abe by some of his former service colleagues who had settled into the Hollywood studios after the war. Earle Hagen and several members of the staff orchestra at Twentieth Century Fox came to the Palladium to hear the Brown band and told Abe of an opening at Fox. At the time, the music department of every major studio was a virtual music factory, turning out dozens of motion picture (and eventually TV) soundtracks each year.
Abe gave his notice to Les, said goodbye to the road and settled in at Fox. For the next 22 years, until the contract staff orchestras were disbanded. Abe was a staff musician 52 weeks a year. A typical week at the studio was centered around 10 hours of work. Base pay was given for 520 hours of work a year. Overtime, and usually a lot of it, supplemented the contract salary and was paid as a year-end bonus.
The woodwind section at Fox when Abe arrived was an interesting mixture of straight "legit" players and doublers. In addition to a full section of orchestral woodwinds, a section of saxophones (two altos, two tenors and baritone) had to be included and available for composers who needed a jazz element for their scores. Abe came to the studio as the jazz clarinet, section flute and saxophone player. The other saxophonists doubled only on clarinet and bass clarinet. They were Russ Cheevers, Maury Crawford, Bill Ulyate and Chuck Gentry. Cheevers, Crawford and Ulyate, along with the great freelance saxophonist Jack Dumont, were for many years and many recordings banded together as the Hollywood Saxophone Quartet. Their much admired and prized library is still played by saxophone quartets everywhere.
Russ Cheevers, saxophone soloist on many film scores, was also first clarinet at Fox. It should be of interest to clarinet players that this early doubler was also recognized for his beautiful classical clarinet playing. Bill Ulyate was the bass clarinet and tenor saxophone on Robert Craft's recordings of the complete works of Anton Webern.
Twenty-two years and the thousands of studio recordings at Fox tend to become a blur when looking back on a life's work. On careful reflection, however, Abe cites the John Williams score for the motion picture 1941 as a musical high point. Abe's clarinet was featured throughout and, with drummer Louie Bellson, an exciting duo performance (a la Goodman and Gene Krupa) was recorded under typical studio pressures as Abe recalls. "In only two takes and in a funny key ... but it worked!"
No matter what artistic credentials might be previously acquired, when a jazz musician takes a position of security or one of financial stability as opposed to accepting and living the rigors of the jazz life, the critical press often registers displeasure. After having been recognized for over a decade as one of the best jazz clarinetists. Abe states clearly, articulately and without bitterness how he feels he was perceived after he took the position at Fox studios. "Once I went to Fox it was the opinion of the experts that I was no longer a jazz player, but merely a studio musician -making money and all that. I just wasn't thought of as a jazz player after that."
It is certainly not possible to take the jazz urge out of a man like Abe Most. Steady employment and security couldn't do it. All those who know Abe and his playing well believe that he has had, and has been, the best in both of the musical worlds of his choosing.
A now-famous series of recordings issued by Time-Life in 1970 recreated all of the hits of the big band era. Billy May was musical director and arranger for the project. Billy's task was to take down (transcribe) the earlier arrangements, including note-for-note representations of improvised solos originally played on all instruments. Chosen as the clarinetist, it was Abe who recreated most of the famous solos played by Goodman, Shaw, Herman. Fazola, et al. Typically, Billy May transcribed a solo and sent it to Abe with a tape of the original. Abe's job was to learn "every nuance" of the solo. "I analyzed the solos for everything ... breathing, articulations, fingerings, squeaks and all. and tried to get as close as possible to the original performance." Abe recalls.
In recent years Abe has been a full-time member of the freelance woodwind work force. By the time the studio orchestras were dissolved, the flute was a mandatory double, and Abe was one of the few from the earlier era who had learned that instrument. Over the intervening 20 years, Abe has added hundreds more recordings to his resume.
Once each year, both Los Angeles and Sacramento, California, host well attended classic or traditional jazz festivals. An appearance by Abe with one of his groups, or as a member of an all-star band, is a sure thing at such events. As an adjunct activity to the Sacramento festival, a one-week jazz camp is held there every summer. Abe has been on the teaching staff for 10 years, and speaks enthusiastically of the talented youngsters he meets there. When asked what he teaches. Abe says. "Well, it begins with the blues, of course, and then we work our way into the standards like I Can't Give you Anything But Love. Baby. It is good to think of the young players of today taking advantage of the wisdom and experience of Abe Most.
Motion picture and television scores, phonograph record arrangements and TV commercials that require solo clarinet are written every week of the year. To this day, in Los Angeles, the remark. "... and the clarinet has to be Abe," can mean only one thing when a composer and contractor consult on casting an orchestra's personnel.
The Abe Most Orchestra, an ensemble varying in size from four to 15 musicians plus vocalist, plays many engagements each years in the Los Angeles area. Occasionally Abe and brother Sam are heard with their jazz quintet at a local club. During the week prior to the Academy Awards show, a number of the trades related to the movie industry have their own private "mini"-award ceremonies. For many years Abe has conducted the Sound Editors Awards show. Abe describes the event as "complete with fanfares, play-ons and special show material."
A number of concerts featuring the music of Benny Goodman or Artie Shaw are booked each year, in various locations, to feature Abe playing the original clarinet parts. It must be said, however, that no matter how expert Abe may be at recreating Benny and Artie, clarinetists for whom he has had a lifetime of respect and admiration, there is a clear, original and recognizable Abe Most that shines through in every phrase he plays.
Abe and Gussie have been married for nearly 50 years. Their three children, three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, plus golf, fishing and, of course, the prospect of tomorrow's as yet un-played music, keep Abe Most a vitally healthy, happy and creative man.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR...
Gary Foster is a graduate of the University of Kansas, where he was a clarinet student of Don Scheid. He lives in Los Angeles, CA, where he is a freelance musician performing on clarinet. saxophone and flute. He has performed and recorded with jazz groups led by Clare Fischer. Warne Marsh, Cal Tjader, Shelly Manne. Moacir Santos and Poncho Sanchez. Gary may be heard on Toni Tennille's More Than You Know and All of Me albums. The Broadway Album and Back to Broadway by Barbra Streisand, Mel Torme's Reunion and Live in Tokyo. and on Natalie Cole's Unforgettable and Take a Look. Other recent recordings were with Michael Feinstein, Rosemary Clooney, Diane Schuur, Melissa Manchester, Joao Gilberto, Johnny Mathis, Barry Manilow. Michel Legrand, Milt Jackson. Kenny Rogers. Dionne Warwick and Manhattan Transfer.
Gary's solo jazz recordings include: Kansas City Connections, Subconsciously and Grand Cru Classe (Revelation); Imagination and Beautiful Friendship (RCA Japan); Warne Marsh Meets Gary Foster (Toshiba EMI) and Starbright-Duo and Whose Woods Are These? with Clare Fischer on Discovery.
His most recent solo albums include Make Your Own Fun and Live at Maybeck Hall — Duo With Alan Broadbent on Concord Jazz. White Heat and One From the Heart are with the Jazz At The Movies Band on Discovery.
From its inception in 1973 until 1982, Gary was a member of the award-winning Toshiko Akiyoshi-Lew Tabackin big hand. He has received the Most Valuable Player award for woodwind doubling from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, and since 1984 he has been the Rose Ann Millsap visiting professor at the University of Missouri at Kansas City.
During the current TV season Gary is heard as a member of the television orchestras for Matlock, Diagnosis Murder, Love and War, Murder She Wrote, Perry Mason and The Simpsons. Current motion picture soundtracks include The Flintstones, Casper, Forget Paris, Batman Forever and Under Siege II.
Gary Foster is a Yamaha performing artist.”