Trombonist Eddie Bert has been active on the New York music scene for fifty years. He has developed the reputation in the jazz world as the man who has played with everybody. Principally a jazz musician, Eddie also has broad experience with jingle recordings and Broadway theaters.
Eddie was born in Yonkers in May, 1922, and his family moved to a street that divided the Bronx from Mount Vernon. Since they lived on the Bronx side of the street, Eddie was sent to a Bronx elementary school, where there was no music program of any kind. But when he was ten years old his family moved to a house in Mount Vernon, and in the Mount Vernon school there was a band. "They asked me if I wanted to be in the band, and I said ‘Sure, what do you do?’ They gave me a trumpet to try, and I played some notes, and they said, ‘Tell your father to get you a trumpet.' Which he didn't. So the only thing they had for me was an E-flat alto horn. You know how that goes. When the tuba goes ‘oom,' you go ‘pah.' It was kind of boring."
When an opportunity arose, Eddie moved to the rhythm section, playing the bass drum. "Right in front of us were the trombones. They used to play countermelodies on marches, and I liked that sound. I had a broken umbrella at home, with the part that slid up and down, and I had a razzer I would blow with it. My father said, ‘what are you doing?' and I said I was imitating a trombone. So he bought me one...a Wurlitzer. It was like a pea shooter. Had no chrome on the slide. But I played it for three or four months, and then he bought me a real one, a Martin."
"I heard Count Basie and Jimmy Lunceford records, and I said, ‘Gee, there's some meat there!' And I heard the Jones-Smith records, and they had this tenor player, Lester Young. I found out he was in Basie's band, and I wanted to hear him. It was 1938, and Basie had just opened at the Famous Door on 52nd Street, so I went down one afternoon. I knew they were rehearsing, because they had a record date coming up.
I caught Benny Morton coming out of the club, and I asked, ‘Would you give me lessons?' He said, ‘Come to the rehearsals, and afterwards I'll give you a lesson.'" Eddie happily attended the rehearsals and got to meet Lester and all the other members of the Basie band.
With his increased knowledge about jazz, Eddie was eager to play. "In those days they wouldn't let you play jazz in school, so we went to people's houses. I met Stan Getz, Manny Albam, Normie Faye, Shorty Rogers. Shorty and I had a little band, playing Savoy Sultans arrangements, just trumpet, trombone and rhythm. Nobody would hire us because we didn't have any saxophones. Shorty lived in the Bronx, but he would come up and we'd rehearse in the basement of this record store."
Through a musician he met in that basement, Eddie got a steady gig in Larchmont. "I was the only white guy on the band. We had two trumpets, trombone, three saxophones and four rhythm. We had stocks, but at rehearsals, the lead trumpet player would say, ‘play your first note, but play this rhythm.' He'd sing what we're supposed to play. So we'd be looking at the parts, but not playing what was really written. And the band had a style because of that. But I thought that was the way you read." Eddie remembers that it was during that gig that he and his wife Molly were married. "I said, ‘I'm making seventeen dollars a week, we can get married!'
"After about a year and a half, a friend of mine who knew Sam Donahue told me he needed a trombone player up in Boston. But he said, ‘You have to join the union.' My dad knew a violin player in the Mount Vernon local who got me in. I had to take a test... I had the second trombone part on Tiger Rag, and somehow I got through it, and got in the union. I went up to Boston. Sam had three trumpets, two trombones, five saxes and a rhythm section. When I played with the band, he caught on right away that I didn't know how to read like they read. He had a band like Jimmy Lunceford's band, and he had a record date coming up in a week. He told me, ‘I like the way you play solos, but I have to have a guy who can read.' So he got Tak Takvorian to take my place.
"I realized, when I came home from Boston, that I had to learn to read or I wasn't going to get anywhere. I started studying with Maurice Grupp. I was on my way to my third or fourth lesson when I ran into Trummy Young. He said, ‘Let me send you to a teacher!' He sent me to Miff Mole, and I studied with him for a while and learned to read.
"I used to jam in a place in the Village called George's, near where Sweet Basil's is now. Everybody used to go in there to blow. Red Norvo and Mildred Bailey came in one night, and Red told me he was starting a band and needed a jazz trombone player. We rehearsed for two or three months in the Oddfellows' Hall on 48th Street. He had Eddie Sauter arrangements and some by Johnny Thompson, who was studying with Eddie. He had a regular sax section, but they all doubled on flutes, oboes, bassoon, things like that. Duke's band would come in and listen to us play. Red knew all those guys.
We opened at the Blue Gardens in Armonk, on December 6, 1941. And you know what happened on December 7. I finally get a steady job, and they start a war! But we stayed there into February. It was a good gig. We were broadcasting over a radio wire all this time. I had a Wilcox-Gay acetate recorder, and used to record bands like Jimmy Lunceford off the air. I showed my wife how to work the machine, and she recorded all our broadcasts. In 1990 I took copies of those recordings to Music Masters, and they put them out on a CD. Red Norvo Live at the Blue Gardens.
In 1992 I recorded with Benny Carter down in New Brunswick, two suites he wrote, and those came out on Music Masters too. I called and told them, ‘You've got two CDs on the same label with solos of mine that are fifty years apart. Why don't you make some publicity out of that? Not many guys have played solos for fifty years.' But they didn't do anything with it.
Red kept the band together until the draft started eating away at it, and then he cut down to a small group. He needed a trumpet player, and I got Shorty Rogers on the band. We worked all around, including two twenty-week engagements at the Famous Door. Six years after I first went there for lessons with Benny Morton! While I was with Red I got a lot of offers from different bandleaders. Harry James offered me a lot of money, but I turned it down because I thought his band was too schmaltzy. Finally I accepted an offer from Charlie Barnet because Trummy Young was in the band. And Al Killian. Oscar Pettiford had just joined the band...we had two basses for a while, Chubby Jackson and Oscar.
"Then I went with Woody Herman, and I got drafted off that band. Nick Travis and I got drafted on the same day. Woody didn't think they'd take us, but they did. In the Army, after a lot of moving around, I ended up with Bill Finegan's band at Camp Shanks in Orangeburg, NY. Actually, Bill may have saved my life. I was down in Alabama, about to be shipped out to the South Pacific, and I ran into Bill, who had orders to take a band to Camp Shanks. He was just a private, but he went in and scratched somebody's name off the orders and wrote mine in. At Camp Shanks we just played shows. When they didn't need me, I'd take the ferry across the Hudson and go home. I'd call in to see if there was a show, and if not, I'd stay home.
"When I got out in forty-six, I went with Herbie Fields for a while. Then Kai Winding told me he was leaving Stan Kenton, so I wrote and applied for the job. That was the only band at the time that featured trombones. I went with him because, even though that was a California band, I knew he was set to do a lot of work in New York. I stayed with him for all his work out here, and when he headed back west, I jumped off in Chicago and came home.
I went up to Nola's and rehearsed four times with Miles Davis's ten-piece band, and then I went there the fifth time and Kai Winding was the trombone player. So I went on and took a job with Benny Goodman's bebop band. Twenty years later, I ran into Junior Collins, the french horn player on Miles's band. He said he had told Miles that I had said the band was out of tune. So, twenty years later, I find out why I was replaced! I hadn't said that, but Junior always liked to stir things up.
Benny Goodman trying to play bebop was a laugh, but I ended up working for him many times after that. I went back with Woody in 1950, and with Gene Krupa for a while, and with Hamp. I'd try to work around New York, but everybody had me tagged as a road musician. So my wife suggested I use my GI Bill, and I went to Manhattan School of Music.
At that time you could go out...I went on road trips with Charlie Barnet, and they would send me my schoolwork, and I'd mail it back to them. They knew I had to keep working...I had two kids. It took me seven years to get my masters of music, but during that time I got into the recording scene around town. We'd be doing two or three dates a day.
I was working weekends with Elliot Lawrence's band, and he decided to take the band into a Broadway show. In those days nobody wanted a pit job, because you couldn't take off to do other things. But we went into "Bye Bye Birdie" in 1960, and Elliot told the contractor, 'These guys are going to be taking off.' He said, 'Don't they like the job?' The show was a big hit, and we just went from show to show. And being able to take off, I was also playing with Mingus and Monk and Thad Jones/Mel Lewis. I stayed in the theater for twenty-two years. I also did the Dick Cavett show along the way, for four years, with Bob Rosengarten."
Eddie was sorry to have to turn down a tour of the Far East and Australia with Duke Ellington because had just taken the Cavett show job, but in 1972 he toured Russia with the New York Jazz Repertory band under Dick Hyman's direction. "We were playing Louis Armstrong music. We had five trumpets: Jimmy Maxwell, Ernie Royal, Doc Cheatham, Bernie Privin and Joe Newman. And Bernie Privin said, 'See, it takes five guys to play what Louis played!'"
Eddie met Thelonious Monk when he was hired for a Steve Allen show on which Monk also played. "When I was packing up, I heard Monk say to Steve, 'Whaddya mean, scale?' That's when I left." But in 1959 Monk remembered Eddie from that show and asked for him when they put a ten-piece band together for a Town Hall concert. "We rehearsed up at Hall Overton's apartment on Sixth Avenue. Monk would be in the other room, dancing. Hall would say, 'Are you ever going to play the piano?' And he'd say, 'When the tempo's right!'"
Through the years, Eddie often worked with his own jazz group. "We played at the Bohemia, and the off night at Birdland. I had a set group, with Vinnie Dean on alto, Clyde Lombardi on bass, Duke Jordan on piano, and a variety of drummers...Eddie Shaughnessy, Art Mardigan. For a gig one night at Birdland, Clyde couldn't make it, so I hired Mingus. I was giving Oscar Goodstein the list of musicians, and when I told him Charlie Mingus would be on bass, he said, ‘No, you can't use him. He just knocked the cop down the stairs, and he's barred from Birdland.' I called Mingus and told him I couldn't use him because of what had happened. He asked, ‘You want me to play with you?' ‘Of course.' So he called Morris Levy, the owner, and got permission to work. On the gig, after the first set, Mingus came over and said, ‘What's the matter with this band? Nobody argues!’"
Eddie is still going strong as he approaches his seventy-sixth birthday. "Lately I've been working with Bobby Short. He's added some horns to his group. And I'm also playing gigs with Thelonious Monk's son, T.S. Monk. We're playing all new stuff of Monk's that T.S. has found around the house. We've been recording and touring, and the crowds are great. People of all ages." Last month Eddie went to Europe with an all-star group for a three-week tour playing Thelonious Monk's music.
He says, "I still love to play, and I still love to travel, and I'm still doing both."