DRUMS AND THE PEOPLE WHO PROPEL THE MUSIC

DRUMS and THE PEOPLE WHO PROPEL THE MUSIC
By Dee Dee McNeil – Jazz Journalist

FRANK DEVITO: HISTORIC, LEGENDARY DRUMMER GOING STRONG AFTER SEVEN DECADES
August 1, 2017

The month of June challenged my health and patience. I broke my baby toe. Never mind! All you can do is tape the poor thing to the toe next to it. It takes about a month to heal. My computer was infected with a malware and my tape recorder broke during a long-distance interview with a popular jazz artist. I had to cancel my gig in Huntington Beach because of my broken toe. So today, July 23rd, I’m looking forward to returning to my singing job. I’m excited about my band because, today I’m working with Rick Olson on piano, Luther Hughes on bass and the legendary Frank DeVito on drums.

Have you ever tried to lift that big black case that drummers lug around to all their gigs? Well I have. I couldn’t budge it and I wondered, how do they do it? Frank DeVito is small of stature, but strong as a locomotive pulling a freight train. When I take a look at his accomplishments over the past sixty-plus years, I am in absolute awe. He’s been lugging that case all over the planet. DeVito has worked with so many legendary music figures and jazz icons, that I’m both mesmerized and astounded. In fact, I’m humbled to have had the opportunity to work with Frank DeVito.

A few days after this gig, I took an opportunity to chat with Frank about his life and accomplishments. Here is an eye-opening interview that gives you a peek into the life and times of a legend.

FRANK DEVITO: “At first, I didn’t know that my family was into music at all. Starting out as a kid, hanging around Utica, New York, there was a group of young actors from New York City; a group of young neighborhood guys called ‘The Dead End Kids.’ I saw the movie called “Blues In the Night” and they had these kids in there, The Dead End Kids. I was fascinated by watching one of the guys banging on the drums and looking like he was having a good time. So, I thought, wow – that looks like fun. I started playing shortly after that and was in the band at school. Then, one day my father said, ‘Oh my brother used to play the drums. He was a big Vaudeville entertainer who spent a lot of time in Europe and touring all over the world under the name of DeVito and Denny.’ Who knew? My uncles name was Al DeVito. Then dad told me his mother, my paternal grandmother, had four brothers who were all musicians. This was the Zito side of the family. Torrie Zito has passed away now, but he was a very well-known writer/composer. He conducted and wrote for Tony Bennett for a while; Tony Bennett and Paul Anka. He went to New York in his early twenties and became very successful. His slightly younger brother, we grew up together. I ended up in New York a little before him. He came down to the city from Utica. Torrie’s brother is in New York now. He’s about ten years younger than I am and he plays in the show, “Chicago” on Broadway. Ronnie Zito. They’re going into their twentieth year. He’s the drummer. There were four Zito brothers and they were all musicians. One was Frankie Zito, a trombone player, who played with Stan Kenton and a bunch of people. He’s gone now.

“We grew up in a section of Utica, New York called “Little Harlem.” We were an Italian family and like many Italian families, we all lived together in one place. When my grandparents first came over to America, they spoke no English and all they knew how to do was work hard. They came over from the Southern part of Italy near Naples. My grandparents had a little apartment inside the house and my parents and I had another little apartment on the second floor and my uncle had the attic apartment. My uncle Tubby and his wife lived up top and he was a book maker and a Purple Heart recipient from World War II. I idolized my uncle Tubby. He was a sharp guy. He loved nightclubs and I loved hanging out with my uncle Tubby. He was a book-maker, a gambler, and he always had a new Cadillac that he rode me around in and a big wad of money in his pocket. He was a beautiful guy and he was a war hero. He always clowned around, but he was tough. The American Italians were highly decorated in World War II. Live bands would come perform in Utica at the Stanley Theater. Count Basie’s band would come in and we’d go sit there all evening and watch these bands.

“I was in New York, just a kid scufflin’ around. And there was a little band and the leader was Benny Ventura. He was Charlie Ventura’s brother. Charlie Ventura was very famous. Well, I joined that band and guess who our girl singer was? Morgana King. She was our singer and we’re the same age. I haven’t seen her in years. She played Mama in The Godfather movie. A nice Italian girl. So, here’s what happened. We’re booked in Baltimore, Maryland, I think for a week or two, and Billie Holiday is the star; (the headliner). She didn’t bring a drummer or a bass player. It was very intimidating. She didn’t really talk to us. She’d look around at us and she was great. She had this big dog with her. The dog’s name was ‘Mister’ and he was like a big police dog. And he would be in the dressing room in between shows and she always had some friends around. It was fun. I was only eighteen or nineteen years old and I learned how to be an accompanist and how to play for a singer starting with her. I learned how to get a little stronger and how to build the tension on the drums; how to play with brushes behind her and use legato strokes. She did all those tunes, “Strange Fruit” and she was singing good. She was drinking quite a bit, but it didn’t seem to affect her singing. That’s the only time I ever worked with her. So, Morgana had to just hang out. She couldn’t sing because of Billie being there. So, at any rate that was a great experience.
“I was with Buddy DeFranco’s first band. I worked with him from the age of eighteen off and on for years and years. You know who we worked with a lot? Nat King Cole. The first gig we had was at the Howard Theater in Washington, D.C. It was our band and the star was Nat Cole. And we were young guys; inexperienced. But I’ll never forget how he (Nat Cole) was so patient and such a beautiful guy. Before the show he says to me, ‘What’s your name again?’ and I say Frankie. He says, ‘Look Frankie, when Buzzy is introducing me I want you to look over at this side of the stage, look at me, and I’m going to be giving you the tempo. Just watch me.’ Because Buddy wasn’t always calling the tempos right. So, I end up watching Nat and then giving Buddy the cue. I still remember the song we opened with.”

He sings, “That’s my girl, take a look at her, she belongs to me.”

We both break into easy laughter. Frank has flashed back to that memory and that moment with happiness that radiates through the telephone. He has a pretty good voice too. I feel honored that he’s sharing the memory with me.

“Nat was beautiful,” he continues. “Years later, when I was working with Sinatra, I would do a lot of work with Nelson Riddle. Nelson would go out and conduct for Nat and he was writing a lot of stuff and conducting Nat’s records. I don’t recall recording with Nat, but I sure worked a lot of gigs with him. I’d go out with Nelson’s band too, you know. We’d go out to Phoenix or up to San Francisco on tour.

“There was a lot of work back then. One of the first jobs I had when I settled in L.A. in my twenties, I worked six nights a week with a very famous tenor (saxophone) player, Georgie Auld. Anybody in the music business would know who he was. He played with all the big bands like Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman; those kind of bands. We had a five-piece band. Do you remember the movie with Robert Deniero and Liza Minelli, New York New York? Well, in the movie, Deniero plays a tenor sax player. My friend, who I worked with, Georgie Auld, coached Deniero for that part. I was playing in a club in Hollywood and Georgie Auld comes in one night with Deniero. I was playing there with Terry Gibbs.

“I was on the road with Terry Gibbs for two-years. You’re from Detroit, right? Our piano player was Terry Pollard from Detroit. She was brilliant. We were together for two years. She was married to a bass player from Detroit, Ernie Farrow, I think his name was. We had a quartet with Herman Wright on bass and it was great fun. We played a club in Atlantic City. It was owned by a Black Couple and the clientele was 90% black and it was a swinging joint. We started at Midnight and we’d play until four or five in the morning. It was a regular club and It was legal back then and not after-hours. We worked there with Terry Gibbs, Terri Pollard, myself and Herman Wright. With Terry Gibbs Quartet, we worked a lot at Birdland. We worked there a lot opposite folks like Count Basie, Dizzy (Gillespie), Bird (Charlie Parker), and I got to know Roy Haynes, Art Blakey, Max Roach, all these great drummers. So, I’m playing with Terry Gibbs and one-week, Roy Haynes is playing with the Birdland All-stars. That week it was Charlie Parker, Budd Powell, Dizzy Gillespie, the bass player was Tommy Potter or Curley Russell. Those were the two bass players that worked a lot with Monk, Bird and the rest. This particular time, Roy Haynes said, ‘Hey. I’m gonna be late tomorrow. I’ve got a record date. Can you play the first set with Bird?” I said, yeah. Ok. But Charlie Parker was the nicest man. Like Dizzy, he was beautiful. Those guys were class acts. When you see the movies about them, …well, I didn’t like their depiction of them. I worked on the movie about Bird, but I wasn’t happy with it. You know, Clint Eastwood, who’s a lover of jazz … produced it. But at any rate, Charlie Parker, even though he was into drugs and alcohol, he always appeared clean. When I say clean, I mean he never looked stoned. Never. Nobody could figure out where he got this vocabulary and there was this eloquence about him. He came from Kansas City and he wasn’t highly educated, but he had this wonderful vocabulary. … He and Dizzy were so nice to the young players back then. They would offer their suggestions and encouragement. … We worked opposite them in Chicago too and we were all staying at the same hotel. Charlie Persip was playing with Dizzy at the time. Charlie and I would hang out. We’d go out to the drum factory together. We all stayed at the Croydon Hotel on Rush Street in Chicago. The Eckstines, the Basie Band, everybody stayed there.

“We came out here (to Los Angeles) in the summer of 1954. We worked our way across the country, playing jazz clubs. In fact, we used to work in 1953 and 1954, fifty weeks a year.”

Dee Dee: How was it working with Mel Torme?

FRANK DEVITO: “Oh it was great working with him. A very nice guy; very talented. He wrote all his arrangements and he played drums really well. I worked with him in the 50’s at the Macombo on Sunset Strip and I worked with him in Vegas.”

Dee Dee: What musicians inspired you the most?

FRANK DEVITO: “I was inspired by Charlie Parker and Dizzy. Max Roach was an amazing drummer. Early on, growing up in my formative years, Gene Krupa was my idol. I got to know Gene. He was a great guy. He came from a Polish family in Chicago who were very religious. And Gene was studying, at the beginning, for the priesthood. He was a sweetheart. A very nice man and they made him look like a dope fiend in the press. His band boy was going back stage or something and he had a couple of joints in his pocket and they said, where you going with that? He was a kid, you know. The press blew it all out of proportion.
“For me, the world’s greatest drummer of all time, as far as every drummer that ever lived, was Buddy Rich. Max was great, but Max was a little reserved. He was a more conservative guy. Whereas Art Blakey was a down-home cat.

“Then there’s Roy Haynes. You know Roy Haynes is ninety years old and still playing. Roy is a little short guy, shorter than me, and the world’s greatest dresser. Back then the guys had suits and ties and everything. We’d be standing out in front of Birdland. All the musicians would come over to Roy and say, hey – what you got on today? Where’d you buy that? Roy would look at them and say, well – there’s a place uptown where I purchased this suit. Look at this, he’d say. You like this shirt? Look at the collar. Back then, you know, we used to wear the Mister B collars. That’s what we called them. That referred to Billy Eckstine. I don’t know if you know this, but he was a great guy. I worked with Eckstine for a week, downtown L.A. at the convention center. That was a lot of fun. He was the nicest man. Remember Billy Daniels? I worked with him for a month or six weeks at the Stardust in Las Vegas.”

Dee Dee: I know Earl Palmer was a friend of yours.

FRANK DEVITO: “Earl Palmer! He got me started in the recording business. He and his wife had a beautiful home in Studio City. My wife and I had a house in studio city too and they would invite us over all the time. Red Callendar and his wife would be there. You remember the great bassist, Red Callendar? Red goes way back to the thirties. He pre-dated Earl. I was playing down on LaBrea for a while. There was a little theater where they did jazz. I was playing there one week with Buddy DeFranco and Earl came in. He was in the audience. I had never met him, but I had heard about him, of course! And he came around back stage later. Right away, we became friends. A very nice guy. No ego, you know, even though he was one of the top guys. Sometimes I’d be in a record date next to his” (in the studio next door), “and somebody would say Earl’s next door recording with so-and-so. And during our break, he would take me by the arm, up to the bandleader or the contractor, and introduce me. He’d say this is my friend Frankie Devito. You should use him in case I’m busy.
“Irv Cottler was a great drummer and he also recommended me for a lot of dates. The drummer who did most of the work for Capital Records was Alvin Stoller. Those guys were very, very busy in the studio. They didn’t travel. But I was young. So, if I go a call to go out with Frank Sinatra, I was gonna go. I had a ball. I toured with Frank Sinatra for three years. Then, when I was home, I got referrals and got to record in the studios. With Frank, we were at the Sands and a lot of weekends we were on the road. Guitar player, Nick Bonny was from Buffalo and worked with Frank about a year before me. He wasn’t on the record dates and I wasn’t on Frank’s record dates either. So, this one day, I go up to Frank. I said Frank, Nick and I would love to be on the next recording date. Next thing I know, we got the call. I got to play on the session when we recorded, Witchcraft and others on Capital Records. I was also recorded on the Live Album, Sinatra ’57. It wasn’t released on CD until 1999. Later, in the 1960’s, I played on “Summer Winds” which was part of the Strangers in the Night album. It was Hal Blaine’s record date, but he contracted me to play on a few tunes also. It was on the Reprise label.”

Dee Dee: What about Phil Spector?

FRANK DEVITO: “Yeah. I got to play with Phil Spector. Sometimes he had three or four drummers all banging away at the same time. Most of the time it would be Hal Blane, Earl Palmer and then the other guys played. Sometimes, I’d play percussion. On a record date with that crazy guy, Phil Spector, He had me playing castanets on his recording and he kept yelling at me, louder, louder. Consequently, the instrument broke, because it wasn’t made very well. So, the next day, I knew we were scheduled to do the same thing. I took the castanet home and tried to repair it and make it better. It worked so great after my improvement that I brought it down a week or so later to the drum shop on Vine Street. I showed it to the owner. He said oh, that’s great man. You should make a bunch of those and sell them. Years later, when I wasn’t that busy in the studios, I started to get busy into some of that creativity. It was nothing gigantic, but it was nice. I had a small company that made those, but I never let anything get in the way of my playing. It always came first.”

It’s obvious that Frank DeVito’s passion for his instrument came first. If you’ve heard Frank Sinatra crooning “The Summer Wind” or the Mills Brothers singing their 1952 hit record, “Glow Little Glow Worm” then you’ve heard the skillful accompaniment of Frank DeVito on drums. A percussive jazz icon, DeVito’s diversified talents also held the beat down for the Beach Boys on their “Surfin’ USA” record. He toured three-years with Sinatra and is on the 1999 CD release of the historic, “Sinatra ’57 In Concert.” As part of, ‘Baja Marimba Band’ he made ten television appearances on Johnny Carson’s legendary “Tonight Show” and he played with Herb Alpert’s famed, Tijuana Brass, on their, “Whipped Cream” album. Also, that’s him playing behind Cher on her hit record, ‘Bang Bang.’ He’s worked with everyone from jazz vocalist Billie Holiday to actress Betty Hutton; from Charlie Parker to Buddy DeFranco; from Nat King Cole and Nelson Riddle to Elvis Presley. I couldn’t wait to ask this legend what he thought about the jazz scene in Los Angeles today?

FRANK DEVITO: “Well, we’ve got all of these great young players, so many, but there’s not that much work. No place to play. We used to have all these places like Zardis and The Peacock and a whole lot of other clubs. At least you could get booked for a week or two. Jazz City was another club back then. There really weren’t that many players, but there was a lot of work. It’s opposite today. There are plenty of players and singers, but not enough clubs. And with the advent of simplistic music, popular on radio, like rock and roll and rap, that really helped to kill jazz.

“When I was coming up, teenagers did not control the business. My friend, Remo Bailey, who invented the plastic drum head; he’s gone now, but he said something very wise one time. He was talking about what happened to jazz and so forth. He said jazz had a certain amount of fans for many years and they were very devoted fans. But it wasn’t popular with the majority of American people. It’s an art form. When something came along with the rhythm section and the drums simplifying everything. He said, something came along that anybody could do. The Rock and Roll thing. It was simplistic rock. Boom-bap – Boom-Bap. It was simple. You didn’t have to be a great player to do that. It’s sad because it’s the only pure American art form we have. Also, what I am really unhappy about is that for so many years, our government never gave it its due. Let’s talk about the music called jazz and talk about the early jazz guys; Kenton, Dizzy, Bird, Ellington and all those creative people who came along. Our government ought to keep jazz on the airwaves and jazz ought to be played in the clubs. Let’s keep jazz alive.

See more at http://www.FrankDeVitodrummer.com

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BILLY JONES – 3’S A CROWD
Acoustical Concepts
Billy Jones, drums; EAST COAST MUSICIANS: George Young, alto saxophone; John Vanore, trumpet; George Genna & Mick Rossi, piano; Tony Micelli, vibraphone; Tyrone Brown, bass; WEST COAST MUSICIANS: Scotty Wright, vocal; Kenny Stahl, flute; Stu Reynolds, bass clarinet; Gary Meek, tenor saxophone.
Billy Jones had a concept. He wanted to record a complete CD by using the interaction of two instruments; his drums and one other. Thus, the title, “3’s A Crowd”. The ten songs on this CD all feature Jones and various musicians playing as a duo and feeding off of each other in the improvisational way that jazz music demands.
Billy Jones explained it this way: “The challenge now is to raise the drums from its traditional role of accompaniment, to that of partner to that other voice.”
Opening with George Young on alto saxophone, they have composed the title tune. This is an unusual concept album, deserving of a listen simply because of its unique nature. The first thing I noticed was that whoever mixed this project forgot to turn the drums up. After all, it is the Billy Jones project. There are only two instruments on every track, so why is it difficult to properly showcase the main artist? George Young’s saxophone and Billy Jones’ drum set are playful and engaging. They tease and mimic each other in the most musically prolific way. I enjoyed “Song for Meg” with Tony Micelli on vibraphone. Jones was very creative, although his percussive chops were totally outweighed in volume by the ‘vibes.’ Shame on the mixologist.

John Vanore’s beautiful trumpet on “The Call” encourages Jones to explore rhythm and he lays down an African 6/8 groove beneath the rich trumpet solo. Pianist, Mark Rossi, brings a more Avant Garde spark to light Billy Jones’ fire. This freedom continues when tenor saxophonist, Gary Meeks and Jones celebrate John Coltrane and Elvin Jones on a song titled, “For John and Elvin.” I was particularly taken with Stu Reynolds very creative bass clarinet duo with Jones. Vocalist, Scotty Wright, offers a “Chant of the Soul” that scats with the drums, a’capella and without words. As a vocalist myself, I know that was hard work. One of the few jazz voices I’ve heard who can do that successfully is Bobby McFerrin. Wright is up for the challenge and performs well in this unique situation.
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IGNACIO BERROA TRIO – “STRAIGHT AHEAD FROM HAVANA”
Independent Label
Ignacio Berroa, drums; Martin Bejerano, piano; Josh Allen & Lowell Ringel, upright bass; SPECIAL GUESTS: Conrado “Coky” Garcia, percussion; Ruben Blades, lead vocal.

Playing Yamaha drums, Sabian cymbals, Evans drum heads and Vic Firthsticks, Berroa surrounds himself with outstanding equipment and musicians. Pianist, Martin Bejerano, has a terrific style and technique. He exhibits this on the very first song, “Alma Con Alma”. His arrangement flies speedily into a double-time, straight ahead excitement and this song introduces us to some of his talented group of musicians. Josh Allen takes an impressive bass solo on his double bass that sounds amazingly electric. Berroa’s drum solos, during a spirited cycle of trading fours, are impressive and energetic.
Berroa has chosen a repertoire from tunes that resonate with him from his Cuban youth in Havana. For years, the drummer dreamed about taking seasoned Cuban songs that he heard in his youth and reinventing them into straight ahead jazz arrangements. This project seems to have propitious consequences.
Drummer, Ignacio Berroa started exploring his arrangement dreams during his tenure with Dizzy Gillespie that began in 1981, when Berroa arrived in New York and joined the Gillespie quartet. It took decades of planning and growth to finally approach the moment of conception. Berroa maintains the integrity of each composition, reflecting his cultural roots, while using his sticks and brushes to paint every arrangement with straight ahead jazz and a colorful standard of excellence. This is an album of wonderful music and expressive musicians. Together, they cover the spectrum of Latin culture and reinvents it with serious jazz flavors, infused greatly by the stellar arrangements of pianist, Martin Bejerano.
Special guest, Ruben Blades, offers smooth vocals that glide atop Allen’s rich bass notes and enhance the “Negro de Socredad” tune, along with Afro-Cuban chants as background. Guest bassist, Lowell Ringel, offers an appealing solo on cut #6, “De Ja Que Siga Solo,” by Maria Valdes. Other favorites on this outstanding production are: “Los Tres Galpes” with the expert percussive addition of Conrad “Coky” Garcia and Berroa sounds amazing when he cuts loose on seven minutes of “Si Me Puderas Querer.”
This music is scheduled for an August 5th release.

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JULIAN GERSTIN SEXTET – “THE ONE WHO MAKES YOU HAPPY”
Independent Label

Julian Gerstin, tanbou bélé/congas/tupan/ percussion/segunda/percussion; Eugene Uman, piano/Nord keyboard; Wes Brown, bass; Ben James, drums; Ricky Aguilar, paila/shekere; Jesus Gonzalez, tumba/quinto/chorus; Philip Pasmanick, chorus; Anna Patton, clarinet; Don Anderson, trumpet/flugelhorn.

The notable thing that makes this music swing are the percussive accents. Mixed out-front & prominent, they drive this production relentlessly. No wonder. The star of this show is Julian Gerstin. It’s his sextet and he’s written every song and he’s the dynamic percussionist who adds the tanbou Bélé, congas, tupan and other percussive instruments to this self-produced mix. Instead of being just the salt and pepper on this hot dish of music, he and a few other percussion players become the thick gravy that soaks it with delicious spices and flavor. His trio is stalwart and I found Eugene Uman to be exploratory and interesting on his piano and keyboard solos. Anna Patton on clarinet seems to bring a Middle Eastern influence when I hear her solo work. She and Don Anderson blend their horns well, and Anderson’s trumpet skills are commendable. On the whole, this CD feels more easy-listening, World Music than jazz. The disconnect could be in the lack of strong composition skills. However, the participating musicians bring technical dexterity and energy to Gerstin’s recording session and on tunes like “Child Left Behind” they give it their all and cross the threshold of an interesting blend of jazz and Latin improvisation. Other favorite songs are “Apprendiendo Como Amar” with vocal chants that clearly define a melody. This was co-written by Phillip Pasmanick, who adds his voice to the track over a rich percussive background; and I enjoyed their interpretation of Gerstin’s “ Dig It Deeper”.

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