FB: Today with us is Mr. Al Natale, a long-standing member of the Boston musical community, a trumpet player, a band leader and, recently, a founder of a scholarship fund for Berklee brass students. Al, it's great to have you aboard here. I remember seeing you in the clubs, since I first started coming to Boston with a phony I.D. card.
AN: Don't mention how many years ago.
FB: But you were a regular fixture on the scene, sitting in the audience, chatting with the musicians between sets, maybe doing a little bit of police work, but mostly listening to musicians comments and complaints about the scene. We go back a long long way.
AN: A long time, right.
FB: And we were neighbors in Belmont for many many years, and we are again.
AN: Yes, we are. Inseparable.
FB: It's a real pleasure to have you come and talk about your career in Boston and your many many connections with the Boston musicians, Berklee musicians and the whole cultural scene.
AN: Well, I am very fortunate, I guess, to say, I saw Berklee begin on Newbury Street. The very beginnings of it. I knew most of the teachers then and I know quite a few now. But of course it's expanded so beautifully, it's so incredible, the growth, watching it grow all these past years and internationally-known. I've considered myself fortunate to have a lot of the players who've worked for me or with me that teach at Berklee from the very beginning. So, I am very happy to say that.
FB: Like me, you were never a Berklee student and never a Berklee professor, but we both observed the unfolding of this amazing institution with our respective careers, you as a performer and me as an observer and a scribbler.
AN: Well, what's amazing about it is that the young musicians finally had somewhere to go to learn how to play jazz, get the schooling on it. We would buy an old 78 [rpm] record when we were kids, and play it, and spin it and spin it and listen, keep repeating, probably wear the record out and go out and buy another one to keep hearing how the musicians were improvising and try to learn how they would approach it. You were on your own. But Berklee just opened up a whole new field and made it get the schooling of it and techniques of it, the scales, how they used the scales, and the changes and so forth. So Mr. Berk, the creator, he really had outstanding forsight to create such an industry and it was terrifically accepted.
FB: You might want to fill us in on some of your early career, when you were a kid and how you got your first trumpet.
AN: Sure. Well, what happened was, I must have been about eleven or twelve years of age, I was attending a school at the North End of Boston, St. Anthony's, and one morning we get called down to assembly hall, we had no idea why. We all marched down in formal line, and one by one the music professor, Mr. (Trongoli), would have one of us go up on the stage and he would have a look at us and decide what instrument to give us. At the time they were beginning to organize a five-bugle and drum corps. So Mr. (Trongoli) looked at me and he handed me a bugle. I had no idea what it was. So he said, "Let's see what you can do with this, kid." So I picked it up, put it to my lips and got a hell of a good note out of it. A good BAAAAA, ya know. Fat tone. So that impressed them and he said, "Okay, you play bugle." I liked it with its limitation of notes. I practiced the different calls.
So I guess I did pretty good with it because the following year he promoted me to the senior band but I had to play trumpet. So he presented me with the trumpet and that's how I got with playing the trumpet. It totally amazed me that there was so much more that I could do with the trumpet that I could not do with the bugle. 'Cause you had your three valves, you could play all your chromatic scales or any scales you want, which you can't do on the bugle. That was fascinating for me to get on the instrument and to see how much you could do with it. I practiced ever chance that I got because I really took to it, I really enjoyed it. And as time went on I kept improving and I finally graduated from school. And when I went to high school -- a very good thing back in those days, thirties -- practically every high school in Boston had a music department where they had school bands. In the morning we would play, the orchestra would get together and play some marches to start the school session, about 8:30.
FB: Kind of like an entrance processional.
AN: That's right. Kick 'em up and give them some enthusiasm to start your school work.
FB: I love that.
AN: And just about every school had that, which was great and it's a shame it's not active today the way it was then. It took a look of interest to a lot of young players.
FB: You only get it at pep rallies now or half time.
AN: I guess so. Just about. Well, that really fascinated me to keep playing the trumpet. And my dad decided when he realised I was taking to the trumpet that I should take private lessons, which I did. And the teacher I studied with, Mr. Ralph (Fuccillo), he was the principal trumpet player at the RKO Theatre here in Boston. At that time they played vaudeville shows. Like, if you remember the Ed Sullivan show, well, it was similar to that: different acts come in, you play dog acts, monkeys or whatever, tapdancers and ballet dances and jugglers and singers. A good variety show. That was a wonderful experience for me. So I worked at the theatre there for a while and then they decided to change the format and bring in the name bands of that era, this is like mid-40s. It was great. That created another new experience for me because when the orchestra would come in, sometimes one of the trumpet players would have to be called home 'cause his wife may be delivering a child or for whatever reason, so I would fill in. I was very grateful that my father taught me what is called solfege, the Italian interpretation of rhythmic dictation.
FB: Your father taught you that? So he was a musician?
AN: Ya, he was a musician but not as a profession, he was a barber. Not the Barber of Seville, but he was a barber.
FB: He was a singing barber?
AN: No, he played the clarinet and the guitar and all that but strictly as a hobby. His big forte was opera. That was it. He wouldn't listen to any jazz or anything like that. Opera was his religion.
AN: Getting back to the bands, I would go up and play these shows at sight, which was great for me. I decided to try and go on the road. So one of the bands that came by was the Bob Chester and I asked for an audition which they were nice enough to grant me. And I did okay and I joined the band in Philadelphia, at the (Earl) Theatre. They had very good musicians in the band: John LaPorta, who ended up as a professor here at Berklee; we had Bill Harris, tremendous trombonist, outstanding; Irv Kluger on drums. That was a whole new element for me. A beautiful experience. You can't buy that. Well, anyway I joined the Bob Chester Band in Philadelphia at the Earl Theatre, we were there for two weeks and from there we were booked to play the Atlantic Steel Pier in Atlantic City -- The Steel Pier, which was a huge ballroom up in the harbour. So they always had two orchestras. We go there, much to my delight and surprise, the orchestra we were to relieve was the Harry James Orchestra.
FB: Whoa! Ziggy Elman?
AN: No, Ziggy was with Benny Goodman, then he got his own thing going on. But Harry James, that's when he was really popular, when he did “You Made Me Love You”
FB: He was married to Betty Grable.
FB: At that time he was keeping company with her. So it was really top moves all the time. The porters would come by hoping to see if maybe Betty Grable had come by. So it was very active, we were there for three weeks. And for me it was the best three weeks of my life, to watch Harry James six nights a week, that's a lesson in itself.
FB: You guys are trading sets.
AN: That's right. They played an hour and then we'd go on for an hour. They kept continuous music.
FB: Meanwhile, the place is packed with dancers.
AN: Oh, absolutely. The place was a huge ballroom with about seven or eight hundred people.
FB: You'd do what, three one-hour sets in a night?
AN: Just about, yeah. Similar to that, yes. And we did that six nights a week. And that was an outstanding experience for me. Well, I stayed with Bob Chester for a while and then I decided to make a change and I joined the Jerry Wald Orchestra. And that was another great experience because we'd start playing some, most of the theatres and, to me, the big thrill at that time was to play the Paramount Theatre in New York City because it was such a background for what Sinatra got his big opening there with Benny Goodman, and to be a part of a place where history of music was being created, you know? So that was another (mark) for me which I enjoyed.
FB: Where were the charts coming from? Who was doing them? Were there stock arrangements? Did you have your own arrangers?
AN: That's a very good point you bring up, back in the big band era, you could actually identify each individual orchestra.
FB: Like the colours, the timbres?
AN: Absolutely, the sound. To give you a perfect example, how could you miss Glenn Miller? How could you miss Benny Goodman? Then Artie Shaw? They both play clarinet, but there was quite a difference between them.
AN: And so on and so forth. But each orchestra had really their own sound depending on the arranger. You take Jimmy Lunceford, Sy Oliver did most of his arrangements. The thing that impressed me a lot with Jimmy Lunceford's Orchestra was that 2, 4 beat that they got going like [mimics a drum groove] and rhythm. It was terrific, very exciting. Jimmy Crawford was the drummer at the time and he outstanding trumpet players. God, you listen to the high register that they had. It was wonderful - which was the big frustration with a lot of trumpet players back then. But today it seems a lot of trumpet players have the technique of playing up in the so-called stratosphere.
FB: So even, Bob Chester or Jerry Wald would have their resident scribe who'd be doing the charts?
AN: Yeah, who ever the arranger they would hire would write so many arrangements in a week, that's how they built their library. Chester's band was a little bit like the Glenn Miller Band with the lead clarinet but not too much of that, but a taste of that. They all had their own little thing.
FB: And they were catering to dancers?
AN: Absolutely, dance music -- that was it.
FB: Did they both have ‘chick’ singers?
AN: Yes, absolutely. Every orchestra had a female and a male singer, boy and girl. And as Glenn Miller became more popular and doing very well financially he had (Lamar Nanson) with him, group of singers who travelled with the band it was like (prasmy) the size of a symphony after a while.
FB: Did they indeed pad them out with strings on occasion?
AN: That came later, yes. That came later in the few years down the road. They all did that. Tommy Dorsey had a section of string players and so did Artie Shaw. They kept developing new sounds all the time.
FB: Raking over the pop tunes that they could jazz up, swing up and get their own...
AN: ... their own interpretation and that's how they had a hit. Like Jimmy Dorsey's “Green Eyes” with, what's her name?
FB: Helen Merrill?
AN: No, Helen Merrill is one of my favorite singers. Connie O'Connell, she did “Green Eyes”.
FB: Helen O'Connell.
AN: Helen O'Connell, thank you. It was an arrangement where she and the singer, Bob Eberle, would make a romantic thing out of it. So little things like that kept the industry alive. That's what happened in that era. Which was an excellent era. It kept a lot of musicians working.
FB: Sure did, yeah. So after your stint with Bob Chester and Jerry Wald, did you come back to Boston?
AN: Yes, I did….
AN: I decided to come back to Boston. I had enough of being on the road. It is an exciting life, but it's kind of tough. You do your one-nighters, you're back on the bus. Back then things were not as comfortable as they are today. Buses were at a premium. You tried to do as much train travelling as you can, but you can't go out to the ballrooms, you have to have a car. So, what we would do, for an example to give you a simple illustration, we would come to Boston, stay at a hotel in Boston, and that would be a headquarters for the New England area. We would probably do a ballroom up in New Hampshire, come back and the next day travel up to Maine and come back, the next day probably go to western Massachusetts because all of the ballrooms were out. We did have ballrooms in the city, but to get out, and keep the band working, we had to move out, had to keep travelling. That was a tough thing. You are staying over at a hotel a lot, but many times you couldn't. I remember one scene when we were in the mid-west, we were doing a string of one-nighters, for about a week or two we could hardly stay at a hotel because the distance between engagements were four or five hundred miles. You just had enough time to get to the job, do the job, unpack and go off again. So that was tough grind, and there was a while when we couldn't get our shirts laundered, so we wore them inside out. We tried anyways. So that was fun. But as I say, it was a great experience, but enough gets to be enough. So, I came back to Boston, I worked for the different society bands here in Boston: Ruby Newman Orchestra and the Harry Marshard Orchestra.
FB: Oh, sure. I remember those guys, we hired them for proms.
AN: Absolutely. They sounded a lot like Lester Lanin, the businessman to beat. To work for them, you had to know quite of few of the songs by memory, the big show tunes and things of that nature because once you got going, you kept it going. It was like continuous music.
FB: Right: it would be a long segue or suite.
AN: That's right. You'd just go through and modulate one song to another and you gotta know them all by memory. And you learn to fake the second part or the third part in harmony. So that was a whole new experience.
FB: Tough on the rhythm section. No let up, the pianist is always modulating into the keys. You get guys like Bob Winter and Dave McKenna, were fabulous.
AN: Absolutely, Ray Santisi. Oh yeah, you kept that time going. So that was another experience working with them. And then I worked the clubs around Boston, quite a few clubs. You know, it's amazing, we have a good number of jazz clubs, but yet we also had a good number of clubs that weren't really classified as jazz clubs, but the musicians play jazz. So it's a place where, at that time during the war, WWII, we had a lot of service guys in Boston -- Navy, Marines soldiers and so forth -- would frequent these cafes or restaurants and they all had live music and all had fine musicians and they played jazz, but it wasn't a jazz club. I did that for a while, before I decided to get a group of my own going. Of course you remember the old jazz clubs we had here -- The Ken Club, The Savoy, Wally's (which is still in operation after all these years, so many years I can't think of it.)
FB: Izzy Ort’s, The Businessman's Lounge, The Stables.
AN: That came afterwards. The Stables as you know was created by Herb Pomeroy, Ray Santisi and Vaad (Haritunium), they created the Jazz Workshop, which was on Huntington Avenue. Then from there they opened the new room on Boylston Street before Prudential Center, it was right across the street from Prudential Center. And I'm drying up a bit.
FB: We got a coffee for you too here, Al.
AN: So the jazz clubs moved on Boylston Street, The Stables, which we called 'The Stables'. The opening night the opening act they had for the first week was Stan Getz and from then on strictly big-name jazz. You name your jazz player and they all worked there. And a year or two later, well, about a year later, the owners decided to expand to the other room, the other part of the (sylabit) gave it a different name, they called it Paul's Mall.
FB: Tell us about that.
AN: Well, I was booked to work there with my group. I had a quartet at that time and I kind of emulated the Jonah Jones type music, because that's what it called for.
FB: So this is sort of the businessman's bounce, pared down to a little, tight group: three, four.
AN: That's correct. And it was a nice room and the theme they tried to get in the room was like a penthouse, they tried to call it the Underground Penthouse, which sounds absurd, but that's what they created. They were very inventive and along the wall they had some creation where you could see the light change from dusk to dawn within a circle, a certain period of time. So it was great. It was unique. We did very well and I worked there for about a year or two.
FB: You were there every night?
AN: Every night, six nights a week.
FB: So you'd go like 6 to 8[pm] and then the main act would come on, or how would it go?
AN: What happened, the type of entertainment they had was basically comedians, I am talking about Paul's Mall and they were all young at that time. So our first comedian was Henny Youngman, he was the first one to open.
FB: "Take my wife, please!"
AN: That's right and we worked behind him for a week, and then we had, who was just starting up, Flip Wilson, who was wonderful. "The devil made me do it," that was his expression. Very funny guy. And to top it off, followed by a guy name of George Carlin. Young guy, but very witty, he was a genius. And you know -- what can I say about him? He just became world-renowned.
FB: This is now, when are we talking? This is the early 60’s now?
AN: I would say so, yeah. He was a great guy, George. So I did all that type of work at that period. So my experiences kept expanding all the time, which was great. And then I worked, as I mentioned earlier, with a Latin band at the Latin Quarter. And that was an exciting thing, the band leader, Mike Ventri, he organized the band and used just three trumpets and rhythm. He played piano and he got his rhythm section, he got three or four guys from Cuba and took them to America.
FB: So conga, timbales -- the whole nine yards.
AN: The conga drums, that was exciting, we had the three trumpets and the Latin rhythm.
FB: That was the golden age, when those guys started coming across the pond to Miami, Mario Bauzá and all of them. They descended on New York and then they just spread out.
AN: Very exciting era at that time.
FB: This is when Ray Barretto joined George Shearing.
AN: I would guess so.
FB: Probably around the early ‘50s.
AN: That's when they did the Latin rhythm “Tea for Two".
FB: I am sorry, Armando Peraza.
AN: You remember that Latin rhythm "Tea for Two" which became a big hit?
AN: Well, around that era.
FB: Is that pre-cha cha?
AN: No, just about the same era.
FB: Okay, Pérez Prado.
AN: Pérez Prado, "Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White"
FB: Big, big hit.
AN: So we did a lot of that.
FB: I remember dancing to that with a white tuxedo on and a pink boutoniere.
AN: You did?!
FB: Cha cha cha. Oh yeah. I was in the audience.
AN: Was that graduation night?
FB: It was high school. Tremendous, the Latin influence started then and continued in various guises throughout the years: we had the Brazilian thing in the sixties; and then there was the Mexican stuff, the Herb Alpert thing that you participated in or relaunched in Boston.
AN: Yeah, I did very well with that.
AN: You know, there were so many great musicians that came out of Boston. Go way back with Benny Goodman's first years, when he first organised his orchestra. His lead alto player was a gentleman called Toots Mondello, who was originally here from Boston. And then they had Hymie Schertzer, or something like that, took over Toots' place as lead alto for Benny Goodman.
FB: Did you know these guys?
AN: I knew, well, Toots was just a little kid at the time, I didn't say I knew him well, but you get to meet him down at the union hall. At that time at the union hall, Monday everybody would show up looking for a job for the week because most of our work at that time was miscellaneous, casual, what we called casual work. So you'd walk down to the union, it'd be packed with all of the musicians, you'd have to have your little note book, and you'd talk with the contractor and he'd give you a Saturday or a Friday. But the cream days, Mondays and Tuesdays, those are the days you want.
FB: Everybody could work the weekend, but the early week is when you fleshed out your paycheck.
AN: What made you more in demand to a contractor is how many tunes you knew by memory, 'cause that made you very important. And as I mentioned earlier, you'll learn to not only play the melody but you'll learn to fake harmony, a lot of the times, they didn't have music. You'd fake it.
FB: So they would know you by your reputation. Say, "he's a good reader," "he knows 2000 songs." I remember some musicians used to keep a little note book with the names of tunes and the chord changes or, if they were a singer, maybe a couple of lines of the lyric to get them started on it and they would keep it nice and compact. It would be your Bible.
AN: It would guide you. That's absolutely right. And that's how we did it, after a while, you didn't need that depending on what contractor you worked with 'cause they all followed their own format, so you learn it.
FB: Today, you would have it on a an iPod, except the people, they don't even call the tunes.
AN: Re-modulate one tune to another, alright say that we are playing, and the leader will point to you. He'd want you to play a tune. So you get up, you look at the piano player, and use your fingers. That would tell the piano player what key you wanted him to modulate to.
FB: Ab, or whatever.
AN: Ab would be three flats. Ab concert. Flats you go down, sharps you point up. And that's what you would do and the piano player would modulate and you play whatever tune you know would fit that tempo.
FB: What a baptism by fire that would be for a lot of young kids at Berklee to have to do that. Mamma mia!
AN: That's right. It's a world of its own. That is how we made a living, plus doing our own little things on the side. That was quite the thing.
FB: What do you mean "little on the side?"
AN: Well, book your friend, daughter would get married and they'd say. "Al, can you get an orchestra for me?" And that's how you get started doing your own little contracting.
FB: The ladies aid party, the Bar Mitzvah, whatever.
AN: Yeah, right. But the Bar Mitzvahs, the contractors had those down pretty good, the established contractors. Well, I'll tell you, if it weren't for the Bar Mitzvahs a lot of musicians wouldn't be making a good living.
AN: Because every weekend you had a Bar Mitzvah. It wasn't just a birthday party. You had a Bar Mitzvah and they always hired a good sized orchestra. It was really terrific, and it still is. Like I mentioned, so many good musicians came out of Boston. If you take those who worked with Duke Ellington: Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney.
FB: Cambridge and Roxbury.
AN: That's right. Excellent. And from Belmont, Nat Pierce.
FB: Oooooh, with Woody [Herman].
AN: With Woody. And Nat, a good thing about Nat that a lot of people don't realize is, he and Count Basie became very, very friendly. And whenever Count Basie didn't feel well or had to take a night off, Count Basie would only send Nat Pierce to substitute for him. And in those days, that was an outstanding compliment and achievement.
FB: Fantastic. Not too many people could play a little so well as Basie. He was amazing.
AN: ... and effectively. Nat Pierce had that down to a tee. He really did. And he did very well.
FB: You say that he was raised in Belmont?
AN: Belmont, yes.
FB: Did you know him when you were young?
AN: No, I didn't know him at that time, I mean, when he lived in Belmont, of course I got to know him as I kept performing around the city, just before he went to New York. And then we had Serge Chaloff from Boston. I mentioned earlier that there were a lot of clubs that weren't jazz clubs but the musicians play jazz. I mentioned Serge Chaloff, he worked at the old Scollay Square, he worked at a place called 'The Imperial Cafe,' playing tenor. He worked there like six nights a week for a while, then he went on the road.
FB: Imperial Cafe? Is that a Chinese restaurant?
AN: No, no, it is just a regular American-styled restaurant.
FB: Who would be in the band with him?
AN: I don't remember the other guys, but it was between Scollay Square and Bowdoin Square, right in that area. And Serge played there and then from there that's when, I think, he first went on the road. He joined the Tommy Reynolds Orchestra. And from then on the rest is history, with Serge. He was a dynamite guy.
FB: Tremendous player. And he came and he played with Herb later on.
AN: Very little. He came back because he wasn't feeling well. He came back for a short while, then he got his own little jazz groups and played different jazz clubs, wherever he could go, traveling and so on and so forth.
FB: Green was impeccable with his mother being a great teacher of classical music.
AN: The thing about Serge an orchestra that he joined, I may have mentioned this to you once, the orchestra was called Shep Fields. It was a commercial orchestra.
AN: See another thing, back in my era, you had what we called society bands and Mickey Mouse bands. Mickey Mouse bands, those that played the hotels, like a Freddy Martin Orchestra.
FB: When you say 'Mickey Mouse', is that a disparaging term?
AN: Well, it just gave it a name 'cause it wasn't really something, not comedy, but it was a bouncy band and they played hotels a lot and they would feature lead tenor, very heavy saxophone sounds ...
FB: Like Boots Randolph, or something?
AN: No, that's a different story. This is very commercial. But anyway this orchestra leader, Shep Fields, who had a commercial band in those days, he created a thing called the 'Rippling Rhythm.' He would get a cocktail glass, that you put brandy in and have water in there with a straw. And the band would play the music and certain open spots he would blow bubbles in it.
FB: Into the mic?
AN: Yeah, with the bubbles. That's the rippling rhythm. Very commercial. But the point I am getting at, later on, I guess he did very well financially, he organized a jazz orchestra, but it was all reeds, no brass, all reeds, any reed instrument that you could think of. And on the personnel were a lot of jazz players. They had Serge Chaloff, Buddy DeFranco and a number of other guys who were real, great, outstanding jazz players, young players. And i tried to get a record that they recorded, and I can't find one, just to hear it. But that was quite a unique thing that he created. I wonder if it was recorded?
AN: Oh yeah, he did record. 'Cause I tried getting a record of it. And I'm sure, maybe, someone in this world may have one somewhere up in the attic. But that was quite an orchestra, quite a unique, stop and and think of it for a minute, all reeds.
FB: And the upper-reeds would be playing the brass parts?
AN: Well, I think he would use -- I am only guessing -- I think he would use the clarinets for the trumpet parts, then the tenors and altos for their respective parts and a good swinging rhythm section.
FB: I like that. Well, it was Med Flory's Saxomania.
AN: Oh, many years before that.
FB: I know that, but I mean it is possible to stick with an enhanced reed sound as long as you've got enough top and bottom.
AN: But that was only five, it was strictly five reeds on the Charlie Parker hits.
FB: You're right. That's right.
AN: Just five saxes, the full voice. Which was good. And so on and so forth, things keep moving.
FB: Tell us a little bit more about your bands after the Jonah Jones era. Tell us how you got going with the Tijuana?
AN: Well, prior to the Tijuana, I just put an orchestra together. There was a club in Boston called the Mayfair Club and I knew one of the fellows that had money invested in it and called my attention to it and he had me audition for it. I had a six-piece band. And it was a beautiful night club. It had this rolling roof in the summer time, the roof would roll open.
FB: Marvellous. Where was this?
AN: It was across from the Latin Quarter in the District Theatre, which was then called the theatre district, in Back Bay. And my piano player was just starting out in the business, young kid from Chelsea by the name of Chick Corea. What can I say about him now? He's done so well.
FB: Tell us with your experience with him as a kid.
AN: Well Chick, of course you know, came from an excellent musical family.
FB: Armando is a great brass man.
AN: His father, Armando, was a great trumpet player and also a great bass player. And Armando's brother was also a trumpet player. And they worked together a lot in the various orchestras and in the night clubs. So Chick was very fortunate to have a good musical background, family history of music. But he was such a bright boy, you could see, "This kid is going to go somewhere."
FB: He was what, sixteen?
AN: Just about, yeah. Sixteen, seventeen. Full of vim and vinegar. "Yeah, let's go!" In fact we played shows at the Mayfair and between shows we would take a rest period, but he and the drummer, Joe Cocuzzo, they didn't get off the stand. They stayed there and they played in between what they wanted to play so that played jazz. I didn't bother them. "Go right ahead." So they had a good time playing jazz 'cause that's all Chick wanted to play. He just stayed with me because he needed a job to get going in music.
FB: But they were playing in front of the public?
AN: Oh, yeah.
FB: The piano and drum were just doing their thing between sets?
AN: That's correct.
FB: Excess energy.
AN: And we played shows, one of the acts we played was Cab Calloway. I got photos of that, I meant to bring them in. And we played for Cab Calloway, he was there for two weeks. He was happy with us. And we had some good names that came in there that we played their music for them. What else?
FB: Who else did you work with at The Mayfair or other clubs with that group?
AN: Well, we just did The Mayfair. And then from there as time goes on that's when I think I went into the Tijuana music. I emulated Herb Alpert and I had some great players with me: I had Paul Fontaine playing trumpet for me; a young guitar player by the name of John Abercrombie.
FB: He was a Berklee student.
AN: He was a Berklee student at the time, that's correct. And John was a wonderful guy, young fellow. And again the same as Chick Corea, just wanted to play, enjoyed every second. And what I would do with the Tijuana Brass music, I would play the melody that the people were familiar with, copy the record and play it that way, but then as I had them dancing, I would open it up. I would have Paul blow on it, then I'd have John play on it. So I would expand it, once you get the people dancing, they're going.
FB: This band was so popular that it had a whole bunch of hits with a whole bunch of memorable hooky tunes [sings a horn line].
AN: That's right.
FB: All that stuff.
AN: Tijuana and all that ...
AN: ... Herb Alpert created an industry of music recording that was incredible. It was his music, most of his arrangements, he had them all copyrighted, produced, he owned a recording company.
FB: A&M Records.
AN: Yeah. He owned everything. So the money just came in, like open barrels, flowing in -- and such a gracious guy. If you noticed on Channel 2 many times you'll watch a good music show or whatever, an opera, whatever it is, Herb Alpert Foundation. He donated over 20 or 25 million dollars to a school in California.
FB: He built this library.
AN: He built here at Berklee.
FB: He named it after Stan Getz.
AN: Well, there you go. He was a very generous guy. And I am still emulating him with my scholarship.
FB: There you go. That's right.
AN: So, one follows the other.
FB: Herb was quite amazing. His entrepreneurial instincts must've inspired a lot of guys to do soup-to-nuts production of their own music.
AN: I would guess so, sure.
FB: I mean maybe Quincy Jones.
AN: Well, Quincy 'cause of strictly jazz, he wrote that. He also was a student here at Berklee. He lived here in Boston for a while. I never did get to meet him then. Charlie Lake and he were in the same class.
FB: Is that a fact?
AN: That's right. Charlie Lake and Quincy Jones were in the same class. Charlie played the trumpet, you know?
FB: I do know that.
AN: He didn't follow it, through. He decided to do what he did.
FB: They were probably in the same section.
AN: Could be.
FB: Didn't think of that.
AN: That I don't remember. What can you say about Quincy Jones? He was incredible. Genius.
FB: Let's see.
AN: Also with me on the Tijuana band to begin was Alan Dawson on drums. Alan was a very flexible guy. He'd play wherever you put him, but he'd get it well.
AN: His thing was jazz.
FB: He was also a monster on vibes, if you could get him to bring them to the gig.
AN: Yeah, they are heavy to carry.
AN: Of course you know, he worked with Dave Brubeck for a while, Lionel Hampton. He played with a lot of orchestras.
FB: He certainly did.
AN: Wonderful person, Alan Dawson, great guy.
FB: We should segue into your work with the union 'cause that's a whole 'nother life of Al Natale.
AN: Let me correct one thing, not so much as a correction, professionally, many say Al 'NA-tuh-lee, but it's really Na-'TA-lee. Al N, a, t, a, l, e. But when I went to parochial school the nuns pronounced it 'Nat-uh-lee, they put the '-lie' but it's really Na-'TA-lee. 'Natale' in Italian mean 'Christmas,' so when it's Christmas time you wish someone a merry Christmas in Italian you say, "Buon Natale." I have a part of the year every year. Anyway getting back to the union, I decided to get into the ... just to change my life, keep life interesting. "What is this all about - union?" and so on and so forth, parliamentary procedure, and so on and so forth, for meetings. And I decided to run for the board of directors. I really showed the members that I wanted the job. I, like a politician would do, I went out and talked with all of the guys, I'd have the card printed, I'd go out and meet with different guys, and let them know that I am running for the board of directors.
FB: You campaigned.
AN: I campaigned, yes, on my own.
FB: What piqued this interest? If you were a happy musician working week-to-week, why did you want that in your life?
AN: I don't know just something in me that lead me that way. And I'm happy it did because I feel that I did quite a bit of good for the younger musicians and I'll explain that in a while. But, at that time, the older guys were (armours) in office and while I was them there was a bit of touch and go between the older players and younger players with the union and stuff like that. So, I decided to get in there which I did. I was elected by a very good majority and I stayed on the board for a few years, learned the ropes. On my own, I went through the labor guild, which had placed a school, private school, where the other people working were either carpenters or sheet metal workers or plumbers joined the union but never a musician. And it's affiliated with the state council. So I decided to go there and learn parliamentary procedure and so forth. And when I introduced myself at the first class, I introduced myself, I said, "Yes, I am a musician. I represent the musician's union." You think it was like, "Where do you come from?" It surprised them.
FB: They know about the teamsters, they know about the autoworkers, but -- musicians?
AN: And we were a union for many years. And I might add that musicians union is one of your biggest entertainment unions in the world. We have locals all over Canada, Alaska, The United States, Hawaii and Puerto Rico, all part of the American Federation of Musicians. So it's quite an organization, internationally. So anyway I went to this labour guild, I learned my parliamentary procedure so I would know how to run these meetings and how they would try and run it. And as you know, oftentimes the loud-mouth tries to dominate a meeting and if you know your parliamentary procedure, you can handle that. And that's the idea of knowing parliamentary procedure, is to give everyone an equal chance to speak and to be heard. So I utilized that very well. And then I decided after doing that for a years to run for vice-president. I was still playing at the time, too. So, I again campaigned for vice-president. And many guys said to me, "Why do you want to do that?" You just asked me, "Why get involved with that?" I said, "Well, I felt in need for it." And, again, I enjoyed it, and part of my job as vice-president was to go to different clubs. At that time we had minimums, certain rooms you had so many musicians and other locals had two. That was part of my job to see that. I would go from one club to another, or one hotel to another, whatever, or a concert hall to see that they had the right number of musicians performing. Sometimes you wouldn't find it so. I was quite liberal, so I kept things pretty comfortable. And I got to talk with a lot of the younger musicians and listen to what their complaints were with the union. I tried to do what I could to help it along and I helped a lot of fellows that were on the road.
FB: Maybe you could explain a bit more the union concept.
FB: First of all, a certain number of musicians had to be hired, a certain percentage in an orchestra, like 50% or 60%?
AN: Well, no -- full. Let's say at a hotel, your main ballroom - large ballroom, right? So we tried to get at that time at least eight musicians, so your minimum there was eight musicians. So if someone approached me to play a wedding at that ballroom at the hotel, in the ballroom I would have to have at least eight musicians.
FB: So you couldn't squeak by with a quintet if it was a big audience. I see. So it was like a ratio of one musician for every fifty ... ?
AN: Not necessarily, maybe they did work it that way. I'm not too familiar. The smaller the room; the smaller the minimum.
FB: Fair enough.
AN: You wouldn't put eight men in the room that only would need three.
FB: The union established these ratios, these minimums?
AN: Well, what happened, the board of directors would make a resolution and at the meeting -- the annual, what they called the by-law meeting -- they would bring it before the membership, and the membership would vote on it from their experiences, to see what they think.
FB: This would be the national meeting or the local?
AN: No, every local had their own autonomy. Like Boston had our own autonomy, you go to Lynn and they have their own autonomy. So close, but you have got to remember that when the locals were organized in those days it was horse and buggy days. Today with the new highways, you could practically walk to Lynn in a short time -- of course, I am exaggerating.
FB: I see, the hiring practices with a car you could go a 100 miles to a gig and it there might be less call for musicians as time went on.
AN: There were a lot of rules a regulations you have to be familiar with. So that was a whole different world, a whole different ballgame.
FB: How did the rules and regulations or the structure or the conduct of union activities evolve as the big band era wound down, as recorded music increased, as the economy changed?
AN: That is a very strong question. When you mention recordings, you've got to remember everything today is practically on the computer, electronics. Now back, I'm going back sixty years or more, when recordings first started, and back then our national president, Weber, we were concerned about it 'cause every theatre had live music, don't forget. Every theatre, everywhere you went, any city you go to a theatre, you have an orchestra, any sized orchestra; you go to a restaurant you had a live orchestra; you go to a little beer joint, they had one or two musicians playing there. But as records kept getting more popular, they start cutting down on the musicians. So the point that I am getting at, when the recordings first came out, in order to try and help the musicians, on the label at that time they'd put "For home use only." So you go out and buy a record back then, you could only play it in your home, you couldn't copy it, put it on loud speaker, or whatever. They finally got with the radio stations where they have to log every program so the composers and all that would get their residual from it. It branched out into a lot of different areas.
But, the theatres, once you got sound in the film, thousands of musicians were put out of work within a short period of time in the theatres, because you didn't need them. We used to play for the acts and for the music to get the excitement of what the scene would be on the screen. They used to have a live orchestra, any number of men, but that put them totally out [of work], put them all out. That became a problem which, as you see today, you don't see any musicians in the theatre, unless you go to The Schubert, if they have a live show, and so on and so forth.
Then the other thing, a problem came with radio; now back then if you broadcast a show in New York, you were very limited in going out on your airwaves to a very far distance because they didn't have the know-how with radio to go beyond two or three hundred miles, but as time came on they kept improving so they could go from New York to Chicago. What happened, it was a beautiful achievement, but it was a problem for the musicians because we would play a show, say they were like, Pepsodent [toothpaste] would have a big show in New York with Bob Hope, a radio show, and that would go on say seven or eight o'clock at night, and they would record it on a big record, the whole show. Then later at night because of the time difference to the west coast, they would play it again, but they wouldn't pay any of the musicians. You see what I mean? So it created a problem. But we finally resolved it where they would have to pay, i guess you call it, the 'standby' or whatever. History is a marvellous thing to get with 'cause there is so much to learn from it: why, how things change. Today we take so much for granted; you go home you press a button, you're in Europe, you're in South America just by pressing a button.
FB: You could do it on your cellphone, your iPod.
AN: Progress. But it's nice to know how that got started. You walk down the street, you think people are talking to themselves, but they're on the phone.
AN: Progress. So, you know, that's what happens.
FB: Let's get back and talk about the unions a little bit more.
FB: Boston had two unions: they had 9, and 535.
AN: Correct. Right down the street from here.
FB: Talk about their interrelationship.
AN: Well, the black musicians wanted to run a local, which they were entitled to. Discrimination was there, it wasn't as bad with musicians, but still it was there. They had their own local down here on Huntington Avenue, 535. And we got along very well, if they wished to join the Boston Local, they were free to do so, if any white player wanted to join the 535 Local they could do so. So everyone was equal.
FB: Was there a colour bar for mixing bands up back in the forties?
AN: Not really, a little bit. A little bit. Yes, absolutely -- a little bit. Sometimes is would create a little problem depending on who you are dealing with. But we broke the ice way back to integrate.
AN: Whenever I had a band, I would always try and mix it up or other contractors and that’s it. When I was on the road, one of my roommates, Bean, he played the trumpet, he and I were roommates on the road.
FB: And this is where, with Chester's band?
AN: Yeah, with Chester or Jerry Wald. And we got along. Today, it is a lot more. Look at Duke Ellington's trumpet player with Herb Pomeroy, Bill Berry. Bill Berry worked with Duke Ellington.
FB: That was an exception.
AN: But Artie Shaw had Roy Eldridge, prior to that he had Hot Lips Page, and that's early forties.
FB: True. And Ellington had [Louis Bellson or] Butch Miles on drums for a while.
AN: There you go. So you see, musicians always got along.
FB: Yeah, no problem with the musicians, the problem was with the public.
AN: Well, the public is always a problem!
FB: The public is always way behind whatever the musicians are doing.
AN: Oh yeah.
FB: You were a officer in the union for a while, then you became vice-president for a while. At that time, who was the president? Joe [McDonald]?
AN: No, prior to Joe we had George Harris, then we had Joe McDonald - who was a good drummer, he worked with Woody Herman - and then we had Pete Herman.
FB: Pete Herman.
AN: He was a bass player.
FB: This is all down on Saint Botolph Street?
AN: That's correct. In fact, Pete Herman had a jazz group at The Hi-Hat -- which was a jazz club, but they fed you barbeque chicken back then. Pete Herman had the orchestra, the trio.
FB: At some point the [union] moved to Belmont.
AN: We moved to Belmont because the membership. I was very much against that, moving. I didn't want them to sell the building, 'cause I was also in real estate, thanks to my mother. At that time, it was the beginning of condominiums and I had an office with a friend of mine on Newbury Street prior Prudential, when they started to build Prudential Center. And that's when condominiums started. And I knew how it changed with real estate, because with real estate when you went to look at an apartment building, you see how many apartments are in it, you see what the income was and you would work on it, make an offer between 5% and 10% of the gross income. And that's how it basically, rule of thumb, how it basically worked. But then when the condominiums stepped in, they changed the whole process. You evaluated the property by the square footage. So that changed it completely.
FB: So selling the union building was not a good move?
AN: In my opinion, I think to this very day they should regret that they sold it because whoever took it over did exactly what Jimmy Derba [did], 'cause Jimmy was on the real estate committee with me, and he and I wanted to go condos there. We had 8000 square feet. We had a basement, the assembly room and then we had a huge ballroom upstairs -- a double-decker. My imagination said, "Yeah, we could build a floor there." So you get 8000 square feet and you multiply that by four as to what the rate was at that time, you are talking about a good sum of money. Then if you went condo, you own it all and you sell it individually, if they wanted to see and still have an office for yourself on Saint Botolph Street.
FB: That could've been done.
AN: Oh, absolutely.
FB: But they went the other way with it.
AN: They complained, "You can't park." I said, "What, you want to park in the building?" "You can't park." How much more convenient? You just get off at Symphony Station and you walk up. It wasn't that far.
FB: What does the union do for musicians now? Do they have retirement plans and benefits and all that stuff?
AN: They do. They've had that for a long time. Well, the national had it for years. Again, we go back to local autonomy, and each local would get their own pension going with the employer, whoever would be designated as an employer, who would book through the contractor. That was a little touchy subject but they finally resolved it. The basic thing of the union is to protect the musician. Like I said, you have all these bylaws. When the member joins he takes an oath on his honour to abide by the bylaws. I mentioned the minimum and things like that and I used to go out and check to see if they broke the minimum or not paid the fellow's scale.
FB: Do you have any funny stories about policing bands or somebody whose non-union players are playing or somebody who hasn't paid their union dues or any of that stuff?
AN: Well, I would come across that mostly with travelling musicians. They were the ones, in my opinion, who really needed attention. And at the time, we had what was called the travel dues. So a group would come to Boston to work a night club, he would have to pay a certain percentage to play in the area, because, indirectly, he would be replacing the local musician.
FB: So it is a small surcharge?
AN: Yeah, that was the theory of it. A lot of times if they came in the area they paid their dues but for a three month period. What do you do when a group comes in for the last two weeks and they book them for a month and the next two weeks of their contract falls into the new era? So they are being penalized twice. That created a problem.
FB: Were there ways of resolving it amicably?
AN: Well, they did eventually, but I always complained about that whenever I went to the national convention, because it was a national bylaw. And eventually they got with it. That's why I said that the union should've paid more attention to the younger players that were on the road.
FB: There would be more and more mobility as time wore on.
AN: They are now. We have some very good national leaders now that are doing very well and keeping good communication with the younger players and some very good ways of helping them. If they have a trouble in the local, they call the federation and one of our local representatives will go to the job, find out what the situation is, and try to resolve it.
FB: Were you active in the union until recently?
AN: Oh no, I retired about fifteen some-odd years ago.
FB: That long ago?
AN: Oh, yes. Like everything else, I had my limit. And I'd had enough of it.
FB: You’d done enough. They had never gotten to the point where they would have national bans, or no green cards for visiting players in England, say, and then we have ...
AN: That's a whole different problem, you are talking about the foreign musicians coming in.
FB: It isn't just a travel thing. It is international travel now.
AN: That was also a problem going way back with the Boston Symphony. When Koussevitsky was in. He was a great guy, Koussevitsky, he wasn't anti-union as a founder of the Symphony was. And the Boston Symphony was the last symphony in the United States to join the American Federation of Musicians. That's right! Petrillo worked, he was our national president, he worked hand in hand with Mr. Koussevitsky, the conductor of the Boston Symphony and it took a long time to get that together. We have a very good relationship now thanks to Mr. Koussevitsky and Mr. Petrillo. They got along instead of fighting one another!
FB: I lost my train of thought. Let's talk about your legacy, your own personal legacy with Berklee.
AN: Oh very good. Thank you for bringing that up. Like I mentioned earlier, what I was thinking about, I just mentioned it, it seems like I am emulating Herb Alpert all the way. I see his foundation here at all, of course I've started a what they called a irrevocable foundation--not a foundation--well, I forget the word now but anyway it is a scholarship for brass players and it's been here at Berklee for ten or eleven years. I started that with an amount of $10,000. What I did when I sold one of my properties, with part of the profit I created the scholarship, an endowment. Berklee handles it completely, they invest the money, and they keep it floating by the interest that the investment kicks in and it keeps adding to the total of it. And it keeps growing and every year they add a little more the scholarship and every year I add an amount to it because I like to keep building it up. I want to hear the good mark. And so that's what I do every year. I am very privileged, this year they called me and invited me to attend the audition of the trumpet players that they're going to audition for the scholarship. They are having it down the street here on Boylston Street this coming Wednesday, next week and it's at 7:30.
FB: It's probably at the Uchida Building.
AN: That's the one. I am looking forward to it.
FB: You'll hear some good brass!
AN: Absolutely, and I'm giving it a good check!
FB: As a working musician and a union man, what was your take on Berklee College of Music that was a family run organization and that resisted--they didn't have any union here for a long, long time. Did you take a stand or have any opinion about the AFT, American Federation of Teachers, coming in here at Berklee?
AN: No, at that time none of that ever came in, 'cause I'll tell you what ...
AN: My job at the union, as vice-president, whoever was to perform in Boston, all the contracts came to my office. One day I get this contract from Frank Sinatra's office. Three months ahead before he was coming in, so I knew that he was coming in. So I sat and I wrote a letter to his personal secretary, Miss Reynolds, saying how wonderful it was for Mr. Sinatra -- a lot of people don't realize Mr. Sinatra's good heart, many times you were called to a recording session, 'cause he like to record at night and he would hire the full orchestra and he didn't feel well, he would cancel it and still pay the musicians. And that's a big amount of money. Well, anyway, if you know in Sinatra's lifetime of this career he never did a job with a trio. It was always with a band. And his recordings were always with a big orchestra. I wrote that in this little letter to Miss Reynolds, his personal secretary, that I wanted to honour him here in Boston. And sure as hell, I received a letter that he accepted it. That was incredible. So he was appearing at the City Theatre, the old Metropolitan Theatre, they made arrangements for me to meet with him at a certain time, at a certain day. And I did, I got photographs with that. And that to me was the epitome.
FB: Thanks, Al.
AN: My pleasure, every bit of it.