802 Bookshelf: “Leon Merian, The Man Behind The Horn”

an autobiography by Leon Merian with Bill Bridges, Diem Publishing Co, Bradenton, Fla., 2000, Trade Paperback, 287 Pages, $19.95.

Volume C, No. 10October, 2000

Bill Crow

The legendary New York trumpeter and showman Leon Merian now lives in Florida, where the calmer life has provided him with enough time to write his memoirs, with the assistance of Bill Bridges, a trumpet player and jazz aficionado.

Leon was born in 1923 to Armenian immigrant parents in South Braintree, Mass. His aptitude for music showed itself at an early age, and his parents encouraged him to develop it. At the age of ten his mother took him to hear the Boston Symphony and, when the trumpets began to play, Leon knew the instrument he wanted. His first trumpet, a Christmas present, got him into the school band, and from there he never looked back.

While still a freshman in high school, he found a club in Roxbury where the piano player would let him sit in and play. The tips he brought home augmented the salary of his father, who worked in a shoe factory. Moving farther afield to clubs in Scollay Square in Boston, Leon found himself working as a professional musician before he finished high school. When he was offered a scholarship in metallurgy at the University of Wisconsin, he turned it down and stayed with the trumpet.

Leon’s first name band job was with Sabby Lewis, Boston’s top swing band, where he played with musicians such as Big Nick Nicholas, Sonny Stitt and Bobby Donaldson. Lucky Millinder hired him away from Sabby and took him to play at the Savoy Ballroom in New York in 1942. Being a white musician on Black bands gave Leon some special insights into racial issues. The guys on Millinder’s band taught him the ropes and looked out for him when they toured outside New York City, especially through the South. In some towns Leon wore dark makeup to avoid hassles with the local constabulary.

Between tours with Millinder, he picked up freelance work in New York, Boston and Washington, and at one point he formed his own group. In his first band were reedman Walt Levinsky and drummer Ed Shaughnessy. They played a few gigs and did a recording date. That record producer was responsible for changing Leon’s name from “Megerdichian” (too long for the label) to “Merian.”

Five years on the road with the Millinder band gave Leon valuable experience and education. But the road was tiring, and he finally left Lucky in 1947. He worked around New York with Boyd Raeburn, Elliot Lawrence and Chico Alvarez, and began to find his way into the New York studios.

In this book, Leon tells entertaining stories of his experiences during his life in the New York freelance field, in theatres, clubs, recording, television, Broadway musicals, and a few ventures fronting his own band. Along the way he provides commentary on subjects like trumpets, trumpet playing, trumpet players, the recording business, Benny Goodman, jazz, big bands, drugs, marriage, doctors, managers, and much more. Scattered through the pages are many dimly reproduced but interesting photographs from the high points of Leon’s career.