A Trumpeter’s Tale

Leo Ball: The Man Behind the HornMusical Lives, Musical Stories

Volume CVI, No. 7/8July, 2006

Bill Crow

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Leo Ball has been a familiar face around the music world of both coasts for many years, and at the offices of Local 802 since 1990. He has interviewed many musicians for Allegro, including Joe Bennett, Chris Griffin, Marty Napoleon, Bucky Pizzarelli, Joe Wilder, Lew Anderson, Joe Temperley and Bobby Pring. Now it’s his turn to tell his own story. Leo recently sat down with Bill Crow and gave him an account of the high points of his life, and some details about his recent brush with mortality. Here is Leo in his own words…

I was born in Brockton, Mass, in 1927. A funny little town, made up of various enclaves of races, and they all lived in the same place: the Polish with the Polish, the Italians with the Italians, and they all had their areas on the east, north and south sides. The west side was for people who had made some money. The west side was no longer racially segregated. You made it to the west side, and got out of the ghettoes. But the funny thing was, there was only one high school. So after you stayed with the gang that you had been with, you were thrown into the one high school, with all the various tension and races.

My grandfather was a communist: a full blown communist. Both my grandfathers! My father’s father had the first commune in America, with families living on a communal basis. My grandfather, my mother’s father…all the family was in Brockton, the Yudovitz family, were Russian Jews. My grandfather bought a big old apartment house, with stores on the bottom, a great big old place. He scraped up the money and bought the place. Of course, he got some income from the stores, but it was the Depression, terrible times to try to make things happen. He managed to get the whole family living in this place. It was a very close experience. My mother, a couple of uncles, my mother’s sister…practically the whole family were living in this one building.

My cousin upstairs, George Young, played a little guitar. I got a trumpet, at eight or nine, and he taught me “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen.” He kept yelling at me because I couldn’t get it. He said, “Come on, man, it’s easy!” I was studying with a good teacher, who had been with some bands and all, a guy named Chet Gonier. He’d been with some pretty good local bands, territory bands. He emphasized the right things, reading, time, the Arban book… he really taught you, he didn’t play games with you.

When I got to be about 14, the war was on, and all the older musicians were being yanked out into the war. The bands were playing… everybody wanted to hear the music… we had big bands and every little club had a band. That’s all there was at the time… there was no TV. We had radio and music. Everybody played. I was not a good musician at all as a young man. But I could read fly shit. I played in the band in school and all, but even before high school, I went to work at Fieldston Ballroom, playing first trumpet. I made everything. I had no problem reading and playing. Conception, forget it! I was learning….I was only a baby! Just a kid… but what experience at that age! I was exposed to the older guys, and the older vices that were going on…It’s really not a good idea…

The name of the band was Upton and Gordon, that was my second band, and they promised my mother and father faithfully, “We’ll take care of him.” And on the very first weekend out, they had a car with a rumble seat, and they put me and the [female] singer in the rumble seat. [laughs].

The first band I was with was a band named Ken Cook. I don’t remember the quality of these bands at all, I had no comprehension of whether it was a good band or a bad band…I’d just go read the parts. On opening night, we were in some ballroom…this was my first call, I wasn’t even 14 yet, and he fired me, he paid me 75 cents, and he fired me for picking my nose on the bandstand!

It was a good time in a lot of ways. I grew up with some greats. Dick Johnson and I were very close, we both went in the service the same time, and came out at the same time. He wasn’t even playing then. I was one of the younger guys that was playing already. He just played a little bit of the blues in B-flat on clarinet before he went in the service. When he came out, he was blowing his tail off. He studied hard.

The music scene in town, there were a lot of little clubs, and you took it for granted when you took a job at one of them, which I did, especially after I was discharged. I went in the service in ’44, the Navy, I was in a band… and after the war, I was working all these little clubs in Brockton and the area around Brockton. I wasn’t good enough for Boston, but I was okay for around Brockton. And you learned a repertoire. Maybe 150 songs you could play, ballads and swing, and Dixie things. Everything was faked… the only bands that had music were the big bands. It completely threw me when I came to New York and met these marvelous players who couldn’t play one song top to bottom!

So you learned, in these clubs. It wasn’t jazz, you were playing for dancing, and there was always a show, comprised of a comic and a stripper. That was just about everywhere. So you learned all the stripper songs, like “Harlem Nocturne,” “Sophisticated Lady,” “Caravan.” During this period of time I married my high-school sweetheart, and we had three children. I’m still a kid… I got started too young. Precocious. I got her pregnant and married her, and we had three children, and we were ready to kill each other. So the marriage broke up.

I formed a group with Dick Johnson, and a guy that used to be a disc jockey here in town named Big Wilson, he played piano, and a fellow named Bob Shurtleff played drums. He passed away. They’ve all passed away, except Dick. We took the band on the road for McConkey Artists, an agency. We were playing a lot of Army bases, a little group, we sang. [sings] “Buzzard took the monkey for a ride in the air….”

And then we traveled for a while with Mike Riley, the comic trombonist, and he kept hitting me with a bag of water, and I started to wonder about my career at that point. We were traveling, following Red Rodney’s group. After about a year we got to the West Coast. Everybody was getting tired of it, so we broke up in L.A., and everybody went home. I stayed on the coast.

I went to work for Zeppo Marx – yes the Marx brother! – who owned a high-temperature coupling plant… airplane manufacturing. I had a little engineering background, and I worked there as a planner. I stayed there a year, living in a place called Pennack-Andersen studios. Everybody had a little practice room to live in, with a little cot and a little set of drawers, that was it. One refrigerator, one bathroom, and there must have been ten or eleven of us living in all these little practice rooms. There was music 24 hours. Guys playing, and an open area where the band would rehearse. I got to meet some wonderful musicians… like Jack Sheldon. He wasn’t at all like he was later… very quiet and introverted. That was good training. Any time you wanted to play, you played, and if the band was playing, you’d go and play. The guys were having sessions day and night.

I studied with Louie Maggio, the famous trumpet teacher out there. Louie had a thing, when you went to see him, you had to take a vow that you would not disclose his method to anyone else. It was a secret thing. And you had to pay him $25, for five lessons. You’d go to his little shack on Pico and he taught you the Maggio system.

He was supposed to have been a wonderful trumpet player that lost his chops, and then went in search of the Brandenburg Players, the guys who played forever in the upper register… they were the most incredible trumpet players that ever existed, and nobody knew how they did it. He was supposed to have unearthed the archives and discovered the vibratory system that allowed these guys to be able to play endlessly. You worked from the very bottom of the instrument…triple C’s down…and you’d build. It was a whole system. He had a lot of good pupils. When Rafael Mendez hit that door and broke his lip, he went to him and he got him back on track again. He used to disappear during your lesson. He had wine out back, homemade house wine.

There was a kid who used to come in before me, I’d sit off to one side and wait for him to finish… he played pretty strong. But when he would go up to a certain note, he’d pass out. Louie would reach quick to try to catch him and the horn. So one week the kid wasn’t there. I asked what happened, and Louie said “Leo, I’m too old to worry about catching him AND the trumpet, so I had to let him go.” You know, a lot of brass players do get that blackout thing. It backs up on them or something… we’ve all gone through it. A lot of pressure. On every band I’ve been on, at one time or another, somebody has blacked out. Gone right down into the trombones, you know! Everybody… including Billy May, himself. He went for a note, and down he went!

For a while, I was living in Redondo Beach, where the Lighthouse is, and I was there the first day Chet Baker ever showed up. He came down from San Francisco. Shorty Rogers was the trumpet player at the old Lighthouse, and Chet sat in. He was the most beautiful looking boy you’ve ever seen in your life, and he played beautifully. He wasn’t doing anything, he just played beautifully. He was like a revelation… the simplicity, the beauty of his playing. Everybody was trying to play a million notes, and he was just so simple and beautiful.

I was there when Gerry Mulligan arrived from having his Central Park band, he came out to the coast, and he stayed there a long time. It was at the Lighthouse that he and Chet met, Sunday afternoon sessions, the bass player, Howard Rumsey, ran the whole thing. And they met and got friendly, Gerry and Chet, and that was when they formed that group that made all that noise.

Meanwhile, I was studying, and playing some, and working at this high-temperature coupling plant that Zeppo Marx owned. He used to come and inspect, and he’d bring his wife… his wife was the woman that married Sinatra at the end… and she was an absolutely gorgeous, beautiful woman.

Then I got a call from a guy named Memomata. I was playing around a little, doing some rehearsals, living at the Pennack Anderson studios, after Redondo Beach, and I met a lot of guys. I was starting to play a little, pretty good, and I got a call to go on the road with a Mexican band named Memomata and his Orchestra. So I took a leave of absence from the plant. I was afraid to quit, but that was it. I never stopped playing… that was the end of it. I went on the road with Memo.

I had a near death experience, on the same highway that James Dean was killed on. We lost the front left wheel, going down, in an old, old, Buick. I’m sitting in front with him and his wife, she was the singer on the band, and there were three other guys in the back. And the front left wheel came off! We went into the other lane, with trucks coming. I figured, this is it. The wheel hit the truck, and bounced back and hit the front of our car, and veered us off into a ditch. The truck driver stopped, turned the truck around and came back. He says, “You know, we’re all dead!”

We had to sit there all night… he had no spare tire. So in the morning we saw a farmhouse about a quarter mile away. We went there… very nice guy. We told him what happened. He said, “Why don’t I take the tractor and hook you up and pull you out of there? There’s a gas station down about half a mile.” So we go over to the tractor, and leaning against the tractor is the wheel! It had gone through the field, and all. The farmer had some wheel lug nuts, so he took us out there, hoisted the car back up, put the wheel on, and off we went!

We did a tour of the border towns… the little Mexican cantinas on the other side of the border. That was quite an experience, a couple of weeks of that. We had a great band, and like all Latin bands, even out here, the rhythm sections were completely Latin, and the trumpets were completely American. And it was “cojuntos” – like, head arrangements. It was good experience, very exciting. And the most beautiful women you ever saw in your life. In New York, when I came back here, that was how I made my living, playing with all the Latin leaders.

When I came back off this tour, I figured, I’m back to the factory. But I had a message to call a guy, and he said, “Can you start at Lake Tahoe and play the Latin Quarter Revue?” They were opening it up for the first time, and Lou Walters was coming out from the East. They were looking for a lead trumpet player. I said, “I don’t know if I can handle it, but I’ll try it.” The leader was Dave Matthews, the tenor player and writer. That man taught me more… Well, the way it worked out was funny. I took the job, and went up there… while I had been in L.A., I had befriended Clyde Reisinger, and Clyde now was on Xavier Cugat’s band, that was also playing one of the big clubs in Lake Tahoe. A big show… extravaganza. They were leaving for the Orient… from Tahoe to Vegas for two weeks and then the Orient.

Clyde had a wife that was insane, she faked an auto accident, didn’t want him to go. He called me about two weeks before the end of the season and says, “Leo, can you take my place over here with Cugat? It’s not lead trumpet, Johnny Costello is playing lead. Just third trumpet, but the pay is pretty good, and they’re heading for a tour of the Orient.” It was the most exciting thing I’d heard in my life! I went over and saw the show, quite a spectacle, with all the dancers, and the band was good. So I auditioned, and that was the beginning of it. I was with Cugat off and on for 10 years! I stayed a few years, and then I left him… changed places with Walt Stuart. Walt came on Cugat’s band, Cugat was looking for a high-note player… and I took his place on Prado’s band. And then back to Cugat. Then Billy May, the Sam Donahue band with Billy May for a year. Then back to Cugat.

During this time Cugat moved his base of operations to the East Coast, and so did I. Two of us drove from Los Angeles to New York in three days, without stopping. The way we did it, we’d pick up hitchhikers. There were a lot of servicemen hitch hiking on the road. First thing I’d say, “Can you drive?” Then I’d hop in the back seat and sleep until he got as far as he was going. Then off we’d go again. I was doing this with George Davolos, he was a dancer. We had to make it in three days, because on the fourth day they were leaving for Caracas, Venezuela. Cugat said, “Anybody wants to stay with the band can stay, but you have to be in New York at such-and-such a time.” We made it, and went on a South American tour with the band. I had a passport from the tour of the Orient.

We did Roseland a lot. When we were in New York, we never stopped working. We’d get up in the morning and do a Halo Shampoo ad, then we’d do recording in the afternoon, and in the evening we’d do Roseland. Every time we turned around they’d be throwing checks at us. Not on the road. On the road you got your weekly salary. But when you were in town, that’s when everybody did everything. An awful lot of recording, and jingles, and we did a couple of movies. The band was good. Nobody realized it, but those commercial bands, they were good.

When we came from the west to the east, the trumpet player, Johnny, didn’t come with us. So when I went in for the opening day down in Caracas, Cugat says, “You sit there.” So all of a sudden I was the lead and solo trumpet player. It worked out okay, I got past my nerves. But then it started to get to the point where he was no longer out there all the time. Like all the bands, he had a lot of time off. So in New York I was working with the Latin bands and doing weekends with the name bands. Good bands… I worked with Elliot Lawrence for a while. That’s where I met Al Derisi, playing first trumpet. Guys like Don Joseph, Tony Fruscella, Dick Sherman, Jack Mootz, they were all part of that hang out group.

I did all right on those weekend gigs, because I was driving. The first trumpet player, with Richard Maltby, Eddie Grady… trumpet player got $35 and ten cents a mile for the car. So if you did three nights and traveled down to Virginia, when you came back they’d give you a check for a couple hundred bucks. That was pretty good in those days. Also I started working club dates a little bit. Usually with a big band, when they needed a lead trumpet player for the show, they would use guys like me or Jerry Kale. Some guys would only play the show, even if they had to sit there all night. But I wanted to learn the tunes.

I was playing with some very good trumpet players, guys like Jack Daney, Murray Rothstein, who showed me the club date routine. I never had the repertoire of some of these guys, like Daney, Rusty Dedrick… it was hard to stick them on a tune. So I more or less stopped traveling.

I was studying with Carmine Caruso, day and night. He gave me lessons the European way, three times a week. I studied Monday, Wednesday and Friday. At the old Ames studio. He would give me my lessons before he began his day, between eight and nine. Then I would go from room to room to room, practicing, until all the rooms were filled. That’s when my playing really started to improve. I became a much better player during that period.

And then I went with Vic Damone for a year, from 1961 to 62, and then I got a call to join Paul Anka, who was a hot item at that time. The first job, at Steel Pier in Atlantic City, wasn’t out on the pier where the bands played, but in the theatre. I stayed with Paul… we worked maybe six months a year. He was a rock and roll singer trying to make a transition to a night club singer. Over in Europe, he was still a star. We’d make our money over there, and he’d come back here and invest his money in his night club act. I was playing first trumpet and contracting for him. I got him lined up with Bill Potts, Billy May, Al Cohn, I got these guys writing for him.

I was with Anka until the end of the sixties. I started going with Nancy [Marano] around this time, and we got married. I was working around town a lot, we got married, had Joanna, and I became the musical director of the Nanuet theatre. When the theatre was in financial trouble, Danny Stiles and Charlie Camilleri and me were drinking in Nanuet, and this guy, a suit, comes over, talking about the theatre, and he says, “That place is for sale, for only five million dollars!” Camilleri looks around at us all and says, “We just need one more guy!”

At the very end of this period of time, when I left Paul and had the gig at Nanuet, I decided to make an embouchure change. I don’t recommend it to anybody. I was playing good, but I knew if I wanted to play the way I wanted to, I was going to have to get my lips in that mouthpiece. I played what they call “wide open on the red.” With small equipment. I was on the red with both lips. I couldn’t do broad lip shakes, and all the things that good trumpet players were doing. I wanted that technique, and I knew I was never going to get it without making a change.

I went to Carmine again. He didn’t suggest it, but he helped me along… I put both lips inside the mouthpiece, thinking in a short time I’d be back where I was. That was the biggest fallacy… it took me twenty years, because you’ve still got all those old tonguing and breathing habits from that first forty years of playing. And now I’m on another spot, and nothing’s working. Now, finally, it hit…. the last eight or ten years, I’m able to play the way I want to play. I can do all the stuff I want to do. I never did get back that real high note screaming lead thing. I was pretty good up to an F sharp and a G. I wasn’t really looking for that any more. I wanted to play the trumpet better… get around it better. Get a better sound. And that all worked out for me.

The last five to seven years has been the most I’ve ever enjoyed playing in my life. Isn’t that something? And I no longer have to take the horn on vacation with me. Like, when I went into the hospital now, with this sickness, I didn’t touch the horn for over a month. When I picked it up, just to play a couple of notes on it, it was right there! I’ve got the slot. Johnny Bellow used to say, “You’ve got to feel like your embouchure is like plugging into a socket.” I never knew what he meant, because I never played that way. Now I know what he meant. Now I’ve got that. [laughs] I’m a hundred years old, and I’m probably dying of cancer, and now I know what he’s talking about!

After the Nanuet Theatre, the embouchure change wasn’t working, and pretty soon the phone stopped ringing. I realized I had to do something, so I got the job as the playing contractor for Joe Carroll. It was good enough. I was in a spin, but I was able to get through. I felt terrible all the time. Awful way to play.

I was with Carroll for ten or fifteen years as contractor and player. I made a good living, as he was quite busy. And then, as his work dwindled, I got the call from Johnny Glasel to ask if I’d want to take a crack at doing the new paymaster plan they had going at 802. He gave me confidence to do it. I learned, I applied myself… I’ve been doing this 15 years now, it’s amazing! I’ve built the business, some of the people didn’t think we’d get anybody… and now I’m doing… last month alone I did $250,000 in contracts!

And about ten years ago, I got married again, to Shane, a great lady. It was good. Then from out of nowhere after just a year, she had a bad stroke… she lost the full capacity of her right side, plus aphasia. So I dealt with that for a year and a half, as a caregiver. And then one day we’re ready to go out for dinner with Meldonian and his wife, and we’re waiting for them in the apartment, and she’s sitting in the wheelchair, and all of a sudden she screamed, and grabbed her chest, and that was it. I called the paramedics, and she was gone. She had a massive heart attack. I haven’t married since then [laughs ruefully].

Taking care of Shane that last year and a half turned me inside out. It’s hard to explain, to take care of someone that you care for like that. The heartbreak and the anger, and not wanting to do it. And feeling cheated, being angry at the person because they’re sick, because they’re ruining your life… it’s hard to deal with. Dealing with your own anger at this having happened. I didn’t have anybody to help… just me and her. You feel like a real shit. She’s sick, and I’m angry at her for being sick. I think it’s sort of common.

Anyway, about five or six years ago, after Shane died, I was having palpitations. I thought it was all anxiety. But I went to a doctor, and my blood pressure was very high. He put me on some medication and a regimen, to get the pressure down. He was the kind of doctor that saw you every six weeks. He would recheck and recheck and recheck. He was really the most thorough doctor I’ve ever known. About two years ago when he took x-rays, he thought he saw something. He had me take a CAT scat, and nothing showed up at all. He took x-rays every few months, and still nothing showed up. You couldn’t see anything. And then the last set he took in December, he said, “Leo, go get another CAT scan.” When they came back, he called me up and said “Come get your pictures, and take them immediately to Mount Sinai.” That’s when they diagnosed cancer in the right lung. Luckily, it hadn’t escaped the lung. It wasn’t in my throat, it wasn’t in my chest, it wasn’t in my head. So they were able to chop out the lung… they left a lobe, one third. I play the same, but shorter phrases. [laughs] My ballads sound like: [sings “Tenderly” with a breath after every four notes.]

I’ve had a good run. I’m sure you feel the same way about your life. So whatever happens… we’re getting up there, now, man… we’ve lived 78 years, and so of course we’re going to die, everybody dies. My attitude’s okay about it. You never know how you’re going to feel about these things until they happen to you. It’s just, you roll the dice, and there you are. A couple of times in the hospital, I got down, way down. I even said to the doctor, “Why don’t you leave me alone? Why did you have to do this to me?” I was feeling pretty low. But he wouldn’t hear of it. “No, we did the right thing. And you’re going to know that as time goes on.” There’s a chance that it will return, but of course they’re on top of it, I see doctors every other day. So there’s a pretty good chance that, even if there is a return, they’ll be able to handle it. It’s funny, isn’t it? What a world we live in!

But my attitude’s okay, and if something happens now, that’s okay, too. It’s not what I had in mind, but… It’s like, all of a sudden, getting a pail of water in the face. Like, “Oh, I am NOT immortal!” And then you come to terms with it. It’s amazing, you find out how many people care about you when something like that happens. The outpouring of feeling from a lot of people. It’s a nice feeling.