When I was a child, I used to gaze up at the twinkling stars and think that everyone in the world owned one of them. Well, one of them now is flashing brighter than ever, and it’s Burt Collins’ star. If there was ever a trumpet player that could put a twinkle in your eye when he played, it was Burt. He had all the gifts. Nothing more need be said.
I first met Burt when I came into town with the Billy May band back in the 50’s, and Burt was playing at Birdland (the Broadway Birdland) with Neil Hefti’s band. He played effortlessly, and was doing a lot of the Harmon mute soloing on the band. It was a mind-bending evening — a truly great band — with this young phenom on trumpet.
Burt came from Philadelphia, a city of outstanding players. His mom and dad were vaudeville people, and Burt was born in a trunk. His dad played trumpet in his act, and when he passed away, Burt wanted me to have his trumpet case. I never knew why he parted with it, but I took it and still use it on gigs. I guess it’s a hundred years old.
Burt followed his idol, Red Rodney, out of Philadelphia a few years later (Red was perhaps five years older than Burt), and a while later the wonderful Philadelphia trumpet player Mel Davis arrived on the national scene. Something was happening in that city, for sure. I guess you had to be there to know what it was.
I came off the road a few years later, and Burt and I became good friends, and were working the Latin band scene, along with the weekend band runouts (Lawrence, Butterfield, Elgart, etc.) It wasn’t long before Burt’s talent took him into the studios, and, of course, his circle of friends changed, and we drifted apart. It was “Get Burt Collins” time, the studios were swinging day and night, and so was Burt. Before the heyday was over, Burt was on hundreds of albums, and probably thousands of jingles.
Finally, the recording scene died out, and once again, Burt and I found ourselves together doing whatever was left over from the good days. We resumed our friendship, and for the last five or six years of his playing life, we truly bonded. I helped see him through the loss of his wife to a terrible unforgiving disease, and then watched as his own health deteriorated. It was hard slogging for my friend, and it finally took him down.
Burt died on Feb. 24 at the age of 75.
Those of us who knew him and his music will miss him terribly. If there is some kind of musical heaven, Burt’s is certainly in the “A” band, doing what he loved the most.
Trumpeter Leo Ball is an honor member of Local 802 and the administrator of the union’s payroll service, Legit 802. He can be reached at (212) 245-4802, ext. 175.