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FEW PEOPLE REMEMBER his name or know who he was. Dick Cary was an excellent jazz pianist, composer, and horn player. He was a very intelligent, educated, erudite gentleman. He also was my friend and mentor. He was born on July 10, 1916 in Hartford, Connecticut, studied classical music, and disappointed his parents by moving to New York to play jazz.
Dick was one of the best jazz musicians in New York in the 1940s and ’50s. He worked with Eddie Condon’s groups, Jack Teagarden, Bobby Hackett, Wild Bill Davison, Brad Gowens, and vocalist Lee Wiley. He appeared alongside Peanuts Hucko, Pee Wee Russell, Lou McGarrity, Cliff Leman, George Van Epps, Max Kaminsky, Bud Freeman, Jimmy McPartland, and any number of other Swing era musicians and recorded with practitioners of all jazz styles. He wrote arrangements for Benny Goodman but turned down Benny’s offer to play piano with the big band. (”Who wanted to sit around all night to wait for an eight bar solo in the second set?” he asked.) But most people remember Dick from his work in the late 1940s as one of the original Louis Armstrong All-Stars.
In 1959, when traditional jazz slowed down in New York Dick, along with several other musicians, moved to Los Angeles. He already had embraced the 1950s West Coast “cool” jazz movement (as was evident from his playing and composition), did some work in Hollywood’s recording studios, and ultimately devoted himself to composition although he continued to perform until a few weeks before his death. For nearly thirty years he hosted a Tuesday night rehearsal band consisting of many of the best jazz musicians in Southern California. They played nothing but his original tunes and arrangements.
I met Dick Cary in 1978. I needed a piano player for a lunchtime concert in downtown Los Angeles and had no idea whom to call. I was a member of the Musicians’ Union so I looked up piano players and found a listing for Jess Stacey, the original pianist with Benny Goodman’s big band between 1936 and 1938. Jess had retired and referred me to Dick.
Dick played so beautifully he became my first call for piano. We became friends. He had little tolerance for fools or musicians with bad taste or rude behavior and, in the privacy of our conversations, he would mock such people and cackle. He told me countless stories about the musicians he had known. He admired many and was in awe of some. At heart he was a romantic and he lived for good music and to perform with other top musicians.
He would invite me to his house to play duets and often suggested ways to improve my playing. For example he might ask, “Why do you want to play all those notes? Try playing more simply.”
Once I asked him what kind of tunes he thought I played best. His two word answer was, “The blues.”
Another time he asked, “Why does every clarinet player think he has to play like Benny Goodman?” I just looked at him blankly. He went on, “Why don’t you try playing more like Pee Wee Russell or Johnny Hodges?”
Pee Wee was the one musician we never agreed about. Dick thought he was excellent and I disagreed, at least about the way he played in the latter part of his career. But Johnny Hodges’ alto sax playing was outstanding and Dick’s question stayed with me. Much later, I realized why Dick suggested him: Because my way of thinking about and playing music is much closer to that of Hodges than Goodman and Dick knew I could make the most of my ability by absorbing more of Hodges’ approach.
Over the years he introduced me to a lot of great players and, in 1979 and 1980 we invited some to my house for Wednesday evening jam sessions. Dick usually played piano and sometimes would double on trumpet. My friend and top Hollywood session player, Lyle Ritz, or Dick’s regular colleague, Ray Leatherwood, played bass. Gene Estes or Burr Middleton played drums. The trombonists were Bob Enevoldsen, Herbie Harper, or Betty O’Hara. Betty also played trumpet.
After a couple of weeks Dick phoned me with a question: Dick Cathcart had spoken to him about perhaps coming out of retirement and doing a little playing. Would I mind if he joined us on trumpet? I knew Cathcart was a terrific player and enthusiastically invited him. Dick Cathcart literally began his “comeback” in my living room.
Sometime around 1980 or ‘81 the great trombonist, Bob Havens, and I sponsored a recording session. We booked a studio in Hollywood. The musicians with us were Dick Cary, Dick Cathcart, Betty O’Hara, tenor saxophonist Dick Hafer, Ray Leatherwood, Gene Estes, and guitarists Dave and Larry Koonse. (Dave Koonse and Dick Cathcart had to leave early so Dave’s immensely talented son, Larry, took over on guitar and Betty O’Hara joined us on trumpet about halfway through the day.) Betty also sang. Everybody performed at no charge.
At one point during a break Dick told me, “You played that pretty well.” I was very surprised and answered, “I think that’s the first time you’ve ever complimented me.” He gave me a funny look and asked, “Why should anyone compliment you? We never used to compliment each other back in New York.” I discovered simply being in the band was the greatest compliment they could offer.
I remember once, in a telephone conversation, I told Dick how some other musicians thought my approach to jazz was wrong. I could sense his utter delight as I finished the story. He mischievously asked, “Do you ever get the feeling you’re … ‘out of step’?” Then he cackled with glee. Somehow that one remark epitomized our relationship.
Also around that time Dick recorded his album, California Dreamin’, and needed some photos. He sat in my front yard and I took a roll of portraits of him. One, with a cigar stub in his mouth and that mischievous look in his eye, was a classic. Dick kept the negatives and I never did receive a print. But, when the album came out, he gave me a copy and the photo was on the back.
A couple of years later, Dick developed cancer and needed surgery. I visited him in the hospital and he looked terrible. But he recovered, gave up alcohol and smoking, began walking five miles a day, played tennis a couple of hours each day and looked positively fit. For the next ten years he was in the best shape of his adult life.
In 1988, when Ken Borgers, then program director at all-jazz public radio station KLON-FM, asked me to lead a concert with the Concord Jazz All Stars, Dick offered to help me “get in shape” and we played more duets at his house. He said, “Stick closer to the melody and go back to it now and then.” He reminded me, “Fewer notes. Leave space. It’s okay if you don’t play all the time.” And, “Sometimes it’s effective to repeat the same note a few times.”
The musicians for the KLON performance were Scott Hamilton (tenor sax), Bill Berry (trumpet), Dave McKenna (piano), Doug MacDonald (guitar), Dave Stone (bass), and Jake Hanna (drums). I led the group on clarinet (much to Jake’s annoyance but we were friends and, besides, everything annoys Jake). Ken Borgers later told me it was the most successful jazz concert in KLON’s history.
I had permission to invite Dick Cary and he could have had his choice of any seat in the hall. But he preferred to stand backstage, out of sight, a few feet behind his friend, Dave McKenna. On the long drive home he talked about Dave’s playing and how they both love baseball and how Dave used to go out with his daughter. And somewhere in the middle of his ramblings he slipped in a compliment about my performance that night, the second and final of his life.
The last time I saw Dick was around 1991, at his house, for another evening of duets. He looked old. His playing was a little less perfect. At one point he stopped in the middle of a tune and just sat there for a moment with his head down. Then he slowly looked up and said, “This is the damnedest thing. Every now and then my head just drops forward and I can’t seem to do anything about it. Just, you know, for no reason. My doctor says it’s something called myasthenia gravis. It’s a little annoying, especially when it happens in the middle of a performance as it did last week….”
Some time went by and I heard nothing from Dick. Then, in April 1994, the Los Angeles Times published his obituary. It was a difficult way to learn of his death. We had an unusually close rapport, unlike anything I have shared with anyone else; a deep friendship with many unspoken words. So I was ticked off at Dick. At least he could have phoned to say he was dead.