Born: July 16, 1925 | Died: June 10, 1992 Primary Instrument: Piano
Nat Pierce had a long, distinguished, somewhat low-profile career as a champion of latter-day big-band swing, serving as the co-leader of Los Angeles' crack Frank Capp-Nat Pierce Juggernaut and an arranger for several well-known big bands and solo artists. His scores created an irresistible force when allied with a swinging, pushing drummer like Capp, often hewing tightly to the loping drive and tight ensemble of the post-1950s Count Basie orchestra. Likewise, Pierce's spare, tasty piano style not only has been compared to that of Basie, he also subbed very capably — indeed, almost indistinguishably — for the great man off and on from the late 1950s until Basie's death in 1984.
Pierce studied music at the New England Conservatory of Music back home in Massachusetts, worked with local Boston bands, and ran his own part-time big band featuring Charlie Mariano from 1949 to 1951. Having already started shopping arrangements to Basie and Woody Herman, he joined Herman's Third Herd in 1951 as pianist/arranger, remaining until 1955. Afterwards, Pierce settled in New York City, where he became a busy freelance arranger, recording pianist, and occasional leader of bands, working with Ruby Braff, Lester Young, Ella Fitzgerald, Quincy Jones, Coleman Hawkins, Pee Wee Russell and Lester Young. Two of his most famous projects took place in 1957 — writing the arrangements for The Sound of Jazz television show, and playing piano with the Basie rhythm section on the first ear-opening Lambert, Hendricks and Ross album, Sing a Song of Basie. In 1961, Pierce rejoined Herman and played a major role in lifting the band into one of its peak periods, serving as chief arranger, road manager and talent scout until 1966. Afterwards, he resumed his freelancing ways, arranging for Anita O'Day, Carmen McRae, Earl Hines and others, working with the bands of Louie Bellson and Bill Berry, reuniting with Herman, and substituting for Basie and Stan Kenton on occasion. In 1975, four years after a move to Los Angeles, Pierce joined forces with Capp to form the Capp-Pierce Juggernaut, which drew its personnel from the best Los Angeles session players out to decompress from their studio gigs. The band recorded a number of swinging albums for the Concord Jazz label, sometimes with guest vocalists like Joe Williams and Ernestine Anderson. Pierce continued to co-lead the Juggernaut off and on until his death, while also making a brief appearance in the 1977 film New York, New York, touring Europe in 1980 and 1984 as a member of the Countsmen, and recording frequently for Concord as a sideman for Scott Hamilton, Jake Hanna and others. ~ Richard S. Ginell, All Music Guide
Capp then went back to the owner of King Arthur’s. “I said, ‘Neal is throwing the band away.’ So he said, ‘Well, I need a band for that night. Have you got any suggestions?’, he continued. And I said, ‘Yeah, it just so happens I’ve got a lot of Neal Hefti arrangements and Nat Pierce has got a lot of Count Basie arrangements. We’ll put a band together for one night and do a concert for you.’ And that was the beginning of the Juggernaut. We just called it the Capp-Pierce Orchestra and after we made our first album, Concord Records tagged us with the name ‘Juggernaut.’ Because Leonard Feather, the critic and writer, reviewed our band because we had continued out there at King Arthur’s and his first review said something like ‘a Juggernaut on Basie Street.’ And so Carl Jefferson from Concord liked that term so he christened us the ‘Juggernaut’ and it’s been our name ever since.
Nat Pierce speaking about Woody Herman
The band I had in Boston, with the double-time trumpet figures and everything, was kinda patterned after Woody’s band at the time. We made one record date, to which a lot of the guys from Woody’s band showed up Lou Levy, Earl Swope, Zoot, Serge and so on. They all came around to help us on our way. It was nice.
It was a very friendly situation up there in Boston at that time. So my direction was towards the Herman noise. It was a little cruder then, though. Some of the voicings were strange, and then we wrote too many notes. We did things that were completely uncomfortable to play. In fact, we couldn’t even play ‘em! I don’t think this band or any other could play some of the things we played.
My joining Woody’s band came about because one of the trumpet players that was with my band had gone with Woody, and somehow he convinced him that he should call me up when Dave McKenna went into the army for the Korean war. That was in 1951.
Of course, Ralph Burns was the head man at that point. He was writing all kinds of things pop tunes, originals, novelties. They had everything going on. He had just left MGM when I joined. Wonderful people like Doug Mettome and Don Fagerquist on trumpets, Urbie Green on trombone, Sonny Igoe on drums were still with the band.
Then Chubby Jackson reappeared on the scene with his bass. This was, I guess, around September or October of 1951. By the next Spring we were making records for Woody’s own label, Mars. On the first session we made “Terrisita”, “Moten Stomp”, “Stompin’ At The Savoy” and “Jump In The Line”. Those were the first records I ever made with a so-called big time band. After that I started writing for the band. “Buck Dance” I wrote the beginning and the last chorus and Ralph Burns wrote the middle part all the little four-bar send-offs for the soloists.
Woody wanted to have a thing where we brought in all kinds of different dances: “The Sailor’s Hompipe”, “Turkey In The Straw” and so on. We still play “Buck Dance” we do it as a cha-cha now, during dance engagements.
We may build another monster in that vein, but we never get around to it with so many other things to do.
Woody has a thing going against intros. A long time ago he made a record of “Let It Snow, Let It Snow” with the original Herd Bill Harris and all those people. Neal Hefti wrote this monster intro I think it was twenty-four bars long. Quotes from Stravinsky it was great. Woody loved it. But it took twenty-four bars to get into the song. And Vaughn Monroe came out like, it went one, two, three, four and in. It became a national hit. So Woody said: “It must be the fault of the intro”. So even to this day, it’s very short intros��we go right in.