Born: July 12, 1927 | Died: December 14, 2001 Primary Instrument: Trumpet
Conte Candoli had this incredible mop of white hair, a carefully managed harvest of silver that flashed like a battle pennant when he was up there in the back row of a big band. The back row is where the trumpet players sit. This is the bridge, this is mission control.
They called him Count, this strange Old World figure, and when Count was on duty, his bandmates could be sure those crucial brass passages would bark right out and make the whole band speak.
This was true even though Candoli didn't play lead trumpet, but covered the second or third parts in the ensemble harmony.
Count's place on the haphazard battlefield of modern jazz rested on his prowess as a trumpet soloist, a narrow specialty in which he was an all time top gun. Even Freddie Hubbard and Nat Adderley feared him. His reputation can be attested to by anyone who has heard Candoli in person with Bill Berry's L.A. Big Band, the Frankie Capp-Nat Pierce Juggernaut, Supersax or the Thursday Night Band, the small group he led weekly at the old Donte's in North Hollywood.
But he didn't have to push a recording career, like the bigger names. Count's meal ticket was his gig every day at NBC television studios in Burbank, in the trumpet section of the Doc Severinsen ''Tonight Show'' band, whose best numbers were played during commercial breaks and never reached the public ear.
This was corrected when the 20-year-old band went on tour for the first time back in the 1980s.
''It was a great tour, the crowds were terrific, but, you know, we're senior citizens. We had to take plenty or Preparation H, 'cause we had some rough jumps: Ten one-nighters.
''But we had a really great bus with lounge chairs and a VCR and a bathroom and a kitchenette where we kept food. And we really needed it sometimes.
''There was a scare when (fellow trumpetman) Johnny Audino got sick in Cleveland, because he thought maybe he was having a heart attack, but on the contrary it was an attack of food poisoning. It only cost him about $2500 to find out. But that was the only drag.''
Back home in the Valley, Candoli led the Thursday night band at the old Donte's club on Lankershim, backed usually by Ross Tompkins, a fellow member of the Tonight Show band, on piano. The band usually had Roy McCurdy or Lawrence Marable on drums, and Chuck Berghofer on bass. Local tenormen such as Don Menza, Jay Migliori, Joe Romano, or Bill Holman were apt to drop by for a workout.
Sometimes trumpeter Sal Marquez, a fellow Woody Herman alumnus, would sit in; Al Cohn's son Joe, the guitarist, came around every few months with his Boston cohorts when the Artie Shaw band played Disneyland. In essence, the Thursday Night Band hosted the oldest permanent floating jam session in L.A.
And every once in a while, Count's brother Pete Candoli, dean of the studio stalwarts and like his little brother a name band veteran, would stop by with his Martin Committee model trumpet.
Then the band became the Candoli Brothers, and you had to look out, because the two dashing kinsmen from the South Side of Mishawaka, Ind., were a sight and a sound to behold. You had to go back to Louis Armstrong and Buddy Bolden for a pair of trumpeters like these.
Chest out, shoulders back and horn straight out, Pete looked like a bandmaster from ''The Music Man,'' as he and Conte went through their carefully polished duets on numbers like ''Jitterbug Waltz,'' ''Willow Weep for Me,'' and ''Round Midnight''
Count, whose given name is Secondo, (meaning the second son in Italian,) held his head down and angled his horn at the floor. He looked like a bandit as he harmonized, dark and soulful, while Pete played the melody, bright and bouyant.
Every so often, Pete would wipe Count's head with a handkerchief, or Count would hold his horn out bell-to-chin, as though it were a violin, and pretend to bow it. You'd think you were at the London Palladium, watching a pair of music hall comics.
Pete started out in the band business with Tommy Dorsey, and he's one of the great lead players. His solos are urgent but dignified, and he likes to throw in a little Stravinsky or Bartok for a touch of humor.
Conte's solos were sardonic and bluesy, full of impossible feats like two octave grace notes, high velocity drum rolls on a single note, and intricate cadenzas that might have been played by Bud Powell, the pianist.
His first job was with Woody Herman, in the summer of 1943, when Conte was 16 years old. They wanted Pete, who was 20, but he was working with Benny Goodman at the time.
''They (the Herman band) were in Chicago, and my home town is like a hundred miles from Chicago, Conte recalled for a reporter. They figured 'Well, Pete's not available, why not try his kid brother, I heard he plays good.' Sheeesh!
''I joined the band at the Oriental Theater in Chicago, and Dave Tough was on drums; Chubby Jackson, bass; Flip Phillips, tenor; Bill Harris, trombone; Neil Hefti and Sonny Berman on trumpets, and Ralph Burns on piano. I mean, jeeze!
''We played 'Woodchopper's Ball,' and I'm so nervous, I can't believe it, man, I'm in the f---ing band! And Woody points to me, and I play a chorus, and he points again! You know, one more! And the first chorus, I was playing all right, but I couldn't keep my knees from shaking, man! I swear to God! It was the first time I'd ever got to where my knees were shaking!''
''At that time, I was playing like 'Little Jazz' (Roy Eldridge) and every note that come out of my horn had a buzz sound.'' He'd heard Roy in Chicago, practicing backstage with a towel in his horn so no one could hear him in the audience out front. He couldn't wait to go home on the Illinois Central and try that out.
Later, Pete took him to see Dizzy Gillespie in New York, but he didn't quite understand bebop at his tender age, and besides by this time his man was Harry James.
''I loved Harry till he died, and he had it all -- he could play jazz, he could play lead, you know, a great trumpet player, so clean. And Doc Severinsen is like an extension of Harry James.''
After his summer with Woody, Conte went back to Mishawaka and finished high school at the insistence of his father, who was born in Italy and settled in this country after World War I to work in the United Rubber Corp. plant.
''My dad always had instruments around. He played trumpet, not professionally, but in a band they had formed at an Italian club.
''But, the horns were always around the house. I remember picking up a little peck horn when I was five or six years old, and I'd hide behind my dad, and Pete would play baritone horn, and I'd play oom pa pa, oom pa pa.''
Graduation behind him, Conte rejoined Woody, served in the army, landed with Stan Kenton, then got back with Woody for a while. He toured with Charlie Ventura, whose band featured Boots Mussulli on baritone sax, and it was Boots who gave him the nickname ''Count,'' in honor of an all-black outfit Candoli brought back from Sweden.
He toured with Kenton again before settling in California in the 1950s, after his wife was injured in a bus crash. He remarried and became a grandfather.
In L.A., he played in the studios,, recorded frequently, and worked countless nights at the Lighthouse and Shelly's Manne Hole with Dexter Gordon and the rest of the cats, landing in the Tonight Show band in 1968.
But Conte Candoli said he would never forget the night he sauntered into a joint on Vine Street and found Count Basie seated at a table.
''I say, 'Count!,' cackled Candoli, ''and he says, 'Count!'
''And I say, 'You're the real Count.'
''And he says, 'Naw, naw, you're the real Count.'
''Can you believe it? Jeesh! Unbelievable.'' The real Count clapped his hands in delight.