Independent, 11 October 2003
Carl Fontana Outstanding jazz trombonist
Charles Carl Fontana, trombonist and bandleader: born Monroe,
Louisiana 18 July 1928; married (two sons, one daughter);
died Las Vegas 9 October 2003.
an odd fact that all the really outstanding jazz trombonists
were very low on ego. Carl Fontana, perhaps the most gifted
player of his time, certainly was. He played potent and
dazzling music in such a facile way that it was rather like
Leonardo da Vinci sawing off a length of picture on demand.
first surfaced in 1951. The Woody Herman band was playing
at the Blue Room in New Orleans when its virtuoso trombone
soloist Urbie Green had to return to New York for three
weeks when his wife gave birth. A young local musician hired
as a temporary replacement arrived in the band room. "Can
I help you?" asked the tenor player Dick Hafer. "I'm
here to replace Urbie Green," said Fontana. "You're
here to replace Urbie Green?" repeated Hafer, as the
band musicians roared with sardonic laughter.
an hour or so later, their jaws dropped as Fontana ripped
off a series of agile and eloquent solos that instantly
announced him as a challenger to the crown of Jay Jay Johnson,
the trombonist who dominated the era. From then on, Fontana
never looked back and no one has ever challenged his supremacy.
His several disciples approached his speed and technical
agility, but no one ever matched his sublime streams of
was so impressed that when Urbie Green returned he kept
Fontana in the band. The young man abandoned his studies
for his master's degree and toured with Herman for the next
day when Fontana was a child, his father, Collie, had walked
into the house and placed a box in front of his son. "What's
that?" asked Carl. "It's what you're going to
play," his father told him, opening up the trombone
case. The Fontanas lived in Monroe, Louisiana during the
Depression (Carl was born there in 1928) and Collie supported
his family by working as a plumber and by playing violin
and saxophone in a band he inherited from another leader.
son joined the band and worked in it throughout his high
school days as well as playing in the school concert orchestra.
Fontana was always an athletic man and his first loves as
a boy had been football, basketball and baseball. "Dad
and I had a few run-ins about whether I was supposed to
be playing music jobs on the weekends or playing ball in
some tournament or other. He won all the arguments."
man of imposing stature, Fontana was a benign and amusing
companion when I interviewed him in Florida some years ago,
but he could be intimidating when he felt like it. Many
years ago, one of the sidemen in one of the big bands had
been making unwanted suggestions to some of the other musicians'
wives. Fontana approached him and spoke cordially. "You're
leaving this band," he said. "Whether you go out
vertically or horizontally is up to you."
was awarded a degree in musical education at Louisiana State
University in 1950 where he also played in concert and symphony
orchestras. By the time he joined Herman the following year
he had developed the unique way of combining a plump tone
with the fast-tonguing of notes that caused a re-thinking
of trombone techniques the world over.
two years with Herman gave Fontana a love for the big bands
that never left him, and because he was such a proficient
sideman and a good reader for a time his talent was buried
in the ranks of the Lionel Hampton and Hal McKintyre bands.
in 1955 he joined the band of Stan Kenton. Kenton was under
no illusions about Fontana's talents and brought him right
out front as one of the band's major soloists. Kenton's
band had earlier been something of a pretentious monolith
but by the time that Fontana joined it had been considerably
loosened up by soloists like Zoot Sims and Lee Konitz and,
more importantly, by the arranger-composers Bill Holman,
Gerry Mulligan and Gene Roland.
against the ranks of powerhouse brass, Fontana's solos were
breath-taking. He was featured on the perennial "Intermission
Riff" but more importantly Holman wrote two specific
features for him. The first was the fluent assault course
for trombone called simply "Carl", whilst the
second was a setting of "Polka Dots and Moonbeams",
which exemplified Collie Fontana's advice to his son: "Whenever
you play a ballad, play it as if you were talking to your
Fontana had startled trombonists throughout the world, it
was only when Kenton featured him on his 1956 tour of Europe
that he conquered the general public. His modest manner
at the microphone (Kenton let him introduce his own features)
belied the pyrotechnics that followed and delighted audiences
across the continent - but not in Britain where a ludicrous
Ministry of Works ban still prevented American musicians
playing here. British fans showed their devotion by taking
the boat to Dublin where the Kenton galaxy was on glorious
trombonist who had made an even bigger name for himself,
Kai Winding, was able to tempt Fontana with money to join
his band, which consisted of four trombones and a rhythm
section. Then in December 1957, before moving to Las Vegas,
he deputised for Bill Harris in the Woody Herman band.
Vegas became Fontana's base, and he worked contentedly in
mundane show bands there, leaving when called on to dazzle
the rest of the world as a jazz soloist. In 1966 he toured
the world on a US State Department tour with the Herman
band, coming to London before touring in Africa for 12 weeks.
then onwards he was called regularly to festivals, tours
and the newly emergent jazz parties to grace their all-star
line-ups. He worked with Benny Goodman in Las Vegas in the
mid-Sixties and became a key member of Supersax, a band
devoted to re-creating the solos of Charlie Parker, in 1973.
He was in the various bands that led eventually to the emergence
of the World's Greatest Jazz Band in 1975. Here he showed
his abilities to play convincingly in such Dixieland surroundings.
"I'm just an old bebopper at heart," he had told
me in Florida.
co-led a group with the drummer Jake Hanna that recorded
and appeared at festivals in 1975 and later toured Japan.
Unusually, although he had appeared on so many recordings
under other leaders, Fontana didn't make an album under
his own name until 1985, when he led a quintet that included
his long-time friend and musical associate Al Cohn.
more good exposure when, during the Eighties, he appeared
regularly on the National Public Radio show Monday Night
Jazz. By the Nineties he had retired from regular work in
Las Vegas and only toured as a jazz soloist. At this time
he came to London to play at Ronnie Scott's in tandem with
one of his disciples, Bill Watrous.
Vegas he continued to play for fun in a quintet that he
co-led with the tenor player Bill Trujillo. One night, at
the end of the evening, he turned to Trujillo and said "You'll
have to take me home. I can't remember where I live."
It was the onset of the Alzheimer's disease that was to
lead to his death.