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Los Angeles Festival : Just The Facts On Pete Kelly

September 01, 1987|LEONARD FEATHER

Trivia question: Who played the trumpet in the 1955 movie "Pete Kelly's Blues?"

The answer is not Jack Webb, who played the central character; it was Dick Cathcart of Woodland Hills who made the sounds that emerged from Webb's horn.

Cathcart and other original members of the movie band, Pete Kelly's Big 7, will perform Friday at the Embassy Theatre, co-presented by the Los Angeles Festival and the L. A. Classic Jazz Festival.

Cathcart and Webb go back a long way.

"Our relationship began when I was in the Army and met Jack when we were stationed at Gardner Field," Cathcart, 62, recalls. "This was during World War II, and even back then he was a great jazz fan who dreamed about making a movie some day with this character Pete Kelly."

Webb's idol was Bix Beiderbecke, but Cathcart hadn't heard the cornetist's recordings until, years later, Webb (then immersed in "Dragnet") invited Cathcart to his Hollywood home and played some Bix recordings for him.

Cathcart's involvement with traditional jazz began late. Born in Michigan City, Ind., he worked with big bands both before his Army service (Ray McKinley, Alvino Rey) and after (Bob Crosby, various radio bands, and staff work at MGM).

"A friend insisted on taking me to the Hangover on Vine Street to hear Red Nichols, and I wound up sitting in with him. I'd never played in that kind of a band, but it sort of felt like going home," Cathcart says.

Jobs with Ben Pollack's small group and others prepared him for the next encounter with Webb. "He told me he'd never given up on that Pete Kelly idea, and we started doing it as a radio series in 1951. I continued to do a lot of studio jobs, but in '55 I took a leave of absence to work with him on the movie. That was a very successful venture, but then in 1958 we did a television series, and it lasted only 13 weeks."

Cathcart recalls that Webb gave him the cornet he had used onscreen in the movie. Aside from the acquisition of the horn, he managed to derive plenty of mileage out of his dual identity. Under the Pete Kelly pseudonym, he recorded for Capitol during the radio days, for RCA when the movie was made (with Webb doing the between-tracks narration for a Pete Kelly album), and for Warner Brothers around the time of the TV series.

After the various ventures with Webb came six years on the Lawrence Welk show ("He was really a jazz fan--we got to do a small band number on most of the shows"). But when he left Welk, Cathcart decided he had had it with performing.

What does a trumpet player do for a living when he quits playing the horn? Well, if his wife happens to be one of the Lennon Sisters (Peggy) and they are on the road with a show, he can be their musical coordinator. "That was around '69-'70; after that I did some odds and ends, but for quite a few years, I was out of music entirely."

Then in 1982 came a call from Sacramento to play the annual Dixieland Festival there. "I said I hadn't taken my horn out of its case in almost 14 years, but somehow I was talked into it, and I started woodshedding.

"When you begin again, it's doubly horrendous because it's worse than being a novice. You know what you're supposed to be able to do, but you can't do it. Well, somehow I got it together in time to play Sacramento, and as people found out I was playing again I got calls from Billy May and other old friends who hired me."

When the clarinetist Heinie Beau died recently, Cathcart took over his Sunday afternoon gigs at the Miramar Hotel in Santa Monica, still using Beau's name; in fact, he will direct a tribute to Beau Sunday at the Airport Marriott as part of the Classic Jazz Festival. Then there's also Pete Kelly's Big 7.

The turnover in the Pete Kelly band has been remarkably modest. At the Embassy Friday, Cathcart will have the identical rhythm section heard with him during the 1951 radio era: Ray Sherman, piano; George van Eps, guitar; Morty Corb, bass, and Nick Fatool, drums. The tenor sax veteran Eddie Miller, who joined him for the 1955 TV venture, also will be on hand, with clarinetist Mahlon Clark and trombonist Bob Havens completing the band. The concert will be aired live on KCRW (89.9 FM).

"I'm glad I started again," Cathcart says. "I'm going to keep on doing it as long as I'm having fun--isn't that what it's all about?"

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