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Great Date For Callender

September 13, 1987|LEONARD FEATHER

George (Red) Callender speaks gently and carries a big bass--when he is not hauling a tuba.

Due to be honored today at the Los Angeles Jazz Society's fifth annual Jazz Tribute and Awards Concert (the Hyatt Regency, 5 p.m.), Callender has long been known as a musician for all occasions, yet performers with a strong jazz association tend to lose their other images.

Callender has worked with hundreds of jazz giants (Armstrong, Tatum, Ellington, Hampton, Kenton, Shearing, Gillespie, Parker and Goodman come to mind). Less well-known is the fact that he has also made polka albums with Lawrence Welk, played on innumerable sound tracks (from "New Orleans" to "The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings") and spent many years playing many kinds of music on TV shows starring Carol Burnett, Danny Kaye, Jonathan Winters and Flip Wilson.

Among his many compositions have been the pop song "Primrose Lane," a hit in 1958, and "Pastel," best known through Erroll Garner's recording. He has worked as an A&R man, writing and arranging for blues dates with Percy Mayfield, Jesse Belvin and Linda Hopkins; wrote an autobiography, "Unfinished Dream," published last year in England, and was one of the first black musicians to break down the segregation in the Hollywood studios in the 1950s.

Callender owes his red hair (graying now), his freckles and light brown eyes to ancestors who left Scotland in the 18th Century and settled in the Caribbean.

After 50 years in the big time (he made his first recording session at 19 with Louis Armstrong in 1937), Callender has earned the right, and the resources, to choose his jobs carefully, confining himself to those he finds most stimulating. Last week, he was back in Los Angeles after a doubly felicitous tour of Europe.

"I've played with some great artists in my day," he said, "but I never had an experience like this. The tour began with the 'Satchmo Legacy' group--Freddie Hubbard leading a band that re-created some of the early Louis Armstrong Hot Five records, although we wound up playing some of Freddie's own music too.

"Freddie had a slight identity problem at first with the Armstrong pieces, but he soon overcame it. Everyone in this group--Curtis Fuller on trombone, Alvin Batiste on clarinet, Kirk Lightsey on piano, Al Casey on guitar and Alan Dawson on drums--was so amazing.

"Freddie was the youngest guy at 49 and Al Casey the oldest at 71--he played with Fats Waller in the '30s. There was no conflict of styles; we all jelled beautifully. In the middle of each show I'd switch to tuba, playing Ellington things.

"For 10 days, I shuttled back and forth between this band and the Jimmy & Jeannie Cheatham Blues Band from San Diego. They had Clora Bryant on trumpet and Jimmy Noone Jr. on clarinet."

Great experiences and great ovations abounded, along with pleasant chance encounters. In Stockholm, an old friend, expatriate bassist Red Mitchell, showed up and the two Reds played an impromptu recital with Mitchell on piano.

"We wound up doing two albums in London with the Satchmo group," Callender said. "Mike Hennessey, the British writer who had the idea for the tour, saw to it that I was provided with a fine bass. The London visit was the highlight of the whole tour."

The Callenders live in a rambling home in Saugus, 35 miles from Los Angeles. The commuting, which takes place almost daily, does not bother Red; he is relieved to have a stable home. In 1971, he and his wife, then a flight instructor, were living in Sylmar. One morning they awakened at 6 to find their house collapsing; they were at the epicenter of the earthquake.

Callender has survived problems that were psychological rather than physical. Living in Los Angeles from 1936, he soon found out how racism could restrict his career. All the best studio jobs went to the members of the white Local 47 of the American Federation of Musicians; musicians in the all-black Local 767 were confined largely to nightclubs, where their scale was far below that paid to whites.

Eventually, with the help of a few black and white activists, the two locals were merged; meanwhile, Callender found a good friend in the late composer-conductor Jerry Fielding, who ignored the color line in giving him a job on the "Life of Riley" TV series. "From then on, everything blossomed for me," Callender says. (Fielding, though, ran into problems with right-wingers who equated liberalism with communism; he received hate mail, was summoned before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, took the Fifth Amendment and was blacklisted for several years.)

Working in the studios in those days had its overtones of tension. "I'm sure there was a lot of resentment among white musicians who thought we were taking 'their' jobs. But on the other hand, there were people like Fielding who really extended themselves."

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