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VALLEY WEEKEND | SOUNDS

Trombonist Eddie Bert Is a Sax Man at Heart

The seasoned player says he learned the wrong instrument. Many, including jazz greats he has played with, might disagree.

May 16, 1996|ZAN STEWART | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Eddie Bert, the 74-year-old trombonist who has played with such greats as Charlie Parker, Stan Kenton, Thelonious Monk and Charlie Mingus, will tell you, and with his tongue only slightly in his cheek, that he plays the wrong instrument. He says he should be playing the tenor saxophone.

"All the classic jazz solos are on saxophone," says Bert, who plays tonight through Saturday with Danny Pucillo's trio at Monty's Steakhouse in Woodland Hills. "Saxophonists play music," whereas a lot of trombonists offer "pyrotechnics, trying to prove how fast and high" they can play.

So why didn't he switch? He says he tried when he was 15, but the tight, lips-together brass embouchure required for trombone, which he started at age 13, was already a habit. "So I just try to play like a saxophone," he says.

Bert's favorite instrumentalists are, naturally, saxophonists. Oh, he likes such swell trombonists as be-bop innovator J. J. Johnson, but the fellows he reveres are Lester Young, Don Byas, Ike Quebec, Gene Ammons, Lucky Thompson and, of course, Charlie Parker. Bert says of Parker, the alto ace with whom he performed and recorded, "He had a style you couldn't help but be influenced by. He turned music around."

Like Parker, Bert concentrates on a gorgeous sound when he plays. "The trombone has a warm sound that's like the human voice and I try to play as if I were singing," he says. And the kinds of melodies Bert offers when he solos are smooth and swinging, not harsh and angular. "I don't want to get too far away from what I might really sing," he says.

As a kid in Yonkers, N.Y., Bert got off on the right foot by taking casual lessons from such greats as Miff Mole and Benny Morton, the latter of whom was Count Basie's trombonist in the mid-'30s. Bert got Morton to teach him during rehearsals when Basie's band was playing at the Famous Door on Manhattan's 52nd Street. It was also a way to hear Young, the most modern saxophonist of the day, "because I was too young to get into the club at night. So Benny Morton said he'd give me lessons after rehearsals."

Bert established himself in the '40s with vibist Red Norvo, Charlie Barnet and then Kenton; he's spotlighted on a recent Mosaic Records box set that documents Kenton's '40s material. "I liked Stan because he featured the trombones, and the guys were so friendly," recalls Bert.

In the '50s, Bert was a member of Mingus' Jazz Workshop band, which never used sheet music. "Mingus would sing our parts to us," he said, "and that way the music was all in your head, and you can play what you hear."

From 1958 to 1963, Bert occasionally appeared with Thelonious Monk's orchestra, recording with the band for Riverside and Columbia Records. Then he joined the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra. Currently, Bert, whose latest album is "The Human Factor," plays with a variety of bands in the metropolitan New York area.

Music, Bert says, is an essential part of his life. "It's like food: You have to have that every day. People ask when I'm going to retire. Musicians don't retire. You going to retire your arm? It gets to be a part of you."

* Eddie Bert plays with Danny Pucillo's trio tonight-Saturday at Monty's Steakhouse, 5371 Topanga Canyon Blvd., Woodland Hills. Show times: 7:30-11:30 p.m. tonight, 8:30 p.m.-12:30 a.m. Friday and Saturday. No cover, no minimum; (818) 716-9736.

*

Balancing the Muses: Jim Marentic is one of Southern California's outstanding jazz tenor saxophonists, a man who can play with power and persuasion. His music has a vibrant swing feel and is openly expressive and searching.

North Hollywood resident Marentic displays his saxophone wares Wednesday at Jax, playing pop and jazz standards with a quartet that includes pianist Frank Strazzeri and bassist Bob Maize. Marentic, 57, likes the freedom the room affords.

"There's no pressure because Jax has a built-in audience who will accept anything, so you can experiment," he says. "But we mostly play familiar tunes . . . so that everybody plays without hesitancy, plays strong."

Marentic only does a few saxophone gigs a month. The rest of the time he plays bass, sometimes with Strazzeri or pianist Pete Jolly. He studied the instrument in his native Minneapolis, devoting to it 10 years away from the saxophone. And he also tunes pianos.

Finally, there's Marentic the writer, the man who recently earned a master's degree in composition from Cal State L.A. He says that while jazz is "spontaneous, warm and full of rhythmic energy," contemporary classical music is "infinitely more expressive, more open harmonically. They're so different I don't think the twain shall ever meet."

* Jim Marentic plays 9 p.m.-1:30 a.m. Wednesday at Jax, 339 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale. No cover, no minimum; (818) 500-1604.

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