In the world of music, as in all of the arts, there are only a few truly original voices that emerge in each generation, and an even smaller number of those voices transcend their time to become a major influence and inspiration for succeeding generations. Carl Fontana was---and still is through his recorded legacy---such a voice. Truly a master of his art, Fontana had the Mozartian quality of impeccability. As Mozart's scores were absent of corrections or deletions, Fontana's mellifluous solos were unscarred by errant notes. One of the most often heard remarks from Carl's peers has been "I've never heard him play a wrong note." A great contrapuntalist, Carl would weave lines that served as countermelodies to the tune, which he often did as an accompaniment to a colleague's statement of the melody. A study of his solos demonstrates that if all of his choruses on a tune could be simultaneously performed the result would be a rich multi-lined tapestry comparable to the complex fugal compositions of Johann Sebastian Bach.
As with all original voices, Carl Fontana spent little time emulating the solo styles of other jazz performers; he quickly developed a style that was uniquely his own. In his first recording with Woody Herman, Mother Goose Jumps, he gives a clear tip of the hat to one of his great predecessors, Bill Harris, but by his second recorded solo on Moten Swing, he had clearly moved on to establish his own mode of musical expression that is by now so familiar to Fontana fans. When asked by interviewers, "Who were your major influences?" Carl's response was usually that there was no one in particular he tried to emulate.
Among Fontana fans, there is a literal legion of fellow trombonists who consider him to be a major influence on their playing, often referring to him as possibly the greatest jazz trombonist of all time. Every year that he performed for UNLV's "76 Trombones + 4" concert, there would be a cadre of trombonists who would travel from nearly all over the world to perform with him and, of even greater importance, hear him weave his musical magic. The large ensemble that performed this concert---most often numbering more than a hundred---was in large part attributable to his presence. He is truly the "trombonist's trombonist."
Mixing an interesting combination of mainstream jazz with bebop technique, Carl had the ability to convincingly perform a variety of styles effortlessly. His performances with the tradition-bound World's Greatest Jazz Band and with technical wizard Don Menza are clear demonstrations of this talent. Having developed a technique that he referred to as "doodle tonguing" ---claiming that he did so as a defense against multi-noted tenor sax players---Fontana could go toe to toe with any musician. Responding to Carl's reputation of literally "blowing other soloists off the stage," pianist Nat Pierce composed Captain Kutcha in 1956 for the "Captain," a title that stuck with Carl throughout the remainder of his career. Captain Kutcha was recorded by the Kai Winding septet on their Columbia-label LP The Trombone Sound; it was re-released on CD by Collectables (www.oldies.com) in 2000.
Although Carl could readily sit down and write out the melodies and chord changes to any tune, he scrupulously avoided reading chord progressions because he felt it interfered with his creativity. The results he got speak for themselves; his incredible ear and sense of time and phrasing---the things that made him a musical genius---allowed him to conjure solo after solo that were pearls. Although educated at Louisiana State University, where he received a bachelor's degree and began working on a master's before joining the Woody Herman band, Fontana relied mostly on his natural instincts as most highly creative artists do.
Carl, who was loved for his great sense of humor as well as his musical talents, had a penchant for performing little known ballads and used the unexpected, often" off-the-wall" tunes that he would turn into bossa novas. It was the latter that he would use as an outlet for his "tongue-in-cheek" wit, with tunes like America the Beautiful (from the Great Fontana album) and If I Only Had a Brain (on both the Live at Capozzoli's: The Carl Fontana Quartet and Nice 'n' Easy CDs). His discovery of obscure ballads to perform led to a world-wide reputation as the source for such material. Musicians from around the globe would call Carl to check the chord changes or melody of an unfamiliar song and he could immediately supply the requested information from his encyclopedic memory.
A man of few words---except in his wittier moments---Fontana was considered a "tough" interview by most journalists, too often giving one word answers to their questions. This "shy" quality and his desire to be a home body resulted in a renown among his fans and colleagues while remaining largely unknown to the general populace. Traveling not only didn't interest him, it was quite often the deciding factor in turning down gigs. In the spring of 1992, Carl was contacted by the Westdeutscher Rundfunk Jazz Orchestra (WDRF) of Cologne, Germany---a superb musical organization---and offered a $5,000 fee plus all expenses to perform two concerts with them, one at a local jazz festival and the other at the International Trombone Workshop in Detmold. The primary work on which he was to be featured, along with Jiggs Whigham, was a multi-movement composition by noted composer/arranger Jerry von Royen. At the time, Carl insisted that I was his manager---a job for which I was not qualified either by skill or personality---and asked me to return a call for him to the WDRF management and tell them $5,000 was not enough money. The offered fee was raised to $6,000, but Carl also declined for the same reason. More calls followed with the fee rising finally to a begrudging $9,000 with the caveat that it would go no higher. Carl's response was to have me call and tell them that he would not be able to make the trip. Devastated by this information, since I was to give a research paper on Carl's solo work in Detmold, I asked him why he was turning down such a great offer to work with top notch musicians playing superbly written music. His answer was, "It's too far to go and besides, I don't want to have to do all that reading of a new chart."
In late 1991, Gerry Mulligan called Carl and told him that he was going to re-record the music from the classic jazz album Birth of the Cool and would he be available for the date. According to Carl, his reply was, "Only if I get paid as much as you do!" Following a couple of ensuing phone calls, I was visiting with Carl at his house and asked him if he was going to make the recording date. He said, "No." When I asked him why he was turning down such an historically important session, his answer was, "It's too cold in New York this time of year." With such refusals great fame remains elusive, but Fontana preferred staying home where he could visit with his daughter Felicia and two sons Mark and Scott, as well as his grandchildren, who knew him only as "Popo."
Fortunately for Fontana fans, Carl made several CDs during this last decade that have greatly enhanced the number of recordings available of his work. Unfortunately, he is no longer here to astound us with his constant flow of musical inventiveness and possibly worse yet, to no longer make us laugh. We should, however, feel extremely fortunate that he touched our lives, that we had the opportunity to experience firsthand true musical greatness, and that through his recorded legacy his genius will always be there to enjoy. Let's hope that he and his buddy Frank Rosolino keep on jamming on the other side until we can get there to hear them once again!
For those wishing to enjoy more of Carl Fontana's music, a partial discography is listed below. All recordings on the list are CDs, including several reissues of LPs:
Stan Kenton: Contemporary Concepts, 1955/2002, Blue Note (Capitol) ASIN: B000093U3X Note: Fontana is only featured on one track on this recording, Gerry Mulligan's Limelight, with one of Kenton's swingingest bands, mainly due to the presence of Mel Lewis on drums
Stan Kenton In Hi-Fi, 1956/1992, Capitol CDP 7 98451 2 Note: While Fontana only solos on two of the tracks on this CD, one of those two is Intermission Riff that is considered to be one of Carl's greatest solos and among the best improvised trombone solos of all time
Stan Kenton: Cuban Fire!, 1956/1991, Capitol CDP 7 96260 2 Note: Again, Carl is not featured on many tracks, but his solo on "Recuerdos," the third movement of Johnny Richrad's Cuban Fire Suite, is a Fontana classic.
The Trombone Sound: Kai Winding Septet, 1956/2000, Collectables no number Note: Fontana solos on virtually every track of this classic trombone album, including Captain Kutcha. An added bonus on this resissue is the historically significant J.J. Johnson/Kai Winding Trombone for Two album that is found in its entirety on this same CD.
Live at Concord: The Hanna-Fontana Band, 1975, Concord Jazz CCD- 6011 Note: Needless to say with Fontana as co-leader his solos take up a fair portion of the tracks on this CD. With an all-star lineup of Jake Hanna, Bill Berry, Herb Ellis, Plas Johnson, Dave McKenna and Herb Mickman recorded live at the 1975 Concord Jazz Festival, this should be in every Fontana fan's collection.
Bobby Knight's Great American Trombone Company, 1978, Jazz Mark 116 Note: With Fontana soloing on six of the twelve tracks and his buddy Frank Rosolino also soloing on six, this is a must recording for trombonists, especially with the other personnel consisting of: Bobby Knight, Charlie Loper, Lew McCreary, Phil Teele-trombones; Lou Levy, piano; Chuck Berghofer, bass; and Frankie Capp, drums.
The Great Fontana, 1987, Uptown UPCD27.28 Note: Only one of two albums on which Fontana is the sole group leader, teaming up with Al Cohn, tenor sax; Richard Wyands, piano; Ray Drummond, bass; and Akira Tana, drums. A must own album for all Fontana-ites---the America the Beautiful bossa nova alone makes the album worth purchasing. "The Kenton Alumni Series: Note: Part of a set of CDs, all of which were recorded in Phoenix with a fine local rhythm section. The names of the featured artists is statement enough about the high musical quality of the performances on these albums.
Live at the Royal Palms Inn: Conte Candoli and Carl Fontana, 1994, Woofy WPCD37-1
Live at the Royal Palms Inn: Carl Fontana and Buddy Childers, 1994, Woofy WPCD37-2
Live at the Royal Palms Inn: Bob Cooper and Carl Fontana, 1994, Woofy WPCD37-3
Live at the Royal Palms Inn: Carl Fontana and Steve Huffsteter, 1994, Woofy WPCD37-6
Live at the Royal Palms Inn: Bill Perkins, Pete Candoli and Carl Fontana, 1994, Woofy WPCD37-9
Heavyweights: Bobby Shew Quintet with Carl Fontana, 1996, MAMA 1013 Note: This is a superb album with a swinging rhythm section consisting of Bob Magnusson, bass; George Cables, piano; and Joe LaBarbera, drums. Shew's and Fontana's playing styles great complement one another; there is some wonderful give and take on this CD
*Live at Capozzoli's: The Carl Fontana-Arno Marsh Quintet, 1997 Woofy WPCD51
Nice 'n' Easy: Jiggs Whigham & Carl Fontana, 1997 TNC Jazz CD-1701 Note: The first recording of these two giants together with a magnificent rhythm section composed of Stefan Karlsson, Tom Worthington and Ed Soph. This is one of Carl's best.
*Live at Capozzoli's: The Carl Fontana Quartet 1998, Woofy WPCD72
First Time Together: Hungarian Jazz Trombone Company with Carl Fontana, 1998, BMC CD 015 Note: This is one of only a handful of recordings that Fontana made abroad., this one with a Hungarian trombone septet that worships at the alter of the Great Fontana. Their respect and admiration shine through on every track. *Live at Capozzoli's: The Carl Fontana-Andy Martin Quintet, 1999 Woofy WPCD87
Bill Trujillo: It's Tru!, 1999, SeaBreeze Jazz SEAB 3033 Note: A teaming up of two great alumni of both the Woody Herman Third Herd and the Stan Kenton Orchestra, this album is a showcase for Las Vegas jazz talent with Ronnie Di Fillips, piano; Don Stewart, bass: and Bobby Joe Harrison, drums backing up Bill and Carl.
Paul McKee, 1999, Gallery CD 9704 Note: As a guest soloist on this album, Fontana appears on only two tracks. However, this is a fine album not only because of Carl's brilliant presence, but also because of the fine trombone playing of Paul McKee, also a Herman alumnus, and the other musicians that include some of Chicago's top players.
Keepin' Up with the Boneses Carl Fontana & Jiggs Whigham, 2001, TNC Jazz CD-1708 Note: A reunion of the same personnel from the Nice 'n' Easy album listed above, although without as high an energy level as the first album. Despite this the CD still exhibits much fine playing by all.
Marv Koral & the All-Stars: Live at Pierce Street Annex, no date, no label, Available through Marv Koral Note: A setting that Carl was so often heard in by locals, a band led by Marv Koral, featuring Bob Badgley, Pat Sherrod, Ronnie Di Fillips and Hap Smith. This is truly a great nostalgia piece for Fontana lovers.
* Notes on the three "Live at Capozzoli's" CDs: All three albums have excellent rhythm sections in addition to the superb horn player/co-leaders. While sound and engineering on these recordings is not the best, the spontaneity and fine soloing by all make these albums very worthwhile. There was a fourth Fontana album recorded for this series with trombonist John Fedchock that has never been released.