Brief careers are sometimes difficult to characterize, but since Fats Navarro was such a key figure in bridging the gap between the original bebop musicians—Gillespie, Parker, Monk, Powell—and the so-called hard bop school, his brief career deserves examination. And his music must be listened to. Despite the fact that trumpet styles frequently overlap and sometimes blur, Navarro’s sound and his conception of trumpet playing remain clearly identifiable nearly a half century after his death at age 26.
Theodore Navarro was born of Cuban parentage in Key West, Florida on September 24, 1923. Little has been written about his early life, but we do know that he began studying piano at age six, then tenor saxophone some what later. It was on the saxophone that his first professional dates, with the Walter Johnson band in Miami, were noted. He began his trumpet studies at age 13 and it was on this horn that he broke in with the Snookum Russell band in 1941. “Fats Navarro and I left home together,” trumpeter Idrees Sulieman told Ira Gitler for his Swing to Bop. “We were good friends. And I remember the night I left home was the Monday after Easter, in ‘41. J.J. [Johnson] was with Fats in Snookum Russell’s band, and we had a big jam session in Orlando, the three of us.” At that time Navarro was favoring the style of trumpeter Dud Bascomb from the Erskine Hawkins orchestra. He also played in other territory bands, sometimes doubling on tenor sax.
Navarro’s first national notice, as well as the notice of other influential musicians, began when he joined the Andy Kirk band in 1943. Andy Kirk and His 12 Clouds of Joy was a popular traveling and recording band dating back to 1936. Navarro soon met another trumpeter, Howard McGhee, who was to influence his playing and contribute in a major way to his musical development and recording career. After nearly two years with Kirk, Navarro enjoyed his first major exposure to the movers and shakers of the early bop movement.
Dizzy Gillespie, long acknowledged as the trumpet guru of the bop era, had been playing in the trumpet section of singer Billy Eckstine’s band. Gillespie had been moving and shaking not only the members of that band and its leader, but the entire jazz community. Gillespie’s totally fresh, innovative solos, developed largely through interaction with the Minton’s group, which included alto saxophonist Charlie Parker and pianists Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk, had energized fellow musicians as well as eager listeners. But Gillespie was restless and needed to move on to the role of leader. Having heard Navarro, he recommended the younger trumpeter to Eckstine as his eventual replacement. As the leader told Leonard Feather for his New Encyclopedia of Jazz, “A
Began studying piano at age six, later tenor saxophone; started on trumpet at 13, 1936; launched professional career in Miami on saxophone with Walter Johnson band; played trumpet with Snookum Russell band, 1941-42; joined Andy Kirk band, 1943-44; replaced Dizzy Gillespie in Billy Eckstine band, 1945; collaborated with composer Tadd Dameron, trumpeter Howard McGhee, tenor sax stylists Coleman Hawkins, Lockjaw Davis, Sonny Rollins, and Illinois Jacquet, 1946-49; played for the last time with Charlie Parker, New York, 1950.
Awards: Metronome trumpet award, 1949.
week or two after [Navarro] had joined us, you’d hardly know Diz had left the band. His ideas and feelings were the same and there was just as much swing.”
Navarro remained with Eckstine’s band for about 18 months. In 1946 he was replaced by another young trumpet phenomenon, Kenny Dorham. Of this period, Budd Johnson, tenor saxophonist/writer/arranger, told Ira Gitler, authorof SwingtoBop, “I remember when Fats Navarro first heard Diz he said, Oh, man, that’s the way I want to play. That’s where it is … When Dizzy left the band then I took over as musical director, but Fats stayed. They were in the band together. So all of that rubbed off on him there, and he was struggling with it until he really got it. And he played pretty good saxophone too.” Two other bandmates also told Gitler of Navarro’s dedication at this time. Saxophonist Don Lanphere said, “He was after musical perfection and I think this is something he let be known to people. He worked hard at achieving this.” And his friend Sulieman related, “Fats would practice all day long. Sit in the bed with his mute and practice all day.” Navarro then settled in New York, which became the center of his activities for the last four years of his life.
As Frank Tirro wrote in his Jazz: A History, “Bebop was teaching trumpeters to play in a new way, and the technical excellence of Dizzy Gillespie led others to follow in his stylistic footsteps.” Navarro, through his diligence, had achieved comparable technical excellence and at the same time a fatter, warmer tone quality. Most critics, fellow musicians and listeners noted then, and still celebrate, Navarro’s clean articulation of notes in the speediest of passages, combined with a beauty of tone quality. Also, he played exciting ideas. It was these attributes that led to his pairing with drummer Kenny Clarke, tenor giants Coleman Hawkins, Eddie Lockjaw Davis, Sonny Rollins, and Illinois Jacquet, among other, for recordings and club dates between 1946-47. During this period, Fats also met Tadd Dameron, a pianist better respected for his writing and arranging skills.
Dameron and Navarro collaborated on a six-piece band from September, 1947, to April, 1949. Two recording sessions on Blue Note and one on Capitol during this period produced some of Navarro’s best recorded work. Dameron, an innovative writer and arranger, fit in well with the emerging bebop style, utilizing its unique language in ways most writers could not master. Such originals as “The Chase,” “Our Delight,” and “Dameronia” became excellent vehicles for Navarro’s solo work. Another pairing that produced recorded fireworks was the one with trumpeter Howard McGhee, Navarro’s former Andy Kirk bandmate. Originally an admirer of the trumpet style of Roy Eldridge, McGhee had, since 1943, become one of the foremost practitioners of the bebop style. His October, 1948, collaboration with Navarro on Blue Note found both horn men at the top of their game. Their interaction on such tunes as Double Talk is remarkable.
Navarro eventually fell into a trap that caught so many of the jazz musicians of the 1940s. Following in the footsteps of Charlie Parker, the acknowledged leader of the bebop school, Navarro became addicted to heroin. The trumpeter got caught up in the need to satisfy his addiction and began neglecting his health. He eventually developed a serious case of tuberculosis. Bassist Charles Mingus, in his Beneath the Underdog, recalled an experience with Navarro after Fats joined the Lionel Hampton band in 1948: “The tour continued and Fats began to complain that he didn’t feel good, he hurt all over and he wanted out. [I] thought it was just an excuse because they were all tired of the strenuous one-nighters. One day on the bus Fats began coughing up blood. When they got to Chicago he quit the band and left for New York.”
Navarro’s sickness did not diminish the fire in his playing until the end. Mingus also recalled an incident just after Fats joined the Hampton five-man trumpet section. Navarro had been hired strictly for his solo work, a fact which drew a comment from one of the other trumpeters who complained that the newcomer couldn’t even read. Mingus wrote, “Fats laughed, grabbed the musician’s part, eyed it and said, ‘Schitt, you ain’t got nothin’ to read here!’ And he sight-read from the score impeccably for the entire last show.” A session he recorded with the fabulous Bud Powell and a young Sonny Rollins in August, 1949, contains some of the finest Navarro work on record, including “Bouncing with Bud” and “52nd Street Theme.”
In an odd melding of talents, Navarro recorded one side with the King of Swing, Benny Goodman, in 1948. They did an old Fats Waller tune and Goodman favorite, “Stealin’ Apples.” The last recorded evidence of Navarro’s talent came at New York’s Birdland, in a gig with Charlie Parker, Bud Powell and others. Though the recording is somewhat rough, and Fats was only weeks from death and at times sounds tired, the brilliance still shines through.
Nearly every critic and musician has spoken of Navar-ro’s place in jazz history. Joachim E. Berendt, in his The Jazz Book, noted: “Just as all trumpeters of traditional jazz come from Armstrong, so do all modern trumpeters stem from Gillespie. The four most important in the forties were Howard McGhee, Fats Navarro, Kenny Dorham, and young Miles Davis. The early death of Fats Navarro was as lamented by the musicians of his generation as Bunny Berigan’s and Bix Beiderbecke’s passing had been mourned by the musicians of the Swing and Chicago periods. Fats’ clear, assured playing was a forerunner of the style practiced by the generation of hard bop since the late sixties....” And Dizzy Gillespie, in his to BE or not to BOP, wrote: “I believe in this parallel between jazz and religion. Definitely! Definitely! The runners on the trumpet would be Buddy Bolden, King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Roy Eldridge, me, Miles, and Fats Navarro, Clifford Brown, Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard—they’re the runners. They created a distinctive style, a distinctive message to the music, and the rest of them follow that. Our Creator chooses great artists.”
Bird and Fats—Live at Birdland, 1950, Cool and Blue, 1950.
(With Kenny Dorham and Sonny Stitt) Fats Navarro Memorial, 1946-47, Savoy, 1993.
(With others)Fats Navarro and Tadd Dameron, The Complete Blue Note and Capitol Recordings of, 1948-49, Blue Note, 1995.
Berendt, Joachim E., The Jazz Book: From Ragtime to Fusion and Beyond, Lawrence Hill & Company, 1892.
Carr, Ian, Digby Fairweather and Brian Priestley, Jazz: The Rough Guide, The Rough Guides, 1995.
Feather, Leonard, The New Edition of the Encyclopedia of Jazz, Bonanza Books, 1965.
Gillespie, Dizzy, with Al Fraser, to BE or not to BOP, Doubleday & Company, 1979.
Gitler, Ira, Swing to Bop, Oxford University Press, 1985.
Holtje, Steve and Nancy Ann Lee, Music Hound Jazz: The Essential Album Guide, Visible Ink Press, 1998.
Mingus, Charles, Beneath the Underdog, Alfred A. Knopf, 1971.
Taylor, Arthur, Notes and Tones: Musician to Musician Interviews, Perigee Books, 1977.
Tirro, Frank, Jazz: A History, W. W. Norton & Company, 1977.
Coda, October, 1950.
Additional information provided by the album notes of Fats Navarro and Tadd Dameron: The Complete Blue Note and Capitol Recordings of, notes by Carl Woideck, Blue Note, 1995.
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