Carl Saunders

Star of the LA rehearsal bands

MAARTEN DE HAAN, December 1998

November 1998. Club The Ventura in Los Angeles. A band of bugles and brass instruments plays a bizarre version of Ray Nobles Cherokee, mixing 4/4 and 6/4 beats. Right after the conductor has directed the musicians through a complicated section, a man with a trumpet stands up in the middle, eluding the dark atmosphere with a bright and distinct solo.
Recent editions of the All Music Guide to Jazz have included this musician, Carl Saunders, lauding him as one of the top jazz soloists based in Los Angeles, “(who) has recorded far too infrequently to gain the fame he deserves” (Scott Yanow). A Stan Kenton veteran, the trumpeter first drew attention to himself with a debut CD, which was appropriately titled Out Of The Blue.
“Funny how these things happen. Apparently, there is something like a just free market” says Saunders, while seated in front of his favourite veggie burger joint. ”Out Of The Blue was brought out on SNL Records. SNL stands for: Saunders, the artist, and Loren E. Little, the financer. This record label was a home production, created especially for these recordings.”
“After we had sent copies of the CD to jazz radio stations, they were well-received and played a lot. The result was that we surfaced on the Gavin Report, and got up to number 12 on the national compilation of radio record-play lists. All sorts of people wanted to order Out Of The Blue, while we did not have a proper distribution channel.”


Former Las Vegas-based trumpet player Saunders is one of many top-rank musicians who spend most of their time rehearsing and playing with big bands that only rarely record. Saunders musical training started when he, age seventeen, started playing mellophone in Stan Kentons Mellophonium Band.
”My mother, singer Gail Sherwood, had her own radio program in Hollywood in the 1940s. Stan Kenton was her accompanist on the piano in that show. A little while later Kenton started his first band and she was the first singer. Years later, he was performing in Las Vegas with his Mellophonium Band. I had just graduated from high school and was an absolute Kenton-freak.”

“Every night I visited the casino where he was playing. My mother came by one day, introduced me and told Kenton I had a good ear for music. After I did an audition for him, he asked me to join the band.”
The experience of playing in the Mellophonium Band had an unexpected influence on Saunders’ musical development. “I had developed a perfect pitch. However, once I joined Kenton to play the mellophone, my whole system got mixed up, because the notes that I read sounded higher than what I was used to.”
“That is how I lost my perfect pitch. I became more concerned with time, and now consider myself an expert in the field of swing. When I was still living in Las Vegas, I also performed a lot as a drummer. For big bands it is extremely difficult to swing, because there are so many people playing. Count Basies band always sounded so good because they knew each other so well. They dragged and rushed, but did it together.”
Playing with Kenton was also formative in a less positive way. “With the Mellophonium Band we performed non-stop, following the principle of hit-and-run: sleep in the daytime, play in the evening. Every evening after a gig we went to eat in some cheap diner. Kenton always chose the most expensive meal on the menu, whatever it was. Then he would take out a bottle of vodka and drink it empty.
One time he took a salad. He had had too much to drink then he grabbed the oil to put on his salad. He opened the bottle and started pouring and would not stop. After the oil had filled his plate and was running over the table, he took out the vinegar and just kept on pouring. The oil and vinegar were now falling off the table, soiling his pants. When I saw that, I tears came to my eyes. Kenton was my musical father figure. To see him like that was a great shock.”

Rehearsal bands 

In the 1960s, after having left Kenton, Saunders started playing drums with his uncle, actor and singer Bobby Sherwood. Soon he would pick up his trumpet again and play with the likes of Perez Prado, Harry James, Maynard Ferguson and Benny Goodman. While performing with James he met drummer Buddy Rich, who would start his own big band with, among others, Carl Saunders.
“Buddy’s band had great timing. Still, he was always looking for mistakes, just to keep the musicians under his thumb. For instance, he would try to lose everybody during a drum solo by turning the beat around. We, however, counted like crazy and never fell into Buddy’s trap.”
Saunders was never afraid to answer the somewhat irritable bandleader. Rich fired him three times, always to hire him back again. However, the next and third time that Saunders criticized Rich’s behavior, he had to leave the band for good.

Unfortunately for Saunders, the band recorded right after that in Los Angeles. A very young Chuck Findley took his place and became well known. Saunders started working the Las Vegas showbiz circuit, playing with Frank Sinatra, Paul Anka, Tony Bennet and Ella Fitzgerald. In the beginning of the 1980s he moved to Los Angeles, to be closer to the jazz scene.

“Many great big bands in LA are so-called rehearsal bands. Nowadays, I play with Manny Albam, Bob Florence and Bill Holman. Bills work and that of Bob Brookmeyer are the best in big band jazz. I have played in Holmans band now since 1984.”
“All the musicians are big band veterans who do it out of love for his music, not for the money. It is the only lead trumpet job that I have, but it is the best in the world. In all those years we have only made a few recordings. We rehearse all the time and the band is very tight, a true entity. A bit like Basies band.”

”About two years ago I heard a great CD by a trumpet player unknown to me in my car on the radio” says the conductor in The Ventura, composer Clare Fischer. “Once at home, I called Carl Saunders to thank him for what he had made.”
Later, Saunders became a steady soloist, along with saxophonist Gary Foster and flutist/saxophonist Don Shelton, in the Clare Fischer Jazz Corps, the name of the aforementioned bugle band. Trombone player Carl Fontana called Saunders “the best trumpet player you’ve never heard.”

But now that he spends more and more time in the studio he played for instance on Bill Holmans well-received CD Brilliant Corners- a career in his own right seems to be a  distinct possibility. His new project is called Eclecticism. It features arrangements for strings and horns by the crme de la crme of the LA scene: Clare Fischer, Bill Holman en Bob Florence.

While the owner of the veggie burger joint loudly says “thààànk you” to a customer paying his bill, Saunders muses on the difficulties of being a great artist. “In the film Amadeus, Salieri says about Mozart: God is speaking through him. That is exactly how I feel about Clare Fischer and Bill Hollman. Among musicians, they are the absolute top, but they lack the skills to also sell their talents and the average person doesn’t know who they are.”

What follows is a bit of a monologue about the need to separate the real jazz craftsmen from the charlatans, who do have the talent to sell themselves. The true jazz genius often misses the acknowledgement due him. It is a way of reasoning that is quite familiar to anyone who hangs out with jazz musicians. Somewhat too familiar, actually. But that is all right. God speaks not through Saunders mouth, but through his trumpet.
Since this interview Carl has Recorded his Bebop Big Band CD which got to number 26 on the charts and the Can You Dig Being Dug CD which was recorded live at a Jazz club in LA called Charlie Os. Last but not least:  a collaboration with the great Phil Woods playing the Music of Henry Mancini. Currently, Carl  is in the process of releasing a septet CD, all arrangements written by Bill Holman. You can hear clips of Carls CDs on his web site