January 24, 2016

Remembering Jack "Trumpet" Feierman


Now, on to a subject much dearer and closer to home for me. Last week I learned of the loss of the great Jack Feierman, a wonderful musician and fixture on stages and in studios around the world for the better part of seven decades. He died Tuesday at the venerable age of 91. I had the great honor and privilege of playing regularly with Jack for more than a decade and in that time imbibed an encyclopedic amount musical knowledge and lore. 

His career as trumpet player started back in the Big Band era. After a stint in the army during WWII, he settled in New York City, where he looked to take up acting. But the calls for a trumpeter kept coming and in 1960 he was lured to the West Coast, ostensibly to fill the first trumpet chair in Johnny Mathis' orchestra. Not long after, he began directing that ensemble and quickly became one of the top conductors in LA, directing orchestras for Mathis, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, Andy Williams, and many other top acts of that era.

Although known mostly on the West Coast as a conductor, the trumpet was his first love, and Jack was a formidable first trumpet player. He continued to play that instrument -- that most physically demanding of instruments -- impeccably well into his 80s. 

He once turned down an offer to play first trumpet in Duke Ellington's band (he had just bought a house and the salary wasn't sufficient to cover the mortgage). So when Count Basie called he said to hell with it and went on the road with Basie for a year in 1976, a time when the band still included many of its key original members.

Jack was an unassuming and private man, even a little cagey; I once offered to buy him dinner in exchange for Basie band stories, he politely declined. Never one to make pronouncements, grandstand, or draw attention to himself, he was most often self-effacing with regard to his own playing (a rare quality among trumpet players, in my experience). But he was an absolute shark of a player, could read flyshit on paper as they say, was a fine jazz soloist, and could play a ballad with enough heart to make a statue of Stonewall Jackson weep.

When in the trumpet chair, he wasn't often heard to comment on matters of interpretation or a misplayed passage, but when he did so he was always spot-on. His hearing was uncanny. (Just because he didn't comment didn't mean he didn't hear that mistake. He was most likely just being polite. The man heard everything.)

And the stories! When his chops needed a break, he loved to entertain the band with hilarious music-biz anecdotes -- he had a seemingly endless supply, having been around for so long. (The Lawrence Welk stories alone could have filled a good-sized, side-splitting volume.)

I learned so much from this man though he never once directly instructed me. (Lord knows I played enough clams, so it wasn't for lack of opportunities.) What a fine illustration of the principle that sometimes we learn more by simple observation, and this is never more true than in music. Just watching Jack work -- his carriage, his professionalism, his musicality, his humanity -- was an education in itself and for this great gift I am eternally grateful.

Jack Feierman was a giant of music, and every musician who ever worked with him will agree. He was one of the last of his kind: those great players who settled in LA after the war, put their signatures on so many iconic recordings and performances, and made Los Angeles the music capital of the day. His passing is more than just a loss to the musical community, it is a loss to American culture. He was a national treasure and I will miss him. -PL