Georgie Auld, 70; Self-Taught Saxophonist


Georgie Auld, the volatile, bold Canadian saxophonist who first caught the nation’s attention with the bands of Bunny Berigan and Artie Shaw and then carved out a singular niche with the Benny Goodman sextet, died Monday at his Palm Springs home.

Auld, who briefly led his own band in the 1940s with a coterie of soloists that included Sarah Vaughn, Erroll Garner, Dizzy Gillespie and Billy Butterfield, was 70. He had been battling lung cancer for a year.

Film director Daniel Mann, a longtime friend, said Auld was an unschooled, self-taught musician who didn’t read music but was so skilled at his instrument that he could produce hard-swinging improvisations after hearing only piano chords.

One of Auld’s brothers, Barney, said Georgie Auld had been given a saxophone by their parents in their native Toronto where he was born John Altwerger. He taught himself to play and began to entertain guests in the family saloon.

When only 6 or 7 he was receiving several dollars a week in tips and became convinced that he could earn a living as a musician. Altwerger--who later changed his name to Auld for stage purposes--formed a band in New York when he was 13 and then, while still in his teens, hooked up with Bunny Berigan in 1937.


He joined Artie Shaw in 1938 and briefly led the group after Shaw disbanded it.

(Years later, Shaw told author George T. Simon that he always considered Auld and drummer Buddy Rich the two most important sidemen who ever worked for him.)

In 1940, Auld joined Benny Goodman and the legendary Goodman sextet, playing alongside such jazz legends as Cootie Williams, Charlie Christian and Count Basie.

Auld served in the Army in 1943 and formed his own band later that year.

By 1948, Auld’s style had changed dramatically and he was performing what Simon called “brilliant and biting” solos with a 10-piece band he had formed in New York.

He also first appeared as an actor at that time in a Broadway play, “The Rat Race.” He of course played the saxophonist in the play about a musician and a dance-hall hostess. “The Rat Race” was later made into a movie starring Tony Curtis and Debbie Reynolds.

His second brush with things dramatic came nearly 30 years later when he taught Robert DeNiro how to hold and depress the keys on a sax and was also the principal soloist on the sound track of “New York, New York.” Additionally, Auld was seen in the 1977 picture as a bandleader.

While appearing on Broadway, he opened a bar in New York City called Georgie Auld’s Tin Pan Alley. In the 1950s he opened another bar, The Melody Room in Hollywood, where he worked at night while recording at the studios.

He became music director for Tony Martin, toured frequently in Japan and Europe and by 1975 had recorded nearly 20 albums.

He last appeared in Los Angeles in April, 1989, at the Grand Avenue Bar of the Biltmore Hotel where Times jazz critic Leonard Feather found “renewed evidence of a sound and style that have defied the inroads of time.”

“Now,” Feather said last year, “three weeks short of his 70th birthday, Auld is as buoyantly expressive as he was on classic Benny Goodman recordings almost a half-century ago.”

Auld is survived by another brother and a sister.