Rolf Ericson: a Legend With a Future : Jazz: The trumpeter’s spent 47 years adapting his playing to different masters. Now he’s playing his own tune at the Grand Avenue Bar.
The Rolf Ericson story has the makings of a bulky book, if not a TV miniseries. A fluent and sensitive master of the trumpet and fluegelhorn, he has achieved a unique backlog of credits through a rare mix of talent and adaptability.
Ericson has worked for Paul Anka, Charlie Barnet, Count Basie, Les Brown, Benny Carter, Jimmy Dorsey, Tommy Dorsey, Lulle Ellboj, Duke Ellington, Maynard Ferguson, Stan Getz, Dexter Gordon, Woody Herman, Harry James, Elvin Jones, Quincy Jones, Stan Kenton, Harold Land, Charlie Mingus, Art Mooney, Charlie Parker, Perez Prado, Charlie Spivak, Buddy Rich, Dick Stabile, Charlie Ventura and the World’s Greatest Jazz Band.
After 47 years of playing with such masters throughout Europe and the United States and a series of far-flung residencies (most recently a decade based in West Germany), the Swedish-born Ericson arrived with his wife in Los Angeles in February. He found a home in Beverly Hills and has begun to explore the local music scene, playing several stage gigs at the Grand Avenue Bar of the Biltmore (he will be there Tuesday with singer Ernie Andrews).
“I’ve always liked California,” he says. “This was where I worked when I came to America in 1947. It wasn’t easy back then; I went first, with a friend who had signed my papers, to Palm Springs, but nothing was happening. I took a job as a dishwasher to make enough money to get to Los Angeles, and pretty soon I was working with Benny Goodman.”
Ericson had made as swift a rise to fame back home. Inspired by a Louis Armstrong concert he attended with a trumpet-playing uncle (“I knew right there and then that I wanted to be a trumpet player and nothing else,” he says), he soon graduated from school bands to the country’s top professional units, and by 1945, at 23, he won the annual Swedish all-star band polls. “I was at the peak of my career, but I decided I had to come to America.”
In California, where the jazz world was segregated in the 1940s (there were two separate musicians’ unions), Ericson was attracted to the Central Avenue scene, where he met and played with Teddy Edwards, Wardell Gray and pianist Gerald Wiggins (whose trio backed him last week at the Biltmore).
His first American tour of duty lasted three years. Over the next two decades he spent much of his time in the United States, but he made Sweden his home base from 1965-70. By that time American musicians touring Europe hired him constantly: a festival in Hilversum, a Stockholm date with Dizzy or an all-star session with Clark Terry or Art Farmer.
Of all the bands he has worked with, Duke Ellington’s made the most durable impression. He was the first European musician to become a regular member, first in the United States in 1963-64 and then on numerous overseas tours; he has rejoined several times since Mercer Ellington became the leader.
“I was mystified at first. Duke had this huge library, with just fragments of paper; I couldn’t find any music, and I’d ask the other trumpeters. I’d say to Ray Nance, ‘What note should I play here?’ and he’d say, ‘I don’t know--play anything.’ And I was caught in the middle of this friction between Cootie Williams and Cat Anderson. If Cat told me, ‘Play a B Flat here,’ Cootie would say, ‘Don’t listen to him, it’s an E Flat.’
“Duke would just laugh and say, ‘Don’t worry, Rolf; you’ll get it.’ Finally I wrote out my own parts and after a couple of weeks I had the whole thing down.”
In sharp contrast, during a brief tour with Count Basie, Ericson found the music “all there on the paper, no problem--but Duke was something truly special: the greatest music I ever played.”
The legendary Charlie Barnet, whose record of “Cherokee” vaulted him to swing-era fame, had “a fantastic band. I was in a trumpet section alongside Doc Severinsen, Maynard Ferguson and an incredible lead player, Ray Wetzel. Charlie was the easiest guy to work for.
“One night we played a battle of the bands in Balboa, against Woody Herman and Stan Kenton. We came in raggedy, filthy from a long road trip. Woody and Stan had musicians who were all neat, sunburned, with their cameras and their girlfriends. We were tired and hungry, but when we started to play, man, we wasted everybody! We blew both those bands right into the ocean.”
Ericson eventually worked with both of those “wasted” bands: He was with Herman in 1950 and later joined Kenton. “Stan gave me a lot of solo space, and I was making $350 a week--big money in the ‘50s.”
Like most of Benny Goodman’s employees, Ericson found the King of Swing “strange.” During one of his stints with Goodman, he says: “We were in Freedomland for 10 days. Benny had this excellent guitarist, Turk van Lake. Every time he tried to play, a solo or just rhythm, Benny would say, ‘No guitar.’ This cat just sat there all night long and it happened again and again. At the end of the 10 days he hadn’t plucked a single note.”
Goodman was one of several leaders with whom Ericson had difficulty retaining his identity. “One day he rented a studio and asked me to come over and jam. He played a lot of old-fashioned tunes, and later told me, ‘I thought you played more modern than that.’ I said, ‘Benny, I figured you wanted me to play in your bag. You called the tunes--how do you expect me to do anything else?’
“So I heard nothing more from him. Suddenly, a year later, he calls up and has me sign a contract to go to Europe. Later I found he had gotten about 20 other trumpeters to sign contracts--but Benny himself hadn’t signed any of them! No, I didn’t get the job.”
Buddy Rich presented other problems. “A very weird person, dictatorial--'Button your coat! Lose some pounds so you can fit into the uniform!’ He ordered me to play like Sweets Edison and I told him, ‘I love Sweets, but I’m Rolf Ericson. Either accept me or get Sweets.’ Later, we became good friends.”
Another identity crisis: “I replaced Shorty Rogers in the Lighthouse All Stars at Hermosa Beach. Bad vibes! I tried to play like Shorty but it didn’t fit my temperament, and it never jelled. But I did get to play with Miles Davis when he dropped in one night, and not long ago they put it out on an album.”
Ericson learned about American society when he toured the South in two interracial bands. “I was with Perez Prado, who was very dark. Somehow we got checked into a hotel in Montgomery, Ala., but suddenly the hotel manager said, ‘Get out! The Ku Klux Klan is coming--they’ll lynch me!’ We jumped into the cars and split.
“Charlie Barnet took us all into a restaurant in the South. They served everyone but the three black guys in the band, so Charlie said, ‘Let’s go.’ We left without paying; they sent for the police and we had State Troopers with guns chasing us, but they didn’t catch us.”
A more pleasant experience was a session in Dusseldorf in which a series of poems written by Pope John Paul II as a young man were set to music, given English lyrics by Gene Lees and recorded with Sarah Vaughan as the principal singer and Lalo Schifrin conducting a large orchestra.
“Sarah hadn’t studied the material very well, but in two days she had it down, and it was so unbelievably beautiful, every time I play it to this day I get tears in my eyes.”
Over a career that spans 47 years Ericson’s experiences have not been uniformly rewarding. A low point was his year with Les Brown, playing the Bob Hope show: “A super-white band, stiff and cold--it really didn’t fit me.” But, for every such blue note, there have been enough rewarding encounters to fill the life spans of a dozen typical jazzmen.
Three months from now he will be back on the road again, touring Scandinavia for a few weeks, but California provides strong roots and longstanding friendships.
“Between the studio jobs and all the bands and small jazz groups, I’ve done just about everything. I never had a manager, and I still don’t have one. Maybe I should get one now.”
It seems unlikely. Ericson’s reputation guarantees that the right gig will never be more than a phone call away.