Conte Candoli, 74; Trumpeter Played in ‘Tonight Show’ Band


Conte Candoli, a highly regarded jazz trumpeter who was a fixture in “The Tonight Show” band in the years Johnny Carson originated the show from Burbank, has died. He was 74.

Candoli died Friday of cancer at Monterey Palms Convalescent Home in Palm Desert.

Along with his older brother, Pete, also a first-rate jazz trumpeter, Candoli was a favorite at Southern California clubs and concert halls for decades. When they weren’t working in “The Tonight Show” band, they made a good living in the anonymity of studio work, supporting artists like Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole.

Candoli was born Secondo Candoli in Mishawaka, Ind. His father worked in a factory and played trumpet as a hobby. He wanted his sons to follow in his footsteps, not in the factory but in music. The Candoli brothers grew up in a house full of instruments, including the trombone and saxophone.


Over the years, Candoli developed a style based on Dizzy Gillespie’s bebop playing, adding Miles Davis and Clifford Brown as influences later on. He also was well-regarded as an improviser.

“When I was getting into my teens,” Candoli told a reporter some years ago, “I loved [Harry] James. . . . Then I got with Roy Eldridge. They were each spectacular players in their own way. Then at around 18 I started to move into Dizzy. I didn’t appreciate [Louis] Armstrong until I got older. The same with Duke Ellington. When I was a kid, I thought they were a bunch of old men.”

During the war years, Candoli, a mere 16, got his first big-time professional work, playing with Woody Herman’s orchestra during his high school summer vacations.

“My brother, Pete, played lead with Woody and recommended me,” Candoli once told a reporter. “I told Woody I could barely read [music] and he said, ‘I know that, kid, but I could care less. I want you with the band and you’ll learn how to read in a few weeks.’ Boy, was he right.”

Herman, however, told Candoli to finish his high school courses. When he graduated, Candoli again joined Herman’s band.

He later played with Stan Kenton’s band and several other lesser-known groups before coming to Los Angeles in the 1950s to play with bassist Howard Rumsey’s Lighthouse All-Stars, then the hot ticket in Southern California.


After leaving the All-Stars in 1960, Candoli worked extensively with drummer Shelly Manne and, in 1968, began playing with “The Tonight Show” band--then based in New York--on its West Coast visits. When Carson moved the show to Burbank in 1972, Candoli joined the band for what was to be a 20-year run. He left when Carson retired in 1992.

“Usually you’d never think you’d do a steady gig for 20 years. . . . I was able to raise a family and stay in one place.”

“ ‘The Tonight Show’ enhanced my career,” he told jazz writer Zan Stewart. “It made me comfortable, so when I go out and play jazz, I’m in a good frame of mind. It gives me a sense of security, and that feels good. It certainly never dampened my desire to play.”

Candoli is survived by his brother.

Information on any other survivors or any funeral services was not immediately available.