Chapter 4. Fusion Musicians of the 1950s and 1960s

One of the keys to being able to create successful musical fusions is having a strong background in multiple musical genres. These five biographical sketches focus on the backgrounds that allowed these musicians to record the hybrid albums that will be focused on in Chapter Five.

Dave Tarras - Sammy Musiker

As both Dave Tarras and Sammy Musiker have had their musical histories covered in earlier sections, this introduction will focus on how Tarras and Musiker were seen from the jazz perspective.

Both Tarras and Musiker are often defined against one of the biggest names in jazz at that that, Benny Goodman. Tarras had been nicknamed the “Jewish” Benny Goodman, and Musiker was the featured clarinet player in Gene Krupa's orchestra after he left Benny Goodman in 1938.  Musiker’s playing with Krupa is best represented by a 1939 alternate take of “Jungle Madness” where Musiker's clarinet solo makes references to both Yiddish music and Benny Goodman. “Jungle Madness”[1] is a riff-swing piece in the style of “Christopher Columbus” and “Sing, Sing, Sing.” Sammy Musiker is mentioned Gunther Schuller’s The Swing Era; The Development of Jazz, 1930-1945 as a clarinetist but nothing is said about his playing. The swing and big band music that Musiker had been playing was no longer in vogue after the war. Musiker never experienced the same successes, financial or critical, that he had before the war.[2] By the early 1960s he left New York to teach music in Arizona.

Yale Strom's The Book of Klezmer has some wonderful anecdotes from former Dave Tarras trumpet player Sheldon “Shelly” Hendler about how Tarras was viewed by jazz musicians.[3] Hendler played with Dave Tarras from 1952 to 1959, starting when he was a senior in high school.[4] Accordion to Hendler, Tarras was a wonderful player of Yiddish music, but he didn't fully understand American music. He says that Tarras never had a sense of the ABA form, and would start another tune when he was supposed to come in with the next section. But his playing of the Yiddish music excelled, especially the improvisational doyne, which could last up to an hour. Saxophonist Allen Eager’s mother owned a hotel where Tarras and his band were playing, and Eager would bring up jazz musicians friends including Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and Red Rodney to hear Taras play. These jazz musicians were only interested in the modal (Yiddish, and primarily the doynes) music that Dave played.

Mickey Katz

Mickey Katz (born 1909 Cleveland, Ohio; died 1985 Los Angeles, California) was a clarinetist, comedian and bandleader. Even though he spent nearly his entire career outside of New York City, he became the most widely-known Jewish music playing clarinetist of the twentieth century, not only in American but around the world. In 1977, with Hannibal Coons, he wrote an autobiography, Papa Play for Me. Katz mixes his biography with funny stories and jokes that are similar in style to Myron Cohen’s.

Katz was born to a Latvian mother and Lithuanian father. At the age of eleven with money he made cleaning his uncle’s tailor shop he started taking clarinet lessons with Joseph Narovec. Narovec was the only teacher Katz ever had.[5] Quickly becoming a proficient clarinetist and saxophonist, by the age of fifteen he was a professional musician in Cleveland playing in society orchestras, movie and vaudeville houses, occasional comedic bits, lake boats, and other musical jobs that would pay him a wage.[6] A versatile musician, he was just as comfortable playing in a light classical society orchestra as he was playing a Jewish affair. In 1930 he did make an attempt at working in New York City, but moved back to Cleveland where he was more successful finding work.

Katz was given 4-F status during World War II and continued to lead bands in Cleveland as well as a USO tour in Europe.[7] It was at a National Jukebox Convention in March of 1946 where an important event occurred when the paths of Mickey Katz and bandleader/comedian Spike Jones crossed.[8] Within the month, Katz had joined Spike's orchestra as a clarinetist, saxophonist, gluggist, and assistant conductor. It was a job he would hold for a year and a half before deciding to strike out on his own.

Katz says life began for him at the age of 38, when in 1947 he went into the studio and recorded “Haim Afen Range” and “Yiddish Square Dance” for RCA.[9] RCA was willing to take the risk of selling a Jewish comedy record after the phenomenal success the Barton Brothers were having with their hits “Joe and Paul” and “Cockeyed Jennie” on the very small Apollo Label. Executives from RCA had first heard “Haim Afen Range” when Katz had been singing it to Manny Klein on a break in the middle of a Spike Jones recording session and a mic in the studio was left open. Katz went to Al Sack, the musical director for the radio shows of Tony Martin and Dinah Shore, to put the charts and band together. This band, Mickey Katz and his Kosher Jammers, would stay fairly constant in the studio: Manny Klein, trumpet; Sammy Weiss, drums; Benny Gill, violin; Sy Zentner, trombone; Wally Weschler, piano; and Nat Farber, arrangements. These were some of the best jazz musicians in Los Angeles.[10] These musicians agreed to make the recordings because the music brought them back home to the music of their parents. Although the records were comedy recordings, the musical content was the nostalgic link for the musicians.

Katz’s RCA records sold in markets both large and small. To capitalize on the success, a stage show was assembled. Under the producer Hal Zeiger, a touring variety show was mounted called Borsht Capades.[11] Starting in 1948, and continuing until 1951 Katz, starred in the show with his son Joel (first billed as Joel Kaye and then later Joel Gray). The show had runs in Los Angeles, Chicago, and then other cities ending in Miami Beach, before making an unsuccessful Broadway run. In Los Angeles, Katz was able to use the same musicians that he used on the recordings, though once he left for Chicago he had to use local musicians. This use of local musicians on the road would lead to horrible stage fright for Katz, a condition that affect him for the rest of his career. What would come out of Borsht Capades was most of the material that Katz would record on his solo records over the next few years.

The Broadway run of Borsht Capades was not a failure beacuse of its content. The show featured Phil Foster and the Barry Sisters, in addition to Katz. The band was also expanded from five musicians to eighteen with charts put together by Yiddish theatre composer Joseph Rumshinsky. What happened was one week before Borsht Capades opened on Broadway, the theatre owners from Miami Beach had opened their own review Bagels and Yocks at another Broadway theatre. And while Borsht Capades got good reviews, there just wasn't room on Broadway for two Yinglish reviews.

Katz's career would have a number of both high and low points after Bortsht Capades, leading up to the 1956 release of Music for Weddings, Bar Mitzvahs and Brisses. More musical comedy records would follow both for Capital and later for Columbia.

Irving Fields

Irving Fields, given name Isadore Schwartz, was born in 1915 on New York's Lower East Side. He started playing piano at the age of eight. By the age of ten he had joined the choir of khazn Joseph Rosenblatt, under the director of Herman Wahl.[12] Wahl later gave Fields his introduction to working as an actor in the Yiddish Theaters on 2nd Avenue. Fields’ acting career ended in 1930 when he won an amateur radio contest hosted by Fred Allen. That contest came with a prize of $50 and a week’s engagement at the Roxy Theatre. After winning the contest, he never looked back, playing any venue with a piano.

Fields’ musical style would be forever changed at the age of seventeen, when his piano playing ability landed him the job of pianist on a cruise liner bound for Cuba and Puerto Rico. Going to nightclubs in San Juan and Havana when the ship was in port, Fields fell in love with the music he heard on the bandstands. Not only did he bring back the rhythms, such as rhumba, merengue, cha cha cha, and mambo, he also brought back tunes. When he came back he played these Latin tunes for celebrities and socialites in New York nightclubs. During the war, Irving Fields would, by luck, serve in Special Services entertaining the troops.[13] And as a musician addicted to Latin rhythms, he did the most logical thing and put together a ethnically diverse band to play Latin music. By the end of the 1940s, Fields was playing one of the most popular New York City spots for Latin music, the Crest Room.[14]

Fields’ popularity at the Crest Room lead to his first record deal with RCA Victor in the mid 1950s, recording as the Irving Campos Trio. His first recordings were for RCA Victor's Purple (Latin) label as Campos El Pianista (Fields the Pianist). The label also had some other text on it, some small letters that read Irving Fields, and in even smaller letters “new artist: Elvis Presley.” Fields’ mastery of Latin music was so impressive that the first major Latin crossover artist, Xavier Cugat, would try to hire him for his own band.

But Irving Fields turned down Xavier Cugat to continue doing as he has into his 90s: playing night clubs and restaurants. He prefers venues where he can maintain a close connection to his audience and where they can lead him to his greatest ideas. One of his earliest and biggest hits as a composer was born soon after World War II at a hotel in Miami Beach. Fields was busy waltzing his way through “Autumn Leaves” and the mostly Jewish crowd demanded his Latin sound.[15] Mid-song the waltzing “Autumn Leaves” turned into the new “Miami Beach Rumba.” It might not have been a typical Afro-Cuban rumba, but it was close enough for Jewish mamboniks,  and Latin enough for Zavier Cugat to record with an arrangement by Tito Puente.[16]

Terry Gibbs

Julius Herbert Gubenko was born in 1924 in Brownsville, Brooklyn. His parents, two older sisters, and older brother had escaped from Russia in 1921.[17] His father, Abe Gubenko, a violinist, led a band called “Abe Gubenko and his Radio Novelty Orchestra.”[18] Based in the heavily Jewish Brownsville section of Brooklyn, the orchestra was able to keep busy, even during the 1930's depression. His older brother, Sol was a percussionist, and it was in the Catskills hotels where Julius first exhibited his talents while playing Sol's instruments. Julius learned to play the drums and xylophone, and from the age of eleven or twelve he would go on jobs playing solos.

One of the musicians that Abe Gubenko would hire was former superstar clarinetist Naftule Brandwein, who had a drinking problem. He was welcome on Abe's bandstands as long as he didn't get drunk. When Brandwein and young Julius went on jobs together, Brandwein would go sit down next to Julius when Julius was playing his solos. Starting at the age of fifteen or sixteen, until he went into the Army at the age of eighteen, Julius spent his summers playing drums and xylophone in the house bands of Catskills hotels. He even claims to have been the drummer on the notorious evening when Naftule Brandwein set himself on fire while wearing Christmas tree lights durning a performance at a Catskill hotel.[19]

When not playing music, young Julius played sports with the kids in the neighborhood, including baseball and especially boxing.[20] In those days one would get nicknamed after the sports heroes that one emulated, and Julius favorite was the fighter Terry Young. “Terry” stuck and Gubenko’s name went from Julius Gubenko to Terry Gubenko. Not long after getting kicked out of high school (which cost him a scholarship to Juilliard) Terry got a job on the bandstand of Judy Kayne.[21]  MCA (Music Corporation of America)  thought that Gubenko was too long and too ethnic and they re-branded their budding star Terry Gibbs. At the age of eighteen he was on the cutting edge, being one of the first jazz musicians to play a mallet keyboard instrument, in addition to playing drum-set. At first he was uncomfortable with the new name, but it stuck. Soon after, Gibbs was drafted and served most of his military service as a musician.

During the war a new form of jazz was born: be-bop. Terry had first heard the music in late 1943, while on furlough; however, the recording ban meant that this music was not being recorded and the only times Gibbs heard it were during his few visits home.[22] After getting out of the service, Gibbs took to be-bop like a fish takes to water, first on the xylophone and then on the vibes. His career took off, first in the clubs of 52nd Street in Manhattan and then around the world.[23] In the next few years Gibbs played with band leaders Woody Herman and Benny Goodman, and his fellow sidemen included George Shearing, Stan Getz, Shorty Rogers, and Max Roach. By 1950 he was leading his own ensembles, the most famous being the Dream Band which started in 1959.

In the mid 1950s, looking for a change of scenery, Gibbs and his wife moved to L.A. He continued touring, even though he was offered a job as a staff musician at NBC. He turned down the job because he didn't want to stop playing jazz.[24] The Dream Band was a group of be-bop players, united in their love of big band music. Like many big bands, money was the cause of the demise of the Dream Band. Terry Gibbs’ divorce in 1962 would lead to him coming back to New York, and recording Jewish Melodies in Jazz Time.

Shelly Manne

Shelly (Sheldon) Manne (born June 11, 1920 New York; died September 26, 1984 Los Angeles, CA) came from a family of musicians. His father, Max had been a staff drummer at the Roxy Theatre in New York City.[25] His first instrument was the saxophone, but he switched to the drums and studied under famed drummer Billy Gladstone at Radio City Music Hall. Before World War II, Manne played mostly in small jazz combos. During the war he served in the Coast Guard near New York City and was able to continue playing and recording. After the war he worked with Stan Kenton, Woody Herman, George Shearing, as well as toured with Jazz at the Philharmonic.

In 1952, Manne moved to California and became one of the founders of the West Coast jazz scene. In 1956 with pianist Andre Previn and bassist Leroy Vinnegar, he made history by recording a jazz version of the Broadway score to My Fair Lady. From 1960 to 1972 Shelly Manne operated his own night club in Hollywood, Shelly’s Manne-Hole. The club featured both his own groups and every major jazz combo and big band that toured on the west coast. Barry Kernfeld, in the New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, describes his playing: “He was a traditional drummer who possessed a strong sense of swing. He was opposed to ostentatious displays of technical skill, and his sensitivity to percussive pitches allowed him to develop a restrained, ‘melodic’ approach to his instruments.”[26]

Along with playing jazz, Manne also wrote and performed on soundtracks for TV shows and movies. Noted LA percussionist Emil Richards said about Manne that “Shelly played music - not drums. He was an innovator on the skins and introduced many avant-garde instruments or sounds, such as the waterphone or putting rice on a drumhead, into the recording studios. He was the liveliest, funniest, most wonderful person to be around.”[27] Shelly Manne was inducted into the Percussion Arts Society Hall of Fame in 1997.


1. Issued on From Avenue A to the Great White Way, Columbia C2K 86323 (2002) Disc 2, track 23. Written and arranged by Chappie Willet. Recorded April 17th 1939 in Chicago. matrix number WC 2589-B.

2. Henry Sapoznik, liner notes to Tanz! reissue. Legacy LN 3219.

3. Yale Strom, The Book of Klezmer; The History, The Music, The Folklore (Chicago: A Cappella Books, 2002), pp. 172-176.

4. Sheldon Handler replaced Red Rodney (Robert Chudnick) who played trumpet with Dave Tarras for two weeks after getting recommended for the job by Dave Tarras's son-in-law Sammy Musiker. Red Rodney was fired by Dave Tarras for playing jazz solos in the middle of Jewish tunes, and being heavy into drugs and having problems even making gigs. Strom 2002, p. 173.

5. Mickey Katz and Hannibal Coons. Papa, Play for Me: The Hilarious, Heartwarming Autobiography of Comedian and Bandleader Mickey Katz. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1977, pp. 12-20.

6. Katz 1977, pp. 9, 22-23, 26. And those are just the first two chapters, it is a recurring theme throughout his autobiography and life.

7. 4-F status means not fit for military service.

8. Katz 1977, pp. 78-87.

9. Ibid, p. 121.

10. Ibid, p. 99 “…a Who's Who of the greatest jazz musicians in Hollywood. They all agreed to make the recording because the numbers reminded them of the songs their parents had enjoyed. To them, making the recording was like playing a bar mitzvah.”

11. Katz 1977, pp. 137-154.

12. Irving Fields,  Personal communication with the author, April 21, 2004.

13. Jim Hannen. “Allegro Interviews Irving Fields.” Allegro, Volume CII No. 7/8. July, 2002. 

14. Irving Fields, personal communication with the Author, April 21, 2004.

15. Josh Kun, liner notes to Irving Fields Trio Bagels and Bongos 2005 Reboot Stereophonic reissue  B0004859-12.

16. And even close to being a real Latin tune for RCA as with bi-lingual Spanish and English lyrics by Johnnie Camacho and Albert Gamse.

17. Terry Gibbs, with Cary Ginell. Good Vibes; A Life in Jazz (Lanham, Maryland; Scarecrow Press, 2003) p. 2.

18. Ibid, p. 4.

19. Ibid, p. 6.

20. Ibid, p. 24.

21. Ibid, pp. 22, 28.

22. Ibid, p. 34.

23. Ibid, p. 39-124.

24. Ibid, p. 180. TV and radio staff musicians weren't allowed to work night club jobs by the musicians union to help spread the work around.

25. James Strain. “Shelly Manne.” Percussive Notes, 35/6 Dec. 1997, pp. 8-9.

26. Barry Kernfeld. ‘Manne, Shelly’, Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 2 August 2007), <>.

27. Strain. 1997, p. 9.

 © Matt Temkin 2012 - 2015