Mondays With Morgan: Terry Gibbs (Terry Gibbs Legacy Band’s new album ‘The Terry Gibbs Songbook’)

Mondays With Morgan is a column in LondonJazz News written by Morgan Enos, a music journalist based in Hackensack, New Jersey. Therein, he dives deep into the jazz that moves him – his main focus being the scene in nearby New York City.

This week, Enos spoke with the legendary vibraphonist Terry Gibbs, active since the 1940s; to trace his development is to tell the story of a large swath of jazz history. 

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His final musical dispatch is the Terry Gibbs Legacy Band’s The Terry Gibbs Songbook, in which a sextet performs his originals with words added on top, courtesy of lyrical giants including Bobby Troup of “Route 66” fame.

Links to purchase The Terry Gibbs Songbook and to Gibbs’ website (*) are at the bottom of this article.

Terry Gibbs at the piano. Photo from Whaling City Sound

Think of mid-20th century jazz’s cast of characters: you name ‘em, Terry Gibbs probably played with them. A few months away from 99, now retired from his instrument,  the illustrious vibraphonist counts Mount Rushmore figures as firsthand colleagues.

As one of the only surviving innovators of bebop’s first generation, Gibbs played with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Bud Powell. In tandem, he has a sizable legacy in classic large ensembles; outside of his acclaimed Dream Band, he’s worked with Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Buddy Rich, Woody Herman… the list goes on

To say nothing of Gibbs’ legacy in television; in 1950, he formed his own band for The “Mel Tormé Show.” Or his role in demolishing the gender barrier in jazz at a pivotal time: he worked with the agile Terry Pollard, the visionary Alice Coltrane (née McLeod) and the versatile Pat Moran.

Gibbs is out with what he’s billing as his final album. Even though he didn’t play on it, every second of the Terry Gibbs Legacy Band’s The Terry Gibbs Songbook is charged with his essence — from 

The Terry Gibbs Songbook features tenor saxophonists Scott Hamilton and Harry Allen, pianist and tenor saxophonist Tom Ranier, vocalist Danny Bacher, bassist Mike Gurrola, and his son Gerry Gibbs on drums.

The album is more than a worthy send-off from a jazz elder; it preserves a precious language and tradition that has defined his eight-decade career. Plus, it’s a dispatch Gibbs can proudly stand by. 

“I don’t care if anybody likes it, or anything; I like it,” he says, brushing away potential criticism. “I’m going out with my last thing I’ll ever be cemented to that I like a lot.” 

With added lyrics by Michael Dees, Bobby Troup, Arthur Hamilton, Steve Allen, and Jerry Gladstone — plus Hamilton and Allen on the double-tenor line, and an appealingly nimble vocal by Bacher — chances are you’ll like it quite a bit as well.

Read on for an in-depth interview with Gibbs that explores The Terry Gibbs Songbook in all its facets — from its genesis to execution, as a capper to an extraordinary life and career.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

London JazzNews: For starters, can you talk about the importance of Alan Bergman regarding this project?

Terry Gibbs: Well, Alan Bergman was one of the reasons this album happened. 

Alan, I knew because he loved the Dream Band. He got together with the head of the Academy Awards and he had them hire my band one time, for when the Academy came out after the award for the dinner, to play a dance set. 

He said, “Don’t worry if nobody’s going to dance, because when they walk out there, they’re all making deals for movie pitches.” We were playing for two people! But Alan liked everything I did. 

After I finished my [2017] album [92 Years Young], I was all done playing. I called Alan, and he said he was doing an album of lullabies. I wrote a song to my granddaughter 30 years ago, when she was born, and it had a nice melody. I thought it could be a lullaby. 

I sent it to Alan, and Alan said, “Terry, it’s a beautiful melody, but I’m not looking to do a children’s one. I’ll send you what I need.” He sent me a Dave Grusin record. I was listening to the record, and it was beautiful, but I didn’t hear a lullaby. I figured the lullaby would come from the writing and the lyric. 

So, I had this song I really liked, I sent it to Alan, and Alan and [wife and co-writer] Marilyn [Bergman] said they would record my song.

I’m going to be 99 years old. And to me, what a way to go out — to have a lyric by the two most prolific songwriters of this era. Writing a million Johnny Mandel songs with him — and with Michel Legrand, writing all the music for the [1983] movie Yentl with Barbra Streisand — and a million other things they did.

LJN: What happened from there?

TG: Unfortunately, Marilyn got sick with dementia. Six months later, she got Alzheimer’s, then she died. I hadn’t heard from Alan; I wanted a lyric, but I didn’t want to bother him. 

So I called Mike Dees, who’s a very good singer who did all the demos for Alan — but is also a lyricist; he wrote some lyrics to one of my songs. I just wanted a lyric to this melody; I didn’t expect to do anything with it.

The same week, Arthur Hamilton, who wrote “Cry Me a River” and a whole bunch of other songs, called me up and said, “I’ve heard a bunch of your songs. I’d like to meet with you.” He picked two of my favorite songs that I wrote, and wrote lyrics over them and changed the titles. Most of the time, I had no reasoning for calling any song anything.

Years before that, Bobby Troup called me; he wrote “Route 66.” He wrote some lyrics to my songs. Steve Allen wrote a lyric. I had about five, six songs with lyrics.

I called Mike, and he was kind of like, “Hey, Terry, I’m 80 years old! I’m retired! I’m playing golf!” I said, “Mike, I want to know what it sounds like! Write a lyric for me, please!” He said, “Just send it to me,” and I sent it to him.

Three days later, he called me up and said, “You know something, Terry? It’s a pretty song, really. I’ll give it a try.”

LJN: There we go.

TG: So, he wrote this lyric, and I liked it. I asked Mike, “Can you go to the studio and record the lyric to my song, so I can hear what it sounds like?” He tried to find a studio, and couldn’t find it. I said, “Can you play the CD that Tom Ranier recorded, and sing it on your iPhone?” He said, “Are you crazy?” I said “Just do it for me! I’m not going to play it for anybody!”

He sent it back to me; he’s a real good singer, so it sounded great. I sent it to Tom to hear, because he played piano in the background. Tom called me and said, “Terry, that’s a beautiful song. With the lyric added, it’s really beautiful. If I were to add some strings to the thing, I’ll show you what it would sound like.”

It sounded great, so I sent it to my son Gerry. He said, “Pops, I’ll add a little reverb to it to really give it a sound.” I swear, when I got it back from Gerry, it sounded like the first chorus of a record I’m starting. What was I going to do with it?

I called Neal Weiss, the owner of Whaling City Sound, [for whom] I recorded my last album, 92 Years Young. Gerry did 11 albums with him. I said, “Neal, I want you to hear this song.” 

He said, “You know something? That’s a pretty song. Are you going to do an album? What do you want to do?” I said, “Give me a budget,” he gave me a budget. I had Gerry, who’s really great with the costs for the engineer and studio. I had an amount of money, so I had to put music and musicians together.

LJN: How did vocalist Danny Bacher get involved?

TG: I wanted to get Neal involved. I said, “Do you have anyone on the label who can sing?” He sent me a record of this young guy, Danny Bacher. I’d never heard of him; he plays all the reeds, saxophone. But also, he’s an entertainer: he sings, he’s an actor, he does comedy.

But I wanted to hear what he sounded like, so I picked two tunes. I wanted to hear him on a swing [tune], and I wanted him to sing a ballad. I wanted him to sing [the standard] “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby.” If you can’t swing that, you should become a shoemaker.

That was good, and then [I heard him sing] a ballad, and it was real good. So, I called him and asked if he’d play on the record.

LJN: What do you appreciate about Bacher’s voice and approach? He brings a light touch and a sweetness that I connect with.

TG: You’ve got to understand one thing: these songs have never been sung by anybody. Let’s face it: some other singer could record “Because of You” or “My Way,” but they couldn’t help but steal a little Frank Sinatra or Tony Bennett.

Danny’s the first one to ever sing it. Of course, there’s a lyric there, but he’s going to [interpret] the lyric the way he feels about it. That’s the most important thing: you tell your story. I could tell the same story, and do it my way.

Whatever song you can think of that’s been recorded a million times by a hundred different singers, every one of them sang it different. They may have stolen a little bit from the original person, but they had their own way of singing it.

Tony Bennett sang the songs Frank Sinatra sang, but he sang it like Tony Bennett. These songs, nobody sang them before, so if anybody sings them by hearing these songs, they’re going to steal from Danny Bacher.

LJN: When you heard the news of Tony’s passing, what memories came to mind?

TG: I go back with Tony — maybe to 1944. Probably [1946], when I was 22. I met him when he was [under his previous stage name] Joe Bari. We used to have jam sessions. It was 25 cents an hour; we’d all chip in, and we’d have the studio for a few hours.

It was mostly jazz musicians — people who got well-known later on. But there were always two singers there — Joe Bari, who was Tony Bennett, and Harry Belafonte. They were trying to make Harry Belafonte into the next Billy Eckstine, because he was a light-skinned Black man — a really great-looking man. At that time, [that’s how] the world would accept you.

Sometimes, Tony would talk the first eight bars, and then go into the melody. And [while] he wasn’t a jazz musician, he loved jazz musicians. 

LJN: As somebody who’s played instrumental jazz for decades, what’s your relationship with lyrics? Are you picky about them? How do they fit into your equation?

TG: You know, Peggy Lee once said something to me. I was playing “You Go to My Head,” and she said, “Terry, if you want to play it better, learn the lyric.”When I write an instrumental, I’m not singing or thinking lyrics. I know all the theory backwards and forwards, so when I write my songs, I sit at the piano and find different kinds of chord changes. 

Harry Allen said it best when I thanked him for playing so well on [the new album]: “Well, you gave us chord changes that we could compose our own melodies on when we played.”

Those are the kinds of songs I write. I love “Stella by Starlight” because after I play the melody, I’m writing different songs after that, on the chord changes. With one chord change, you can play anything. The songs I write, you’ve got to play the chords, or you’re not playing the song.

LJN: From there, you have Scott Hamilton and Harry Allen on the double-tenor line. 

TG: I had to get what I was looking for, which was two saxophone players who sound like Zoot Sims and Al Cohn. I worked in the Woody Herman band with Stan Getz, Zoot Sims and Al Cohn, and in my band, I had Richie Kamuca, Bill Perkins… they all came from the Lester Young school, but played their own way.

I only know three saxophone players who play that way, but two of them I know a little bit. Harry Allen was on the same festival [once]: I used him in my Dream Band and he sounded great. So, I loved him, and Scott Hamilton — I love his playing. I called both of them, and they both agreed to play on the album.

When Harry first started, he sounded like Stan Getz, but he found himself. The same with Scott: one time, Scott sounded like Ben Webster. You keep playing — you copy and copy, and all of a sudden, you find yourself. And these two guys are now at the age where they’ve found themselves. Their playing on the album knocks me out.

Those two tenor players: I listen to it over and over, and I love their playing. Tom Ranier’s playing [too]. I hate to say it’s perfect, because nobody’s perfect. But it sounds so perfect when you hear one tenor follow the other tenor, and it sounds like one tenor player playing.

LJN: Let’s end on this topic of the tenor saxophone. Give me a memory from your time with Zoot, Al and Stan in the Woody Herman band. What were your relationships with these guys like?

TG: I worked with Stan, Zoot and Al in the Woody Herman band for a year. Every band has little cliques, where the guys will hang out. Mine was with Lou Levy — the piano player — and Stan Getz. The three of us would hang out together; we became very good friends.

Stan, Al and I knew each other from Brooklyn. Zoot and I: when I first joined the band, we didn’t get along for the first week or so, because every band in those days had a baseball team. I was very good with sports; I was very good as a boxer. I wanted to be a fighter. I also played baseball; as a shortstop, I was great.

So, when I joined Woody’s band, [bassist] Chubby Jackson was the leader of the baseball team. He said, “Whoever plays the best gets the job playing.” 

Zoot was the shortstop before I joined. We tried out, and I was much better. He didn’t like me for about two weeks! But when we started playing music together, it changed the whole thing. You know how music can bring people together.

BAND: Terry Gibbs, Scott Hamilton, Harry Allen, Tom Rainer, Danny Bacher, Mike Gurrola, Gerry Gibbs

LINKS: (*) Terry Gibbs’ website
Purchase The Terry Gibbs Songbook

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