Jazz Professional               



Talking in 1964

Hawdon: Well, Rolf, as they say in interviews—how did it all start?

Ericson: I started out when I was approximately eight years old, in the school band—in Sweden, of course. Then I heard Louis Armstrong and—this was around 1930—Duke Ellington for the first time. So I tried more and more to play jazz. From working around as an amateur, I eventually got in to the professional side of it.

Hawdon: My first professional playing was in traditional bands—Dixieland to you. I can still slip reasonably naturally back into the idiom.

Ericson: I’ve never been involved with that style, but I’ve done just about every kind of work you can imagine, so far—everything from ice shows to circus bands.

Hawdon: That’s one I haven’t done—but I’ve no doubt it’ll be coming up very shortly, the way things are going! Those circus trumpet players really earn their money, too.

Ericson: I’ve worked the Bop Hope Show, marching bands, Lester Lanin—and with all the bands there are. Everything possible.

Hawdon: Was it because you were interested in progressing professionally that you went to America? Had you realised that you’d come up against some sort of stone wall?

Ericson: Yes, that’s right—I did. I went there in 1947, when I was 25, for the sole purpose of music. And in such bands as Benny Carter, Benny Goodman, Charlie Barnet and Woody Herman I had to progress. At first it meant changing my whole approach to playing. Practically, I had to go to school again.

Hawdon: Before you were ever in the Ellington band, did you think about it the way I do—as a sort of dictionary of big band jazz?

Ericson: I think it’s the dictionary of music—period. Definitely. Duke Ellington is like Debussy or anybody else in the Classical field.

Hawdon: I believe it was Clark Terry who suggested you, wasn’t it?

Ericson: Well, actually, I was hired about three years before I got on the band. You see, at the time Clark Terry left the band and went into NBC, Duke called me up and said Clark had recommended me. He hired me, we agreed on a salary—and that’s as far as it got. All of a sudden Duke was in Paris. I said: “I’ll hear from him soon—some day.” But the time went on, and nothing happened. Then Duke came back, and I had a sudden call at my hotel to say they were leaving in two hours for a ten-day road trip. I just couldn’t go with them then, because I was now contracted to Maynard Ferguson—and we were going out that same day.

The next thing I knew was one day when I was playing a session with Gerry Mulligan’s band. Clark, for whom I was substituting, came running down and said: “Do you know the band bus has left?” I said: “What band bus?” He said: “Duke—they were looking all over for you.” Eventually, I gave my notice and left the Ferguson band, figuring: “I’m going with Duke Ellington.” I got to New York, called Duke up and I said: “Here I am—I’m ready.” Duke said: “Oh no\ I’m sorry, Rolf, I’ve hired too many trumpet players now. Cat Anderson just came back.” So there I was—out of a job.

When they called me back from the band I had just signed to go on a State Department trip with Buddy Rich, so it was my turn to say “Sorry” again. Next time—I was doing very well in New York, and I decided I didn’t want to go out on the road. Finally, things began to slacken up a little and, when they asked me, I joined the band.

Hawdon: I’ve heard some marvellous stories about the state of the parts, though I don’t think they could be any worse than some of mine.

Ericson: I had to figure out my own parts, really. And it takes time. Some parts aren’t there, so you have to do a little guesswork here and there about what the notes are. You have to feel the music. There’s three or four months of confusion before you even know what’s going to happen next.

Hawdon: I don’t imagine the parts tested your technical skill too much. Not like the Ferguson band, for instance.

Ericson: Not really, but that’s such a different field. Duke’s band is more of an emotional affair. You have to have a good quality of sound and a good feeling for music, you know—more than just the mechanical requirements.   It takes a natural musician to play with this band.

Hawdon: I enjoyed your feature on “Perdido.” Have you been playing flugelhorn for long?

Ericson: Only about 2½ years. It took me two or three months to get familiar with the horn. Then I fell in love with it.

Hawdon: Lovely instrument, isn’t it? And a lot less work than a trumpet.

Ericson: Yes, you don’t have to play loud on high notes.

Hawdon: It’s not as flexible as trumpet —and the range is very small in comparison. I was playing it all the time when I first had it. I don’t think I touched the trumpet for about a year. That was with the Don Rendell Sextet in 1954. Ronnie Ross was in the group. He’d just taken up baritone. We found that tenor, baritone and flugelhorn was a much easier blend. It’s like a trumpet with a bucket, slightly, isn’t it? After that, when I came back to trumpet—I really found it hard graft.

Ericson: It’s funny—I found I was recording more with flugelhorn than trumpet in New York. I started playing it more or less for my own personal kicks. And all of a sudden I was getting most work on it. Have you heard of Dan Terry’s band? I did quite a lot of work and recording with him around New York. He used four sopranos, five saxophones, flugelhorn and four trombones.

Hawdon: It’s hard to get four soprano saxophones in tune, isn’t it?

Ericson: It was terrible. But they sounded beautiful on the recordings.

Hawdon: You can play a flugelhorn with other instruments, whereas a trumpet nearly always sticks out a bit.

Ericson: It blends better, and it fits very good with ballads and pretty things.

Hawdon: One big difference between your work and mine is the touring aspect. There aren’t any bands actually touring over here now. It’s not a business proposition any more. For instance, this weekend I’m staying out of town one night—and it’s only about the second occasion this year. I haven’t been away from home more than three nights in fourteen months.

Ericson: Really? That’s  marvellous. That’ll never happen in the States. I’ve been lucky in that respect. Since I’ve been on the band we’ve made several State Department tours. On the first one we were five weeks in Sweden—a free trip home.

Hawdon: Did you notice any great changes in the scene there?

Ericson: I’ve been back quite a few times, but these last two years it’s been very disappointing musically. I was part of that big movement in the ‘forties, when there was so much enthusiasm among the musicians. I think you must have had the same thing here in England.

Hawdon: Of course, you don’t realise at the time what’s happening. It’s only afterwards that you look back and see what it all was.

Ericson: You come back and see the rock ‘n’ rollers there with their guitars, and you realise how the whole picture has changed.

Hawdon: Later you took some part in the West Coast movement, didn’t you?

Ericson: Well, when Shorty Rogers’ band left the Lighthouse in California we came in with a new band in his place. Max Roach was the drummer. We took over the scene of the old people, who had been there about four years at that time.

Hawdon: Would you say you helped .to bring in a more hard-blowing approach?

Ericson: I think we did. But I was kind of confused in those early days. I hadn’t found myself. I didn’t know where I was going, really. Because there was a certain way of playing out there—and if you didn’t play like that you weren’t really accepted. And I couldn’t fit into that at all.

Hawdon: Did you do any studio work while you were in Hollywood?

Ericson: No, I wanted to get into that, but I didn’t. I tried my best—but I failed some way along the line. I think it was more political than musical, actually.

Hawdon: Yes, there’s a lot of people failing to get into it over here, too.

Ericson: I know. That whole situation isn’t based upon artistic merit, talent or anything. It’s based on who you know, which contractor happens to take a fancy to you, and how long you’ve been in that business. The same set-up exists in New York basically, too.

Hawdon: One comforting thought is that most of our top session trumpet players in this country were very good jazz players at one time or another.

Ericson: That’s true. But then, when you try to get into studio work they usually stamp you as a jazz player—and that’s thumbs down on what you can do. If you’re known as a jazz player you don’t get studio work.

Hawdon: I wouldn’t say that it’s quite that fierce over here, though I do know what you mean, because I’ve had the tag on me, too.

Ericson: I’ve had people say to me: “I thought you just wanted to go out and blow somewhere. I didn’t know you were interested in playing this kind of music.” But a trumpet player is a trumpet player.

Hawdon: Though I haven’t seen America, I did see New York when I went over to do the Newport Festival with John’s band. On the whole, I don’t think I’d care to live and work there.

Ericson: Well, it sort of grows on you, and you find your place. But the pace is extremely fast. You can’t just sit home and wait for the ‘phone to ring. You have to go to this bar and this bar and this bar. And you have to drink in all these bars, and meet everybody every day during the whole week. You have to be seen on the scene—it has to be known that you’re in town, and available. Also, you have to be at the right place at the right time. If luck is with you, you make it. If not—you can still hang around. And you can get pretty drunk, too.

Hawdon: It’s not really the same here. People ought to go around and meet one another, but there are no specific places.

Ericson: In New York we have four or five places where all the musicians go. On 48th Street they have Jim ‘n’ Andy’s. All the working musicians get together there. In there and you’ll see dark Terry, Gerry Mulligan, Zoot Sims—everybody you can name in the recording field. You have to know the schedule of these bars to get to see any particular man. Maybe some contractor will be there, and all of a sudden a job will come up. They’ll say: “Any trumpet players around?”, and if you happen to be there you can get your horn and go to the session. That’s happened to me a lot of times. But it’s so competitive —because there are so many good musicians around that can sit down and play anything.

Hawdon: That’s the thing. You’ve got to get yourself in a position where you don’t care what it is—you can just go and sit down, knowing very well that you’re going to make a damn’ good job of it.

Ericson: And there’s no excuse if you don’t. If you fail one time—you’re out for another two years. You not only have to make it the first time—you have to do a better job with the parts than the other guy.  Of course, there’s hundreds and thousands of bad players around, but there’s still a huge supply of good players. But this does you good, I think. The competition forces you to make yourself the best. You have to practise and study. If you want a certain thing it’s up to you to go out and get it.

Hawdon: The question is whether it becomes simply a calculated commercial matter. I mean, you always start off playing because you like it, and for no other reason. I know lots of people who don’t like it now—I’m not one of them.

Ericson: Unluckily, after a while it becomes business too much. I guess it has to, because you have to make a living, too.

Hawdon: Yes, that’s the main drawback about the whole thing.

Ericson: That’s the worst part of it. When you’re working in a band it becomes just work at times. Other times it’s a lot more than that.

Hawdon: It certainly has its magic moments.

Ericson: That’s why we stay in music, isn’t it?