Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Navarro, Fats (Theodore)

Theodore “Fats” Navarro played the trumpet with a clear, resonating tone at dizzying speeds. His command of scales, rhythm and range challenged other bebop strivers to reach new technical heights, but heroin and tuberculosis kept him from the acclaim he had earned.

Speaking of his musical admiration for Fats, Dizzy Gillespie once said, "Fats probably had the best attack of all of us - and attack is the nub, the essence of the trumpet."

Navarro was born on September 24, 1923, in Key West, Florida, which at the time was a way station for expatriate Cuban revolutionaries and other migrants from around the world. Of mixed African, Cuban and Chinese descent, he was born at the end of Key West’s cigar-producing boom.

As a child he endured the privations of the Great Depression and hurricane devastation, but his early years were also rife with music, a local mix of Afro-Cuban and jazz. Navarro’s father, Teodoro, was a barber during the day and a pianist at night.

Young Theodore began to play his father’s piano around age six. He moved on to trumpet lessons at age thirteen, but his first noted professional appearances were in 1939 on the tenor saxophone, when he appeared with the Walter Johnson band in Miami.

During and after high school, Navarro emulated bold trumpet soloists like Erskine Hawkins and Dud Bascomb. He left Key West for good on April 14, 1941 with his close friend and fellow trumpeter, Leonard Graham (who later took the name Idrees Sulieman), turning up at a large jam session in Orlando, Florida.

In Orlando, Navarro quickly joined pianist Sol Albright’s band for a tour that ended up in Cincinnati. He then moved over to Snookum Russell’s band, which was based in Indianapolis, and his repertoire of Dud Bascomb solos, which were very popular at the onset of World War II, was a natural fit for the ensemble.

Touring with Russell’s band in 1942, Navarro became friends with Indianapolis native trombonist J.J. Johnson, who was almost as fast on the slide as Navarro was on the valves. And, like many touring musicians, Navarro had a voracious appetite – he quickly gained what was known as a “bus butt,” which earned him the nickname “Fats” or "Fat Lady."

Playing in the band, which later cultivated the talents of bassist Ray Brown, Fats began to fashion his solos after the sophisticated approach of Roy Eldridge, who was experimenting with tritone harmonies, and the melodic expressions of Charlie Shavers. The Shavers family was also from Key West, and Charlie was a third cousin to Fats.

In late 1943, Fats moved to Kansas City and joined Andy Kirk and His 12 Clouds of Joy. Kirk’s band, a small swing orchestra, had headlined at the Pla-Mor Ballroom since 1929, but by Fats’ time, the band had taken to the road. In the band, Navarro struck up a friendship with another forward-thinking trumpeter, Howard “Maggie” McGhee, and before the end of that year both were in New York City with Kirk, performing at the Apollo, and jamming with other harmonic explorers at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem.

A year later, when Dizzy Gillespie decided to leave the band led by vocalist Billy Eckstine, he advised Eckstine that Fats Navarro would make an ideal replacement. Years later, Eckstine noted the transition to Leonard Feather, who was editing his comments for his Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz: "A week or two after Navarro had joined us, you'd hardly know Diz had left the band."

Eckstine’s was the first full band to make the transition from swing to bop, and served as a crucible for the talents of, among others, Dizzy Gillespie, Kenny Dorham Miles Davis. Fats made a number of recordings with the band over the next year and a half. He can be heard soloing on the tune Tell Me Pretty Baby, recorded by National Records in 1946 and re-released by Savoy on the 2-CD set The Legendary Band of Billy Eckstine in 2002.

While the Eckstine band is remembered now for its outstanding lineup of up and coming African-American jazz greats, at the time Eckstine had to focus on commercial vocal recordings, in order to keep the band afloat. Wishing to concentrate on his musical explorations, Fats refused to accompany the band when Eckstine left for California in June of 1946.

Navarro had always been top-notch musician, a natural sight-reader, a virtuoso with clear articulation at all ranges, who could solo like lightening with fast staccato riffs or heel to the warmth of a smoky ballad. He was known to make every note count, which meant a lot to the bebop originators of the late 1940s.

It was no surprise that over the next few years Fats recorded prolifically with a who's who of bebop, including trumpeters McGhee, Davis, Red Rodney, saxophonists Charlie Parker, Illinois Jacquet, Sonny Stitt, Dexter Gordon,Coleman Hawkins, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, Sonny Rollins, and others, drummers Buddy Rich, Kenny Clarke, Art Blakey and Max Roach, and pianists Hank Jones and Bud Powell, with whom he recorded "Wail" in August of 1949.

But it was Tadd Dameron, a pianist, writer and arranger, who teamed with Fats to produce his most notable recordings, in between September 1947 and April 1949. While it’s hard to single out a single LP or original tune to exemplify the importance of this pairing, one compilation stands out. The Complete Blue Note and Capitol Recordings of Fats Navarro and Tadd Dameron, a two-disc CD compilation of re-mastered tunes put together by Blue Note in 1995, contains Dameron originals like Lady Bird, The Chase and Boperation, which served as perfect showcases for Navarro's remarkable talents. Another fine example of this is "Nostalgia," recorded on December 5, 1947.

During these years, Fats also teamed up with bassist Charles Mingus and later with vibraphonist, drummer and bandleader Lionel Hampton. Fluent in Spanish, Navarro also jammed at Latin clubs in New York City, and played with Afro-Cuban percussionists on the 1949 recordings of Tadd Dameron’s Jahbero and Casbah from the album Out of Nowhere.

Also in 1949, Fats performed with at Carnegie Hall with Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic, won Metronome Magazine's award for best trumpet, and came in fourth in Down Beat Magazine's Reader’s Poll. But rather than bask in this acclaim, by that time Fats was already afflicted by an addiction to heroin. Overweight and drained of health by narcotics addiction, he came down with an acute case of tuberculosis.

In a tragic irony, Fats played his last gig at New York's Birdland with the most legendary jazz addict of all, Charlie Parker, on May 21, 1950. Less than two months later, Fats died on July 6 at Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan. He was 26 years old.

In 1982, Fats Navarro was elected by a panel of international jazz critics into the Down Beat Hall of Fame.

On September 24th, 2002, "Fats Navarro Day" was declared in Linden, New Jersey, where he is buried. A large headstone was erected that day in Fats’ honor, paid for from funds collected by his surviving daughter, Linda, and by Pace University professor Stuart A. Varden, who is considered to be one of the top authorities on Navarro's career. Among the notable trumpet players who performed at a dedication concert held that night were John Faddis and Clark Terry.

Selected Discography

Fats Navarro, Goin' To Minton's, (1946, 1947) re-released collection by Savoy/Atlantic, 1999

Fats Navarro Memorial – Fats – Bud – Klook – Sonny – Kinney, (1946-47) original LP re-released by Savoy, 1993.

Fats Navarro and Tadd Dameron, The Complete Blue Note and Capitol Recordings, (1947 to 1949) re-released collection by Blue Note, 1995

The Fabulous Fats Navarro, Vol. 1, (1947) re-released collection by Blue Note, 2004

Fats Navarro, Featured With The Tadd Dameron Band, (1948), original LP re-released by Milestone, 1977

Bird and Fats—Live at Birdland, 1950, Cool and Blue, 1950.

Contributor: Dave Krikorian