Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Morton, Benny (Henry Sterling)

Benny Morton's consistent excellence on the trombone made him one of the few pioneers of jazz on his instrument to enjoy a long and successful career. Starting as a teenager with Fletcher Henderson, Morton brought the feeling of swing and improvisation to his smooth trombone sound. Early on, his style mirrored that of Henderson bandmate Jimmy Harrison. His musical vocabluary matured, however, as he took his trombone playing into the Swing Era, most notably as one of the stalwarts of the Count Basie Orchestra.

Morton's trombone sound is characterized by a wide range and facility in all parts of the instrument, a soft, smooth tone and roots in the early "hot" trombone styles that sometimes feature glissandi and blues effects. Morton was also an excellent "tailgate" player when the situation called for it, as was the case later in his career when he performed with a number of Dixieland revival leaders such as trumpeters Buck Clayton and Roy Eldridge.

However, he also possessed an advanced musical vocabulary, control and finesse which made him a featured part of a number of swing-era ensembles including those led by Count Basie, Don Redman and Henry "Red" Allen. For example, he was one of the first trombonists to employ chromatic passing tones in his solos.

Born on January 31, 1907, Morton received his early musical training at New York City's Textile High School. He began gigging around New York with friends from school, and at 17 received an offer to play with Billy Fowler's Orchestra. His next big break came with Fletcher Henderson in 1926, where he was soon joined in the trombone section by Jimmy Harrison. Harrison, Morton's senior by seven years, brought a unique style of improvisation after which Morton began to shape his own trombone style.

Morton was later replaced by "Big" Charlie Green, who was known as the king of the New York scene on trombone and also surely influenced Morton during this time. Two examples of Morton's work with Henderson include "Whiteman Stomp" and "Variety Stomp," although Harrison is featured during the brief trombone solos.

After his first stint with Henderson ended in 1928, Morton found a job with drummer Chick Webb. He worked with Webb for three years. After Harrison's death in 1931, Morton was understood as the heir apparent to his pioneering work on the trombone. He left Chick Webb to take Harrison's old place with Fletcher Henderson.

A year later, he began working with fellow Henderson alumnus Don Redman. Morton also led his own studio band in 1934, producing such recordings as "Fare-Thee-Well To Harlem" and "We're In the Money," which also feature him as a trombone soloist. Another example of his work with Redman can be found on "Chant of the Weed," recorded in 1931.

In 1935, Morton began a long association with pianist Teddy Wilson. Their first recording session also featured Billie Holiday singing songs such as "Yankee Doodle Never Went to Town." He stayed primarily with Redman, however, until 1937, when he left to join Count Basie.

Morton's stint with Basie lasted until 1940, coinciding with the peak of the "Old Testament" Basie band. The group featured a number of other outstanding sidemen including Jimmy Rushing, Eddie Durham, Dicky Wells, Lester Young, Hershel Evans, Walter Page, Jo Jones, Freddie Green, Buck Clayton and Harry "Sweets" Edison. Examples of brief solos can be heard about halfway through the band's 1939 recordings of "Miss Thing" and "Bolero at the Savoy." Morton was only occasionally called to solo in this group; he is mostly heard as a member of the trombone section that included Wells, Durham and Dan Minor. This group recorded extensively and quickly came to be known as one of the most successful acts of the Swing Era.

In 1940, Morton left Basie to record and tour with Teddy Wilson's group. This association lasted until 1944. Morton also performed regularly with Joe Sullivan's band at the newly-opened Cafe Society in New York City during this period. He also recorded with Zutty Singleton, Eddie Condon and Henry "Red" Allen. In 1944, Wilson disbanded his group and Morton joined Edmond Hall's sextet.

Morton had another opportunity to lead his own band in 1944, also at Café Society. He also recorded an interesting series of recordings with three other trombonists, showcasing his pure tone and comfort in the upper register. "Sliphorn Outing" features an especially virtuosic solo, and his superb treatment of "My Old Flame" is a likely inspiration for JJ Johnson's famous 1957 recording of the ballad. 1944 also saw the beginning of Morton's career as a trombonist in a number of Broadway shows, starting with Memphis Bound. He later played in a number of other hit Broadway shows including St. Louis Woman in 1946, Lend An Ear in 1948, Regina in 1949 and Guys and Dolls,which ran from 1950 to 1953.

Once Broadway became Morton's main gig, he stopped any long-term associations with specific groups but recorded often as a sideman. One particularly notable gig came at the 1948 jam session in Washington, DC with Charlie Parker billed as "Dixieland vs. Bebop." Morton, in the Dixieland camp, joins Parker on the final number, C Jam Blues. Other notable leaders include Allen, Charlie Shavers, Rex Stewart, Roy Eldridge, Buck Clayton and Ben Webster. He also appeared with Count Basie and many other jazz legends on the 1957 CBS television program The Sound of Jazz. He continued to work on Broadway until 1959.

Later in his career, Morton continued to make his living in music. He prided himself on this fact, boasting in a 1969 Down Beat interview, "I've never had a day job, never did anything that was a physical task." After leaving Broadway he found work with a number of traditional jazz groups, subbing often for friend and fellow ex-Basie trombonist Vic Dickenson. He eventually replaced Dickenson with Saints and Sinners, and also worked with Wild Bill Davidson's Jazz Giants, Sy Oliver's nonet and Ray Nance's group. In 1964, he toured Africa with Paul Taubman as a part of the State Department jazz diplomacy program. From 1973-74, Morton worked with the World's Greatest Jazz Band.

Morton became ill after his stint with the World's Greatest Jazz Band and was forced to stop playing three years. He resumed his musical career in 1977, recording with Earl Hines and appearing regularly on Art Hodes's television show. Unfortunately, health issues continued to limit him, and he passed away on December 28, 1985 due to complications from pneumonia.

Select Discography:

As a leader:

Benny Morton Complete Jazz Series 1934-1945 (Classics 906)

This compilation features all of the recordings that Morton recorded as a bandleader: his 1934 sessions, his work with a trombone quartet in 1944, and his session with Ben Webster in 1945. Most of the recordings feature Morton prominently as a soloist. "Conversing in Blue" shows how he derived much of his style from Charlie Green and Jimmy Harrison.

With Fletcher Henderson:

The Chronological Fletcher Henderson 1926-1927 (Classics 597)

Benny Morton's earliest recordings, although Jimmy Harrison is usually the featured trombonist.

Fletcher Henderson 1927(Classics 580)

Again, Harrison is featured whenever there is a trombone solo, but Morton appears as the only trombonist on tracks 7, 8, 18 and 19 and is featured briefly.

Fletcher Henderson 1927-1931 (Classics 572)

More of Morton's work with Henderson: Morton is the only trombonist on the first three tracks, and again with Harrison in the trombone section on tracks 4 and 5. Track 6, "Hop Off," was one of the few dates where he played alongside "Big" Charlie Green.

Fletcher Henderson Complete Jazz Series 1931 (Classics 555)

These recordings document the Henderson band immediately after Harrison's death and show how Morton emerged from his shadow to make some fine records. "Sugar Foot Stomp" and "Comin' and Going" are Morton's best solos on the compilation.

With Don Redman:

Don Redman & His Orchestra 1936-1939 (Classics 574)

Tracks 1-13 feature much of Morton's work with Redman as a member of the three-piece trombone section (w/ Quentin Jackson and Gene Simon). He has a brief solo on "Bugle Call Rag."

With Count Basie:

The Complete Decca Recordings (Decca, 1992)

This box set features the complete recordings of the "Old Testament" Basie band, including all of Morton's time with the ensemble.

With Roy Eldridge:

Swing Goes Dixie (Verve, 1956)

Another great set featuring traditional jazz standards and Morton at the top of his game, especially heard on "Bugle Call Rag."

With Buck Clayton:

Jammin' At Eddie Condon's (Moon, 1960)

This live recording with Buck Clayton is a good example of Morton's post-Broadway work in the Dixieland revival scene. He plays with incredible energy and takes great solos throughout the record.

Contributor: Alex W. Rodriguez