Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Fontana, Carl (Carl Charles Fontana)

Few trombonists have been able to convey the air of effortlessness in improvisation that was Carl Fontana's signature style. Fontana developed a technique for playing rapid-fire passages he dubbed "doodle-tonguing," which changed the way the instrument was played in jazz after bebop. Fontana combined this technical prowess with a tasteful sense of restrained passion and humor, which won over many jazz fans throughout his career.

Fontana was born in Monroe, Louisiana on July 18, 1928. His father, Callie Fontana, was a saxophonist and local bandleader who encouraged the boy to begin his musical studies at an early age. His father supported his family and his passion for music by working as a plumber during the Great Depression. Fontana joined his father's band on trombone at age 13.

Despite Fontana's interest in athletics and other nonmusical endeavors, his father insisted that he focus primarily on his work in the band. He continued with his father's group for four years before leaving to attend college at Louisiana State University, where he earned his Bachelor's of Music Education in 1950.

Fontana planned to continue on for a Master's degree at LSU, but his fortunes turned in 1951 when the Woody Herman band was in residence at the Blue Room in New Orleans. The band's virtuoso trombonist, Urbie Green, needed to take a three-week leave of absence to be with his pregnant wife in New York. Fontana, who at the time was only known locally as a trombone phenom, stepped in to play with Herman for the week. Saxophonist Dick Hafer remembers Fontana joining the band backstage and confidently letting them know that he was "there to replace Urbie Green," resulting in a roar of laughter from the band, not believing that he was serious.

Woody Herman was so impressed with Fontana's performances that week that he offered him a permanent job with the band. The trombonist abandoned his studies at LSU and toured with Herman for the next two years. These years with Herman also gave Fontana his first opportunity to record, and he soon became known in the jazz trombone community as one of its most exciting soloists, another player on the scene then dominated by J.J. Johnson.

After two years touring with Herman, Fontana went on to work briefly with Lionel Hampton before joining Hal McIntyre for a year from 1954-55. In 1955 he joined Stan Kenton, where he became much better known as a soloist and rising star in the jazz world. "The Thrill Is Gone" is a good example of his early work with Kenton.

Fontana's star rose dramatically, however, with the consecutive releases of Kenton in Hi-Fi and Cuban Fire. His solos on "Intermission Riff" and "Recuerdos" in particular caught the attention of jazz fans. He can also be heard on "Eager Beaver" from Hi-Fi, as well as "La Guera Baila" and "Fuego Cubano" from Cuban Fire! "Carl" and "Polka Dots and Moonbeams" were two other works that Kenton used as feature vehicles for Fontana's virtuosic solo playing.

Despite being a featured soloist with Kenton, Fontana felt that his proclivity for jazz improvisation was outgrowing the restrictions of the big band setting. However, he received pair of lucrative offers that kept him playing with larger ensembles for awhile longer. In 1956, he joined fellow Kenton alum Kai Winding's septet, which featured four trombones and a rhythm section. He also subbed for Bill Harris in the Woody Herman band in 1957.

In 1957, he finally left the big band scene and moved to Las Vegas, Nevada. He played in a number of the local show bands there, but more important, played a lot of small group jazz in after-hours sessions at Tender Trap, The Colonial and the Palms. Out of the mainstream spotlight, Fontana continued to expand his improvisational vocabulary and technique, becoming known as one of the best under-the-radar jazz musicians of his era.

Although he spent most of the rest of his career in Las Vegas, Fontana did leave for a number of notable performances. In 1966, he joined Woody Herman and other alumni of the band for a European tour sponsored by the U.S. State Department. Later that year, the band played at the Monterey Jazz Festival and toured Ireland in 1968. He also participated in many of the jazz parties first hosted by Dick Gibson in Colorado in the 1960s and 1970s.

In 1973, Fontana began a two-year association with Supersax, followed by a period in which he co-led the Hanna/Fontana Band with drummer Jake Hanna. He also toured and recorded with the World's Greatest Jazz Band. His 1978 collaboration with fellow trombone virtuoso Frank Rosolino in Vancouver led to the excellent live recording Trombone Heaven, Vancouver 1978 released under Rosolino's name and featuring both at the height of their powers. In the late 1970s, Fontana joined Georgie Auld for a tour of Japan.

Despite having established himself as one of the most talented and innovative trombonists of his generation, Fontana did not record an album as a leader until the 1985 release of The Great Fontana, in which he leads a quintet featuring longtime associate Al Cohn on tenor sax, Ray Drummond on bass, Richard Wyands on piano and Akira Tana on drums. "I Thought About You" is one track from the album that shows Fontana's trademark taste and skill on a standard that he performed frequently throughout his career. The performance demonstrates Fontana's light tough, technical brilliance in double-time phrasing and a subtle sense of humor. He also doesn't steal the spotlight, deferring to Cohn for parts of the melody even though this is his first solo recording after a 30-year career.

Fontana gained exposure to the national audience again in the 1980s, appearing regularly on the PBS television show Monday Night Jazz. He retired from his work with Las Vegas show bands in the late 1980s, but continued touring as a freelance soloist. His 1997 recording Nice 'N' Easy with trombonist Jiggs Whigham is an excellent example of his later work. In 2000, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, which quickly forced him to stop playing. He passed away on October 10, 2003 due to complications from the illness.

Contributor: Alex W. Rodriguez