In the 10-inch jazz LP era between 1952 and 1955, record companies were hungry for arrangers who could write for small groups. With the longer recording format, labels needed to fill out albums without breaking the bank on large bands. So they sought out arrangers who could make 5 to 10 instruments swing and sound twice that size. The best of these small-group arrangers included Dave Pell, Lennie Niehaus, Gigi Gryce, Bill Holman, Manny Albam and Gerry Mulligan. One name you probably don't know is Jack Martin, a trumpeter in a quintet and sextet led by Al Belletto, a clarinetist who could play all reed instruments equally well. [Above, Al Belletto]
Like all labels during this period of rapidly changing technology and downsized groups, Capitol needed an inside track on artists who could record flawlessly. To assist the label, Stan Kenton started a West Coast jazz-album series in 1954 for Capitol called "Kenton Presents Jazz" and scouted talent inside and outside his band. The "Kenton Presents" series would last a year and result in 14 albums before Britain's EMI bought Capitol in 1955 and discontinued the line.
One of the bands Kenton signed for his series was the Al Belletto Quintet. Kenton first heard the group in Buffalo, N.Y., in late November 1954 and recorded them in Chicago just weeks later. What made the group special, in addition to their deft playing skills and ability to double on instruments, was Martin's arrangements. Not only could he write swinging pocket-sized charts, he also could pen tight vocal arrangements. The quintet's gimmick on the road at clubs like Chicago's Blue Note and Hollywood's Crescendo was that they could both play and sing tight harmonies like the Four Freshmen. For Kenton and Capitol, that was like getting two groups for the price of one.
The quintet's first ablum for Capitol was Sounds and Songs. The group was comprised of Martin (tp,fhr), Jimmy Guinn (tb), Belletto (as,bar), Fred Crane (p,bar) and Charles McKnight (d)—with Chubby Jackson (b) added for the session. For the remaining album sessions in 1955, bassist Skip Fawcett (b) joined the group, making it a sextet. According to the liner notes, Martin appears on just four of the tracks on Sounds and Songs due to illness at the time—Russ Job; I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good; Jeepers Creepers and Sorry, Gone Number. Also of note is March, Jazz, Fugue, which was written by Johnny Mandel and arranged by Martin.
Belletto was born in New Orleans and earned a masters degree in music from Louisiana State University. He played with Wingy Manone, Louis Prima and others when they performed in New Orleans. After assembling a quintet and recording for Capitol, the sextet toured in '55. [Above, Al Belletto]
In the mid-1950s, Belletto's group played colleges as part of a drive by Associated Booking to package jazz groups for campus entertainment. The sextet joined Woody Herman for a State Department tour in 1958 and '59, and then Belletto returned to New Orleans in the early 1960s to become the musical director of the city's Playboy Club.
In addition to Sounds and Songs, Belletto and his sextet recorded Half and Half and Whisper Not for Capitol and accompanied vocalist Jerri Winters on Somebody Loves Me for Bethlehem. Belletto appears on Woody Herman's Herman's Heat & Puente's Beat for Everest Records in 1958, and he recorded The Big Sound in 1961 for King records.
Born in 1928, Belletto appears to be still with us.
JazzWax tracks: You'll find Al Belletto's Sounds and Songs here and Half and Half here. The group accompanies Jerri Winters on Somebody Loves Me here, and Belletto is on Woody Herman's album with Tito Puente here.
JazzWax clips: Here's Johnny Mandel's March, Jazz and Fugue, with Jack Martin's arrangement...
And I Was the Last One to Know...
A special thanks to David Langner.
For a list of "Kenton Presents Jazz" releases, go here.