Bill De Arango

Bill De Arango, the guitarist who died at eighty-five the day after Christmas, might have become famous. While his colleagues Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie invited audiences into the new territory they had all opened together, he left New York in 1948 and went home to Cleveland. The next generation of guitarists, which included Jimmy Raney and Tal Farlow, gained followings that De Arango helped make possible. Even his contemporary Remo Palmier, who stayed on the New York scene longer, was better known. But considering his short time in the big leagues, De Arango appears on a surprising number of records.
His playing was characterized by technical skill, digital speed and canny application of harmonic understanding to create memorable melodic inventions. With Parker and Gillespie, De Arango was a part of Sarah Vaughan’s first recordings under her own name, but did not solo on them. A few days later in the spring of 1945, he recorded with bassist Slam Stewart’s quintet, which included Red Norvo and Johnny Guarnieri. With daring intervals in his improvised lines, on the Stewart sides De Arango bridged the divide between swing and bebop, notably in ”On the Upside Looking Down.” After recording in the swing mainstream with saxophonists Charlie Kennedy and Ike Quebec—both in 1945—he joined Gillespie’s seven-piece band for recordings that accelerated the pace of bebop’s acceptance. De Arango’s choruses on “Anthropology,” “Ol’ Man Rebop” and particularly his luminous solo on the second take of “52nd Street Theme” demonstrated why Gillespie, Milt Jackson, Al Haig and Don Byas, the other soloists on that landmark RCA Victor date in early 1946, accepted him as a peer.
De Arango appeared on four Trummy Young sides the trombonist cut in April, 1946. In May, two weeks apart, came two magnificent recording sessions that De Arango and the magisterial tenor saxophonist Ben Webster split as leaders. De Arango’s sextet session was a swing-to-bop transitional affair with Sid Catlett on drums, bassist John Simmons, clarinetist Tony Scott and trumpeter Idrees Sulieman, then still known as Leonard Graham. Argonne Thornton (aka Sadik Hakkim) was the pianist. Webster’s quartet date had the same rhythm section, except that Haig, another bop pioneer, took over the piano. De Arango and Webster made a glorious team and produced eight tracks that are among the best from a period when musicians of different styles and races mixed without a thought for the phony war some critics were promoting between bop and all other jazz. “I Got it Bad and That Ain’t Good” and “Blues Mister Brim” are sterling examples of the empathy between the two. Both sessions are reissued under Webster’s name.
De Arango next recorded with Eddie Davis, in the days before Davis appended the nickname “Lockjaw.” They did two blues and two “I Got Rhythm” variants, typical of quick record dates, with superior solos from De Arango. A favorite of tenor players, he was soon back in a studio with Webster, Scott, Haig, Simmons, Catlett and Sulieman for four septet sides under his own name on the Signature label. They seem never to have been reissued. In March, 1947, he joined Charlie Ventura in an all-star group with trumpeter Charlie Shavers, trombonist Bill Harris, pianist Ralph Burns, drummer Dave Tough, and bassist Chubby Jackson. They recorded four tracks, including “Stop and Go,” with De Arango’s electrifying solo the very definition of early bebop fleetness. A week later, the same group with Curley Russell on bass and Sid Catlett spelling Tough on one piece, played a concert at Carnegie Hall. It was recorded, but the only CD reissue seems to be in a gigantic Jazz At The Philharmonic box.
By 1948, De Arango was back in Cleveland. He opened a music store. He gave lessons. He continued to play—brilliantly, by all accounts—until illness prevented it in his last few years, but he was out of the spotlight, rarely recording. In 1954 he made a ten-inch LP using Stan Getz’s rhythm section of pianist John Williams, bassist Teddy Kotick and drummer Art Mardigan. It has not been reissued. De Arango returned to New York for a short time in the late 1960s and early 1970s, playing what his Cleveland colleague tenor saxophonist Ernie Krivda described as “heavy metal jazz.” An album he recorded in 1993 with Joe Lovano as a sideman gives the flavor of his playing in that period. But it was his dazzling work of the mid-forties that made him a model for other guitarists. If you follow the links in this posting, you’ll find nearly everything De Arango recorded when his talent flowered during a vital phase of jazz history.

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