Warren Vaché: From Manhattan to Scotland
by Ed Berger
“Iʼve had people say to me itʼs a great record but itʼs not a jazz record. I just wanted to make the best music I could with the best people.”
The elder Vaché was a traditionalist “My father thought the tenor saxophone had no place in jazz!” Warren jokes. “When I started bringing home Miles and Clifford Brown records, he didnʼt throw them out of the house, but we would have some vibrant discussions over dinner as to the validity of this stuff.”
It was his father who steered Warren to the trumpet. “When I was 7, they started an instrumental program in the local schools and I had to decide what I wanted to play. I thought Iʼd play the bass because we already had one sitting in the corner. But the old man said,ʼNah! If you play the bass the rest of the guys donʼt even bother to tell you what key youʼre in. Youʼre the forgotten man. Play the trumpet-youʼll get more work.
By the time he entered college at Montclair State in 1969, he was able to support himself as a musician: “Most of the time I worked at Your Fatherʼs Mustache, which was sing-along stuff with banjos and striped vests. Somehow I hooked up with the local Polish bands, so instead of dating, Iʼd be doing six weddings a weekend!”
A chance encounter between his father and big-band and studio trumpet veteran Pee Wee Erwin led Warren to private lessons, which enabled him to fill the void he felt in his college studies. “Pee Wee was one of the most musical people Iʼve ever met,” Vaché says. “He understood what I was going through, took me on as a student and introduced me to a whole range of literature for the trumpet that I hadnʼt known existed.” ( The elder Vaché collaborated with Erwin on the trumpeterʼs biography, This Horn for Hire. )
As his reputation grew, Vaché supplemented his formal studies with on-the-job training in New York City, rubbing shoulders with some of his idols. “I started working at Condonʼs with Herb Hall, Vic Dickenson, Bill Pemberton and Connie Kay, who was like a surrogate father to me. Down the street at Jimmy Ryanʼs were Eddie Locke, Roy Eldridge and Bobby Pratt. Those guys would get right in your face if you did something wrong. The first night I worked at Condonʼs, I was playing up a storm - notes were flying left and right! Suddenly vic put the trombone bell an inch from my ear and very softly played the melody on the last chorus. He pulled me aside and said,”You can get mad if you want, but youʼre the trumpet player and your job is to play the melody so we can play the harmony with you.ʼ If you screwed up they told you but they gave you the opportunity to come back and redeem yourself. It was ʻtough love.
He also recalls an encounter with trumpeter Roy Eldridge, one of jazzʼs fiercest bandstand gladiators: ”One night after Condonʼs closed, I was getting into my car and Roy comes across the street and says, ʻMan, you gotta help me. My chops are down - you gotta come over and play the last set with me.ʼ So I get up on the bandstand and he says with a twinkle in his eye, ʻYou play the first chorus.ʼ After I finish, he stands with his side to the audience, holds the trumpet up with his right hand, and plays no note under high C for three choruses, with his left hand in his jacket pocket swinging back and forth on ʻtwoʼ and ʻfour.ʼ He dug a hole, put me in, filled it up and stomped on it! I felt so
thrilled to have been his patsy. There was such a wonderful comaraderie - much more
fraternal feeling and accepting feeling than there is now.”
Another jazz legend with whom Vaché worked from 1975 until 1985 was Benny Goodman. “He was one of the most dedicated musicians Iʼve ever known,” Vaché says. “He thought about music all the time. Yes, he was a very difficult human being to get along with, but Iʼm not exactly the poster boy for mental health, either!” Rather than adding to the litany of negative Goodman stories, Vaché prefers to recount one of the many lessons he learned from the King of Swing. ”It was Benny who first made me understand what the process of making sound on a wind instrument was about. He brought me into his dressing room and asked me to play the second movement of the Hydn Trumpet Concerto, which consists of soft, long, sustained tones.
There was a great deal of air in my sound because I was playing soft. Afterward he says: “Did you ever consider the fact that just because it says ʻsoftʼ it doesnʼt mean the tone should suffer?ʼ He proceeded to give me a lesson in breath control by playing the same thing loud and soft, and the sound-quaity was exactly the same.”
In the mid 1970ʼs, Vaché often teamed up with another young swing-oriented musician, tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton. The pair was heralded by fans as the standard-bearers of a swing revival, and while it helped Vaché to garner some popular success, the trumpeter found himself increasingly pigeonholed. “You reach a certain point where it isnʼt worth the fight,” Vaché says. “I take all forms of jazz seriously, as I do all forms of classical music and a lot of the American musical theater. Thereʼs a lot to be learned musically from everything Where do I fit in? I stopped worrying!” Many of Vachéʼs admirers may be surprised at some of the trumpet players who have inspired him. In addition to the more obvious influences of Armstrong, Eldridge, Bobby Hackett, Ruby Braff, Joe Wilder and Billy Butterfield, Vaché also cites Don Cherry and Lester Bowie for their sense of freedom: “ I told some of my students who wanted to play ʻfreeʼ to go back to those Don Cherry records and figure out just what a genius he was. Itʼs not easy to be loose and creative without a form to hang the suit on.
Iʼve done very little of it myself - I know my limitations - but I can find certain instances during an improvised chorus with a drummer where it doesnʼt necessarily have to back to the form all the time. I admire Bob Stewart the tuba player very much. He did a lot of work with Lester Bowie, who was a free thinker of the first order. I can attain a level of looseness when Iʼm working with Bob that I wasnʼt able to get to before.”
Although he has achieved a certain amount of recognition, Vaché has yet to reach the wider audience his talent would warrant. Too old to be a wunderkind and too young to be a legend, he says: “Letʼs face it - Iʼm not a pointy-haired, blond-dyed, waif.
The hipness factor is an impediment to music.”
In addition the trumpeter has had his share of personal trials and freely admits to being a “curmudgeon.” Vaché is an extremely erudite and cultured but complex person who can be delightfully to friends and audiences alike. Like one of his idols, the late Ruby Braff, however, he doesnʼt suffer fools gladly and hasnʼt always chosen the most diplomatic path. Lately, he seems to be channeling any disappointments and frustrations into his playing and on Donʼt Look Back he bares his soul in every solo.
“Itʼs certainly more productive putting that angst or emotion into the horn than the other places Iʼve been putting it!” he says. “When I was younger, extramusical things seemed much more important than they do now. At this stage, I am what I am and I can allow myself to be more at ease with that. Lifeʼll kick your ass, and frankly the only time Iʼm really comfortable is when Iʼve got that horn in my face. So Iʼm allowing myself the freedom to be whatever the horn tells me to be."