Lou Colombo: The Cape’s Leading Light

Tom Reney blogs about legacy of the late New England-based jazz trumpeter

One of the watershed experiences in my early appreciation of jazz was seeing Dave McKenna, Dick Johnson, and Lou Colombo at The Columns in West Dennis on Cape Cod in 1971. McKenna’s astonishing piano playing was the great discovery of that day, but Johnson’s saxophone and clarinet playing and Colombo’s trumpet work were impressive too. At that age, I probably recognized the Swing and Bebop tunes they played, but the Great American Songbook was much less familiar to me, and I have these gentlemen to thank for fostering my love of songs by Arlen and Porter and Gershwin.

As I soon learned, McKenna, Johnson and Colombo came of age during the Bebop era, and it was obvious that Bird and Bud and Dizzy were in their hearts, and occasionally in their set lists and recordings too. But for working musicians, playing modern jazz would hardly sustain a livelihood, so they specialized in standards and Swing, music for dancing and conversation. Theirs was a social music, and they played it with a sense of style and conviction that I fear is passing right along with them.

From the start, I also found it possible to discern something of the respective personalities of these then middle-aged men: McKenna appeared to be shy and diffident (true to which, he often begged off the critical acclaim he received as one of the world’s greatest jazz pianists, calling himself a “saloon piano player”); Johnson was suave and handsome, exuding an air of iconic cool; and Colombo was garrulous and ebullient, typified by his eye-catching, one-armed trumpet technique which freed his left hand to motion to special guests and friends in the house—and everyone was special in Lou's world! Indeed, had Colombo not been such a fine musician (and prior to that, a .302 career hitter for Dodgers and Cardinals farm teams), he may have made a great restaurateur. As it happens, Lou left that occupation to his son and daughter who operated restaurants in Hyannis and Florida. On Saturday night, after performing at the family establishment in Fort Myers, Lou was killed in an automobile accident. With his death, and those of McKenna and Johnson over the past four years, this generation of regional jazz greats has left us.

Lou Colombo may have been the least known of this threesome on a national level, but for thousands of tourists, not to mention jazz-loving locals, he was, as Bob Wilber said today, “the leading light of jazz on the Cape.” Lou played bars, restaurants, schools, weddings, nursing homes, public parks, and jazz fests from Falmouth to P-Town. For a couple of decades between the ‘60’s and ‘80’s, he played on Saturday nights at Wychmere Harbor Club in Harwichport where my family often gathered for dinner and dancing, and where he played for my sister Sue’s wedding in 1984. Over the past 20 years, he worked every Monday and Tuesday night in season before packed houses at the Roadhouse Cafe in Hyannis.

Colombo was born in the City of Champions, Brockton, Massachusetts in 1927, hometown of both Dick Johnson and the great prizefighters Rocky Marciano and Marvin Hagler. He began playing trumpet at age 12. For the liner notes to his 1990 recording I Remember Bobby, he told Ron Della Chiesa, “I used to get together with some of the local East Side kids. We’d listen to Roy Eldridge’s great recording of ‘Rockin’ Chair,’ and that’s what really got me going, when I heard Roy play, and Harry James too. Louis Armstrong came later, when I was about 14 or 15, and I said, ‘Oh yeah, this guy is great!’ So that’s when I got into Louis, after Roy.”

Lou spent a couple of years in the service in the mid-‘40’s, then played for Dodgers and Cardinals farm teams between 1945 and ’53 when a severe ankle injury dashed his hopes of a career in the majors. Baseball’s loss was music’s gain. Lou spent a few years touring with the bands of Buddy Morrow, Perez Prado, and Benny Goodman before settling down to raise a family and make his livelihood on the Cape and Southern New England. While he worked for the most part on a regional level, he earned the respect and recognition of the greats, from Louis Armstrong and Bobby Hackett to Dizzy Gillespie and Tony Bennett, who made it a point to hear Lou whenever he played the Melody Tent in Hyannis.

Gillespie told Eric Jackson of WGBH in 1988: "Lou Colombo is what I would call a trumpet painter, he resolves. He starts playing and the notes keep going, but the chord keeps changing all the time. He's a marvelous trumpet player. I went one night to hear him play. Boy, he asked me to play with him and I said ‘No- you got it Brother. I'm not going to jump into that hot water'. Lou's pretty weird the way he plays because he plays with just one hand. He plays the valves with his right hand but doesn't hold the horn with his left hand. This guy's amazing. I've been preaching his name ever since that night I first heard him down on Cape Cod."

In 1983, Colombo joined Johnson in the newly revived Artie Shaw Orchestra that Shaw asked Johnson to lead, and in 2006 he was featured on the title track of Johnson’s tribute to Shaw, Star Dust & Beyond. Shaw himself occasionally appeared with the band, and here he introduces a performance of "Stardust," which he refers to only as "the second national anthem." Soloists include Colombo, Johnson and trombonist Doug Elliott. In addition to Lou's tribute to his friend and Cape Cod neighbor Bobby Hackett, I Remember Bobby, he appeared on at least three releases with the trombonist George Masso.

I heard from several of Lou’s friends and colleagues today, including Tony Bennett, who said, "Lou Colombo was a magnificent musician and was known as Dizzy Gillespie's favorite trumpet player. Lou was a wonderful human being and his sudden passing is a tragedy and a great loss to his family and all who have known him and worked with him over the years."

The bassist Marshall Wood, who plays with Bennett, offered this appreciation of the trumpeter: “I met Lou Colombo in July of 1982. I had the opportunity to play with him and record with him many, many times. First and foremost what stood out about Lou was his immense God-given natural talents, both in music and in sports. Without an inkling of what the changes were to a song, he could masterfully create a solo that was not only supremely melodic and completely made up of jazz language and phrases, but also brilliantly outlined the harmony of the song. That skill is shared by very few musicians. Most have to undergo much study independently or with a teacher to even begin to be able to improvise on that level. Lou was humble in his gift and loved his family and fellow musicians passionately.”

The bassist David Wertman and vocalist Lynne Meryl, who divide their time between the Pioneer Valley and Florida, offered their memories of Lou, who also wintered and worked in South Florida. David said, “I have played hundreds of shows with him over the last 20-plus years. Lou was foremost an entertainer. He had a great following because of the joy he had inside himself which he shared with all the world, his audience and the musicians on stage. He encouraged exploration of sound, harmony, and melody, all in the name of a good show. This is what I learned most from Lou: ‘Musicians are entertainers and if you want to be successful...then love the people you perform for and let them know it’. Lou always knew just what to play behind Lynne and would be very supportive, always sending her smiles and love. We did a concert about five or so years ago with Lou in the Berkshires and had Joe Pamilia join us...two great giants who have now passed on.”

Lynne said, “Lou was our friend and fantastic to be with on stage. He was so easy going, joyous and full of fun. His energy was contagious. His playing was pure and simple and spot-on in any song, in any key. As Dave knew, he was there to share the music and the fun and to entertain the audience...and he did that every single time ...on whatever horn he picked up.” Here's Lou playing euphonium and trumpet with David and Lynne on Duke Ellington’s “I AIn’t Got Nothin’ But the Blues.”

Dick Johnson died two years ago, but his son Gary Johnson also enjoyed a long partnership with Colombo and played drums with him at the Roadhouse for over 20 years. He said, “Even into his 85th year, Lou was still as vibrant as ever, his lip and chops were as strong as a player half his age. He still had that spirit. And as a former ballplayer, whenever he talked about baseball, his eyes still got as big as saucers and he talked with the exuberance of a kid.”

Gary’s sister Pam Sargent, whose husband is guitarist Gray Sargent, a member of Bennett's quartet, said the Colombo and Johnson families “felt melded as one. Our only solace is the thought that Dick and Lou may now be together again.”

Lou never seemed more than a few feet away in the venues where I heard him play, but despite the remote feel of this footage, little is lost in his sunny performance of "Amazing Grace."

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