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Rick Bogart: Spreading Jazz Around the World

From NOLA to NYC, clarinet in tow

Rick Bogart
Rick Bogart
Rick Bogart

Whether in 1970s New Orleans or 21st-century New York City, the clarinet and voice of Rick Bogart sounds forth the true spirit of jazz.

According to WNYC Radio’s Danny Stiles, “Rick Bogart is one of the great clarinetists of our era.” According to Bogart’s webpage, “Rick has performed in 65 countries, composed and played for many major movies and has performed for many of New York’s most prestigious charity events in the main ballrooms of the Plaza Hotel, the New York Hilton, and the Waldorf Astoria. In March 2011 Rick composed his ballet the ‘Jazz Dance,’ for solo clarinet and solo dancer. Rick Bogart is an Arabesque recording artist, having releases in both the jazz and classical fields.” Bogart has even brought his New Orleans-marinated/Manhattan-cured music to Kiev and Donetsk in Ukraine.

Born in 1951, Bogart enjoyed a rich and musical childhood. “My mother, Audrey McBride Bogart, was a fine pianist and singer who knew music theory. She had many harmony and sight singing books around the house. She learned the clarinet with me when I was 11 years old. At five years old I was playing the piano. My mother had the original sheet music to most popular songs of the day in the 1930s and ’40s. As an artist, she was excellent in oils and had many paintings hanging in places. My mother got cancer when I was 14 years old. Life never was the same. She hung on for 15years, but never could do much.

“My father was born in Madrid, Spain. His name was Carlos Hernandez. He was 50 years old when I was born. He was a practicing attorney who spoke English and Spanish. He called the clarinet a whistle. However, he did help me through music school. I had wonderful teachers at Tulane, Loyola and North Texas State University, where I graduated with a concentration in clarinet, voice and piano. I also thankfully earned an all-level teaching certificate. A rare experience at NTSU was a chance to study voice with Eugene Conley, who was a famous singer who had a radio show in New York entitled NBC Presents Eugene Conley with the NBC Concert Orchestra. He went on to sing at La Scala, the Met and most major opera houses all over the world.”

How was Bogart bit by the jazz bug? “My mother would bring home records of the popular music of the day: big-band music and popular singers. Since I was learning the clarinet, she chose a lot of clarinet players: Pee Wee Russell, Irving Fazola, Barney Bigard, Pete Fountain, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, ‘Cornbread’ Thomas and Jimmy Noone, just to name a few. I kept in good touch with Cornbread, and I really like his singing. My main influences were musicians who would and could sing.”

When he was 16, Bogart met the New Orleans master Pete Fountain. “My Aunt Lil and Uncle John from Luling, Louisiana knew a good friend of Pete Fountain’s-the race car driver Knot Farrington. Our meeting was set up around five in the afternoon. We went to the 800 block of Bourbon Street at Saint Ann, and we were welcomed in. This was 1967 and Pete was in his prime. Pete took the steps to the second floor two at a time. I played two songs, and Pete said, ‘Here, try mine!’ He put his beautiful, gold-plated Leblanc clarinet together, and put on his crystal mouthpiece and the reed he was going to use that night—then he played a few notes and handed it to me to play. I played one song on his horn. It was really so different from mine. Aunt Lil and Uncle John were so nervous I would drop it. We all visited for a while and when we left the club people were already lining up to get in. That experience grows bigger the older I get. When I think about it, it’s hard to believe. What a beautiful gesture! That is one moment in life you don’t forget. Pete Fountain made a real impression on me—and when I talked to him at his 80th birthday party he was still giving me good advice. Thank you, Pete Fountain!”

Thomas Jefferson, born in 1920 and who died “in the early ’90s,” was a renowned Pops-influenced trumpeter who played with Papa Celestin, Johnny St. Cyr, George Lewis … and Rick Bogart. “It was a wonderful experience to work with Thomas Jefferson at (New Orleans’) the Famous Door. He was my all-time favorite on Bourbon Street—he could sing in a special way and play his trumpet in a special way. We worked the daytime slot at the Famous Door; it was five sets a day, six days a week for a year-and-a-half straight. Then at night I would take another job filling for another clarinet player. Thomas Jefferson was a great talent and I was happy to make music with him.”

In the New Orleans of the mid-1970s, Bogart was a member of the Basin Street 5. What is it like being a gigging musician in the always-swinging birthplace of jazz? “When I graduated from North Texas State University, I had a choice to go right into teaching or to try to play music. I decided to try to play music. At that time there were a number of territory bands and I went out with a few of them, playing in the saxophone section, and I was not too good at it. I didn’t think it was for me. I was rather unhappy with the whole scene—it was not my way of thinking. I decided to stop and go back to New Orleans, so I visited my Aunt Lil and Uncle John. They owned Freeman’s Cleaners in Luling, Louisiana. They said, ‘You can stay here for a while, but if you get in trouble on Bourbon Street they will put your name in the paper and it will reflect poorly on our business.’ I thought, ‘Gee whiz, it’s a dry-cleaning business—how could it make any difference?’

“So finding a little apartment in the French Quarter, I needed a job quickly. I was supposed to make it on my own with music and if I didn’t, I would be working in that dry-cleaning store or teaching school. Luckily, I found a job immediately on the SS President as a deck hand. This was in December when nobody wanted to pull those cold ropes out of the Mississippi River and get chilled every day. I could pull those long ropes out of the water and I could throw that knotted rope from the back of the ship to the shore in a very natural way. I was good at it. I was still young, and at the end of the day I would grab my clarinet with my frozen fingers and walk down Bourbon Street to see where I could sit in and meet some musicians.

“I sat in at almost all the clubs on Bourbon Street that had Swing and Dixieland music-clubs like the Paddock Lounge, the Blue Angel, the Maison Bourbon, and the Famous Door. I received a very nice reception at the Famous Door at Bourbon and Conti. Nick Gagliardi was the nighttime bandleader and he was very encouraging for me to return and sit in at any time. Well, I showed up almost every night after finishing ten hours of throwing ropes on the SS President. The Famous Door had three full-time bands plus an off-night band.

“Soon a new band came in at the Famous Door. The leader was Milton Ziedrich—he went by the name of Milton Rich and was a very fiery drummer and a very experienced musician. His favorite clarinet player was Tony Mitchellari, who went by the name of Tony Mitchell. Tony was working at the Maison Bourbon with another band and had to work out his two weeks’ notice before he could come and join Milton’s band at the Famous Door; union rules were strict. So they asked me to work at the Famous Door for two weeks while Tony worked out his notice at the Maison Bourbon. That money went a long way. I quit the job as a deck hand and started thawing out my frozen hands and practicing a little bit more. I did okay working the two weeks. The bookkeeper, Ms. T., offered me a trio job at a club they owned called the Backstage. It was from 11 p.m. to 4 in the morning. I had to file a union contract and soon I was leading a little trio on St. Louis right off Bourbon Street. Then I found out it was a place that catered to transvestites—but I didn’t care. I was only interested in the music.

“That job lasted for about six months. During that time I used to substitute for Harold Cooper who played in the daytime band at the Famous Door; the leader was Albert June Gardner, a great drummer and bandleader. Harold Cooper was Al Hirt’s clarinetist during the early part of the Bourbon Street days. Harold would take off almost every Sunday morning so I would wait by the phone on Sunday mornings, and he called many times. Finally, he gave his notice and the bandleader reluctantly offered the job to me. I was thrilled to be working six days a week making union-scale. It seemed like all my problems were solved; all I had to do now was hold onto the job. I was 21 years old and working with experienced musicians who had been doing it for a long time. The hours were noon to five in the afternoon. Whatever song I messed up on that day, I would go home and work on it.”

As if he weren’t busy enough, Bogart subbed on clarinet in the bands of Wallace Davenport, Roy Liberto, Tommy Yetta, Nick Gagliardi, Jimmy LaRocca, Lou Sino and the legendary Snookum Russell.

“Snookum was a very special pianist,” recalls Bogart, “who was the leader of the band at the Paddock Lounge on Bourbon Street. He had worked with so many jazz greats like Fats Navarro, Ray Brown, and even the New Orleans clarinet legend George Lewis. He had so much experience and I was thrilled to work with him.”

Bogart was then asked to put a band together for the daytime slot at the Famous Door. “I put a good band together with Connie Jones on trumpet; Howard Kadison on drums; Lars Edigran on piano; and the great Phil Darious on bass. We called ourselves the Basin Street 5. Things went well for about a year.

“But then the great Thomas Jefferson was leaving the Maison Bourbon and he was going to lead the daytime band at the Famous Door. The big question on the street was, ‘Who will play clarinet?’ Well, Thomas Jefferson was my all-time favorite. He worked magic every night. I appreciate him to this day and I own all his recordings. I needed a good job and that was the one I wanted: with Thomas Jefferson at the Famous Door.”

However, Mr. Jefferson was at first “not too thrilled” with Bogart. “He had other clarinet players on his mind and I was not one of them. His opening was delayed because he needed a hernia operation. I brought him magazines when he was at Charity Hospital recovering. He was happy to see me but he would not discuss who he was going to hire to play clarinet. He did call others, but there were conflicts—so he called me! I remember to this day the sound of his voice on the phone. He was a very precise boss, so I made sure I learned all his songs. I never knew what he would call but it went smoothly and I did my best. We worked together five sets a day, six days a week for about sixteen months. The time flew by.”

What made Bogart decide to move to Manhattan in 1980? “I felt that the audiences were changing on Bourbon Street and the only place to go was New York City. After years of playing on Bourbon Street I wanted to go further in music. I wanted to experience different musical settings. I always thought a nice soft clarinet would fit in well at a classy New York restaurant or nightclub. There was no time to waste. I was still single and free and I got out while the gettin’ was good. I only told a few people I was leaving because I did not want to hear any stories.

“I was saving money for the move to New York when a lovely couple from New York came in the Famous Door. We talked; they bought two of my albums and invited me to New York for a visit. They had a large apartment on East 72nd and a house in Greenwich, Connecticut, and I asked them if they had air-conditioning. I got a few days off and flew to New York and headed to East 72nd. Wow! Fancy place! I started looking for a place of my own; this was the end of 1980. I found a nice two-bedroom apartment on West 58th between 9th and 10th. At the time it was a very dodgy location, but it was rent-controlled and I took it. So I went back to New Orleans and packed a few things and moved way up north to New York City.”

It’s not every musician who can say that he/she had a documentary made about him/her—let alone one as exceptional as Jim Markovic’s When the Clarinet Swings. How did the film happen? “Jim was a producer on the old Barbara Walters series Biography. He liked the music and when he found out I had some quality footage from various network television shows, he thought he could put together a program. He had a staff and some friends and a lot of patience. Jim is a great editor and managed to license footage of Benny Goodman, Woody Herman, Artie Shaw, Pee Wee Russell and a few others. He was able to film me playing in various high-profile New York jazz clubs like Birdland. He also has interviews with music critics and famous musicians. He even had the legendary RCA producer Ethel Gabriel. She produced many Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw recordings plus thousands of other records for RCA. Ethel was also the producer of one of my CDs. It was special to have her speak on the program. Jim Markovic had a person who sold the film to various television stations all over the world; most of the buys were in Europe. The film is still selling to this day.”

In addition to knowing what it’s like to lead a jazz band, Bogart also knows what it’s like to teach high school English in Hell’s Kitchen! “After the job at Harrah’s finished after twelve years, I felt very bad lacking steady employment. I was working in New York at Tatou, the Red Blazer, and Ed Sullivan’s. Three nights a week was good, but nothing like what I was making before. I had time on my hands and wanted to keep busy, so I went to the Board of Education in Brooklyn and showed them my papers. I took a few tests and had my fingerprints checked by the F.B.I. and earned a license to teach.

“After substituting around for a few months, I received a good offer at Park West High School, a few blocks from where I live in Hell’s Kitchen. So I started full-time teaching and playing three nights a week. After teaching all day, the playing at night was a beautiful change and recharged my batteries each week. I taught for around two and a half years. I taught one English class and ran a café to teach the kids how to make coffee, bagels, and fresh orange juice. The students would learn how to order equipment and food and read English in the process. They would sell these items to the teachers, make change and deliver the food to the classrooms. Park West was a fine culinary-arts high school with wonderful kitchens. However, there was no chance at all to introduce Louis Armstrong or Ella Fitzgerald or any kind of artist in that area. The kids were only interested in rap. There was a full-time music teacher there and he had his hands full, to say the least. There was a back room full of band instruments—saxophones, clarinets, trumpets, trombones, flutes and even tubas—just sitting there … to put it politely.”

Bogart received a music offer that was impossible to refuse. “An offer came in from a major agency that booked headliners on cruise ships. Well, that’s the best job in the world. I had to play only two shows a week in the show room—I was a passenger the rest of the time. Fabulous job! I would be gone two to three months at a time. I traveled to around 65 countries many times. I worked for 42 weeks a year for five years on that routine.”

Not content to be one of jazz’s finest clarinetists, Bogart also studied singing with the noted music teacher/voice coach Louis Panzeri (1902-1983). “In 1974 I was walking down Bourbon Street just after playing a daytime job at the Famous Door. I heard vocalizing as I walked further down Bourbon in the residential section around the 800 block. I said to myself, ‘Unbelievable—I just played a jazz job and now I hear legitimate vocalizing. This city is surrounded by music, and I like it.’ The singing was coming from a house right on Bourbon Street, just three steps up. I could hear everything. So I sat on the steps and listened until the student left. Walking in, I introduced myself (to Louis Panzeri) and had a lesson right then—and I signed up for one a week without any hesitation. I explained to him what I do and he listened very carefully and said, ‘I understand and I can help. I will show you some vocalizes—then you can better sing your songs.’ His truthfulness is still apparent to this day. I did not know anything about Mr. Panzeri until much later, but he was a true vocal teacher and helped at a reasonable price.”

Mr. Panzeri’s lessons led Bogart from the clubs of Bourbon Street to the oldest cathedral in North America. “He suggested that I sing with the St. Louis Cathedral Choir and he would put in a good word for me. The director was Dr. Elise Cambon and she was demanding, but I could sing those parts to satisfy her. So on Sundays I would sing with the St. Louis Cathedral Choir. The Sunday mass was from 11 a.m. to noon. I would leave a little early and rush to play with Thomas Jefferson at the Famous Door from noon to 5 p.m. On Wednesdays I would see Mr. Panzeri for voice lessons and help with the choir parts. He was a good man. His archives are at Tulane University.”

Bogart has played often with Mitch Winehouse, father of the late singer Amy. “He’s a mensch,” says Bogart of Winehouse. “Amy was taught to sing by Mitch, who is a singer in London clubs; he also had a great job as a London cabdriver. Mitch told me this: He bought records in the house for Amy (as a child) to listen to and to learn the songs. He would sing a phrase and then she would sing the next phrase. She would also accompany him on his singing engagements. Mitch flies in from London often and always makes time to sing with my group. Business is always a little better when he sings. We did a major event at the Waldorf Astoria for the Amy Winehouse Foundation. Harry Belafonte spoke and Tony Bennett sang five songs. We took over the entire 12th floor. Mitch likes to sing and is still singing great.”

What’s in the musical future for Rick Bogart? “I must check my ego at the door. I am just happy to still be playing at two wonderful places in New York City on a regular basis. I play every Tuesday and Friday at Lybane on 8th Avenue between 44th and 45th in the Theater District; and every Saturday, Sunday, and Monday at the Broadway Thai on 51st between 8th Avenue and Broadway. I am working with wonderful musicians like Don Edmonds, Larry Luger, Alex Gressel and Keith Ingham. (Keith had two Grammy nominations for his work with Maxine Sullivan and Miss Peggy Lee).

“It is easy with the right musicians and I look forward to going to work. I can still take that great breath and play and sing. I learned not to take it for granted. I’m just thankful to have a life in music and just hope to continue.” Originally Published