Editor, Webmaster: Phil Cartwright Editor@earlyjas.org
|Personalities -- by Phil Cartwright
|Al Couch -- Moving to the Jazzy Side of the Street
Those of you who follow the Night Owls, the Hot Jazz Seven, the
Cleveland TOPS swing band, and the Cleveland Jazz Orchestra know
the great jazz cornetist/trumpeter Al Couch. Al is a fine musician
and adds a wonderful contribution to these bands, most of which
pull up some pretty tough charts. I have heard the CJO many times
but what is TOPS? The TOPS band is a 20 piece orchestra that
rehearses at the Union hall on Carnegie every Wednesday. TOPS?
Tough Old Professional musicians. It’s been my privilege to work
with Al with the Owls and the HJ7 for several years and he is a real
inspiration for those bands.
If you are a classical music follower, perhaps you have heard or seen
Charles Couch. Charles played trumpet with the Best Band in the
Land, The Cleveland Orchestra for 30 years.
Yes, Al and Charles are one and the same. He uses ‘Al’ for jazz and
‘Charles’ for “legitimate” music. One and the same, yes, but
proficient in two very different musical worlds.
First, there’s Charles.
Charles is a legitimate musician educated in the classical tradition. He was born and raised in Southern California.
Starting when he was eight years old, Charles had a number of private teachers, each progressively more demanding
and respective of his obvious talent. His talent came from his father’s side: His father was musical; His sister is the
piccolo player with the San Diego Symphony; His brother is a free lance trombonist in the San Francisco Bay area.
Charles, the classicist, has Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in trumpet performance at prestigious universities and a
stint as trumpet instructor at the Armed Forces School of Music. He started out wanting to be a studio musician.
They were the heroes in Southern California when he was growing up. The classical world was the stronger pull
according to Charles. In his words, “My aptitudes kept steering me in the direction of "legit" work. I had the sort of
sound and technique that fit with that music … and it worked out well. I did play a fair amount of dance work, at
ballrooms and Latin clubs, and I loved it.”
In 1971, Charles was a scholarship student at the Blossom-Kent State summer program. That led to a successful
audition with the The Cleveland Orchestra the following year and he joined the Orchestra in 1972. Charles’ first day
on the job with the Orchestra was Lorin Maazel’s first day as music director. His last day on the job was Christoph
von Dohnanyi's last day as music director, so his tenure coincided exactly with the tenure of those two music
directors. Since his retirement from the Orchestra, Charles continues to play classical music with a variety of groups
including Erik Svoboda’s Heritage Brass Quintet and the Cleveland Pops Orchestra.
How about Al the jazzman? Again, in his own words…
“As soon as I took up the trumpet, we got some 45s of the Mexican-American virtuoso Rafael Mendez. He was my
first trumpet idol. When we graduated to LPs, one of the first records we got (which I still have and play) was
"Harry James in Hi-fi". They sounded good to me then and they sound good to me now."
“When I was younger, I kept current with the jazz scene. I would go to hear Dizzy at the Blackhawk, etc. I got about
as far as Miles' "Bitches Brew" album, and then I got stuck. At that point I began to listen backward in time until I
arrived at King Oliver, sometime during my time in the army. When I really began to listen to Louis Armstrong, it
was a revelation. I forget what led to my first sitting in with Ted Witt at Nighttown, but that became something I
looked forward to on Friday nights after the orchestra concert. That in turn led to me sitting in with, and then
joining the Night Owls. Sitting in with the Hot Jazz 7 came next.”
I asked Al/Charles about jazz in the Cleveland Orchestra. "Frankly, there are a great many jazz enthusiasts in the
orchestra. Some of us dabbled in it as the opportunity came up. I think the best jazzman in the orchestra is the
French horn player Richard Solis. You don't normally think of the horn as a jazz instrument, but he's such a great
player, he can make it jump through hoops. We play at a jam session at the home of Merritt Johnquest every
summer. This is an event that has been going since time immemorial. Bob Matson, a retired percussionist, is another
”When the orchestra has to try to ‘swing,’ as at a Pops concert, for example, it usually sounds a little ponderous and
stilted. Once in a while it will start to get off the ground. The best performances of this type take place at the annual
Martin Luther King tribute concert, when they bring in the gospel choirs and rhythm section, including a Hammond
B3 organist. Then things can start to rock. Henry Mancini used to bring his arrangements out to Blossom along with
his own rhythm section and lead trumpet player. Those were very ‘popsy’ programs, but they had a good ‘feel’ to
them, despite the commercial fare.”
Al/Charles says that he considers himself fortunate to find himself playing with these fine jazz groups. “It is allowing
me to realize my childhood ambition of playing jazz, an ambition that was sidetracked for thirty years, while I was
having a career On the Classical side of the Street.”
Northeast Ohio is indeed fortunate to have a man of Al’s great talent playing our kind of music. Thanks Al!
|for Jazz Advancement and Socialization