Jazz Profiles from NPR
Tom Talbert
Produced by Bruce Talbot

Tom Talbert  

As with all other art forms, the jazz community has many members who have made significant contributions to its development, yet never received their due recognition. Pianist, composer, and band leader Tom Talbert is one such artist, whose compositions have been ranked with Gil Evans and Stan Kenton.

Listen to California Institute for the Preservation of Jazz Director Ken Poston, flutist Joe Soldo, and trombonist Milt Bernhart talk about Talbert's music

From listening to big bands in 1930s, Talbert got an ear for large ensembles at an early age. The following decade, he continued to compose for large groups in Los Angeles as small-group bebop spread from the East Coast to dominate jazz. While Talbert's music and location were at odds with his chosen field at the time, his work anticipated the forthcoming boom of West Coast or "cool" jazz.

Listen to composer and arranger Maria Schneider recall the first time she heard Talbert's music

Talbert's music is beautifully transportive. The elegance of Duke Ellington and the European classical yearnings in the music of arranger and composer Gil Evans and pianist and composer John Lewis can be heard simultaneously in Talbert's compositions, even though they were written a decade before the advent of "Third Stream" jazz.

Listen to clarinetist Don Shelton and saxophonist Bob Efford discuss the difficulties of performing Talbert's arrangements

Talbert was born on August 4, 1924, in Crystal Bay, Minnesota, where he heard music mostly performed live on a parlor piano. Mostly a self-taught musician, he did learn a few rudimentary piano skills from his grandmother. The swinging sounds of big bands led by drummer Chick Webb, clarinetists Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman, and saxophonist Jimmie Lunceford thrilled Talbert at an early age and provided the inspiration for his own compositions.

Listen to Tom recall listening to big band music with his father

In 1943, Talbert was drafted into the army and because of his considerable musical skills, he became arranger for a military band at Fort Ord in California. Under his leadership, the band performed for War Bond Drives throughout California. After his discharge, Talbert began arranging music for band leader Johnny Richards.

Richards, known for his innovative work with Stan Kenton, convinced Talbert to start his own band. Throughout the 1940s, Talbert continued to write for his big band even as bebop took over the scene.

Listen to trombonist Milt Bernhart describe Talbert's compositions at the time

After being denied a record contract on the West Coast in the late 1940s, Talbert ironically headed for New York City just as the West Coast Jazz movement began to take hold. Still, his time in New York was not wasted -- he started experimenting with European classical music.

Talbert also began arranging for guitarist Johnny Smith, band leader Claude Thornhill, bassist Oscar Pettiford, pianist Marian McPartland and others. In 1956, Talbert recorded two albums that would define his work. The first album was Wednesday's Child, a collaboration with vocalist Patty McGovern.

Listen to Tom talk about vocalist Patty McGovern

Bix Duke Fats cover  

Talbert's next album, Bix Duke Fats, became an even bigger hit, but commercial success was fleeting. Several ambitious follow-up projects, including a stage musical and two movie soundtracks, were never realized.

Listen to former Down Beat magazine critic Dom Cerulli recall the first time he heard Bix Duke Fats

Frustrated with the record business, he left New York for his Midwestern roots in Minneapolis. He got married, helped run the family business, and moved even further away from the jazz world, to rural Wisconsin. In 1975, he returned to Los Angeles, where he began writing music for television and movie studios.

Listen to Talbert explain why he moved to Minneapolis

Throughout the 1980s and '90s, Talbert continued to play and write for various bands. During this period, he also got involved with jazz education, playing concerts in Los Angeles area schools. Although luck often played an adversary in Talbert's career, he continues to write and perform with an optimistic valor.

Listen to Talbert give advice to aspiring musicians


View The Tom Talbert show playlist


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