Fats Navarro: A Be-Bop Tale

On September 24, 1923 a musical legend was born in one, Theodore “Fats” Navarro II. Not only did he leave a mark on the Jazz world by being a trailblazer of the Be-Bop improvisation style but he also left his mark on brass players in general, really anyone who heard him play was widely influenced by him. Born in Key West, Florida of a mixed heritage (Cuban/Chinese/Black) Fats was the son of a barber, child friend of drummer Al Dreares & cousin of another Jazz trumpet great Charlie Shavers. Known for his pretty lyrical style, fiery technique & his facility in the upper register, it seemed that every musician he encountered loved him from Jazz trombonist JJ Johnson (my musical father), Jazz pianist Bud Powell to trumpeters Howard McGhee, Miles Davis to Be-Bop founders Charlie Parker & Dizzy Gillespie. Fats was a heavy influence on Jazz trumpeters Clifford Brown, Lee Morgan & Freddie Hubbard & is also widely considered the first “Hard- Bop” Jazz trumpet player. Alongside of those accomplishments he was also a multi- instrumentalist playing tenor saxophone & piano. Fats Navarro lost his life to tuberculosis due to a battle with heroin addiction at the extremely young age of 26, July 6, 1950.

Today I sit down with Prof. Stuart A Varden & recollect on Fats Navarro, his great musicianship & musical genius that still affects the Jazz world to this day.

 (Overdrive feat. The Metronome All-Stars plays in the background)

Stuart: Quite an exchange between Miles, Fats & Dizzy

Terrance: Yeah, some blazin’ solos. So what’s your favorite Fats Navarro tune? What song really sticks out for you?

Stuart: “Nostalgia”

Terrance: What tune was that based on “Out of Nowhere”?

(Nostalgia feat. The Fats Navarro Quintet plays in the background)

Stuart: Yea, that was “Out of Nowhere”. There was “Barry’s Bop” which was based on “What is this thing Called Love”. He was spectacular on that one & then there was one based on “Fine & Dandy”. Everything seemed to come together. He could play very dynamically, but he could play lyrically too, as he does in “Nostalgia”. ….but on the other ones he plays very dynamically. He hits high notes, but he doesn’t just hit high notes to hit high notes, he does it in such a way where it’s a dramatic accent to the whole solo. I can’t think of a session where he was completely in control of his powers.

Terrance: Right, that’s another thing. His power, you can clearly tell he was an intelligent musician. You know… I’m a brass player I play the trombone & a lot of what he does as a brass player…as a trumpet player also, is at a classical level. He sounds like he had very extensive classical training on that instrument at some point.

Stuart: Yes. He must have. I know he practiced constantly & he stopped through Cinncinatti to study with a trumpet teacher. I have an interview with one of his colleagues & one of his mentors Howard McGhee. He was telling of when he first met Navarro, they were in the Andy Kirk band around 43-44.

Terrance: Was that the “Clouds of Joy”?

Stuart: Yes. He was saying his tone was so beautiful, but he wasn’t a bop player yet. He hadn’t really heard Dizzy & Bird & so forth, yet. He didn’t have a very big range. Howard McGhee describes it saying, “When we get to Chicago, I know this guy who makes mouthpieces.” So he was able to you know, put a fifth higher on his on his range almost into the double C range. Not quite, but he did use that into great effect.

Terrance: Wow, so he changed mouthpieces!?!

Stuart: Yea, according to this interview that I heard with a fellow you might know named Phil Schapp on “Bird Flight”. He apparently interviewed Howard McGhee back in the 70’s. There was something about his playing that, he was kind of a perfectionist where if you listened to his solos, & you get done it’s almost as if it had been written down. There would be notes played exactly where they were supposed to be.

Terrance: Perfect.

Stuart: Yes. He also used space well, at times at which he wouldn’t play & then he would come in, kind of like Lester Young. Lester Young didn’t play a whole lot of notes necessarily he kind of knew where not to play.

Terrance: How do you rank his playing among the Be-Bop greats at that time? Where would you place Fats at?

Stuart: Well, he’s certainly my favorite trumpet player. I guess you couldn’t say that he was as “important” as Dizzy because he wasn’t an innovator in the sense of “creating” that type of Jazz. I think he had a lot to do with the stages of trumpet styles.

(Double Talk feat. Fats Navarro & Howard McGhee plays in the background)

Terrance: Would you clarify him as or call him the first Hard-Bop trumpet player? That stuff he did with “Lockjaw” & Sonny Rollins all that stuff. Would you consider that, the first Hard-Bop?

Stuart: Some people have said that. I don’t really know whether exactly or not. I’ve heard that before. That the session in summer of 49 with Bud Powell & Sonny Rollins…

Terrance: Straight smokin’ session..

Stuart: Yea. I’ve heard that called the first Hard-Bop Session. I think by then he was already showing the effects of the tuberculosis.

(Guilty feat. Earl Coleman, Fats Navarro, Max Roach & Dexter Gordon plays in the background)

Terrance: Now that story in itself right there, when he got hooked on heavy drugs, when he decided not to go back on the road with, I think it was “Eckstine”?

Stuart. Yea…

Terrance: Did something happen during that time period to make him get on that stuff?

Stuart: Yea…something happened between I guess it was 46-47 he stayed in New York. In part because that’s where he could find a connection for the narcotics he unfortunately got hooked on. So yea, it was kind of sad.

Terrance: Do you know if a parent died or anything, like that or any tragic thing, happen? Because when I listen to his playing it’s like man…..how could this cat you know….I mean man, he seemed like such an intelligent cat to me.

Stuart: Right…Yea. A lot of them, fell prey to it.

(The Tadd Walk  feat. The Tadd Dameron Quintet w/ Fats Navarro)

Terrance: Now did Fats play all the way up till he was hospitalized?

Stuart: 49 was the last recording session & actually was the beginning of his health declining & you could certainly hear that effect at Birdland with Bird & Bud Powell. He didn’t have that same power. There are other sessions where you can hear that as well going into 1950 & he died on the 6Th of July, but really how could he play so well before he died?

Terrance: Yea, that’s amazing you know. It’s almost like he was leaving his legacy….

Stuart: The solos he turned out then Street Beat, Move, Ornithology….Tunisia….

Terrance: You can tell on that “Night in Tunisia” cut….that right there let me know something wasn’t quite right, it wasn’t the usual. He plays well but he doesn’t have that same “kick”.

Stuart: Right. He lacked the volume & he lacked the power……. the high range too.

(A Be-Bop Carroll feat. The Fats Navarro Quintet plays in the background)

Terrance: If you had to pick a particular Fats Navarro ensemble which one would you pick? Which one stands out to you the most?

Stuart: He thrived very well with Tadd Dameron & with instrumentations with 2-3 horns.

Terrance: One last question. What impact do you think Fats would’ve had if he prolonged his life?

Stuart: Well, I think he would’ve been just as famous as Dizzy, Miles & of course Clifford. They say there three “Modern Jazz Trumpets: 1 is Dizzy Gillespie, 2 is Miles, who innovated the cool style & 3 is Fats who influenced Brown & a whole lot of others that followed. I put him there with Miles & Dizzy.

Terrance: I agree with that & I’ll add one more: Woody Shaw, the last great innovator…but that’s a whole another article ;-)





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