Jazzed in Cleveland
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
Jazzed in Cleveland Complete Index

Part 125 - Cleveland Trumpeter Dick Vance

Story filed May 1, 2009

The king of Thailand knew about the jazz trumpeter from Cleveland, but many jazz fans don’t.

Because he seldom soloed and recorded only two albums as a leader, he’s not remembered today, even by avid jazz fans. But for almost 50 years, the one-time Clevelander was an outstanding lead trumpeter and arranger and was deeply involved with some of the most important and influential artists and bands in jazz history.

His name was Dick Vance. He was born November 28, 1915 in Mayfield, Kentucky, and raised in Cleveland. After taking violin lessons here, he switched to trumpet and beginning in 1932, when he was 17 years old, started touring Northeast Ohio with Frank Terry’s territory band. In 1934, he joined the band of Lil Hardin Armstrong, Louis’ former wife, who played piano and sang. As her lead trumpeter, he toured the country with her band.

In 1936, Vance moved to New York City and played with bands led by Willie Bryant and former Fletcher Henderson drummer Kaiser Marshall. It was probably Marshall who helped Vance join the high-flying Henderson Orchestra.

For about four years, the Clevelander was a member of the Henderson Orchestra, a band which at the time included such all-time jazz greats as Roy Eldridge, Joe Thomas, Buster Bailey, Chu Berry, John Kirby, Sid Catlett, and Cleveland native Emmett Berry. This was the band that in the 1920s had laid the foundation for the explosive popularity of big band jazz in the 1930s and ‘40s. Vance was the lead trumpeter of this historic band, but seldom played solos. Occasionally, he would sing. When Henderson disbanded his orchestra in 1939 to join the very popular Benny Goodman Orchestra, Vance went with another top band.

It was the orchestra of drummer Chick Webb, which achieved a great deal of popularity, particularly with its recordings with a young singer named Ella Fitzgerald. Not long after Vance joined the band, Webb died of tuberculosis and Fitzgerald fronted the orchestra. It was Vance who wrote many of the charts for Ella’s early vocals.

After the Webb band broke up, Vance became a staff arranger for Glen Gray. In 1942, Vance joined another outstanding band, the Lucky Millinder Orchestra. Other members of that band at the time included Tricky Sam Nanton, George Duvivier, Art Blakey and Cleveland natives Bull Moose Jackson and Freddie Webster.

In 1944 and ‘45, Vance played lead trumpet with the bands of Charlie Barnet, Don Redman, Ben Webster and the sextet of pianist Eddie Heywood. The Clevelander replaced Doc Cheatham in the Heywood group.

While studying at Julliard in New York City, Vance also played in a septet led by pianist Mary Lou Williams. The group included Don Byas and Vic Dickenson. He also played in Sid Catlett’s All-Stars with Coleman Hawkins, Billy Taylor, Hilton Jefferson and Tryee Glenn.

An excellent technician and sight-reader, Vance began playing in pit bands for Broadway shows. He performed for such theatrical productions as Pal Joey and Beggar’s Holiday, and even in the off-stage band for the drama Streetcar Named Desire. While playing in the pit bands, he also wrote a number of arrangements for the big bands of Harry James, Cab Calloway, Earl Hines and Duke Ellington. One of his arrangements for Ellington was "How High the Moon."

In 1950, Dick Vance rejoined his former boss, Fletcher Henderson, in a sextet to play in what proved to be Henderson’s last engagement. Shortly after the gig in New York, Henderson suffered a stroke and was forced to give up playing. He died two years later at the age of 54.

During 1951 and ‘52, Vance became a member of the trumpet section of the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Other members of that Ellington band included such all-time greats as Ray Nance, Clark Terry, Britt Woodman, Juan Tizol, Jimmy Hamilton, Russell Procope, Paul Gonsalves, Harry Carney, Billy Strayhorn, Louie Bellson and Cleveland saxophonist Francis Williams. Vance also arranged for Ellington. He wrote the charts for most of the big band standards included on the album Ellington ‘55.

After touring with Ellington, Vance played again with the Don Redman Orchestra and performed frequently at the Savoy Ballroom in New York City.

In 1958, the musician who grew up in Cleveland teamed up with Ellington to co-compose the "Jazz Festival Suite" that was first performed at the Newport Jazz Festival.

In 1962, Vance also led the band for the album Sonny Stitt and the Top Brass. They played the arrangements of Cleveland native Tadd Dameron.

Also in the mid-1960s, Vance wrote more arrangements for Ellington. Like the earlier Ellington ‘55 album, Recollections of the Big Band Era, included Vance’s new arrangements of classic big band standards saluting various swing bands. Among them were songs Vance had played years earlier -- "Christopher Columbus" with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra and "Cherokee" with the Charlie Barnet band.

When Lyndon Johnson was president, he hired the Ellington band to play at the White House for a party honoring the visiting king of Thailand. Ellington asked Vance to write some arrangements for the gig and invited Vance and his wife to attend the party. When Ellington started to introduce Vance to the king, he was interrupted. According to Ellington’s book, Music is My Mistress, the king said, "Dick Vance? I know who Dick Vance is. He used to wail with Chick Webb." Ellington later said he thought to himself, "This is a real hip king!"

Later in the 1960s, Vance toured Europe with Eddie Barefield, released two obscure albums under his own name, and played with the Cab Calloway band. By the 1980s, Vance stayed close to home in New York. As one of the honored veterans of the swing era, he took part in a Vintage Jazz Band Bash organized by Oberlin College graduate Dick Sudhalter in New York in June of 1984. Less than a year later, July 1, 1985, Dick Vance died at the age of 70.

While Dick Vance, who grew up in Cleveland in the 1920s and ‘30s, seldom soloed and was not widely known by the general public, he was a highly respected lead trumpeter and arranger. Singer Mel Torme wrote that Dick Vance "helped bring character to the Chick Webb, Fletcher Henderson, Charlie Barnet, Don Redman, Cab Calloway, Glen Gray and Earl Hines bands." He also made significant contributions to the Duke Ellington Orchestra.

Copyright 2009 Joe Mosbrook

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