Frank Isola, Jazz Drummer
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2004-12-14 21:10:04 UTC
The least known of the drum giants, Frank Isola, died yesterday in a Veterans' Hospital in Detroit. Anyone familiar with the Stan Getz Quintet or the Gerry Mulligan Quartet that included Bob Brookmeyer will be familiar with Frank's work. He was a rhythm section genius and one of the least obtrusive drummers of them all. It's not for nothing that Peggy Lee, Claude Thornhill, Elliot Lawrence and others hired Frank He recorded with Charlie Parker and Helen Merrill. When Mose Allison made his first record under his own name he had Frank on drums. It turned out to be Frank's last. When Tommy Dorsey wanted a drummer whilst in New York he had his manager call Frank. As Bill Crow recalls, Frank thought for a bit and then said 'No thanks. Tell Tommy I'm not in a sentimental mood...'

He was 79. I only got to meet and hear Frank live on one occasion and that was during the memorable (three buses) trip to the initial Newport Jazz Festival back in 1954. I was on my way to the washroom when I heard someone call me by name. The voice belonged to Red Mitchell and the gentleman with him was Isola. They were there along with trumpeter Tony Fruscella to make up a Gerry Mulligan Quartet. Frank was born in Detroit on February 20, 1925; he took up the drums in 1936 after hearing Gene Krupa with the Benny Goodman band. From 1943 to 1945 he worked in an Army Air Force Band and then settled on the U.S. west coast where he studied and worked with the bands of Bobby Sherwood and Earle Spencer in 1946 before heading to NYC where he found work with the bands of Johnny Bothwell and Elliot Lawrence in 1947 and played sessions with Charlie Parker in the apartment of William Henry. For such a talented and inventive drummer, he didn't leave much of a recorded legacy.

On April 23, 1953 he was the drummer on a recording date that guitarist Jimmy Raney did for Prestige and that four tune session (one of my desert island discs) is now part of a CD called "Early Stan" released under Getz's name. Raney was joined that day by Getz (disguised as "Sven Coolsen" - he had just arrived home from a stay in Europe), pianist Hall Overton, Red Mitchell and Isola. Four marvellous tracks, a superb version of Monk's "'Round Midnight" and memorable Raney compositions, "Lee" (for his wife), "Signal" and "Motion", his "You Stepped Out Of A Dream" - a particular favourite of Rene Thomas as well. When Raney and Mitchell played the Seville Theatre that year they both spoke of that session with great enthusiasm.

On Stan Getz's "At The Shrine" CD on Verve, there are two tracks, "We'll Be Together Again" and Jimmy Mundy's "Feather Merchant" that come from a November 9,1954 studio session with Frank heard with Getz, Bob Brookmeyer, John Williams and Bill Anthony. In 1954, Frank and Anthony also did a trio session with John Williams for EmArcy and I remember owning a 10" lp of that session. It's now on CD as "John Williams on EmArcy - master takes" and the titles from July are "I'll Take The Low Road" by Williams, "Railroad Jack" by trumpeter Phil Sunkel and Harold Arlen's "Out of This World". In August they did, Elise Bretton's "For Heaven's Sake", Irving Berlin's "Be Careful, It's My Heart", Williams' "Williams Tell" and "Blue Mirror" and Mack Gordon's "Somewhere In The Night". In June 1955 with Chuck Andrus on bass, Williams and Isola did Gus Kahn's "How Strange" and in October of that year with fellow Detroiter Ernie Farrow on bass, Gillespie's "Manteca", Irene Higginbotham's "Good Morning Heartache" and the standards, "Baubles, Bangles and Beads" and "Someday My Prince Will Come". In December 1952, Isola did two sessions with Getz that appear on the Verve CD, "Stan Getz Plays". The quintet here is made up of Getz, Raney, Duke Jordan, Bill Crow and Isola and they did things like "Stella By Starlight", "Lover Come Back To Me", "The Way You Look Tonight" and "Stars Fell On Alabama" on the first session and "Thanks for the Memory", "These Foolish Things" and Gigi Gryce's "Hymn Of/To The Orient". Trumpeter Tony Fruscella was like Frank, a wonderful unsung musician. On the double CD "Tony Fruscella - The Complete Works" [Jazz Factory], Getz, Isola, Williams and Anthony are heard on a 1955 studio session playing two of Sunkel's pieces "Blue Bells" and "Roundup Time" and on a live session from Birdland that same year they do "Get Happy", "Dear Old Stockholm", Getz's "Pernod", Bird's "Scrapple From The Apple" and "Night Train" (more properly Ellington's "Happy Go Lucky Local").

The Mulligan Quartet we heard at Newport in 1954 had just played Paris with Bob Brookmeyer in place of Fruscella and a number of CDs have appeared including "The Pleyel Concerts, Volumes 1 and 2" on Vogue. Brookmeyer also did a date for that label with Mitchell, Isola, guitarist Jimmy Gourley and pianist Henri Renaud. Isola is also listed recording with Helen Merrill and Eddie Bert but I don't have access to those sessions. In 1957 just after recording "Back Country Suite", Mose Allison's debut recording [Prestige] he returned to Detroit where he remained active.
2004-12-16 02:48:36 UTC
Independent obit ~


ALTHOUGH HE showed no signs of being upset when the drummer
Frank Isola left his quartet to work for Stan Getz, Gerry
Mulligan, often a vindictive man, found a way of expressing
his feelings. He shook hands with Isola as the drummer
prepared for the long drive back to New York with Getz. Then
Mulligan drove off in the opposite direction with Isola's
drum kit still in the boot of his car.

Although he was one of the best drummers that a rhythm
section could have, Isola was a quiet player and almost
uniquely unobtrusive. He was instinctively able to guide and
blend together the instruments in the rhythm section and had
abilities that far outstripped the obscurity that he seemed
to choose for himself.

John Williams, one of the finest jazz pianists of the
Fifties, regarded Isola as a musical father figure when the
two played together in Getz's quintet. Williams learned so
much about playing from the drummer that he kept in touch
with Isola for the rest of his life and to this day makes a
point of passing on Isola's musical philosophy to younger

Isola was selective about whom he worked for. In the early
Fifties, the internationally renowned Tommy Dorsey band was
playing a season in New York. Dorsey needed a drummer and
wanted to hear Isola. His manager phoned Isola and asked him
to come down to where the band was playing. Isola thought
for a moment and answered, "Aaaah, thanks. But tell Tommy
I'm not in a sentimental mood." ("In a Sentimental Mood" was
Dorsey's theme song.)

Beginning as a professional in 1947, aged 22, Isola toured
the West with the legendary Earle Spencer band. Always
discriminating, he worked for Peggy Lee, Louis Prima, Elliot
Lawrence and Claude Thornhill when he moved to New York in
1948. He recorded with Charlie Parker in 1950 and worked
from time to time with Stan Getz from 1952 on.

When Gerry Mulligan reformed his quartet in January 1954, he
signed Isola on the recommendation of the trombonist Bob
Brookmeyer. The quartet toured the West Coast and travelled
to Paris to play at the Salon du Jazz Festival. Some of
their performances there were recorded and are still in the
album catalogues today.

The quartet returned to the US and played at the very first
Newport Jazz Festival in July 1954. In November it joined a
tour promoted by Norman Granz that included the Duke
Ellington band, the Getz Quintet and the Dave Brubeck
Quartet. It was when the tour ended in Los Angeles that
Isola left Mulligan to rejoin the classic Getz quintet that
included John Williams and Bob Brookmeyer.

Eventually leaving Getz, Isola became a freelance drummer in
New York. There he met again the pianist Mose Allison - the
two had worked together for Getz - and appeared on Allison's
first recording in 1957. It proved to be Isola's last.

In 1992, Isola gave himself a typically modest
under-valuation. "I'm a section man, a sideman, just a
timekeeper." He forgot to mention that he was one of the
great drum masters.

Frank Isola, drummer: born Detroit, Michigan 20 February
1925; married (one son deceased); died Detroit 12 December

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