Sunday, July 25, 2010

Musical Profiles - A Blog by Freda: Diz Mullins

The first in a series of profiles focusing on Ventura County Musical Arts by Freda.

Jul 2010 - What I love about SoCal and Ventura County in particular is we have some of the world’s best musical talents quietly living right here in our mist. Some retired, others traveling and working yet enjoying Ventura County as home base and understandably so. Ventura County is simply a good place to be!

Once such talent is Diz Mullins. I met Diz through involvement with the Channel Cities Jazz Club (CCJC) – a membership club of nearly 200 members and crowds of visitors, all jazz lovers (listeners and players) meeting 3rd Sunday of each month at the Oxnard, CA Elks Lodge from 1:00 to 4:00. Diz has been with the club nearly 20 years now. Before this one, he founded and led the Simi Valley Jazz Club. No doubt, he has managed to keep himself in and around music throughout his lifetime.

A few months ago, I grabbed a chance to talk with Diz just before the start of one of his shows. He’d brought his 10 piece big band, Spring Into Spring, to perform as the featured group for the CCJC. From a seat a few tables over, I looked on as he meticulously wiped down his trumpet, organized set lists , and hummed melodies aloud while painting musical lines through the air as he reviewed sheets he’d scored. Clearly he was in his element, engaged in a show preparation routine he’s, no doubt, performed many times over. Diz just turned 81 this past May and has spent his lifetime in music – more than six decades. Yet, somehow, he continues to exude a fun, boyish enthusiasm for this thing that is him – his music.

Diz started playing music in elementary school. His Dad bought him a cornet and "‘fore ya know it" he explains, I was getting good at it". By high school he’d moved on to trumpet and was playing in a band with school mate Patti Page. When she graduated a couple years ahead of him, moving on to further her own great career, Diz began to draw the attention of some of the grown-up working musicians in and around his hometown (Tulsa, Oklahoma). By age 16 (1945), he was going strong traveling Missouri and Texas playing with the older cats. He soon joined the union and was well on his path to becoming a full-time musician (after high school of course). He went on to the University of Tulsa, then transferred to University of Oklahoma on a fully paid music scholarship and was simply loving life. He really wanted nothing other than to study his music, day and night. His Dad would have had him become an “Oil Man” as that was the family business. His brother was in engineering. Diz could not waver. He had to have his music. In College, he formed and sang in a vocal group - Four Kings and A Cole (for Carolyn Cole). "Why Diz"?, I asked. "Why music so long and dedicated?" "Well, I had a talent and I took it and polished it and got good at it” He responds. He pauses in reflection for just a moment, then continues in a soft introspective voice. . . “Music is all I’ve ever known”.

In college, he began to score for the bands he was in and eventually connected with, Pearson Thal, Piano (Semi-classical) playing the hotel circuit. Did that from ’53 to ’54 traveling Toleto, Cleveland and Dayton, Ohio. Sometime in there he took a stint in New York to study with Lennie Tristano which was understandably a highlight for him. Then finally, from his hotel gigging, was able to save up the $900 he needed to get to California where he started with the Tommy Alexander Band and there got his lifetime chance to meet and work with some of the biggest and best (Dave Wells, Lanny Morgan, Bob Hathaway, Don Bagley). Oh yes! Now he was truly entering the big time and he knew it. He played a good 4 year stint with Charlie Barnet’s Big Band, then with Anita O’day’s Sextet, Woody Herman and Sy Zentner, Russ Morgan, Freddy Martin (did a year long TV show and two years at the Coconut Grove). Off and on, like most full time artists, Diz took day jobs but never with any intention of giving up what he loved.

After I got Diz talkin’, he began to pour out lists, long lists of shows and celebrities he’d either played with, recorded with or scored for. We are talking scoring more than 400 feature films including Rocky 1, 2 and 3, Barbra Streisand's A Star Is Born, Roots – The TV Series, The Autobiography of Jane Pitman, The Merv Griffin Show and The Hollywood Palace. He scored for Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan, Rosemary Clooney, recorded with Charlie Barrette’s Big Band (five albums) along with Maynard Ferguson, Al Porcino, Buddy Childers. We are talking numerous television shows including Bonanza, Red Skelton, Smothers Bros, Andy Griffith, Matlock, Perry Mason and working with other greats including Quincy Jones, Dave Grusin, Elmer Bernstein. I’m hearing all this and my mouth is dropping in amazement. “Diz”! I scold, “you mean to tell me you’ve been sittin’ here for these 4-5 years I’ve known you and haven’t peeped a word of any of this!?

Diz continues organizing as I scold him a bit for exercising such a low profile, keeping all this good stuff away from us. It reminds me of how we often have to find out some of the fun, wonderful, great and even crazy things our parents did from someone other than them. Then, when you ask, “Dad, why didn’t you tell me?. . .the response is. . .”well I didn’t think it important. Didn’t think you’d want to know.” Same thing with Diz. “Ohhh, nobody wants to hear all that about me”. . .he says. He had neatly prepared chart packets for the musicians, a play list for himself showing song writer, original arranger, the year written, who performed it back in the day and which of his group members would be featured on the tune today. He had one for himself and one for the sound man, Dave, for easy sound management. Professionalism at its finest. He’d not missed a beat. Then the MC take stage. . .

And now folks, . . .with no further ado, it's today’s guest band. . .Spring Into Spring led and conducted by Diz Mullins, featuring accomplished singer and actress, the beautiful Nancy Osborne. Diz then climbs onto a stool purched high to the left of the band, raises his arms high to signal, then counts off the first tune, a Basie swing called “Sudden Sam”. Then on to “Opus One”, “Witchcraft”, “Der Flugelhorns”, and “Jive At Five”. Already the audience is wowed with the "Diz" sound of these great tunes. For me, I’m in heaven for there’s nothing like hearing a group of horns in perfect arrangement all blowing together. The big band horn sound simply takes me away. This group presents a magnificent crisp clarity on every tune. Every solo exudes a veteran confidence and understandably so. Diz continues to associate with several published, traveled musicians whom I’ll certainly be seeking to interview for future articles.

Clearly there is a special endearing respect Diz holds for his players always taking time to introduce each of them with an undeniable compassion that can be heard in the tone of his voice as he announces their names and instruments. Likewise, he has a respect for the writers, arrangers and recording artists who originally brought these songs to life. This kind of respect for the profession is exemplary of one who truly loves the world of music. And honestly, I really don’t think Diz would have ever revealed to me any of his many accomplishments had I not asked. I’d say, this is the picture of a great leader surrounding himself with talent, giving ‘em the tools, lifting them up while himself assuming the role of "talent facilitator". That's alright Diz, this is one pesky persistent writer who's determined to help our readers know of your contributions.

After “Jive at Five”, Swing Into Spring goes into “Yardbird Suite” and then “I Love Being Here With You”, “Honey Suckle Rose” and “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby”, (these last three numbers featuring, vocalist Nancy Osborne). Then wrapping up with “Hint of Tangerine”, “You’d be So Nice to Come Home To” and “Off To Buffalo”. The dance floor was filled. The audience was thrilled, and I, well I just sat back, closed my eyes and placed myself in a ballroom dance hall in the 1950’s – so nice.

Just before the show, I’d asked Diz to describe a favorite time in music. He tells of two. One is getting called to the stage by Charlie Parker to fill in for a missing trumpet player. Another was beating Nat Atterly in 1956 in a Downbeat Magazine poll for “Best Trumpet”. With a chuckle, he jubilantly recalls, momentarily reliving the victory once again, “He was #27 and there it was in print, I was #26!

There is no wonder how Diz Mullins pulls off his great arrangements and gathers around him some of SoCal’s musicians to present his artistry, and all while never losing that fun, boyish nature. Today, In Diz, I can still see that 6 year old kid with the coronet. So glad your Dad got you that horn Diz. I phoned Diz, just before putting the finishing touches on this article to ask just one more question. “Diz, I have just one more question to ask”. . .he responds “B flat seven!” then laughs. “No seriously Diz, I want to know. If someone gave you one million dollars to tell what being involved with music makes you feel down deep inside, what do you say”. He responds, “it’s warmth, it’s satisfying, its what I know, its all I know. . .it’s indescribable. I’d tell ’em to call me back tomorrow”.

Diz, Thanks for all you’ve done and continue to do for us. Love ya Diz. Keep doing it! Folks, I tell ya, there’s gold in this hear County, and you can bet, from now on, I’ll be doing some prospectin’!

P.S. You can catch Diz with another of his bands, the 18 piece Swing Shift Band, at the Sportsmans Lounge, Camarillo on the 4th Sunday of each month. And bring your dancin' shoes!

Published by permission.

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