The story begins in Key West, Florida where Theodore “Fats” Navarro was born of mixed Cuban-Black-Chinese parentage on September 24, 1923. His musical training began early with piano lessons at age six, but he did not start taking music seriously until he took up the trumpet at age thirteen. He became well grounded in the fundamentals of music during his high school years. He also studied tenor saxophone and played briefly with Walter Johnson’s band in Miami. After graduating high school, he joined Sol Allbrights’s band in Orlando, traveled with him to Cincinnati, took further trumpet lessons from an Ohio teacher, and soon went on the road with Snookum Russell’s Indianapolis-based orchestra.
Russell’s group, a well regarded “territorial” band in the 1940s, proved to be a valuable training ground for Fats. Such stars an J.J. Johnson and Ray Brown had paid their dues there. Fats stayed with Russell for about two years (1941-42) and became its feature trumpet soloist. At that time, his style was strongly influenced by the great Roy Eldridge and his (Fats’) third cousin, the wonderful trumpet stylist Charlie Shavers. He was yet to hear and incorporate Dizzy Gillespie’s and Charlie Parker’s message. His next stop was with Andy Kirk and his Kansas City-based “Clouds of Joy.” Here he met and forged a lasting friendship with trumpeter Howard McGhee. Maggie, as he was known, was a few years older than Fats and was an important influence in his development.
From the Andy Kirk band, Fats accepted Billy Eckstine’s invitation to join up as Eckstine’s band was both commercially successful and perhaps the most musically advanced. Besides Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, the band included at one time or other during a brief four year span a lineup of future stars that is unprecedented in all of jazz: Kenny Dorham, Miles Davis, Dexter Gordon, Wardell Gray, Gene Ammons, Lucky Thompson, Bud Johnson, Frank Wess, Charlie Rouse, Sonny Stitt, Leo Parker, Cecil Payne, Tadd Dameron, Jerry Valentine, Tommy Potter, Art Blakey, and Sarah Vaughan were some of the more notable to pass through the band.
Unfortunately, few of the recordings give any impression of this. The record companies were mainly interested in the commercial potential of Eckstine’s rather conventional ballads. There are only a handful of examples of Navarro’s work with the band on the many recordings that were made. After an eighteen month stay, the rigors of road travel and the lack of opportunities to play his music led Fats to leave the Eckstine band and remain in New York City. There would be a period of brilliance and increasing musical maturity over the next three years. It was the summer of 1946 and Fats was about to enter his most productive period. He was now twenty two years old and already a trumpet virtuoso
New York City has been a major center of jazz development through most of jazz’s history, and 1940s was a particularly fertile period. Both the Harlem and 52nd Street musical scenes were a hotbed of jazz activity. Due to the economics of the big band and the change from a mainly dancing to a listening music, big band jazz gave way to the small jazz combo format consisting usually of a rhythm section of piano, bass and drums, and from one to three “front line” feature soloists. (There were a few notable exceptions such as Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Woody Herman, Lionel Hampton, and Stan Kenton, but for the most part the big band era was over.)
The small combo format was ideal for Fats. He was able to give full expression to his ideas and soon developed a reputation as a major force on modern trumpet rivaling that of Dizzy Gillespie. As a result, he was much sought after for recording dates as a feature sideman by such jazz greats as Kenny Clarke, Dexter Gordon, Coleman Hawkins, Benny Goodman, Bud Powell, and particularly, Tadd Dameron. He also appeared as a feature soloist on many “all-star” or “dream band” engagements, including a JATP concert at Carnegie Hall.
His association with Dameron was probably the most productive musically. They seemed to be in sympathy with one another. The Dameron influence brought a more lyrical feeling to his playing to go along with his breathtaking technical facility and his high note ability which he used sparingly but with great effect. Navarro was the feature soloist with Tadd’s group, which also included at various times Wardell Gray, Allen Eagar, J.J. Johnson, E Henry, Milt Jackson, Curley Russell, Nelson Boyd, and Kenny Clarke. The group gigged mostly around New York City and was often at the Royal Roost.
Navarro achieved considerable popularity with the jazz public and was highly admired by both critics and fellow musicians. He also was a Metronome jazz poll winner for 1948 which led to an appearance on a Metronome All Stars recording date. It would have been a natural step for him to form his own group, but he showed no inclination to do so.
Navarro, who spoke Spanish, used to jam at several Latin clubs in New York City. He recorded a Tadd Dameron original entitled “Jahbero,” based on “All the Things You Are,” with Afro-Cuban bongo player Chino Pozo (Chano’s cousin).Then, in early 1949, he recorded “Casbah,” another Dameron piece based on “Out of Nowhere, “featuring Afro- Cuban percussionists Diego Ibarra and Carlos Vidal Bolado. In late 1949, Navarro recorded a bop-mambo entitled “Stop” composed by tenor saxophonist Don Lanphere which was based on “Pennies From Heaven.”
Somewhere along the way, Fats contracted tuberculosis, which led to a sharp decline in his health and a curtailing of his musical activity over the last seventeen months of his life. He nevertheless went on the road one last time with the Jazz at the Philharmonic tour for about seven weeks in February and March of 1949.
He had only two studio recording dates in 1949, one in August on a Bud Powell date and one a month later with the little known tenor saxophonist, Don Lanphere. The last recordings in 1950, were private records done live at Birdland that featured Charlie Parker and Bud Powell. Fats holds his own throughout, while playing several long and interesting solos.
Navarro left a legacy of about 150 recorded sides of phenomenal consistent quality. In 1982, he was elected by the International Jazz Critics into the Down Beat Hall of Fame. He was a major influence on Clifford Brown and through him Navarro has indirectly influenced so many of the trumpeters playing today as Benny Bailey, Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, Sam Noto, Woody Shaw and even Roy Hargrove.
Theodore “Fats” Navarro died on July 6, 1950 in a New York City hospital.
Excerpts from an original text by Stuart Varden, a true Fats Navarro fan.