Emmett Berry. Perhaps more than any other musician from Cleveland, he was a key figure in jazz for almost 40 years. But today, he is almost forgotten. His name: Emmett Berry. Because he played mostly as a sideman and not as a leader, he was never widely known by the public, but he was highly respected by jazz musicians. When he came home to retire in Cleveland in 1970, he brought with him almost 40 years of memories of performances with many of the biggest names in jazz history.
Berry was born in 1915 in Macon, Georgia, the oldest of three children of a factory laborer. His family moved to Cleveland and Emmett began studying trumpet with a classical music teacher, but he quickly switched to jazz. When Berry started playing with Cleveland jazz bands in the early 1930s, he was initially influenced by Louis Armstrong. Berry went on the road in 1932 with a band called The Chicago Nightingales, led by Toledo’s Frank Terry, and began to demonstrate a fiery, full-toned and flawless trumpet technique.
By 1936, his technique had advanced so well that Berry was selected to replace Roy Eldrige in the trumpet soloist’s chair of the high-flying and influential Fletcher Henderson Orchestra. In three years with the Henderson band, Berry performed with such artists as Ben Webster and Budd Johnson and produced a series of warm, uncomplicated trumpet solos on such recordings as “Rhythm of the Tambourine,” “Chris and His Gang” and “Back in Your Own Backyard.” Berry remained with Henderson until 1939 when Fletcher broke up his orchestra and joined Benny Goodman as a staff arranger. After a short stint with the band of Henderson’s brother, Horace, Berry joined the trumpet section of the Earl Hines Orchestra. Beginning in 1941, Berry played radio, record and live dates with Teddy Wilson’s sextet. Included were several recording sessions with singer Billie Holiday. After making at least four recordings with Holiday in 1941 and ‘42, Berry joined a much publicized CBS studio band led by Raymond Scott, Other members of that band included Webster, Mel Powell, Cozy Cole, Les Elgart, Charlie Shavers, Benny Morton, Tony Mottola and Israel Crosby.
In 1942, Berry toured with the popular Lucky Millinder Orchestra. Then, in 1943, the Cleveland trumpeter joined the exciting Lionel Hampton Orchestra. After two years touring with Hampton, he played with the legendary John Kirby Sextet and recorded with pianist Eddie Heywood. Berry was the trumpeter on Heywood’s classic “Begin the Beguine” recording. He also played with Heywood at clubs on New York’s 52nd Street before joining the swinging Count Basie band.
Berry was a key member of the Basie band from 1945 to 1950, playing in the trumpet section with such artists as Clark Terry, Snooky Young, Al Killian, Joe Newman, and Thad Jones. He also recorded with Basie’s small groups.
I still have a 78 rpm record I bought in 1947. It is the Basie sextet playing “Back Stage at Stuffs.” It features Bill Basie on piano, Freddy Green on guitar, Walter Paqe on bass, Jo Jones on drums, Paul Gonsalves on saxophone and Clevelander Emmett Berry on trumpet.
You may remember that historic photograph, “A Great Day in Harlem” by photographer Art Kane. It shows 57 legendary jazz musicians gathered in front of a Harlem apartment building. The photo includes in the front row, standing next to Thelonious Monk, Emmett Berry. When Basie disbanded in 1950, Berry found himself out of work. For a while, he made a little money as an elevator operator on Nassau Street in New York City. But, he later joined Buck Clayton and Jimmy Rushing, and in 1951, toured with the Johnny Hodges band. Berry was not swayed by the arrival of bebop. He continued to play the straight-ahead style he had learned with Fletcher Henderson and found a lot of work, touring France and North Africa with Sammy Price in 1956, recording with Buck Clayton, and playing with a Henderson reunion band in 1957, before beginning a retail music business in New York City in 1958.
He continued performing, however, touring Europe with Clayton in 1959 and ‘61, appearing in a film with Miles Davis in ‘59, and playing on countless record sessions in New York and Los Angeles with everyone from Basie to Gil Evans. In the 1960s, Berry played in dixieland bands with Wilbur De Paris, Peanuts Hucko, Big Chief Moore and Buddy Tate. In 1970, because of ill health, the 55 year old Berry, who had helped fire the Fletcher Henderson and Count Basie bands, came home to Cleveland to retire. He lived here quietly for the next 23 years.
The man who performed with many of the biggest names in jazz history died June 22, 1993, just a month short of his 78th birthday. Strangely, there was no mention in the Cleveland newspapers about the death of the Cleveland jazz trumpeter who had played so brilliantly with Henderson, Holiday, Hampton, Basie, Hodges, and a host of other jazz legends.