Bop — or bebop, to use its full name — has never been my favorite kind of jazz, but I do enjoy it more now than I once did. I came to big band music long after its heyday anyway, so my acceptance of bop was delayed but it did eventually occur. Part of the reason for that might have been musicians like Charlie Ventura, who years before had helped bridge the gap between the new style of music and traditional big band jazz.
Bop was fast-paced, often frenetic, and possessed of truckloads of improvisation — qualities that made it a popular style for cutting-edge musicians in the 1940s. I wasn’t eligible to pass judgment on bop during its early years because at that time I was more interested in getting my diaper changed, but a lot of traditional music fans found the new stuff disturbing. Record companies turned to guys like Charlie Ventura to help sell the new sound.
Charlie Ventura was a good choice for the job of popularizing bop. Although he was never a true bopper, he was an accomplished saxophonist and leader who had a solid background in big band jazz. The Philadelphia native had risen to fame as part of Gene Krupa’s band, and later led groups of his own. After jumping from a smaller label to RCA Records in the post-war years, he was open to exploring the new music and even began calling his small band Bop For The People.
Although the records Ventura made in those days might not have always satisfied bop purists, he did add a definite bounce to some of the era’s familiar standards, like “What Is This Thing Called Love?” and “I Surrender, Dear.”. He even invited big-name soloists for an occasional recording session — in one case, the legendary Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker helped out.
Ventura sold a lot of records, but his attempted straddling of the line between two types of music eventually became a moot point of sorts, and he subsequently returned to traditional jazz. For most of the 1950s and 1960s he did very well, leading his own group and even forming a full band at one point. He also joined up with Gene Krupa again as part of a very successful and popular trio.
By the time the 1970s began, Ventura had slowed down on performing. His health was starting to fail and he needed to carefully choose how best to use his time and energy in his remaining years. Although he made a number of good choices, one of his best was his association with Jackie Gleason’s Orchestra, appearing in Vegas with the group and also supplying his smooth, soaring sax solos on many records.
Charlie Ventura died at age 75 in 1992, remembered by some as the man behind Bop For The People, but by most as simply one of the best all-around jazz pros of our time.