Frank Rosolino is considered a jazz trombone icon in the music industry (Wynn). His legendary skill was marked by imaginative sequences, technical artistry and molten style. In addition to being a majestic trombonist, Rosolino was also an appreciated scat singer, who recorded a scat album entitled “Turn Me Loose” (Rickert).
Despite his efforts at scat vocalizations, singing and comedy work, it was his trombone that really made Rosolino amazing (Wynn). He delivered a sound that dazzled audiences with his meticulous notes. This sample biographical and reflective essay from Ultius looks at the amazing life and tragic death of an American jazz icon.
Frank Rosolino – Jazzman extraordinaire
Frank Rosolino was born in the Motor City, Detroit, Michigan in 1926 while it was still a cultural Mecca and not the declining husk it is today (Wynn). He started his musical career as a guitarist, receiving lessons from his Dad when he was only 9 years old (Grissom). Rosolino started practicing with the trombone in his mid-teens, but his virtuosity became apparent long before he ended his career at Miller High School. He auditioned for the Cass Tech Symphony Orchestra, and was accepted, at the time considered quite an honor, as they selected their candidates from across the city of Detroit. Inducted into the army, Rosolino became a member of the 86th Division Army Band, and got the opportunity to play in the Philippines as well as in America, further enhancing his musical chops (Wynn).
Frank Rosolino after the army
Upon his release from the service, Rosolino had become a dynamic, well-rehearsed, full-fledged professional ready for the next phase of his prodigious calling (Grissom). He left the army in 1946 and thanks to the strong economic recovery of the U.S. following WW II, had the opportunity to play with numerous well-known band leaders of the time, including:
- Gene Krupa
- Tony Pastor
- Glen Gray
- Herbie Fields
- Bob Chester
- The Georgie Auld Quintet
In fact, Rosolino contributed his scat vocalizations to the Krupa big band hit recording “Lemon Drops” (Laanen). Later, Rosolino formed his own bands while back in Detroit (Wynn). These included:
- Frank Rosolino and his Quartet
- The Frank Rosolino Quintet with Max Bennett, Richie Kamuca, Walter Norris, Charlie Mariano, Monty Budwig, Vince Guaraldi and Stan Levey
- The Frank Rosolino Sextet with Stan Levey, Claude Williamson, Curtis Counce, Charlie Mariano, Mel Lewis, Pete Jolly, Max Bennett and Sam Noto (“Frank Rosolino.1”)
Frank Rosolino and the Stan Kenton Orchestra
The year 1952 was the start of Rosolini’s big break. He got to play with the Stan Kenton Orchestra, and became a featured soloist until the group’s break up (Grissom). It was with Kenton’s band that Rosolino developed a reputation for being a soloist of unparalleled excellence (“The Evolution”). Even after the band’s dissolution, Rosolino still recorded with Stan Kenton’s studio bands, as far along as 1955, including Stan Kenton: Frank Speaking, where Rosolino’s solo rendition begins mid-tempo and then roars into cacophonic splendor; Stan Kenton: All About Ronnie; and Stan Kenton: Hav-a-Havana (Sultanof).
Frank Rosolino and other bands
As “old” Vegas showrooms filled with musicians and recording studios and dance halls continued to hire musicians, Rosolino played in a prolific number of bands over his career:
- The Zoot Sims Sextet
- Bill Holman’s Great Big Band
- Tutti’s Trombones
- Bob Cooper Nonet
- Tommy Turk and His Orchestra
- Bobby Knight’s Great American Trombone Company
- The Lou Levy Sextet
- Bobby Troup and His Stars of Jazz
- The Los Angeles Neophonic Orchestra
- Boy Edgar Big Band
- The Lennie Niehaus Octet
- Francy Boland and Orchestra
- The Buddy Bregman Orchestra
- Frank Strazzeri Sextet
- The Buddy Bregman Band
- Gerry Mulligan and The Jazz Combo
- Terry Gibbs Dream Band
- Howard Rumsey’s Lighthouse All-Stars
- Johnny Richards and His Orchestra
- Stanley Wilson and His Orchestra
- Russell Garcia and His Orchestra
- Shorty Rogers Big Band
- Stan Kenton and His Orchestra
- The Soundstage All-Stars (“Frank Rosolino”)
- Quincy Jones (Grissom)
Frank Rosolino: Nationally and internationally
In 1954, Rosolino appeared on his first album which he recorded with Howard Rumsey’s Lighthouse All-Stars (Laanen). The All-Stars had numerous lineups over the years, but Ken Poston, founder and director of the L.A. Jazz Institute, called the 1957 Rumsey-Feldman-Cooper-Rosolino-Levey group:
“‘one of the best groups of all,’ and added ‘That group was together three or four years but it didn’t record. Can you imagine how great they sounded after playing every night for four years?’” (Wyszpolski).
Rosolino remained with The All-Stars in the 1960s, and in his quest for satisfaction, recorded with Terry Gibbs Dream Band in the years 1959, 1960, and 1962 (Laanen). Notably, Rosolino joined the Donn Tremmer’s Orchestra, which was the house band for The Steve Allen Variety TV Show. He remained with the band from 1962 through 1964, and was often a trombone soloist on the show, and periodically performed as a flamboyant comic. And remember that many other jazz musicians were knee-deep in the civil rights stuggle at this time. Rosolino also traveled the music world globally on tour (“Evolution of the Jazz Trombone”). Among his world tours were features with Conti Candoli, Quincy Jones, Benny Carter, and the band Supersax.
Rosolino conducted a session with Conti Candoli, made for RCA in 1976 (Yanow). The music was not widely received and another date to continue recording was never made. In fact, the album they made went out of print fairly quickly. Each Rosolino and Candoli featured one ballad each, backed by an Italian rhythm section. Aficionados can hear the trombonist scatting on the classic piece, “Conversation.” “Star Eyes,” a standard, was on the album, along with two Rosolino originals. The music was vivid, exciting and particularly overlooked and underrated – a real find for jazz enthusiasts (Yanow).
Film, television and Frank Rosolino
Since Rosolino was based in Los Angeles, he was able to perform extensive session work for both TV and film (“Evolution of the Jazz Trombone”). He performed with such notables as:
- Tony Bennett
- Frank Sinatra
- Mel Torme
- Peggy Lee
- Sarah Vaughan
- Michel Legrand (“Frank Rosolino.2”)
His work can still be seen in the Susan Hayward movie, I Want to Live! (1958), playing with Shelly Manne’s Group. He appears on Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis’ movie, Sweet Smell of Success (1957). Rosolino was a guest on The Merv Griffin Show and The Tonight Show, and performed on Oscar Brown, Jr’s show, Jazz Scene USA.
The Rosolino Tragedy
Most disturbing is that the man who smiled, joked, sang, and was a world-class trombone virtuoso, was hiding a grave secret. His depression had taken over his life as a full-fledged mental illness and he was unable to sort things out. Frank’s former wife, mother of his two sons, had walked into the garage, shut the doors, turned on the car engine and inhaled the fumes until death (Laanen). Rosolino, spoke to his friends about killing himself and his children after her death. Those in the car with him at that time did not believe what he was saying, telling him not to speak this way and suggesting a group prayer, in an effort to calm the desperate trombonist down. At a party the group attended later, Rosolino’s friends noticed that he seemed back to his old self – laughing and cheerful. Sadly, his friends doubted the accuracy of what they saw as a momentary expression of pain (Laanen).
A seeming return to form as a prelude to tragedy
The friends attempted to fly back to Los Angeles, but due to fog at the airport, the plane was delayed (Laanen). The group laughed and joked and talked amongst themselves, and visited the airport café. There Rosolino joked with the waitress, about the flies he saw in the restaurant, stating that he would take a bowl of flies. But the waitress was sharp as well, and told his that they did not sell the flies until Thursday. Everyone laughed, including the waitress, and she proceeded to take the groups orders (Laanen). The flight was finally ready to depart and the group boarded the plane where they met up with their friend Sarah Vaughn, who had just performed at a show (Laanen). The group sat together talking and Rosolino was being his normally funny self, to the extent that one of the members of the group, who wanted to go to sleep, had to move to a different section of the plane. Frank must have worn himself out, because eventually, he fell asleep, too.
The plane landed in Los Angeles, and his friend woke him up, describing that Rosolino looked like the kid he remembered from back in the day, but for his now white hair. The group deplaned, and each went their own separate ways (Laanen). Rosolino’s friend and his wife went home, and rested in bed in a state somewhere between sleep and being awake. He turned on the TV which helped to keep him in a zoned out state, until he heard:
The internationally celebrated jazz trombonist Frank Rosolino took his own life last night. Police in the Van Nuys division say that Frank Rosolino shot his two small sons and then turned the gun on himself. One of the children is dead, the other is in critical condition, undergoing surgery. Frank Rosolino, who became nationally known with the bands of Gene Krupa and Stan Kenton was… (Laanen).
Rosolino’s friend screamed and called his wife, who burst into tears (Laanen).They remembered his words from their trip – words they surely today link to his chronic depression. Rosolino’s friend called the Van Nuys police to talk with the detective assigned to the case. He asked if they had any additional information. The detective said no, that they were just as shocked, and hoped that the friend could fill them in.
Trying to piece things together
Had he been a habitual user and victim of the growing American drug culture? The friend did not know. In fact, he started thinking what did he really know about his friend Frank Rosolino? During the funeral many found it difficult to deal with the fact that there were two caskets, one for Frank and one for his nine year old son Justin (Laanen). The funeral home had done a good job of making both Frank and his son look like they were just sleeping. Rosolino’s friend and Roger Kellaway decided not to stay for the service and went to a nearby tavern for a drink. The pair drank and talked and Kellaway said:
“I’ve had friends who killed themselves before, but I’ve never had one who killed his kid. You can make that decision for yourself, but you have no right to make it for anyone else” (Laanen).
These were the sentiments of many involved in the Frank Rosolino murder-suicide, his friends, acquaintances and those involved in the case. His friends loved him, wished that they could have done something to help him, but most were angry at him for taking the lives of his children.
The surviving Rosolino
Even though one child lived, Jason was blinded by the shooting. He lost his mother, lost his father, lost his brother, and wound up losing his sight, as well. What a burden for such a little boy to endure. Yet, years later Jason was described as tall, handsome, muscular and a quick wit, just like his father, though he suffered from psychological problems – certainly not surprising. He had been adopted by his mother’s cousin, a couple who endured financial, emotional and physical difficulties trying to raise him. A number of musicians hosted a fundraiser in Jason’s honor, in an effort to help his adoptive parents provide him with the care he needs (Laanen).
Rosolino’s cry for help
One of Frank’s friends said that they all should have known that something was wrong (Laanen). Anytime a person can crack as many jokes as Frank did, in such rapid fire succession, he felt that they all should have known there was something that was just not right. Something below the surface, something dark brewing that was driving it all. Frank Rosolino’s suicide was a reflection of the depression he was experiencing. When a person says that they want to kill themselves, we should take them seriously. It is said that seventy-five percent of people who express the desire to kill themselves actually do. Professional help for suicide prevention should be sought on behalf of the person who says that they want to kill themselves because what they are telling you is actually a cry for help.
Like biography essays? Check out this biographical essay on Henry VIII and his six wives.
“Evolution of the Jazz Trombone, Part Three: Bebop.” Online Trombone Journal. n. d. Web. 9 June 2016. http://trombone.org/articles/library/evojazz3-3.asp.
“Frank Rosolino.1” Discogs.com. n. d. Web. 9 June 2016. https://www.discogs.com/artist/300031-Frank-Rosolino.
“Frank Rosolino.2” Radio Swiss Jazz. Schweizerische Radio- und Fernsehgesellschaft. n. d. Web. 9 June 2016. http://www.radioswissjazz.ch/en/musicians/artist/24468da343e841e01ba811fc7dd900c49171c/biography.
Grissom, Eugene, E. “Frank Rosolino (1926-1978).” Jazz Masters. Jazz Masters – René Laanen. n. d. Web. 9 June 2016. http://www.jazzmasters.nl/rosolino.htm#Biography.
Laanen, René. “Frank Rosolino.” Trombone Page of the World. René Laanen – Trombone Page of the World. 23 October 2015. Web. 9 June 2016. http://www.trombone-usa.com/rosolino_frank.htm.
Rickert, David. “Frank Rosolino: Turn Me Loose.” All About Jazz. 22 August 2002. Web. 9 June 2016. https://www.allaboutjazz.com/turn-me-loose-frank-rosolino-collectables-review-by-david-rickert.php.
Sultanof, Jeff. “The Dozens: Twelve Essential Stan Kenton Performances.” Jazz.com. n. d. Web. 9 June 2016. http://www.jazz.com/dozens/the-dozens-twelve-essential-stan-kenton-performances.
Wynn, Ron. “Artist Biography by Ron Wynn.” All Music. AllMusic, a division of All Media Network, LLC. n. d. Web. 9 June 2016. http://www.allmusic.com/artist/frank-rosolino-mn0000792096/biography.