Turkish Delight

Bandleader Sam Bivens brings six decades of jazz history to Turk's Supper Club.

In the annals of jazz lore, the story goes something like this:

Dizzy Gillespie, perhaps tired from a long night of gigging, mistakenly sat on his trumpet, causing the horn's normally straight bell to twist skyward at a perfectly right angle. Desperate to continue with the next set, Diz blew anyway, and the sound was good. Very good. Soon thereafter, the 45-degree trumpet was officially born.

Denver-based jazzman Sam Bivens knows a thing or two about the trumpet. He's been playing it since his friend Boots persuaded him to join a school band, sometime way back in 1945, when Bivens was a twelve-year-old boy living just outside of Knoxville, Tennessee. Back then, Bivens used to get a sly thrill out of riling up his father's hunting dogs -- all forty of them -- with his amateur blowing. And in every day that's followed, Bivens swears he's laid his hands on the horn for at least a little while; practice, he contends, makes perfect. It's something you just don't have to tell a real musician.

Play it again, and again, and again, Sam: Denver Jazz Orchestra bandleader  Sam Bivens.
James Bludworth
Play it again, and again, and again, Sam: Denver Jazz Orchestra bandleader Sam Bivens.

So when he's asked about the origins of the strangely angled horn -- his primary instrument of choice as the bandleader of the twenty-piece Denver Jazz Orchestra, which he started in 1987 after moving here from Minneapolis -- Bivens tells the story a little bit differently. The 45-degree trumpet, he contends, comes not from a seating accident involving one of the world's most beloved blowers, but from a careful study of jazz as science.

"The 45-degree trumpet was designed by a committee of five of the world's greatest trumpet teachers, players and designers," says the 69-year-old Bivens. "The Martin company began manufacturing them. Dizzy had them in his trumpet section. Guys like Lee Morgan played them. They were designed to have the most perfect balance; they were best able to execute style. The straight trumpet will always be there, but the 45-degree trumpet is something a little bit...special."

It's easy to accept this scenario and, for that matter, any other story Bivens presents, as God's Honest Truth. He is a large man, with eyes that have seen some things -- they're steady and intense, but friendly. In quiet moments, he looks almost like a cutout from a textbook on the Big Band era -- an image peeled off the sleeve of all those thick LPs from Decca, Blue Note, Muse. Maybe it's the impeccably pressed navy-blue three-piece, Bivens's ever-present "gig suit," that invites this reverence and suggests the formality and ritual of an era long past -- an era when Benny Goodman, Count Basie and Duke Ellington ruled the radios and record players of many American households. Or it could be the simple fact that he's been there.

"I am an old-world musician, a traveler and an eternal optimist," Bivens says. "I was around with Basie. I've seen Ella Fitzgerald, Duke -- all of the greats. And I'll tell you what: In order to make it as a musician back then, you had to know the fundamentals. There was a certain level of musicianship expected. Players today don't seem to care about learning basic skills -- the kids in rock and hip-hop, they do not know writing, or arranging, or rhythms, or colors or transposing. It's like the whole world is lackadaisical, and that was not the way it was back then."

This is the way it was for Bivens back then: At twelve, his pal Boots introduced him to the grade-school band teacher, who asked what he would like to play. The saxophone? Nope, said Bivens, he didn't think he had enough hands to handle all those keys. "I looked at the trumpet and decided I'd pick this thing with just three little buttons. The people said to me, 'It'll take you thirty years to learn how to play this thing.' But I'm twelve -- what did I care about thirty years? I had no idea I was picking a monster."

That monster eventually led Bivens to a traveling gig with the Les Hines Orchestra. At age fourteen, he dropped out of the tenth grade and hit the road with a band of jazz pros, all of whom were significantly older. "I was fascinated by music. I played every day. Out on the road with them players -- they called me 'Little Boy' -- I wasn't worried about my age or their ages. I learned everything, played with the best."

From that time until he quit touring and moved to Miami in the early '50s, Bivens played trumpet with many of the greats of the era, like Nat "King" Cole, the Count Basie Orchestra, Jackie Wilson, Christine Chapman, Oliver Nelson. Precocious as he may have been -- sitting in with Cole before he was old enough to drink or drive -- Bivens regards the experience as both an education and a necessity.

"People have a lot of the wrong ideas about a working musician," he says. "It wasn't like it is now. People didn't think, 'Oh, a touring, working musician. That's all about getting drunk, or girls, or pills, or acting crazy.' For us, it was a job. There were touring bands all over the place -- the Brownskin Players, the Sweethearts of Rhythm, the Billy Eckstine Orchestra, the Lucky Miller Orchestra. You didn't think, 'Oh, this man I'm playing with is a great or famous man.' You thought, 'I am playing with a bunch of musicians, and let's find the highest level of quality and continue on.'"

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