Tony Fruscella, a name from the sharkskin underground of the 1950’s. Born in 1927, he was raised in a nun’s orphanage in New Jersey. Little Tony was given a trumpet at age fifteen and supposedly played at Carnegie Hall the same year as part of a concert for gifted classical students. He was drafted into the U.S. Army at age eighteen upon his discharge he headed for New York City, and a career in jazz. In the early fifties he worked with Lester Young, Stan Getz, and Gerry Mulligan (appearing with Mulligan at Newport in ’54).
He led his own band at Open Door, a club on the south side of Washington Square Park, playing in a style that marked the middle point between be-bop and the coming sound of “cool” as embodied by Miles Davis around the same time. Is hard bop still a word? This is, well, not soft bop, but certainly soft focus bop. Jazz always had too many hyphens anyway. Fruscella’s not always skillful playing is something of a precursor to Chet Baker and other west coast musicians who would rise to jazz stardom at the end of the fifties.
As a leader Fruscella recorded for tiny labels like Century (1948), Xanadu (1952) and cut his an LP for Atlantic in ’55 (maybe the rarest LP on the label). Then there’s this live set, from the aforementioned Open Door, recorded in ’53, originally issued on the Spotlight label in the early 70’s. The vibe of this late night recording is incredible. You can actually hear him nod off (and bang the bell of his horn into the microphone) at one point. The chatter from the stage leaves little to the imagination, there’s some dope action going on, which provides the aural subtext for A Night At The Open Door which this LP is titled. This could be the soundtrack to Sweet Smell Of Success
Fruscella was not a genius, he was not Bird or Miles, but for one hour, one night in ’53, up there on the bandstand, somewhere between a nod and rush, he captured some magic, and this record remains, for me, more than just a curiosity of narcotica-ephemera, it’s actually one of my favorite jazz albums of that era, and I probably listen to it more than really great jazz records (i.e. I can’t remember the last time I played an Ornette Coleman record, and I’ve got at least a dozen of them), which may say more about me than Tony Fruscella. Bob Quine turned me onto this one very early on in our friendship, when I was still trying to develop an ear for jazz, he certainly understood my taste (or lack there of). While it may not be Kind Of Blue, Tony Fruscella- A Night At The Open Door has an allure all it’s own that has little to do with musical innovation, it has a soul that is unique, and that makes it something special.