Bobby Hackett was a cool-toned cornetist who always sounded relaxed no matter what the setting or the tempo.
Once, when he was trying to sell a cornet, he half-joked that the upper register of the horn was new because it was never used. Hackett had many admirers including Louis Armstrong (who considered him one of his favorite musicians), Jack Teagarden, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis. The latter admired Hackett’s relaxed phrasing and advanced harmonic ideas on his 1938 “Embraceable You” recording with Eddie Condon. In some ways Hackett could be considered a bridge between Bix Beiderbecke and Miles Davis, all of whom played cool (as opposed to the dominant hot trumpeters) and had the knack for making every note count. Like Teddy Wilson, he never seemed to hit a wrong note or play a phrase that was not tasteful. But although Hackett was at various times compared to Bix and Louis Armstrong, he had his own distinctive sound from the start.
Bobby Hackett was born January 31, 1915 in Providence, Rhode Island, as one of nine children. His first instrument was the ukulele and by the time he was 12 he was playing guitar, cornet, and violin, soon dropping the latter. By then he knew that he was going to be a professional musician. After completing his freshman year in high school, he permanently left school to play with a band that worked seven nights a week at a local Chinese restaurant.
Unfortunately Hackett did not record until he was 22 but he was busy during the preceding seven years. He played rhythm guitar with several orchestras (including the Herbie Marsh Orchestra, Payson Re, Teddy Roy, and Billy Lossez), once sat in with the Cab Calloway Orchestra when they were short a guitarist, and formed the Harvard Gold Coast Orchestra, an octet that played college gigs on weekends. He also led a freewheeling septet that played for a year at the Theatrical Club in Boston.
In 1937, the 22-year old moved to New York, at first mostly playing guitar with Joe Marsala on 52nd Street but soon co-leading a band at Nick’s. That year Hackett began appearing on records, playing cornet and trumpet with singer Dick Robertson on nine sessions, pianist Frank Froeba on two, with singers Teddy Grace, Red McKenzie and the Nicholas Brothers, and most notably on two dates with the Andrews Sisters. Although few probably realize it, Hackett took the cornet solo on the Andrews Sisters’ hit record of “Bei Mir Bist Du Schon.”
Word about the technically skilled and subtle but always swinging cornetist got around. When Benny Goodman for his famous January 16, 1938, Carnegie Hall concert needed a cornetist to play Bix Beiderbecke’s famous solo on “I’m Coming Virginia,” he recruited Hackett for the two-minute spot, leading to some calling Hackett “the new Bix.”
The very next day, Hackett really made his mark on the jazz world. The all-star session by Eddie Condon’s Windy City Seven (which included trombonist George Brunies, clarinetist Pee Wee Russell and tenor-saxophonist Bud Freeman) had Hackett leading the spirited ensembles and taking solos on four numbers, including “Love Is Around The Corner,” “Ja-Da,” and “Carnegie Jump.” A month later he made his recording debut as a leader and that year there were also sessions with Adrian Rollini, Maxine Sullivan, a Leonard Feather-all-star group, Teddy Wilson, and Vic Lewis, plus classic dates with Eddie Condon (including “Embraceable You,” “Sunday” and “California Here I Come”) and Bud Freeman. Largely unknown less than two years earlier, Bobby Hackett was a big name in the swing world by the end of 1938.
Hackett was getting so well known that the booking agency MCA encouraged him to form his own big band. After all, the sign of success in Swing was to lead your own orchestra. Many other excellent soloists were persuaded during the same period to form big bands; never mind that they were not great businessmen nor had any real idea about how they wanted their orchestra to sound. The Jack Teagarden Big Band was a good example, as were the short-lived orchestras of Teddy Wilson, Coleman Hawkins, Jess Stacy, and too many others. The Bobby Hackett Orchestra had two record dates resulting in eight titles and only lasted six months before breaking up. The cornetist found himself in debt.
At least Hackett did not go bankrupt like Teagarden and Bunny Berigan. He took a job with Horace Heidt’s Musical Knights, a commercial outfit that nevertheless respected Hackett and gave him some solo space. Hackett’s playing also appeared in the movies, ghosting for Fred Astaire in the film Second Chorus. In July 1941 he was in better financial shape but was having dental problems, so he was hired by Glenn Miller as a rhythm guitarist. He soon recovered his chops and took a famous cornet solo chorus on “A String Of Pearls” that became an indelible part of the song, and he also made a warm statement on “Rhapsody In Blue.” Playing, recording, and touring with Glenn Miller kept Hackett quite busy until Miller enlisted in the Army Air Force in September 1942.
Bobby Hackett next began working in the studios for NBC by day while playing Dixieland dates at night, often with Eddie Condon. His last association with a big band of the swing era was during 1944-46 when Hackett was a member of the Casa Loma Orchestra. Also in 1944, he appeared on many of the Condon Town Hall Concerts. The broadcasts have been released on a set of wonderful two-CD sets by Jazzology. Hackett recorded with Miff Mole and Joe Marsala that year in addition to being a leader and he appeared for the first time with his idol Louis Armstrong on some V-discs.
One of Bobby Hackett’s proudest moments was organizing the band for Louis Armstrong’s historic Town Hall concert in 1947 (which led to the formation of the Armstrong All-Stars) and playing with his hero, often harmonizing between Satchmo’s lead. His solo on “Pennies From Heaven” was particularly notable.
Hackett was always a flexible player and, with his accessible sound, he was able to work in both Dixieland and pop sessions throughout his career. While playing at Condon’s and Nick’s at night in New York, he was a member of the staff at ABC during 1946-61, appearing in many settings. In addition to leading various Dixieland-oriented groups (including one with Vic Dickenson in 1952), he recorded behind Frank Sinatra on “I’ve Got A Crush On You” in 1947, was on a Billie Holiday session in 1949 (including “Crazy He Calls Me”), jammed with Tommy Dorsey’s Clambake Seven in 1950, and was an important part of Lee Wiley’s Nights In Manhattan album that same year. He picked up extra money by being a key element in Jackie Gleason’s easy-listening Music For Lovers Only series of recordings which featured the cornetist with a string section. Hackett would be involved in many similar projects during the next 15 years including such albums as In A Mellow Mood, Music To Change Her Mind (!), Rendezvous, Music For The Love Hours, Blues With A Kick, Hawaii Swings (with a steel guitar and ukuleles), Music, Martinis, and Memories, Dream Awhile, The Most Beautiful Horn In The World (with pipe organ), and Night Love. Hackett’s playing kept the music from being pure muzak although it got a bit sticky at times.
All of that commercial work did not result in Hackett altering his lyrical style in the slightest. He was part of the first Newport Jazz Festival in 1954 and recorded several albums with Jack Teagarden, In 1957 Hackett led one of his most adventurous groups, a sextet with Dick Cary (on alto horn and piano) contributing arrangements for an ensemble that also included vibraphonist-clarinetist Tommy Gwaltney and baritonist Ernie Caceres. The band mixed together swing, Dixieland, and cool jazz but just lasted a year without making much of an impression. By 1959 Hackett had a more conventional quartet with pianist Dave McKenna. Because of the lucrative commercial work and his beautiful tone, the cornetist was able to make it through the 1960s when some of his contemporaries were either declining or struggling. Hackett worked with Benny Goodman on and off during 1962-64 and with Tony Bennett during 1965-66. In 1967 he recorded with Jim Cullum’s Happy Jazz Band and also led an excellent album, Creole Cooking.
One of Bobby Hackett’s most rewarding musical partnerships was formed with trombonist Vic Dickenson in 1968. Their fluent styles, sly wit, and cool tones were a perfect match on at least nine albums from 1968-70.
As Hackett entered his mid-fifties, he still remained close to his musical prime despite gradually declining health. In 1971 he did well on an album with Dizzy Gillespie and pianist Mary Lou Williams. He appeared at Louis Armstrong tributes, freelanced in all-star and local Dixieland groups, and recorded two albums with the World’s Greatest Jazz Band. 1974’s Strike Up The Band (a sextet album with tenor-saxophonist Zoot Sims) found him still in fine form. I remember seeing him on the Lawrence Welk Show during this period, faring quite well on two numbers including “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue” (Welk always enjoyed Dixieland) although he looked a bit thin and was clearly aging.
On June 7, 1976, Bobby Hackett died from a heart attack. The cornetist was just 61. In his all-too-brief life, Hackett recorded enough gems to fill up a few lifetimes. His warm yet cool tone and relaxed playing still sound rewarding and distinctive today.
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