Dust Bowl To Disney: The Lost Memoir of Danny Alguire

Dust Bowl To Disney is a fine book. It’s an autobiography by traditional jazz cornetist Danny Alguire. When my long-time friend and colleague Hal Smith approached me about reviewing it, I’ll confess I wasn’t as enthusiastic as I might have been; a book by the mild-mannered Danny Alguire didn’t seem like the kind of tome that would be a thriller-diller.

Well, I wouldn’t exactly call it the next The Hunt for Red October, but Dust Bowl To Disney proved to be quite an interesting and enjoyable read! In fact, once I started it, I found myself turning pages late into the night, and between sets at gigs. Not only does the book give one a clear—even deep—idea of what this man Danny Alguire was really like, but it offers an excellent picture of what the United States’ middle class was like in the 1930s through the ’60s.

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Like Hal, I discovered Alguire’s assured ensemble lead playing and direct, to-the-point soloing while I was still in high school. Not much later (again, like Hal) I heard Alguire in person when the Firehouse Five Plus Two performed at nearby Disneyland in Anaheim, California. My connection with Hal, Alguire, and the FH5+2 continued up through the time the band’s soprano saxophonist George Probert invited several of the band’s young disciples to sit in with the band at their farewell performance at the Anaheim Convention Center in 1971. George was something of a mentor to all of us at the time, and with the permission of leader Ward Kimball, several of us played a few tunes with the band. Of course, we were thrilled, and remember that experience fondly, but also with a trace of sadness: Alguire had suffered a heart attack just before that engagement. The fine cornetist Don Kinch was there in his place.

The book’s subtitle is: The Lost Memoir of Danny Alguire. As stated in the well-written Foreword by Alguire’s stepdaughter, Charlotte Bryant McCormack, Alguire had given the original manuscript to a close friend many years ago. It was thought to have been lost until the friend’s son discovered it years later among his father’s effects and returned it to Charlotte’s brother.

No less than three editors are credited with contributing to the book. In addition to Hal Smith, Messrs. Lucas O. Seastrom and Didier Ghez should be thanked for their contributions which make this book so eminently readable.

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In the Editors’ Introduction (ostensibly composed by all three), mention is made of Alguire’s “natural story-telling ability.” The editors write, “His voice is lean, efficient, and does not fail at holding the reader’s interest.”

Those familiar with Alguire’s cornet work, whether via his recordings or being lucky enough to have heard him in person, will agree those words—substituting “listener’s” for “reader’s”—are also a perfect description of his music.

Alguire weaves a recurring thread through the first part of the book, in which he admits to having ignored an “inner voice” that told him to pursue music. Over and over again, he found himself playing cornet professionally, and being involved with one band or another despite his seeming reluctance to be there. I have thought about this, and what might have been his reasons. One answer might be Alguire’s genuine modesty, coupled with a deep respect for the great musicians he grew up hearing during his formative years. Today, a kid gets a jazz performance degree from a local college, and off he or she goes, touring the world, talent or no talent. Alguire knew that getting on stage and believing one has something of value to offer musically is a serious matter. He speaks of his musical heroes (including Louis Armstrong and the little-known Benny Strickler) with great admiration. It seems it took Alguire a long time to believe in himself, and to understand as great as his heroes were, he too had something of value to offer the world musically. In short, his book illustrates the respect he had for his peers and for the art of music itself.

When I began reading the book, I looked forward to learning more about Alguire’s career as a jazz cornetist. Although the book provided much interesting information about that part of Alguire’s multifaceted life, for me the book came alive unexpectedly in the chapters about his work for and with Walt Disney.

(Editor Didier Ghez is a leading authority on all things Disney. I’m sure Ghez’s vast knowledge figured importantly in the chapters in which Alguire tells of his association with Walt Disney as an Assistant Director in the Animation Department at Disney Studios).

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Alguire’s personal experiences with Disney reveal a lot about both men’s respective characters. Alguire’s observations offer rare insights into what the man Walt Disney was all about; insights one won’t read elsewhere. In turn, Disney’s exchanges with Alguire, and the professional dynamic that existed between these two talented men, gives one a good understanding about the kind of man Alguire had been, both personally and professionally.

The editors provide illuminating footnotes at the end of most of the chapters. Too, the Afterword and other additional material, provided by fellow cornetists Ted Thomas (whose father Frank was a charter member of the FH5+2) and ex-pat Chris Tyle are warm tributes to Alguire and show the profound influence he had on these two dynamic cornetists, each a generation younger than the author.

The closing chapters by editors Hal Smith and Lucas O. Seastrom continue to grip the reader’s interest, starting with Hal’s sage observations of the “Southwestern style” behind Alguire’s cornet work, and the models upon which it was based. Hal also contributes a wonderful chapter with the wry title, “For Whom the Brass Bell Tolls.” (The chapter’s title is a very inside reference to Ward Kimball’s old brass fire-bell, which he rang with gusto on several recordings and in live performances with the Firehouse Five Plus Two.) Seastrom offers a brief chapter devoted to Alguire’s time on the S.S. Alchiba during WWII, and a second, longer chapter about Disney cartoon animation. Like the rest of the book, these final chapters were immensely interesting and addicting reading.

Other appendices (even including Alguire’s personal chili recipe!) and a comprehensive index complete this exceedingly well-written, well-researched, and informative book by–and about–a modest yet important figure in traditional jazz: Danny Alguire.

Dust Bowl To Disney is available from bearmanormedia.com and amazon.com.

Dust Bowl To Disney
The Lost Memoir of Danny Alguire
Edited by Lucas O. Seastrom, Hal Smith, and Didier Ghez
292 pages; Hardcover, $38; Paperback, $28
ISBN: 978-1629339689 (hc), 978-1629339672 (pb)

Dan Barrett is a professional trombonist/ cornetist, arranger, and composer. He enjoys performing in admittedly old-fashioned jazz styles. He has recorded for Concord Records, Arbors Records, and his own Blue Swing Recordings label, among many other labels. Dan fell in love with jazz in high school, and learned to play from much older musicians from New Orleans, who had settled in the Los Angeles area. He has played at Carnegie Hall five times, and was featured in the last bands led by Swing Era icons Benny Goodman and Buck Clayton. Another highlight of Dan’s musical life—so far—was being a member of Lueder Ohlwein’s Sunset Music Company. Write to Dan at: www.DanBarrettMusic.com.

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