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Carl Fontana: 1928-2003
Carl Fontana

Born: July 18, 1928 in Monroe, LA
Died: September 10, 2003 in Las Vegas, NV

Great West Coast/Vegas trombonist

by Todd S. Jenkins
Copyright © 2003 Todd S. Jenkins

Golden-tongued Carl Fontana was the archetype of the West Coast trombonist: cool, technically savvy, eminently flexible. From the time he emerged onto the scene in the early 1950s Fontana was one of the most respected and sought-after slidemen in the business. His lightning facility and agile tonguing skills represented a serious threat to jazz trombonists who wished to follow in J.J. Johnson's footsteps.

Charles Carl Fontana was born in Monroe, Louisiana on July 18, 1928. His first experience came in a band led by his father, sax and violin player Collie Fontana, during World War II. He obtained his music degree in 1950 from Louisiana State University. Fontana's first major exposure came courtesy of Woody Herman, who hired the trombonist in 1951 to replace Urbie Green. Fontana stayed for two years, appearing on such classic tunes as "Early Autumn" and Jimmy Giuffre's "Four Others". He moved on to the bands of Lionel Hampton, Hal McIntyre, and perhaps his most appreciative boss, Stan Kenton (including Cuban Fire! and Kenton in Hi-Fi, both 1956, Capitol). Fontana's more adventurous side came out in Kai Winding's trombone quartet-plus-rhythm ( Cleveland June 1957, 2000, Storyville) and Bill Perkins' octet (On Stage, 1956, Pacific Jazz).

In the 1960s Fontana moved to Las Vegas, where he nearly became lost in the shuffle of commercial club bands. He made it back into the jazz scene on occasion, including a Herman reunion in '66, a mid-70s unit with drummer Jake Hanna, and stints with Supersax, Benny Goodman, and the World's Greatest Jazz Band (Volume 1, 1968, Project 3).

The well-named The Great Fontana (1985, Uptown), his debut as the sole leader of a session, reminded the world that he was still a force to be reckoned with. He asserted himself on projects with trumpeters Bobby Shew (Heavyweights, 1995, MAMA Foundation) and Conte Candoli, bandleaders Paul Cacia and Louis Bellson (Don't Stop Now!, 1984, Bosco/Capri), and trumpeter Louise Baranger. From the 1980s Fontana appeared regularly on NPR's "Monday Night Jazz", toured as an occasional featured soloist, and gigged with a quintet he co-led with Vegas tenorman Bill Trujillo. Sadly, Fontana became afflicted with Alzheimer's disease, which eventually claimed his life at the age of 75. He was married twice and had two sons, one daughter, eight grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

Todd S. Jenkins
Todd S. Jenkins is a member of the JJA, author of Free Jazz and Free Improvisation: An Encyclopedia (Greenwood Press, 2004) and I Know What I Know: The Music of Charles Mingus (Praeger, 2006), and a contributor to Down Beat, All About Jazz, American Songwriter and Route 66 Magazine.


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