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Early bebop guitaristby Todd S. Jenkins
Copyright © 2006 Todd S. Jenkins
Guitarist and record-store owner Bill DeArango died of the effects of dementia on December 26, 2005, at a nursing home in East Cleveland, Ohio. He was 85 years old.
DeArango began his professional career as a Dixieland player, but it wasn’t long before he moved into swing and kept looking forward. He served in the U.S. Army during World War II and found himself in New York upon his discharge. He was present at the birth of bebop and was one of the early bop era’s last survivors. Like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, both of whom included the guitarist in record sessions, DeArango had absorbed the influences of such inspirational players as Charlie Christian, Art Tatum, Roy Eldridge and Lester Young. This placed him on common ground with the young blacks who became bebop’s pioneers. When he sat in with tenorman Don Byas on a jam session one night, his fleet technique and innovative ideas perked up many ears in the crowd and won him an audience in the bebop cauldron. Upon hearing DeArango’s solos with Gillespie, one critic remarked that the guitarist’s ideas were so advanced it sounded as if he were playing backwards.
The guitarist also worked with artists like Red Norvo, Sarah Vaughan, Charlie Ventura and his good friend Ben Webster during the 1940s. But in 1947 he bid goodbye to New York and returned to Cleveland, where he became a fixture of the city’s jazz scene for the next several decades. For a brief span (1978-84) DeArango came back to New York, where he owned some apartments and explored rock and free-jazz ideas with saxophonist Ernie Krivda and drummer Skip Hadden. Free drummer Barry Altschul called upon DeArango to join Arthur Blythe, Ray Anderson and Anthony Davis for Another Time, Another Place (Muse, 1978). But eventually the guitarist found his way home to Cleveland once again. For a time he owned DeArango’s Music in University Heights. The record shop became a hangout for up-and-coming young musicians like Joe Lovano, who considered the guitarist a mentor. Their friendship continued into DeArango’s decline; Lovano had visited the guitarist at the nursing home just hours before his passing.
DeArango’s recording career wasn’t exactly prolific; he made his last major-label album in 1954 (self-titled, Emarcy). It wasn’t until 1993 that he hit the studio again as a leader, working with Lovano on the adventurous Anything Went (GM Records). He kept busy as a live performer into the new century, and in 2003 was awarded the Tri-C JazzFest Cleveland Legend of Jazz prize. DeArango finally retired from performing after the effects of dementia made it impossible to continue playing.
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.