Earl Bostic: Alto-tude

From Earl Bostic’s first record date in 1939 with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra on Haven’t Named It Yet , it was clear that the alto saxophonist was different. There was a sharp eagerness in his alto saxophone, a jumping swing feel at age 27 that was fresh and aggressive. He was a natural storyteller on the instrument, and a sassy one at that. Not satisfied to play pretty, like many alto saxophonists of the period who mimicked the clarinet, Bostic was seamlessly melodic, fluid, flashy and determined to stand out.

In the years before 1955, the saxophone did a band’s talking. While the trumpet raised hairs and the trombone broke hearts, the saxophone was the conversationalist, the instrument that spoke the language of the listener. The reed made the saxophone sound as if it was humming a song, like a singer, not punctuating it. But the saxophone wasn’t just a balladeer. From the late 1930s onward, the saxophone also could thrill audiences, as we know from the many towering soloists of the era.

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The pioneer of the alto saxophone was Benny Carter (above), who began leading his own bands in 1932. Each of the major bands in the 1930s fronted by African-American leaders had star alto saxophonists, including Johnny Hodges in Duke Ellington’s orchestra, Buster Bailey and Don Redman with Fletcher Henderson, Willie Smith with Jimmie Lunceford and Edgard Sampson and Louis Jordan with Chick Webb.

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By the time Hampton (above) began recording as a leader in the late 1930s, his band was playing a different kind of swing. Groomed in the Benny Goodman Orchestra, Hampton emphasized a jumping nervous energy that other bands weren’t able to duplicate. In some regards, Hampton’s band of the 1940s may be the most important of all in terms of its influence on the direction of R&B and rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s.

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Bostic was a member of Hampton’s band but he wasn’t satisfied to sit around working for someone else. In 1944 and early ’45 he recorded with Hot Lips Page, Louis Prima and Rex Stewart. That November, Bostic recorded for the first time as the leader of a band with a strong rhythm section that featured Ed Finckel on piano, Tiny Grimes (above) on guitar, All Hall on bass and Cozy Cole on drums. Bostic never looked back as his reputation grew and his sound became a major influence on the jukebox as an early jump-blues honker.

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But Bostic was more than just a blues blaster. He was smoother and faster than nearly everyone else who could play the alto saxophone. His long association with King Records during the 1950s was a lucrative relationship, with his 1952 hit Flamingo selling more than a million copies.

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No matter what song Bostic took on, from Temptation to Night Train, and Flamingo, he reloaded the tune with his forceful alto and fluttering tremolo as a foot-stomping, strip-time dance number. Most important, Bostic’s saxophone excitement had a direct bearing on the rise of the electric guitar, which replaced the saxophone in the late 1950s as a band’s outsized communicator. All of the early guitarists listened to Bostic’s records and reveled in his brash attack.

Listening to Bostic, I often wonder what sort of jazz saxophonist he might have made if not for R&B’s acclaim and paycheck. I certainly would have loved to have heard him jam with Charlie Parker and Cannonball Adderley. I also would love to know what both artists thought of Bostic.

Earl Bostic died in October 1965.

JazzWax tracks:
Nearly any album of Bostic’s singles are superb. There’s a four-CD box from Proper Records here. If you fall in love, track down all of Bostic’s French Chronological Classics albums that cover his singles from 1945 to 1955. My favorite 12-inch LP is Bostic Rocks: Hits of the Swing Age, on which he gives Swing Era themes the Bostic treament. Bostic’s Alto-Tude also is superb. See what’s available on Spotify.

JazzWax clips: Here’s Earl Bostic’s first recording and solo with Lionel Hampton in 1939…

Here’s Bostic’s huge hit Flamingo


Here’s Night Train

Night Train

And here’s Steamwhistle Jump