April 25, 1963 edition
“Kostraba” by Bill Coss
Kostraba and His New Yorkers is a new band in New York, soon to go on the road and sooner to record. It is a 19-piece band (four trombones; one fluegelhorn; nine saxophones, four of them sopranos; four rhythm; and trumpeter leader), plus singer Don Heller and two singing groups from within the band: the Midtowners, a Four Freshmen-styled group, and the New Yorker Ensemble, a choir. And it swings. And how about that?
Some of its sidemen will be familiar, and, behind beard and different name, the leader will be recognized by many big-band fans. The how, why, and when, is something of a typical show business story.
To begin, Daniel Kostraba was born in Kingston, Pa., on Dec. 22, 1924. His father was a choirmaster, and he studied trumpet privately. Many of his early years were spent with a variety of big bands, most notable with Muggsy Spanier, until 1943, when he spent a year in the Marines. Then he took over the Hollywood Teenagers and changed his name to Dan Terry. As Terry, he went to New York in 1948, worked on the road for eight months with Sonny Dunham and studied music theory at the College of the Pacific for one year. Since then, about 1950, he has led a number of bands on both coasts, all of which have been high on youth and swing, though always short on success.
So went Dan Terry and a host of good bands.
Now, in 1963, the circle is complete, and Terry has reverted to his own last name.
The new band is built on years of experience and the writing talents of Gene Roland, who has done arrangements for practically any band anyone would care to name but says he believes that this time he has hit upon an identifying sound that will catapult this band to fame.
Terry has said many wise words in the past about bands: “You need great bands for a great band business. Great bands are built with sweat and sustained for a long time, mostly by hope and faith. . . .”
Kostraba says nearly the same thing.
In one of the frankest discussions of being a leader that a leader probably ever has held, Kostraba said, “Of course, you have to be crazy to be a bandleader. You have to be prepared to sacrifice everything. You know, you all of a sudden get $5. It can’t be for diapers. It’s got to go toward the new score you need to pay for – or taking some guy to lunch.
“You know how I’ve been. I’ve always had bands. Nothing really seemed to suit me though. Then, last year, I began to experiment around again. I tried something with French horns, but it didn’t really do anything. Then I remembered all my talks with Gene Roland – you know he invented the Four Brothers sound, then the mellophonium thing with Stan Kenton. And I remembered that he had another idea, something about soprano saxophones.
“So we got together last year and, starting Dec. 1, he has written 90 scores for this kind of band. The guy amazes me. You know, I do the copying, and he’s nearly always 20 scores ahead of me. And, besides that, I’ve seen him throw away scores, because, all of a sudden, he’s thought of some better way to do what we’re trying to do.”
If one talks to Kostraba and Roland in tandem, and listens to the excellent band they’ve produced, it seems true, as they say, that it has nearly the most versatile of instrumentations. Strings could be added to it. Trumpets would be no problem and would take none of the special color of the band away from the central sound. And despite what would seem an easy thing to copy, there is tremendous study and art involved in the manner in which Roland has melded fluegelhorn and sopranos, the manner in which he pushes all the reeds together, the times when he puts a clarinet lead in the sometimes balky sopranos to ease their job.
One tends to forgets in talking to Kostraba and Roland that the battle for success has hardly been engaged. They know it, but they appear certain they can fight through record companies and agencies and sundry employers.
It is an amazing battle that bands fight – and magnificent in a success. Practically no one wants such a beast nowadays, at least not one not already established with a dead leader’s name and a substantial record contract. But there are ways around the problems, especially for a crazy bandleader.
“I recorded last month,” Kostraba said. “Now, you know I’ve been thrown out of the musicians union because of this suit that we are all bringing against the local and the federation because of certain injustices in taxation against bandleaders.
“So, anyway, I recorded. I am probably the only non-union leader to record with union musicians in a union-approved recording studio (Columbia), with federal court protection. I posted a bond for $1,000, and the court wrote an order to the union to desist from interfering with me.
“I told you, you have to be crazy. And you have to be able to take chances too. Everybody had promised me money for the date. I went up to it in good faith, Suddenly there wasn’t any money, and I sent into the date with only faith. While I was leading the band through the session, I kept remembering that I had to find $2,100 right away. I did.”
Crazy of not, the biggest battle for the band is, as it is with so many others, to find a personnel that will remain with it through thin before getting to some part of the thick. As usual, most bands beginning in New York find it easy to rehearse with every kind of big name sideman. The long haul out of town must be done without these musicians, who find it too easy to stay in New York.
For Kostraba, Roland, and band, there is a tremendous need to recruit youngsters – the leader is auditioning them all the time – musicians who are flexible in concept and time.
“We have to find the sacrificers, the way it used to be in the better big-band days,” Kostraba said. “I’m willing to sacrifice my time. Obviously – I’ve already told you that’s the way I am. But there have to be kids who understand that no band can do well right away. They have to have real loyalty to the idea of the band. Not to me. I’m just an avenue. They have to have loyalty to the band, to themselves, to their art.”
As it stands now, the band – its scores, leader, and musicians – is a tremendously musical and exciting being. Hours of listening to rehearsals indicate that it can literally do or play anything. Kostraba calls it “the greatest band in the country. What is important now is the timing, maybe some kind of patronage. . . . We’ve got all the rest that ti takes, including the records we made.
“If we can just get that little nudge, we have got to make it. If we got it and nothing would happen, then it would have to be my fault. But listen – listen to what they’re playing – how can anything like that not make it?”