Remembering Carl Saunders

August 2, 1942 – February 25, 2023

A tribute to the trumpet great

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Trumpeter Carl Saunders passed away on Feb. 25, 2023 at the age of 80.

He was born on Aug. 2, 1942 in Indianapolis, Indiana.

His uncle was bandleader-trumpeter Bobby Sherwood and his mother (Sherwood’s sister) sang with her brother’s band and with Stan Kenton; in addition, his aunt was married to tenor-saxophonist Dave Pell.

Saunders spent his first five years on the road with the Bobby Sherwood Orchestra before his mother settled in Los Angeles.

He began playing trumpet in the seventh grade and was a natural who largely mastered his instrument before he even had a lesson.

Saunders considered trumpeter Don Fagerquist (who worked with the Dave Pell Octet) to be an important influence and inspiration.

After graduating from high school, he worked with the Stan Kenton Orchestra during 1961-62 as part o the mellophonium section, enjoying touring with the band despite actually disliking the instrument.

Saunders played drums with Bobby Sherwood’s group during 1962-63 and then settled in Las Vegas where for 20 years he mostly played first trumpet with show bands, accompanying such stars as Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett; he also had short stints with the orchestras of Si Zentner, Harry James, Benny Goodman, Maynard Ferguson, and Charlie Barnet.

While Carl Saunders made his recording debut with Kenton in 1961 and appeared on a record apiece with Goodman and James, he was not heard as a soloist until he was part of a sextet led by Chiz Harris in 1978.

Saunders settled in Los Angeles in 1984 where he was the lead trumpeter with Bill Holman’s Orchestra, an association that lasted nearly 40 years.

He also worked with Supersax, the Bob Florence Orchestra, the Gerald Wilson Big Band, Louie Bellson, the Phil Norman Tentet, the Dave Pell Octet, and a variety of L.A. area big bands.

In addition, Saunders recorded with combos led by Anthony Wilson, Ray Reed, Dave Pike, Phil Urso, Phil Woods (Play Henry Mancini), Med Flory, Doug MacDonald, Roger Neumann, and a variety of singers.

Saunders emerged in the 1990s as a dazzling bop-oriented trumpet soloist, one who could hit high notes quietly and with ease, a player who could make large interval jumps sound effortless, and a soloist who could take endless breaths filled with rapid flurries of notes; in addition he had his own easily identifiable sound.

Because he was based in Los Angeles (where he was a busy studio musician) and rarely traveled, Saunders was not that well known out of California; however he led ten albums of his own during 1995-2020 which feature his playing at its most exciting in settings ranging from a quartet to his own Bebop Big Band.

Carl Saunders, who also took occasional humorous scat-filled vocals, published a couple of books of his originals, some of which were performed by other musicians on five CDs titled New Jazz Standards – The Music Of Carl Saunders.

Although apparently a bit ill in his later years, Saunders’ trumpet playing never declined and he stayed busy up until shortly before his death.

Carl Saunders is showcased with the Stan Kenton Legacy Band on this 2004 version of “My Foolish Heart.”

-Scott Yanow


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