JOHNNY [THE] BEST 89
AMONG GREATEST BIG-BAND TRUMPETERS
By Jack Williams
His trumpet solos punctuated some of the most familiar tunes of the big-band era, helping to define and shape the sounds .of such legends as Glenn Miller and Artie Shaw.
As he rose to prominence, Johnny Best exhibited a quality uncommon to musicians of his time: easily adapting to the varying arrangements, parameters and personalities of rival bands.
“It was quite a feat, being able to play in two of the, most popular bands of the era,” said Dan Del Fiorentino, curator of the Museum of Making Music in Carlsbad. “Johnny left a unique mark, and the big-band era wouldn’t have been the same without him.”
Mr. Best, whose trumpet solos were featured in such big-band hits as “Stardust” and “Frenesi,” died Sept. 19 at his La Jolla home . He was 89.
“He had a good sound on the instrument,” said Billy May, a former band leader and musical contemporary . “Playing the trumpet can be an endurance contest with your lip, and Johnfly had command. He played on ‘Begin the Beguin,’ which put Artie Shaw in business.”
Although the popularity of big bands began to fade in the 1950s, Mr. Best’s talents remained in demand. After World War II, he performed with an array of notable band leaders, including May , Benny Goodman, Bob Crosby, Tommy Dorsey, Ray Conniff and Harry James.
He also worked steadily as a studio musician, often commuting to Hollywood in the late 1950s after buying an avocado ranch in Pauma Valley.
In recent years., which found him playing at San Diego venues, he had been working on an oral history of his career. At the urging of his family, he recorded his memories on tape, which his stepchildren hope to convert into a book.
“On top of everything, Johnny was a really nice guy,” Del Fiorentino said. “He got a lot of solo work because everybody liked him. Sitting and talking to him, I got the sense that he was, more than just a little’ passionate about what he did. “It was his life — and he loved it.”
John McClanian Best, a La Jolla resident since 1967, was born in Shelby, N.C. He formed his own orchestra in high school and played in bands at Duke University and Davidson College.
Before World War II, he played with the Les Brown, Charlie Barnet, Artie Shaw and Glenn Miller bands . He played for the Shaw hits “Frenesi,” “Traffic Jam” and “Old, Old Castle in Scotland.”
His trumpet solo on the 1940 Miller hit “Stardust” was among his most memorable and a personal favorite. “He had this lilt — an unorthodox way of changing chords, of going from A to B, so to speak,” Del Fiorentino said, “A casual listener might say, “That’s interesting.’ But if you were a musician, your mouth dropped.”
During the war, Mr. Best served in the Navy and played in Shaw’s Navy band, entertaining troops in Europe and the South Pacific . “He was part of a great trumpet section with Frank Beach and Conrad Gozzo,” May said.
In “Orchestra Wives,” a 1942 movie featuring the music of the Glenn Miller Orchestra, Mr. Best’s trumpet solo on “At Last” was among three hit songs featured. Except in creating the music, actor John Payne took the part of Mr. Best
Mr. Best played on V-disc recordings, distributed during World War II by the U.S. government to military personnel overseas “He felt he was serving his country in two ways, through the band and the V-discs that boosted morale,” Del Fiorentino said. “He was a real ~patriot who loved his country.”
Mr. Best’s postwar career ineluded sessions with Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong and Nat “King” Cole.
After settling in California in the l950s, he played in various combos in nightclubs in the San Diego and Los Angeles areas. “When he wasn’t picking avocados in his orchard in Pauma Valley, he organized and managed frequent jazz concerts in the San Diego area as well as fronting for groups on extended overseas tours,” said step-daughter Elizabeth Frazee.
In 1967, he married Mary Lou Janis. a La Jolla widow. He settled in La Jolla but often visited his avocado ranch, where in 1982 a fall from a tree broke his back and left him a paraplegic.
During two months of recovery at UCSD Medical Center, he entertained hospital staff and patients on his trumpet, Frazee said. Using a wheelchair, Mr. Best continued to play and travel, performing until 2001. “He practiced every day until about six months ago,” said stép-daughter Marie Janis.
He often played the first notes of the song “Mary Lou” to beckon his wife from another room in their home, Janis said. Similar fanfares greeted other family members whose names corresponded to song titles and/or lyrics.
Mr. Best’s wife died in September 1996 during the couple’s trip to Hobart, Australia.
Survivors include a brother, Herman Best of Charlotte, N.C.; stepchildren, Leonard Janis of Chula Vista; Theil Shelton, Elizabeth Frazee and. Louise Duchein, all of Santa Barbara ; Paul Janis and Susan Edwards, both of San Diego; Barbara Kennedy of Palmdale; Robert Janis of St. Petersburg, Fla.; and Marie Janis of LaJolla and 11 grandchildren.
Private services were scheduled.
Donations are suggested to San Diego Hospice or the La Jolla Best Memorial Book Fund Trust in care of San Diego National Bank. The fund was established to create a book of Mr. Best’s life story based on the oral history he recorded.
Jack Williams: (619) 542-4587;
Church of the Science of God
La Jolla, California 92038-3131
© Church of the Science of GOD, 1993