J20: Memories of young Donny Fagerquist

In writing the Jazz Worcester Real Book, I had the good fortune to meet not only the players featured in the book, but many of their family members. In some cases I had to rely on their assistance to help bring to life the memory of the artists and loved ones who had passed on.

As mentioned in the book, one of the brightest stars to come out of Worcester was the late trumpeter Donald Alton Fagerquist. He was born in the city on February 6, 1927. He grew up in a musical family of three children on Grafton Hill. Don had two brothers, Richard and Andrew, and a sister, Evelyn. His mother (Florence Moran) played piano and his dad (Bernard Axel Fagerquist), liked the harmonica.

According to his sister Evelyn (Bowler), who now lives in Millbury, Don went to Worcester Public Schools. He studied trumpet as a child at Carl Seder’s on Front Street and with Miss Twist at North High School. I recently sat down with Evelyn to talk about the Fagerquist family life and Donny’s younger days. Before diving into our interview, let me tell you a little bit more about Don.

By the time he was 13, he was featured in the city’s best bands, including the orchestras of Bob Pooley, Bud Boyce and his Ambassadors and Dol Brissette. In 1943, Fagerquist worked with Mal Hallet, who led a regional band. At 17 he was recruited to play with the Gene Krupa Orchestra and worked with Krupa off and on between 1944 and ’48. From there he started his own group, which featured singer Anita O’Day. In 1954, Fagerquist was chosen the No. 5 trumpeter in the country by Metronome magazine. Those ahead of him were Chet Baker, Dizzy Gillespie, Shorty Rogers and Roy Eldridge.

He later became a soloist with Artie Shaw, Woody Herman and Les Brown. In 1956, Fagerquist joined the staff of Paramount Film Studios. From this time forward, he became more known for his session work, although he continued to record jazz until his untimely death at 47.

Select Discography includes Don Fagerquist, Music to Fill a Void; Manny Albam, I Had the Craziest Dream; Laurindo Almeida, Ole Bossa Nova; Chet Baker, Pacific Jazz Years; Benny Carter, All of Me; Hoagy Charmichael, Hoagy Sings Charmichael; Mel Torme, Smooth as Velvet; Dave Pell, Mountain Greenery. (Although long out of print, he made a number of recordings for Decca, Contemporary, Coral, Capitol, Bethany, MGM and Kapp records.) He can also be heard on Barbra Streisand’s hit “On a Clear Day.”

In the liners notes to his album Music to Fill a Void, which was Fagerquist’s only album as leader, Joe Quinn states: “Instrumental jazz, with all of its departmentalism, is forever rooted in the fundamentals of pronounced rhythm and emotional interpretation. In this tradition, Don Fagerquist ranks close to the 10 or 12 trumpet stylists who have broadened its scope in jazz. His musical democracy is on display, firmly supported by eight aggressive believers.”

Fagerquist died in Los Angeles, California on January 24, 1974. He was married to the late Margaret June O’Brien. The couple had two children, the late Thomas Eric Fagerquist and Donna Fagerquist, who still lives in California.

There is a great web site dedicated to Don Fagerquist, maintained by Jeff Helgesen, which I highly recommend. Go here.

Interview with Evelyn Bowler

Do you have any recollections of your paternal grandparents?

I don’t know too much about them. They are the Swedish ones. I did not know my grandmother well. She died when I was quite young. My grandfather – we only saw him once a month or two. He used to come and visit. He kind of stayed by himself. He had his own group of people.

Did your grandparents live in Worcester?

I think so. I think they were up on Hooper Street, down in the Swedish village there. I was quite young. My grandfather came over from Sweden. My father was born here. Donna has all that information. She started on the genealogy stuff.

My mother was Florence Moran. Some had it down as Morin. That’s the French version. Grandmother was Mary Langway. I have it here somewhere, all written down. My brother is still living in Holden. He is a couple of years older than I am. He was the first born in 1918. Then I was born in 1920. Then I had a brother Richard who passed away. He was only about 7 when he died. He was a sickly boy. Then Donny. He was the last one. He was born in 1927.

We lived on Pine Hill Road. We had a cottage. It is still there. It was the “Rocky Road to Dublin.” Oh, God that street was terrible. It was a dead-end. Right in that whole area where Building #19 is now on Grafton Street. There was nothing down there but woods when we grew up. We used to walk through the woods to get to the one store. A Polish man owned it. It was a little market. All we did was walk. We went to Roosevelt School.

Was music an important ingredient in your family?

My father was very musical. He played the harmonica. I think I gave my son his harmonica. He had one of those chromatic ones, the one that you push down the button. It was an old one. He just played for his own enjoyment. He played the old songs. He knew them all. He loved music. “My Wild Irish Rose.” I can’t think of them all. Every time there was a party he’d get out that harmonica. He always seemed to carry it in his pocket. They’d want him to play. My mother played piano. We had an old upright. In fact, I had it in one of my places. When I moved I gave it to one of my daughters. She still has it up in New Hampshire.

When did Donny start playing?

He started very young. In fact, in that picture I gave you. He is only about 14 there. He has a uniform on. He played at some Swedish church. He used to play at the Capitol Theater on Saturday mornings. Bob Pooley, Dol Brissette played there.

What was his early training?

He took lessons at school with Marion Twiss. She was the music teacher. She was the one that first noticed that he had talent. That was at Roosevelt. He went to North High School.

In the picture he is playing a Conn New Symphony trumpet. Do you know anything about it?

I don’t know whether they invested in it or whether it was loaned to him. They must have bought it. I guess my mother pushed him but they liked the fact that he played. When Donny was young he had like “curvature of the spine.” He had problems with his shoulder. They wanted him to stand up straight. Then they said music lessons would help. Blowing the trumpet would help him. So I guess that’s how he got started. It did help him. He turned out fine. I think it may have kept him out of the army.

What did your dad do for a living?

He worked at Norton’s. Of course, that’s where all the Swedish men worked. Then he worked at Pullman Standard.

Which musicians did Don enjoy listening to as a young trumpeter? To your knowledge, was he a fan of any specific trumpeter? Do the names of Bix, or Louie Armstrong, or Bobby Hackett ring a bell?

He liked the jazz. He started playing the little gigs around the city, like Emil Haddad. A lot of it was the jazz. He liked the fast music. I don’t know if he had an idol. He knew Emil and a few others around the city. Emil was a few years older than Donny. We had all kinds of records. I think my mother had every record there ever was. She enjoyed that.

Of course my mother used to play the piano a lot and he’d stand there and play with her when he was small. There was always music in the house. My mother liked the old songs, some of the old ragtime stuff. All those musicals. I remember we would go to the movies. There was nothing else to do in those days. I think I saw every musical there was.

I think he used to diddle around with the piano as well. My mother taught herself. She said when she was young her folks couldn’t afford a piano so they rented one for a while and she taught herself. She got the books and everything. She started making the chords. She enjoyed making up her own chords. I played a little myself. I used to enjoy some of the easy ones. I was no good with the sharps. Too many sharps.

Did Donny study anything else besides music?

Not that I know of. Of course I was only 20 when I got married. He was 17. That’s when he started going places. They used to a place down in Millville, a nightclub. There was Paul Rohde. I don’t know if he is still around. He was a good friend of Don’s. There were four or five of them. They all chummed together.

I understand that he was a quiet, intelligent kid who liked to keep to himself. Is that how you remember him?

He was quiet but he had a sense of humor. He could be funny. He noticed people right away. He’d say look at that guy. I bet he is going to say this. And sure enough, he would. He would look at the funny side of people. He was good-natured like that.

What was his first break?

I think it was Mal Hallett. There was this place down in Westboro, the Moors. That’s where someone heard him playing and Mal Hallett signed him up. My mother didn’t want to let him go. You want them to be successful and yet you hate to see them leave.

It must have been awful for them to still be alive when Don died so young?

Oh God, yeah. That was a tough thing for my mother. She went down to California many times, once a year. They wanted him to come back. Emil used to say, I told him: “Come on back. There’s plenty of work back here for you to do.” I wish he had.

My father, oh they’d be so thrilled when they’d go to California. They used to go to some of his shows. He got a kick out of that. My mother had a few of his records. I’m sure Donna has them.

What did he die of?

I don’t know what it was. He had some infection that he picked up. It could have been hepatitis. You know, the way they lived and the way they played.

All these years later people are still asking about your brother. That is quite a testament to him as an artist.

Nobody knew that he was as talented as he was. I didn’t know he made that many records. A lot of people say, “Oh yeah, I remember him.”

I would like to thank Sven Bjerstedt for his genealogical assistance. Stay tuned for part II. I am hoping to interview Don’s daughter Donna next.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>