For any musician of talent to be "dimly remembered," as was once written about Al Killian, is a shame in itself. If the subject in question was an accomplished high note trumpeter, it becomes a bit mysterious as well, as playing high notes with pizzazz is supposed to be what makes trumpeters famous, not obscure. There are even so-called "high note festivals," where musicians receive rousing ovations for such ear-piercing activities. When the so-called obscure musician was the victim of a shocking murder, and his name happens to be "Killian," it really makes one wonder how jazz history could have left this particular individual behind. Maybe there wasn't room for all his credits, which go on and on and on. Not only did he play with two of the faces on the Mount Rushmore of big bands, Duke Ellington and Count Basie, he was also fascinated with the new bop developments in jazz. He recorded with Charlie Parker, and prior to the abrupt end to his life, Killian was part of the action-packed Los Angeles hard bop jam session scene so vividly documented on the Savoy release entitled Black California. This set documents a jam session led by Killian that also features alto saxophonist Sonny Criss, and manages to capture what many a jazz record doesn't: the sound of musicians jamming, off the cuff and with no commercial pressures.
Killian's playing in the bop genre is sometimes criticized. It is said that he had more interest in the music than the technique to play it, but make no mistake about it, he had plenty of technique. He replaced Cat Anderson in the Ellington band, which is sort of like riding in a horse directly after John Wayne. His squealing high pitch trumpet playing was featured more prominently during his 1942-1946 stint with the Lionel Hampton band, as this grinning vibraphonist loved shocking musical effects and blasting the audience's heads off with, among other things, high note trumpet playing. Ellington of course created music of a more sophisticated nature and had many uses for Killian, although not particularly as a soloist. The Duke did compose a tune based on Killian's style entitled "Killian's Lick," a nice tribute for a journeyman trumpeter who came out of the wave of southern jazzmen in the '30s. Besides his jazz work, he also worked behind Texas blues legend T-Bone Walker, powerful vocalist Paul Robeson and demented jivester Slim Gaillard. He also had several of compositions recorded by artists such as Georgie Auld and Serge Chaloff. Count Basie liked Killian's pre-digital composition "1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9," enough to record it nine times, appropriately enough.
The story of the trumpeter's tragic murder brings up the interesting topic of landlords being driven over the edge by tenants that are musicians, since it was after all his landlord that did Killian in. The fact that the victim was a high note trumpeter might help make a credible case for justifiable homicide on the part of the landlord, but the fact of the matter is the landlord was psychotic. But perhaps he got that way from having a high note trumpeter practicing in his building.
- by Eugene Chadbourne
All Music Group