Nat Towles

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Although not one of the most famous bandleaders in jazz history, Nat Towles was extremely influential to many players. His bandstands were proving and training grounds for many players who went on to…
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Although not one of the most famous bandleaders in jazz history, Nat Towles was extremely influential to many players. His bandstands were proving and training grounds for many players who went on to make names for themselves in jazz, including Jimmy Heath, Oliver Nelson, Buddy Tate, and Paul Quinichette, all superior saxophonists. He was considered an influence on the Chicago jazz scene and Kansas City jazz, and would be picked out as a main influence on the Omaha jazz scene if anyone thought there was one. The son of New Orleans bassist Phil "Charlie" Towles, this artist at first balked at the kind of load his dad was lugging around. He tried out guitar and violin, then got wise and switched to string bass. His first steady gig was with Gus Metcalf's Melody Jazz Band, which led to engagements with Buddie Petit, Henry "Red" Allen, Jack Carey, and the Original Tuxedo Jazz Orchestra. By the time these experiences were over, he was more than ready to form his own band, which he called the Creole Harmony Kings. This band toured Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico from 1923 through 1927. Halfway through this period, Towles also had a brief stint as bassist with Fate Marable. In 1929, Towles left New Orleans with the Seven Black Aces led by banjoist Thomas Benton. He then went back to fronting his own based in Jackson, MS, for the next three years. In 1934, he worked for pianist Ethel Mays and also led a band of his own out of Dallas. He began to teach in the mid-'30s, taking over the direction of the Wiley College students' band in Austin, TX. During this period, he influenced many younger musicians, some of whom joined his touring bands, such as pianist Duke Groner and trombonist Buddy McLewis. Towles continued to lead groups based a few hours north in Dallas and in 1936, his players took up residency at the Dreamland Ballroom in Omaha, NE. This lineup included Heath. Arranger and composer Neal Hefti, still a bit green around the ears at only 15 years old, contributed charts to Towles' band in the late '30s. Fellow Omaha player Harold Johnson recalled that some of Hefti's very first scores for Towles were the tunes "Swingin' on Lennox Avenue," "More Than You Know," and a very popular arrangement of "Anchors Aweigh." It might not have been Hefti's cup of tea, because he called the group a "Mickey Mouse band." Towles kept up regular touring with this group into the early '40s, including several residencies in and around New York in 1943. One of the highlights of these Big Apple appearances was being booked at the Apollo Theater. Other players who were active in these groups included saxophonists such as Buster Bennett and Preston Love. Towleswas a bandleader through the late '50s, when a move to California seemed to signal a desire for a quieter way of life. Whether his decision to open his own bar in 1959 was the best way of achieving this is a subject for bar proprietors to discuss, and they should take into account the fact that Towles wound up dying of a fatal heart attack.