Tak Takvorian Part 1: Navy Trombonist
Vahey “Tak” Takvorian was a trombonist by trade, a big-band trombonist by preference, and a member of some of the very best bands during their mid-century heyday. Takvorian toured the South Pacific with Artie Shaw’s navy band, played the glorious Gil Evans charts with Claude Thornhill, and played lead for Tommy Dorsey for five years. In the late 1970s, he had another go in Boston with the Herb Pomeroy Orchestra. He was a first-class sideman who made the most of his opportunities.
Tak Takvorian (1922-2009 ) was the first name-band musician I spoke with when I started researching The Boston Jazz Chronicles, in 2004. I wrote an article about him for the newsletter of the defunct New England Jazz Alliance. This updated article, with Tak’s own words from our 2004 interview and photos supplied by his daughter Denise, does a better job of giving this fine player his due.
Twin brothers Vasken and Vahey Takvorian were born in Somerville, Massachusetts in 1922. Their family moved to nearby Watertown a few years later. Both played music from an early age. Tak started on cello and switched to trombone at age 12. Vasken played bass. “Before I graduated from high school in 1940, I was already playing four nights a week with Larry Cooper’s band at the Mansion Inn in Cochituate (Massachusetts). Cooper played clarinet, and modeled his band after Artie Shaw’s. Being in school and playing nights…I didn’t have much time to do homework.” Tak also worked in violinist Lew Bonick’s dance band.
Tak Takvorian enjoyed all the swing-era trombone stars, but he had his favorites. “Jack Teagarden, Tommy Dorsey and Dickie Wells, from Basie’s band. I’d name those three as my main influences.”
First Name Band: Sam Donahue, 1941
It didn’t take Takvorian long to start climbing the big-band ladder. He joined Sam Donahue’s band in Boston in April 1941, taking Eddie Bert’s place. “Eddie Bert was already in the band, but Sam needed a guy who could read music for an upcoming recording session. Eddie couldn’t read then, and I auditioned, got the job, and took his place in the band. I got to know Eddie later, and we laughed about that for years.” It wasn’t the last time that Takvorian’s sight-reading skills helped him win a job. But I’ll bet that it was the last time that Bert lost a job because he lacked them.
Sam Donahue, a tenor saxophonist from the Coleman Hawkins school, was best known for his work with Gene Krupa’s orchestra. The Boston big-band impresarios Cy and Charlie Shribman thought he’d click with his own band, and they backed him. Sam’s band worked one-nighters all across the region on Shribman’s ballroom circuit.
“When I first joined the Donahue band, Ralph Burns was writing for it a little. I knew Ralph when we were kids, and he also played for a time with Larry Cooper. Ralph had a lot of talent, even then. And Frances Wayne joined Donahue as vocalist at the same time I did, but she called herself Frances Claire then.” Others in that Donahue band who built bigger-than-Boston reputations included trombonist Dick LeFave, trumpeter Billy Marshall, and saxophonist Fred Guerra.
Playing for Uncle Sam and Artie
The draft was the undoing of the Donahue band. “I stayed with Donahue until I went in the navy in October 1942. Sam broke up the band about the same time. My brother and I both enlisted—when our number came up, our father told us to join the navy; he had been in the army in World War I, and warned us away from that.”
“That’s when Artie Shaw was recruiting for the navy band. First he got Sam, and Sam recommended me. And there’s a funny story goes with it. Vasken was playing in Bob Foster’s jazz group around New York, and he enlisted there, and went to camp in Newport. About ten days later, he got orders to report to New York, to join Artie Shaw and the navy band. He said, “You’ve got the wrong Takvorian.” They told him, just go to New York. So he got there, and he told Shaw, “I think you’ve got the wrong Takvorian.” And Shaw said, “How many musicians named ‘V. Takvorian’ could there be?” Well, there were at least two—my brother and me. So they straightened that out and got me down there. Shaw thought the whole thing was hilarious.”
“Shaw already had a bass player, and there could be only 21 musicians, so Vasken couldn’t stay. He was sent down to Florida, and ended up in a band aboard an aircraft carrier, the Ticonderoga. He was aboard when they were almost sunk by kamikazes.”
Shaw’s Navy Band 501, the Rangers, was stocked with musicians from the name bands. Donahue played tenor, and another bandleader, Claude Thornhill, was the first pianist. Dave Tough played drums. The great trumpet section included Max Kaminsky, Conrad Gozzo, Frank Beach, and Johnny Best. Tasso Harris and Dick LeFave, from Donahue’s civilian band, were on trombone. It was a great band, but unfortunately there are no surviving recordings to prove it.
First the Rangers traveled to New Caledonia, then the New Hebrides, then the Solomon Islands. In July 1943, they arrived on Guadalcanal, where they sometimes ducked into foxholes when Japanese bombers made their runs. Along with the tropical heat and humidity came food poisoning, dengue fever, and the jungle rot that destroyed boots, clothes, and even musical instruments. In August the band arrived in New Zealand, then hopped to Australia. Finally, the navy deemed the exhausted bandsmen unfit for further service and ordered the Rangers home in November 1943.
“We got back to the States in December 1943 for a 30-day leave. We were beat. Artie Shaw and some of the guys, Kaminsky and Tough, were discharged then.”
Band of the U.S. Navy Liberation Forces
Sam Donahue took over the band in 1944, and reorganized as the Band of the U.S. Navy Liberation Forces. “We shipped out to England, in the dead of winter, aboard an LST. If you don’t know what that is, it’s a transport ship designed to carry tanks, not passengers. It took 30 days to make the trip to England! And it was awful.”
When the seasickness subsided, Donahue debuted a more Basie-like band with a different sound. He retired Shaw’s book and wrote all new arrangements. There were new compositions as well, written to commemorate the miserable voyage to England, “L.S.T. Party” and “Convoy,” both among the V-Discs the band recorded. Tak Takvorian solos on many of these records, including on “Bugle Call Rag,” “C-Jam Blues,” and the homesick sailors’ lament, “Please Get Us Out.” And he solos on “Convoy” (hear the Dickie Wells?).
The Donahue band was based in Exeter in southwest England, where it entertained the allied forces massing for the D-Day invasion. They arrived in London in August 1944, to widespread acclaim. On September 21, one of the band’s biggest nights, Donahue’s sailors dueled Glenn Miller’s Army Air Force band in a battle of music. The BBC broadcast the performance, but no recording survives.
“We stayed there for just over a year. We got back to the States in April 1945, but I couldn’t get out of the navy right away because I didn’t have enough points. The navy sent us out to California, and I spent my last three months in the service in Hollywood, doing armed forces radio, programs like Command Performance. Finally, in January 1946, I was discharged.”
We continue Tak Takvorian’s story in part 2 of this post.