George Jean:

The "Unknown" Ellingtonian

by Arne Neegaard

I have had the pleasure of getting in contact with Larry Jean, son of trombonist George Jean.

George Jean was one of Duke Ellington's substitute sidemen. On occasions Duke had to draw on the local musician's union for certain abilities. Since George Jean was already a semi-famous trombonist, he replaced John Sanders on occasion, especially when Duke was in the midwest. The album covers often did not reflect such changes, i.e., "Duke Ellington '55" featured George Jean, not John Sanders, who was ill with the 'flu. Before he died in 2000, his sons had asked him about the bands with whom he played; he had, by that time, forgotten many of them. He started playing piano primarily and occasionally, trombone, B-flat cornet and percussion in a local dance band (The West Side Orchestra, Dayton, OH) at age 9, the only child playing with adults. He played trombone and trumpet in the Roosevelt high school band, Dayton, OH. When he was 18, in 1929, he went on the road with an unknown band as a trumpet/cornet player.

Somewhere along the way, he began playing with the Hank Biagini Band, which became the Glen Gray / Casa Loma Orchestra when Hank died. George Jean and Glen Gray both vied for leadership, but Glen won; the others thought Glen could get better gigs. I think they were right, at the time. Again, somewhere along the way, George played for Glen, Freddy Martin, and a bunch of others. He formed his own band in 1942, but all the members got drafted, individually (not as a band). He returned to Freddy Martin, and eventually played as a studio musician for the American Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) doing The Breakfast Club With Don McNeil, under Eddi Ballantine. When Don McNeil retired, George Jean played for a few more years at ABC, but it was boring. Then he moved to Las Vegas, doing the MGM Grand until he retired.

He had a stroke in 1996, and his old buddies said that he could play piano better with one hand, in a wheel chair, than most folks could in good health. Bit thick, but good for him to hear.

Larry Jean tells his father knew very nearly everyone in the business, and many of them would stop by when they were in town. There were many impromptu jam sessions at the Jeanís house.

George Jean

( 1911-2000 )

Selected discography

George Jean was an often used sideman in the 1950ís:

The following Ellington sessions are well known:
[J95-4] Chubby Jackson:
Joe Silva, Don Geraci, John Howell, Bill Hanley, Don Jacoby, Porky Panico (tp) Cy Touff (b-tp) George Jean, Paul Krum (tb) Bill Harris (tb-2) added, Howard Davis (as) Sandy Mosse, Vito Price (ts) Willie Caulkins (bari) Marty Rubenstein (p) Remo Biondi (g) Chubby Jackson (b)Don Lamond (d) Jackie Paris (vcl)
Chicago, November 4, 1957

The Gus Jean mentioned is George's younger brother. The Jean Brothers played in many jazz bands together, Gus played also with classical orchestras. Gus specialized in wind instruments: saxophone, clarinet, oboe, bassoon, etc., as well as piano.

Here's a couple of notes on the names mentioned:
Byron Baxter and Don Jacoby were just some of the top musicians who played on Eddie Ballentine's band at ABC in the late '40s-through the '50s and into the '60s. It was located at ABC, and played at a number of venues, including -'40s- The Merchandise Mart, in the penthouse studios.

I am grateful to Larry Jean for his valuable help and our list-member Jim Andrews for providing the discographical details.

24 December 2005
Arne Neegaard