was born October 29, 1922 to an impoverished family in Hastings, Nebraska. He started playing the trumpet in school at the age of eleven, and by high school was spending his summer vacations playing in local territory bands to help his family make ends meet.
Growing up in a big city like Omaha, Neal was exposed to some of the great bands and trumpeters of the Southwest territory bands, and he was also able to see some of the virtuoso jazz musicians from New York that came through Omaha on tour. His early influences all came from the North Omaha scene. He said,
“We'd see Basie in town, and I was impressed by Harry Edison and Buck Clayton, being a trumpet player. And I would say I was impressed with Dizzy Gillespie when he was with Cab Calloway. I was impressed with those three trumpet players of the people I saw in person... I thought Harry Edison and Dizzy Gillespie were the most unique of the trumpet players I’d heard.”
These experiences seeing Gillespie and Basie play in Omaha foreshadowed his period in New York watching Gillespie play and develop the music of bebop on 52nd Street, and Neal’s later involvement with Count Basie's band.
In 1939, while still a junior at North High in Omaha, he got his start in the music industry by writing arrangements of vocal ballads for local bands, like the Nat Towles band. Harold Johnson recalled that Neal's first scores for that band were "Swingin' On Lennox Avenue" and "More Than You Know," as well as a very popular arrangement of "Anchors Aweigh". Some material that Neal penned in high school was also used by the Earl Hines band.
Two days before his high school graduation ceremony in 1941, he got an offer to go on tour with the Dick Barry band, and traveled with them to New Jersey. He was quickly fired from the band after two gigs because he couldn't sight-read music well enough. Stranded in New Jersey because he didn't have enough money to get home to Nebraska, he finally joined Bob Astor's band. Shelly Manne, drummer with Bob Astor at the time, tells that, even then, Neal’s writing skills were quite impressive:
“We roomed together. And at night we had nothing to do, and we were up at this place — Budd Lake. He said, "What are we going to do tonight?" I said, "Why don't you write a chart for tomorrow?" Neal was so great that he'd just take out the music paper, no score, [hums] — trumpet part, [hums] — trumpet part, [hums] — trombone part, [hums], and you'd play it the next day. It was the end. Cooking charts. I’ll never forget - I couldn't believe it. I kept watching him. It was fantastic.”
After an injury forced him to leave Bob Astor, he stayed a while in New York, playing with Bobby Byrne in late 1942, and then with Charlie Barnet for whom he wrote the classic arrangement of “Skyliner.” During this time in New York, he hung around the clubs on 52nd Street, listening to bebop trumpet master Dizzy Gillespie and other musicians, and immersing himself in the new music. Since he didn't have the money to actually go into the clubs, he would sneak into the kitchen and hang out with the bands, and he got to know many of the great beboppers.
He finally left New York for a while to play with the Les Lieber rhumba band in Cuba. When he returned from Cuba in 1943, he joined the Charlie Spivak band, which led him out to California for the first time, to make a band picture. Neal fell in love with California, and after making the picture in Los Angeles he dropped out of the Spivak band to stay in California. www.nealhefti.com