Born in Monroe, Louisiana, Fontana learned jazz music from his father Collie, a saxophonist and violin player, and first performed with his father's band while in high school. Fontana attended the school known today as University of Louisiana Monroe for two years. He then transferred to Louisiana State University, receiving his degree in Music Education in 1950.
His first break into the professional jazz scene came the following year, when in 1951 he was hired to stand in for one of Woody Herman's regular trombonists, Urbie Green. Herman was so impressed with Fontana, particularly his improvisational skills, that when Green returned Herman kept Fontana on as a permanent member of the band.
After three years with Herman, Fontana joined Lionel Hampton's big band in 1954. In early 1955 he played briefly with Hal McIntyre before joining Stan Kenton's big band later in the year. He recorded three albums with Kenton and also worked with fellow trombonist Kai Winding during this period.
Recording and touring with these various bands, Fontana became known as a lyrical, inventive soloist. His fluid style was quite different from the be-bop staccato of his great contemporaries Johnson and Frank Rosolino. Fontana was also greatly admired for his mastery of the "Doodle Tonguing" technique, particularly by fellow trombonists. This skill allowed Fontana to smoothly execute runs of notes at speeds many had not previously considered possible to achieve on a slide trombone.
In 1958, Fontana moved to Las Vegas, Nevada. After this time, he would tour only on rare occasions, such as a 1966 tour of Africa with Herman's band sponsored by the U.S. State Department. Instead, he primarily performed with house orchestras in Las Vegas during the 1960s, particularly Paul Anka's band (with Rosolino). He also performed in the bands backing Sammy Davis Jr., Tony Bennett, Wayne Newton, and the Benny Goodman orchestra.
In the 1970s, he continued performing in house orchestras and lounges in Las Vegas. He also recorded with various other artists during this time, such as Louie Bellson, Bill Watrous, and Supersax. It was not until 1975 that Fontana recorded an album as an ensemble co-leader. He shared the billing for this record, The Hanna-Fontana Band: Live at Concord (on Concord Jazz) with drummer Jake Hanna. Uncharacteristically for the period, Fontana also toured in Japan with this ensemble. In 1978 he featured on the classic jazz trombone recording of Bobby Knight’s Great American Trombone Company, alongside Charles Loper, Lew McCreary, Frank Rosolino, Phil Teele, and Bobby Knight. Recorded live at Donte’s in North Hollywood his solos on "Strike up the Band" and "I Got Rhythm" showcase his total mastery of the doodle-tonguing technique.
In the 1980s, he appeared regularly on National Public Radio's Monday Night Jazz program. And although he recorded on more than 70 albums over his long career, his first true record as a headliner did not appear until 1985 when Uptown Jazz released The Great Fontana (1985), his first release as a solo headliner.
Such a long recording career without a headliner release is most unusual for a musician of Fontana's stature, making The Great Fontana the most notable single entry in Fontana's discography. He continued performing and recording sporadically throughout the 1990s.
It is fair to say that although Carl Fontana never earned great fame with general jazz audiences, he is on every great jazz trombonist's list of great jazz trombonists. Watrous, for example, cites Fontana as his favorite trombonist, and the two recorded a record together near the end of Fontana's career, Bill Watrous & Carl Fontana (Atlas Records, 2001). J. J. Johnson called him, "One fantastic trombone player." Legendary jazz critic and historian Leonard Feather summed up Fontana's career as follows: "Fontana has long been regarded as the most fluid, innovative trombonist after J. J. Johnson–a modern trombonist with exceptional technique and ideas."
Fontana died in Las Vegas, Nevada aged 75 after suffering from Alzheimer's disease.
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