September 12, 2014

Jazz Master Gerald Wilson, 1919-2014

A sobering confluence of three Jazz Masters occurred last Monday at St. Peter’s Church in New York City. I was attending the memorial service for the late Joe Wilder, who passed away on May 9th of this year at the age of 92. Joe was awarded a National Endowment of the Arts Jazz Master award in 2008. Saxophonist Jimmy Heath, who received his NEA jazz award in 2003, performed a tribute to Joe and then came to the mic and announced in a stunned voice that he had just learned that (1990 NEA Jazz Master) Gerald Wilson had passed. This was a first for me. I have attended a number of memorial services for our Archive interviewees, but had never learned of the passing of one at the memorial service of another.
Gerald Wilson was born in 1919; Joe Wilder in 1922; and Jimmy Heath in 1926. These musicians could accurately be called the second generation of jazz veterans. The first pioneers were born around the turn of the century. Gerald Wilson was born two years after the first jazz recording by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, and six years before Louis Armstrong started his series of seminal recordings with the Hot Five. Gerald and his peers learned their craft mostly by listening to records, hearing their idols in live performances, and absorbing the music on the bandstand.
Gerald played trumpet with almost all of the prominent orchestras, including groups led by Count Basie, Jimmy Lunceford, and Benny Carter. But from the start of his career his real love was composing and arranging. He was proud of his work and would tell you that he composed for nearly everyone you could think of, from the great jazz bands to pop artists to symphony orchestras. It’s hard to see these musicians passing just as we note the vanishing of the World War II generation. I interviewed Gerald in Los Angeles in 1995:
MR:    Your writing has taken you a lot of different places.
GW:    Many different places. I’ve been lucky. I’ve written for practically every band that there was that you can imagine. And my dreams have all come true. I wanted to write for people like Duke Ellington. I wrote for Duke and I wrote for him even up until the time he died I was still contributing numbers. I did two concerts at Carnegie Hall with Al Hirt, and Snooky [Young] was on the band then, and J.J. Johnson, we had all those great guys there. And I wanted to write for the movies, and I’ve written for the movies. I wrote for MGM, “Where the Boys Are,” “Love Has Many Faces”; over at Columbia, Ken Murray’s “Hollywood My Home Town.” I’ve done TV work. Everything I’ve wanted to do. I also wanted to write for the symphony orchestra. And one day I got an invitation to write for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. I composed a number that they performed, and then I later orchestrated six other things for them and Zubin Mehta conducted all of my numbers. So all of my dreams, more or less, have been answered, although I’m still writing today. In fact I was writing yesterday, as my wife can attest to, and I intend to write until I die. I love to write and I love to write things that nobody else has heard before. I believe that I can create, I can write music, I can do it any way I want to now, and so my dreams have been answered.
Gerald’s own words remind us that while we mourn his passing, we rejoice in his life well lived.

September 5, 2014

Joan Saves the Day

Musicians love to pad their resumes. A typical musician will have a paragraph that says “Has Played With,” listing every musician of note with which they have shared the stage. Sharing the stage means they got a call to back up any number of visiting groups or singers appearing at a local performing arts center. I’ve done plenty of them. They are usually good gigs and make for subsequent interesting stories.
Joan Rivers came through Central NY about twelve years ago performing at the Turning Stone Casino in Verona, NY. A local contractor called me and asked me to direct a 12-piece pick-up band of local musicians for the Joan Rivers comedy act. The directions were: “play her on” and “play her off.” This simply means when she’s introduced the band needs to play an uptempo number as she walks onto the stage and play it again when she exits. This seemed to be a simple task for the Music Director (in this case yours truly), starting and stopping. There was one issue, no music was forthcoming from the Joan Rivers people. So I went the extra mile and wrote 12 measures of uptempo swing that would bring Joan on with appropriate fanfare.
An afternoon rehearsal was scheduled and the band assembled on the stage at the venue. Joan proved to be likable and attentive to detail. Many artists never show for the rehearsal, they send someone in their place. Joan talked us through the show and made clear of one thing that the musicians were not to do. “At some point in my act,” she said, “I’m going to ask you to help me move these potted plants at the front of the stage. Under no circumstances are you to help me in any shape or form, no matter how I plead or beg.” It sounded like a direction that was easy enough to follow.
Ah, now for the fanfare. “Here’s what we’ll do,” she directed her comments to me. “We have a warm-up comedian, Tony Romeo. I’ll be in the wings and I’m going to hype Tony, and when you hear me announce his name to the audience I want you to launch into that fanfare and Tony will stride onto the stage.” It sounded easy enough. The band retired to their dressing rooms and awaited the downbeat.
Showtime. The band assembled on stage, the curtains opened, and Joan Rivers is in the wings unseen to the audience but laying it on thick with her microphone, or so I guessed. Unlike the rehearsal, Joan was not standing next to me, and to my consternation I realized all I could hear from her was an unintelligible echo-laden slur of words. Joan Rivers was not a mild, calm personality. As she is in the wings waving her arms wildly and shouting into the mic, I’m trying to guess will I hear the words “Tony Romeo”? I’m standing with my hands up, musicians are watching me and I’m watching Joan, trying to sort out this indiscernible tirade. There! I think she said it. The downbeat. The band launches into the fanfare and I’m conducting wildly. As I look to the wings I see Joan Rivers staring at me. She hands the mic to an assistant, and to my horror strides onto the stage, grabs the stage mic and proceeds to exclaim, “no, no, no! That’s not how we practiced it. I’m supposed to say the guy’s name and you then launch into the music. Don’t you remember that?” I shrunk in horror but soon realized that Joan, the ultimate pro, was making it part of the act. I managed to nod my head, “okay, okay, let’s try it again” and she strode back to the wings with one of those comments like, “the help these days, can you believe it? Let’s try it again.” This time there was no doubt when she announced the name “Tony Romeo.” Take two on the fanfare. Out comes Tony, does his bit, we play him off, and out comes Joan.
As she did her act I sat at the piano feeling as small as one can be. I had just proceeded to mess up Joan Rivers’ act, or so I thought. Indeed, Joan did berate the musicians — actually I can’t print what she called the musicians when they refused to help her move the plants, but it all was part of her shtick, and the professional demeanor made the whole act seem like a well-oiled machine.
I’ll never forget my Joan Rivers encounter and the ultimate pro that she was.

September 1, 2014

Inside the Studios, Part IV

Our look at the studio scene will conclude with a few more scenarios experienced by some of our Archive interviewees.
Trumpeter Joe Wilder had the skill and work ethic to become an integral part of the studio scene and found that he could have played sessions almost nonstop. His professionalism led him to self-limit his participation in order to maintain his skill level. Joe observed some musicians who couldn’t resist playing every possible session they could.
Joe Wilder
MR:    I remember you talking a little bit about some fellows who would try to cut corners and play the game of booking two sessions at the same time.
JW:    These were guys who were counting every penny they could get. And someone would call you for a jingle date, a television commercial or something. And they would say well can you do a date from 10 ‘til 12. And the guy would say yes. And someone else would call and say “yeah, I’ve got a date that goes from 12 o’clock until 3, can you make it?” Now he’s got a date from 10 ‘til 12, and he’s like 15 blocks away from the other studio. It’s no way he’s going to get to the other gig on time. And so the guy would say yes to the fellow. Instead of saying I won’t be able to make it because I’m already busy, he’d say yes to the guy that has the 12 to 3 date, and show up on his date at maybe a quarter to one, and say jeez, you know I didn’t know that the other date was going to go overtime or something, not calling to warn him of it or anything, just to make the money, rather than saying let somebody else make it. There’s enough for all of us, and there was at that time, a lot. Sometimes we did three or four jingle dates on the same day. And it got to the point where, in my case, I wouldn’t accept more than three because sometimes you’d go on one and it would be so easy that you felt like you were robbing them, and then by the time you got to the fourth one it would be something so hard that you wish you hadn’t started playing the instrument. So I knew that I could handle three in one day, but four was rough.
Bass trombonist Alan Raph, who was noted in our last blog entry, further described the musical rat race which could cloud one’s judgment:
Alan Raph
AR:    At that point I was juggling. That’s the story of my life, juggling. Keeping [Gerry] Mulligan happy when I had to send a sub to the first set at Birdland every night because I was playing a Broadway show. I was doing “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” which let out at 11. And Mulligan started at Birdland at 9 or 9:30. So Benny Powell used to sub for me. And I came in and did the second [set] and did the night. I’d finish at 4:00 and then go home and get up early and do a couple of dates and do a show and do that again. It was kind of interesting. But juggling. Keeping one contact while you make another, and then honoring the commitments. If you overbook, and you do this all the time, you book something that’s right on the tail of something else and then you have the problem of trying to get out of the first thing a little bit early or come to the second thing a little bit late. And there’s generally a way. I mean I only once or twice had to resort to outright subterfuge. I remember once breaking — my daughter at the time had a little plastic cow and I broke its foot off and put iodine on it. In the middle of a rehearsal I reached in and said, “oh man, I just broke my tooth.” I managed to get out of rehearsal. I left the trombone on the chair, just to make it look really good, and I went out, took my other trombone and went and did a brass quintet date Uptown. Every now and then I’d have to do something like that but not too often.
Studio work almost always paid better than the average club date, and musicians sometimes became overzealous in their quest for the extra bread. Saxophonist Kidd Jordan spoke about playing studio sessions in New Orleans, and how the players collaborated to earn a few extra dollars.
Kidd Jordan
MR:    Did you just show up and play?
KJ:    That’s right. And we had the head. They didn’t have any arrangement. We’d put a head arrangement on it and we’d go and put something on it after they started singing.
MR:    Was most of that stuff done with everybody there? Was it live?
KJ:    Oh yeah, you had to do that. And then we had a trick, you make a mistake this time, you  make a mistake the next time, and keep going round and round so you’d get overtime. ‘Cause there wasn’t no punching in, I mean everything had to go down, the vocalist, the band, the whole rhythm section so everybody had to do it. So we got our formulas for that too, and all the sessions was union sessions and we had a formula for that also.
Kidd described a now-obsolete way of making recordings: band and vocalist recording together and horn players creating a head arrangement on the spot. As technology changed, recording methods kept in lockstep. Trumpeter Lew Soloff of Blood, Sweat & Tears described how one of his signature solos was constructed:
Lew Soloff
MR:    When you did the solo on Lucretia Macevil, did they make you play a bunch of them and then choose?

LS:    God that solo, there were so many touches in that solo. Bobby Colomby produced that tune, and he would punch in here and punch in there, and that solo was very, very constructed by Bobby. I mean I like the way it came out, but it was very constructed by Bobby and I always used to think that that was wrong, but I don’t think it’s so wrong. I mean I don’t want to mention names, I don’t want to give it away, but there’s a lot of incredible pop records that are made and they’re constructed that way. My favorite playing, for the record, on that is just where they fade me out. That’s when I start to really go, just before they fade me out. I’d like to hear what I played after that.
You can listen to Lew’s solo here, starting at 3:56 in this version. It sounds like a brilliant one-take performance, which was the goal. Listen carefully to the fade out. Lew does one of those musical quotes which is still keeping me up at night, trying to figure out its origin.
Much of the music these accomplished musicians were called upon to record was harmonically simple and musically unchallenging. The jazz musicians who stayed out of the studios — either by choice or by lack of qualifications — sometimes looked askance at their colleagues who were thriving in the studio scene. Drummer Panama Francis spoke about his friends’ perception of his studio work in rock ‘n roll:
Panama Francis
PF:    By the jazz musicians I was called that rock ‘n roll drummer. It was a put down. Like we’d be in the bar at Jim and Andy’s and I’d walk in the door and they’d say, “ohhh, here comes this rock ‘n roller.” They didn’t realize how much money I was making, but when they found out how much money I was making, they was knocking the door down to make them records. But anyhow, two years ago they honored me, they gave me $15,000 and a plaque. And I went to make my acceptance speech and all I could say was “ladies and gentlemen“ and I bust out in tears, uncontrollable. Because I was hurt by the jazz musicians who knew me and knew that I worked in bands and heard me in jam sessions, and they went along with the white musicians who labeled me a rock ‘n roll musician. Because they never heard me play no jazz, because I was in Harlem all the time see, with the big bands. So they didn’t get a chance to hear me on 52nd Street. So they thought that this was all I could do, you know, that I was only able to play rock ‘n roll. And my so-called friends and brothers that knew different, never stood up and said well no man, he can play something else. I never got called for a big band date, I never got called for a jazz date. That was a label that was laid on me that wasn’t fair, because, I mean, I was able to play, you know, at the age of 13 I was playing in bands. I wasn’t playing no rhythm & blues — I was playing in bands, playing arrangements and things. But I knew how to play this music, because I used to play in the church. Just like rhythm & blues became rock ‘n roll. It’s like the word “funk.” That was a dirty word with black people. You told somebody to “funk” you’d be ready to fight. But the jazz critic heard the term being used by musicians, and they thought it was hip and it caught on. So they said, “he sure plays funky, doesn’t he.” I remember the time you used that word that you’re liable to get your teeth knocked out of you. I mean that wasn’t a nice word.
I’ll conclude this series with a brief anecdote of my own. A close friend in Utica, Bob Yauger, operated a respectable studio where I assisted as a producer and studio musician. I would often overdub a keyboard or sax part for local bands searching for their own moment of stardom. On one session I showed up with my saxophone and the producer said, “all we need is one screeching note in this two-beat break in the song.” He did his best imitation of a motivational coach and hyped me for the moment: “you rock, you’re the man, you can do it” and other similar blather. Fortunately for me, the note happened to be a high A, transposed to my alto sax, a high F#, slightly out of the range of the horn but a note that I could squeeze out with appropriate intensity. I donned the headphones, and when the moment came I screamed out a high F# for all I was worth. The producer was ecstatic. That was it. I was done — 15 minutes in and out — a first take. The question arose, what do I charge for one note? Do I charge for just the note? What about the money I saved the band for doing my part in less than a quarter of an hour? I honestly can’t remember what I ended up making for that session, but I was grateful that the producer was not one who said, “that was perfect, let’s do it again.”
That’s a wrap on our studio sequence.