December 22, 2011

Musical Baggage

Jazz and blues groups who are able to play every gig with the same set of members are rare today. Most musicians play with multiple working groups, and band leaders need to have a roster of accomplished musicians who can fill key spots when their preferred member is not available. When opening the book to decide who to call for any given gig, some factors are more important than others. The finest musician in the area might not get the call if he/she brings with him what I call “musical baggage.”

“Subbing” is taking the place of someone on a combo or big band gig without the benefit of a rehearsal. The musician will want to make a good impression whenever the call comes in. There are obvious requirements for being a good sub, including accurate sight reading, soloing ability, having suitable gear to do the gig (an electronic keyboard and appropriate amp come to mind) and playing in a style that fits the given ensemble. Having a respectable number of tunes memorized is a plus. (When was the last time you saw a blues band on stage with music stands?) It’s important to find your place in the ensemble, especially if you are not the lead player in the section. Often when band leaders are looking for musicians to play in the short- or long-term they have a choice of players who can fill the bill on any given instrument. What makes a band leader choose one musician over another? There are issues that go beyond excellent musicianship and technical skills.

Assuming a choice of four different but equal players on an instrument, why does player B get my first call while players A, C and D might not? For me it comes down to being free of baggage on the gig. Baggage may refer to frequent tardiness which puts the band leader on edge before the start wondering where the person is and hoping there is enough set up time. Excessive gabbing with fellow musicians in between songs is also baggage. It’s more commonly seen at rehearsals, but sometimes it’s demonstrated on actual gigs when as soon as the song ends it’s time to converse with whoever happens to be in proximity. Do they bring inappropriate volume baggage? Players should have the ability to match their volume not only with the rest of the band but also play at a volume appropriate for the room. It’s unpleasant when a band leader has to face a complaint from the club owner at night’s end that the band was too loud. Is the musician versatile enough to play within the context of the music, and does he take care to play in a manner that befits the style? For example, if the player is a progressive jazz drummer who has accepted a rock & roll gig, he should play simply and with a strong groove and not feel compelled to fill every space. The music should be allowed to breathe. Baggage also includes the player with the need to fuss with equipment after every song. There is nothing more annoying than having to wait to count off a tune because the sub on second tenor is clamping on his third reed of the set, in search of the perfect sound. Especially as a sub, the player should be attentive to the band leader, or a subsequent call may not materialize.

A sub might keep in mind that it’s important to know the appropriate attire for the gig, what time it starts, and what the pay will be so as to avoid any awkward situations at night’s end. Though it’s a good time to network and subs may want to have business cards ready, they should be aware of the distinction between making connections and looking like they’re out to steal the gig.

When it comes to subbing, leave the musical baggage in the closet.

December 9, 2011

Nice Guys Finish First

I am not a huge fan of Christmas music (see my posting “Christmas Time is Here,” 11/30/09) but there is no lack of hip holiday jazz. This past Wednesday I decided to spin two hours worth on my weekly WHCL radio show and I received an unexpected gift in the form of some memories.

The Jazz Archive interviewing has focused mostly on older musicians for obvious reasons. These jazz veterans invariably offered wisdom and humor via their stories and a wonderful aura of class. As the years progressed we met with artists from the middle generation. Some were already established, others were paying their dues (a process that rarely ends). Their experiences are surely worth documenting but I found that often the wisdom/class thing had yet to emerge. When I played selections from John Pizzarelli’s CD Let’s Share Christmas and Jingle All the Way by Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, I recalled two real-life stories that were not documented in their interviews but are now worth sharing.

My older daughter, Alanna, did her student teaching in New York City in 2002. She’s an instrumental music teacher now, and it’s her personal mission to make music in school memorable for her junior high students. One day she called me from New York City and said “Dad, the John Pizzarelli Trio is playing the Blue Note tonight. Can you get me in?” My kids have this notion that I’m a much bigger fish than I am, but nevertheless I figured the least I could do was try. Not wanting to waste any time, I went right to the top and called Ruth Pizzarelli (John’s mother and Bucky’s wife, who we had met numerous times at Hamilton). Ruth quickly took action and asked for the details about what Alanna wanted (number of guests, time) and said she’d call me back. About ten minutes later she did return the call and said it was all set up, that Alanna and a friend would be guests of the band, and thus not have to pay the $50 per set cover charge.

When Alanna got to the door and gave her name, she was taken to a table where John’s sister was sitting. In addition to the free cover charge, it was also insisted upon that Alanna and her guest receive a free steak dinner, and stay the whole night, not just for one set. Before the gig started, John approached the table dressed as a waiter complete with apron, pen and pad, and pretended nobody at the table knew who he was. Everybody got a good laugh out of it, and John joined his sister and Alanna for a few minutes of conversation before taking the stage with his trio.

After a while, Alanna went into the ladies’ room and called me on her cell phone, breathlessly explaining what John had done, and how she thought it was so cool. So there you go — John made a fan for life and it’s a great story for the kid and me too.

The second story involves my younger daughter Janine, who was fortunate to attend Hamilton at a time when the Archive was actively engaged in the interview process. One day she called and said “Dad, Béla Fleck’s coming to campus. I think you should interview him.” I thought it was a good idea but rather a long shot, as often the more success a performer has received, the less likely it is to be able to get through his “people” (i.e. manager, agent) to get a yes or no. It’s interesting to note that when younger artists come to perform at Hamilton, certain Young Lions feel it is not worth their time to sit for an interview, in stark contrast to the majority of the above-mentioned veterans. Fortunately, it wasn’t difficult to obtain a “yes” to Béla’s interview once the appropriate contacts were made. All-in-all, the interview itself was a memorable one. Béla seemed to enjoy it, and he provided some welcome insights from a performer who plays — of all unusual things — jazz banjo.

The story here, however, is my daughter’s interaction with Béla that day. She scored the job of escorting Béla from his sound check on campus, to the location where the interview was to occur. It was a long walk across campus, and I was pleased she was going to have some private time talking to him, as it was a job many of her classmates would envy.

The surprising thing about this walk was that Béla didn’t talk about himself at all. He asked questions of my daughter, such as what her plans were upon graduation. Being undecided at that time, Janine discussed her ambitions with Béla. He gave her this piece of advice: “be very careful what you decide to do from here, because that decision will influence the rest of your life.” Janine took this as sage advice. She hadn’t previously considered that her choice for master’s education needed to be judiciously considered, as that decision is close to irrevocable.

Though I doubt Béla remembers the incident, it stuck with Janine in a big way. What he said was practical advice, which every parent appreciates. Janine was happy about her one-on-one time with Béla, and he made a fan for life.

So there are two examples of nice guys finishing first, and deservedly so. The stories speak for themselves. It is nice to know that jazz class is being carried on as more and more veterans leave us.

Béla and John belong to a small circle of accomplished musicians who appeal to multiple generations. They’re among the artists that everyone in our family enjoys, other examples being Nik Kershaw, Eric Clapton and Moxy Früvous.

By the way, if you want some hip Christmas tunes the above mentioned CD’s will fill the bill. John Pizzarelli sings and plays beautifully over superb arrangements by Johnny Mandel, Don Sebesky and other top arrangers while the Flecktones take your well-worn holiday tunes to places where no band has ever gone before. The opening version of “Jingle Bells” is worth the price of admission, and their take on “The 12 Days of Christmas” has a new surprise every four bars, perfect for listeners with a short attention span, like yours truly.

And by the way, Béla, if you’re reading this, I hope you gets lots of residuals off your tunes that NPR so frequently employs as bumper music.

November 23, 2011

When Less Equals More

The music I love has always had to pass the good groove test. In the mid-60’s I had my AM radio next to my ear waiting for songs like “Green Onions,” “I Feel Good (I Got You)” and Doris Troy’s “Just One Look,” songs that had killer grooves. I was also fascinated by well crafted arrangements that employed the layering of parts and the skillful use of horns and strings. When my listening expanded to jazz, it was the economical swing of Count Basie or the melodic improvisation of Paul Desmond that pulled me in. Recordings with torrents of notes played by emotional instrumentalists were rarely found on my record shelf.

I recall a friend telling me to listen to John Coltrane. I bought an LP called “Om” having no idea what to expect. It started out with the chanting of “Om,” followed by avante garde, cacophonous screaming on the saxophone accompanied by gongs and cymbals. It was not music I cared for at all, and I’m surprised I ever bought another Coltrane record. Even when I did, his playing demonstrated the virtuosic (typical was his classic “Giant Steps” where he plays page after page of running the chords); or the intense and extended soul searching. There is no doubt it was important music, but it didn’t appeal to me. While my sax hero Cannonball Adderley could play ferociously fast, the albums I liked best were from his middle period in the sixties, where he was playing soul jazz with their ear-catching melodies and formative funk. Even though he typically only had two horns, they meshed perfectly in the arrangements written by his brother Nat and Joe Zawinul. Those things appealed to me, along with Cannon’s great tone and soulful approach. People compare his playing to a Gospel preacher delivering a sermon, and he did have a highly vocal approach to his improvising. When I started playing, I didn’t recognize this concept until I started working with guys who played as if soloing is a competitive sport. At first I was enraptured by this type of playing. Later I came to think of it as an exercise in self-indulgence; too much information for a listener to comprehend. This type of player often likes to surround himself with musicians who play the same way, so a quartet results with too much information times four. It makes the listener (or at least this listener) want to wave a white flag.

On the other hand, some players are capable of playing a ton of music if they want to, but they choose their moments. I find that the better your rhythm section, the more likely you can afford to play less, and be able to choose your moments. If the rhythm players lay down a sparse but tight groove, the soloist can play more melodically instead of just running the changes. For me, playing with a well oiled rhythm section is the Holy Grail because I don’t feel I have an overabundance of technique on any of my instruments. I love to play melodic phrases— licks that can be whistled or sung back to you. If I’m playing with people who are fighting each other for dominance, I feel I have to join the fray and start playing a whole bunch of notes in an attempt to fit in on the bandstand. I am not someone who cares to or is even capable of doing that. Jon Hendricks related a story about Count Basie’s interview with a British reporter. The reporter asked Basie why he chose to play so economically. Basie replied “that’s all I can play.” It’s really true. If you can find people who complement the way you play, that’s the way to go.

My first real experience in a big band, and an important period of growth for me, was playing in a group under Chuck Mangione while in high school. Chuck had written some outstanding jazz ensemble charts before he became well-known. I remember having a couple of solo opportunities. At one point Chuck pulled me aside, and his comments had a sobering effect. He said that what I was doing was pretty much bullshit. Nice phraseology, but in retrospect he was correct. I was playing as fast as I could with little thought of the context or what served the song. The co-conductor of the band, drummer Vinnie Ruggerio, was trying to tell me the same thing in a different way. Specifically, I had a solo spot on a James Brown song, a one-chord vamp, and Vinnie was telling me “look, just get down low on your horn, on that low B flat, play something real good rhythmically and honk away.” I remember dismissing his advice, thinking he was foolish for telling me that, because the song was in the key of B and here’s this drummer telling me to honk on a B flat. I completely missed the point of what he was trying to say, but it was the same message Chuck had. The point was not to play everything I knew, especially because I barely knew anything. The first requirement is to improvise within the groove. Perhaps you’ve heard the anecdote about the cymbal that came flying across the bandstand when a young Charlie Parker tried to play many notes, beyond his capability. Jo Jones threw the cymbal as a critique of Bird’s effort. Chuck Mangione delivered the same message to me that day. It took a while for me to think of it as a favor.

Almost all young improvisers go through a phase of overplaying. It’s a way to deal with an inability to create melodic statements over chord changes. Sometimes it takes years to develop that skill, and sometimes the skill doesn’t mature at all. Even though it can be painful for the young player to hear, it helps to have someone point it out, even though it may not sink in until many a chorus later.

October 1, 2011

Tales of the Big Bands: Sidemen Stories

The previous parts of our Tales of the Big Bands focused on Ellington and Basie. In my opinion, Duke Ellington and his band represented the pinnacle of big band composition while Count Basie and his men achieved the essence of swing. I am constantly amazed, when I listen and read about the swing era, at the number of bands that existed and managed to find work, and the players who literally engaged in musical chairs, moving from one band to the next. Our last installment on big bands features a sampling of sidemen anecdotes and perhaps will include your favorite big band.

We’ll start out with arguably the most popular big band of all, the Glenn Miller Orchestra. Saxophonist Jerry Jerome was with Glenn’s band in 1937, a short-lived group that broke up and then reformed without Jerry. He never enjoyed the hits and the popularity of the second Miller band, but has no regrets:

JJ: George Simon had given me an A minus rating in the band [with the Cliquot Club Eskimos]. He said “George Seravo and Jerry Jerome would be the outstanding players in the band.”

MR: You mean in print he had done this?

JJ: Yeah. He was the editor of Metronome Magazine. So Glenn came over and said he liked my playing and would I like to join the band. I said “Glenn, what does it pay?” Because I was still interested in going back to medical school. He says “$45 a week.” I said “that’s that I’m getting with Harry Reiser.” And I couldn’t see any advancement that way. He says “yeah, we’re going to grow and I’m recording next week.” I says “really?” “Yeah” he says “recording at Decca.” “Oh, that sounds pretty good to me.” So I made my decision, I left Harry and went with Glenn. And this is a cute story, Monk. I went into the studio to record the first thing with Glenn. And I got to recognize some of the musicians: Manny Klein, Charlie Spivak, Will Bradley. This is the kind of players. I says “oh my God what am I doing here?” And Glenn says “now Jerry in ‘I Got Rhythm’ would you take 32 bars?” “Wow. I’m playing jazz? Hey, this is it. It’s worth the 45 bucks.” And I played my first record with Glenn with “I Got Rhythm,” with Hal MacIntyre. We were the only two people that had been with the new group that Glenn had gotten up, and I couldn’t figure what I was doing with this band, until I got up to Raymour Ballroom to rehearse for opening that job, there wasn’t any of these guys, just Hal and myself, and all new players. I said to Glenn “what happened to Charlie Spivak and Manny Klein?” “Oh” he says “they’re buddies of mine you know, and I wanted to make a real good record for my first big band record.” So he said they came in.

MR: He got the ringers.

JJ: I didn’t know. And then we went to work. And it was work.

MR: He was a task master?

JJ: Oh, unbelievable. I didn’t mind, you know it was all new for me you know. He was a task master but he wanted perfection. And he was also struggling for an identity. You know in those days, band leaders had identity, a hook.

MR: A sound.

JJ: A sound, something. You know even a guy like Kay Kayser would ... his sound was his personality. Just introducing the band, “Here comes sassy Sully Mason to sing a tune.” But that was how you could identify him. Or Shep Fields blowing water through a straw, you know a bubbling rhythm. Whatever pleases. And Glenn had trouble. He was not a trombone player like Tommy Dorsey. In fact he was rather pedestrian I thought. You know I didn’t think his jazz amounted to very much. And proof is, he never really fronted with his trombone, playing. He would lead the band up front and go back and play with the section. And so he had to use his arranging acumen.

MR: Because he wasn’t a really outgoing type personality, right? So he couldn’t push that part of it.

JJ: Oh, not at all. But Glenn was a great learning experience. I learned what playing notes properly is and how to really play by the mark. Glenn would say “crescendo — diminuendo” and he says “keep it under — keep it above.” But one thing that comes to mind that’s so cute, when I played my solo for “I Got Rhythm” with Glenn, I listened to it and it’s a chorus and you know you can do a thousand of those on a recording, you never do the same thing, you’re improvising, you know. So we went out on our first one nighter after we did our recording somewhere along the line, and I got out and played, and played a totally different chorus, which is a soloist’s preference I would think. Glenn came over to me and he said “Jerry, when you stand up and play your solo, I wish you’d play the one that’s on the record.” I said “why?” He says “well” he says “I consider that part of the arrangement. People expect it. They buy the record and they expect to hear that.” Oh, wow.

MR: I sometimes wonder, some of those classic trumpet solos in some of the Miller arrangements, were they improvised first and then someone actually wrote them out? You know like in “String of Pearls?” Even though it might have been improvised first, it became a part of the arrangements.

JJ: Without question. There have been a lot of Miller bands that have come along the line and I notice that most of them that stand up, play the solos that are on the record. And I think that’s for identity. It makes it sound more like the Miller band. So he had a point. But the Part B of that statement is when I joined Benny Goodman, and I got up and stood up and played “Undecided” on a one nighter, and I played what I’d played on the record, and Benny came over to me and he said “did you like what you played on the record?” “Oh,” I said “thank you, Benny.” Yeah. See that’s the difference. Benny didn’t — you know.

MR: Glenn Miller was not jazz band per se, it was more of a dance.

JJ: Yeah. And the best. Really he was great. His tempos were great, and he strove for an audience reaction too. What do you like? What can I play for you?

MR: Well you went from one tough leader to another with Benny Goodman.

JJ: Well that’s a relative word, Monk, “tough.” Because they weren’t tough as far as I’m concerned. I understood Glenn. I was a confidante of Glenn’s. Glenn and I were close. I might tell you this it’s an interesting bit of history from my point of view, and that is I stayed with Glenn until he broke the band up. I think it was New Year’s Eve that we had our last gig. And he said “I’ll call you when I reorganize.” He had to get some more money and get his second band started. He called me three months later in March, and I met him at the Rialto Bar in New York. I’ll never forget that, on 49th Street, which is sort of Musician’s Alley at that time. All the hotels where the musicians stayed and the bars and all of that you know, sort of a little place. And Glenn said “I’m reorganizing and I’d like to have you come back. But” he says “I want you to be a third partner with me and Chummy MacGregor” the piano player. He says “we’ll draw the same salary, put up a car, split gasoline ... the third bona fide partner.” And I had just joined Red Norvo. And I loved that band. Just a small band, I think it was nine men, but it had a lot of tenor saxophone playing, and playing with Glenn was very restrictive, it was reading a lot of music, and an occasional 32 bars, but he’d never let a guy blow. In other words if he’s cooking, forget about it, it was never a situation like that. I turned him down. And he was very crestfallen. He asked if I would come and rehearse the saxes for him at the studio that night, which I did. And in the sax section there was a kid who came out from I think Detroit at that time, was Tex Benecke. And he took my place in the section. And he was the right guy for that band, without question. He did better by getting Tex.

When I interviewed saxophonist and arranger Dave Pell in 1996 I could tell that he was a bit of a cut-up, a man who never lacked in confidence or the willingness to take a chance. Much of his early career was spent with a lower tier of big bands, but he and his sidemen always wanted them to sound as polished as possible. Their efforts to ensure this could even include upstaging the leader.

DP: Oh, it was fun. But a lot of players that you play with, I was in Bobby Sherwood’s band and I took Zoot Simms’ place. He moved to first alto and I played his tenor chair. Well I’m sitting next to Zoot all night. I mean what could be bad about that? We’re both kids you know. This was in the ‘40’s. And I quit the band I was with in the ‘40’s and stayed on the West Coast and got the job in the relief band. And Stan Getz, myself, you know, great players were sitting in the relief band, a Latin band. And we’re having a great time. But you’re learning from the guy, like Stan was the greatest dressing room player that ever lived. He’d get out front and he’d choke.

MR: No kidding?

DP: Oh he was terrible. He was so insecure and such an introvert that he couldn’t get up like me, no, I don’t give a damn, I’m going to get up and play you know.

MR: For our students that will watch this, can you explain relief band?

DP: A relief band is — the main attraction has got to go out and get a 20 minute break, and you had to have a live band on stage. And usually a different kind of band so that you could do the rumba, like we had a Latin band playing a Four Brothers type tenor book. And then we’d play Freddie Martin style and then we’d play Latin and then we’d do this and then the other bands, whoever the name band was at The Palladium, which was every four or five weeks, we’d just sit there and said hello the guys and you know it was great. But I stayed in L.A. and I didn’t have to go on the road so I really enjoyed it.

MR: And then you went with Tony Pastor later on?

DP: No I was with Tony Pastor getting there. And the story about Tony Pastor, I get to California and I say, “Gee Tony, this is great. Good-bye. I’m quitting.” He says ‘you can’t leave me in L.A., this is wilderness. There’s no guys.” I said “Good-bye.” And so he says “well stay with me until we leave California and then you can quit. So six weeks later I left the band. But I had fun with Tony because I’d run out the microphone to beat him to his own solos. Because he didn’t really like to play. But the only way I could get to play was to be a cocky kid and run up to the mike when he’s ready to play and I’m up there playing already. “Sorry, Tony.”

MR: Sounds like you didn’t lack for self confidence.

DP: Oh, no, I was a smart ass, it was just terrible. But that’s kind of a thing that you have to do. It’s almost like the sidemen on the band, they keep watching the leader. And watching all the mistakes he makes. And all the wrong things he does. Because in the back of his mind, I’m going to be a leader some day and I ain’t never gonna put myself — I mean Les Brown, I had a great time with Lester’s band and played on every tune, you know I had a great book to play, and we had [Don] Fagerquist and all the good players. And I remember as I went out every time to play a solo out front, we’d just didn’t stand up, we’d go out front — show biz. And I remember kicking over Lester’s horn at least once a night. “Oh, I tripped, ohhh, I’m so sorry, Oh, Les I’ll fix it later.” Well he didn’t play too well. And we didn’t like him playing in the band with us, because the saxes sounded so good. But when he played he played awful. And so if his horn didn’t work, he wouldn’t play. And Les after years and years he finally figured out I was doing it on purpose. You know, “I’m so clumsy, Les, I’m sorry.” But I was kicking over his horn so he wouldn’t play. Terrible, terrible. But I always wanted to be a leader and you know, even in the worst way, you want to be a leader somehow, and you want to be able to so “no, no, my tempo.” And then the drummer in the back says “no, Dave, that’s the wrong tempo, you’ve got to kick it up here.”

MR: Well when you became a leader I assume you kept your horn out of the way.

An elderly gentleman who often comes to my gigs goes into his own bit of heaven when I fill his request for “Intermission Riff.” He never fails to tell anybody around him that Stan Kenton was a genius. The Stan Kenton Orchestra probably was the most controversial of all big bands. Stan’s idea of what a big band should sound like didn’t necessarily include the basic parameters that were normally expected. Trombonist Eddie Bert spent time with Kenton and was shocked to learn what Stan wanted and didn’t want from his band:

MR: I wanted to play a little piece here — see if it jogs your memory.
[audio interlude]

EB: Well I know it’s Stan’s band.

MR: Yeah.

EB: It’s probably Maynard.

MR: “Cuban Carnival.”

EB: Oh yeah.

MR: And you’re on this, I think around ’46 or so.

EB: No, it must have been ’47.

MR: Okay.

EB: I joined him in ’47.

MR: All right. ’47. What did you think of his music?

EB: Well he featured trombones. That’s why I wanted to go with that band. And he was very popular. I mean guys were poll winners in the band, like Shelly Manne and Art Pepper. So I figured well let me go. Because Kai [Winding] had done great on the band and Kai and I were friends. So I went with the band. And it was like a family that band. He was a great guy to work for.

MR: Some people didn’t think he swung very good.

EB: No. That he didn’t. One night we played in Mankato, Minnesota. Mankato Ballroom. And generally Stan would like spread out. But this night the bandstand was small. So we were like this. And the band started swinging. And of course we all wanted to swing. So the band was swinging and he stopped it. He said “this is not Basie. This is Stan Kenton.” So we were looking at each other like — damn.

MR: That’s really curious.

EB: Yeah I don’t know, he just didn’t understand swinging.

MR: I never thought about it backwards though, I mean like at that point how would you stop swinging?

EB: I know. We all looked at each other like what is he talking about. I mean Shelly is a swinger. You know, Shelly Manne. Well we always used to go out after the gig and go blow somewhere, wherever we were. But when you get on the bandstand it was Stan Kenton.

MR: But people who came to Kenton expecting to dance, was that a problem?

EB: We used to play the “Concerto to End All Concertos” and that was like all different tempos. And I swear I’d see people dancing. I don’t know what they were doing but they were dancing. You know you’d have the crowd in the front they were all standing there, and then in the back would be people dancing. Well maybe they caught the changes, I don’t know.

MR: Interesting.

EB: But his band was very popular. He had like a machine. In other words, he had a guy that would go out a month in advance and set everything up, have pictures in all the music stores, have the records. It was his advance man. Then Stan would leave after the gig, wherever we were, he’d have his car, and he’d leave and do interviews and be on the radio in whatever city we were in, and it was like a machine. So it all kept rolling like that.

There certainly was rivalry between the big bands during the swing era. The competition for gigs and for the best sidemen were much like sports teams are today. Two of the most celebrated big bands were, interestingly enough, led by clarinet players. Their playing could be distinguished from one another, but they did share a certain lack of social grace. Trumpeter John Best is one of those musicians who made the rounds in almost all the best big bands. He was not a man who took kindly to insults, and may have landed in the wrong spot with Artie Shaw. He also speaks about the power of the Musicians Union during the big band era. George Simon’s influence in advancing a musician’s career is again shown here:

JB: I also enrolled in Duke that fall [1932] and I stayed there six weeks and left again. But Les [Brown] graduated from Duke four years later. In the meantime I went back to Chapel Hill, ten miles away, at the University, the campus. And I was playing with Les’ band and also a campus band, and that was the end of my schooling after that. I wound up going to Chicago in 1936 with some fellows that I had met with the Biagini band in Savannah, Georgia. Hank Biagini had a band down there. And I came down to join the band, but I had laid off for three weeks and I had no endurance. So I didn’t get the job. But I met all those guys — they were the nucleus of a band that was organized in Chicago that fall. That would be 1936. It was a pretty good band. It was reviewed. We played Frank Dailey’s Meadowbrook. I got an honorable mention write-up by George Simon, and Glenn Miller was with George Simon and they came in there and that was the first time I’d met Glenn. I had heard him before and seen him before. But they heard me play and it was favorable mention.

MR: The first time that your name showed up in print as far as the music magazine?

JB: Yeah. And that band broke up at the end of ‘36. So I decided I’d try to get a New York card. You have to sit out six months time, residence. You are eligible to work after three months, certain type of work. So you’ve got to sweat it out. Well I was sweating it out for three months. And I got a knock on the door and a trumpet player that I had played with, Biagini. He had Artie Shaw with him. Well I had heard of Artie Shaw, in fact I had a record that I had bought of Artie Shaw, with strings on it, and Peg LaCentra sang the vocal on it. And a song called “I’ll Remember” I think it was. And Artie said he was organizing a new band. And he had had string bands and lost a lot of money on it, because the people just wouldn’t go for it. He was going to organize a band with the same instrumentation as Benny. And he had an opening for another trumpet. So I said well — maybe I shouldn’t say all this, Artie might listen.

MR: Please, do.

JB: Anyway well I’ll go ahead with it. I said “Artie, I’ve been here three months, you know, starving. And I don’t want to lose the three months time.” He said “I’m a personal friend of Jacob” — I don’t remember his name — the President of the New York Local [Musicians Union]. He said “I’ll see that your time goes on.

MR: Because if you left New York, then you’d lose your three months? Is that the idea?

JB: Right. If they pull that card out, the union card out, your transfer card. So I said well that’s fine you know. Well at the end of the six months, I asked the manager for my card. He pulled it out and it said withdrawn, March 31st. So that kind of upset me a little bit. It was a while there that I was pretty angry at Mr. Shaw. And in September of that year I left Artie and I went back to North Carolina.

MR: So you never at that point got into the New York Local. Because they just pulled your card and you had to start over?

JB: Well in a way I’m glad I didn’t because the way it turned out it was good. And you get mad — I got mad at Artie. He had a recording date and this was in the 1937 band, September. And I’d been in that band too. But after the union card thing, I was not too friendly. So he had one of those transcription dates in New York. Like we’d play in Wildwood, New Jersey, and there was a new tune out, I can’t remember the name of it, and my part had the release on the tune. So I played it, and the saxophone player, a good friend, Freddie Petrie, he turned around and gave me the “yeah!” you know, encouraging. I got through, sat down, and at the end of the thing Shaw said “John, is that the best you can play that?” I said “Artie” — at that time it was my best attempt. He said “I’ll play that tomorrow on the recording.” And I said “well, as of right now, Artie, you can play every other solo I have in the book.” And that kind of shook him up. He said “well what does that mean?” I said “two weeks or tonight, any way you want, either way I’ll leave tonight.” And I did leave in two weeks. I went back to North Carolina. Eight months, I worked in a furniture store and did local, you know, playing around Charlotte, Spartanburg, and a couple of colleges there. Eight months, and Artie had told me and some of those guys that I didn’t hear enough of the early Louis Armstrongs, which I didn’t. And meantime I had bought a lot of those records and listened to them and I finally realized what they were talking about. Like “Wild Man Blues” and all those old things. So I wrote Artie a letter somewhere in that time. He called me up and said “do you want to come back?” So I did, I went back to join him in Boston, to Roseland Square Ballroom I think. Billie Holiday was in the band. And I stayed in that band until I joined the Glenn Miller band. Three or more years.

Drummer Sonny Igoe could be listed as the definition of a journeyman musician. He held down the drum chair in many of the best bands of the era, reminding us that very few big band musicians ever got close to being rich. Sonny relates his experience with the other great clarinet player, Benny Goodman:

SI: I can remember when I started with Benny Goodman’s band, now we’re talking 19 — what would that be, — 19 —

MR: ‘48?

SI: ’48 and ’49. That’s right. I was going to say ’47. And there’s a long story concerned with this, and it’s the thing I told you before. You can’t do anything alone. Somebody’s got to help you. So I had come off the road playing with three what we would call back in those days B bands. They weren’t like the Benny Goodman or that sort of thing. They were like a guy named Tommy Reed who had a band that was made up of all ex-servicemen. I went out to San Francisco to play with him. And then I was with Les Elgart’s band at the Meadowbrook, and then I was with a lady bandleader named Ina Ray Hutton, I don’t know if you ever heard of her. She used to have a girl band but now she had a guy band. And then all those jobs fizzled out and then from one to another you get a call, “would you like to audition for Ina Ray Hutton?” Sure, because I don’t have a gig. And I wasn’t married yet or anything like that. So those bands, Tommy Reed, Ina Ray Hutton and Les Elgart were 90 dollar bands. That’s a week on the road with hotels and meals you had to pay your own.

MR: You had to pay your own.

SI: Yeah. And you know you wonder, 90 bucks, how did I ever do that? So okay now a long thing goes on, and I know that Benny Goodman is rehearsing a new band. And I had also heard that he was getting a drummer every day. He didn’t like anybody. So guys were telling me — there used to be a hangout in New York called Charlie’s Tavern, where everybody used to go because beers were a nickel and we could hang around there, drink beer, lie, you know tell a lot of lies. So anyway, this guy goes “hey Sonny, you ought to go up to Benny’s rehearsal” he said “he’s having trouble finding somebody he likes.” I said “he’ll probably hire Shelly Manne or somebody like that.” But I thought about it and it came to me that I had the acquaintance of a man who was an insurance executive who was a friend of Benny Goodman’s. He loved musicians. He loved to talk to us and all that kind of stuff. So I asked him. His name was Eddie Furst. And I said “Ed, do you think you could introduce me to Benny Goodman so I could audition?” He said “I don’t know why I didn’t think of that, I’ll call him.” So he called me the next day and said “we’re going up Thursday at 11:00” or whatever the heck it was. Right? So he takes me and we go up there and he’s rehearsing at MCA in New York. They had an auditorium. And they were rehearsing in there. And I had a very good ear. I memorize very quickly, luckily. It’s another lucky thing, you can’t teach it. So anyway we go up there and the band in playing and they were rehearsing this one tune three or four times through, five or six times through, whatever. And I’m listening to it. And I’m getting that down pretty good already, and I’ll see if I can play that tune. But you never know, you might have to go up there and sight read. So anyway I could read passably. But anyway they take a break. And so Benny said “Eddie, how are you?” And he comes over and shakes his hand. And he says “this is the young man I was telling you about, Benny.” And he said “oh, nice to meet you Sonny,” he said “why don’t you play the next set,” he says. He says “we’ll take a ten minute break” or something like that and he says “you play the next set.” The drummer was from Philadelphia and he was very inexperienced. Scared to death. Not that I wasn’t nervous, Benny Goodman, my God, this was a whole new strata for me. And this kid, I don’t think he played with anybody. But anyway he was so accommodating. I said “do you mind if I use your drums to play the next set” or something. He said “oh please” he said “please.” And we introduced ourselves and all that kind of stuff. A very nice guy. But he wasn’t ready for that. I wasn’t sure I was, you know because I was going like this [taps], but I knew several guys in the band from Charlie’s Tavern and around town. So anyway okay I sit in. And they play that tune that I had sat through five or six times. And I had the part up, like I pretend I’m reading it. And so anyway I didn’t have to really read much of it, it wasn’t that complex, but there was a couple of starts and stops and a few things in it. And I went through it [claps] just like that. So Benny looked up like this. And he said “stay up there, Pops.”

MR: Pops. He called you Pops already.

SI: Everybody. Yeah he called everybody Pops. So anyway he says “stay up there, Pops.” So anyway I stayed up there and I played a few more tunes I got lucky enough to get through. And then he said “okay, everybody’s through, we’ll play with the quartet.” So he said “stay up there, Pops.” So Buddy Greco was the piano player and Benny, and bass player was a fellow named Clyde Lombardi. And so we played with just a small group for about an hour. And so then he packed up and walked out. He didn’t say a word to me, that was it. So oh he did say “come back tomorrow, bring your own drums in.” Something like that. So I go back tomorrow, and then I played the whole rehearsal. And then again at the end he goes through the small band, because he loved playing with the small group too. And we played that. And so it’s going on three weeks now. And I get a call from another clarinet player, a guy named Jerry Wald. You ever hear that name? Anyway he was going into the Paramount Theater. And he asked me if I’d be interested in doing the Paramount with him. And I said “I’m rehearsing with Benny.” He said “well did he hire you yet?” I said “I’ve been doing it for three weeks he hasn’t said a word.” He says “well listen, I can give you another couple of days and then I’ll have to get somebody else. He says, “but the job is yours if you want it.” And I said “okay, thank you, very nice of you.” So anyway the next day I’m at rehearsal with Benny, right? Now Benny used to walk around as I call tooteling all the time. He’d go [scats]. And he comes up to me and gives me a nudge, and he’s tooteling. Like this. He says “get your suit yet, Pops?” And I said “what do you mean get my suit yet?” He says, “you know, your uniform.” Because the band was going to Sacks Fifth Avenue for tuxedo coats. So I said no. He said “why don’t you get your uniform?” I said “nobody told me I was hired.” He said “nobody told you you were hired? You were hired the first day.” He said “nobody said anything?” I said “no, you never said anything.” He said “he’s supposed to — where’s what’s his name —” the manager. “Come up here. Talk to him.” So okay. Now the big decision of my life comes up, right? So the guy says “oh Sonny it was my fault,” he says, “I apologize.” He said “you got the job” and he said “you’ve got to get your uniform.” And he said “now how much money do you want?” Nobody ever asked me that before. Right? I can remember Gene Krupa saying “if you ever play with Benny Goodman he respects you if you ask for a lot of money.” But I didn’t feel as though I was that secure you know. But that ran through my mind. So I had come from these, like I said, these 90 dollar bands. Never made more than 90 bucks a week. So I kind of haltingly said “how about 125?” He says “well I think we can make that.” And I could almost hear him going chuckle-chuckle-chuckle. So anyway that’s the way that went. I was the lowest paid guy in the band. I would have swept out the bus, I don’t care. But I spent a year with Benny until he broke up the band. I spent a year with him. And I really felt as though I learned a lot, I came a long way experience-wise and how to really play in a band and gee to have somebody as good as him. A lot of guys said he used to be very bad on a lot of people. But he never once said anything to me about my playing. He never said you’re playing too loud, you’re rushing, you’re dragging, you’re doing this, you’re doing that. Never said anything. So that put me over the top from the standpoint of having to audition with other bands if I went with — so I went from Benny Goodman to Woody Herman, you know and that was my next step. But it was funny in those days the way everybody said you’ve got to watch “boy you’re working for Benny — did you get ‘the ray’ yet?” I have a story about “the ray” if you’re interested.

MR: I am.

SI: The thing is that he would, he even said to us one night at the Palladium in Hollywood he says “you’ve heard a lot about the ray” he says “I’m not really mad at anybody.” He said “sometimes I daydream and my mind wanders and I just happen to be looking in somebody’s direction. I’m not trying to stare them down or anything like that.” So now we’re in Canada doing a whole string of one-nighters in the hockey rinks. They used to put the boards down on the ice so people could dance, and then they would build this tremendous movie set for the band. They’d have the saxes down here and each section up. The drums were like up there. Way up at the top. You couldn’t hear anything. You couldn’t hear the band you were so far away. And so and Benny’s down there. So we play the first set and Benny, he’s looking around and puzzled. And he looks up at me, and I had another small set down in front for the small group. So he looked up at me and he goes — you know what that means. You come on down here and play down here. So not a word was said. So I pick up my sticks and brushes and go down to the other set. And I played a set down there and I’m in seventh heaven because the whole band is right here in my ear. Oh what a feeling that is. That’s why when people play music today all they do is turn up the bass. You hear bluh-bluh-bluh. It doesn’t sound like music. But when you have the brilliance of the brass and the saxophones right, oh man, it’s hi-fi, the original hi-fi. So anyway okay we take a break. Now we’re coming back up and I’m down front now and I got a little closer and got myself comfortable and I have my music stand here in case I need some charts. And Benny’s right over my music stand like this, eye level. I’m kind of kitty corner to him. If I look there, there he is. Now he had the habit of having his clarinet under his arm like this, holding it this way. So he was in that pose looking right at me. And I could hear some murmurs in the background, guys in the sax section saying “uh-oh, look’s like it’s Sonny’s turn in the barrel tonight” or something like that and all these kinds of things. So he’s just looking at me over the top of my stand. Just staring at me. And geez I’d had enough. So I stood up, and this is true, I stood up and I went like this in front of his eyes. He never budged. And the band, everybody’s having hysterics. They thought I’d get canned right then. He said “sit down kid, what are you doing?” He never knew I did it. So he says “okay let’s go.” And we went on to the next number. That story got around town in New York even. “Geez I heard what you did to Benny.” It was funny. He never even acknowledged it. But I did see him ride some guys sometimes and I felt sorry for them. I think it was one of those things that every once in a while if he got in that mood if he knew he could ride you he’d ride you.

In 1964, as a 14-year-old aspiring saxophonist, my parents took me to see the Glenn Miller Orchestra under the direction of Ray McKinley in a Rochester, NY auditorium. The band sounded much like the records I had come to know. I stood at the front of the stage staring up at the saxmen in their matching blue sport coats, picturing myself as a member. At the time it didn’t occur to me that I was born too late and had missed the era where such gigs were prevalent. Conducting these interviews for the jazz archive has enabled me to vicariously experience the thrill of the sound, the challenge of the travel, and first-hand stories of the colorful characters of the time.

August 18, 2011

Tales of the Big Bands: Basie, Part 3

The top echelon singers loved the Basie band. Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra are among the most recognizable names that recorded with Count Basie. Basie also had the good fortune and sense to employ hip singers as part of the orchestra. You’ll recognize the names Billy Holiday, Helen Humes, Jimmy Rushing, and the subject of our final Basie blog entry, Joe Williams, Basie’s “Number One Son.”

Many of the quotes and images in this blog entry were obtained during interview sessions conducted for the purpose of creating a 1996 documentary on Joe’s life entitled “A Portrait in Song,” which was produced by Burrill Crohn.

Joe joined the Basie band on Christmas Day in 1954. He was not a total unknown to the Count. Joe sat in a number of times with Basie’s septet at the Brass Rail in Chicago, and the Count must have heard something he liked. Basie signed Joe up when his “new testament” band came to fruition. The Joe and Basie combination was an instant success, resulting in the early 1955 release of “Count Basie Swings/Joe Williams Sings,” which contained Joe’s signature song, “Every Day I Have the Blues.” Trombonist Bill Hughes was a young man at that time and was thrilled to be a part of this ensemble.

BH: I think when [Joe] first joined this band he had performed with Basie’s sextet or something, somewhere before. Basie had heard him. I had never heard the guy until he came in and when he came in I looked at him, you know, like the pants were a little high, his wardrobe wasn’t all that great, and I was saying I wonder why Basie’s hiring this guy, until I heard him sing that night. Then I was saying I wonder what took him so long to hire this guy. And I remember I was young then and I remember walking down the streets of New York and almost every record store you’d hear this sound coming out and it would be Joe Williams singing these things. And I would be saying to myself, wow, I’m a part of this. And the band was so hot. And Basie was so hot. And every night man, it was just a joy to go and play this music. Actually I don’t think the Basie band would have survived as long as it has without Joe having been that catalyst back in 1954.

An observation often made about the Basie band is that they could sound like a small group even though it was a large ensemble. Basie must have had that in mind when he signed Joe on with no arrangements ready for him. The band was able to set riffs and create head arrangements for the first couple of weeks until things could be written down that suited Joe’s voice and unique abilities. Joe talked about those first few months in the band:

JW: We had no arrangements. None at all. We got to Jackson, Mississippi I guess it was. And they had a place they called the Two Spot. And we were there about four or five days. And I got together with Ernie Wilkins and Frank Foster and arranged “Every Day I Have the Blues,” “Teach Me Tonight,” — Foster did “In the Evening,” and something else. And there was “Every Day I Fall in Love,” and something else he did. But yeah, that was ’55. And when we got back we had these things to present, plus the things they were doing that were head [arrangements], like “Roll ‘em Pete” and “Shake, Rattle and Roll.”

It would be inevitable that Joe would be compared with Mr. Five-by-Five, Jimmy Rushing, whose fifteen year tenure with the orchestra ended in 1950. But Joe didn’t look backwards. He was confronted with the considerable shadow of Jimmy Rushing when he went to England with the band in 1957:

(The photograph of Joe and Jimmy above was taken at
the Newport Jazz Festival in 1962.)
JW: We went [to England] in 1957 and one of the critics stated at the end of his obvious critique or review, that most of the applause was given to a young singer named Joe Williams, who is no Jimmy Rushing. I said I certainly hope so. I wasn’t trying to be a Jimmy Rushing either. That’s why I fought Basie so hard, it’s that if they asked me did I know anything of Jimmy Rushing’s. I told them no, I didn’t. And I didn’t, really. It would have been simple for me to learn, I could learn his stuff in one night and perform it. But that was not the object of the exercise. I wasn’t singing 1930’s, 1940’s, or even 1950 music. I was adding things that I wanted to present, that’s all. And I’m glad it found favor, not only with the musicians but with the audiences as well. I had to fight to get him to do it. But I learned from it. He would sit, after we presented it, and it was enthusiastically received by the public, then he would look at me and go — and I gleaned what he meant, that he wouldn’t have to say anything, like if you believe in something strong enough, fight for it, even those that are closest to you. Because he was paying for the arrangements in those days.

Basie taught Joe that if he believed strongly enough in the direction he wanted to take, and if he worked for it, it would pay off in the end. Joe also learned a bit about when to get off the stage. Joe talked about a trip to Stockholm, Sweden in 1956.

JW: So Basie said to me “you’ve been killing them in the States, everybody just loves you over there.” He said “let’s see what you’re going to do now, ‘cause none of these people understand English. [There were] ten thousand people standing on their chairs and they were busy, you know, like screaming and hollering. And I said to Mr. Basie, “what are we going to do, Bas?” He says “for once you’re going to quit while you’re ahead.” I never forgot that lesson, man.

Another musical lesson from Basie offered a poignant description of Basie’s character:

JW: As a leader, I watched and observed [Basie]. He never saw mistakes. Those of us who knew, it was like, gee that wasn’t what we do 98 times out of a hundred. That was an accident. And so instead of looking where it came from, he’d always happen to be looking someplace else. Somebody over there you know. He missed it. He never heard it. He did something marvelously unusual. [When a musician did something that pleased him] he would go light up like a Christmas tree. What I learned from him was that when you were working with first class musicians particularly, or any musician for that matter, you live with what they contribute. You don’t have to give them direction necessarily or anything. Let them find their own level of what goes in support of what, according to their own depth and perception. You have to. And that way you get an unusual presentation and one that is always fresh and refreshing to you. You don’t get tired.

Considering all the young men who passed through Count Basie’s orchestra, Joe must have been very special to earn the moniker “Basie’s Number One Son.” When Joe decided it was time to move on and leave the band, in 1961, the Count attended Joe’s first gig with the Sweets Edison quintet.

While great singers all love performing in front of stellar bands, the feeling is not always mutual. Vocalists, by their very presence on stage, move the spotlight off the instrumentalists. A singer needed to earn his/her respect with the band both musically and from their personal character. Many musicians spoke of Joe’s musical talent — his ability to sing blues, ballads and anything in between in any key. The second part of the equation was addressed by baritone saxophonist John Williams, who crossed paths with Joe during the singer’s many appearances with the Basie orchestra in the 1970’s:

JW: Well in reference to being a singer I always like to say that if Joe Williams isn’t the greatest singer in the world, there’s none greater. And in reference to being a human being, I think that one of the greatest attributes that a human being could have is good manners. And this is the one thing that I noticed about him that made him sort of, I mean set him apart from many of the other performers with whom I’ve worked. And Basie used to say “God doesn’t like ugly,” in reference to people who are ill-mannered. And I could see why he was proud to call Joe his Number One Son because Joe always, from the moment I met him, was a person who had very good manners. And it starts with self-respect. He had self-respect so it was very easy for him to show us respect. And I just didn’t feel like a lowly baritone player who had very few solos to play, just an ensemble player, a guy supporting the front line. I felt just as important in Joe’s presence as one of the featured musicians. So anyway, good manners was the thing that really caught my attention.

Joe’s respect for other performers included fellow singers as well. In the concert documentary mentioned above, Joe performed live at Hamilton College, with the Count Basie Orchestra under the direction of Grover Mitchell. He surprised the producer and production staff when on his first song (“Every Day I Have the Blues,” his signature tune), he invited Chris Murrell, the then-current Basie vocalist, to join him on stage and trade verses. After the concert we asked both Bill Hughes and Joe himself why he chose this moment to spotlight another singer.

BH: Yeah, he invited Chris. He’s very generous with the microphone. But most of the great jazz singers I’ve ever seen have been generous with the microphone. They are eager to have their fellow artists come up and show what they can do.

JW: I vowed within myself that if ever I found someone who wanted that microphone as badly as I wanted it, then I would share it with them. My manager John [Levy] used to give me hell about it because he says you share your space and your time with the musicians and you’ll have people say “wow!” and you say “put the spotlight on somebody else.” He said “then you have to go back and grab them again.” Well I feel as though I can. I can afford to present someone. Because I don’t have to stand there and have them keep that spotlight on me.

The Jazz Archive continues to acquire interviews. In July of 2011 we visited Iola Brubeck, wife of Dave Brubeck, and she reminisced about Count Basie and Joe Williams.

IB: I should have brought this up when we were talking about the idea for The Real Ambassadors because Joe Williams was a part of that. That summer I was in New York and I went to Central Park and Joe Williams was with the Basie band, and he was just so great. And the night before I had gone to a Broadway musical. And I said to myself Joe Williams said more and reached me more emotionally with the Basie band that night than that big production I’d seen the night before. And that was one of the reasons why I started thinking in terms of a Broadway show.

MR: He was a big help to us getting this started.

IB: That’s what I understand. Well I loved Joe Williams. He was a wonderful, wonderful man. He was another example of a black man who, right at the height of the sort of division that was going on in jazz was not effected by that. And I can remember in Europe one time, Joe and some other musicians were sitting outside a hotel in the summertime, on a sort of patio, and our car pulled up and Dave and I got out of the van and Joe got up from where he was sitting with the other musicians and came over and they embraced, he gave Dave a hug and so forth. And it was just kind of a way of him saying “cool it guys.”

Joe left Basie in the early sixties and went on to a successful solo career lasting over three decades. In 1995 when the Hamilton College Jazz Archive was founded we were fortunate to have Joe lend his credibility and his name as we contacted musicians to request interviews. He passed three years later. The College recognized his contribution by designating my position the Joe Williams Director of the Hamilton College Jazz Archive.

The Count Basie Orchestra swings on, and its succession of leaders all played in the orchestra when The Count was at the helm. Its current conductor is drummer Dennis Mackrel.