December 8, 2014

Christmas Béla Fleck Style

Most major artists eventually record a holiday album. Sometimes it’s by choice, and on other occasions they’re encouraged to do so by their record label. Christmas and holiday music must sell; year after year we see new releases on the market. When an artist decides to do such an album, they gather a circle of arrangers and, combined with their own ideas, try to find a niche. Their musical choices are many, especially in the case of an instrumental record. Eliminating the vocal opens up multiple possibilities for recasting familiar tunes. They can experiment with a significant list of musical elements, including: tempo, tone, dynamics, time signature/groove, instrumentation, and an overall general style.
One of my favorite holiday CDs is Béla Fleck and the Flecktones “Jingle All the Way” released in 2008. Artists like to put their own spin on old songs, and Béla and the Flecktones put the “12 Days of Christmas” into a centrifuge and spun it on high speed. It’s as if the goal was to combine every possible instrument tone, time signature, tempo, dynamic and musical style into one 5:18 cut.
The normal line-up of Béla, bassist Victor Wooten, reedman Jeff Coffin, and percussionist Future Man, is augmented with string bass, mandolin, clarinet and the Tuvan Throat Singers. The possibilities are endless.
When I spoke to Béla, in 2004, he described his creative process:
Béla Fleck
BF:    I just write a lot. And I’m always screwing around with the banjo and stuff pops out and then I try to figure out what’s going to be good for the group. And a lot of times I just take what I think is the best song and what makes it the best song to me is hard to put my finger on but I’ll just have something and I’ll think well this is — there a bunch, I might have 20 things that I come up with, this one I think is special. It’s usually something about the melody or the chords that’s different enough to either be — it has to either be so simple and strong and striking in its simplicity that it’s better than the other simple tunes that I’ve written or that the other guys have or whatever, or it’s got to have a complexity that’s interesting but not necessarily offputting. Just I’m looking for a certain intangible something. But when I find it I know it.
The TwelveDays of Christmas” arrangement was a collaborative effort between all four Flecktones. The fun begins before the song actually starts. The audible countoff can best be written: 1, 2, hey, ack!
Following four measures of bass drone, the banjo offers the first day of Christmas in a swinging fashion, at a civilized tempo of 116 beats per minute.
On the second day the soprano sax states the melody with a loping cowboy feel. The song perks up, modulating a half step higher and sprinting at double the original speed. But don’t get used to it, after a few frantic bars they shift gears back to the original key and tempo. These fellows are toying with us.
A graceful waltz and an ascending whole step modulation is employed for the third day. Béla indulges in a terrific wrong note at 0:32, worthy of musician/comedian Victor Borge.
Enter the guest mandolinist, with a bluesy fourth day of Christmas, and so it goes, one after another, an ever-shifting kaleidoscope of time signatures, melodic embellishments, and tongue-in-cheek musical commentary.
Here are some other highlights:
At 2:44 a bubbly Lawrence Welk-sounding orchestra, meets a Klezmer band, complete with clarinet lead.
At 3:55 the soprano sax floats serenely over what can only be described as an intense rhythmic battle between the rest of the band.
And the most striking moment, at 4:36 a choir of unearthly voices intone variations on “five golden rings.” The only possible thing that can follow that is a reflective moment of silence.
This carousel of sounds finally concludes with a collective band scream. We have seen the Flecktones on three occasions, and there was never a music stand on stage. As I listened to this complex arrangement I felt sure they would never play it live. How could all this meticulous chaos be memorized and accurately performed without the music? I underestimated these awesome musicians. Watch this entertaining live version here.
The entire CD is a marvelous match of magical arrangements and impeccable musicianship. If you want to challenge yourself, try singing along with Béla Fleck and the Flecktones’ semi-psychotic version of this Christmas classic.

November 6, 2014

Happy Birthday Adolphe Sax

Adolphe Sax
A few weeks ago I was chatting about music in a small circle of classical musicians. I happened to mention that the saxophone is one of the few instruments that was actually invented by one person, as opposed to an evolution over the years. One person commented, “yes, and we’ve been cursing Adolphe Sax’s name since its invention.”
This comment was only partly in jest. The saxophone has its lovers and its detractors, but it is indeed one of the few instruments we can cite as an invention. Most instruments evolve over decades and even centuries. The flute used to be made of wood. The piano came from a long line of keyboard evolutions including the harpsichord and the clavichord. And the trumpets lived without valves for a long time.
Today, November 6, we note the 200th birthday of Adolphe Sax. Mr. Sax was born in 1814 in the town of Dinart which was part of France, later annexed by the Netherlands. It was common at the time to follow in your father’s footsteps as far as a trade. Adolphe’s father was a cabinetmaker and inventive enough to provide musical instruments for a Dutch army band when ordered to do so. Adolphe took to the business of instrument making, eventually producing a new and improved bass clarinet and exhibiting nine music related inventions at the 1840 Belgian Industrial Fair Exhibition.
Paris was the capital of musical life in France and Adolphe moved there to seek his fortune. His idea to combine the fluency of a woodwind instrument with the power of a brass instrument was met with encouragement by the composer Berlios, also a music critic. This stamp of approval encouraged Adolphe to pursue production of seven different sizes of saxophones and the instrument gained popularity in opera orchestras as well as military bands. The rest of Adolphe’s life was not happy in a storybook fashion. He spent most of his energies defending himself from lawsuits from other instrument inventors who claimed they conceived of the saxophone first.
One of his sons, Adolphe-Edouard, followed him into the business and maintained his instrument making workshop, which was eventually bought by the Selmer company. To this day Selmer still has the highest reputation for their saxophone manufacturing.
Adolphe Sax received his patent for the saxophone in 1846, making it the youngest of the wind instruments and far too late to have been written for by the great Baroque, Classical and Romantic composers. Adolphe never knew that the saxophone would become the most popular of jazz instruments on another continent and be the first choice of many young musicians in the fourth and fifth grades.
The seven sizes of the saxophone have been whittled down to mostly the soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone. But if you would like to hear the whole gamut of the instrument, including the bass and the massive contrabass, I suggest looking for the album by Scott Robinson, a multi-instrumentalist who played every size of saxophone when he recorded “Thinking Big” on Arbors Records in 1997. Mr. Robinson’s obsession with saxophones, especially the contrabass, is well known in music circles. When I interviewed him in 1997 he related how the story of his frantic search to acquire a contrabass ended with success:
Scott Robinson
MR:    You have an album coming out with a contrabass?
SR:    Yeah. That instrument I never even dreamed of getting, because there’s so few in the world, there’s like a dozen in the world. But I did happen to meet somebody in Rome, I told them I was looking for old instruments, and he says, “oh there’s this giant saxophone in an antique shop.” And I really didn’t believe him, because people say, “oh yeah, it’s like higher than that door.” And then you go look at it and it’s a baritone. That kind of thing happens all the time. But this guy was for real. His name was Enrico. And he was for real with this. And he sent me pictures of it. And I was out of my mind, you know I couldn’t sleep. But there again, the guy didn’t want to sell it. But he had it just standing up in his antique furniture shop, and he had canes and umbrellas and stuff down inside it. And that took two and a half years. Finally the guy parted with it and my friend brought it over in a big box the size of a phone booth. I picked him up at the airport and we brought the thing home, and it’s just unbelievable. And the amazing thing is how small the bass sax looks next to this. The bass saxophone just — I busted out laughing. We dragged them both out in the yard and we stood them up and the contrabass and then the bass sax is just down here.
MR:    So this is an octave below a baritone sax?
SR:    Yeah. But it seems proportionately larger somehow than what you would think. I mean it’s at least twice the size of the bass sax. Amazing. Taller than me and I’m six-four nearly.
You might want to view Mr. Robinson playing the contrabass in this story on CNN.
When rock & roll entered the scene in the 50s, many wind instruments were replaced by the electric guitar. Perhaps because of its ability to convey intense emotion, the saxophone survived and is often featured in many rock & roll instrumentals. Our previous blog detailing more about the instrument, “The Saxophone Survives,” can be read here.
In addition to its popularity, the saxophone also must be the most misspelled instrument. Please note the O in the middle, not an A, as I have seen countless times.
Happy Birthday Adolphe Sax.

October 30, 2014

The Bass Solo

Most of us have heard the jokes about bass solos: A couple complains to a marriage counselor that they’ve lost any ability to communicate. The counselor leads them down the hall and into a room where a jazz trio is playing. Just as they take their seats the bass solo starts, and immediately the couple starts talking to one another.
Or, the short version: Q: What happens when the bassist starts to solo? A: No one knows, everyone starts talking.
There’s some truth to this. Why is it that audience attention tends to wander when it’s time for the bassist to have his/her moment in the spotlight? I’ve given a lot of thought to it, and recently two incidents increased my focus.
I was listening to a wonderful Benny Carter CD, a 5-piece saxophone section with piano, bass and drums. In one particular tune, after multiple choruses of soloing by Benny Carter and Frank Wess, the bassist had his solo spot. Immediately I reached for the volume control.
Last week during my college radio show I was playing one of my own CDs which features Keter Betts on bass. During one song it was Keter’s turn in the spotlight. Once again I went for the volume control.
The string bass has always been a difficult instrument to amplify and record, and when it comes time for their solo they are often close to inaudible. In addition, have you ever noticed what the other musicians in a small jazz group do when it’s time for the bass to have its say? Typically they all stop. Is it any wonder that the audience attention can wander? When the sax, trumpet and piano solo, they are backed up by the bass and drums, providing both the groove and the song form. Then the bassist gets handed the ball and the rest of the team walks off the court. Admittedly there is an acoustic issue about playing during a bass solo. Any extra sound from horns, piano and drums tends to drown out the bass and cause them to play at a volume that is inconsistent with the feel of the music. If it’s not hard enough already, the bassist is usually the last in line for soloing. Just when the hands are going numb they become the focus.
Bassist Chubby Jackson, a veteran of the Woody Herman band, commented on this phenomenon:
Chubby Jackson
MR:    I’m always impressed by the physicality that must have been required to be an acoustic bass player at those times. I think of you back there, with, like you said, very little amplification, driving that whole band. Did you ever experience any physical harm?
CJ:    Oh yeah. A lot of times your arms get numb, your fingers too. You’re playing and all of a sudden they start to shake because your whole body is carried away with what’s expected of you. But physically at that moment, you’re not up to it. You know what I mean? Because everybody else in the band has a moment to sit with the horn in their lap, until the end of time. I said “the end of time.” You like it?
MR:    I picture some of those jam sessions where the horn players are lined up and playing “I Got Rhythm” and they come up for four or five choruses, next guy. And you guys are back there.
CJ:    Yeah. And then someone looks at you and said “take one.” Jeez. Take one. That’s the laugh of the century, when somebody points to the bass player, after 28 choruses have been in front, and your hands are in one of these. You know you walk around — I had hands on me that were so ugly, I used to keep my hands in my pockets all the time.
Chubby relied on his ebullient personality and stage presence to help him get through these trying physical moments.
I’ll admit that my jazz attitudes fall more in line with the previous era. I don’t think a jazz combo needs to have a bass solo on every song, just like I don’t believe having a drum solo on every song is necessary. But I also believe that the standard (melody—everyone solos—melody) format can induce audience apathy.
Recently, Jay Leonhart, one of the finest bass players working today, visited Hamilton College. On the drive to the school from his hotel we were talking about making a living in the music world, and Jay casually stated, “no one hires me for my solos.” I had the opportunity to interview Jay the next day and asked him, then why do other musicians hire him?
Jay Leonhart
JL:    I was always making enough money to pay my bills, to do what I needed to do. And I always worked. And that was because, I mean I don’t mean to sound arrogant at all, but it’s because I’m at the top of the class in terms of what I can do on the bass, in terms of the various things I can do. You know, Broadway, jazz, even symphony if need be. Oh I’m not a great symphony player but I’ve done it. I can read anything. And I’m very skilled. And I’m one of the guys who makes a living at it. And there’s so many who don’t. There’s so many musicians who can’t because the competition is ferocious. And you’ve got to have everything. You know, what do bass players need? Good pitch. Good time. Good sense of music. Good musicianship. It goes on and on — that list of things that bass players need to know how to do. And if you don’t do it just great, there’s somebody right around the corner who does, and people are going to find out.
MR:    Plus don’t you have to add to that, to sort of be likeable — a personality that people are going to want to call you back because of the way you are?
JL:    Oh God yes. That’s very important. I mean in any business, in every business, people say, like Woody Allen says, most of work is just showing up. That’s what he says. Then people say well if you’re not easy to work with, people don’t want to work with you, and they won’t. And that will get around and all of a sudden you’ll be out of business.
I think bass players have to have a certain mindset. They need to be musically fulfilled and take pleasure by playing the most significant role in the rhythm section. For me, it all starts with the bass. There’s no other instrument that can provide both the time and the harmonic guidelines of a song like a string bass can. I’ve noticed a phenomenon in the last number of years: bassists who play their instrument like a saxophone. In other words, bass players who just aren’t satisfied with their role in the band and play as if they are responsible for both the melody and the soloing at the same time. Invariably the feel of the group suffers.
Here’s my own ideas about what might keep the audience conversation from peaking during the bass solo:
 Break up the routine — find a different order for solos; instead of sax, trumpet piano, try having the bass be the first soloist.
Let the bass play the melody — there’s an interesting concept — either a solo bass melody or in unison with one of the horn players. This will get the audience’s attention and let the bass player have a memorable moment.
More bowed bass solos — it’s been my observation that when the bass player picks up his bow people perk up.
The horns, piano and drums play hits (chords on the downbeats) during the bass solo, marking the time and keeping the audience with them while letting the bass fill the spaces in between. This works especially well with the 12-bar blues. Or, have the horns do what clarinetist Kenny Davern called “footballs” (barely audible whole notes on the chord tones).
Consider limiting the bass solos, but limit everyone else’s solo as well. Vary the soloists on subsequent song selections. There’s no written rule in jazz etiquette books that horn players and piano players must solo on every song. Distribute them across your set and go for some variety.
My advice to young bass players echoes Jay Leonhart’s. For every hour you work on your technique and your bass soloing abilities, spend two hours learning to play time and memorizing the songs that you’ll be called upon to play.
Milt Hinton, the “Dean of Jazz Bassists” summed it up: the players in the rhythm section are providing a rhythmic service, don’t ever forget it.

September 20, 2014

Jackie Cain, 1928-2014

Roy Kral and Jackie Cain, in 1998.

Jackie Cain possessed one of the purest voices in jazz and popular music, and a musicality to match. Music aficionados from the 1950’s on were familiar with the Jackie & Roy (Kral) duo. Together they enjoyed a 55-year career and a 53-year marriage. Roy Kral passed away in 2002, and Jackie died last Monday, September 15. Their music ranged from hip and swinging vocalese, to semi-novelty renditions of pop songs, to beautiful ballads with impeccable arrangements by Roy Kral, Quincy Jones, Don Sebesky and others.
Jackie & Roy shared the story of their meeting in our interview, which took place on March 22, 1998 in New York City:
MR:    Was it love at first note for you guys?
RK:    Oh yes, love at first note. But not at first sight. She was much too young for me.
JC:    Well Roy’s seven years old than I am, so at that point I was about 17 years old.
RK:   She told me she was 16.
JC:    No. I met him when I was 17 I believe. And he had another girlfriend, and I was just this little naive girl from Milwaukee. So I don’t think I attracted his attention that much. But then he did like working with me I believe.
RK:    Here’s what happened. A friend of mine brought her in to the club, Jump Town, it was early ‘47, on the west end of Chicago. Dave Garroway was looking for sponsors. Jump Town was his first sponsor. He talked up the club, the place starts to boom. And this friend of mine, a tenor player, brought Jackie in to hear our quartet. I was working with the George Davis Quartet. And this tenor player said, “hey let her sing, she’s really good.” And I says, “naaa, don’t be bringing your girls in here, they’ll ask me to play in the key of X, something that I don’t know anyway.”
JC:    Piano players never like to play for girl singers, because half the time they don’t know what key they sing, and they don’t know what tune they want to do, and that sort of thing. So they’re sort of negative about it in general.
RK:    So I said no deal. We went to the bar and libations, and Vete [Bob Anderson] said, “ah come on, she’s good.” She sang “Happiness is Just a Thing Called Joe.” And I happened to have loved that song because hearing Frances Wayne sing it with Woody Herman’s band, a Neil Hefti arrangement. I said God, that’s great. Okay. And she sang that. The club owner was there that night, and he came up to us and said, “you guys need a singer for Friday and Saturday.” Okay.
Jackie & Roy enjoyed early success as members of Charlie Ventura’s small group, and had a few modest hits with songs such as “Cheerful Little Earful” and the unlikely “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles.” Most of their music was indeed cheerful and able to please the average listener, but hip enough to gain the respect of jazz musicians. After leaving the Ventura group, Jackie & Roy paid their share of dues. They described the realities of life as performers while raising small children:
MR:    So after the kind of short lived group with the cello, did you consciously sit and say okay the public wasn’t quite ready for that, what are we going to do now.
RK:    What we did was
JC:    Have a baby.
RK:    Yeah.
JC:    In the interim, amidst all these things, we’re having kids, and having to do with just living your life. That’s been one of our problems in the sense of being known to the public, because every time we’d get a little momentum going we would have a family thing happen. We were happy about it.
RK:    And it was — I was going to say what we did was cut down to just the two of us, just piano and the two voices, and we worked any way we could. Because things were rather slow. And finally we got on the road with a child, and we had a station wagon and we had a kind of a buggy, and behind the back seat
JC:    One of those that you lift out of the frame you know? And you put it behind the second seat in the station wagon and so if you have to change the baby you get on your knees and you’ve got your own little bassinet right there. And that was the days when you had to sterilize bottles and everything. Every night you’d check into a motel on a trip and have to take the sterilizer in and wash the bottles and sterilize them.
MR:   If you have a duo gig, and you’re on the road in your station wagon, what did you do with your child while you were performing?
RK:    Well we went to Hawaii, and we were working at this hotel on the roof, and we got into there and didn’t know who we were going get, and finally we found a young Japanese girl who was very responsible, and we would get ready for work and she would come in and read to our first daughter, and then put her to bed, and this Japanese girl would go into the bathroom with the lights on, and do her reading and do her homework, and take care that we finish our show, and we’d come in and she’d go home.
JC:    We had to find people wherever we were and it was always very nerve wracking because you know, are we going to find somebody for the first night? And in fact, in that incident in Hawaii, we didn’t have anyone for the first night, but luckily it was in the same hotel, and so we got her to sleep and we went upstairs and did our show, but this is what happened. She woke up and she heard us because it was all open, there was no air conditioning, it was like an open room thing, and it was just screened in. Anyway she heard us and she went out of the room in her little Dr. Denton’s and she went looking for us, and ended up down in the lobby and the people in the lobby said well where are your parents, little girl? And she said well I hear them singing. So anyway that was one of the funny incidents. And a lot of stuff like that happened. But most of the time we were very good, I mean we were lucky we found people the first day we got there through somebody in the club who knew somebody or whatever.
As a duo they fell into the world of commercial jingles, singing first on an ad for Halo shampoo. The sound of their voices and Roy’s arranging skills made them naturals for this field, and they went on to record many familiar jingles, including Cheerios, Plymouth cars and Borden’s instant coffee. This commercial life was balanced with creative LP’s, my favorite being the 1972 release “Time and Love.” They spoke of this album, made for producer Creed Taylor:
JC:    In 1972 we made that album “Time and Love,” which is the album we did for Creed Taylor, and that was such a wonderful time. And we hadn’t been doing anything because we were doing the commercials. So at one point we said gee we’ve got to record something. We should get back in the studio and do something. And I don’t remember how it came about — oh yeah we were going in and pitch it to Creed.
RK:    We’d done maybe four albums for him on Verve and so forth, and we were going to go into the city and just like talk it up — Creed we want to do another album, and like let’s see what we can do, and so we walked in and we started talking, talking, talking, and he says “that sounds like a good idea, let’s do it.”
JC:    He was for it right away. And then he got Don Sebesky on it, and of course Don Sebesky contributed such a tremendous amount, because he came up with a lot of the ideas and did all these big charts orchestrating, and of course there were a couple of Roy’s things in there too but he orchestrated everything for a 70 piece orchestra. And it was just, I mean it was thrilling to do it.
MR:    You had the best.
RK:    The best players of New York.
MR:    And I specifically remember hearing the title tune and just it was so beautiful, and all of a sudden when the Bach section came in, I said wow, that is brilliant.
RK:    And the opening I think was where Jackie did the French horn part.
JC:    The first day we went into the studio, I had to sing that. And I hadn’t been singing because we were doing commercials and we weren’t working in a club then. And so I was warming up and trying to get my voice in shape, because we always do that before we do anything. But I went in the studio and I was so nervous, because I had to do this a capella.
RK:    “Afternoon of the Faun.”
JC:    Yes, “Afternoon of the Faun.” And so I did it, and it worked out okay. And he was there conducting everything, and a lot of the string things of course were recorded separately and I had to just come in and fit in, with the earphones, and that’s always such an unnatural situation. When you get in the studio, and you’re thrown into these unnatural things where you’re wearing earphones and the band isn’t even there, and you’re singing like alone in a booth, it’s very hard to get into it.
RK:    And there are a few places where it was just all conducted. And we couldn’t coordinate — how long do you wait before you come in, before they come in, there would be spaces. And so we said, “Don, you’ve got to come help us, come into the studio.” He said, “oh sure, yeah.” And he said, “well now it’s going to be like this” and he would come in and it’d be wrong.
JC:    Even he couldn’t really feel it.
RK:    I said, “Don, we’ve got to do this right.” And he says, “yeah but I can’t find it either.” So he said, “try it.” And we put in little things like, gee if you touch yourself three times and then come in then it’ll be all right.
JC:    It was very tricky. But we did enjoy it, and then I got to do “Bachianas Brasileiras,” which was something I would never dream of attempting. But Don thought that I could do it, and thank God he let me try.
MR:    Was “A Simple Song” on that record also?
JC:    Yeah.
MR:    Was that a Bernstein?
RK:    Yes. And Don Sebesky coupled it with Dave Brubeck’s “Summer Song.”
JC:    No, you’re thinking of another one. You’re thinking of “Summertime” and “Summer Song.” “Summertime” coupled with Dave Brubeck’s “Summer Song,” where we sing all the voices, it sounds like a chorus, it’s all us doing it. That was such a fun thing to do, because it was different.
You can listen to the title track “Time and Love” here, and read our previous blog, Songsof Summer where Summertime/Summer Song was discussed.
Jackie was well respected in the music business and she shared her “most important compliment”:
JC:    One time [composer Alec Wilder] said a thing about me that I’ll never forget because he doesn’t say nice things if he doesn’t mean them. He said, “when she sings a song it stays sung.”

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.

August 20, 2014

Inside the Studios, Part III

The countless record dates played by veteran jazz and swing musicians produced a lengthy list of humorous, informative and poignant stories. Musicians who were used to playing within the swing parameters were called upon to make adjustments. Some of them made the adjustment, others not so much. Two west coast keyboardists, Ray Sherman and Paul Smith, both encountered what were called the repetitive “rock & roll triplets.”
Ray Sherman
RS:    Funny, that was the days of, I don’t know if they even called it rock & roll or rhythm & blues, with the triplets in the right hand. I started getting a lot of calls like that, where that’s what they wanted.
MR:    Can you recall some of the records you played on?
RS:    Well I think the only hit I was on “Primrose Lane.” And I think I faked an introduction on that, and they always say whatever I did was good.
MR:    It became a little hook.
RS:    Yeah. Because I did a record date after that, it was funny, a friend of mine, Jack Marshall, the guitar player, it was one of his dates. And he came over to me and he said, “do you think you could play something like the guy played on the ‘Primrose Lane’ intro?”
And from Paul Smith:
Paul Smith
PS:    I did one date where the piano was facing the conductor and this whole thing was eighth triplets. And just as a gag I took off my loafer and put it on my hand so I’m playing with a shoe. And he can’t see. And I’m going ching-ching-ching with a shoe on my hand. I played the entire date that way and he said great, that’s the sound he wants. And I’m playing with a shoe. So I had a faint idea what was coming up. I mean he never knew and I certainly never told him, but I could have sent one of my kids in with a shoe and play duh-duh-duh and that’s it. So I could see what music was coming to at that time.
MR:    I have to ask the obvious question: what key was that piece in if you were playing with your shoe on?
PS:    It doesn’t make any difference. It’s just the sound, ching-ching-ching. I didn’t make any chord changes. The shoe covered part — it was mostly on the black keys, but the lower part was on the white. So you have white and black both. But all he could hear was ching-ching-ching, and that’s the sound he wanted.
MR:    That six-eight feel, was it because it was a good dance feel? Is that why that became a thing?
PS:    I don’t really know. I mean I went up to him after the date and told him not to call me on those kind of dates anymore. I said don’t call me on those triplet dates. You’ve got a musical date I’ll be happy to do it. I mean it cost me a lot of money but I’d rather come home happy than irritated.
As Bob Rosengarden stated in our last blog, studio musicians were so busy running from one session to another that they rarely had the luxury of reflecting on what they had just recorded, whether it had hit potential or whether it would never be heard again. West coast saxophonists Ernie Watts and Plas Johnson spoke of these dates:
Ernie Watts
MR:    When you were doing a particular date did you ever have a sense of this tune is going to last; that it’s going to be something that years from now people are still listening to?
EW:    No. When you’re working you’re just working. It’s just your work, it’s just what you do. I would get up in the morning and I’d go and I’d do a record date. And it could be the Jacksons or it could be Sarah Vaughan or it could be Barbra Streisand. I did pop records, I did jazz records, I’d go and I’d do a record date in the morning and then in the afternoon was “The Tonight Show.” So the record dates usually run three hours so I’d do a date from 10 until 1, take a break, go over to do “The Tonight Show,” “The Tonight Show” would be off at 6:30 and I’d do another record date at 7. So I’d usually do two record dates and “The Tonight Show” just about every day, or I’d do three record dates or a big movie date and I’d send a sub to “The Tonight Show.” Because sometimes you know movie dates are all day long. I did that every day for 20 years. So when you’re doing that, all you’re doing really, all you’re thinking about is keeping your health together and going to work. You have absolutely no idea of the greatness of what’s going on, or how something is going to last or whatever. What’s happening now is all of these R&B records that I played on with The Temptations and Barry White and all of these people, they’re being used for commercials, and I’m getting these big checks. I’m getting these checks for Billy Preston things.
And from Plas Johnson, who gave life to “The Pink Panther”:
Plas Johnson
PJ:    Henry [Mancini] had the talent of matching the player with the tune you know. He would call just the right saxophone player for what he was writing on. Just the right harmonica player. He knew players quite well and he knew music. He had a knack for putting stuff together that matched, and I guess that’s how I came to work on his “Pink Panther.”
MR:    It’s a classic. Certainly had a sound to it. Did you have any idea at the time that it was going to become one of those tunes that everybody can whistle?
PJ:    No. Of course not. But we did have an idea at the time that it was a great piece of music because it was like 8:00 on a cold winter morning and I forget how many, it was a full orchestra with strings and everything, and after the tune was recorded, after the performance of the tune the orchestra applauded.
Guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli has played on thousands of recordings, some of which can kindly be called “novelty records” and others “musical gems.” He shared an amusing anecdote that took years to develop:
Bucky Pizzarelli
MR:    You never quite know what’s going to catch the public’s ear.
BP:    No. You never know. But in those days a hit record was a glorious thing to have, for an artist to find some — Patti Page had a thing called “Doggie in the Window.”
MR:    “How Much is that Doggie in the Window.”
BP:    Yeah, we made it in the last five minutes of a three hour session. So how do you know? I think Doc Severinsen was playing trumpet on it.
MR:    I mean I can just picture you going home and saying hey, guess what we did today.
BP:    Yeah, and “Itzy Bitzy Bikini.”
MR:    “Itzy Bitzy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.” Oh my God. That was Brian Hyland, wasn’t it?
BP:    Yeah that’s right. And another thing, I made, here’s a funny story. I made Ray Charles’ “Georgia on my Mind.” It was with Ralph Burns, but it was one of those busy weeks where he was farming everything out. And we still don’t know who wrote it, Bobby Brookmeyer or Al Cohn wrote the arrangement. So we do the arrangement. Smash hit. Big, big hit. Thirty years later I’m doing the Dick Cavett Show. And Ray Charles is going to sing this tune. And the conductor comes up to me and I’m with Bobby Rosengarden’s band. And the guy said to me “don’t play the guitar on this, because it was a certain kind of guitar playing on the record.” So he was afraid I didn’t know. So I laid out. Do you believe that?
MR:    I can’t believe that.
BP:    I didn’t tell him.
For the busy studio musicians whose day-to-day work could include every possible scenario, the stories they brought home were rarely about what a wonderful day they had. More often, they were bizarre and unexpected anecdotes. Bass trombonist Alan Raph shared a story of a misunderstanding with a volatile vocalist:
Alan Raph
MR:    Can you remember one of the worst or most ridiculous recording dates that you’ve ever done?
AR:    Yeah. Well ridiculous, not worst.
MR:    Okay.
AR:    I was with Warren Covington on a schlock rock & roll date at a horrible studio back in the 60’s. And there was a black singer, a lady, and the studio was kind of dirty, funky is a better word. And she was singing a song called “The Ghoul in School.” As bad as it can get. It was just rotten, absolutely rotten, wretched. Now she sang this. We played it. Now it’s break time. You have to know Warren Covington. Warren was a wonderful trombone player, had his own band and he was like Mr. Indiana, with the sweater, always looked nice, always had his face washed and hands and nails manicured and the whole thing, he was just as collegiate as he could be. And about 12 years older than me I guess. We were the only two trombones. We’re sitting there. And now the singer comes off, and we actually did it with her on a little stage up front so it was a completely live date. She comes off during the break and walks past Warren, and Warren is spraying his slide. And she walks past Warren and she stops, she says, “don’t you spit at me mother.” Well Warren got so embarrassed. I mean he was dumbfounded. I was dumbfounded. And she stood there. She’s like, “you’ve got no right to spit at me.” And we are looking like my God, you know. So Warren immediately starts going into his school teacher routine. “Oh no, please, I would never, you see we trombone players” and he starts going with this whole thing — “we trombone players use the slide you know.” Well he looks to me for help. And I couldn’t talk I was on the floor. I couldn’t breathe I was laughing so hard. It was just like, you got it. Oh God that was funny. It was just hilarious. Well she wouldn’t let up. She gave him about five minutes of what a rotten person he was and how dare he do this and she’s not using the King’s English, she’s like really lacing into him from Funksville. And Warren was beside himself. He just didn’t know how to stop it. As it went on it just got funnier and funnier. I mean I had trouble breathing. Anyhow, that’s, talk about ridiculous, that was one of the ridiculous ones.
At a Musicians Union rate of $42.50 for a three hour session, the first call studio musicians were making a significant salary playing three to four sessions every day. Some of the top players in the pop field commanded a better fee and had the juice to actually opt for a piece of the recording. Saxophonist Phil Woods talked about his work with Billy Joel and his monetary decision:
Phil Woods
MR:    Can you recall when you did the thing on “Just the Way You Are,” how many takes did you get on that?
PW:    Oh one or two tops. Oh yeah it was just me and Phil Ramone in the booth. And he had the changes written on the back of a matchbook cover or something. But it was like a pop tune — a pop tune in the sense of a Broadway, Tin Pan Alley kind of song. It wasn’t really a rock & roll song. It’s really a pretty nice tune. So it was not a problem. Yeah I did Phoebe Snow’s overdub and Billy Joel in the same day — the same half hour.
MR:    Was he producing both of those?
PW:    Yeah. And I got $700 for both things. $350 apiece.
MR:    I’m glad to hear that. And a Grammy.
PW:    You know in those days, I mean from Mike Brecker on, from that period, when they would use soloists, it was kind of SOP, you’d ask for a quarter of a point. If a tune from the album was taken out and made a single, you’d get a quarter of a cent on every single that they made taken from the album, if you’re the soloist on it. My manager didn’t know anything about this stuff and I sure didn’t know anything about it. But you know we could have got it, all we had to do was ask. You know how much a billion quarter of a pennies are? That’s a lot of money. That record sold over a billion, biggest selling record of all time. But I mean I would have had the money but I wouldn’t have had such a good story.
We’ll do one more blog entry to do justice to our studio tales. Watch this space.

August 8, 2014

Inside the Studios, Part II

The heyday for the recording studios, especially in New York, was from the early 50’s through the 60’s. Musicians who were adept on their instruments and who had excellent sight reading skills found work plentiful, and often enjoyed up to four discrete sessions in a single day. Many interviewees spoke of their work in the studios at this time. In this part, I thought it would be interesting to outline the qualities that put musicians on the first-call list for session gigs.
As echoed in our last blog by Tom McGrath, being on time was the first requirement for getting that call. Joe Wilder recalled some advice from his father, about how he should conduct himself as a musician:
Joe Wilder and Monk Rowe
JW:    I guess I got it mainly from my father, who was a musician. My father played with a lot of the bands in Philadelphia and he was a stickler for being on time. He used to pound that into my brothers and me. You know it’s better for you to come one hour early than to come one second late for something, and he would use as an example, there was a drummer that played with one of the bands he played with. And the guy was a good drummer. And he said, “you know the dance starts at 8:00 and we’re all there,” and he said, “and we’re all sitting on the bandstand ready to play and the drummer isn’t there. He comes at 8:15.” He said, “he knows it takes him at least 20 minutes to set up his drums.” He said, “now what sense does that make? What excuse is that?” And then he would say, “you know just because you’re black doesn’t mean you have to show up late.”
When musicians speak of another musician and say he/she has “good time,” everyone knows what is meant. Usually this refers to a bassist or drummer who keeps a steady beat and is able to play with feeling while avoiding speeding up or slowing down. Being a successful studio musician required a different “good time,” the ability to be punctual without exception.
Bassist Milt Hinton got in on the ground floor and was one of the first black musicians to be accepted in the studio scene. His wife, Mona, spoke about the work:
Mona Hinton
MH:    It didn’t make any difference whenever a contractor would call, it could be, he never said who it was for. He would call and say, “is Mr. Hinton free at 10:00 on Tuesday” or whatever it is, and I had an appointment book, and, “yes he’s free.” “Well have him at RCA Victor or Capitol or Columbia Studio at such and such a time. Now when he left home he didn’t know whether it was a rock ‘n roll, whether it was with Stravinsky, whether it was with Barbra Streisand, he didn’t know who it was for. Guy Lombardo, you know, it could be anybody.  And these were the people. He just went there, they put the music up there, and he had to be on time, not looking for a place to park or not adjusting your strings. When that conductor’s baton came down across his nose you were there to get that first note.  And so Milton believes in punctuality. But these are the things that got him started. And once they knew that he was qualified, he could read anything, play anything, and so he just started getting more work than he could handle. Milton made his first recording date in 1930. And he has worked with every group of musicians, every generation, from that day up to the present day.
Mona alluded to Milt’s versatility, and his attitude that any music placed in front of him was worth playing well. Pianist Dick Hyman shared a similar opinion about doing what was necessary to serve the music, regardless of one’s personal taste.
Dick Hyman and Monk Rowe
MR:    What kind of people did you play behind?
DH:    Ivory Joe Hunter, Ruth Brown, Lavern Baker, The Coasters, The Drifters. I remember that terrible record “White Christmas” that was so popular.
MR:    Did you play on that?
DH:    I did. But we did all that stuff. And if you asked me what we thought of it, we always — we said to each other can you imagine, in 20 years, this was in 1955 or so, in 20 years people will be saying to each other, “listen darling, they’re playing our song.” And you know that’s exactly what happened. All of that funny music that we laughed at became classic in rock. And go figure it out.
MR:    Well musicians who’ve never done studio work may not realize that you don’t have to like everything you play on in a studio. It’s not possible.
DH:    No, no. What you have to like is being able to play it well.
MR:    Correctly, yeah.
DH:    And you do your best no matter what it is.
Dick Hyman wore multiple hats in the studio: pianist, organist, orchestrator, percussionist on occasion, and general get-the-job-done guy.
MR:    So if you listened to the Oldies station —
DH:    I do.
MR:    Are you likely to hear yourself?
DH:    Very much.
MR:    Can you tell me a couple of spots that I might hear?
DH:    Yeah. Johnny Mathis, there’s one — there’s a famous Mathis record that begins with a piano figure. “Chances Are.”
MR:    “Chances Are.” Yes. That’s you?
DH:    That’s one. Yeah. And then there’s another one that I whistled on for Johnny Mathis. And there’s another Bob Allen song.
MR:    “Wonderful Wonderful.”
DH:    Right.
MR:    That’s you whistling is that right?
DH:    That was one of my — well you know I had made my own — I have to admit — hit record of “Moritat,” which then became known as “Theme from the Three Penny Opera” and then finally became known as “Mac the Knife” in 1955 for MGM as the Dick Hyman Trio. And I whistled on it as well as playing an instrument called the harpsichord piano. So it became known around town that I was willing and I was capable of whistling. Willing to undertake it and capable of doing it without running out of breath. So I found myself being called to be a whistler on dates and I promptly joined AFTRA, that is the singers union, because their scale was higher than the musician’s union, and on a good day I might collect both scales on a single session. So I’m the whistler on that and I’m the whistler on something with Marion Marlowe , something called “The Man in the Raincoat,” one of those spooky third-man theme type recordings.
MR:    Was it a lip whistle or was it a teeth whistle?
DH:    No, no, no. The teeth whistling we left to Bob Haggart.
Studio musicians rarely saw the music in advance that was to be recorded. In the studio, time is money, and even the smallest mistake could require another take. Contractors soon learned which musicians had the chops, the punctuality, the versatility and the correct attitude. Drummer Bob Rosengarden shuttled between an NBC staff position (including membership in the “Tonight Show” band), recording dates, and the Music Director position for “The Dick Cavett Show.”
MR:    I was going to ask you when you showed up for a day at work at NBC, did you know what was in store for you that day?
Bob Rosengarden
BR:    I had no idea and couldn’t have cared less. I mean I just showed up. I always came from, in those days, because there weren’t that many good musicians, new guys who could play. I always prided myself and it’s not false modesty or anything, that I liked only two kinds of music — good music and bad music. So I didn’t mind having to play a polka, it didn’t really bother me, I can do it well, and I had a classical, musical background. So I found myself again slipping and sliding, right back into the NBC Symphony. Because I was one of the new boys. And there was a conductor there at that time by the name of Arturo Toscanini. Dumb luck.
MR:    But you were ready.
BR:    Oh, yes. I mean you sure as hell better be ready. And the old man couldn’t see too far away, you know you had to be right there. So he would look over and he’d make some gesture. And hopefully I’d figure out what it was he wanted me to do or not do. And [Johnny] Carson adopted us. I mean he loved Doc [Severinsen]. I still every once in a while hear from John. And again, slipping and sliding we were doing record sessions all the time, you know, every day. And we all saw each other every day in recording. We used to do three record dates a day, and a television show, every day. Seven days a week. It was a wild and wonderful time.
In our next blog we’ll take a look at some remarkable studio moments ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous.