by Bill Crow
The Band Room
I always have a Dave McKenna CD on the player in my car, to cheer me up on long drives. Dave had a solo piano style that thoroughly examined the rich possibilities of the American Songbook, always swinging, always filled with love and joyfulness. He was a broad, sturdy guy with a tremendous command of the keyboard. He was also a two-fisted drinker, and dangerous to be around when fully in his cups. We lived near each other in Chelsea for a few years, and I learned to hang out with him during the day, before he started drinking. But drunk or sober, he could always play the piano in a way that stirred my soul.
When Dave was the house pianist at Eddie Condon’s club, I was the part-time bassist. They only hired a bass player for the three busiest nights every week, and Dave had to make do without one on the other nights. He began playing walking bass lines with his left hand, and got so good at it that a walking bass became a strong part of his style when he moved on to solo piano rooms.
Toward the end of his life, Dave began to have physical problems that got in the way of his playing. He once told me, “I suppose if I do what my doctor says and cut down on the rich food and the booze, I’ll live a little longer. But how will I know for sure?” He finally lost that battle, and I sure hated to see him go. I treasure all the wonderful recordings he left behind.
Joe Luciano sent me a clipping from Reminisce Magazine, of a piece written by Arnie Ross in Sarasota, Florida. Arnie tells of an encounter he had while he was playing piano at Downey’s in Philadelphia in 1976. The pub owner received a call from Frank Sinatra’s manager, Bernie Rothbard, asking to reserve the private dining room for Sinatra and his entourage, and specifying the brands of liquor that should be available.
On the big night, Ross saw the room fill up: Al Martino, Rothbard the agent, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop, Peter Lawford, and three lovely young ladies filed in. Finally, Sinatra made his entrance. Ross, at the keyboard, decided to play every tune he could think of that Sinatra had recorded. He hoped Sinatra would be pleased, but instead, the singer called out, “You’re too loud!”
Ross immediately went into Wagner’s Death March, and got a laugh from everyone. Sinatra walked over to the piano, thanked Ross for the music, and shook his hand, pressing into it a hundred dollar bill.
Many years ago, when William Zinn was playing at The Pines, a resort hotel in the Catskills, he was told that the musicians had a separate dining room near the kitchen where they would have their meals. He found the place and looked through a glass pane in the door, where he saw the busboys setting up for dinner amid a swarm of flies which covered the walls, ceiling, tables, chairs and even the floor. He informed the other 24 musicians who were waiting for dinner that they couldn’t eat there until they did something about the flies.
Zinn went into the kitchen and found six large towels. With five volunteers from the band, he equipped each of them with a towel and said, “Follow me.” They lined up at the far end of the room, had another musician open the door, and began flailing the walls and ceiling with their towels. The room was filled with a cloud of swarming flies that headed for the door and freedom. A repeat flailing of towels ushered most of the remaining insects out the door.
The musicians borrowed flyswatters from the kitchen staff to search out stragglers from behind curtains and under tables and chairs. Then they hung up rolls of flypaper to catch the remaining few, and the musicians were able to have an undisturbed meal. Zinn was toasted as “our hero, the Flycatcher!” He tells me that in some circles he still has that name.
While rehearsing some arrangements for six saxophones plus rhythm section to be played at a Vandoren-sponsored jam session at the Zinc Bar, Scott Robinson thought the band sounded pretty good, and said, “We should be working. We should play Radio City!” Steve Wilson looked up and said, “Radio City, Iowa?”
The late Bob Litwak was a thoracic surgeon whose hobby was playing the drums. While chatting in the recovery room with a patient on whom he had just performed bypass surgery, Bob discovered that they had a mutual friend, Bill Wurtzel. Bob said, “I’m Bill’s drummer.” When Bob told him this story, Wurtzel wondered if the patient thought the surgery was the hobby. Pianist Don Edmonds told Bill Wurtzel about a bassist he worked with who said he was born in 1983. Don replied, “I was washed up before you were born.”
I first encountered the South Boston accent in high school when I asked a stranger where I might find the bus station, and he told me “Pack Square,” referring to Park Square. So, I guess if Tony Bennett had been a Southie, he would have left his hat in San Francisco.