by Bill Crow
While I was a member of Local 802’s Executive Board I got to know Shorty Vest, the late secretary/treasurer of AFM Local 70-558 (Omaha) on one of his many trips to New York. Shorty had been a drummer around the Midwest, and I enjoyed his stories about working the territory bands. After Shorty passed away, I missed his visits to Local 802. But recently I got a call from his son, Ishan, who lives in California. He told me about one of Shorty’s first big band gigs.
This 22-piece band was formed in Kansas City around 1939 for a certain ballroom gig in St. Louis. The band rehearsed well. The pay for the musicians would depend on how much revenue the house made that night. The band traveled to St. Louis, played the gig to a crowded house, and at the end of the night were ushered into a room where they found, laid out on a table, 22 hamburgers and 22 fifty-cent pieces. When they asked about all the people that had attended the affair, they were told, “Oh, most of them were members…they don’t have to pay.”
During the war, Shorty served in a Navy band in Long Beach, California. One of their fans was mobster Bugsy Siegel, who sometimes borrowed the band for Hollywood parties. At one of them, one of Siegel’s cohorts marched the band upstairs to a bedroom, where they were shown to a closet filled with suits. Each band member was given two suits. Siegel’s tailor had sized up the band by eye, without taking any measurements, and they all fit perfectly.
Bobby van Deusen, down in Pensacola, posted the following story on Facebook. While playing piano in a fine dining restaurant, a patron approached and asked to use the microphone for a minute. Bobby told him he didn’t have one. Fifteen minutes later, the guy came back, flashed a five dollar bill, and said, “Listen, I need to make an announcement. Let me use your mike.” Bobby again told him he had no mike, and he went away. At the end of the job, the manager came over, laughing, and said, “A customer was really upset that you didn’t let him use your mike. I told him you didn’t have one, and he said, ‘That’s what he kept telling me! Who’s your manager?’”
I told this story in my book, “From Birdland to Broadway,” but it’s worth repeating:
In 1960 I was playing with the Gene DiNovi Trio at the ill-fated East River Club, a place on East 52nd Street that Eileen Barton was opening. She had spared no expense. The decor was elegant, the two Steinway grand pianos were brand new, the sound system was excellent, the chef was cordon bleu.
Mel Torme had agreed to open the room. We were to accompany Mel for his show, and the rest of the evening we would play whatever we liked. As the hostess, Barton wasn’t part of the show, but since she intended to sing now and then, she came to an afternoon rehearsal with Mel to set her sound balance.
Gene played an introduction for her, but when she began to sing, her mike was dead. Eileen called to her manager,
“Tell the sound man to turn on the mikes.”
“He says they are on.”
“Well, this one’s not working. Maybe it’s no good.”
“It’s a brand new Telefunken.”
“Well, then, Telefunken sound man to turn the damned thing on!”
Chip Jackson was reminiscing about a couple of now defunct Village jazz clubs that were a block apart. He was playing a gig at one of them, Sweet Basil, and on an intermission he decided to run down to the other one, Seventh Avenue South, to see who was playing there. When he arrived, he found the bar packed with musicians, many of them his old friends, and he stood talking and telling stories with them for a while. Finally, one of them asked him, “Aren’t you on a gig?” Chip realized with horror that he had lost all sense of where he was supposed to be, and ran frantically back to Sweet Basil, where the audience and the other two members of the trio he was with sat waiting for him, not too patiently.
Chip told me that when Steve Swallow was playing with the Art Farmer Quartet many years ago at a Village jazz club, a well-known bassist who was down on his luck would come by Steve’s gig every night and hit him up for a ten spot. Steve was afraid he would wind up playing the gig for nothing, so one night he emptied his pockets, and when the guy showed up, Steve turned out his pockets and said, “I’m broke.” “Okay,” said the moocher as he turned to walk out, “I’ll put it on your tab.”
John Barbe tells me that Chet Atkins was once a passenger on a cruise ship. On his way out of the lounge one night he stopped to catch the guitarist. The guitarist said “If you play guitar, sit in for a bit.” Chet did, and another passenger approached him and said “You’re good, but you ain’t no Chet Atkins.”