April ’13

The Band Room

Volume 113, No. 4April, 2013

Bill Crow

William Zinn told me that, while he was concertmaster of the Queens Symphony, they played the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto #3 in D minor with Van Cliburn as soloist. At the dress rehearsal, the conductor wasn’t setting the tempo that Cliburn wanted, so the pianist told Zinn to watch the fingers of his left hand on the piano bench. He would tap the tempo he wanted, and Zinn would transmit it to the orchestra by nodding the beat with his violin. They tipped off the cellos and basses to watch Zinn instead of the conductor, who had a tendency to follow the orchestra anyway.

The ploy worked out well, and at intermission, Cliburn thanked Zinn for his help. While chatting, Zinn told Cliburn of a piano nocturne he had composed in the style of Chopin. Cliburn asked for a copy of the piece, titled “Chopinesque.” He had in mind a critic in Chicago who had panned his interpretations of Chopin. The next time Cliburn played with the Chicago Symphony, he used Zinn’s “Chopinesque” as an encore and was happy to read that the same critic referred to it as one of Chopin’s better nocturnes. Zinn said that Cliburn used his composition as an encore for many years.

Here’s a pseudo-interview that has been making Internet rounds: “Yogi Berra Explains Jazz.”

Interviewer: Can you explain jazz?

Yogi: I can’t, but I will. Ninety per cent of all jazz is half improvisation. The other half is the part people play while others are playing something they never played with anyone who played that part. So if you play the wrong part, it’s right. If you play the right part, it might be right if you play it wrong enough. But if you play it too right, it’s wrong.

Interviewer: I don’t understand.

Yogi: Anyone who understands jazz knows that you can’t understand it. It’s too complicated. That’s what’s so simple about it.

Interviewer: Do you understand it?

Yogi: No. That’s why I can explain it. If I understood it, I wouldn’t know anything about it.

Interviewer: Are there any great jazz players alive today?

Yogi: No. All the great jazz players alive today are dead. Except for the ones that are still alive. But so many of them are dead, that the ones that are still alive are dying to be like the ones that are dead. Some would kill for it.

Interviewer: What is syncopation?

Yogi: That’s when the note that you should hear now happens either before or after you hear it. In jazz, you don’t hear notes when they happen because that would be some other type of music. Other types of music can be jazz, but only if they’re the same as something different from those other kinds.

Interviewer: Now I really don’t understand.

Yogi: I haven’t taught you enough yet for you to not understand jazz that well.

An Internet discussion about musicians’ shoes reminded me of this: Papa Jo Jones had an ancient pair of Capezio dance shoes that he always wore while playing. They were once thrown out by a cleaning man at the Town Tavern in Toronto, and Jo refused to play without them. The club owner felt terrible about the error. He went to the dump, found the sacks of garbage from his club from that day, and went through them until he found the shoes. He returned them to Jo, who continued to use them for the rest of his career.

During the Clinton administration, Greg Thymius was called to play for the Queen of Spain’s annual awards dinner, at which the first lady was to be the keynote speaker. It was an affair with a lot of violins, Ray Cohen on piano, Tom Kirchmer on bass and Greg on woodwinds. It was quiet dinner music, and so, though Greg had brought a saxophone, he played only clarinet and flute. When they were ready for the speeches, the leader told the musicians to take their instruments away to make the dais less crowded. Holding his horns in his arms, Greg had to squeeze past Penelope Cruz, who was coming up to introduce Mrs. Clinton. He was dazzled as she touched his arm gently and gave him a 10,000-megawatt smile, and so he barely heard Mrs. Clinton say, “Oh, a saxophone…I didn’t know we had one of those.” Emboldened by Ms. Cruz’s smile, Greg replied, “I haven’t played it because I was afraid that if you didn’t like the way I sounded, you’d go home and tell the president.” Greg says she wrinkled her brow and kind of sucked her teeth and said, “Ohhh, I’m sure you have nothing to worry about.

In an Internet discussion of the great orchestrator Robert Farnon, John Altman wrote: “I was lucky enough to get to know Bob and have some of his scores at home…he was an alchemist. Herbie Hancock’s biggest regret is that he never got to do an album with Bob. However, I was present in the studio when Ms. Lauren Bacall, fluffing take number 27, uttered the immortal words, ‘It’s not me messing up, it’s him,’ pointing an accusatory finger at Farnon. ‘He doesn’t know what he’s doing!’”