Back in 1992, I got a call from California. It was Arnold Brilhart, the 87-year-old inventor of the Brilhart saxophone and clarinet mouthpieces. He had joined the New York musicians’ union in 1918, before it was called Local 802. He sent me some stories, a tape of a solo he played on a radio show called The Happiness Boys, and some 1926 recordings he made with The California Ramblers. He was quite a player, and had a busy career in radio as one of the early multi-reed doublers.
In 1938, Brilhart began to develop his own line of mouthpieces. He got the idea when he was trying out mouthpieces at Walter Gemeinhardt’s Original Woodwind Company on 45th Street. Walter had a barrel of hard rubber mouthpiece blanks on which he ran facings.
Arnold asked him, “How do you know what you’re running, and if they’ll satisfy the customer?”
Walter said, “Most musicians don’t know what they’re playing anyway. They blow into a mouthpiece and either they like it or they don’t. I run a bunch of medium facings and prepare them without stamping a number on them. Someone comes in and asks for a B5, I take one out of the barrel and stamp B5 on it. Musicians have no idea what the numbers mean.”
Brilhart found better raw materials and developed a system of standardizing the facings, and his mouthpieces became very popular.
One of the stories Brilhart told me was about a golfing foursome that he was part of at the Soundview Club, that included Jimmy Dorsey and Joe Venuti. On the 11th tee, a par three water hole, Joe took his eight iron and hit three balls into the water. Exasperated, he threw the iron into the water, and threw the rest of the clubs and the golf bag after it. Still not satisfied, he grabbed the caddy and pitched him into the water, and then jumped in after him.
Venuti told the caddy, while they were drying off, “I’m never going to play golf again. You can have the clubs.” The caddy fished them out, and when Joe changed his mind the next day, he had to pay $200 to get them back.
Brilhart said he also used to play golf with Tommy Dorsey. He said there was one guy Tommy couldn’t seem to beat, so he had a friend make a special club for him. The club head was hollow, and had a little spring-loaded door in the facing. When the club hit the ball, the door would open and swallow the ball. Tommy would tee off with the trick club and pretend to watch his ball fly down the fairway. He would then walk to within an easy chip to the green. A lever on his club handle would release the ball where he wanted it.
In a New York hotel, Joe Puma was once carrying his guitar on an elevator from the bandroom to the showroom. A guest riding in the same car poked a finger at Joe’s instrument and said, “Gibson, right?” Joe nodded.
“How much did that set you back?”
“Oh,” said Joe, “about 30 years.”
Jason Ingram told me about a bit that Don Rickles would do at Harrah’s in Reno. After the band started to play a big number, Don would turn around and stop the band and ask them to play quieter. They would try it again softer only to be stopped again and asked once again to play even quieter. Finally on the third or fourth go round, the band wouldn’t play at all. Don would turn around and sarcastically say, “perfect.”
Ralph Martin was playing piano with Buddy Rich at the Dream Lounge in Miami Beach during the 1950s. During one set, Buddy’s little daughter sat in the audience with her hands over her ears. She asked Buddy not to play so loud. “It hurts my ears.” Buddy called out to Ralph, “Play like Basie.” Ralph answered, “I will when you play like Jo Jones.” Buddy gave Ralph his notice on the spot, and they worked out the two weeks without another word spoken to each other.
On a record date in Nashville long ago, Roy Clark was stopped by the producer. “We need another take, Roy. There was string noise on that one.” Roy answered, “Man, even Segovia gets string noise.” The producer said, “That’s why he’s not on this date.”
When I was on the road, my friend Red Kelly, a bass player who owned a bar in Tacoma, Washington, would call me to tell me the latest joke he had heard. I don’t know how he always found me, but my phone would ring late at night in my hotel room, or I’d get a call at the club where I was playing, or he even found me one night while I was having coffee and cake at a jazz fan’s home after the gig in Toronto. The kind of jokes he would tell: A guy was filling out an insurance form that asked: “Nearest relative?” He answered, “12 miles.” And where it said “Call in case of emergency,” he wrote, “911.”