I’m happy to be starting out the new year with another column. I wrote the first Band Room column in 1983, when I joined the Executive Board with the newly elected Glasel administration. I served on the board for 20 years, and when I stopped running for office, I still kept writing the column. Allegro moved from a printed version to this online publication because of the pandemic, and we’re still here. Happy New Year!
Dan Barrett sent me a clip of an interview with Jon-Erik Kellso that was broadcast on NPR. Jon was talking about his experiences in the recording studios. He said that he would often be required to play what the producers wanted to hear, rather than playing his own style of jazz. On one date, the producers were trying for something similar to the sound on Miles Davis’s “Kind of Blue” album, and asked Jon to try to sound like Miles. It so happened that Jon had spent quite a lot of time studying Miles’s style, and on the first take, he imitated Miles very accurately. Jon said that, after the playback, he saw the producers huddling in the control room, looking concerned. Then, one of them said, “Jon, could you play that a little LESS like Miles?” Evidently, they were afraid Miles might object.
Steven Cerra sent me a copy of his new book, “Gerry Mulligan, Writings on a Jazz Original,” a fine collection of writings about Gerry, including some of mine, plus some interviews. Steven writes: “The purpose of this book is to provide the reader with a sequential and thematic account of the life and music of Gerry Mulligan (April 5, 1927-January 20,1996.)
I’ve been enjoying reading it. Steven Included an anecdote from one of my books:
…Gerry continued to work with his quartet: Brookmeyer, Mel Lewis and me. We appeared on Mike Wallace’s television show during the time that Wallace was in the process of building a reputation as an investigative reporter. Wallace’s TV interviews were popular partly because of his prosecutorial style.
At the rehearsal, Wallace was courteous and low-key. He asked questions that had been prepared by his staff, and Gerry answered frankly about his career, his experiences with drugs and the law, and other aspects of his life. On the air, Wallace’s tone became more contentious, and instead of asking the questions he had asked at rehearsal, he said accusingly, “I understand you were involved with drugs, and did some time because of it!”
This left Gerry with little more to say than “yes.”
Though Wallace was using the information Gerry had given him at the rehearsal, he gave his audience the impression that he was confronting Gerry with the results of his own private investigations.
Gerry managed to field Wallace’s questions with his usual aplomb, but he found himself at a loss when Wallace asked him, “I notice there are no black musicians in your group. Is this accidental, or by design?”
Actually, it was the first time in years that, by happenstance, there were no black musicians in Gerry’s quartet, but any short answer to that question would have sounded lame. As Gerry considered how best to respond, Bob Brookmeyer glared at Wallace, jerked a thumb at Mel Lewis, and said frostily, “We’ve got a Jewish drummer. Will that help?”
Wallace dropped the subject.
I played a lot of jobs with Marty Napoleon, all of them fun. He always played with enthusiasm and a big smile, but evidently that wasn’t always appreciated. He told me that, when he joined Louis Armstrong’s All Stars, he saw that everyone was hamming it up, so he showed a lot of teeth while vigorously playing his first solo. When the tune was over, Louis came over to the piano to get a fresh handkerchief from the pile he kept there for mopping his brow. He bent over and whispered to Marty, “Uh, say, Pops, I do all the eye-rollin’ on this band!”
While I was playing some traditional jazz at Condon’s one night, Ed Polcer, the leader, held up three fingers to indicate the key of the next tune. Fingers pointed upward indicated sharps, and pointed down indicated flats, but Ed’s fingers were pointing straight at me. “Is that sharps, or flats?” I asked. Ed laughed. “On this band, are you kidding?”
When I was playing recently at Smalls with Ryo Sasaki’s quartet, Ryo announced Steve Little’s drum feature number by saying that Steve had played with many different bands, including Duke Ellington and the band on Sesame Street. Steve suggested that we should play “C is for Cookie.”
At Newport, Lester Young was smoking a joint backstage. George Wein passed by and noticed what was going on. Smoking weed was still illegal in those days. “Prez,” Wein cried, “What are you doing?” Prez replied, “Where are we?” Wein, nonplussed, said, “We’re at the Newport Jazz Festival!” Prez nodded and said, “Then, let us be festive.”