My first trip to Europe was in 1956, with the Gerry Mulligan Sextet: Zoot Sims, Bob Brookmeyer, Jon Eardley, Dave Bailey and me. After a series of concerts in Italy, we traveled to Paris, where we were just one of the acts on the vaudeville bill at the Olympia Theatre. We did several shows during the day and early evening, and there was ample time during, between and after the shows for Zoot to connect with friends and fans. Those connections always included many alcoholic toasts, so by the time we had dinner, with wine, and headed for jazz clubs on the Left Bank, Zoot was usually in a pretty merry mood.
One night, we were in an after hours club in the sub-basement of a popular Left Bank restaurant. Zoot was well oiled by the time we arrived there, and added a few more drinks as we played with the local jazz musicians. After a while, Zoot was so far gone that he couldn’t articulate his usual runs and musical cartwheels, settling for just swinging a simple phrase over and over.
When the tune was finished, he turned around and gave me his well-known snaggle-toothed grin. “You know,” he said, “you can have a lot of fun with these musical instruments!”
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Steve Brauner sent me another story that his dad, Buzz, told him:
Buzz was subbing on a last minute outdoor gig in the Borscht belt. As the musicians arrived, they saw two or three rows of old Jewish ladies sitting in lawn chairs. One of the women exclaimed excitedly, “The show is here!” The musicians looked at each other in confusion because there was not a singer in sight.
Not wanting to disappoint, they decided to put together an impromptu cabaret act, with each member of the combo performing a solo. As a gag, they decided after a long drum solo, the musicians would remove parts of his drum set, until there was nothing left but his sticks.
The schtick worked beautifully, and at the end of the set, one of the ladies exclaimed “Wonderful show, boys! And you did the right thing about that drummer…he was much too loud!”
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I’ve always wondered what it would be like to have perfect pitch. I have very good relative pitch, but not the kind my friend pianist Jon Weber has. He entertains his friends by identifying the keys of music that is playing, the names of the notes when someone’s beeper goes off, etc. Perfect pitch can lead to all kinds of charming parlor tricks.
But I ran into a negative side of perfect pitch many years ago, when I was sharing a basement apartment with Dave Lambert. Dave had a number of vocal group arrangements that he had written for a female soprano and three male voices. Two friends of ours who sang were visiting us, and Dave suggested that we sing a few of his charts. He said, “We’ll just take everything down a fourth, to match our ranges.” One of the visitors was arranger George Handy, who had perfect pitch. “Oh, hell,” he grumbled. “That means I’ll have to transpose.”
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This is an excerpt from a long quote from pianist Harry “The Hipster” Gibson, who played in Harlem and in several clubs on 52nd Street during its heyday. It was posted on Facebook by Kirk Silsbee:
“I was workin’ in that joint, playin’ Fats Waller’s tunes, and a guy comes in and starts puttin’ five dollar bills on me. I was playin’ ‘I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter,’ and BAM! — he calls out another Fats tune and puts another ten in. I thought, ‘Oh, man — this guy is really heavy!’ He must have put a hundred dollars in there. When I got through, he says, ‘Boy, you sure do play a lot of Fats Waller tunes.’ I was singin’ like Fats, in a high voice. I said, ‘Well, actually, Fats Waller is my teacher. I learned how to play from Fats; he taught me. He takes me around and introduces me to big-shots like Duke Ellington.’ I was comin’ on to him. And he turns around and says, ‘Well, meet your old professor — this is Fats Waller!’ He was laughin’ his ass off, and he said, ‘Boy, you sure are some storyteller.’”
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Herb Gardner reminded me of this old story: A tuxedoed guitar player who was playing at a fancy restaurant took a break and headed for the men’s room. As he passed a table at the back of the room, a prosperous looking customer waved to him and said, “Could you get me some more bread?” The guitar player smiled and replied, “I was just about to ask you the same thing!”