Les Paul and his wife Mary Ford had many hit records in the early 1950s. They were all multitracked recordings, using technology that Les had helped develop, with many tracks of guitar playing and singing superimposed to sound like a chorus and orchestra.
In June 1961, I was playing at an outdoor concert at Freedomland in the Bronx with the Gerry Mulligan Concert Jazz Band. Les and Mary were on the same bill. I wondered how they would manage to perform, in person, the multitracked tunes for which they were famous.
As we were finishing the last number on our part of the concert, a station wagon passed in front of the bandstand and parked around behind it. It contained Les and Mary and a sound man, along with their specially modified guitars and a couple of Ampex tape recorders. I watched them set up. The recorders had duplicate versions of the prerecorded multitracks of the songs they were going to do, and they plugged them directly into the stage sound system. A small gooseneck microphone was mounted on each of the guitars Les and Mary were playing. A control switch on Les’s guitar sent sound from his microphone either to the house sound system, or back to the sound man in the station wagon. That gave him the ability to tell the sound man what tune to get ready on the number two Ampex while they were performing another tune with Ampex number one. They chatted with the audience, and then played and sang live additions to their prerecorded tracks. It was a brilliant piece of engineering, and the resulting sound received great audience approval.
This is an excerpt from a chapter on Duke Ellington, from my book “From Birdland to Broadway.”
I got to play with Duke’s band one afternoon when Gerry Mulligan’s quartet was scheduled to share a concert with them at Lewisohn Stadium, an outdoor amphitheatre at 135th and Amsterdam in New York. Duke’s bass player hadn’t arrived, and it was beginning to look like rain. Duke looked at his watch, inspected the sky and walked over to where I was standing with my bass.
“Come with me,” he said, taking my arm and pulling me on stage. I followed him as if in a dream as he positioned me at the left end of his keyboard. When I reached down to get the bass book that was lying under the music stand, Britt Woodman leaned over from the trombone section and said,
“Don’t do that. That’s all been changed.”
Meanwhile, Duke was out front announcing the first number. Britt said,
“Just hang around in B-flat. We’ll tell you when to change.”
I’d been listening to Duke’s music all my life, and just followed my ears. With the trombone players giving me helpful clues, everything went fine. Duke stayed in front of the band most of the time, but when he announced a ballad I didn’t know, he came to the piano. While playing his own part and continuing to relate to the audience, he made sure I had the information I needed. He would point to the piano key that represented my note each time there was a chord coming up that I needed to know about. He never played my note for me. He just pointed to it half a beat before I needed it. I was able to play as if he’d written out a part for me.
I had such a good time playing with Duke that Gerry’s nose got a little out of joint. As the quartet took the stage, he grumbled to Duke about “tiring out my bass player,” and later said to me,
“How come you don’t have that much fun playing with me?”
I did, of course, but this was Duke’s band! I was quite properly thrilled.
A few months later at a jazz festival at French Lick, Indiana, I was in the hotel lobby waiting for the elevator when the doors slid open and out walked Duke.
“Ah, Mister Crow,” he intoned silkily, giving me a courtly bow, “I never had the opportunity to remunerate you for your splendid assistance at the concert in New York.”
“Please be my guest,” I said, returning his bow. “The pleasure was entirely mine.”
He accepted with a smile and a nod and glided elegantly off to the dining room.
John Plante was standing with Marian McPartland at one of the annual Alec Wilder celebrations at St. Peter’s Church in Manhattan, listening to what he called a “very self-important” female singer who was sharing her renditions of some of Alec’s popular songs. “The lady had gone way over her allotted time slot and just kept going. Everyone was well mannered but beginning to become restless. Marian leaned over to me and said, ‘You don’t suppose they have one of those very large hooks back there, do you?’ I think that the outburst of laughter from me signaled to the singer that it was time to wrap it up.”
Bill Wurtzel told me about a job he played on the roof of Le Meridian Hotel, with his guitar, Lou Caputo on flute and Alex Gressel on acoustic bass. Around 7pm they got a complaint that someone in another building thought the music was too loud. Bill said, “Apparently, they preferred sirens and jackhammers to jazz. We didn’t turn down, and I said to ask the complainers if they had any requests.”