Bill Crow’s Band Room

Volume CIX, No. 1January, 2009

Bill Crow

When Larry Benz found out about the cabin that my wife and I have on Martha’s Vineyard, he sent me this story: 

“I grew up there, in Vineyard Haven, two houses down from the Episcopal church. In the 1950’s, Lennie Bernstein and the poet Richard Wilbur sat on the front porch of Richard’s summer rental, two houses down from mine, working on the translation of Moliere which became, of course, ‘Candide.’ I spent my time trying to catch Richard’s daughter, who would have nothing to do with me except to help her catch fireflies.

“Five years later I had a little band, and knew eight tunes, the most complicated being ‘Moonglow.’ Lennie hired us for his big 4-0. Around two in the morning, after we played our tunes too many times, Lennie sat at the piano and Mike Nichols, Elaine [May], Skitch [Henderson] and others sang most of ‘West Side Story.’ It took me decades to realize how important that night was.”

Long ago, when Marty Napoleon was the piano player with Chico Marx’s band, the guitar chair opened up, and auditions were held for a replacement. Marty said that Ben Pollack, the band manager, had seven or eight different guitar players play for them. None of them did anything for Marty until young Barney Kessel began to play. Marty said, “My feet were going in all directions! Pollack asked me, ‘Shall I hire him?’ I said, ‘You’re the manager… wouldn’t you hire a guy that plays like that?’” So Kessel was hired. He asked Marty, “Do you think they’ll let me have an advance on my salary?” Marty said, “Sure. Come on, let me buy you an ice cream cone.” After they had been together on the band for a while, Barney thanked Marty for that ice cream cone. “It was the first thing I’d had to eat in two days.”

Fred Lyman, the retired maker of string basses who now lives in Florida, sent me this story about jazz tenorman Brew Moore: 

“In 1952 I came to New Orleans and looked Brew up in the French Quarter. He was working in a Bourbon Street strip club not far away from his apartment, a small run-down place. I was carrying a cheap ‘Harmony’ guitar on which I had learned a few simple progressions. Brew suggested we play together. I expected he would play his tenor. But, hanging on a nail on the wall was a souvenir-quality, six-hole bamboo flute. Brew took it down and shook some cockroaches out of it, positioned his fingers, and looked at me to indicate that he was ready. When I asked him what key he wanted to play in, he was plainly offended that I had implied he couldn’t play in every key. We went into a medium tempo blues. Brew played beautiful complex variations, scales, arpeggios, in an almost classical tone, perfectly in tune. I couldn’t believe all this was coming from that piece of bamboo. After we played a few tunes, I said something about how well he played, and Brew replied, ‘That’s what you get for denigrating my virtuosity!’”

Tony Middleton forwarded an e-mail message to me that he got from Van Alexander: 

“Last year a good friend of mine, bassist John Clayton, was at the White House where they had an affair honoring the great Lionel Hampton, who as you know passed away several years ago. After meeting President Bush, John told him how happy he was to be in Washington honoring Lionel Hampton. The president said, ‘It’s a pleasure to meet you. Tell me, how is Lionel?’”

I hadn’t seen bassist Gary Mazaroppi for a while, but he came to the Local 802 Club Room for a rehearsal recently, and I had a chance to chat with him a little. He said, “I notice that my audiences are aging. Girls used to call out, “I’m falling for you!” Now, they just call out, “I’m falling!”

A saxophone player that Herb Gardner sometimes works with is a master at arriving on gigs at the last minute. One night he didn’t show up at all. After the first two tunes Herb began to worry about him. Then he came rushing in and said, “Oh, Herb, I’m sorry for being late; I got here so early, I went out to get something to eat.” 

Gardner has an eagle eye for errata, and always sends me the good ones he finds. Here’s one he noticed in a flyer advertising a concert featuring Sol Yaged at the Amityville Public Library. Sol was described as “An Original Swig Era Great Who Has Preformed With Both Benny Goodman And Harry James.”

A bass player called Bill Wurtzel for a bass-guitar duo gig at a nursing home. Bill was told that they would just be playing old standard tunes, and admonished that there would be “absolutely no jazz.” On the gig, Bill found that a saxophone player had been added to the group. The first tune the leader called was “Bye Bye Blackbird,” and Bill played the melody fairly straight. Then the sax player took a chorus, playing heavy atonal jazz, with much honking and shrieking. Bill thought the leader would flip out because of his admonition about wanting no jazz, but as the sax player reached his last four measures, the leader called out, “Take another chorus, man!”