I had a long day at the office recently, and that same evening I was playing some quiet jazz up in Westchester with Carmen Leggio’s trio. During Hiroshi Yamazaki’s piano solo, I nearly nodded off, catching myself just as I was about to fall off my stool. That reminded me of Billy Exiner, Claude Thornhill’s drummer during the 1940’s. I met Billy a couple of times, but never got the chance to play with him. Claude’s bass player at the time, Joe Shulman, told me that Billy, who was not in the best of health, sometimes would fall partially asleep during Claude’s slow ballads, but his hands and feet would continue to play the drums. Once, when a tune ended, Billy, asleep, continued to play. Claude waited a few seconds, and then kicked off another ballad at the same tempo. Billy went right on playing. He didn’t wake up until the next tune.
A friend in Holland just sent me a CD that was recently released there, a bootleg of a performance of the Gerry Mulligan Sextet at Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw in 1956 when we were on tour. (I didn’t get paid for this record, but I’m glad to have the music.) That group consisted of Mulligan, Bob Brookmeyer, Zoot Sims, Jon Eardley, Dave Bailey and me. Since the group was pianoless, we usually tuned to Gerry’s baritone sax. One day, while we were tuning up, Zoot dropped his mouthpiece cap, and it rang a perfect “A.” We all laughed, and from then on, whenever we assembled onstage for a concert, Zoot would tap his mouthpiece cap against the bell of his tenor, and we would take our “A” from that.
Remembering our old friend, Wayne Wright, Bob Page told me about the first time Wayne played in his band at the King Cole Room of the St. Regis Hotel. He was subbing for Page’s regular guitarist, Remo Palmier. On the same night, a new vocalist just starting on the job introduced herself and passed out some parts to the band. She said, rather authoritatively, “I’d like to start with ‘Skylark.’ As you know, the chords in the bridge are hard, so I wrote a set of changes that I’d like you to play. And BE CAREFUL!” Bassist Earl May gave Bob an anxious glance to see how he would handle her. Bob decided to discuss procedure with her at a more appropriate time, and led the band into the opening medley. Then, as they started on “Skylark,” the tranquility of the King Cole Room was shattered by a loud admonition shouted by the new guitarist, “All right, everybody, get ready!” The maitre d’, waiters and busboys all looked up, startled. Wayne played blithely on, fighting hard to keep a straight face.
A while back, Paul O’Connor sent me an item for this column about Dodo Marmarosa playing on Charlie Spivak’s band without ever looking at the piano book. John Perilli, who was playing drums on the band then, sent me an e-mail recently, adding to the story: “Dodo came on the band in 1951, just before we played the Steel Pier in Atlantic City. We worked from 8 to 12 p.m., which left a great deal of time for happiness. Dizzy Gillespie was in town, and one night after work, Dodo asked me if I had eyes to go hear Dizzy. Absolutely! We got to the club and sat at a table up close to Dizzy’s quartet. He finished the set and came to our table, and he embraced Dodo warmly and shook hands with me. He spent most of his intermission with us, and when it came time to play again, he asked Dodo to go up and play. Dodo went to the piano, but Dizzy remained at the table. I asked, ‘Aren’t you going to play with Dodo?’ He replied, ‘Man, I just want to sit here and listen to this cat play!’ He finally went up and they finished the set together.”
Tommy Prigmore’s mother was a friend of tenor saxophonist Kenny Hing, and she often told Tommy about Kenny’s adventures while working Las Vegas strip bands. To lighten up the boredom of rehearsals, Kenny kept a squirt gun handy, and would douse anyone he felt was giving others a hard time, including conductors. This practice endeared him to many musicians, but also got him fired a couple of times. Tommy didn’t know if Kenny took his squirt gun with him when he joined the Count Basie band.
A friend of Barney Bragin’s told him he knew how Maynard Ferguson developed his high-note chops. When Maynard was a youngster, he had a friend, Rabbi David, who played the shofar. The rabbi let Maynard practice on his rams-horn, which may have given him some new ideas about his embouchure. When Barney related this story to lead trumpeter Dennis Noday, Dennis cracked up. Barney told Dennis he should go find a rabbi.
Scott Robinson played last Thanksgiving week with Maria Schneider’s orchestra at the Jazz Standard. Maria added the accordion virtuoso Toninho Ferragutti to the group, using her accumulated frequent-flyer miles to fly him up from his home in Brazil. When she met him on the street after his arrival, she was horrified to see that he had no coat on in freezing weather. “I know, I forgot my coat,” he said, “but I did accidentally bring the remote for the TV! My family’s going to kill me!”