Many years ago I was invited to a press party at a midtown loft. There were people there from the worlds of jazz and the Broadway theatre … musicians, writers, actors and dancers. The room was packed from wall to wall with a crowd that was chatting, drinking wine and eating canapés. Randy Weston stood a few feet away from me, but I couldn’t get near enough to him to say hello. A tall man, Randy’s head was a foot above the rest of the crowd. He was in conversation with dancer Geoffrey Holder, who was halfway across the room from him. Holder was tall as Randy, his head also up above the rest of the crowd. They were in a different world up there, happily conversing in their own open space, over six feet above the floor.
Steve Knight gave me a real-life horror story resembling the bad dreams that sometimes plague musicians. He got a call to play the oud, and electric and acoustic guitars, for a three-week run with the Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre. The contractor said the oud was for just one short number, and that he was mainly interested in having a good reader on guitar. Since Steve’s three-year-old daughter Zoe was sick at home with chicken pox, and he needed the work, he let the contractor talk him into it.
The oud part turned out to be a solo, with changing meters, that opened the show. Steve woodshedded it, and got through it okay, but his amplifier required careful settings throughout.
On the last day, having misunderstood a time change in the schedule, Steve arrived in the band room to find it empty, all the other musicians having already entered the pit. He slid into place just as the lights dimmed, and found that the stage hands had put the wrong amplifier in place. When he began the oud solo, his first note came out as a hoarse scream. Some frantic adjustments of the amp knob got the sound settled down, but he could see the conductor’s displeasure. Toward the end of the piece, Steve’s ears began to get strangely warm. As they got hotter, he realized he hadn’t kept enough distance at home from his daughter. Steve developed a full case of chicken pox while finishing the show.
I got a note from Ron Tierno telling about a friend of his up in Binghamton, his home town. Drummer Ken Craig (who went on to become the president of the Binghamton local) had a steady gig during the 70’s with a jazz trio — piano, bass and drums. Business was bad, and the owner asked Ken if they could cut out the bass player on Tuesdays to save money. Ken told him, “We’d need an Oscar Peterson to cover those bass lines with his left hand.” The owner said, “So, get him in here on Tuesday nights.”
Ron said that the same owner, a few years later, politely asked his band to turn the volume down, “just half an octave.”
Bassist Brian Nalepka and drummer Kevin Dorn have a steady gig on the lower East Side. One night when they returned to where Brian had parked his van, they saw that one of the front doors had been broken into, but nothing was missing. As they started to drive back home, Kevin gave a panicked look into the rear of the van and said, “Oh, my god, is there a banjo back there?”
For about 25 years, Jack Feierman was the conductor for Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme. On one concert in California, Eydie was center stage, starting to sing “What I Did for Love.” At the side of the stage, in the shadows, Steve began to move toward her. At that moment, a huge stage light fell and landed with a crash right on the spot Steve had just moved away from. The orchestra and the audience gasped, but Steve stepped smoothly into the spotlight with Eydie and sang the next phrase without missing a beat: “Kiss your ass goodbye…!”
John Robinson passed along a story he got from a friend, about a Polish bassist émigré who was living in Washington D.C. Rahsaan Roland Kirk, the blind jazz saxophonist, hired him for a State Department sponsored tour of Europe. As the only member of Kirk’s band who wasn’t an African-American, the bassist was singled out at one airport for investigation by the customs officers, and was horrified to see the rest of the band heading for the airplane. He called out to Kirk for help. Roland yelled, “What’s the matter?” “They won’t let me through!” cried the bassist. “Why not?” “Well, you know, I’m white…” Kirk said, “You’re WHAT?”
A couple of different Internet contacts sent me this excerpt from Wynton Marsalis’s new book, “Moving to Higher Ground.” Here it is: “Sometime ago, the tenor saxophonist Frank Foster was playing a street concert for the Jazzmobile in Harlem. He called for a blues in B-flat. A young tenor player began to play ‘out’ from the first chorus, playing sounds that had no relationship to the harmonic progression or rhythmic setting. Foster stopped him. ‘What are you doing?’ ‘Just playing what I feel.’ ‘Well, feel something in B-flat, mother******!’