Howard Heller is a French hornist who also plays the bagpipes. He told me he once got a call from another piper who needed him to cover a funeral service at a church not far from his home in Pelham Bay. He was told there would be an honor guard, and that he was to play “Amazing Grace” as the casket was carried into the church.
The service was to be at 10:45 a.m. Howard got there early, around ten, and as his cab driver pulled up to the church, he saw a hearse with the casket being taken out. Howard thought he must have gotten the time wrong. He said, “I threw some money at the cab driver and ran up the steps heaving air into the pipes and making that awful squealing noise in a desperate attempt to get them going ahead of the pall bearers. I made it just in time and started playing ‘Amazing Grace.” Then, as I looked around, I noticed there was no honor guard and the people standing there were little old Italian ladies dressed in black. They were all looking at each other with a ‘what the heck is this?’ look on their faces. I then looked down at the hearse and realized that the name of the funeral home was not the one I had been hired for, and in fact I was playing for the wrong funeral.”
After the casket was taken inside, a fireman appeared from the honor guard and said he was there for the 10:45 funeral. The funeral director for the Italian funeral came out, and Howard apologized profusely. The guy said not to worry… the family actually thought it was a nice touch.
“An hour later,” said Howard, “I stood with the honor guard and played for a retired member of New York’s Bravest.” He added, “My biggest fear now is that one of these days I’m going to be running late for a French horn gig and grab my bagpipes as I run out the door!”
I found a similar tale on a Web site called Bagpipe News. A piper was asked by a funeral director to play at a graveside service in eastern Connecticut for a homeless man who had no family or friends. He was to be laid to rest in a new cemetery in the remote countryside. The piper got lost on the way to the funeral, and arrived an hour late. He saw the backhoe and the crew, who were eating lunch, but the hearse was nowhere in sight. The piper apologized to the workers for his tardiness and stepped to the graveside, where he could see the vault lid already in place. He assured the workers that he wouldn’t hold them up for long, but said this was the proper thing to do. They gathered around, and the piper began to play, with passion, from “Going Home” and “The Lord Is My Shepherd” to “Flowers of the Forest.” The workers began to weep. The piper closed with “Amazing Grace” and walked back to his car. As he opened the door, he heard one of the workers say, “Sweet Jeezus Mary ‘N Joseph, I never seen nothin’ like that before, and I’ve been putting in septic tanks for 20 years!”
Schoolteacher and pianist Charlie Freeman told me he was playing in Carmen Leggio’s quartet at the Kittle House in Mount Kisco about ten years ago, when one of his English teacher colleagues came into the bar with his wife. While they were there, another customer asked the band to play “The Pink Panther.” They told him they really didn’t know it well enough to play it for him, but he gave them a $10 tip anyway. Feeling obligated, the quartet played the first eight bars a couple of times, which was all they knew of the tune, and then they went into a blues. After a few minutes, Charlie’s teacher friend hollered from the bar, “I’ll give you $15 to stop!” Charlie said, “Although we taught together for 25 years, that was the only time that guy ever heard me play. But he must have told that story to great laughter a hundred times in the English Department. Since none of those people ever came to hear me play, that one joke represented to them the sum total of all my years of playing music. Life ain’t fair!”
Jon Berger sent me a vignette in memory of the late Louis Bellson:
“In the late 1970’s I had my only opportunity to hear Louie live, performing with his big band in a college auditorium, featuring his wife, Pearl Bailey. After the opening number the sound system failed. Following much commotion Louie stepped from behind his drums to speak to the audience. He said that in his day none of the instruments were close miked. ‘People today expect to hear live music with the sound quality of headphones. Please do me a favor. Open your ears and listen to the true acoustic sound of my band.’”
After playing a piano single recently, Alan Bennett was thanked by the woman in charge of the affair, who said, “I guess you do this on the side.” Alan replied, “No, this is what I do.” The woman thought a moment and then said, “I should have offered you something to eat.”