Bill Crow’s Band Room

Volume CIX, No. 11November, 2009

Bill Crow

Richard Beeson, whose book, “Seduction of a Wanton Dreamer” was published this year, sent me a remembrance from his student days in Aspen, Colorado. At a restaurant called “Trader Ed’s,” clarinetist Joe Marsala, who had retired to Aspen, put a band together much like the one he had led for years at the Hickory House in New York, with his wife Adele Girard on harp. They had no bass player, so Richard hung around, sat in, and eventually was hired. His bliss lasted only a week, until the dean of the music school told him students weren’t allowed to play in local night clubs.

One night business was slow, and the bartender became a heckler of the band. Marsala ignored him until the gig was over, and then went to the bar and got into a knock-down drag-out with him. The owner had to pull them apart, and Marsala had blood all over his face. The next night he came in with a badly swollen lower lip, but he played as if nothing had touched him.

Richard asked how he could keep going like that, and Marsala answered, “This punk bartender is nothing. You should have been in Chicago in the 20’s.” Then he told about playing a speakeasy in Chicago where a guy threw a $100 bill in the tips hat and shouted “Play ‘Melancholy Baby!’” Marsala noticed that, as they played it, the whole club went silent. They found out that the requester of the tune was the killer Machine Gun Kelly.

Bernie Bragin calls me frequently from Florida with stories from the past. In 1936, Bernie and trumpeter Paul Cohen were members of the All City High School Band in New York. Bernie had been the solo clarinet in the Jamaica High School band, but when he went into the All City, he started out as 24th clarinet.

When he finally worked his way up to concertmaster, Bernie spoke to the bandleader, a very strict, military type. He said, “I guess, now that I’m concertmaster, I’ll be carrying the band.” The bandleader put his hand on Bernie’s shoulder and said, “Bernie, you’re the concertmaster, but Paul Cohen carries the band.”

I got this story during a phone call with Jim Hall the other day. Jim said that Jake Hanna was sitting in one of the New York City musicians’ bars with Al Cohn, Zoot Sims and a few others, around the time that the Beatles had just taken American television by storm. There was a considerable amount of negative opinion about the group expressed among the musicians gathered there. Someone opined that the English band would more accurately be called “The Cockroaches,” and there quickly were suggested a number of much more insulting names, many of them scatological and deliberately disgusting. The final suggestion came from Zoot Sims: “Formerly, the Aristocrats!”

John Altman posted this story on the JazzWestCoast newsgroup: Irwin Kostal, who orchestrated “West Side Story,” got a call from lyricicst Steven Sondheim to work on a new musical with him. He said, “I’d love to… who’s the composer?” He was amazed when Sondheim said, “Me!” At the time he didn’t know Sondheim wrote music.

He liked the songs, but was concerned when the composer played the main love song. After the words “I love you” there was a discord in the piano accompaniment. Kostal asked Sondheim to repeat the passage, and the discord was played again, low on the keyboard. So he scored it that way, for low brass and strings. At the opening night party, Leonard Bernstein strode in and accosted Kostal. “How dare you ruin that love song with that awful clash in the orchestration? What were you thinking?”

Sondheim said quietly, “Lenny, it’s nothing to do with Irwin. It’s what I wanted.” Bernstein spun toward Sondheim and demanded, “Who the hell do you think you are? Me?”

Bill Wurtzel and his wife were vacationing at the Mohonk Mountain House upstate. On Square Dance Night, one of the entertainers played a rendition of “Danny Boy” on a musical saw. The folks at a table near the Wurtzels didn’t recognize the tune, and asked Bill what the guy was playing. Bill told them, “Guess Who I Saw Today.” They didn’t get the joke, but Bill said he cracked his wife up.

Donn Trenner, who now lives in Connecticut, spent many years with the Les Brown band in California. He had the book memorized, and so he often arrived at gigs just before the downbeat, sat down, and played. He was delayed getting to one gig, and arrived just after the band began to play. There was a piano solo coming up in the tune they were playing, so Donn found a stage entrance that was near the piano, crept in on his knees and reached up to the keyboard. He played his solo even though, to Les Brown, it looked like no one was there.

Richard Chamberlain tells me that, at a New York City Ballet rehearsal some years ago, Lester Cantor, who frequently subbed there in the bassoon section, was playing baritone sax on a set of Charles Ives pieces. The conductor, Hugo Fiorato, stopped at one point and said, “Bari sax… too much!” Lester immediately replied, “Thanks, man!” Richard says the orchestra was unable to play for several minutes. It wasn’t until intermission that Fiorato figured out what was so funny, when one of the hipper violinists explained the joke to him.