As I was slipping one of my favorite Zoot Sims records into my CD player recently, it struck me that he’s been gone 25 years now! How can that be? His music is still so potently with us, and the memory of his quick wit and wicked grin is still so strong with me. I always have the feeling that he’s still around somewhere, maybe just on the road.
Zoot was the ideal musician to build a jam session around. He would play at the drop of a bass note, with such joyful swing that any session with him in it just had to be fun. Any time I heard the magic words, “Zoot will be there,” I grabbed my bass and headed for the session.
The book that Sam Stephenson recently published, “The Jazz Loft Project,” gives a good sense of the session scene that took place for about eight years in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s at the lofts at 821 Sixth Avenue. The book contains many of W. Eugene Smith’s photographs, and of course, Zoot is in some of them. He was there regularly, and always kept things jumping.
In those days Zoot and Al Cohn could also be heard frequently at the Half Note at Spring and Hudson Streets. I had the pleasure of playing that job many times when their regular bass player, Major Holley, was otherwise occupied.
I also played with Zoot’s quartet during the summer of 1960 in Provincetown, Massachusetts. And I assisted in the swath that he cut through the Soviet Union with the Benny Goodman band in 1962, where he swung mightily.
But the greatest pleasure playing with Zoot was at the jam sessions, all over New York, where he never stopped dancing musically. Now, when I listen to his records, the dancing goes on just as though he were still with us.
Zoot died on March 23, 1985, at the age of 59.
On this 25th anniversary of his passing, with great admiration, I salute Zoot!
Paul Morris gave me this story, told to him by Marion Evans. When Marion was writing for recording sessions in New York, he often used Milt Hinton on bass and Osie Johnson on drums. They were the rhythm section team that was most in demand in those days. Milt was very conscientious, carefully looking over the music for each date, and noting difficult passages. He had a habit of putting an X mark on the corner of each part, so if that music turned up on another session, he would know that he had checked it out and played it.
Marion Evans decided to have a little fun with Milt. He wrote a ridiculously difficult, almost un-playable bass part, marked it with an X, and passed it out with the other parts on one of his sessions. Milt looked at it and said to Osie, “Man, I don’t remember playing this!” Osie, who was in on the joke, said, “Yeah, it was on so and so’s date last year…”
Milt looked worried. Marion rehearsed a couple of the other charts and then called a break, intending to do the number with the bogus bass part when they came back. After the break, Milt and his bass were missing. He was down in the basement, practicing his part.
When they got Milt back in the studio and were ready to run down the arrangement, just before the count-off Marion handed out the real part, and Milt was greatly relieved.
John Simon told me a story he was reminded of by one of my Joe Venuti stories in a recent column. He said the painter Waldo Peirce (a pal of Ernest Hemingway, and a practical joker) was living in Paris. The concierge of his building had it in for him, so he retaliated in an original fashion. He bought her a very small turtle. The lady liked the turtle and lavished it with care and affection. In a few days Pierce substituted a somewhat larger turtle for the original one. As time went on, larger and larger turtles were surreptitiously introduced into the lady’s apartment. She was beside herself with happiness, and displayed her marvelous turtle to the whole neighborhood. Pierce then began to reverse the process, substituting smaller and smaller turtles, to the concierge’s bewildered distress.
Brian Taylor told me about a trumpet player in a Texas band. The guy next to him was playing very flat, so he said to him, “Man, pull in! Pull in!” So the guy pulled his chair a few inches forward and continued to play flat.
Harvey Kaiser and Dave Winograd sent me this one:
An old rooster, getting ready to retire from his gig on the farm, invited some up-and-coming young roosters to audition for the choice gig. The first young rooster showed up, and scatted Dizzy’s “Groovin’ High” solo. Nothing happened. The sun didn’t rise. No dogs barked. The next young rooster stepped up, and did Bird’s solo on “Night In Tunisia,” and still nothing happened. A third, quite pompous rooster came up, and scatted Trane’s “Giant Steps” solo. Nothing. No rising sun. No barking dogs.
Finally, the old rooster cleared his throat, gave a little cough, and cried out, “COCK A DOODLE DOO…COCK A DOODLE DOO!” The sun rose! Dogs started barking! The farmer waked up.
The old rooster scowled at the younger birds and said, “I keep telling you, you’ve got to learn the standards!”