Bill Crow’s Band Room

Volume 111, No. 3March, 2011

Bill Crow

While I was on the road with Art Farmer in the Gerry Mulligan Quartet back in 1959, Art used to tell me about his early years in jazz. He loved Dizzy Gillespie’s playing, and tried to sound like him. But there wasn’t a lot of work for bebop trumpet players in Los Angeles at that time, and in order to make a living as a musician, Art played with blues bands like Johnny Otis and Big Joe Turner. Turner didn’t care for bebop, preferring backgrounds in the style of pianists like Pete Johnson and Jay McShann. Art said when Turner first gave him a solo, the next blues chorus he sang was: “Play me the boogie! Don’t play no bebop for me!”

Art said he came to appreciate Turner more after he left his band. But he was happy to land a chair with the Lionel Hampton organization. “Lionel would shuck and jive to keep the audience happy,” said Art, “but when he got on the bandstand, he always came to swing. I learned a lot from that man. And bebop was okay with him. He let me play however I wanted.”

Art found some new ideas about improvising when he studied George Russell’s Lydian system of tonal organization. By the time Art joined Mulligan, he had found his own voice on the trumpet, and he developed a sound that was all his own.

John Pintavalle gave me a story about the late Ray Alonge, one of the fine French hornists of the golden era of recording, and also a long-time colleague of mine here at the Local 802 office. John and Ray were rehearsing at Town Hall with the Little Orchestra one day, and Ray told the contractor, Izzy Gusakov, that a couple of the musicians had a record date at 1 p.m. “Could we shorten the breaks a little and leave ten minutes early, so we can make it to our job on time?” Gusakov, a hard man, said, “Not a chance!”

There was a large clock in the hall visible to the musicians, and on each break, Ray slipped over to the clock and set it ahead a few minutes. So, when the clock said 1 p.m., and Gusakov released the musicians, Ray still had time to make it to his record date.

Howard Danziger wrote to remind me about what once were called “phantom” bass players in the club date field. He says: “These were bassists who wouldn’t know a correct note if it shook hands with them. They were too numerous to mention, all except one. His name was Mike Bianco. Rumor has it, he died by popular demand. He would show up on a gig with no strings on his bass. Since he was the leader, he got away with it. His theme song, wouldn’t you know it, was ‘No Strings!’”

Scott Robinson told me about a gig he played at the Ear Inn in downtown Manhattan, with Jon Kellso’s jazz group. Greg Cohen was on bass. They were about to begin their first set when someone came up and asked, “How long will you be playing?” Greg said, “I hope to have about 20 more good years. Then I’ll probably kick the bucket.”

Every traveling musician has at least one horror story about taking musical instruments on airplanes. In contrast, Randy Landau sent me a good-news story about four flights he recently made on British Airways, from New York to London to Munich, back to London and home. He was carrying two bass guitars in a gig bag, and on each flight was allowed to pre-board. The crew said they wanted to be sure he could secure proper space in the overhead. Randy thanked them profusely and told them they were now in his will. They responded by asking him to be sure and play well, so he’d have lots of money to leave them.

John Altman got this story from Mike Lang, and passed it along to me: Archie Shepp was playing a gig at Shelly’s Manne Hole in Los Angeles some time in the late 1960’s. One night, two heavily tattooed bikers wandered in, looking for a hospitable bar. They had a number of drinks, staring impassively at Shepp while he played. Then, during one of Shepp’s particularly raucous bouts of honking and squealing, one biker leaped to his feet and yelled out, “You keep dishing it out, and I can take it!”

While I was surfing around the TV news channels one day, I paused briefly on an interview that a sports reporter was conducting with a baseball manager, whose response to a query about the team’s prospects was: “That’s a question to be remained.”

On my first trip to Paris with the Gerry Mulligan Sextet in 1956, I killed a rainy afternoon at a Champs Elysées movie theater where an American western was being shown, with subtitles in French. In one scene, a fearsome looking bad guy burst through the saloon’s swinging doors and walked to the bar, radiating danger. To the cowering bartender he growled, “Gimme a shot of red-eye!” The subtitle read: “Un Dubonnet, s’il vous plait.”