Bill Crow’s Band Room

Volume CVIII, No. 7/8July, 2008

Bill Crow

Paquito D’Rivera told me about a Cuban composer, pianist and conductor named Fernando Mulens. Before the communists came into power in 1959, Mulens had established a solid reputation in Cuba. He held several jobs around La Habana, recording jingles, working in theatres and cabarets and in radio, TV and the movies. Paquito said that, besides being a fine musician, Mulens was also a bit of a “space cadet,” Paquito’s term for absent-mindedness. One day Mulens ran from a radio broadcast and flagged down a car that was passing in front of the Radio Progreso building. “Take me to the Hilton,” he cried, “But very fast, please. The show at the Caribe ballroom begins in five minutes, and I am the conductor of the orchestra!” The driver replied courteously, “Yes, of course, Maestro Mulens,” and as he drove, he whistled one of Mulens’ popular melodies as a way of showing admiration. When they arrived at the Hilton, a few blocks away, Mulens asked how much he owed, and the driver said, “Don’t worry… take it as a courtesy of the city, Maestro.” As Mulens got out, he saw that he had been riding, not in a taxi, but in a police car.

Linc Milliman has a license plate that reads “LA-FARO.” The garage where he often parks is operated by several nice Arabic-looking young men who have heavy accents. One day one of them asked Linc, “Iss dat for Scott LaFaro?” Surprised, Linc asked, “How could you know that?” The man shrugged. “I listen,” he said, “I listen.”

When he was playing a gig in Winnipeg, Jon Berger was invited to a session at a jazz club by a local drummer who was playing there.

Jon was reluctant, having had unhappy experience with open sessions, but when he got there, the house band sounded good, and Jon headed for the bandstand eager to sit in.

As he got there, they announced “a talented high school jazz band” and the house band left the stage.

Trapped, Jon helped the kids fumble their way through something resembling “Take the A Train,” but when they pointed to the gangly young bassist to take a solo, the poor kid just began shaking.

At the end of the tune Jon politely declined to play another.

As he crept out of the club, he swore he had learned his lesson about open sessions.

Out in Orange County, California, Dan Barrett was subbing with a big band at a local jazz club.

He said, “It was everything you’d want in a big band: brutally loud drummer, loud screaming trumpets, and saxophonists trying (and not quite succeeding) to play like John Coltrane.” At the end of the evening, Dan removed his ear plugs and began to pack up.

A fan stepped over and said he enjoyed the music.

Dan was instantly suspicious.

“I see all of your music has numbers on it,” said the fan.

“Well, yes,” said Dan, “our parts are in numerical order so we can find them easily when the leader calls a number.”

“Does each musician bring his own music with him?” “No, the leader brings it and sets it up on the music stands.” “Do you all have the same music at home?” “No, it’s all the leader’s music. It belongs to him.” “Well, does the music industry dictate how the music is numbered?” Dan was confused.

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“I mean, is there some kind of industry standard for your music, so that number 90 in this band’s book is the same as number 90 in someone else’s book? Will number 90 always be ‘The Days of Wine and Roses’ in any band book?” Dan was at a loss for an answer.

Finally, he said, “I’m pretty sure number 90 in Stan Kenton’s book would have been different than number 90 in Guy Lombardo’s book.”

In the 1960s, when Bob Alberti was part of the ABC orchestra in Hollywood, the guitarist was Barney Kessel.

While doing the Hollywood Palace program, in those days before electronic tuners, Barney was often asked by guitarists in the rock bands that were featured on the show to tune their guitars for them.

When the Rolling Stones were guest artists on one show, one of the guitarists asked that favor of Barney, who quietly obliged.

Once again, at the dress rehearsal, he asked him to tune it again, and Barney did so without comment.

Just before they went on the air, the request came once more, and Barney said dryly, “On one condition: that after I do it, you promise to weld it!”

We lost a good man last month. Bill Finegan, the arranger and bandleader, passed away on June 4. Bill was the best of the arrangers for the Glenn Miller band, and later teamed up with the brilliant arranger Eddie Sauter to form the ill-fated and much beloved Sauter-Finegan Orchestra in 1952. Bill was studying at the Paris Conservatory when Eddie sent him a letter written on the back of a rejection slip he had received from a commercial bandleader. Bill answered, “If things are getting that bad, we’d better start our own band.” They wrote a wonderful book of unusual arrangements, and their records were successful. However, a misguided road tour of dance halls, booked just as the big bands were dying, put the band severely in hock, and they had to break it up. There were a few reunion concerts, organized by Wally Kane, with as many veterans of the band as he could find. I heard the last one, at Town Hall in 1987. It was magnificent, but it had one flaw. The reason the hall was available was that the date fell on Superbowl Sunday, a fact that Wally hadn’t noticed when he booked it. They played to half a house. (Sauter had passed away in 1981.) Bill made a short announcement before the music began. “Eddie would have loved this. It’s the same situation that the band always faced… a wonderful idea, at the wrong time.”