When bassist Trigger Alpert was serving with the Glenn Miller band during World War II, a small group that included drummer Ray McKinley, pianist Mel Powell, guitarist Carmen Mastren, clarinetist Peanuts Hucko and trumpeter Bernie Privin was sent to Paris to entertain the troops. One evening Gertrude Stein invited them to the apartment she shared with Alice B. Toklas. Trigger was impressed with the number of original Picassos on the walls. And he also admired a needlepoint pillow on one of her chairs with a likeness of Stein’s poodle, Basket. Trigger said that, when he went to sit on that chair, she said, “No, Trigger, you can’t sit there … that’s a Picasso!”
In his theater act, Ian Finkel announces, “I always get a thrill from mixing Yiddish theater music with symphonic music. So we’re going to mix Enesco’s Rumanian Rhapsody with the song Rumania, Rumania.” One night, after he made this announcement, a guy in the audience yelled out, “Let’s see if it works!” While the musicians cracked up, Ian told the guy, “Hey, this show’s been running for eight weeks! Do you think I’m trying this out for the first time?”
Back in the ’50s, Pete Brush was playing a dance down at the Fashion Institute. He hadn’t met the other musicians before. When the drummer arrived, he looked around the huge old upright piano where the saxophonist had set up and asked if there was an electrical outlet nearby. The nearest one turned out to be across the room. In those days nobody was using amplified equipment but the drummer said he needed electricity, so the three musicians wrestled the heavy piano to the opposite end of the large room. Then the drummer brought in his kit, which included a huge bass drum with palm trees and a setting sun painted on the front head. Of course, electricity was needed to light it up from the inside. Pete said, “He didn’t play very well, either.”
John Thorpe played a cross-cultural wedding with Spence Bruno. The bride was Jewish and the groom was a Greek Catholic. During the festivities, the bride’s friends initiated the traditional dance at Jewish weddings where the bride and groom are carried around the room in chairs held aloft by the rest of the dancers. As the groom was being placed in his chair, John noticed that he looked rather nervous. And as the party guests began to lift the chair aloft, John saw the groom fervently cross himself.
Sy Johnson tells me he once got a call from my wife, who was trying to find a bass player to replace me on a job in New York because I was trapped out of town by a schedule change. Someone had told her that Sy might know Gary Peacock’s number. She asked, “Can you suggest any other bass players, in case Gary can’t do it?” Sy said, “How about Steve Swallow? You know, birds of a feather….”
Pianist Ken Levinsky was hired on a clubdate where he met an attractive singer. Ken had just broken up with a girlfriend and was happy to see that the singer seemed interested in him. After talking for a while between sets, Ken asked if he could call her the following week, and she warmly agreed. But when he phoned, he detected a weather change in her attitude. She explained that she’d had second thoughts about getting involved with someone in the club date business. If things didn’t work out, it might lead to uncomfortable situations if they continued to work together. Ken mentioned his disappointment to a friend, a bass player. Some time later, he and his friend found themselves working on a job with the same singer. On one set she was about to sing “Satin Doll,” but had trouble finding her starting note. Ken and the bassist vamped the lead-in chords, but the singer still looked puzzled and didn’t come in. As they continued to vamp, the bassist muttered to Ken, “You’re better off.”
Jim Watkinson passed along a story that he was told by bandleader Gib Hochstrasser. When Gib was studying piano tuning in Cincinnati in the 1950s, he went with some friends to hear the Buddy Rich band at a theater, and later they went to hear a local piano trio at a club. Buddy and entourage arrived a little later, and the trio musicians invited him to come up and play. Buddy played a punishing drum solo that cracked cymbals, broke drumheads and laid waste to various other items in the drum set. When he finished, Buddy turned to the dismayed drummer, handed him several hundred dollar bills and said, “Don’t ever invite a drummer to play on a piece of crap like that again!”
Visiting the new Birdland one night, Wyn Walsh overheard a conversation between Bernie Privin and Les Brown, who will be 86 in March, and who has been a bandleader since 1932. Bernie fixed Les with one of his baleful looks and asked, “Are you still planning on making music your life’s work?”