Back in the days when the circus used big bands, Leo Ball sat in the trumpet section at Madison Square Garden playing a Gershwin medley as Barnum & Bailey’s entire troupe of elephants did their act. As they rose on their hind legs, each elephant resting his forefeet on the back of the next, Leo had a solo on the melody of “My Man’s Gone Now.” One night his lip failed him and the soaring high note at the beginning of the phrase turned into a nanny-goat sound. At this, the largest elephant at the end of the line turned his head and looked right at Leo, causing the musicians to break up. On the next show, just before Leo’s solo, the same elephant turned his head and looked at him. Leo was so taken aback that he flubbed the part again. On the third show, Leo gave up and passed his part to Bill Vaccaro, the trumpeter sitting next to him. The elephant looked over, Bill played the part correctly, and from then on the elephant stopped checking out the trumpet player.
Ken Rizzo told me about a gig with the Lew Anderson Big Band at the old Red Blazer Too on West 46th Street. At the end of each tune Lew usually named each soloist and gave him a bow, to enthusiastic applause from the audience. On one number he forgot to acknowledge Brent Stanton’s solo. Just as Lew was about to kick off the next piece, someone reminded him. Lew quickly announced, “Oh, yeah, on tenor sax, Brent Stanton!” But he had lost the moment with the audience, and the only response was rather languid applause by Stanton’s wife, who had come along to hear the music. Trombonist Bruce Eidem quickly quipped, “That’s the sound of one wife clapping.”
Mark Lopeman lives near Michael Brecker in Westchester, and their kids attend the same school. Mark told me that Mike brought his young son to a concert at the school, but the boy wasn’t interested until he saw that his friend Kyla was in the band. Afterward Mike asked his son how he liked the concert. “I really liked it, ” he said. “I want to play the saxophone!” Hoping that the boy had formed a desire to emulate his father, Mike asked why. The boy said, “I want to be like Kyla!”
Mike Spielzinger tells me that his father, violinist Joe Singer, shortened his surname for show business purposes, a common practice a generation ago. Working in a different era, Mike kept the family name. While he was playing a Hassidic wedding a few years ago, a teenaged boy came over during a break and said, “You’re a good drummer … what’s your name?” Mike told him, and the boy was incredulous. In Yiddish, “spiel” means to play an instrument and “zing” means to sing. The boy asked, “Come on, is that your real name, or did you change it for show business?” Mike remembered that comedian Stanley Myron Handelman used to say that he had changed his name for show business. Unable to resist, Mike admitted the “truth.” “I thought so,” said the young sleuth, as he walked away with a satisfied grin.
Wally Dunbar stopped by the office last month and told me this one: Last summer Burt Collins had an outdoor gig playing trumpet with an extremely loud rock band. On the numbers where there were trumpet parts, Burt found himself completely wiped out by the drums, guitars and fender bass. So when there were no trumpet parts, he began running through his daily practice routine as the rest of the band played. The music around him was so loud that nobody noticed what he was doing. But Burt retained his musical principles during the fiasco. He told me, “Even though nobody could hear me, I always practiced in the same key the band was playing in.”
Gary Rynar called to tell me about a club date he played for David Aron in New Jersey about 20 years ago. His directions required him to drive up Route 17 and watch for a billboard advertising a certain product, at which he was to turn right. Gary unsuccessfully searched for the billboard until he found himself across the border into New York State. He pulled into a place where they were having a volunteer firemen’s picnic to look for a telephone, and a few minutes later the rest of the band pulled in behind him, equally lost. It turned out that the crucial billboard had been repainted two days before the job, and now advertised an entirely different product.
In Rochester, during the last performance of the national tour of the Broadway show Big, drummer Jon Berger noticed that the stagehands had already begun breaking down the parts of the set that were no longer needed, to move them out to the trucks and pre-load them before the final curtain. During a quiet scene, something slipped backstage and there was a loud crash. The lead trumpet player remarked softly to the orchestra, “That was a stagehand clam.”