Herb Winner passed along a story he heard about a quartet in a New Jersey jazz club led by bassist Vinnie Burke. A noisy foursome at a front table was getting Vinnie’s dander up. Jazz bassists are used to suffering with conversations during their solos, which are usually quieter than the rest of the music, thus providing people who have something to say with an opportunity to make themselves heard. Even other members of the band will choose the bass solo as the best time to strike up a conversation. But this group at the front table on Vinnie’s gig was so loud that he couldn’t hear anybody’s solos. One woman had a voice that could have challenged a heavy-metal rock group.
In desperation, the quartet went into an up-tempo blues. And, instead of trading fours with the drummer, Vinnie had them all trade fours with the loud- talking woman. Each musician played four bars and then counted another four during which she continued to loudly hold forth, never noticing that the band was putting her on.
Herb’s story reminded me of an offer I got from a theatrical friend during the ’50s. In San Francisco a group of poets had begun giving poetry readings with jazz musicians playing simultaneously, and my friend wanted to know if I thought a poetry and jazz concert would attract an audience in New York. I told him I thought it would probably bring out the worst in both the poets and the musicians. But I needed a gig at the time, and told him I would try it if he wanted to set it up. “But I insist on one thing,” I told him. “No poetry during the bass solo!”
Johnny Knapp was in town in January, and dropped by the union to pay his dues and look up some old friends. He told me about a pianist who once called him to sub for him on a steady gig in a cocktail lounge. Johnny was reluctant, but his friend told him it was a very sophisticated crowd that loved good songs, and said he could play anything he wanted. John agreed to go. When he got there, he found a rather seedy looking barroom with a piano, and an audience that didn’t look all that sophisticated. But he got up to the keyboard and played a set of all his favorite obscure musical songs, with the verses included. The audience didn’t pay much attention. When he finished the set, to no applause, he walked back toward the kitchen and asked the manager if he could get a cup of coffee. She brought him one and asked, “What do you do for a living?” John decided to put her on a little. “I’m a toll collector on the Henry Hudson Parkway,” he said. She commiserated with him on the wear and tear such a job must have on the hands, and John reassured her that he wore gloves.
On his second set, John decided to try a different tack with the audience. He played tunes like “Four Leaf Clover,” using double octaves for the melody, and pounding his foot heavily on the floor. He was an immediate hit. The audience crowded around the piano and begged for more. At the end of that set, the manager came over with another cup of coffee and said, “You were just kidding me, right? You really are a piano player!”
Milt Bernhart sent this one via e-mail. Once, while doing an NBC variety show, Conrad Gozzo got hold of a portable intercom rig (earphones and microphone). He proceeded to bark out orders to Buddy Bregman, the leader, who thought he was hearing the voice of the producer in his earphones. Gozzo kept demanding more brass, more brass, until the singing star of the show was completely drowned out. It took Bregman and the producer a while to figure out that there was an interloper on the line.
Bill Moriarity recently showed me a xerox that had been given to him by Phil Sipser, the labor attorney. It was a copy of a letter Phil received in 1976 from a program director at Hofstra University. It read: “Dear Sipser; Thanks for joining Packy McGiness for ‘The Business of the Arts.’ The students found your presentation almost informative.”
Sam Levine told me about a reed player who asked him to teach him to play jazz. Sam scheduled a lesson for a token fee of $12 per hour. The student later complained to a friend, “All I learned from him was the formats of standard tunes, a jazz phrase that goes through the cycle of fifths, basic chord structures and sequences, and the blues. And the lesson only lasted 50 minutes, so he owes me two dollars.”