Retired recording producer George Avakian should be writing a book of memoirs of his remarkable career. Here’s a story he sent me: As a high school student in New York City, George was a young pianist and a jazz fan. He was fortunate enough to meet Teddy Wilson, who introduced him to guitarist Freddie Greene (who used that spelling then). Greene was playing behind Amanda Brown at the Black Cat in Greenwich Village, but he soon replaced guitarist Claude Williams with Count Basie, and George was happy to have the resulting “backstage in” with the Basie band. He writes:
“The following summer (1938), after my freshman year in college, Freddie took me along to a softball game in Central Park between the Count Basie and Jimmie Lunceford orchestras. Buck Clayton was Basie’s right fielder but he didn’t care much about playing, so after an inning or so he tossed me his glove. The Lunceford band was pretty good. As I recall, the score ended up something like 19 to 3, with Lunceford pitching against Lester Young. Lester wouldn’t play unless he could pitch, and Basie was hard put to field nine players. I became a semi-regular, and I don’t believe we won a game all summer.
“Jimmy Crawford [the drummer], the biggest man on the field, was the star first baseman of the Lunceford team. He belted a single, and the next batter lined a hit to right field so hard that I saw a chance to throw Jimmy out at third. I nailed him, but his slide knocked our third baseman, Harry Edison, ten feet past the bag. At the end of the inning Sweets came up to me and said, ‘George, next time that happens and it’s Willie Smith on first, you can throw to me. But if it’s Crawford again, please throw home to Ed Lewis!'”
George added that Lunceford had a wicked underhand pitch. “I struck out against him, but later poked a single over the shortstop. At first base, Crawford hooked a hand around my belt and said, ‘If Jack [Washington, Basie’s baritone sax man and leadoff batter] gets a hit, you are getting thrown out, right here at first base.'”
George went to Central Park one day to watch the Harry James band play baseball. He suggested to James that they arrange a game with the Basie band when they got back to New York. James, an avid ballplayer, had started the idea of bands having rival baseball teams, and his bus always carried a full supply of bats, balls and gloves. George said, “Harry used to joke about checking on a musician’s ballplaying ability before he hired him. When I proposed a game with the Basie band he laughed, because he knew Basie’s guys were no match for his crew.” George wasn’t the only one from outside the Basie band who played in those games. The late Bob Bach, radio producer and husband of documentary movie producer Jean Bach, was also a frequent fill-in. James told George, “Forget it. We don’t play bands that use ringers.”
On a gig I played last winter, Jeff Atterton stopped by and handed me an old clipping from an English jazz magazine. It told of an incident on a tour of the Eddie Condon All Stars, as Buck Clayton, Vic Dickenson, Pee Wee Russell and Bud Freeman were flying from Australia to Tokyo. Condon had heavily fortified himself for the flight from the private stock of liquor he carried with him. Everyone settled down in the dimly-lit cabin to sleep during the long flight. A few hours later, Clayton woke up and noticed a small figure at the door of the plane. It was Condon, struggling to lift the bar that opened the door. Buck dived across the plane and tackled Eddie, preventing him from depressurizing the cabin and causing a catastrophe. Condon said he’d been looking for the men’s room.
Ken Rizzo wrote to tell me about David Spinozza, playing in the pit with him at the Broadway show Fosse. David grew up working around the clock in recording studios, and is on so many albums that he has forgotten many of them. Ken showed him a 1974 Rusty Bryant album on which David is listed as playing all the solos. Dave looked it over and said he had no memory of the recording date. At Ken’s urging he pulled out his pen and signed the tattered cardboard. Then, noticing the $2 bargain-bin price sticker, he said, “There, I’ve altered the value of this thing.” “Yeah,” commented fellow reed man Ed Joffe. “Now it’s worth one dollar.”
Trumpeter John Thomas did a music program for some toddlers at a private school in Manhattan. He said he realized that these were children of the elite when he asked a three-year-old if he was interested in playing a musical instrument. The reply was, “When I’m big enough, I want to play the Tiffany drums.”