On mornings that I come to Local 802, I often stop at the Au Bon Pain in the Port Authority bus depot for a bit of breakfast before I walk up to 48th Street. One morning I was sitting at a table there, having coffee and reading the Times, when a scruffy-looking guy with the complexion of a confirmed alcoholic shuffled by outside the low barrier that separates the tables from the main concourse. He stopped, looked into the cafe area, and shouted to us all, “Hey, guys. Forget Elton John! Okay? FORGET ELTON JOHN!” As he shambled off, I did as he asked. It seemed like a reasonable request.
At the memorial for guitarist Remo Palmier at Saint Peter’s Church last April, many of his colleagues and ex-students played music in his memory. Several told of his generosity in writing music for them. Gary Larsen, who studied with Remo for a while, said he recently was looking through some of the things Remo had written out for him to work on and saw something he hadn’t noticed before. Under the title “Mean to Me,” Remo had added the musical instruction, “With Resentment.”
After Remo’s memorial, Jim Hall told me about a tour of Japan he did in the early 1970s with Barney Kessel, who was a big jazz star in Japan. After the first concert his fans mobbed Barney at the stage door. Jim waited in the limousine that was to take them back to their hotel while Barney, arms loaded with bouquets of flowers, patiently signed autographs. When his fans finally let him go he got in the car, laid down the flowers, and fell back into his seat. He grinned at Jim and, in the slow rural twang of his native Oklahoma, said, “So I reckoned I’d leave Muskogee . . . warn’t nothin’ happenin’ there nohow.”
James Chirillo passed along a story he got from Bill Finegan about Andy Roberts, who used to sing with the Sauter-Finegan orchestra. Andy had an old black Labrador retriever that used to lie on the carpet in his bedroom watching TV with him. Once, when Cher came on the screen, the dog got up and walked out of the room. Andy didn’t think too much of it until, about six weeks later, Cher turned up on the tube again. The dog got up and this time gave Andy a withering look of disapproval before leaving the room.
Irving Fields, now appearing at the Park Lane Hotel, told me about a charity affair he played some years ago in Las Vegas. He was asked to perform on his night off at the Sands Hotel at a Caesar’s Palace fundraiser that featured the major comedians of the day: Bob Hope, Milton Berle, Red Skelton, Jack Benny, George Burns, Red Buttons, etc. For contrast, they asked Irving to play a serious piano solo. When the stagehands rolled out a grand piano, Irving hit the opening chords of the Fantasie Impromptu and, to his amazement, the piano began to collapse. Hope and Berle had conspired with the stagehands to roll out the piano Jimmy Durante used in his act, which was designed to fall apart when played vigorously. After the laughter died down, a legitimate instrument was provided so Irving could finish his solo.
When pianist Gordon Hurley was asked to play for a private party, he contacted some retired friends that he hadn’t played with for around 20 years. The drummer, Eddie Harnish, had been known for his wonderful dry sense of humor but he had been seriously ill, and when he arrived at the job he looked so frail that Gordon had serious doubts that he would be able to play at all. But they got started, with George Smith on bass and vocals, playing all the latest hits like “Stardust” and “These Foolish Things.” In the middle of a tune, Gordon felt a drumstick tap his shoulder. He looked at Eddie, who was pale as a ghost. Anticipating the worst, he asked, “What’s the matter, Eddie?” He replied, “Something is really bothering me.” Gordon said, “I’ll end the set right now, and get you something, and you can rest a little bit if it’s not too bad.” Eddie said, “No, it’s not that. What’s bothering me is . . . how come every time I order soup du jour in a restaurant, I get a different kind of soup?”
Herb Gardner told me about a Sunday brunch he played with a strolling banjo band. Henry Newberger, with his horn in one arm and a napkin draped over the other, strode up to a startled couple at a quiet corner table and announced, “I’m Henry, and I’ll be your tuba player for the afternoon!”
I played a jazz club in Peekskill with Carmen Leggio last May. When he got his tenor out of its case and twisted his mouthpiece onto the neck, he discovered that the good reed he’d been using for several weeks had come to the end of its road. He reluctantly tossed it aside and put on a new one. As he tightened his ligature and got ready to play, he looked up at me and said, “This is like going on a blind date.”