The transformation of Woody Herman’s band in the mid-1940s from “The Band That Plays the Blues” to the modern jazz of the “Herman Herd” was effected by an enthusiastic group of young sidemusicians playing the arrangements of Woody’s new arranger, Ralph Burns. John Robinson told me he was standing by the stage door of the old Paramount Theatre one afternoon with two of Woody’s musicians, Tiny Kahn and Al Cohn, when Woody walked out and headed up the street. Cohn quipped, “There, but for the grace of Ralph Burns, goes Ted Lewis.”
Bob Kross told me about playing at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis with the Ted Weems band 50 years ago. (There was a duck pond in the center of the lobby. The ducks would take the elevator from their roof cote down to the first floor every morning and would walk single file to the pond, where they would spend the day. In the evening they would head back to the elevator for the trip up to the roof.) Every day at a ringside table, a dowager in long gloves and a black picture hat sat listening to the orchestra. Once, during intermission, she beckoned to Weems. He went over and spoke with her and then returned to the bandstand. He asked the band, “Did we play ‘Dardanella’ on the last set?” The band replied in the negative. “Well,” said Weems, “she just thanked me for playing it. It’s her favorite song!”
Pete Brush passed along a Lester Young story I hadn’t heard: Lester went to a jazz club to hear some friends play. He didn’t bring his saxophone; he just wanted to listen. He intentionally sat in a dark part of the room, hoping not to be recognized, but someone spotted him and he heard the whispering, “Wow, that’s Lester Young!” “Maybe we can get him to sit in!” Lester leaned over to their table and whispered, “I don’t dig being dug while I’m digging.”
In 1961, Frank Amoss was the drummer with Ralph Flanagan’s road band. When they stopped at a restaurant somewhere in the South, the musicians engaged in some back-and-forth banter with one of the waitresses, who wore an identification badge bearing the number 4. For the rest of the tour, a popular tag line among the band members became, “Number four’s a smart ass.”
Fourteen years later Frank was living in Orange County, California, and played a Sunday afternoon session at the Newport Beach Marriott Hotel. Before the gig Jack Reidling, the pianist, asked Frank who was playing bass. When Frank responded, “Jack Sperlock,” a hotel guest who overheard him commented, “Jack Sperlock is a very good bass player.” Frank looked at the guest, and thought he looked like Ralph Flanagan without his toupee. He asked, “Is your name Ralph?” The guest said, “Why do you ask?” “Because I’m Frank Amoss!” Without missing a beat, Flanagan said, “Number four’s a smart ass!”
Pianist Mark Toback told me about a juggler who had been hired as part of the entertainment on a cruise where he was working. On their first night at sea the juggler reported to the room where he was supposed to work and discovered that the overhead was so low that he had no place to throw the items he juggled. He explained his dilemma, and the captain and a committee of cruise directors began to ponder the problem. The captain had a solution: “Why don’t you work on your knees?” Mark thought that was a brilliant idea: “We could bring him on with music from Porgy and Bess.”
Ronny Whyte took his musical revue, Our Sinatra, to San Antonio last year, and the critic in the San Antonio News gave them a rave review. She waxed poetic about bassist Ken Jury, saying he “backs them up with swinging rhythms and atmospherics.” When Ronny showed him the review, Ken coolly remarked that he had minored in weather at school.
Ed Thomas sent me this one: In the 1960s, Lou Garisto had a scoring assignment for an ad agency and was in conference with an art director, looking over the story board for the commercial. When they came to a particular shot, the director told Lou, “Don’t forget…this moment requires a very special note.” He repeated this several times, and when he didn’t get the response he seemed to need, he said, “Lou, I have a note!” “You have a note?” asked Lou. “Yes.” “How did you come by this note?” The art director confided that neither he nor his wife knew much about music, but they did like to play chopsticks together on their old upright piano at home. “When we finish,” he said, “she whirrs down from the top of the keyboard while I whirr up from the bottom, and we both land on the same note! This is it.” He pointed to the piano and struck that note. “By the way, Lou, what is that note?” Lou answered gravely, “That’s middle C.”
Lee Evans spoke to his Jazz History class at Pace University about the Ellington-Strayhorn tune “Satin Doll.” On a Swing Era exam shortly thereafter, one student referred to the tune as “Sad and Dull.” Lee is working on his enunciation.