Bill Crow’s Band Room

Volume CIV, No. 9September, 2004

Bill Crow

The new Henry Mancini postage stamp triggered a memory for trombonist Sam Levine. Over 20 years ago, when Sam was still a member of the Washington D.C. local, he played lead trombone for a band that Mancini fronted at the open-air Carter Baron Amphitheatre in Washington. After the first show, Sam was called to Mancini’s dressing room for a consultation. Mancini said, “I like your playing, but the rest of your section is weak. What can you do about it?” Sam replied, “The other trombonists are fine musicians, but they are handicapped by wet asses and no music lights. Furthermore, we are getting 25 bucks a show, and we don’t live in Pacific Palisades, California!” Mancini laughed and promised to see that the chairs were dried and the stand lights fixed. “But,” he asked, “How the hell do you know about the high living that goes on in Pacific Palisades?”

Charlie Caranicas decided, several years ago, to augment his income as a trumpet player by going to law school. After becoming an attorney, his first trial involved a suit between partners in a failed business. Charlie’s law firm contended that the company had failed because their adversary was a profligate spender. His assignment at the trial was to cross-examine a witness who had been in charge of the arrangements for an expensive party at the Plaza Hotel that had occurred four or five years earlier. As he prepared for the trial, Charlie realized that he had played in the band at that event. During the cross-examination, he tried to establish the lavishness of the affair. “How many ballrooms in the Plaza did you rent?” “Several.” “Were expensive flower arrangements brought in?” “Yes.” “Was there a live orchestra?” “Yes.” Charlie couldn’t resist inserting a personal question: “Were they any good?” He was thankful that the witness attested to the excellence of the music. Though he couldn’t remember which leader he had worked for on that job, he decided not to ask, “How much did you pay for the band?”

Vibraphonist Warren Chiasson remembers visiting the Local 802 exchange floor on Wednesdays or Fridays in the old days, looking for work. Just before one New Year’s Eve in the mid 1960’s, around 3 p.m. when the floor was about to close, Warren got a last minute booking for that very night at the 21 Club. The only other musician left on the floor that day was a war veteran from eastern Europe, an accordionist who spoke very little English, and who was still suffering from shell shock. The desperate contractor hired him to complete the band. On the job, the leader turned out to be a not very skilled bass player. Warren said, “He had trouble playing ‘Tenderly’ in E-flat…he said, ‘You sure play in hard keys.’ So we played it in C to accommodate him.” As everyone rose to salute the flag and sing the National Anthem, the accordion player kept playing the first four bars over and over. Warren told me, “Everyone else sang the anthem in perfect unison, and nobody knew the difference!”

Luba Novak wrote to tell me about a student she had in her cello class years ago at Columbia Grammar and Prep school. The boy approached Luba one day and said, “I’m sorry, Miss Novak, but I don’t think I’m getting the hang of it.” She told him, “I wouldn’t worry about it. Maybe the cello just isn’t for you. We’ll find something you’ll enjoy.” He wanted to know which instrument she thought he might be able to play. “I don’t know yet, but somehow I see you with a clarinet.” The boy said, “That’s funny. My grandfather was Benny Goodman!”

In 1962, Lee Evans was the conductor-pianist for Carol Channing. The bassist, the late Joe Dumas, was Lee’s hotel roommate on Channing’s national tour. Many people thought Lee and Joe bore a strong resemblance to one another. One night, after the show, they were going up to their room in the hotel elevator and found that they were sharing the car with a woman who had seen the performance that evening. Mistaking Joe for Lee, the woman said, “You played the piano beautifully tonight.” Joe immediately replied, “Thanks, but I owe it all to my bass player.”

I met the British drummer Pete Cater a few years ago when I played the jazz festival in Cork, Ireland, with Spike Robinson. Pete and I stay in touch via e-mail. He recently told me about a big TV industry dinner at the Grosvenor House hotel in London that he played with his big band. They were there to accompany Tony Hadley and Claire Sweeney, well known personalities on British TV. At the rehearsal, Pete felt they were a little short on material, so he brought to the gig some of the charts that his band had recorded in the past. Sure enough, at the end of the sound check, the producer of the show ran over to Pete and said, “We’re about four minutes under. Have you got an instrumental?” Pete said, “Sure, no problem.” The producer pulled out his clipboard and said, “Can you tell me the title of what you’re going to play?” Pete replied, “The Song Is You.” He then watched the producer write on his song list, “You.”