Bill Elton saw a story in one of my recent columns about his old trombone section mate Tommy Mitchell, which reminded him of this one: Bill and Tommy were playing a six-week gig at the Statler Hotel with Tex Beneke’s band. As Tommy was much in demand in the recording studios, he took off from the Beneke gig quite often, usually sending in Al Robertson. On one date, they went overtime, so Tommy called Al to stand by in case he needed him. He wanted to call the hotel to tell them what was happening, but was having trouble remembering their phone number. Of course, it was one of the most famous phone numbers in popular music: PEnnsylvania 6-5000.
Sid Cooper also sent me a Tommy Mitchell story: Back in 1974, Sid had a band at the Empire Room of the Waldorf. They were playing for Peggy Lee for a couple of weeks, and Tommy was doubling on bass trombone and tuba. The tarnish on the bell of Tommy’s tuba bothered Miss Lee, who sent Sid a note after the first night asking for it to please be polished. Sid passed the request on to Tommy. Since he had hired Alan Raph to sub for him the following night, Tommy bought a can of silver polish the next afternoon and dropped it by the Empire Room, leaving it beside his tuba with a note for Alan. That night, after Miss Lee did her big number, “Is That All There Is,” which required the tuba, she turned during the applause, bowed to the newly shined instrument and blew Alan a kiss.
While I was playing a job with Dave Childs recently, he told me about an embarrassing moment that occurred on a job he had playing for a funeral service. The piano that was provided was one of those small Casio jobs that are not intended for professional use. There was an organ setting on it, and as the mourners passed slowly by the casket of the deceased, Dave began to play the hymns that had been requested. He wasn’t happy with the sound he was getting, and he reached for a button that looked like it would modify the tone. Unfortunately, it turned on the automatic rhythm module, and for a horrible moment until he got it shut off again, the hymn he was playing was accompanied by a goofy synthesized rumba beat.
Johnny Morris gave me a story from his days with the Buddy Rich Sextet. After two weeks in Birdland in NYC, Buddy had booked a gig in Florida that started two days later. Buddy flew down, and the rest of the band drove cars. Johnny was to travel with Sam Most, who didn’t drive. Sam delayed their time of departure until the evening before the job, and while Sam slept, Johnny drove frantically through the night and into the afternoon of the next day, drinking a lot of coffee to keep awake. When he began to hallucinate things like faces and saxophones in the cloud formations ahead of him, he decided he’d better take a break for a nap. He pulled off the highway and found a quiet bit of greensward under a willow tree, telling Sam to wake him in an hour. Johnny didn’t get much sleep. He heard an odd sound, opened one eye, and saw a huge snake crawling toward him. He leaped up, called Sam, and drove the rest of the way to Miami with his eyes wide open. They arrived shortly before job time, but discovered that the engagement had been cancelled. Johnny found out later that Buddy had known of the cancellation, but wanted the band to show up so he could sue for breach of contract.
Lloyd Wells, who lives down in Nashville these days, was conducting for country singer Lorrie Morgan on tour a few years ago. One night in Omaha, Lloyd and the rhythm section were walking back from a restaurant to their hotel. The street they were on passed beside the Missouri River, where they saw a bridge whose cables were beautifully strung with decorative white lights. Someone in the group said, “That’s a very interesting bridge.” Bassist Charley Dungey quickly asked, “You mean like the one in ‘Have You Met Miss Jones’?”
Judy Roberts and Greg Fishman play a piano/sax duo at the Hotel InterContinental in Chicago, offering jazz and standards. One night, between numbers, a man came over to the piano and said, “Do you take requests?” Judy said yes. “Can you do the Firebird Suite?” Judy was a bit stunned. “Do you mean the one by Stravinsky?” He did. Greg calmly replied, “Not tonight, because we usually do it with the entire ballet company. That’s part of the piece.” The man accepted the explanation, and returned to his seat.