On a warm afternoon last January, my wife and I spent the day strolling through the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx, where we are members. As we walked toward the conservatory we heard the sound of a trumpet, and as we got a little closer, a trombone, clarinet, banjo, drums and tuba as well. It was Gary Zema’s Dixieland band, providing outdoor entertainment for the crowds visiting the annual model railroad exhibit. I recognized a couple of friends in the band. Giampaolo Biagi was the drummer and Barry Bryson the trumpet player. Aileen and I stood among the listeners and enjoyed the music for a while. When the band played “Blue Skies,” Barry opened his solo with the first four bars of Thelonious Monk’s “In Walked Bud.” At the end of the number, I stepped over to Barry and growled officiously, “Sir, I’m from the Dixieland police. You’re under arrest for quoting a Monk tune on a Dixie job.”
Steve Voce, the British writer, got this story from Irish trombonist Bobby Lamb. Bobby worked with the Woody Herman band for a while, sitting between Bill Harris and Willie Dennis. When they recorded the “Woody Herman ‘58” album, a trombone solo was called for on one blues arrangement, and when neither Harris or Dennis volunteered, Lamb played a couple of choruses. When the recording was released, the liner notes attributed the solo to Dennis, who angrily said to Lamb, “Now my name will forever be associated with this crappy solo you played!” Bobby Lamb told Voce that he wasn’t too happy with what he had played either, and was quite glad that Dennis had been given credit for it.
When Bernie Bragin was playing with Phil Napoleon at the Brooklyn Roseland Ballroom opposite Benny Goodman, Phil’s band played the first set. Bragin was in the middle of a clarinet solo that was going pretty well when he noticed Charlie Christian, Goodman’s guitar player, standing in front of the bandstand listening to them, while sucking on a lemon. Bragin’s embouchure puckered up sympathetically, and the whole band broke up.
Bragin told me about an afternoon in Manny’s music store around the same time, when a number of musicians, including Barney Bigard and Willie Smith, were hanging out there. Benny Goodman was at the counter, trying out clarinets. As he tested several different models, Bigard, Smith, and a couple of other reed players frowned and shook their heads. “What’s wrong?” asked Goodman. They said, “You’re playing out of tune.” Benny ran through a number of difficult classical passages, playing them perfectly, but got nothing but frowns from his colleagues. When Bragin told Benny’s brother Harry about the merciless way they had put Benny on, Harry couldn’t stop laughing.
Humorists have been getting a lot of mileage out of the basketball brouhaha last year, when a player jumped into the stands to assault a heckler. Steve Turi sent me a cartoon by Robb Armstrong that appeared in the Bergen Record on December 23rd, depicting a tail-coated musician leaping angrily from the stage into the third row to punch out a member of the audience. Three rows farther back, another concert-goer says to his companion, “This is the first time I’ve seen one of ‘em go after a fan!”
George Gaber sent me a note from Bloomington, Indiana, telling about a famous, unnamed conductor who built the orchestra to a grand climax. When he gave the cutoff, the percussionist miscalculated, and hit a loud bass drum beat just after the rest of the orchestra had stopped. The conductor exclaimed, “Who did that?” The head of the second violins looked up and said, “Sorry, maestro, I didn’t see your cutoff.” There was uncontrollable laughter throughout the orchestra.
When Art Baron was on tour with the Harlem Blues and Jazz Band, a flirtatious lady who was stationed at the boarding gate at one airport saw the instrument cases being carried by the musicians, and said, “Are you going to play some music for me?” Art was the only one who responded…he took out his trombone and his plunger mute and played a passionate chorus of “Mood Indigo,” while the airline lady swooned, “Ooh, I’m melting!” When Art finished, she told him to wait. She disappeared for a moment and then came back and handed Art an upgrade to a first class ticket.
Perfect pitch may be an asset in some circumstances, but it can also cause problems. I was living in Dave Lambert’s West 10th Street basement apartment in the Village back in 1951 when George Handy and a friend of his dropped by to visit. George had perfect pitch…he could name any note he heard, and any written note he looked at sounded a pitch in his ear. Dave had a miniature upright piano, and on it was a stack of vocal group arrangements that he had written for a quartet he used to sing with, three guys and a girl. George wanted to hear some of them, so Dave pulled one out and passed out the parts. Dave said, “We’ll just put it down a third, and I’ll sing the girl’s part,” and he struck a key note on the piano. George Handy made a face. “Damn,” he said, “that means I’ll have to transpose.”