I got an e-mail message from George Avakian last July with the sad news that Father Norman O’Connor had passed away. Father O’Connor was a great supporter of jazz in the Boston area, a board member and emcee at the original Newport Jazz Festival, and later a writer and television host. I met him in the mid 1950’s, when I was with Marian McPartland’s trio, and he arranged one of our appearances in Boston.
He met us at our hotel and said he would lead us to the site of the performance. Marian rode with him, and Joe Morello and I followed in Marian’s car, with me driving. O’Connor was a deft driver and maneuvered through traffic with such agility that Joe and I were soon a couple of blocks behind him. I could see that he was busy chatting with Marian and had completely forgotten to check our progress in his rear-view mirror. I cranked up the driving skills I had learned in New York City traffic, and I just managed to keep O’Connor’s car in sight by running some yellow lights and cutting a couple of cars off a bit short. He was out of view for a moment, during which he made a quick left turn. I just caught a glimpse of his car as I passed that intersection, and squealed our tires loudly as I whipped into a last-second turn to follow him.
When I finally caught up with him, I told him, “Father, you may have a special dispensation for your driving, but Joe and I are out here on our own!”
Mike Spengler told me about a jazz event sponsored by the Newark Star-Ledger that took place last June. Imitating the famous “Great Day in Harlem” photograph that Art Kane took for Esquire magazine in 1959, the Star-Ledger got about 150 of New Jersey’s resident jazz musicians together at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center for a photo shoot, planning to call their picture “A Great Day in Jersey.”
During the shoot, Mike was positioned in the back of the group on stairs next to Kenny Davern. The photographer called out, “Would you move that bag out of sight?” Kenny answered, “That’s not a bag…it’s a bassoon.” The bassoon stayed in the shot.
The indestructible Clark Terry, now living in Haworth, was also there. When someone asked how he was doing, he replied, “Hangin’ in there, man. By my thumbs.” Then he smiled, held up the digits in question, and added, “But I got STRONG thumbs!”
Greg Thymius studied reed playing with the late Rudy Tanza back in the 1980s. He passed along a couple of Rudy’s stories: Rudy and trumpeter Bernie Glow were roommates on the road with old Artie Shaw band. Somewhere in California they decided they wanted to go home to New York, and made a bet with each other as to who could get himself fired first. At a rehearsal, when Artie began to work on “Begin the Beguine,” he told Rudy, “Why not put a little scoop in that opening line?” Rudy replied, “Artie, that’s old fashioned alto playing. Nobody plays that was any more, and I don’t play that way.” The band held its collective breath, and Bernie Glow was sure he’d lost his bet, but Shaw just stared at Rudy for a while and then said, “Yeah, you’re right. Never mind.”
Tanza once cancelled Greg’s lesson because he was called for jury duty. He told the judge, “Your honor, I’m a musician. I play in ‘Hello Dolly’ and I work nights. If some guy gets me up at nine in the morning because he’s on trial, I hate him already, and as far as I’m concerned, he’s guilty.” The judge said it made sense to him, and let Rudy off.
Mitzi Scott attended a benefit in California for Ray Reid, who was hospitalized. During the afternoon, various bandleaders told anecdotes about Ray. Bob Lawrence said he had put together a collection of Ellington tunes titled “Dukeisms.” When Reid came to play a date and Lawrence handed him the chart, Ray looked at the title and said, “Wow, I didn’t know you wrote a John Wayne medley!”
I recently got a letter from Brooks Tillotson, who used to be one of the busiest French horn players on the New York recording scene. Brooks asks to be remembered to all his old friends and colleagues. He said he retired upstate in 1995 and painted his horn battleship gray in honor of his Navy days, intending to make a lamp out of it. But the phone began to ring, and now, at age 72, Brooks is busy as a fill-in player with orchestras in Albany, Utica, Schenectady and Glens Falls. He says, “Playing the French horn for me now is sort of like riding a bicycle with flat tires.”