Here’s a story that Joe Bennett gave me: The old Ed Sullivan Show featured a great variety of entertainment, from circus and vaudeville acts to the fine arts. Once Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn were booked for a pas de deux. A classical conductor was hired for the number, but Nuryev had a tantrum when the tempos weren’t right. They turned to Ray Block, the staff conductor, who was not famous for his baton technique. But Block calmly said, “Show me what you do,” and got out his stopwatch. The tempos he set were what Nureyev wanted, and he hugged Block at the end of the rehearsal. Block said, “No big deal. I do it with elephants all the time!”
Once, when an elephant act really was supposed to be on camera, Block looked up to see someone running out of the control room yelling, “Play something!” The elephant had escaped through the stage doors at the back of the theatre and was running down 53rd Street.
Bennett also told me about a battle in the late 1940’s at the Casino Gardens, between the bands of Duke Ellington and Charlie Barnet. Barnet, worried about the outcome, told his musicians to each pick someone in Duke’s band and buy him drinks, hoping to undermine the band’s playing. Joe said, “After the third set, all of Charlie’s band was in a pile in the band room, and Duke’s band was out on the bandstand, roaring!”
Ken Arzburger remembers a lecture Barnet once gave his band during a poker game on the evils of gambling. He was able to give them an object lesson: Bill Potts challenged him to a playoff, and at the end of the week, when manager Kurt Bloom handed Bill his pay envelope, a single nickel fell out.
Henry Newberger was playing a job with a clown band at the Battery, entertaining people who were waiting to go over to Ellis Island. The musicians were dressed in Keystone Kops costumes, complete with oversized plastic truncheons and large tinfoil badges. For a joke, Henry told some of the waiting tourists that he was with “Security,” and demanded some identification. Without any questions, they dutifully showed him their drivers licenses.
While I was chatting on the phone with Marty Napoleon recently, we got to talking about his late brother Teddy, who was well known for his colorful expressions. Once while eating spareribs, Teddy finished a rack of them and said to the host, “I’ll have another octave!”
Andy Shreeves sent me an email telling about an outdoor Gershwin tribute that Maurice Peress put together several years ago for Italian television. The program included Dionne Warwick, Chaka Khan and Larry Adler, among others, who all flew in from different places on different schedules, usually arriving in Rome just in time to rehearse. When Dionne Warwick failed to show up for her rehearsal, the manager phoned her hotel while the orchestra basked in the July noonday sun. He returned and informed the orchestra that Ms. Warwick had arrived that morning, but was looking for someone to take care of her dog. From the trumpet section, Randy Sandke asked, “What’s the Italian word for taxidermist?”
While I was setting up for a trio job with Carmen Leggio and Bucky Pizzarelli last August, Bucky told me about a studio recording made out in California back in the days of Hi-Fi. Rimski-Korsakov’s “Scheherezade” had been arranged by Skip Martin for the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra plus a 19-piece jazz band with heavyweight players like Conrad Gozzo, Jimmy Rowles, Irv Cottler, etc. The arrangement went back and forth between classical and jazz versions of the piece. Bucky played the LP for Benny Goodman, and he said when the brass section hit, Benny’s eyes popped open. When Bucky asked Benny how he liked the record, Benny said, “Get rid of that symphony, and you’ve got a hell of a record!”
Albie Berk told me this one, about his friend the late Michael Gibson. Michael had written some arrangements for an act Joel Grey was putting together, and at the first out of town rehearsal, the percussionist came to Albie with his part, looking confused. Albie looked at it and broke up. Michael had written a rhythm to be played with claves and maracas at the same time. Above the passage he had written, “I’m a trombone player, and I can do this!” Michael had once doubled on trombone and latin percussion in a salsa band.
Spanky Davis told me about a joint he used to work in Chicago where the band played for singers and comedians. One of them, comedian Jackie Curtis, found himself working with a substitute drummer one night. During one of his stories, he said, “…and the car ran off the road and hit a tree,” and he gestured to the drummer, who hit a rim shot. Jackie said. “No, a big tree.” And the drummer gave him a snare roll and a thump on the bass drum. “No,” said Jackie, “it was a big tree…with cymbals!”