I lost another of my first friends in New York last December when Frank Isola passed away in Detroit. Frank was the first drummer I met when I moved to New York in 1950, when I was still a valve trombone player. We were both living hand-to-mouth, trying to find our way into the New York jazz world. We met at jam sessions, enjoyed playing together, and a couple of years later, after I became a bass player, worked together for a while on the Stan Getz quintet. But jam sessions were our common meeting place…in a basement at 136th Street, in the back room of a bar in the Bronx, in lofts in the flower district and the Village, wherever musicians could get together to play. Frank was one of the drummers of choice, because he had a wonderful swing, and could do it without playing loud. He worked with Elliot Lawrence, Claude Thornhill, Stan Getz and Gerry Mulligan. When he decided to go back home to Detroit, he left a hole in my New York jazz world.
For a while I was traveling with a group that had an unsettled rhythm section, and by the time we got to Detroit, I was losing my grip. After a night of being unable to get together with our pianist and drummer, I would get up in the morning, put my bass in the car, and drive out to Frank’s house, where we would play together, just bass and drums, so I could reassure myself that I did know where the time was. A week of mornings with Frank restored my confidence and got me through the rest of my time on the road with that group.
Frank had a hard life in his later years, but was always treasured by the musicians around him. One of my favorite stories about Frank dates back to his days in New York City. Tommy Dorsey had just lost Buddy Rich and was looking for a drummer to replace him. During a stay at the Pennsylvania Hotel, Dorsey had been auditioning every drummer in town. The word was around on the street that the “Sentimental Gentleman of Swing” wasn’t going to be happy with any drummer he heard who wasn’t Buddy Rich. So, when Frank Isola’s phone rang one morning, he wasn’t too excited by the call. “Frank!” It was Dorsey’s manager. “Come down to the Pennsylvania tonight! Tommy wants to hear you play!” Frank thought a minute, then drawled softly, “Aaah, thanks, but tell Tommy I’m not in a sentimental mood.”
Bob Mintzer told me about working on an album of standards that Rod Stewart was recording. Clive Davis was the chief producer, and he and a number of assistant producers were micromanaging the music. Bob says they were going through piano players like water, finding fault with everyone they called in. Davis left the studio for a while, and one of the other producers decided to call a pianist he knew who lived nearby. Davis walked in while the new pianist was running over the arrangement and called into the studio from the booth: “Wrong! All wrong! Piano player….I want you to play me Peter Nero!” After a pause, the piano player said, “I AM Peter Nero.”
Scott Whitfield has been doing some gigs with the bassist Jennifer Leitham. He told me she was offered a job playing at an art show where her band would be expected to interpret the paintings. She told them, “I prefer that my music not sound like Jackson Pollock.”
Jon Berger went to hear the Berlin Philharmonic at their hall on Kemperplatz in Berlin. With the musicians assembled on the stage, the conductor walked out and took his bow. Then, as he passed the string section on his way to the podium, the percussionist knocked over his snare drum, which rolled and bounced slowly down the multi-tiered platform, coming to a stop near the conductor at stage level. Jon was surprised that no one in the orchestra reacted at all. The maestro simply did an about-face and returned to the wings until the offending drum had been returned to its place, and then he walked back out, took his bow again, and proceeded on to the podium where he began conducting. Jon Berger says, “On behalf of the world community of drummers abused by many a maestro, I applaud the percussionist’s choice of targets.”
When Ralph Lalama visited a school out in Valley Stream to watch his nephew play in a football game, he was amazed to see an innovation in marching bands. Instead of sousaphones, there was a marching fender bass player. His signal was being radioed to a huge amplification system on the sidelines.
Joe Ciavardone told me about a conversation between Al Cohn and a girl singer. She told Al, “I bop scat.” Al inquired, “Jazz, or classical?”