Bassist Don Payne, who now lives in Florida, was fresh out of the Army in 1958. He moved into a cottage in the Hollywood hills where he and a group of local musicians that called themselves “The Jazz Messiahs” often rehearsed, trying to develop their own sound. Don Cherry, the trumpet player with the group, introduced them to Ornette Coleman, who had written some interesting originals. One day they were working on “The Blessing,” one of Ornette’s tunes. Walter Norris had worked out the harmonies, and they were playing it over and over to memorize it. Suddenly the door opened, and Payne’s next door neighbor walked in. After nodding hello, he took a sheet of music paper and quickly wrote down the tune they had been playing, and added an improvement to the chords at the end of the bridge. He reached over Walter’s shoulder and put the music in front of him on the piano, bowed and smiled to the other musicians, and went back out the door. Walter played what he had written and said, “This works!” He turned around to say thank you, but the man was already gone. He asked, “Who was that?” Don said, “That’s my neighbor, Johnny Mandel!”
Ron Mills told me about a friend of his, Bobby Layne, who tours with a ballroom band out of the midwest. On one tour of the South, the bus driver got lost. Bobby had him stop in front of a private home, and dressed for the gig in his tux, he ran up the walk and knocked on the door. The lady who answered took one look at Bobby, screamed, and began running around the house in hysterics. She thought he was from Publishers’ Clearing House, and that she had won first prize. She wasn’t happy to discover that all he wanted was directions to the gig.
My Liverpudlian friend, writer Steve Voce, got this story from the late Nat Pierce: Nat and Ruby Braff had come to New York from Boston in the early 1950’s, and were sharing a room in a cheap hotel, living on the edge of starvation. Nat had begun writing for Woody Herman, but Ruby’s only work at the time was doing an occasional sub for Charlie Shavers in a small club where Charlie was appearing with a quartet. Somehow Charlie found out how destitute Ruby was. One night, when Ruby got back to his hotel, the manager at the desk said, “This was left for you,” and handed Ruby an envelope. Inside was a fifty dollar bill. The manager didn’t recall who had left it. Every month, for several months, the same thing happened. Ruby couldn’t imagine who his benefactor was, until one day, the light dawned. He asked the hotel manager, “Did the guy who leaves the envelopes look like a seal?” The manager said, “Why, yes, he did.” Mystery solved.
This one has been around the Internet several times: At a rehearsal, an oboe player who constantly sucked on her reed during rests and between selections, inadvertently inhaled and swallowed her reed. Someone quickly called the emergency room at the hospital and asked what to do. The nurse said, “Use a trumpet with a straight mute instead.”
Tony Sotos told me about a job he did with Eddie Montiero at a kosher catering house. Eddie had played the preheat and the cocktail hour solo, and then with the band for four hours, and no one had offered him a bite to eat. During the last hour he finally decided to take action. He phoned a nearby pizzeria and had a large pie delivered to the bandstand.
At a jazz party last summer, Carol Sloane heard a sixtyish trombone player say to a very fit looking octogenarian piano player, “Al, we don’t want to hear you play any more. We just want to know what you eat!”
Gene Lees has been publishing his excellent Jazzletter for 22 years now. It is probably the most anthologized jazz publication ever, producing at least six volumes of its essays, two of which have won the ASCAP Deems Taylor award. (Altogether, Lees’s books have won that award five times.) For a regular supply of interesting essays on jazz, musicians, singers, songwriters, Hollywood composers, the record business, social awareness, musical history, and the many other intersections of interest that continually cross the mind of this engaging essayist, write to Jazzletter, PO Box 240, Ojai, CA 93024 or firstname.lastname@example.org.