Bill Crow’s Band Room

Volume CVI, No. 1January, 2006

Bill Crow

In the back of the Local 802 directory is a list of instruments, in which you will find William Zinn listed as the only member who plays the “Octahorn.” I often have wondered what one was. Zinn explains: “It is a pre-tuned brass horn, about four feet long, with eight bells and two valves. Played with a trumpet-like mouthpiece, it plays chords.” Zinn owns the only one in existence. It was originally built for Richard Wagner in the 1800s. Wagner was unhappy with his horn section, which played out of tune. But he didn’t adopt the Octahorn, because he didn’t like its timbre. David Grunes, one of the publishers of Omega Music Inc., had acquired the instrument from a museum in Stuttgart, Germany, and displayed it in a case in his office. Zinn bought it from him and wrote a comic concerto for Octahorn that has been played by the Queens Festival Orchestra, the Waterbury (CT) Symphony, the New Britain (CT) Symphony, and at New York park concerts and Catskill hotels. Zinn has learned not to play the instrument at rehearsals, because it makes the musicians laugh so much they can’t play. And so the orchestra is usually as surprised as the audience when he performs at concerts. One conductor said, “I love the piece, but the Octahorn sounds like four cars at an intersection honking for the right-of-way!”

Joe Ciavardone heard this one from his friend Al Natale, a Boston bandleader: Charlie the Whale, a Boston booker, once called Ruby Braff and told him, “I have a cancellation on Sunday afternoon…it pays a thousand dollars.” Ruby snapped, “I don’t take seconds!” and hung up.

Cy Helderman once played a hotel show where the music for the singer was put in the wrong order. When the band began to play the first number, the singer called out, “Wrong! Next!” The musicians began to play the next tune in their order, and the singer again called, “Next!” One of the musicians said, “Next! What do you think this is, a barber shop?”

Merv Gold used to have a trombone case rigged up with a battery-operated phone bell that he could ring by pressing a button near the handle. When it rang, usually at a place like the bar at Joe Harbor’s, Merv would open his case, take out a phone receiver, and hold imaginary conversations to amuse his friends. Recently, when Ken Arzberger, now retired in Sun City Arizona, dropped by the house of a neighbor who was being visited by his grandchildren, the kids got into an argument about who invented the telephone. One said, “It was Thomas Edison!” The other insisted, “No, it was Alexander Graham Bell!” Ken couldn’t resist. “You’re both wrong,” he told them. “It was Merv Gold!”

Andy Shreeves told me about an evening at the famous Newport mansion Rosecliff several years ago, playing with Vince Giordano’s Nighthawks. During one number, a couple danced near the band. Something went wrong with their footwork, and the lady, with beautiful long blond hair, stumbled and fell into the saxophone section, knocking over instruments, music stands and musicians. No one was hurt, and the lady and her partner danced away across the floor. The musicians began examining their instruments as the rhythm section continued to play. Suddenly Dan Block pushed his alto into Andy’s hands and ran after the couple. His clarinet was dangling from the lady’s hair by the ligature screws. Fortunately, Dan caught it before it fell.

Tony Agresta now lives in Charleston, South Carolina, but for many years was a busy trombonist on the New York music scene. To entertain the band and the audience, Tony sometimes played his trombone with his leg instead of his arm, inserting his right foot into the slide and pumping it accurately while playing. Vinnie Riccitelli once wrote an arrangement for Wally Besser’s group, a New York medley that included a trombone solo on “Autumn in New York.” Knowing that Tony would be the trombonist, Vinnie wrote on the trombone part just before the solo, “CHANGE TO LEG.” At the end of the solo, he wrote, “BACK TO ARM.”

Samuel Buchman, 90 years old and now living in Tamarac, Florida, tells me that in the late 1940s and ‘50s he and some other club date musicians, like Rocky Jordon, Bob Fulton and Herb Dawson, used to work for a leader who wasn’t much of a player, but who booked very good dates. His father, politically well connected, was able to get bookings for his son. On one date at the Waldorf the band returned to the stage after a break to discover that someone had knocked over the leader’s saxophone. He looked over to the band and said, “Who’s the wise guy that knocked my sax over?” Herb Dawson said, “Nobody knocked your sax over…it committed suicide.”

One of Bill Mays’ first gigs in New York was with Ron Carter’s group at the Knickerbocker. During a set, a man came up to the bandstand, handed Ron a five-dollar bill and asked for a tune. Ron handed back the five and said, “Sorry, that’s a twenty-dollar tune.”