Bill Crow’s Band Room

Volume CVI, No. 11November, 2006

Bill Crow

Joe Wilder was recently honored at the memorial for the late Cy Feuer as the first African-American musician to play in the previously all-white Broadway show orchestras. His first hit show was Feuer’s “Guys and Dolls.” Joe’s lengthy credits also include tenure with Count Basie’s band, and appearances with the New York Philharmonic. Now 84 years old, Joe is in good health and is still playing beautifully. He has a bit of cardiac arrhythmia that his doctors keep an eye on. When he went in for an examination recently, the two women doctors who had Joe hooked up to their EKG machine were discussing his readout. One said, “This is odd. Usually in arrhythmia there is a recognizable pattern, but these blips are all over the place.” Joe cocked an eyebrow and said, “Do you mean we don’t all have rhythm?”

John Altman remembers conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the now defunct CBS studios in London. During a break, he spotted Roy Willox, the great alto sax player of Ted Heath fame, standing near the control room door of the other studio. John could see through the control room window a couple of young musicians scratching their heads and arguing. He asked what was going on, and Roy replied, “Oh, we’re just recreating the Glenn Miller sound for some commercial.” John inquired, “And how is the Glenn Miller sound these days?” Roy replied, “As good as it will ever be with four clarinets and four alto saxes in unison!”

Back in the 1970’s, William Zinn, playing the violin in the pit of a Broadway show, was having trouble with the amount of space he was given. When he made a vigorous up-bow, he sometimes hit the low ceiling above him. He said, “Rather than break a $2,000 bow for a $100 show, I turned the bow around and played holding the tip, with the frog up.” The conductor noticed it, and insisted that Zinn play in the conventional manner. He then held the bow toward the middle of the stick, necessitating many bow changes on the long notes. The conductor again complained, thinking Zinn was putting him on. Zinn explained that he needed more distance from the ceiling, and the conductor’s solution was to have the legs of Zinn’s chair cut down, so he was sitting closer to the floor. This put him in the lotus position, and cut off the circulation in his legs. He hit on an idea, and told the conductor he would use a bow that could only play “down-bow.” He went to his bowmaker and got him to splice a couple of old bows together, giving him a bow with a frog at each end, and another with a tip at each end. (The man didn’t charge Zinn for creating the joke, but swore him to secrecy as to the identity of the bowmaker.) That night, when the conductor saw Zinn’s frog in the air and told him to turn his bow around, he was amazed to see the frog at both ends of the bow. He whispered, “What if you have to play an up-bow?” Zinn switched to the other bow, with a tip at each end, astounding the conductor and cracking up the whole orchestra . All the other violinists had to try the trick bows, and even today, 35 years later, musicians still ask him to show them his “down-bow.”

After playing a concert at a nursing home, Eddie Bert was chatting with some members of the audience. A lady asked him, “Is your leg all right?” Eddie said, “Yeah, why?” She tapped her foot repeatedly on the floor and said, “You keep going like this.”

Frank Tate told me about a fashion show he played in the Catskills with Tony Terini and Eddie Caccavale. At the rehearsal, a bevy of models were running back and forth, many of them dressed in very little. Frank and Tony were enjoying the view, but Eddie found a way to indicate that it was a bit too much. He played the last part of the rehearsal wearing a paper bag over his head.

Ken Arzberger sent this one from Sun City, Ariz.: The late Richard Maltby once had a two-week booking at Chicago’s “Blue Note.” Dick’s swing era arrangements didn’t fit that jazz room too well. Chan Parker (Charlie’s widow), who was the maitre d’ of the club at the time, suggested that Maltby add a few jazz arrangements to his book. He borrowed a few charts from Nat Pierce, and the band sounded a bit more appropriate during their second week at the club. On their final night, the Maltby musicians were thrilled to see most of Duke Ellington’s band stroll in. Johnny Hodges, Paul Gonsalves and Cat Anderson were there, and Harry Carney took a seat directly in front of Arzberger, who whispered a prayer, “Please, God, give us this chance to prove ourselves.” Then Maltby raised his hands and shouted, “Last tune of the night, fellas… ‘Good Night Sweetheart.’”

At a jazz festival, George Masso and Jake Hanna were playing with a vibraphonist who played very well, but who left no spaces in his solos at all. After listening to one of his whirlwind solos, Jake leaned over to George and said, “He’s really got that circular breathing down!”

A friend of Jon Berger’s was standing in front of the Neil Simon Theatre, where “Hairspray” is playing. A woman near him looked at the marquee and said to her friend, “I didn’t know Neil Simon was in Hairspray!”

A well known society bandleader often hired Richard Sussman to write arrangements for special requests from wealthy clients. One of his assignments was “Rhapsody in Blue.” The leader asked Richard to include a part for tympani. Richard asked who was going to play the tympani, and the leader said he would. Richard explained that it required years of study to play the tympani properly, and that one couldn’t master the instrument overnight. The leader listened, and then said, “Well, I guess you’re right. How about a kettle drum?”