I’ve been learning tunes since I was born. My mother, a singer who played piano and organ, filled our house with song as I was growing up. I memorized all her art songs, and things by Stephen Foster, and also the ones on our Edison windup phonograph, with cylinder records. We got a small table radio when I was four or five years old, and from then on I began to learn the American songbook, soaking up everything from Gladys Swarthout and Lawrence Tibbett to Kate Smith and Bing Crosby. My sixth grade music teacher turned me on to Louis Armstrong, and I immediately became a record collector. I still remember all the tunes I learned that way.
Lately I often find myself playing jazz with musicians less than a third of my age. I sometimes call tunes from my youth, and just get blank stares. But lately I’ve met some young musicians who know a lot of the old tunes. It’s nice to play them again.
One of my new friends, guitarist Greg Ruggeiro, has entered all the tunes I’ve called that he doesn’t know in a file on his cell phone. Whenever he gets a chance, he goes online and finds one of those tunes and learns it, and surprises me with it when we play together. It almost makes me feel young again.
When Gerry Mulligan formed a quartet in Los Angeles and hired Chet Baker on trumpet, the musical chemistry between them produced some wonderful results. One night Dick Bock visited the Haig, the club where they were playing, and asked Gerry if he could sell him a record. Gerry told Bock that the group hadn’t recorded yet, and Bock said, “Well, how much does it cost to make a record?” When he found out that it could be done for just a few hundred dollars, he got the quartet into a recording studio, and the Pacific Jazz label was born. It went on to successfully record many West Coast jazz groups.
The Mulligan Quartet records were an immediate hit. Everyone was amazed at the interplay between the two horns, and the inventiveness of their soloing. Someone remarked to Gerry, “I understand that Chet doesn’t know anything about harmony.” Gerry replied, “He knows everything about harmony! He just doesn’t know the names of the chords.”
Jean Packard, who now lives and plays in Naples, Florida, spent some time with the national company of “Cabaret.” The late Judy Carne had the role of Sally Bowles. Her first show was at Caesar’s Palace in Framingham, Massachusetts. After the show, Jean says that Judy was crying in her dressing room because there had been no applause at all. Then the boss came in and explained that the entire audience had consisted of paraplegics in wheelchairs.
Bill Wurtzel e-mailed me this story:
“Warren Chiasson and I were hired on another musician’s steady gig. Not one person came to hear us. The leader said this was ‘one of the slowest nights’ they ever had. Warren and I wondered what the slowest one was like.”
Wurtzel also said he was playing a Fairway Jazz Brunch with Jay Leonhart and Jimmy Cozier. Bill’s eight-year-old granddaughter Daniela is one of his students. She brought her guitar along, and Bill let her sit in. Jay and Jimmy expected “Old MacDonald,” but were surprised and delighted when she called, “Blues… on two and four!”
Kirby Tassos was on a musical theatre tour with a lead trumpeter who had just left Maynard Ferguson’s band. Kirby admired the guy’s chops. Sorry that there was nothing in the show to use his abilities, Kirby suggested that during the brassy Dixieland section, he take his parts up an octave. The guy declined, not wanting to make trouble.
The trumpet player eventually decided to leave the show, and on his last night he took the blowing section up an octave and tore the roof off the place. The conductor was completely knocked out, and told him, “That was incredible! Why haven’t you been doing that stuff all along?”
The conductor then required the trumpeter’s replacement to take all his parts up an octave. Kirby says that guy won’t speak to him to this day.
Frank Amoss told me that some of his earliest gigs were playing for strippers in his home town of Baltimore, a lot of which took place in a notorious part of town known as “The Block.” He said that one night a new dancer arrived and told the leader she wanted the band to play “Night Train” for her opening number. When informed that the woman before her was using that song, she exclaimed: “That bitch! She stole my music!”
Todd Barkan asked Dexter Gordon what kind of guy Thelonious Monk was. Dexter mused, “Monk was not exactly the boy next door.”