The Band Room
Volume 116, No. 12December, 2016
I recently heard a clip on YouTube of Yo-Yo Ma playing Saint-Saens’ “The Swan,” very beautifully. It took me back to the record player that was in our house when I was a child, an Edison cylinder machine that you wound up with a crank. We had a box of cylinders, maybe a dozen, mostly vaudeville songs and patriotic music. Among them was some long-forgotten cello player playing “The Swan.” I liked the melody, but I thought the cello was an awful sounding instrument. It never occurred to me that the primitive recording method used by Edison could corrupt the sound. The first time I heard a real cello played well, I was shocked. It was so beautiful, and I had thought it was an ugly-sounding instrument because of that old recording. That experience made me wary of recordings for a while. But when I heard later recordings of Louis Armstrong and Enrico Caruso, I had no complaint, even though the full resonance of their sounds hadn’t been captured. I became even happier in the late 1940s, when high-fidelity recordings came on the market.
On a tour of the Broadway show “Annie,” one of the three trumpet players fell ill one day during the overture and went back to his hotel. For the big trumpet number in the middle of the first act, the conductor asked one of the reed players to play the second trumpet part. Kirby Tassos reports that the clarinetist played the part just fine, but he overheard him make this comment on the way back to the reed section: “Boy, I wish they’d write woodwind parts that were that easy!”
Tassos also told me that when he was younger, wearing a beard and long hair, he bore a resemblance to Chuck Findley, the Los Angeles lead trumpet player. Even though he played the saxophone, Kirby was sometimes mistaken for Findley. At the first rehearsal for a tour with a musical, a couple of the musicians had just been on the road with Buddy Rich’s band. Later, one of them said to a friend of Kirby’s, “Man, times must be tough in LA. I just saw Chuck Findley playing sax for this lame musical theater tour.”
On Facebook, Walter Barrett posted this story: “A few years ago I played Verdi’s Otello with a local opera company. The pit was really tight, so I had to sit on the steps leading from the house down into the pit. It was a modernized version. I think George Bush was Otello, because his costume in the first scene where he comes back from battle was a flight suit, with a “Mission Accomplished” banner.
“Near the end, Desdemona had a big scene in the Oval Office, telling her troubles to someone on the phone. She slammed down the receiver so hard that the phone sailed across the stage, missing my head by about three inches, and landed in the audience. I’m glad I wasn’t sitting on the next step up.”
Bill Wurtzel told me that when he was 11 years old, he was invited to perform on the radio with Montana Slim Skellet and his Rocky Mountaineers. When Slim asked what Bill would sing, he said, “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” or “Pecos Bill.” Slim announced that “Pecos Bill” would be singing “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.” So, “Pecos Bill” became Wurtzel’s stage name when he was a kid performer on radio and TV.
Boots Maleson told Wurtzel that he played for a singer who said the key was a little low for her. She asked if they could take it up an octave.
Lloyd Wells sent me a note expressing his sorrow at hearing that guitarist Howie Collins had passed away. Howie had done a lot of subs for Lloyd when he was doing Broadway shows.
Lloyd remembered seeing a Merv Griffin show that Howie subbed on for Jim Hall. Merv said something about the band, and the camera panned over to the bandstand, stopping right on Howie, whose face was buried in a roast beef sandwich.
A record producer recently called me to see if I had any pictures of Don Joseph, the trumpet player from Staten Island who was a great ornament to the New York jazz scene, especially during the 1940s and 50s. I didn’t have any pictures of Don, but I do have some wonderful memories of him. I met him at Charlie’s Tavern, the midtown musicians’ hangout, from which he was eventually banned by Charlie Jacobs, the owner, for giving the place a bad name when under the influence. Don’s lament at the time was, “I’m barred from bands, and I’m banned from bars!”
I was playing at the Open Door in the Village with Don and Brew Moore one Sunday, and on the second set, our drummer agreed to let another drummer sit in for a couple of tunes. After the first tune, Don turned around and asked me, “What happened to that other drummer we had all nice and tired out?”