The late Frank Wess, who died last Oct. 30 at the age of 91, was nicknamed “Magic” by his colleagues. He certainly worked wonders with his saxophone and flute. I first met him when I was at Birdland with the Terry Gibbs Quartet, and Frank was with the new Basie band. We became friends for life. He was an ornament with that band for over ten years, and then went on to play with everyone else. Fortunately for us all, he recorded a lot. In 2007 the NEA gave him the Jazz Masters award, well earned.
Frank was known for his pithy humor. He often crystallized the immediate situation with an apt remark that would crack everyone up. Back in the 50s, I was playing with Marian McPartland’s trio for a week in Columbus, Ohio. The Basie band came through town, so I dropped over to their hotel one afternoon for a visit. Everyone was sitting in Henry Coker’s room waiting for Basie to arrive with the week’s payroll. Finally, Coker’s phone rang, and he answered briefly and hung up. He said, “Basie says he’s on his way over, but he don’t have any change.” Frank Wess groaned, “That mother already owes me two months salary in change!”
Bob Shankin told me about a gig he was once on, playing for a singer at Carnegie Hall. On the same bill was comedian Joan Rivers. As the band members were exiting the stage door, Ms. Rivers came out swathed from chin to toes in a fantastic mink coat. Burt Collins took one look, and said, “That’s what I’m getting my wife for Christmas. A brown coat.”
Bill Mays is preparing a book, to be titled, “55 Years In The Music Biz: Stories of the Road, the Studios, Sidemen & Singers.” He sent me this excerpt:
“During my Hollywood studio years I often was called to play Jerry Lewis’ annual Muscular Dystrophy Telethon. It was a lengthy affair, lasting over 24 hours. The big band would play dozens of acts, sometimes getting a quick rehearsal during a commercial, or often sight-reading the charts. It was challenging, and given the live aspect and the long hours, everyone’s nerves were stretched.
“Several hours into it, Pia Zadora, who had just recorded an album, showed up to sing ‘The Man Who Got Away.’ We were afforded a few minutes to rehearse her chart. She had, amongst her entourage, a personal assistant who would express the diva’s needs and desires, as if Zadora couldn’t speak directly to the band. I played the solo piano intro as written.
“Pia, standing only five feet from me, said to her P.A., ‘Please tell the pianist to play the intro exactly as written.’
“He: ‘Ms. Zadora would like the intro as written.’
“Me, to P.A.: ‘Please tell Ms. Zadora I’m playing the written notes of the intro exactly as the arranger has scored it.’
“Intro played again. Pia whimpers: ‘Tell the pianist something’s just not right.’
“P.A.: ‘Ms. Zadora says something’s just not right.’
“Me: ‘Perhaps Ms. Zadora would like me to forget the written notes, and, using the chord symbols provided, do something a little different.’
“That was relayed, replayed, rejected and it was requested the notes be tried again. I did, but petulant Pia, almost stomping her foot, shouted, ‘I want it AS WRITTEN, note for note!’
“To which I offered, ‘Please tell Ms. Zadora I’ll play it again, exactly as written, EVERY F***ING NOTE!’
“The P.A. turned to her and said, ‘You heard him!’”
Tony Middleton sent this one from England, from a BBC quiz show:
Stewart White: “Who had a worldwide hit with ‘What A Wonderful World?’”
Contestant: “I don’t know.”
Stewart White: “I’ll give you some clues: what do you call the part between your hand and your elbow?
Stewart White: “Correct. And if you’re not weak, you’re…?”
Stewart White: “Correct. And what was Lord Mountbatten’s first name?”
Stewart White: “Well, there we are then. So who had a worldwide hit with the song ‘What A Wonderful World?’”
Contestant: “Frank Sinatra?”
Larry Luger told Bill Wurtzel that when he played for a singer she called ‘My Funny Valentine’ in C. Larry asked, “Is that C minor for E flat, or C for A minor?” The singer replied, “Listen, do you know the song or not?”
A different singer told Wurtzel he did the tune a half step up from the original. Seeing the digital tuner clipped on Bill’s guitar headstock, he said, “It shouldn’t be a problem because you have a capo.”
Jeff Ganz tells me his pal Andy Bassford was asked by a leader, “Why aren’t you playing the intro?” Andy asked, “What intro?” Leader: “The one I wrote at the bottom of the page!”