How I met James Petrillo on a cruise ship gig…and what he taught me

Volume 116, No. 9September, 2016

Keith Ingham

The piece about James Petrillo in the previous issue of Allegro brought back many memories of the time I spent with him in 1965. I was still living in England and had auditioned for a job playing piano on the Cunard cruise ship Caronia. (It was definitely 1965 since one of the pieces requested was “The Girl From Ipanema,” a huge hit for Astrud Gilberto and Stan Getz the previous year, with a tricky bridge.) I got the gig and set off from New York on a three-month round-the-world cruise.

A small white-haired gentleman introduced himself, bought me a drink and invited me to his table. This was how I met Mr. Petrillo and spent many hours in his company. Since I was a jazz fan, I knew about him as the powerful president of the AFM, famous when union negotiations affected the general public, notably the recording strikes of 1942 to 1943 and in 1948. His was an amazing life. Born in Chicago, he headed AFM Local 10 in Chicago for many years. He told me he started as a “wheelman” (chauffeur) for Al Capone, who owned most of the cabaret and night clubs on Chicago’s south side. Capone’s rival, Bugs Moran, owned the joints on the north side. The competition for the best musicians gave the unions a lot of bargaining clout, which is where Petrillo came in. He would tell me about hearing Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines at different night spots around town long before they became famous.

As a musician of limited ability, Petrillo realized his talents lay in organizing a strong union. This way, the musicians, who were so vital to the Prohibition-era night life, could earn a decent living.

One night he sent up a request for a song called “Jim.” I knew it from a great Sarah Vaughan recording with Clifford Brown. It had actually been written by Petrillo’s younger brother, Caesar, who was a trombonist and conductor for theatre and radio. I played it every time he’d come into the lounge or the ballroom or the Caronia’s famous Veranda Grill. The best was when we docked in Yokohama for a week. Apparently every year, Petrillo would host several huge parties on the ship for children or relatives of the victims of the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima or Nagasaki victims. I thought this was a very compassionate thing to do, so I naturally volunteered to play for his guests.

His temper could be quite frightening when he’d bawl out a waiter or steward if they didn’t show enough respect to him or his friends, especially the Japanese.

When we reached Bombay, he invited officers and players from the local musicians’ union on board. They all loved “Take Five,” which was such a hit for Dave Brubeck at the time. So for the two weeks we were in Bombay, we had jam sessions organized by Petrillo on board or ashore in various hotels.

This was the outstanding memory of that three-month cruise. I never saw Petrillo again after the ship docked in New York. Thanks for the memory, Mr. P.

Pianist Keith Ingham has been a member of Local 802 since 1979.