In 1964, Eric Knight went to London with Ethel Merman as her music director for a four-week gig at a club called Talk of the Town on Leicester Square. During the rehearsals, Merman was intrigued by British music terminology: “minims” (for half notes), “crochets” (for quarter notes), “semi-breves” (for whole notes), “quavers” (for eighth notes), and so on.
The highlight of the show was Roger Eden’s version of “Blow, Gabriel, Blow,” in which Merman would prance downstage around a solo trumpeter (Gabriel). The great Dick Perry was her stateside trumpeter of choice, and together they always gave a devilish performance. But in London she found herself working with a shy Gabriel who played a lot of clams. After a particularly bad performance, Ethel blew a fuse: “What’s wrong with that trumpet player?” she complained to Eric. “He sounds like he’s got a quavering crochet!”
Back in the 1960s, when I was in London with the Gerry Mulligan Quartet, I went to a theater and caught a matinee of a play of Spike Milligan’s called “The Bed Sitting Room.” It was a post-nuclear fantasy, and Milligan was very funny in it. When the entire zany performance was over, the curtains closed, and someone backstage began whistling loudly through two fingers, “God Save The Queen.” When “The Queen” is played in London theaters, the audience always stands respectfully until it is finished. Even though the whistled version of it was dreadful, this audience stood and waited until the end. There was a pause, and then Milligan poked his head out between the curtains. “Still standing, are you?” he inquired. “If you’ll stand for that, you’ll stand for anything!”
Phil Woods sent me an article from the July 1928 Variety:
Musicians Warned Not to Lay Down After “Notice”
On complaint of Charley Thedfeld, clarinet player at the Capitol, New York, and the official “contractor” of the orchestra, Eddie Canavan of the Musicians Local issued a warning to five members of the orchestra that heavy fines and discipline would follow any further complaint that the men were not fulfilling their obligations, while working out their two weeks’ notice. The men were fired when continually reporting late for rehearsals. They then adopted a lax attitude with one musician missing the important Saturday rehearsal altogether. Of six former Paul Whiteman men who joined the stage band when organized last winter, but one, John Spertzell, now remains. Tommy Dorsey and Max Farley were among the five given notice last week. Jimmy Dorsey quit for another job some time ago. “Happy” McLane died and Harry Perella received notice.
Bruce Talbot posted an online account of one of Coleman Hawkins’s last gigs, in the late 1960s at a club called Klook’s Kleek in London: “For the early part of the evening we were convinced that Hawk wasn’t going to turn up. He finally arrived, very late, small, white-haired and wizened. Said to be existing by this time on cognac…Hawk played as though the act of doing so would keep back the night of the Grim Reaper. Chorus after chorus, no bass solos or drum solos, and no more than two for the piano, sometimes only one. On some numbers, Hawk played more than ten choruses. Years later, wondering if my memory was over-egging the pudding, I asked (bassist) Dave Green if the night was like I remembered. ‘Absolutely,’ he said…one of the greatest gigs of his life.”
I got a note from Fred Griffen with this story attached:
On a plane trip with Liza Minelli, pre 9/11, contractor Jerry Tarack distributed boarding passes randomly, without matching the names to the musicians. Tubaist Tony Price looked at his pass and said, “Well, I feel sorry for whoever got my boarding pass.” Fred asked why, and Tony deadpanned, “I get airsick.”
All my life I’ve enjoyed the general sense of humor that exists among musicians. Laughter seems to be a natural part of being in this world, I’m happy to say. But I’ve come to think that it isn’t just a special characteristic of musicians. It’s a human quality that shows up everywhere. I knew it from my mother and father, who saw the funny side of life, and enjoyed it. And when I was learning trades during my high school years, I discovered that printers and butchers were great laughers, as well. In the print shop where I worked in Kirkland, Washington, the linotype operator and the pressman were always playing tricks on each other, and later, in a local butcher shop, two of the butchers I was learning the trade from delighted me daily with funny stories. And when I was painting the back room on a slow Saturday and dropped a can of white paint into a just opened barrel of dill pickles, those butchers laughed for a week, while helping me rescue the pickles.
One of those butchers, Jake Ewan, taught me this one: “Vyisdur zomenimor orzizazis zanzaris orzis?”
I can still see him laughing as I figured it out.