The Band Room
Volume 117, No. 1January, 2017
When I joined the Army in 1946 at Fort Lewis, Washington, I managed to get assigned to the 51st Army Band, which was newly forming there. I bought a used 1930 Model A Ford coupe (for $50) so I could drive home on weekends. The band had just gotten all its musicians and equipment when we were told that we were being reassigned to Fort Meade, Maryland, to become the 2nd Army Band. Most of the other musicians traveled to Maryland by train, but I found out I could drive my car, and the Army would pay me eight cents a mile for the trip. Gas was only 21 cents a gallon in those days, so I made a profit on the deal.
The car’s top speed was around 50 mph so it took me several days of steady driving to make the trip. When I reached the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the nation’s first superhighway, the minimum speed was posted at 45 mph, and I was pushing my car a bit from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg. As I headed down into rural Maryland I noticed that the engine was running roughly.
I stopped at a gas station that had a repair shop and asked the mechanic to have a look. He cleaned the carburetor, checked my electrical system and then removed the spark plugs. “Here’s your trouble,” he said, showing me one of the plugs. “This plug is all carboned up.” He slipped the base of the plug into a device that scrubbed it with a stream of air-borne sand, screwed it back into the engine and started it up. It ran perfectly.
“Great,” I said, “what do I owe you?”
“A dime,” he replied.
“That’s what I charge for cleaning a plug.”
“But how about all that other work you did?”
“Oh, I cain’t charge you for that. That weren’t what was wrong.”
John Barbe sent me a couple of stories from his days with the Buddy Morrow band. While they were playing for an outdoor dance crowd, a fly kept buzzing near Buddy’s horn. Buddy kept poking his slide at the fly. With one poke too many, he lost his grip on the slide, and it flew into the middle of the crowd. Luckily it didn’t injure any of the dancers.
At a college dance, after playing for an hour, Buddy’s band took a break. On their return, they found they were missing pianist Roy Frazee. During the middle of the first tune, Buddy spotted him, dancing with a coed.
At a concert with Bill Wurtzel, Jay Leonhart was singing one of his original songs, “Me and Lenny.” It’s about Jay flying first class to Los Angeles, finding himself seated next to Leonard Bernstein, becoming friends with him during the trip, but never hearing from Lenny afterward. During the song, Jay’s cell phone ringer went off, and Bill said, “Must be Lenny.” He got a laugh from the audience and saved an awkward moment.
The late Joe Wilder told Wurtzel about having played at a memorial service for a departed friend. Joe chose the Jerome Kern ballad “Yesterdays” but the pianist went into the Beatles’ “Yesterday” and wouldn’t let up. Joe said it was an awful experience. Fortunately, no one made that sort of gaffe at Joe’s memorial.
One more Wurtzel story: Bill was quietly playing a gig in a restaurant with Joe Roccisano. A guest who had been sitting with friends came over and praised them by saying, “With other bands you can’t carry on a conversation.”
Often, when hiring new musicians, jazz groups don’t hold auditions. They find musicians they have heard play and hire them, seeing how things work out on the job. But Chip Jackson told me that, before he joined Horace Silver’s group, Horace asked him to audition at a rehearsal. He gave Chip the bass part to one of his arrangements, about ten pages of music. Chip worked his way through it, and at the end realized that it could have been one page with repeats. He figured that Horace just wanted to see if he could read.
Chip also told me that when he started with Stan Getz’s group, he got a little test of his concentration. Stan gave him a solo on one tune, and while Chip was in the middle of it, Stan said to him, “How do you like these new shoes I just bought?”
And when Chip joined Elvin Jones’s band, he was reading the parts for tunes he hadn’t learned yet. Elvin didn’t want him to be reading the changes while playing his solo, so he reached across and turned Chip’s part over. When his solo ended, Elvin turned it back again and gave Chip a big smile.
On another night, Chip was winding down the solo chorus he was used to playing on one tune, and Elvin whispered, “You ain’t finished yet.”
There was one tune in Elvin’s repertoire that required the bass player to stay on an ostinato A minor pattern through the whole thing. If Chip tried to vary the pattern a little, Elvin would give him a negative look. So he asked him later, “How do you think about a tune like this?” Elvin replied, “You know what? We need to mesmerize them!”
Grady Tate, on a record date, said: “This cat couldn’t conduct if they wrapped him in copper wire!”