Humor has always appealed to me. I had funny parents, and we laughed a lot while I was growing up. And it was humor that drew me into my early appreciation of jazz. As a schoolboy, I was astounded by the musical imagination of Louis Armstrong, but I was also beguiled by the musical jokes on some of his records. “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead, You Rascal You” was an invitation to good times.
I fell on the floor laughing the first time I heard Skinnay Ennis sing “I’m looking for a guy who plays alto and baritone, and doubles on the clarinet, and wears a size 37 suit” (the “Bandleader’s Song”).
I moved right on to Fats Waller’s “Your Feet’s Too Big” and “The Joint is Jumpin’,” and Slim Gaillard’s “Cement Mixer,” confident that a lot of fun awaited me in the world of jazz. Benny Goodman’s “Shirttail Stomp” and Tommy Dorsey’s “Friendship” continued the fun, as did Charlie Barnet’s “The Wrong Idea.” (“Swing and sweat with Charlie Barnet.”) And I wanted badly to be let off uptown, with Anita O’Day and Roy Eldridge.
Leo Watson and Dizzy Gillespie brought clowning into modern jazz. And Clark Terry’s “Mumbles” put the icing on the cake.
Of course, jazz musicians continually create music of deep seriousness, but it is nice to find that so much fun can arise from the same source. Like Dizzy used to say, “That’s why they call it playing!” Serious joy, to be sure.
There was a memorial for the late Milt Hinton at Saint Peter’s in New York City recently. A display of his wonderful photographs surrounded the room where a short documentary movie about Milt’s life and career was shown, after which a panel composed of Joe Wilder, Rufus Reid, Dan Morgenstern and me told a few stories about the great bassist and photographer. I told about meeting Milt not long after I had begun playing the bass. Milt was very friendly, and we spent an hour or so chatting at the bar in Charlie’s Tavern. His wife, Mona, later told me that Milt had come home that day and said to her, “Mona, I met a bass player today, and his name really is Jim Crow!” I’m glad we got that straightened out before long.
A few years later, after Milt and I had become close friends, I dropped in at Michael’s Pub to hear Al Cohn and Zoot Sims playing with the house rhythm section, which included Milt. When he saw me walk in, Milt motioned for me to come up and play a tune. His bass had a beautiful sound, and was easy to play. I was able to turn out a decent solo, and got a nice round of applause. Milt stalked back to the bandstand, snatched his bass from me, and said, with mock anger, “And, don’t ever play my bass again!” I exited, laughing.
A little while ago I took a walk down 52nd Street with a film crew that was working on a documentary about the old Swing Street. They rolled their camera while I pointed out the locations of the jazz clubs that had existed there. We strolled between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, remembering the Famous Door, the Downbeat, the Onyx, Ryan’s, the Three Deuces and Kelly’s Stable.
When we walked west toward Seventh Avenue, where the original buildings have all been replaced by office towers, a uniformed guard stepped out of a doorway and stopped us. She informed us that we weren’t permitted to film on the sidewalk in front of that building. The sidewalk was private property!
So we walked on by the site where the Hickory House used to stand, without filming. We noticed that even the stars with names of famous jazz musicians that used to be embedded in the sidewalk had been removed. With all the honorary street name signs around Manhattan, it seems reasonable that 52nd Street should have some monument to the great music that used to be played there. How can we have developed a generation that doesn’t know or care who Lester Young was?
This comment appeared in a conversation on Facebook recently:
A critic, speaking with the father of a musician who had just hit it big, said, “He really got lucky, didn’t he?” The father replied, “True, but it’s funny, the harder he worked, the luckier he got!”
Frank Amoss tells me that many years ago Vic Schoen gave him the definition of syncopation: “A staggering from bar to bar.”
Arno Marsh says: “There are good days and bad days, and this is one of them.”
YouTube has so many good clips that you can spend the whole day watching them. I found a clip from the Dick Cavett Show in 1973 that is worth retrieving. Search on “Bill Cosby drum solo.” Bill has been a great storyteller for a long time.