The late Joe Wilder, who died on May 9 at the age of 92, was the “gentleman of jazz,” dearly loved by everyone who knew him. Ed Berger’s new book on Joe, titled “Softly, With Feeling,” is a fine tribute to that fine musician.
I had met Joe Wilder when he was with the Basie band, and we became good friends on the Russian tour with Benny Goodman. And we were together for over eight years in the pit of “42nd Street.” I wrote a little about Joe in my own book, “From Birdland to Broadway.” Here is an excerpt:
On his the way to the Majestic Theater one night, the handle on Joe’s trumpet case broke. In the band room, I helped him rig a temporary substitute with a piece of rope and a strip of gaffer’s tape. It was serviceable, but definitely shabby looking. I said,
“Joe, I’m afraid Barracuda is going to get this trumpet case.”
Jerome Richardson had told me about Barracuda, the mythical guardian of the Lionel Hampton band’s public image. No one ever saw Barracuda, but everyone knew that he would “get” any article of clothing or luggage that was loud, cheap or worn out enough to embarrass the band. The offending article would either disappear, or would be torn to shreds.
Joe was surprised that I knew about Barracuda. He laughed and explained to the other musicians, telling about some raggedy old house slippers that Dinah Washington was wearing in a Pullman car when she was traveling with Hampton. Barracuda threw one of them out the window. A gaudy hat of Hampton’s suffered the same fate.
While Joe was talking, I slipped a note into his trumpet case that said, “Barracuda is watching this case.” Later I slipped another between the sheets of music on his stand: “Barracuda is watching this music.” Joe laughed and waved to me across the pit when he found the notes.
There were a few minutes of dialogue late in the second act during which some of the reed doublers would leave the pit to put away the instruments that they didn’t need for the finale. At that performance I slipped out at the same time and removed Joe’s trumpet case from his locker, leaving a note pinned to the sleeve of his overcoat with a drawing of a many-toothed fish and the inscription: “Barracuda was here!” I hid Joe’s case in my locker and went back to finish the show.
As I packed up my bass, I peeped out the pit door just in time to see Joe smiling as he read my note. Then he reached for his trumpet case. When he realized it was gone, he broke up completely.
“In all these years,” he said, “that’s the first time Barracuda ever got me!”
[Editor’s note: see our tribute to Joe Wilder.]
Eve Zanni teaches vocal and instrumental music at PS 41. Jazz and the blues are a major focus of her programs. Once she told her class of first graders that she was going to teach them a musical language called “scat” that uses all made-up words. One kid asked, “Does it come from Scatland?” A second grader, who remembered Ella Fitzgerald’s “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” from the previous year, was delighted to hear that Eve was talking about Ella again this year. “Oh boy! Are we gonna sing that casket song?”
Eve’s fourth graders all sing and play the blues and write verses of their own. One day, after moving from the Delta blues through Chicago, country, and jump blues, they were creating a new verse. One kid sang “I was standing on the corner, waiting for that Carmel fleet…” Then the kids all began singing the Carmel Car Service commercial. After a lot of laughter, they turned it into a quirky blues.
Big bands aren’t big money any more, but musicians still love them, and many of them exist as rehearsal bands, playing an occasional gig, but mostly just getting together for the pleasure of playing. Several of them use the Local 802 rehearsal spaces, and others meet regularly in high schools, VFW halls, community centers, wherever they can find a space that will accommodate a large group of musicians. The arrangements they use might be originals by members within the band, copies of favorite charts from long-departed bands, or stocks and “specials” from music publishers.
The level of musicianship in these rehearsal bands is often very high, because the music is attractive and the musicians like to keep playing to stay in shape. Of course, there is often a lot of turnover from week to week, if paying work comes along.
Member Gene Bensen has a rehearsal band up in Mount Kisco, and tells me he is running short of musicians. He would welcome a call from anyone in the area. He’s in the Local 802 directory.
Michael Pettersen was on a big band gig in Chicago. The leader, referring to the scandal surrounding New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in reference to the closing of some entrance lanes to the George Washington Bridge, announced, “We will now play ‘The Jersey Bounce.’ It seems appropriate given the current political climate on the east coast.” The bassist quickly interjected, “Who’s got the bridge?”