The late Bernie Privin was universally admired for his trumpet playing. He was also famous among his colleagues for his acid humor. He specialized in insults long before Don Rickles made a career of it. If you asked Bernie how he was, he’d snap, “Compared to what?” If you asked, “How’s your wife?” he might reply, “She’s not exactly what I had in mind.” When he was feted at the brass conference one year, many of his colleagues played in different groups in his honor. At the end of the program, Bernie was invited to say a few words. He looked sourly out at the musicians who had just played for him and said, “Is that your best?” On Joe Bennett’s first job in a New York big band, he took what he thought was a respectable trombone solo, and as he sat down, he heard Bernie’s steely voice from the trumpet section: “What a burnt offering that was!”
Bernie was proud of the solos he recorded with Louis Armstrong, his idol. But dental problems late in life made it difficult for him to continue his stellar career. I played a job with him once and noticed that, just before we played a number featuring him, he stepped backstage and renewed the stickum that he used to hold his dentures in place. He began his solo with a powerful Armstrong-like statement, but as the chorus progressed, I could see he was backing off his mouthpiece pressure, and knew the teeth were slipping. He ended his chorus sounding more like Chet Baker than Louis. When he began to develop Parkinson’s disease, Bernie called me one day to say, “About nine o’clock every night I’m getting a vibrato I don’t need.” He spent some time at the Burke Rehabilitation Center in White Plains, and often put together a band to play for the patients there. Breathing had become more difficult for him, but he still managed to play. I still have a truly tasteless necktie that he gave me as a band uniform on one of those jobs…a hand-painted gold sousaphone on a black background.
Bernie passed away in 1999. He was one of a kind, and is sorely missed.
Bernie Privin’s spirit lives on in little pockets of the jazz world. Mort Kuff sent me this one: The reed section of Paul Cohen’s big band in Margate, Florida, often features tenor man Noah Brandmark, who plays impeccable ballad solos. One night he brought down the house with a beautiful rendition of “Angel Eyes.” The audience was loud and long in their applause. Noah returned to his seat in the reed section next to Murray Klarman, who waited a few beats, then tapped Noah on the knee and whispered, “Nice try.”
Sue Terry played a concert with her quartet at the Artists’ Collective in Hartford. Her cousin Larry attended, and after the concert went up to the stage to say hello. On her way to the wings after the encore, Sue saw Larry and called out, “Come backstage!” Larry asked, “How do I get there?” Bassist Bob Cranshaw, leaving the stage with Sue, immediately responded, “Practice!”
When William Zinn was just 18 years old, he was in the violin section of the Baltimore Symphony during its 1943-1944 season. He was the youngest player in a major orchestra at the time. After the first rehearsal, Zinn decided to explore Baltimore. Carrying his violin case, he came to a large hill, on top of which was an imposing statue of Jesus Christ, mounted on a large pedestal. Zinn climbed up to the statue and sat on the pedestal to rest, while admiring the view of the city.
Wondering how his violin would sound in the open air, Zinn stepped behind the pedestal, took out his instrument and began to play the Bach Chaconne. He thought it sounded great, and the sound seemed to carry well. Actually, it carried a bit too well. Some people, coming out of their church at the bottom of the hill, heard the music, saw no one playing, and decided to investigate. By the time they had climbed to the statue, Zinn had already gone down the other side of the hill, and the churchgoers, finding no source for the music, became convinced that a miracle had occurred. Someone gave the story to a local newspaper, and Zinn was surprised to hear the musicians at the next rehearsal talking about “the miracle of the statue.”
Bill Wurtzel sent me some guitar stories:
At the Guitar Center music store, Bill asked the clerk for heavy gauge guitar strings. She told him, “We don’t carry them because people don’t use those any more.”
As he carried his guitar and amp into the lobby of his apartment house, Bill heard a teenager tell his friend, “I wish my father would do that for me!”
A friend of Bill’s wife, Claire, visited them, bringing her teenage daughter, who saw Bill’s guitar and asked who played. When Claire told her that her husband did, the kid asked, “Isn’t he too old to play the guitar?”