I met Derek Smith when he first moved from London to New York City. Before there were Playboy clubs, there was an outfit called the Cliff Dwellers that ran open parties for young singles in a location on 5th Avenue in the upper 50s. Derek and an English bassist and drummer (John Drew and Kenny Harris) played there from 5 p.m. daily under the name of the British Jazz Trio. John Drew sent me in to sub a few times, and Derek and I got along very well together. He admonished me to not say anything while the customers were around, since my U.S. accent would give me away.
I was playing many different jazz jobs around the city in those days, and I was always happy when I found Derek at the piano. He loved to swing, and did it with great spirit. Several years later he subbed for Hank Jones for a few weeks when I was with the Bob Brookmeyer/Clark Terry quintet, at the old Half Note on Spring Street, and I got to play with him again on a Sunday gig in Pee Wee Erwin’s band in Edgewater, New Jersey, with Mousie Alexander on drums.
Derek and I played together on a lot of Jersey Jazz festivals. In the 1980s, I played with him once a year for several years at the Epicurean Jazz Festival in Columbia, South Carolina where, along with drummer Ed Soph, we were the rhythm section for people like Red Rodney, Bill Watrous, Jimmy Heath and Chris Potter. I think he was doing the Tonight Show then, as the regular pianist.
I ran into Derek one last time a few months ago at a rehearsal of Dick Meldonian’s big band in Emerson, New Jersey. He told me he was fighting cancer, but he seemed in good spirits, and enjoyed hearing the band. I was sorry when I heard the news that he had passed on Aug. 19. He was a good friend, and he lit up the music in New York for many years. See our obituary for Derek in this issue.
I played a private party recently on the 30th floor of the Metropolitan Tower on West 57th Street, a huge building that went up next to Carnegie Hall. Half of the venue was an outdoor parapet, with a nice view of all the other huge buildings that have been built in that neighborhood. I realized that we were in Erroll Garner’s old stamping ground. He lived at Carnegie Hall apartments and dined at the Russian Tea Room. He lived well on the proceeds of his concert tours, which had been arranged by his manager, Martha Glaser. She went to Sol Hurok, the classical entrepreneur, and convinced him that Erroll could fill concert halls, and they arranged a tour. Erroll did so well that he never needed to play in nightclubs again.
I met Erroll on a Birdland tour. I was playing with the Gerry Mulligan Quartet, and Erroll had his own trio, with Eddie Calhoun on bass and Kelly Martin on drums. Erroll was a great storyteller, and entertained us on train trips between concerts. Sarah Vaughan was also on that tour, and Roy Haynes, her drummer, did a wonderful imitation of Erroll one night at a party in Chicago. He sat at the piano, using all Erroll’s mannerisms, and played Erroll’s style perfectly, with the left hand keeping strict time and the right hand phrasing far behind the beat. The only thing was, none of the notes were the right ones! Roy had the Garner rhythm down perfectly, but, since he didn’t really play the piano, the notes were all wrong. The comic effect was terrific.
On Facebook one afternoon, I was remembering Osie Johnson, the great drummer who was so much in demand in New York during the boom days of recording in the 1960s. (Note for the younger generation, he pronounced it OH-see.) Osie, Milt Hinton and Hank Jones were the rhythm section most in demand during those golden years. Milt told me about Osie’s arrival on the New York recording scene, and I included the following story in my first “Jazz Anecdotes” book.
When Johnson came to New York with the Earl Hines band, Milt Hinton invited him to a recording session that he was doing with the Billy Williams Quartet. Osie hadn’t seen a recording studio before. He sat beside Jo Jones during a take, and got so excited that he yelled out, “Oh, yeah!” at the end, before they had stopped the tape. Milt said reprovingly, “You don’t do that, you know. You don’t say anything until the guy says, ‘That’s it.’” Osie started to apologize, but Billy Williams said, “Leave that in. That sounded good.” He had them give Osie a payroll form and paid him for the date, and “Oh, yeah” became a tag line with the Williams group.
In his New York Times obituary of Bobby Hutcherson, Nate Chinen quoted Hutcherson’s old friend, the late Eric Dolphy: “Music is like the wind. You don’t know where it came from, and you don’t know where it went. You can’t control it. All you can do is get inside the sphere of it and be swept away.”
Andrew Schulman told me about a gig he nearly blew. He booked it a month in advance, wrote it down, and then completely forgot about it. Luckily, the client e-mailed him some questions on the day before it was to happen, and he was reminded in time. The client was the Alzheimer’s Association.