I started learning songs when I was still in my infant crib, and I’m still at it at the age of 90. Lately I’ve noticed that I don’t remember the bridges of some of the earliest ones, but I do remember a lot of songs, and I may be the only one left who remembers some of them. Church songs, art songs, folk songs, the Great American Songbook…they are all in my head somewhere, and they come popping out into my consciousness all the time.
Jimmy Rowles, the late great jazz pianist and accompanist, knew even more songs than I do. His memory included verses and lyrics and alternate versions on a massive scale. He liked to use me on duo gigs because I could stay with him on a lot of obscure material.
Once I asked Jimmy if he knew a tune Duke Ellington recorded as an instrumental called “John Hardy’s Wife.” Jimmy played it for me, with the verse, and then sang a lyric to it that I didn’t know existed.
Now that I’m playing mostly with musicians around a third of my age, I’m always pleased when I can turn one of them on to a good song. They just look a tune up on the internet and learn it. Sometimes they can find a lead sheet on their phones right on the job, and we can play an old tune as soon as I think of it. The internet isn’t much help with some requests, though. It is pretty hard to come up with “Stardust” when a customer asks you to play “Sometimes I Wonder.” And no search engine is going to find songs from “Casablanca” for the Spanish-speaking waiter who asked me for “White House.”
Greg Thymius told me about a story he found in the liner notes of a Harold Arlen record called “Harold Arlen in Hollywood,” made in the late 1960s, arranged and conducted by Rusty Dedrick. The scene is Manhattan, in the early 1930s. Harold Arlen is in a taxi. The driver is whistling Arlen’s song “Stormy Weather.” Arlen asks the driver, “Who wrote that song?” The driver answers, “Irving Berlin.”
Kirby Tassos was playing a production of “West Side Story” in Europe with trumpeter Craig Johnson of Maynard Ferguson fame. On the way to the sound check on the first gig, Kirby got lost and showed up at the theatre with the sound check already in progress. He began setting up his usual 50 pounds of keyboard gear when the conductor paused and asked if everyone could hear okay. Craig quipped, “Well, I couldn’t hear Kirby!”
A banjo playing friend of Herb Gardner couldn’t afford a proper banjo case, so he used an old guitar case instead. Herb said that once at a subway stop the guy put the guitar case down and a thief ran off with it. Herb’s friend ran in hot pursuit, yelling, “It’s a BANJO! It’s a BANJO!…”
Danny Morgan sent me this one: Shelly Manne attended a concert at the Hollywood Bowl when Andre Previn was conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic. After the performance, Shelly went backstage and asked to speak with Previn. When asked why, he said, “I hear that big bands are back.”
Jack Schatz told me that when bass trombonist Paul Faulise moved from Manhattan to New Jersey in the 1960’s, he invited lead trumpeters Bernie Glow and Dick Perry to visit him. They were impressed by the size of Paul’s house and property. Bernie commented, “All this, and you don’t even have to play above the staff!”
I’ve been writing this column every month except August since 1983, and stories still keep coming in. But I think I should reprint some of the earliest material for the benefit of the new generation. Here are two items that I wrote in June 1988:
John Lesko remembered taking an arrangement he had written to Ray Bloch for a television show. Bloch was famous for his bottomless downbeat. After the usual preparatory gesture, he would bring his right hand down to his side in a way that looked like he had changed his mind. John was amazed when the band came right in together. “How do you know when to come in?” he asked trumpeter Chris Griffin. “Where’s the downbeat?” Chris said, “When his hand passes the second button on his jacket.”
After a performance with the New York Philharmonic, trombonist Jack Satterfield grabbed a cab and rushed to the Famous Door on 52nd Street to hear Art Tatum, his favorite pianist. He didn’t bother to change his clothes, and when he arrived at the nightclub dressed in tails, he made quite an impression on the headwaiter. He was given the best table in the house, right in front of Tatum’s piano. Jack sat there happily until closing time, drinking and listening to the music. He then paid his check and headed for the door. As he left, the headwaiter said, “Don’t forget the maître d’!” Jack turned and shook the man’s hand fervently. “I’ll never forget you!” he said, and walked out.