Vinnie Burke was a wonderful bass player who was on the New York jazz scene when I first came here. I heard him at sessions when I was learning to play, and he sometimes let me sit in on his bass. He was a strong rhythm section player, and a melodic, swinging soloist. When he left his job with the Marian McPartland Trio at the Hickory House in 1954, I took over for him.
Vinnie was a strong-minded, no nonsense guy. He let you know how he felt about things. While playing with a piano duo at the Composer jazz club with John Mehegan and Eddie Costa, he complained that John would occasionally rush the tempo. Vinnie was a gorilla about the time…you couldn’t budge his tempo once it was set.
One night Vinnie became exasperated with John’s rushing the tempo, and began playing way ahead of John’s beat. John looked up at Vinnie and said, “What are you doing?” “I’m rushing,” shouted Vinnie, “How does it feel?”
On another trio job in the Village, Vinnie was playing with a pianist and a guitar player. On one tune, just as the bass solo began, the guitarist remembered something. “Hey,” he whispered to the pianist, “I ran into Joe yesterday, and he said to say hello.” Vinnie began to fume, but continued with his solo. The whispering continued: “We had lunch together at the China Song.” Vinnie stopped playing, glared at the whisperer and growled, “Whatja eat?”
Comedian Charlie Callas used to be a drummer. I worked the New York Playboy Club with him several times… funny guy. He always wanted to sit in on drums, and sometimes we let him. He could play, but his chops weren’t up.
Some years later, the Dick Meldonian-Sonny Igoe band played a gig where Charlie was on the bill, and after he did his bit, he asked Sonny if he could sit in. Sonny handed him the sticks and called a Basie-type chart, and Charlie got through it O.K. At the finish, there was a silent pause, and then from the trumpet section came an announcement by Charlie Camilleri: “Better than Mickey Rooney, not as good as Mel Torme!”
David Sherr heard the LA Philharmonic give three performances of Beethoven’s 7th symphony in a four-day span in the early 1970s. He said that in each instance, at the beginning, the timpanist was a fraction earlier than the violins. To David, he appeared to be with the conductor. A little while later David played a concert with that timpanist and afterward sat across from him in a restaurant. David asked him about the time discrepancy and the timpanist said he had wondered about it, too. To find out, he had started at the back of the first violins and asked why they were always a fraction late. As he worked his way to the front, the answer was the same: “We can’t come in before the concertmaster.” When he got to the concertmaster, the reply was, “Because if I come in on time these (expletive deleted) guys will be late!”
Once, while Marty Laskin was leading a combo at a wedding, a nicely-dressed older lady came up to the bandstand and requested “Night and Day.” Marty sang the tune to her and asked, “You mean this one?” She said yes. To make a joke, Marty said, “I’m sorry I don’t know it.” The lady looked disappointed and said, “Oh, I’m sorry, I really wanted to hear that song,” and walked away.
During the years that he was arranging for the Boston Pops, Eric Knight once went to the back of Symphony Hall with conductor Arthur Fiedler during a rehearsal to check the sound levels. After Fiedler was satisfied with certain tonal balances, he quickly made his way back to the podium. Eric found himself having to step lively to keep up with the maestro’s brisk pace. “Maestro,” he said breathlessly, “no wonder people say that grass will never grow under your feet.”
Fiedler, who stood about five feet four, replied, “No, Knight, you’ve got it all wrong. I move this way so that grass doesn’t grow over my head!”
When Joe Lang was in college at Carnegie Tech in the early 60s, one of the jazz tunes that was popular then was “Moanin’” by Bobby Timmons. Joe was at a fraternity party where there was a combo playing mostly rhythm & blues, but some jazz. He asked the leader for “Moanin’.” The leader said O.K., but about a half-hour went by and no “Moanin’.” Joe went back to him to repeat his request. The leader turned to the band and said “This cat wants to hear ‘Ramona.’” Joe says they didn’t play either tune.
Jack Schatz sent me this one: Many years ago Sonny Russo played trombone with the Sauter Finegan Orchestra. While on the road, they played a concert with the Chicago Symphony. Conductor Fritz Reiner was so taken by Sonny’s playing and sound that he called him into his dressing room and asked him to play for him. Sonny played Ravel’s “Bolero” so beautifully that Reiner offered him a job on the spot. Sonny’s response was “Nah, it’s cool, I’m never gonna leave Brooklyn.”