When I was a kid, I had four musical instruments that every other kid I knew also had. I had a harmonica, a kazoo, a jaw harp…and a humanatone. The humanatone was a nose whistle. Cleverly folded out of a sheet of tin, it fit over the nose and mouth. Air exhaled through the nose passed over a rectangular hole in the piece that covered the mouth, creating a whistling sound. By changing the size of your mouth cavity, you could control the pitch, and with a small amount of practice, you could play tunes with it.
In 1962, when I was on the road with the Gerry Muligan Quartet, I passed the window of a music store in Philadelphia and saw a little box in the display marked HUMANATONE. I went in to check it out and found that my old toy was still being made by the Gretsch company in a new plastic reincarnation. Of course I bought one, and got some laughs with it from Gerry, Bob Brookmeyer and Gus Johnson, the other members of the quartet at that time.
In 1968, John Simon and Peter Yarrow hired me to play Fender bass on the soundtrack of the Barry Feinstein film “You Are What You Eat,” a semi-documentary about the hippie era. During the taping, Peter came out of the booth and asked the band, “What’s the most disgusting-sounding musical instrument you can think of to play the “Star Spangled Banner?” My humanatone happened to be in the zipper pocket of my bass case, and I whipped it out and gave Peter an ear-piercing sample. “Great!” he said, and we recorded it in one take. I was happy to see, when I collected my paycheck, that John Simon had put me down for a humanatone double.
Ron Carter dropped by Local 802 recently and handed me a small package. It contained a lovely gift, his 2008 biography by Dan Ouellette, titled “Finding the Right Notes.” (What a wonderful title for a bass player!) But instead of a book, it was a metal rectangle the size of a thick credit card, with a toggle that fits into a USB port. On the flash drive, Ron had recorded his own charming reading of the entire book. This little sliver of silver metal contains over 12 hours of audio entertainment and information, and has given me much pleasure. What will they think of next?
Bill Wurtzel played a tribute for the late Les Lieber of the long-running Jazz at Noon club concert series. Bill recounted a story of a priest who sat in at one of the sessions. When Les asked what he was going to sing, the priest said “Once I Had a Secret Love.” Bill said it got a few unintended chuckles.
Wurtzel also told me about a gig he was playing at Leonard’s of Great Neck. The room was separated from an adjoining room by a thin divider and the bands for two different affairs were sitting back to back on opposite sides of that flimsy wall, which did nothing to muffle the sound. Bill said, “We never communicated with the other band, but the best we could do was play tunes in the same tempo.”
And here’s a final Wurtzel story. At a wedding, club date leader Moshe Katzburg checked with the bride to confirm her first dance request of “Fools Rush In.” She asked him to remind her how it goes. He sang “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread…” The bride said, “No, no, it’s “Wise men say, only fools rush in.” She wanted “I Can’t Help Falling in Love With You.”
That reminded me of a story that I told in this column many years ago. A bride e-mailed a request to the bandleader that the band play “Move” for their first dance. The bandleader made sure the band knew that Miles Davis tune, but when they played it, the bride was distraught. It turned out she had intended to type “More.” It was the subject of the bride and groom’s first fight.
While she was playing piano at the Gaslight Club in Washington D.C., Jean Packard was approached by a gentleman who gave her a ten dollar bill and said, “Play something I know.”
But she got her best tip, though somewhat belated, from a customer at the Washington Hilton. A man who told her he had worked for inventor Thomas Edison, loved to hear her play “The Prisoner’s Song” (“If I Had the Wings of an Angel.”) When he died, his appreciation was shown by a codicil in his will leaving her $1,000.
Chris Tyle told me a story he heard years ago when he lived in New Orleans. Trumpeter Roy Liberto and drummer Milton Rich were at a union meeting arguing about cartage, which Liberto kept on referring to as “cartilage.” In exasperation, Rich finally said, “Listen, stupid, it ain’t ‘cartilage,’ it’s ‘cartridge!’”