Claude Thornhill had some very successful bands, but he was not comfortable with notoriety. Whenever it looked like he might have a hit record, he would take a month off, go fishing, and wait for things to cool off a little. On the bandstand, he would smile happily from the piano while playing, but he hated making announcements, and shunned the spotlight.
While I was on the road with him in the summer of 1953, doing one-nighters in ballrooms and military service clubs across the South, we came to one ballroom that had a very elaborate stage, with special lighting for the band. There were cables with foot switches on the floor of the bandstand, so each section could control its own lighting.
While I was setting up, I saw that there were three spotlights that were aimed at the piano bench, and I pulled the switches for those lights over behind my music stand. When we started the first set, every time Claude played the melody, I would hit him with a bright white spotlight. If he played only a one measure decoration, a bright spot would pick him out. If he had a solo, all three spotlights would flash on and off as he played. The rest of the band enjoyed watching Claude’s discomfort all during the set.
We took an intermission, and when we returned to the bandstand, I saw that Claude had found the switches behind my music stand, and had moved them far away from me. He never said a word to me about it.
Many of the arrangements that we played on that band were by Gil Evans. A few weeks ago, on a weekend, Ryan Truesdell’s Gil Evans Project performed some of those arrangements at the Jazz Standard. I was invited as a guest on one of the nights, and was pleased to hear that music played so well. Our road band in 1953 had five saxophones, three trumpets, one trombone, one French horn, three rhythm and one vocalist. Ryan’s band featured five saxes, four trumpets, four trombones, a bass trombone, two French horns, four rhythm and a vocal group. His transcriptions of Gil’s arrangements from their original scores were excellent, and that very difficult music was played and sung beautifully.
This one came all the way from Frad Garner in Copenhagen. He and his wife Hanne attended a jazz concert by tenor man Jesper Thilo, a protégé of Ben Webster. Thilo told his audience a story about Louis Armstrong:
“When Satchmo began touring with his band in the northern States before he was a big name, he put up a banner outside a theatre in a town where he was playing. It read ‘THE WORLD’S GREATEST TRUMPETER.’ Three trumpeters from a symphony orchestra in town saw it, and went backstage to tell Armstrong that they planned to sit right in front of him that night, in the first row. Satch was delighted. He said, ‘In the first set, you’ll hear more high Cs than you ever heard before, and when I’m through with that, I’ll start on the Fs!’”
On a gig that Steve Rice had in Seattle, a woman came to his piano one night, put a fiver in his tip jar and requested some Erroll Garner. Steve loved Erroll’s playing, and was happy to play “Misty” using all of Erroll’s pianistic tricks. He looked over to where the lady was sitting, hoping his rendition would put a smile on her face. But she didn’t look at all happy. In a little while, she returned to the piano.
“I know what was wrong,” she said. “I saw Erroll play many times, and he always would grunt and groan along with his playing.” She slipped another five in Steve’s tip jar and said, “Would you play Misty again, and this time grunt and groan along with it?” Steve laughed and did as she requested, adding the proper noises to his playing. When he finished, the lady exclaimed, “That was exactly right!”
Kirby Tassos was playing one of his first big band gigs in Texas with tenor man Ron Helvie, of Bob Wills fame. They were mis-booked into what Kirby describes as “a redneck Texas Country &Western bar that looked like something out of the Blues Brothers movie.” The audience was very unresponsive. The band members were all wondering about the cold response when Ron remarked, “Hey, we’re playing for people who don’t even like music.”
On Facebook, Brian Watson told about a gig he once played with a rather lame dance band. He knew about the poor quality of the band, but needed to pay the rent. Brian and another trombone player were sitting in the front row with the saxophones, and so were accessible to a couple who danced over to the bandstand. The guy said, “You guys don’t sound very good.” Brian’s section mate shot back, “Oh, yeah? You should try sitting up here where we are!”