Volume 120, No. 3March, 2020

Bill Crow

Back in the 1940’s, there was a club on Times Square called the Zanzibar. It featured headliners like Nat Cole and Louis Jordan. At the time, I was serving in the Army, based in Maryland, and got the chance to visit New York on a three day pass. I didn’t go to the Zanzibar because it was too expensive. But a New York friend of mine had gone there once when the Duke Ellington band was in residence. He told me that they had Duke’s piano on a platform which, during the opening number, was slowly lowered from an opening in the ceiling to the bandstand with cables at the four corners. Two winches operated the cables. On the night my friend was there, one of the winches failed, but the other continued to lower its two cables. The piano and Duke’s piano bench were attached to the platform, so there was no danger of them sliding off, but the whole thing was at a steep angle when they finally got the winch stopped.

My friend said that Duke never lost his aplomb. He just hooked one foot around a leg of his piano bench, continued to smile at the audience, and continued playing while the stagehands solved the problem, gradually righted the platform, and lowered Duke successfully to the bandstand. The guys in the band had continued playing, as if nothing unusual was happening.


On Facebook,Terry Gibbs told this story about the late Jack Sheldon:

When Terry had his Dream Band in California in the late 1950s, he said the band was so much fun that nobody ever took off. But on a pair of one-nighters that he booked opposite Miles Davis’s sextet, trumpeter Stu Williamson couldn’t make it. So, on the advice of his alto player Joe Maini, Terry hired Sheldon. Jack was nervous on the first gig, which was on a bandstand set up on the pitcher’s mound in a ballpark in Tucson, Arizona. He was sitting at the end of the trumpet section next to Al Porcino, Ray Triscari and Conte Candoli, three of the best in the business. And he was a little unsure of his sight-reading ability. On about the third number, a wind came up and blew Jack’s music off the stand onto the ground. Jack jumped down and continued playing his part where it had landed. The wind blew the music a little farther along, and Jack followed it, continuing to play. Terry said, “By the time I cut the band off at the end, I swear Jack was playing his part from center field!” That was the beginning of a long relationship that Terry had with a fine trumpet player who was also a very funny guy.


Saxophonist Kirby Tassos’s uncle John wanted to be an opera singer, but to pay the rent he worked as a cameraman at NBC. In the 1940s, one of his first jobs was to film the NBC orchestra under Toscanini. When Toscanini discovered that his cameraman was an aspiring opera singer, he asked Kirby’s uncle John to sing something for him. After he sang, Toscanini said, “What a talent! He sings in all keys at once!”


Scott Robinson was playing at the Jazz on the Mountain Festival up at Mohonk Mountain House. There was a dinner hosted by WBGO, and Amy Niles was saying a few words on the microphone about “having all these incredible musicians… and each one more amazing than the last!” Cornet player Kirk Knuffke, seated next to Scott, leaned over and said, “That’s why I’m always late!”


My friend the late Jack Segal, the songwriter, told me this story long ago. When he and his first wife, Lillian, decided to get married, they flew to Maryland where it could be done quickly. On their return to New York, Lillian called her mother to give her the good news. Her mother didn’t say a word about the marriage. “You flew!” she cried. “Why didn’t you tell me? I would have worried!”


Peter Zimmerman told me he once saw Frank Foster leading a quartet in a jazz club. Between sets, Peter told Frank that the most exciting music he ever heard was Frank’s big band, “The Loud Minority,” playing John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” with Frank wailing a solo over the horn sections. Peter asked him if he would play that tune on the next set. Frank began the set by announcing that someone had requested that he play the most difficult song in the whole jazz repertoire. Peter said, “The rhythm section started in, Frank stepped up, and the first note he played was a ‘wrong’ note, after which he took a pretty darn good solo. I never found out whether he played that first note deliberately as a joke on the ‘requester.’ He had a great sense of humor, so I wouldn’t put it past him!”