Straight, No Chaser
What musicians talk about between gigs.
Nov 28, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 11 • By TED GIOIA
WHEN I WAS STARTING OUT as a jazz musician, I was often amazed by the sheer number of jokes, stories, and anecdotes that the older players knew. Then again, these were professionals who had enjoyed many opportunities to refine their storytelling craft. The sad truth is that much of a jazz musician's career is spent killing time.
Perhaps a disgruntled soldier really invented the phrase "hurry up and wait" to describe army life. But I am half convinced that a member of Buddy Bolden's band came up with the witticism a few days after jazz was invented in New Orleans. No, I'm not just talking about the musicians who wait by the phone for the lucky break that will boost them to fame (although I'm sure some of that happens). But even the most successful musician spends much of the work day on hold: Waiting for the sound check, or for the gig to start; unwinding during intermission or on breaks; trying to keep focused and loose at marathon recording sessions where hours can go by without a single note being played; or waiting for the plane or bus to the next city on the road trip.
In such an environment, musicians often become storytellers, spinning yarns to while away the passing hours. They are often quite good at it. Once in a while, a jazz musician actually becomes a professional comedian. Jack Sheldon, a stand-out West Coast trumpeter, starred in his own sitcom for a spell, and his nightclub performances are as much shtick as swing. Saxophonist Paul Desmond (best known as a member of the Dave Brubeck Quartet) once published a hilarious piece in Punch that convinced many that he might have pursued a successful career as a humor writer. And other musicians, from Fats Waller to Louis Prima, added so much comedy to their musical shows that they drew large audiences who would never have sat still for Miles or Monk.
Yet even the soft-spoken musicians seem to have a plethora of tales at their disposal. I recall producing a recording session with vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, who stayed around long after the engineer and other players had left, regaling me with nonstop repartee and jokes. There are as many jazz storytellers, it seems, as there are listings in the musician's union directory.
But the king of the jazz raconteurs is, without a doubt, bassist Bill Crow. Crow has seen more than his fair share of the jazz life, having performed with many of the leading players in jazz going back to the 1950s. But since 1983, he has developed a second career collecting jazz anecdotes for a monthly column in Allegro, the publication of Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians. In 1990, he published a collection of these stories under the title Jazz Anecdotes. But he has continued to fill his monthly column with tales during the intervening 15 years, and the time has come for a revised and expanded edition.
Even knowledgeable jazz fans will gain new insight into some of the legendary figures of jazz from these stories. Crow includes one of my favorite anecdotes about a recording session led by Jelly Roll Morton, who was a stickler about how his music should be played: "Zue Robertson was on trombone, and he refused to play the melody of one of the tunes the way Morton wanted it played. Jelly took a big pistol out of his pocket and put it on the piano, and Robertson played the music note for note." Those trendy critics who deny that a work of art reveals the artist's intent clearly should talk to Zue!
Elsewhere, Crow tells us of an aging Benny Goodman trying to impress a young lady sitting next to him on a plane: "Getting little response from her, Benny said, 'I guess you don't know who I am. I'm the King of Swing.' The young lady looked at him and asked, 'What's swing?'"
Yet some of the best stories involve the plights of the more obscure artists who never enjoyed the fame of a Morton or Goodman. I delighted in bandleader Red Clemson's response to the patron who asked if his band knew anything slow: "How about January or February?" Elsewhere, Crow tells of a group of seasoned jazz musicians demonstrating their craft to a group of student musicians at a New Jersey school. The teacher wanted to impress the students with the fact that the jazz players could improvise without written music in front of them.
"Now what is it that we have in our orchestra that none of these musicians has?" One of the kids considered the matter, then offered: "Hair?"