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?"
Other stories are harder to believe. Did Billy Bauer really teach blind pianist Lennie Tristano how to drive a car? (Reportedly, Bauer concluded his account of the event with the blasé assessment: "He was a really bad pupil.") Did Lester Young really refuse to play a record date for Count Basie because it took place on the 13th of the month? Did Chet Baker really say, when he was introduced to Mussolini's son (jazz pianist Romano Mussolini), "Oh, yeah, man, it was a drag about your dad"? I certainly hope that all of these stories are true, but I have my doubts.
For my part, I might be convinced that legendary bandleader Fate Marable fired musicians by threatening them with an axe--a real-life "getting the axe," as Crow points out. But Crow also insists that the band would play "There'll Be Some Changes Made" during these ritual dismissals--which makes the story sound perhaps too good to be true. But I'm not complaining. Like Zen stories or Texas tall tales, these jazz anecdotes have an enduring value that transcends questions about their historical accuracy. They capture the spirit of the jazz life, even if the details themselves sometimes seem overly dramatized.
And some of these accounts are hardly meant to be believed, but are merely passed on in the sheer spirit of playfulness. Such is the tale of the jazz fan walking into a London nightclub during a song and asking a bar patron about the piece being played on stage.
"W.C. Handy?" he inquires.
"Sure, it's just outside, to the left of the stairway."
My favorite story here tells of the portly clarinetist Irving Fazola getting stuck in a chair at Horn & Hardart's Automat restaurant before an important concert. Bandleader Al Rose rushes to the scene to find his soloist jammed tight in a seat, incapable of dislodging himself after having eaten 36 hamburgers. Despite the efforts of the manager and two strong busboys, Fazola could not be pried lose.
Rose continues the story: "So two ambulance attendants, the two busboys, the manager, and I carefully loaded him, with the chair, into the ambulance, down to the Academy of Music, and unloaded him carefully right at center stage of the auditorium. . . . During the first half of the concert, Faz kept his seat--playing magnificently, but not standing for his solos, as was customary."
Ah, but the story continues. At intermission, the clarinetist was pulled loose and completed the concert with aplomb--although afterwards he insisted on celebrating by (you guessed it) going out for hamburgers.
Certainly this is an odd little book, but it has earned its place on the bookshelves of jazz lovers. I am reminded of Slonimsky's Lexicon of Musical Invective, which became a classic simply by collecting several hundred pages of snide critical put-downs. Crow has done something similar here. Jazz Anecdotes is the next best thing to hanging out with the band after the gig.
Ted Gioia is author of The History of Jazz and the forthcoming Work Songs.