.001 Ava | .002 Igor and Pat | .003 Malcom | .004 Mercer | .005 Benny Goodman | .006 Krupa | .007 George Maharis | .008 Ben Webster | .009 A Party For Dillon | .010 Aaron Copland | .011 Scatman | .012 Jack Fine's Cinderella Band | .013 Kate | .014 Carmen | .015 Kenny Davern |
L to r.--Buzzy Drootin, Jack Six, Dave Frishberg,, Cutty Cutshall, Kenny Davern
During the summer of 1959 in New York a lashing rainstorm began suddenly while I was walking on the East Side. I ducked into the nearest doorway, which happened to be a side entrance to the FAO Schwartz toy emporium. There I huddled with two other men who were taking refuge. I glanced at the short elderly man next to me and my heart began to pound -- Igor Stravinsky. Next to Igor was a tall younger man whom I subsequently identified from a photograph. It was Robert Craft, Stravinsky's collaborator and biographer. I was staring at Stravinsky, surprised to see how small he was, and trying to think of something to say that would be apt. I thought of mentioning the Firebird, or maybe whistling a snatch of Petrouchka. The two men stared straight ahead and seemed annoyed that they were held up by the rain. Finally I spoke up and said "Excuse me." Stravinsky and Craft turned to me, but I found myself unable to speak. I didn't want to sink into mere gushing, and I became embarrassed. "I'd better go inside," I said, and briskly entered the store. There I stumbled and nearly ran into a customer who was engaged in animated conversation with a salesperson across the counter. I recognized him at once. It was Pat Boone. " I beg your pardon", I said and continued on into the stuffed animal department where I was able to collect my thoughts. "You gotta be on your toes in this burg," I told myself.
In New York in July 1963 I joined Ben Webster's quartet at the Shalimar, on 7th Ave and 123rd St., across the street from the Hotel Theresa. The Theresa was headquarters for Elijah Muhammed and the Black Muslim movement. The clientele at The Shalimar was practically all black, and it often seemed like drummer Mel Lewis and I were the only white males for blocks around. There was a definite chill in the air, especially around the Fruit of Islam guys in their sharp navy blue suits, but people were polite, maybe because they saw we were with Ben Webster and Ben was a big hero in that neighborhood.
There was a group of four or five well-dressed men who sometimes hung out at a table near the far corner of the bar . They would be in deep conversation, and never glanced at me when I waited to order from the bartender. It sounded like they were into politics and world affairs, but I didn't pay much attention. One night I overheard them trying to name the Detroit Tigers infield from 1934, and they were stuck at third base. So I said, "How about Marvin Owen?" And this one guy turned to me and we began to fire names at each other: Billy Sullivan, Dick Bartell, Johnny Gorsica, Elon Hogsett, and on and on for a few minutes, and then it was time for me to go back on the bandstand. Ben said to me, "You know who you're talking to over there?" I said I didn't and he said, "Ever heard of Malcolm X?" I said, "No kidding!" and that was that.
We stayed at The Shalimar for the rest of the summer. One night I was standing with some people out in front of the club smoking a cigarette, and I saw Malcolm and his friends coming across the street from the hotel. As Malcolm passed by he gave me a smile and said, "Hey, Baseball!" I don't remember who I was standing with, but they looked at me with new respect. "You know him?" "Of course," I replied.
I knew Johnny Mercer's daughter Amanda long before I ever met Mercer, because Mandy was married to my friend Bob Corwin who was then the solo intermission pianist at Eddie Condon's. Stella and I had just gotten married and we used to hang with the Corwins now and then. I remember the four of us sat in Bob's apartment and watched the election returns the night JFK beat Nixon to the White House. Corwin was a song maven and a marvelous player. He was caught up in writing melodies, and his idols at the time included Richard Rodgers , Meredith Willson, and Henry Mancini. The two of us spent time analyzing these songs, and discussing compositional tricks and tactics. I took a shot at writing lyrics to a couple of Bob's melodies. I showed the lyrics to my new friend Alfred Uhry, who was at that time a full-time lyric writer. Alfred's advice was ,"Don't write as if you're trying to sound like a song lyric." Wow, that turned me around. Bob Corwin and Mandy moved to LA around that time, and I didn't see them for about a year.
In the meantime I had acquired a TV set for the first time in my life, and I got hung up on watching the bullfights from Mexico, narrated and explained in English by Carlos Montalban. I read a dozen books about bullfighting, and learned about the history and customs, knew the names of all the passes and maneuvers. I considered myself an aficionado. I was eager to witness a real corrida, so when Stella and I visited LA to see family members, we called Bob and Mandy, and we drove down to Tijuana to see Jaime Bravo and a couple other matadors kill some bulls. I saw two bulls killed, and I nearly fainted. I had only seen black and white movies of the corrida, always with Montalban's thoughtful and critical commentary. I was not prepared for the blood and violence. The second bull was slaughtered in a shameful manner, and the crowd was booing and screaming epithets at the toreros. "Let's go, quickly!" I said, and we four pale gringos hot-footed it back to the car and roared back to California. I never mentioned bullfighting after that. I was totally horrified.
Corwin called me the next day and we drove to Johnny Mercer's home in Brentwood. Bob had agreed to feed the dogs while the Mercers were out of town. I saw the original work sheets for classic songs like Come Rain or Come Shine and Out of This World, and I was fascinated to see what Harold Arlen had scratched out, and the different lyric ideas that Mercer had considered. As I remember, there was a wall with framed examples of these work sheets.
Blossom Dearie was the one who subsequently introduced me to Johnny Mercer in New York, and he was very complimentary about certain of my songs and once sent me a postcard saying "You are my favorite lyric writer at the moment, but, BOY, are you uncommercial!!!.". Once he came into Eddie Condon's in the Hotel Sutton where I was just getting off work, and suggested we go hear some good singer. I took him in a cab to The Apartment to hear Charles DeForest. Mercer was pretty well potted by this time. We sat down near the piano bar, ordered drinks, and Mercer noticed the woman singing at the keyboard. He was not impressed, and he said very loudly, " So? Is this what you wanted me to hear?" I conferred with DeForest, who quickly took over at the piano, and acknowledged Mercer's presence. DeForest announced that he would sing one of Mercer's lesser known songs, and dived into it. Mercer stood up, put on his coat, and barked, "That's Leo Robin's lyric, for Christ's sake," and walked out into the night, leaving me with the drinks and the tab. Mercer came into Condon's again later that week, and had only a dim recollection of the DeForest episode.
I sat with him and Blossom at the Village Gate one night; Blossom was appearing there, and the other act was sitars and tablas just wailing away at high volume, and Mercer had to talk loud to make conversation at our table. Finally he shouted at these Indian players, "Didn't you guys ever hear of swing? One-two-three-four?" I had to laugh-- it was a Thurber cartoon.
I ran into Mercer years later when I was playing for Irene Kral at Diamante's in LA and Mercer came in to hear her. My parents were visiting LA at the time, and Joyce and I were sitting with them in the nightclub. Mercer came over to our table and was very gracious in his greeting to me, and of course I was proud to introduce him to my mother and dad. Later when we left the club, I asked my dad if he had enjoyed the music. His reply was typical, " It's not my cup of tea." Then he added, "Your friend Mercer. You can't argue with that kind of success."
My first meeting with Benny was at a rehearsal of his big band--I was subbing for the regular pianist (Russ Freeman)--1960 maybe, at Nola Studios on Broadway. I remember Roy Burns was the drummer, and rehearsers that day included Freddy Greenwell, Zoot Sims, Marky Markowitz, Jerry Dodgion, Tommy Newsom, Bill Crow, et al. My knees were rubbery of course.
Benny called number twenty-five and I found myself staring at an Eddie Sauter "concerto" with Mel Powell's piano solo and fills transcribed in the piano part. I tried to grab an eyeful of the first four bars so I could at least start with the band, and suddenly Benny was counting off. The band was playing something not remotely related to my part.
Benny cut them off. "Ready, piano?" he said. We tried it again--same train wreck. Benny stood behind me with his clarinet and instructed me to play the chart alone with him. It was a nightmare, a total humiliation, a disaster, and we stopped after about eight bars. The guys in the band were looking off in five different directions.
Benny said, "That sounds about right," and counted off the band again. Their music still had nothing to do with my part. He stopped the band and called to me, "Hey Pops, what number you got up?"
"Twenty-five," I told him.
"No, Pops, no. I said forget twenty-five. We're playing number nineteen. Try to pay attention."
I survived the rest of the rehearsal without major mishaps. But that wasn't the end. A month later I still hadn't been paid for the rehearsal. I called Jay Feingold, Goodman's business manager, and reminded him about the payment. Feingold agreed to send a check to the Union, and I said thanks. An hour later Feingold called back, "Dave? Benny says he never told you he'd pay you for that rehearsal." I said, "I signed a withholding slip at the studio; how could that be?" "I'll take care of it," Feingold said, and a couple of weeks later I picked up the check at the Union and discovered we'd been quibbling about a check for twelve dollars.
I was with Gene Krupa's quartet at the Metropole with Eddie Wasserman and Dave Perlman. I would guess 1962. Benny Goodman walked in and the place went crazy. We were on the bandstand, just having finished an hour and fifteen minute set. I looked at Gene and his face was white. He says, "It's the King of Swing, and he's got his horn. I don't believe this. Here he comes."
So Benny walked up on the stand and began to try out reeds. He sat on a high bar stool, stared off into space and tootled and fluttered up and down the scale. This went on for long minutes. Meanwhile Jack Waldorf, the Metropole manager, had herded dozens--hundreds--of passersby into the club, and he had them chanting "Benny! Benny!" Some were hollering out years--like "1936!" The camera girl, standing down by the bar, snapped a picture, and hurried downstairs to make prints, promising photos for Goodman and Krupa to sign. .
Benny was finally ready. He said, "Brushes, Gene." Remember, this was Gene's band. Gene obediently picked up the brushes and flashed a big smile, but I could see he was in a cold fury. Then Benny turned to me and said, "Sweet Lorraine in G. Give me a little introduction." I complied, and Benny entered in F. He waved me out and finished his solo without piano. We stayed on the stand for about an hour. The camera girl was going into a second printing. Then, abruptly, Goodman packed up his horn and descended, demanding safe escort through the crowd, and he was gone into the night. He hadn't signed one picture. Krupa was drenched with two shows worth of perspiration, but he sat patiently on the steps of the bandstand and signed dozens of photos. I saw that he was writing personal notes on each one, and he was asking each customer, "Who shall I inscribe this to?"
Later in the dressing room Gene said to us, " I was glad to sign this picture. This will be in a lot of homes, believe me. Did you get a load of this?" We inspected the picture then. And there was Benny with his horn in his mouth, perched on a stool with his legs spread wide. His fly was wide open; two buttons showed plainly.
"Buttons!" Gene said. "Buttons! That suit's probably from about 1940."
Speaking of clothes: Sol Yaged drove me home from the Metropole late one night, and down around Seventh Avenue and Thirty-third he stopped the car at the curb, and pointed to a high window in an office building. "That's where Benny buys his suits," he said quietly.
Once Ruby Braff brought Benny to a jam session at Marshall Brown's studio. Naturally, a chill fell over the room as the two of them walked in. Benny took nearly an hour to find a reed, and the rest of us had to wait, couldn't play because he was noodling with a dozen different reeds, and wouldn't stop. Finally we played a tune, On The Alamo, and Benny took every chorus, interrupting the other players in mid-chorus, and then conducted the ending. I left and don't know what happened after that.
In California, some years later, maybe 1975, my song I'm Hip was to be performed by Mitzi Gaynor in her TV special, and several days before the taping I learned that Benny Goodman would be joining her on the vocal. I persuaded Dick DeBenedictus, the musical director, to let me visit the set. I promised I would keep my mouth shut.
They had a very hip little band to accompany Benny on the show, including John Bunch, Jack Sheldon, and Frank Rosolino. Tommy Newsom had written a nice arrangement of I'm Hip for Gaynor and Goodman. On the runthrough, Mitzi sang it perfectly, but there was confusion on Benny's first vocal entrance, which occurred on the pickup to the bridge. Benny was coming in a bar late.
Dick DeBenedictus said, "Benny, you have a three beat pickup there: 'Every Saturday night.' The word 'night' is the downbeat--anticipated" .
"Gotcha, Pops," said Benny. They ran through it again, Benny made the same mistake, but he assured Dick that he understood. "Let's roll, then," said the director, and the taping began.
Mitzi Gaynor sailed through, but when Benny's entrance came, he again waited a bar too long, and the taping ground to a stop. DeBenedictus explained patiently that Benny had to sing three beats pickup before the downbeat of the bridge. "You're going to have to count there, Benny," he said. Benny squinted at him and said, "Say, Pops, aren't we getting a little fussy?"
They went on from there, Benny fluffing a vocal entrance or two, and the band expertly accommodating his "mistakes". I was puzzled, because it seemed that Goodman was making things awkward deliberately, and I couldn't imagine why he would want to do such a thing, except to demonstrate his prerogative to behave that way.
He certainly did play masterfully, and he could swing his tail off. But gimme a break.
I was with Gene's quartet during the years 1962-64. We didn't make any major trips, but stuck close to home on the East Coast, playing weekend dates in nearby New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland. And of course we worked the Metropole in NYC regularly, sometimes for two or three weeks at a time.
During that time, Eddie Wasserman was the saxophonist and there were three bass players--Kenny O'Brien, Dave Perlman and Bill Takas. Charlie Ventura took Wasserman's place on at least one occasion --our week-long engagement at the Steel Pier, Atlantic City, August of 1962. I know because I picked up an LP that contains radio broadcasts we did on that gig.
I must say that I never had much of a personal relationship with Gene, although our friendship was cordial throughout the period. My impression of him is that he was a very kind, thoughtful man, and extremely moral and ethical, quite religious--at least he always made a point of attending mass on Sunday morning. I was surprised to find him that way, considering his public image as a hopped-up dope fiend.
We younger members of the band were not that concerned with rectitude. Gene never hung out with us, never smoked pot with us, and I understood from the very beginning that he couldn't afford to be compromised in any way. He intimated that the police --especially in the small towns --would like nothing better than to bust Gene Krupa and get some local notoriety.
I don't even remember seeing Gene take so much as a drink while we were on the job. He was always sharp and alert and ready to perform. The Gene Krupa Story was playing currently, and I went to see it and laughed at the scene where the Krupa character drops his sticks during the big solo, and the audience realizes that he's "back on the stuff." I remember at least a couple of occasions in real life when Gene dropped a stick, and people in the audience began whispering among themselves and pointing at Gene.
In the car driving to and from gigs, he would keep the radio turned to baseball broadcasts, especially the Chicago White Sox, if they were within radio range. He was a rabid Sox fan. He listened with intense concentration, and there was wasn't much conversation with the passengers in the car.
Once in the car he reminisced about the Austin High School group in Chicago and their assortment of Bohemian friends, characters we would call "beatniks" in later years. There were avid readers among them, and the English humorists were favored. Gene remembered Bud Freeman, Bix Beiderbecke, Dave Tough and others quoting dialog from P.G. Wodehouse. Gene said his own favorite was Three Men In a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome. He said Bix could quote long passages from that book.
Even though our relationship was cordial from the outset, Gene finally found it necessary to fire me. He was very polite when he explained it to me. "You're a very good player, but you're forgetting one thing," he said. "This is my band, not yours, and I want it to sound the way I like, not the way you like." I was hurt at the time, because I thought I was doing the best job possible, and actually making the group sound "better" because I was trying so hard.
A few years later I had a better perspective on many things, including that incident, and I was able to understand how Gene felt about my playing--I was, after all, supposed to be his accompanist, and it was his name, not mine, that was on the marquee and drawing people in.
And if I'm forced to consider my shortcomings as an ensemble player, I must admit I tend to be "pushy" and opinionated about how the music sounds; It's hard for me to play a subdued, anonymous role in the rhythm section. Gene couldn't tolerate that, and obviously didn't need that kind of competition in the band. He knew exactly what he wanted to hear and how he wanted it to feel, and if it didn't agree with my musical instincts, well, that was my tough luck. We parted friends, but I could feel that Gene was trying to teach me a lesson. And that was only fair, considering that I'd been trying to teach him one all along, from the piano.
In 1958 when my college pal Joel Upin and I were living on West Fourth Street, a couple of young actresses, Diana Hale and Irene Gilbert, occupied an apartment upstairs. They were friends of Georgia Gould and Nikki Chafos, our U of Minnesota friends who also lived in the building, and the six of us sometimes got together in their place or ours, listening to records , drinking, smoking , laughing, and playing the piano. [Nikki Chafos was betrothed to a Greek Orthodox seminarian named Bob Stephanopolous, and the two of them once cooked a great Greek dinner for me and Joel in Nikki's place. They soon got married and went off to Athens. Years later I was interested to learn that their son George had become a popular political figure.]. Upin and I had bought a monstrous upright piano from Reubert Pianos on Bleecker Street, and we took turns playing, me with my bebop excursions, and Joel with a vast repertoire of classical literature. I would often accompany Irene and Diana, and I remember helping Irene learn Every Day I Fall in Love from the Count Basie--Joe Williams album.
One night upstairs Diana Hale's current boyfriend, a young acting student named George Maharis, joined us. Upin and I had just met him and we tried to make pleasant conversation with George, but it was difficult because he just sat brooding and silent, regarding us with apparent distaste. He seemed pointlessly annoyed and generally uninformed, and this must have triggered something in me, because I wounded him with a cheerful but caustic comment, whereupon he siezed a wooden kitchen chair and hurled it in my direction. I ducked and the chair hit the wall behind me. Upin and I were out the door in a flash. So that was that-- Maharis and I went our separate ways, and he became a well-known TV actor.
Some years later in an NBC recording studio I found myself playing piano on a demo recording for Maharis. Columbia Records producer John Hammond was considering making a Maharis vocal album, and Bobby Hackett had assembled a quartet to accompany the singer. We all shook hands with George and, understandably, he didn't remember me. One tune was called She Looks Like Helen Brown, a pathetic piece of material about how she looks good wearing this and that but "she looks like hell in brown". Maharis was struggling with it, and from the control booth Hammond suggested that we go on to something else , because it just wasn't working and it wasn't amusing. Maharis suggested that we could make it funnier if the punch line were brought up to date.. "Maybe I could say ' She looks like Doris Day". After a shocked silence we proceeded to another song.
It was the summer of 1963 when I joined Ben Webster’s quartet. He was playing at the Shalimar on Seventh Ave near 123rd St. I couldn’t believe I got the call, because I had never met Ben or even seen him in the flesh, and I was told that he hadn’t heard me play. Here’s how I remember it all came about:
I used to play in rehearsal bands at Lynn Oliver’s studio on Broadway and 81st . I met Joe Henderson at one of these rehearsals, and he invited me to play a jam session job on the East side on a Sunday afternoon. Kinny Dorham was the leader, Joe Henderson on tenor, Al Foster drums, and Ray McKinney on bass. McKinney was new in town from Detroit and he told me he was about to start a nightly job with Ben Webster in Harlem.
A couple nights later, McKinney phoned me and told me that Ben Webster wanted to replace the piano player on the new gig. Ben had agreed to "audition" me on the gig—could I make it tonight? I said of course, and I quickly put on a suit and tie, dashed out into a furious rainstorm, and grabbed a subway up to Harlem.
Ben was very cordial and after the first set, I thanked him, and Ben said, "Don’t go anywhere. You got the gig." I was thrilled, and I told Ray McKinney how excited I was and thanked him for proposing me. The next night McKinney was gone, replaced by Richard Davis, and I don’t think our paths ever crossed again.
So the rhythm section turned out to be me, Richard Davis, and Mel Lewis. When the Shalimar gig ended and we began to play around at different clubs in New York, Richard stayed on but Mel Lewis left, and several drummers were involved after that.
Among the more informal jobs we played, I remember a private party in Darien, Connecticut, summer 1963, at the home of a Time/Life executive. Ben was the nominal leader, and the band was Vic Dickenson, Buck Clayton, Al Lucas, Jackie Williams and myself. I have a tape recording of that night.
Soon after I joined the band at the Shalimar, Ben was at the microphone introducing the next song , Danny Boy, and he turned to me at the piano and said, "Reminisce."
I said , "What"? He said , "Reminisce. "
I said, "What are you talking about?"
He said, "When I'm talking to the people, you reminisce behind me."
Then I understood and began to play soft chords as he spoke to the audience.
Ben was very emotional and his feelings were close to the surface. I knew that Ben was famous for unpredictable outbursts of anger and violence, but I never saw him pull any of those stunts, perhaps because he was trying to abstain from hard liquor at that time. He did drink beer—Rheingold. When he drank he was quick to weep. He would ask Richard to play solos with the bow, and then he would stand listening with tears rolling down his cheeks. He would get tearful when he spoke of his mother. Once he told me that he missed Jimmy Rowles, who was back in California, and as he told me about his friendship with Rowles he began to cry. One night at the Half Note we heard radio reports of rioting in Harlem, and Ben wept openly as he listened.
I visited Ben in his hotel room and also at the apartment he shared with Joe Zawinul. He always had tapes playing—mostly Art Tatum records and Ellington from the 1930s and 40s. He made me a dub (reel to reel) of the famous Ellington Fargo concert that featured Webster and Blanton. He loved Tatum, Fats Waller, James P Johnson—knew all the stride moves on the piano, and he could execute "Carolina Shout" and some of those pieces at very slow tempo. He could tell from my playing that I was influenced in that direction and that pleased him, because he was a fan and admirer of that music.
I think Ben got some heat from black musicians because he included me (and Mel Lewis) in his band. Ben was protective of both of us. During the Shalimar engagement Ben took me and Mel next door to the little grocery store where he knew the proprietor. He introduced us to the man, who assured us that we could take refuge in his store if it ever became necessary. I didn’t even know what he was talking about.
When we played the Half Note, an obnoxious guy at the bar asked Ben to play Danny Boy and Ben was gruff in his reply, "We already played that." The stranger at the bar took offense and began to insist ,"Well play it again!" Ben began to get sassy with him, and the customer turned out to be a cop. He flashed his NYPD badge and instructed Ben to get off the stage. The cop took him outside and we followed behind to see what was going to happen. Ben had his palms up against the wall, and the cop was patting him down and hassling him. The Canterino family, proprietors of the Half Note, came out, Frank from the kitchen, and his sons Sonny and Mike from behind the bar, and they calmed everybody down including the cop, who seemed to be drunk. I was pretty shaken by the whole episode, and I was impressed to see how the Canterinos handled the cop by quietly talking to him. The guy was apparently impressed by the Canterinos' reasoning, because he backed off and left the premises. Ben didn't feel like playing after that. Richie Kamuca was there, and he unpacked his saxophone and finished the the set with us.
Ben spoke of Ellington with the utmost respect and admiration, and referred to his experience with the Ellington band as his "university education." He escorted me and my wife Stella to an Ellington rehearsal at Basin Street East, and introduced us to Ellington. "This is my piano player," he told Duke, "and he can play." Duke said "You better play if you’re in Ben’s band." Ben once told me that I was one of the few pianists he’d heard that could emulate Ellington’s time feeling. I was thrilled to get such a compliment.
I made some recordings in a studio with Ben, Richard, and a drummer (maybe Mel?) , but the results were very uncomfortable. I was intimidated by the situation, played erratically, and didn’t get a good feeling at all. Ben scrapped the recordings, and subsequently made the date with Roger Kellaway on piano. When I heard about it, my feelings were hurt, but I was thankful that my clumsy playing wouldn’t be exposed on record.
Many great musicians came into the Shalimar and the Half Note to see Ben, they often brought their horns, and I got a chance to play with Johnny Hodges, Paul Gonsalves, Ray Nance, Lockjaw Davis, and others. Billy Strayhorn came in one night and asked me, "Would it be all right if I played a tune or two?" I stood by and watched him play with the band. It was one of those moments. I was happy to be in New York, and privileged to be a musician, consorting with these giants. When Al Cohn and Zoot Sims heard us at the Shalimar, they took me aside and hired me for their upcoming New York dates, and thus began a relationship that lasted until I left New York about nine years later.
One of the incidental gigs I did with Ben Webster was a private party at the Hotel Theresa in Harlem that began at 1 AM. It was a welcome home party for Red Dillon, a notorious underworld guy who seemed to be some kind of respected legendary figure in Harlem. Ben explained to me that, months before, Dillon had been kidnapped by rival gangsters, beaten savagely and left for dead on a country road. Ben told me, "Everyone thought he had died, but he survived, and he’s making his first appearance here tonight, and all these people are here to cheer and wish him well. Roll your coat up and stuff it in the bass drum case. If you have to go to the men’s room, tell me and I’ll go with you. Dillon’s got a lot of friends, and he’s also got a lot of enemies. They tried to kill this man, and they may try to kill him again. Ready? Blues in G."
Dillon walked in about 2 AM, surrounded by several guys in coats and hats. He was a wiry little man, reminded me of Sammy Davis a little. It was apparent that he had been through a hell of an ordeal. As I remember, he was walking with a cane. The guests at the party were well-dressed black men , accompanied by spectacular ladies, most of them caucasian. The party was over in a couple of hours, and that was the end of the Red Dillon episode. Or so I thought.
About ten years later, I was living in Los Angeles and playing frequently at Donte’s in North Hollywood. One night I was hanging out in the back yard at Donte’s, swapping Ben Webster stories with a few of the regulars, and I mentioned the party for Red Dillon, and a guy named Smitty piped up, "You were there? I was there! And you won’t believe this, but Red Dillon is in town right now, and I’m going to tell him about this. He’ll love it!"
The next night Smitty walked in with Red Dillon, who looked to be in great shape. We shook hands. Dillon didn’t remember me specifically, but he said the party at the Hotel Theresa was a big moment in his life. He said. "Lemme buy you a taste." We toasted Ben Webster, and Dillon said, "I want to thank you for playing at my party." I told him I had a wonderful time.
About a week later, Smitty came into Donte’s took me aside and told me, " They whacked Red Dillon. They did him in yesterday afternoon." All I could do was gulp. I pulled a long face and said solemnly, "Wow, that’s a drag." "It certainly is", Smitty said. "He owed me quite a bit of money." I told Smitty I thought Dillon seemed like a very nice guy. Smitty nodded and said, " He had his moments."
In 1952-‘53 while a student at the University of Minnesota I shopped around for a couple of years, trying to decide what I wanted to study. At Stanford I had begun to prepare for a major in Psychology, so I continued with that, but I wasn't much interested.. I was mainly concerned with staying out of the draft for the Korean War and hanging around Scott Hall where all the music students were. In order to be a music major you had to be an instrumentalist, and I, a pianist with no classical repertoire, could hardly present a senior recital. So I enrolled in all the music courses I was eligible for, which included theory, music history, and other non-piano classes.
I was eager to learn about how to write for the various instruments, mainly the reeds and brass, so I could make jazz arrangements. I enrolled in a class called Introduction to Orchestration., taught by composer and choral director James Aliferis. I was distressed when I found out that we wouldn't hear our orchestrations played. We handed in our scores, and Dr. Aliferis would examine them on paper, note any mistakes and point out difficult or impossible passages, and inform us that certain doublings or registers would not sound good when played. I said, "It would be great if we could hear what we've written."
"Of course. But composers and arrangers don't have that luxury. They've never had it.
Occasionally we'll assemble some musicians to play the outstanding student orchestrations, but for the most part we'll be dealing with the score on paper."
We started with strings, and I chose to orchestrate elementary piano pieces that I was familiar with although I couldn't play them. Dr Aliferis was unimpressed with my string charts , graded them accordingly, and scolded me.. "Surely you can find something a little more challenging to work with, Mr. Frishberg. We're going to study woodwinds now, and I suggest you investigate some piano pieces by Ravel, Debussy, the more contemporary literature."
Siezing the opportunity to deal with something I was familiar with, I selected a jazz piece by Al Cohn called "Four and One Moore" and arranged it for five saxophones. Dr Aliferis handed it back to me, marked F. "Saxophones? We're not writing for dance band here. And where's the original piano score? And please find some music that's more interesting than this. Have you investigated Scriabin? Saint-Saens?"
Of course I had investigated nothing of the sort. I was just trying to deal with music I was vaguely familar with. Scriabin? Who's that? Now, faced with the next assignment--brass instruments, I decided to just grab a sheet of modern piano music at random and, without hearing it played, just assign the notes willy-nilly to the various instruments, and let the chips fall where they may.
In the library I pawed through piano folios of contemporary composers and came up with Bela Bartok's Mikrokosmos and selected one of the pieces near the back of the book, a piece where the notation appeared more complex and difficult. It was called "Romanian Dance Number Three" or Number Four--something like that, and it was four pages with a lot of notes.and an odd time signature.. I had no idea of what this music sounded like; was it supposed to be fast? slow? is this line supposed to be the melody? I just mechanically wrote down the notes and found there were six voices to be assigned. I just arbitrarily decided to make them two trumpets, two trombones, and two French horns. At a certain spot, just for the hell of it, I specified mutes for one trumpet and one trombone, and other than that, I gave no thought to register, breathing, or phrasing. How could I? I couldn't even imagine how any of this was supposed to sound. It was just notes. What if this passage is impossible to play on the trombone? Aliferis will catch that error. and what's the difference, because it will never be played anyway. I handed in my score, and when he saw the title Dr. Aliferis glanced up at me with a surprised look.
When I returned to Orchestration class a few days later, Dr. Aliferis made an earnest announcement , "Mr. Frishberg has handed in one of the most extraordinary pieces of work I've seen this year. I'm pleased to inform you that you'll be able to hear this piece next week, when musicians from the Minneapolis Symphony will play through some student compositions and orchestrations.. Congratulations, Mr. Frishberg. Here's your score , (it was marked A plus) , and please prepare parts for the six musicians. We'll run through your Bartok piece first. I would say it's not more than two minutes long Is that about right?"
My heart was pounding as I absorbed the impact of this news. I choked out a reply, "Yes, that's about right."
I showed up at the rehearsal a week later and passed out the parts, depositing the score on the conductor's music stand.. Aliferis was there along with my six brass players and Gerard Samuel, an associate conductor of the Symphony. Dr Aliferis introduced me to the players, stepped aside and handed me a baton. My knees buckled, I stared at the musicians and they were staring at me. "I'm afraid I don't know how to conduct. I don't know how to begin." The truth was that Bartok's piece was a total mystery to me; I couldn't begin to play it, literally could not count the first measure with its Greek time signature. I didn't have a clue what that music was supposed to sound like on the piano, let alone with a mixed brass ensemble.
Gerard Samuel came to my rescue and, taking command without the baton, briskly swept the six brassmen into the music, and they were off, as I listened with my mouth open. The music was jerky and rhythmic with eccentric accents and intervals, and it was neatly executed. Before I knew it, it was over--maybe a minute and a half long. Mr. Samuel made some suggestions, and the musicians made some pencil marks, and they ran through it again. I was speechless and amazed because the orchestration sounded good. Thanks to sheer luck I had blundered into a comfortably playable arrangement of the Bartok piece. I was laughing to myself at how preposterous this was. A deaf person could have done what I did.
The musicians turned to other material and I excused myself with profuse thanks to everyone. Dr. Aliferis drew me aside and introduced me to the man standing with him--Aaron Copland. Copland was visiting the University, speaking that afternoon at the Student Hour in Scott Hall. I knew of Copland of course, but I wasn't familiar with his music, and here he is complimenting me -- "I loved your Bartok transcription."
After all that I found myself a few days later back in Aliferis' class, still clueless about orchestration. Now I had to pull off the next assignment, writing for piano, harp and percussion, and I still hadn’t any idea what I was doing. That might have been when I decided to try the School of Journalism.
7/12/03 Story told to me by singer Pinky Winters.
During the 70s, the LA Philharmonic presented Benny Goodman playing Aaron Copland’s clarinet concerto, with Copland conducting. The Goodman band was featured first, and Pinky was backstage, digging the music from the wings. Standing near her was Aaron Copland, and they exchanged polite greetings. The band was wailing and George Benson was taking an extended solo. Copland's ears perked up. He couldn't see the stage and he asked Pinky, "What is that instrument I hear?" Pinky responded, "Why that's a guitar."
"No, no! I mean the solo instrument," said Copland.
"It's a guitar," Pinky said, " a guitar with an amplifier."
Copland was astonished and said, "What will they think of next?"
I used to spend time in Idaho-- Twin Falls, Pocatello, Idaho Falls, Haley, etc when I was stationed in Salt Lake City with the Air Force 1955-57. Once played in Twin Falls with (are you ready?) Scatman Crouthers. He was down on his luck at the time, playing in a tiny cocktail lounge--accompanying himself at the piano. I was in town for a day or two on Air Force business --in uniform--and was bold enough to sit in, knew his repertoire of standards and jive tunes. We had a great time and I came back the next night. About thirty years later Scatman had become newly famous as an actor. I ran into him in LA, and mentioned the episode. He looked at me as I were from Mars.
Cornetist Jack Fine had a steady weekend at the Cinderella Club in the Village, c. 1961-62. I was often playing piano-- a 66 key job-- the rest of the band was usually Joe Muranyi on clarinet, Marshall Brown on valve trombone , Al McManus on drums and Ahmed Abdul Malik on bass. We used to hang in the basement between sets, smoking cigarettes and drinking wine that we brought in from a nearby store.
Everyone in the band was pretty strange and intense--a reflection of its leader. Jack was a passionate and dramatic player. He played his heart out on every tune, as if it were his last chance at it. I have some tapes that I made at the Cinderella on my old Tandberg and Jack sounds terrific, in the Armstrong mode via Ruby Braff and Wild Bill Davison.
George Wettling played one night, followed us down into the basement, unzipped his pants and, with a cigarette dangling from his lips, proceeded to pee into a sink. I shot a questioning look at Muranyi who shrugged and reminded me that Wettling was a terrific drummer, and indeed he was.
Marshall Brown couldn't take off his music teacher's hat, and kept shouting things at us , like "Tag!" or "E flat seventh!" And during ensembles he would aim his horn right into your face and try to teach you the tune by playing the trombone part. Off the stand, Marshall and I would crack up when we listened to the jukebox and heard the grotesque confections that were currently the rage. Marshall would grab my arm, make his eyes bulge, and chant into my face: "Duke Duke Duke Duke of Earl Duke Duke Duke of Earl Duke Duke! Is that a lyric or what? What does it mean? What does it mean?"
Jack Fine had created an identity for himself: Mysterious beatnik with secrets. He always had some attractive starched coed from Pembroke or Vassar on his arm, and he wouldn't introduce her to anyone. We would joke about how Jack was offering these innocent girls a titillating glimpse of the dark side of jazz by bringing them into the Cinderella. I returned to the club late one night to retrieve something and found Jack in shirtsleeves stacking the chairs and mopping the floor while Betsy Bennington waited patiently on a barstool. Jack sheepishly informed me that this was part of his agreement with the Cinderella. I suggested "Mop Mop" for the band's theme song. Got a laugh.
I was driving in North Hollywood, heading north on Laurel Canyon, and stopped at a red light on Chandler. In the right lane a car was stopped next to me, and I glanced at the driver-- it was Katherine Hepburn. She saw me gawking at her, and she pointed a thumb at herself and said "It’s me!". I couldn’t hear her, because the windows were closed, but I could read her lips. The she turned right on Chandler, and that’s the last I saw of her. She seemed very nice.
Summer of 1959 --Mat Mathews, the wired Dutch accordionist whom I had met in Zeke Frank’s vocal studio, called me and told me that Carmen McRae was looking for a pianist and he had recommended me. Carmen was not quite a star then, but she was on her way to becoming one of the great divas, and was attracting a lot of attention . She invited me to play a rehearsal at her house in Brooklyn with the trio, so I went out there the next day and met her and Tommy Williams, the bass player, and Floyd "Floogie" Williams (no relation), the drummer . Carmen liked my playing and hired me on the spot. As I remember the gig payed $235 a week. This was significantly higher than Kai Winding’s band ,and it seemed like a lot to me even though I had to pay my own road expenses.
The first gig with Carmen was a week at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. I can remember the marquee because I took a snapshot of it: AL HIBBLER, CARMEN McRAE, Timmie Rogers, Pigmeat, Clovers, Flying Nesbits. As I remember, we played three shows each day, and the musicians and performers hung around upstairs backstage from around noon until close to midnight. There were a lot of card games, and some people brought bulky tape players with amps and speakers, because this was before cassettes and Walkmans.
The first day I arrived at the Apollo, I was alone, nobody knew who I was, and somebody indicated that I go downstairs and wait. So, dressed in my tux, I sat near a wall in the basement, waiting for Carmen and the other musicians. The only people who arrived were the Flying Nesbits, a family of acrobats. They disappeared into their cubicles, came out dressed in tights and capes and began to juggle bowling pins and tumble on mats they placed on the basement floor. I kept glancing at my watch and I got pretty nervous when I saw the show was about to start in fifteen minutes, and Carmen and the trio hadn’t shown up yet. Then Floogie Williams burst in and saw me. "There you are! We’ve been searching for you for nearly an hour." He took me up to the second floor where all the musicians were installed in the dressing rooms, and there I found Ms McRae practically tearing her hair out. In the doorway of her dressing room she reprimanded me loudly and profanely while the musicians from Reuben Phillips' sixteen piece house band trooped by on their way to the stage, politely ignoring the ranting, although some were rolling their eyes. Besides being embarrassed I was anxious and shaky about the show; I hadn't seen the lineup for our opening set, and I had yet to play with Carmen in public. I hadn't played a note with her since that day in Brooklyn at her house.. I sat in Carmen's dressing room, staring at my piano parts, half listening to the action from the stage. The Nesbits were on, and then came Timmie Rogers, strumming a tipple uke and hoofing to hip riffs from the band, doing his comedy act. I walked out on the stage and replaced the band pianist. As he left the bench I realized it was Don Abney, whom I had met in St. Paul at the Flame when he played for Ella Fitzgerald. He recognized me too and we shook hands.
And then "Let's welcome back to The Apollo--Miss Carmen McRae!", and the roar that came from the darkened theater shocked and thrilled me: We tore into "Day In Day Out", and the four of us sailed through several songs with no mishaps. I began the introduction for "Lover Man", which Carmen sang in Bb minor.. I played the Bb minor chord for her vocal entrance and she entered, but she was singing the wrong song. She was singing "Good Morning Heartache". There was no use scrambling for parts to read, because Carmen was deep into the wrong song and there was no turning back. "Good Morning Heartache" happens to be a difficult song to fake, because the harmonies are not predictable, and the melody can be treacherous for the singer without help from the accompaniment. Besides the inherent difficulty of the song , we had to deal with a foreign key, because Carmen's arrangement of "Good Morning Heartache" was in C major. Tommy Williams and I plowed bravely ahead and we all finished the song without a trainwreck. Carmen stepped over to the piano, and muttered to me, "You're a real trouper."
That was one of the rare positive comments I was to hear from Ms McRae for the next year. I think Carmen liked my playing, although she frequently asked me to play richer, more modern voicings. I was respectful of her musical preferences because she was such a wonderful piano player. During every appearance, Carmen would dismiss the trio and do two or three songs alone at the piano. To me this was the high spot of the show. Carmen’s salty attitude was subdued when she had to play her own accompaniment; she seemed a different person. I can imagine what a sensation she was when she played solo in Chicago piano bars. She probably enchanted the listeners the way Blossom Dearie does, differences aside.
Musically Carmen and I got along OK, I think, but it was hard to establish a musical connection with her because the rhythm section never felt comfortable--from the very first rehearsal at her place. Carmen never seemed happy with her backing.. I reached the point where I was telling myself I couldn’t play any more. Floogie Williams and I didn’t feel time together. He would play Ahmad Jamal records in the hotel and say, "Why can’t you play more like that?" I finally said, "Why can’t you lay it down with more authority?" And Tommy Williams would say, "Why can’t you guys relax?"
In general Carmen was very cold to me personally, and our relationship became more and more frosty with each road trip. Remembering the clueless and reckless way I behaved and misbehaved in those days, I wouldn’t be surprised if she considered me a scoundrel, but she seemed to be smoldering with anger most of the time anyway. We were a couple of touchy and judgmental people all right. After over a year I was glad to withdraw from the situation. Carmen and I had just returned from a one nighter at Kent State University in Ohio. From the day before when we left LaGuardia Airport until we returned there the next day, we had spoken not one word to each other. It was like a game. We shared a cab home from the airport-- Carmen was living in the Village at that time, not far from my place.. On the way, breaking the silence, I told her I wasn’t interested in doing this any more, and I felt she was relieved that she didn’t have to fire me. I think I saw tears in her eyes. I know there were tears in mine. I thought about that moment for years afterwards.
What a blast to play with clarinetist Kenny Davern and The Washington Squares at Nick's, with Johnny Windhurst on trumpet, Cutty Cutshall on trombone, Buzzy Drootin on drums, and Jack Six on bass. Of course I took it all for granted in 1961. In fact, I used to complain that Windhurst was too laid back, playing his solos as if we were in 2 rather than getting hot like Kenny. Now I appreciate that Windhurst made heat in his own fashion. As I remember, the band sounded best with Buzzy Drootin on drums. When Buzzy couldn't make it, he always sent Cliff Leeman. Buzzy played the bass drum more quietly than Cliff, although both guys tended to play ferociously. Windhurst played like Hackett, but took more chances melodically, and played more in the high register. Cutty took no chances and played beautiful ensemble horn. Kenny of course was on fire all the time, clarinet or no clarinet.. In 1961 I was trying to figure out whether I was a bebopper or not, but at least I knew to stay out of the way most of the time. It was the hottest "Dixieland" ensemble I ever played with.
The management and staff of Nick's were impatient with Kenny, because he often refused to play the customers' requests for the old Dixieland pieces like Ja-Da and Up A Lazy River. "That's stale crap", he said. "They need to hear fresh stuff." So Kenny taught us to play the more obscure items from Ellington and Armstrong, numbers like Black and Tan Fantasy and It's The Last Time, Honey Babe, and the people seemed content with it, although there were always a few who complained to the managers or the waiters. One night during some moody Ellington piece I stood up, reached across the piano desk and strummed the strings, while Kenny gave me a big smile of approval. The manager saw what I was doing and went berserk. He shouted at me, "Are you crazy? Are you nuts? That's a very expensive instrument! Stop now! Stop it immediately!" Kenny stopped the band, and he and the manager shouted insults at each other. The boss yelled, "You're fired! All of ya! Get off the stage, pack up and get out of here!" We all went home. The next day I learned that the band was hired back-- all except me and Kenny-- and they finished the engagement. with Windhurst as leader.
more to come...