Jazz Anecdotes

In the beginning there were jazz….

PIANOS

The Piano is an important element in most jazz groups, but jazz pianists are lucky if they find a good one to play when they arrive at work.

     Dick Katz found a strange piano on a job in Harlem with Oscar Pettiford:

       One night during a colossal heat wave, we were working a t Small’s Paradise—what a misnomer! —during the summer of 1958. all power had failed in the city. I came to work five to ten minutes late, annoyed with myself for being late and thoroughly uncomfortable from the heat. All the lights were out, and the air conditioning was off. The band was already playing the first number, in the dark. I slid onto the piano bench and could feel Oscar’s wrath. The piano keys felt unbelievably strange. To my horror I discovered many of the black keys were missing. Oscar was obviously unaware of this sad fact and blew his top when he heard me play something that would make Cecil Taylor sound like Art Hodes.

      I Can’t play—the black keys are missing,” I told him.

   “So what,” he said, “I heard guys play with no keys!” Then the lights came on, and we all broke up. The black keys were on the floor. We got some shoe glue from across the street and glued the keys back on.

     Billy Eckstine described the surgery that was sometimes performed on those unplayable pianos:

        Here we come to some dance with Earl (fatha” Hines”), the number one piano player in the country, and half the keys on the goddam piano won’t work. So when we’re getting ready to leave, I’d get some of the guys to stand around the piano as though we were talking, and I’d reach in and pull all the strings and all the mallets out.  “The next time we come here,” I’d say, I’ll Bet that son-of-a-bitch will have a piano for him to play on.”

 

   

READING MUSIC

In the early days, a jazz musician who could read music was usually called “Professor.” Written notes were viewed with suspicion by the unschooled and were considered to be devoid of soul. But men like Eubie Blake could read and write music very well. He said.

       In those days Negro musicians weren’t even supposed to read music. We had to pretend we couldn’t read; then they’d marvel at the way we could play shows, thinking we’d learned the parts by ear.

As  bands became larger and arrangements more complex, the abiltiy to read and good jazz became an asset. The musically literate often helped their section mates improve their reading. As a fair ability to read became the norm, the few holdouts became figures of fun.

Brad Gowans told a leeader who asked if he could read: “Not enough to hurt my playing.”

Phill Urso felt the same way when he took over one of the tenor chairs on Woody Herman’s band. Woody inquired, “How well do you read? “Just enough so it doesn’t screw up my jazz.”

Herschel Evans, one of Basie’s tenor stars, was not a good reader. Dickie Wells recalled:

       Herschel was a slow kind of reader and didn’t care about reading at all. So, after we had spent about three hours rehearsing, Basie would call out that night: Get out that number Kirkpatrick made!”

“I can’t find my part,” Herschel would say. We’d all be down looking under the stands, and Basie would be looking through the piano music. Herschel would be real busy helping Basie look or it, but after the gig he’d tell me: “Man, I tore that damn thing up and sent it down the drain—all them sharps and things. I didn’t feel like fooling with that.”

       That happened three of four times, until Basie got wise. He said “I believe that rascal’s tearing up our music.” But I don’t think he ever actually knew. Herschel would wait until after rehearsal and tear it up, six or seven sheets for saxophone. Well, he read slow, but that was one of the reasons why he swung so much.