Jazz Anecdotes

In the beginning there were jazz….


 While developing their music, jazz musicians invented ways of playing that were different from traditional techniques. Some of the special sounds of jazz were produced by blowing into the instruments in unorthodox ways, by using odd fingering combinations or holding valves or keys halfway down, by humming into the horn while playing, by sliding from one note to another, etc. To get the sounds thay wanted, the musicians sometimes redesigned their equipment. Drummers developed a wide variety of drums and cymbals. Reed players tried new reed and mouthpiece designs. Brass players found that holding a hand or some other object in front of the bell of a horn could create new sounds.

Baby Dodds told of an unusual mute used by King Oliver in Chicago:

     Joe Oliver had all kinds of things he put on his horn. He used to shove  a kazoo to the bell to give it a different effect. A guy named Tony who   played with us in Cairo, Illinois, got a guy to make a thing you put put in your horn with two kazoos in it. He had another thing that had about four kazoos welded together that really gave the horn a funny sound.

     Garvin Bushell said that Mamie Smith’s trumpet player Johnny Dunn was the first to use a plumber’s rubber plunger as a mute. Plungers are made in two sizes, for sinks and toilets. They happen to have just the right diameters for trumpet and trombone bells. After Bubber Miley and Joe Nanton used plungers on recordings with Duke Ellington, arrangers began to write for plungers and they became a standard mute.

     Herman Autrey worked with a tuba player named Clay robinson, who had wired his tuba with colored lights that he could turn on and off with a foot switch.

Just before Duke Ellington moved his band to the Cotton Clue, Sonny Greer came into an instrumental windfall that had a lasting effect on the setups of jazz drummers:

     One of the executives of the Leedy Drum Company come to New York and seen me playing at the Kentucky Club. He said, “Sonny, how would you like to work for us?” I said, “What doing?” “Designing and using all our advance products.” “All right. Send me a set.”Well, they sent me five trunks of drums, Chimes, vibraphones, everything. So I come in the Cotton Club. Ain’t no drummer had that stuff! Nothing! They still ain’t got it! Man, when them gansters saw that they say, “My God!” And when a guy want to get a job in a cabaret, the man say, “You got drums like Sonny?” And the guy say, ” “You must be crazy, that drum set cost $3000!” Didn’t cost me nothing, but they didn’t know that. Now, I’m going to sit behind $3000 worth of drums. I didn’t have to play them. All I had to do was look pretty.

Teachers and students

Very few musicians are completely self-taught. Even if they had no formal education, there is someone in nearly every musician’s background who helped show the way. Often there were many who did so. Many jazz musicians refer to their “musical fathers,” the musicians who taught or inspired them either personally or via performances and phonograph records.

     Chick Webb was unimpressed with Art Blakey’s early attempts to play the drums in a showy manner, with stick twirling and arm waving. Chick told him, “Son, the music is on the drum, not in the air.”

     Blakey picked up drumming on his own, and Idrees Sulieman claims he was not a good drummer until Dizzy Gillespie explained things to him:

     One day we were standing on the corner of Massachusetts and Columbus avenues in Boston and Art came up and said, “Hey, man. I got a chance to go with the Billy Eckstine band.” We said, “What! How’s he going to take that job?” They say that the first time was so terrible that Dizzy Gillespie said, “Look, man. Drummer downstairs gonna show you how to play drums.” And Dizzy took him down and showed him how to drop a bomb, and what to do, and they say from that night on he’s been like he is now. Dizzy Gillespie taught him how to play drums. I Couldn/t believe it. The band came through and I never have been so shocked in my life! I gouldn’t believe it was the same drummer. Dizzy knew how to explain things so you learn it in one time.

When asked about this story, Blakey said, “Idress is crazy. Those cats just didn’t hear what I was doing yet.”


Fats Waller was the organist at the Lincoln Theater in Harlem when Count Basie first heard him. Basie spent a lot of time sitting in the front row near Waller’s organ bench:

     One day he asked me whether  I played the organ. “No,” I said, “but I’d give my right arm to learn.” The next day he invited me to sit in the pit and start working the pedals. I sat on the floor watching the pedals. I sat on the floor watching his feet, and using my hands to imitate them. Then I sat beside him and he taught me. One afternoon he pretended to have some urgent business downstairs and asked me to wait for him. I started playing while he stood downstairs listening. After that I would come to early shows and he let me play accompaniment to the picture. Later I used to follow him around wherever he played, listening and learning all the time.