Appreciate Jazz Today or You’ll Be in Big Trouble

Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins and Gerry Mulligan. (Photo via YouTube)

April is Jazz Appreciation Month. It follows February (Black History Month) and March (Women’s History Month), so I had fair warning, and I have no excuse for getting this column in so late. I know: It’s only April 5 — but I began this column on May 29, 2017. This is known as “playing behind the beat.”

April is also Poetry Appreciation Month, which seems rather unfair. Can’t jazz and poetry have their own months — preferably not too close together? Jazz musicians and poets, after all, have a reputation of being … how shall I say this? … a bit eccentric. You never want to cram too much poetry and jazz into a small space.

Zoot Sims, for instance, showed up at a New Year’s Eve party in a state of … let’s say moderate glee. Unbeknownst to Zoot, the hosts had bought their daughter a rabbit for Christmas, and to celebrate the New Year had dressed the rabbit in a red vest, green pants and a derby hat with holes in it. For the ears.

As the story goes, the rabbit hopped out from under the Christmas tree, then across the room and out of sight. Zoot, potation in hand, paled more than somewhat, and backed up into a corner, where he stood for quite some time, then set his drink on a table and called it a night.

And speaking of New Year’s Eve, another jazzman — I believe it was Joe Venuti — grabbed a handful of early editions of The New York Times one New Year’s Day during World War II and dumped them in the back of a closet. Several years later, after the war was over, Joe and some fellow jazzmen left a New Year’s Eve party before midnight, down by Wall Street, where the subway trains were empty, and headed uptown.

Joe distributed his band, and his newspapers — giant headlines full of war news — around a single subway car, and instructed them to ignore one another and read the Times zealously, opened wide to Page 1, as the car filled up in Midtown.

So it was that a few dozen happy New Yorkers piled into an uptown subway car at Times Square, to find they had entered … The Twilight Zone.

It was Joe Venuti too who went through the entire New York City musicians union book and called every bass player in it and asked them to meet him for a Sunday morning gig at a certain hotel. It’s a tremendous pain in the butt for bass players to make a gig because they have to haul that contrabass around. But no jazzman works on a Sunday morning, so virtually the entire union book of contrabass players got up early and schlepped their axes down to the street, into taxis, into the subway, to make the gig … and to find 30, 40 other bass players standing around in the lobby, cursing Joe Venuti.

And while we’re on the subject, may I introduce my own contribution to this cavalcade of insanity? My first gig as a professional musician was in the Catskills, in Upstate New York, on July 1, 1970. I was a sub, and it wasn’t a jazz gig, it was rock and roll. But as I recall, the sax player called in sick, and the lead guitarist sucked, and they needed a soloist. So they called me.

All I carried with me was a clarinet, so I made my debut on the world stage playing clarinet solos on “Purple Haze.”

The hotel, with a basement nightclub, had been taken over by French tourists, one of whom approached me repeatedly on the bandstand, demanding: “Play somesing where you shake ze ass.”

The next day, the military draft numbers were published in newspapers all over the United States. The Vietnam war was raging. I got draft number 323.

Those were the days.

True it is that I might have done better by Zoot and Joe Venuti, and myself, to praise their many contributions to music, rather than retail these hoots. But, hey: You appreciate jazz in your way and I’ll appreciate it in mine.

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