Porgy Und Bess

     The CD of the new Broadway production of “Porgy and Bess” was released this week, which brought me back to my modest role in the history of that great American opera.
     The statute of limitations has run on this, but still, though it’s all true, perhaps you will pardon me for being fuzzy on the details.
     It was sometime in the 1970s. Crooks who operated out of Switzerland were auditioning musicians in New York, for a tour of Europe. (All Neger Ensemble Aus New York, it said on the side of the band bus, when we got there.)
     I auditioned for the bass clarinet part.
     Since all the woodwind players had to play four instruments, I auditioned on saxophone, clarinet and flute, and said my bass clarinet – which was my main ax – was in the shop.
     I got the gig.
     Then I went out and bought a bass clarinet and took it to my teacher and said, “How do you play this thing?”
     We played all over Europe for three months, to riotous applause. Really. A couple of our cast members had been in the original Broadway show, with Cab Calloway. The only white guys were in the band, and the detective – we sat in the back of the bus.
     The great alto saxophonist Phil Woods said that if a music school really wanted to train jazz musicians, it would stick them on a bus and drive them around and around for 12 hours, make them get off and play, then hustle them back onto the bus and drive them around for another 12 hours and make them get off and play …
     It wasn’t exactly like that, but pretty close. But we were in Europe. Once in a while we got a day off, while we were being ripped off. Eventually, the cast, led by Porgy, grabbed the ticket receipts by main force and parceled it out. That’s the last money we saw.
     Anyway, one night we arrived an hour late, after a perilous trip over the Alps in a snowstorm. Fortunately, a viola player had sprained his ankle, doing something dumb to impress a girl, or more likely, a guy, so when the band bus arrived, to a restive crowd, we carried him off the bus, and the crowd immediately loved us. Poor players suffering the perils of the road.
     Cast and band hustled into the beautiful, government-supported opera house to put on the show. We didn’t have time to check out the stage.
     Well, this opera house had what we were told was an Elizabethan stage, which slopes down from the back to the front, to give the illusion of distance – perspective, you know.
     But the cast didn’t know that, and Porgy, who is crippled, and wheeled himself around on a big fat skateboard, didn’t know it either.
     So after the overture and the big dance intro, when someone said, “Here comes Porgy, open the gate for him!” they opened the gate and Porgy wheeled himself onstage, with a push from his mighty arms – and headed downstage at about 60 miles an hour.
     Fortunately, someone – the Honey Man? the Strawberry Girl? – grabbed Porgy’s elbow just before he sailed offstage into the conductor’s head. Porgy whirled around and landed with a thump, the conductor ducked, as did the folks in the prime seats in the first three rows, as the skateboard sailed over their heads.
     A kind German person retrieved the skateboard and handed it back, and the show went on.
     The reviews were good. They particularly complimented der blasers, as I recall. That would be the woodwind section. With the bass clarinet.

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