The Worst Horn Player|in the World

     I went to the repair shop to pick up my clarinet the other day but the usual guy wasn’t there. An old Mexican trumpet player took my check. I’ll call him Joe. A half-hour chat with him reminded me of all the things I loved about the jazz life.
     You couldn’t have shut Joe up if you shoved a clarinet swab down his throat, but I didn’t want to shut him up; I wanted to listen to his stories. I believed every single one. He told them one after another without indicating at any time that anyone might find any humor in them. It’s just how things were.
     He told me about “the worst sax player in the world,” who made $1 million from one song. I checked it out and it’s all true.
     Chuck Higgins cut “Pachuko Hop” in 1952.
     “He was the worst sax player in the world,” Joe said, cradling his Bach Stradivarius trumpet in his hands. “I thought he recorded it as a joke. But it went to number one in California. Then it went to number one in the nation, and it stayed there forever.
     “When it hit number one nationwide and the residuals started coming in he’d made a million dollars. He was driving a new car, wearing spiffy clothes. And he could hardly play at all. They used to kick him out of jam sessions because he’d play his whole solo in the wrong key. And he didn’t even know it.”
     “Did he keep playing after he cut ‘Pachuko Hop’?” I asked.
     “I don’t know. Who cares? It went to number one in Germany. Then it went to number one in France and England.
     “Bobby Avila used to kick him out of jam sessions. He said, ‘Don’t let that guy come in here again, because if he does I’m going to kick his ass.’ This was after he’d played a whole solo in the wrong key.
     “But pretty soon on gigs people would come up to Bobby and say, ‘Can you play “Pachuko Hop”?’ And Bobby would say, ‘Pachuko Hop,’ what’s that? I told him it was a song by Chuck Higgins and he said, ‘What, that guy?’
     “But I wrote it out for him cause we had to learn it because everybody was always asking for it. Everybody had to play it: Harry James, Count Basie had to play it.”
     Joe shook his head and wandered off into a story about his new, shallower mouthpiece, and how he had to play a session in two weeks and the new mouthpiece …
     Joe is 79 years old. When he wasn’t telling stories he was playing old tunes for me. He loved Chet Baker. He’d never heard of Fats Navarro. Had a distant acquaintance with Clifford Brown. Joe’s roots went way back before be-bop. He told me his father used to play with Jack Teagarden, and I believe it.
     I had to escape the Little Shop of Horns, though. Old jazz stories or not, I had work to do. I picked up my horn and tried to ease on out of there, but Joe followed me, relentlessly telling me stories.
     “Remember Mighty Joe Houston?” he asked.
     “I remember Mighty Joe Young,” I said.
     “He would only play on his back.”
     “A honker, hey?” I said, wistfully looking at my truck, so near and yet …
     “He’d only play one note, and he’d only play on his back,” Joe said, truthfully, I am sure.
     “Hey, man,” I said, “I got to go.”
     Here is a link to Chuck Higgins’ Number One International Hit “Pachuko Hop,” from 1952. I suggest you skip it and do something useful with your life. Wash your truck or something …

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