Archive for June, 2009

After The Gig With Dave Brubeck

Saturday, June 20th, 2009

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ONE SATURDAY NIGHT near the end of my first semester as a freshman at UCLA the Dave Brubeck Quartet performed at Kirkhoff Hall and, for students, admission was free. The band consisted of its four original members, Paul Desmond on alto sax, Brubeck on piano, Eugene Wright on bass, and Joe Morello on drums.

They played tunes from their albums and ended with Take Five. The hall had two or three hundred seats and the acoustics were mediocre at best; the rectangular room had vinyl flooring, big picture windows along one wall, and almost no non-reflective surface except for the audience.

The performance was clean and polished and professional. It lacked sparkle or much excitement. The band must have played the same program hundreds of times before. The audience was appreciative but less than enthusiastic. Desmond’s solo on Take Five may have been his most inspired of the night but it went on too long. And then the concert was over. Everybody dispersed.

I had gone alone and decided to hang around for awhile outside. It occurred to me I might have a chance to see the musicians after the show and maybe talk to one of them so I wandered to the rear of the building and waited out in the cold, autumn night near a loading area. A few minutes later three men came out of a back door and walked toward me. Two kept going but one noticed me and said, “Hi, I’m Dave Brubeck. Were you at the concert?”

I was seventeen. I had no idea what to say to him so I just said, “Yes. It was pretty good.”

He asked, “Are you a musician?” and I answered, “Yeah. I play clarinet.”

Brubeck then wanted to know if I played jazz. Yes, I did. And then the key question: “Are you thinking about playing professionally?”

I told him the simple truth. “Well, I want to but my parents think it’s a bad idea.”

Dave Brubeck then spoke words of wisdom I have never forgotten: “Listen to your parents. They’re right. Jazz is great and you should keep playing it. But don’t do it as a profession. It’s a terrible life. By the way, what’s your name?”

“Russ.”

“Well, Russ, good luck; nice to meet you.” And off he went.

Wow. I had just had a conversation with Dave Brubeck! I headed out of the courtyard, down the hill past Pauley Pavillion, and then up the half-mile climb to the residence hall where I lived. I wondered why a big star like Brubeck would have discouraged me from trying to make a living from jazz.

Then I realized I’d never seen Paul Desmond. Maybe, if I’d had a chance to talk to him, his opinion might have been different.

No fool like a musician.

When I Was Sixteen It Was A Very Good Year

Tuesday, June 2nd, 2009

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AT THE AGE of 16 I passed my driver’s test and my parents let me borrow the car on the third Sunday of every month to drive 45 minutes to Glendale. The Southern California Hot Jazz Society met at an American Legion Hall there from early afternoon until dinnertime and musicians from all over congregated for jam sessions. Not only did the rare young aspiring jazz musician such as myself, Mike Silverman, Ira Nepus, and Tom Kubis manage to attend but also the pros. They included younger working jazz musicians, former Swing era stars, and even a couple of veterans from the 1920s New Orleans riverboats. The music director, Gordon Mitchell, assembled everyone into five to eight piece bands and each group played at least one 45 minute set.

Nobody used music. We had to play by ear. That was pretty difficult for me because I knew nothing about harmony then and had never played or even heard half the tunes. But I would stumble through what I didn’t know and try to make up for my errors when the leader called a tune I found more familiar. Most of the musicians were thirty and older but everyone tried to be encouraging and sometimes even teach me something.

Here are some of the more notable musicians I played with:

Johnny Guarnieri (all star pianist with the Benny Goodman sextet and Artie Shaw)
Wild Bill Davison (a star cornet player with many New York Dixieland groups including Eddie Condon’s bands)
Barney Bigard (a star clarinetist with Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong)
Toody (Montudy) Garland (a bass player from the early days of New Orleans Dixieland who worked with Kid Ory)
Johnny St. Cyr (a banjo player from the early days of New Orleans Dixieland who worked with Louis Armstrong)
Pete Daley (a cornet player who made some very good Dixie records in the 1940s)
Leonard Bechet (soprano sax; Sidney Bechet’s nephew)
Johnny Lucas (trumpet and leader of the Blueblowers)
Teddy Buckner (a very good trumpet player)
Joe Darensbourg (clarinet)
Alton Purnell (a good pianist who worked with clarinetist George Lewis and veteran trumpet player Bunk Johnson)
Mike DeLay (trumpet; also worked at Disneyland)
Charles “Buddy” Burns (bass, and he knew how to swing)
members of the famous Firehouse Five Plus Two Dixieland band

I probably have forgotten two or three others.

Where could you find an analogous situation today? Nowhere I know of. I doubt even an aspiring rock musician regularly could sit in with as many seasoned professsionals.

Well, them days is gone forever. Today musicians practice and sometimes even record with computer generated ensembles. Computers are convenient and play the proper chords and never show up late for a gig. They are a wonderful invention. But it was vastly more fun and infinitely more satisfying and instructive to play with musicians I had listened to on records and the radio. Besides, I always had something interesting to tell my family when I came home.