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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.