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Passing Down a Vibe

David Berger

When I was a young man, I heard a story about a trumpet player who wanted to buy a horn that once belonged to Harry James. The young musician asked the owner of the music store if he could play the trumpet and see how it felt. "Sure, go right ahead," said the smiling older man. So, the youngster proceeded to play all over the horn. It responded beautifully, had a great tone and was really in tune.   The only problem was that every time the young man tried to play a high C, no sound came out. Try as he might, over and over--nothing. He turned to the older gent and asks, "This horn is perfect, but what's up with the high C?" A grin breaks out on the old man, "Harry played so many high C's on this trumpet, he blew the note right off the horn."


Jimmy Maxwell told me this silly story over 40 years ago. I have no idea why I remember it. Jim's point was that there have always been apocryphal stories about jazz musicians. When I got to know Buck Clayton, I had two questions for him:


  1. Was the Old Testament Basie band's repertoire really head charts? He said that when they got to New York in 1937, they had the book memorized, so they didn't bother putting any music on their stands. Early fans saw this and assumed that they just made the charts up. In actuality there were only about a half dozen head charts in all.


  1. Buck is credited with composing One O'Clock Jump. Did he really compose and/or arrange it? When Buck wrote a stock arrangement of this number in 1942, the publisher erroneously credited Buck. One O'Clock Jump was composed by Buster Smith and arranged by Eddie Durham in 1929. Originally titled Blue Balls, when they eventually recorded it for Decca in 1937, the engineer asked what the name of the tune was. Knowing that the title would not be appropriate for public consumption, Basie looked up at the clock and replied, One O'Clock Jump.


As long as we are talking about Basie titles, here are two that I'd like to clear up. Frank Foster's Blues in Hoss' Flat was originally titled Blues In Frankie's Flat. Basie asked Frank to re-title it so that a radio DJ would use it as his theme song, thereby getting a lot of spins and popularizing the tune and Basie's great New Testament band. Unbeknownst to Basie, a few years later, Jerry Lewis performed an hilarious pantomime to the recording in "Chairman of the Board."


Similarly, Smiley (Earl Warren, Basie's lead alto player, not the Supreme Court justice who fudged the Kennedy assassination report) wrote 920 Special for a radio station ID. I don't remember the call letters, but it was 920 on the AM dial. Somewhere along the line someone stuck a colon in the middle and made it 9:20 Special, a sequel of sorts to One O'Clock Jump. It's always gonna be 920 to me.


Getting back to the silly Harry James story, obviously, there is no basis in fact, although Beethoven had a reputation for playing the piano so hard that he often broke strings during performances. More recently, Eric Lewis, aka ELEW, was notorious while he lived above Cleopatra's Needle. He would sit in with the bands near the end of the night and play chorus after chorus of amazing pyrotechnics at volumes that would intimidate drummers. The following morning a piano tuner would need to be summoned to tune the instrument and fix the broken keys. True story.


But what about the opposite? When a musician puts love into an instrument can that affect the molecular structure of the metal or wood? Or can years of vibrations strain the metal of a trumpet, so that the instrument loses its brilliance? Maxwell told me that his best friend, Ray Crisara, bought a new horn every year because he felt that the tone lost its luster. My response was that spending $350 a year was a big expense, to which Jim replied, "It's a pretty good investment to spend $350 to make $100,000. Where else can you get a return like that?" Add to that, we are talking 1974 dollars.


About 20 years ago my girlfriend bought me a book about music therapy. The premise was that our bodies are made up almost entirely of water. When we are exposed to vibrations, the water molecules in our body will vibrate. So if we hear a jack hammer breaking the cement in the street, it will disturb all those molecules in us and we will have an adverse reaction. On the other hand, if we hear pleasing music, the water molecules will be massaged and heal us.


I liked this idea. It seemed to make sense. No wonder I loved music so much. A year or two later, there was an article about a photographer in the Sunday New York Times Magazine Section. This photographer went to a pristine mountain lake in Japan and took pictures of the water. He blew the picture up to 1000 times so that the water molecules were visible. They looked like beautiful crystals.


Then he went to a disgusting polluted pond filled with industrial waste. Again, he took pictures and blew them up 1000 times. The molecules bore no resemblance to crystal. They just looked like sludge.


Next, he returned to the mountain lake, but this time he brought a Walkman and speakers. He played some Bach for the lake. When he blew the pictures up, the crystals looked different, but equally beautiful. Then he played some heavy metal. The molecules looked like the gunky industrial polluted pond molecules.


I know that you are thinking that I'm making this up just to dis heavy metal, but I saw the pictures myself. For me, music is spiritual. It expresses who we are on the deepest level. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington--when I hear their music, my body, mind and soul respond in the most positive ways.


There is a recording studio in New York that has Erroll Garner's piano. Pianists love to record on that instrument. Did Erroll leave some joy in those keys and strings? Many years ago Ruth Ellington offered me Duke's piano. At the time I had no room to fit it, and so I declined. I wish I could live that day over again.


When musicians die, they either bequeath their instruments to colleagues or students, or their spouses or children sell them. When Jimmy Maxwell died, his son David asked Steven Bernstein and me what we would like of Jim's. Steven took his French straight mutes that Cootie had given Jim. These are those plugs that go under the plunger. I took Jim's set of hats that we used with the National Jazz Ensemble and Gerry Mulligan's Concert Jazz Band. My band still uses them to this day. Is there a piece of Jim in them, or am I just being sentimental?


Frank Wess had Johnny Hodges' alto sax. When Jerome Richardson died, he left his alto and soprano to his buddy, Jerry Dodgion. Jerry never sounded better. When Joe Temperley died, his widow, Bondo and I discussed what she should do with his instruments. We figured that he would want the saxophonists in the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra to have some, since he had worked with them for over 20 years. Victor Goines took two or three.


And then there were Joe's students, with whom he had a father/son relationship. They took most of the other horns. I don't know who was more emotional when they came to pick them up, the students or Bondo. For her it was like giving them a piece of Joe, but for each of these musicians, it was getting a piece of Joe's soul every time they breathed into the horn. Carl Maraghi got Joe's Stradivarius. That's what Joe called his main baritone. It may be my imagination, but working with Carl over the last month, I can hear some of Joe's soulful vibe. Maybe it's me, maybe it's Carl feeling different with Joe's instrument in his arms, or maybe it's Joe sending us his love that we miss so much.




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  • Tom Elliott on

    Chuck, your (King) “road bass” makes me tingle every time I pick it up. At an 8am hotel-room bass lesson, Mr. Ray Brown asked, “This thing sounds pretty good. Where’d you get it?” I was proud to tell him.

    Another, similar story: Long ago (before you became my teacher Chuck), I couldn’t play at all. But I gamely went to jam sessions and suitably embarrassed myself. They used to call Along Came Betty but I couldn’t find the music. So when Benny Golson came to Yoshi’s, I bought a ticket. At the break, I introduced myself and asked him where I could get it and he said, “Wait here.” He went to the piano and picked up the lead sheet, scribbled something on it and handed it to me. “We know this one, here you go.” At the top of the page, he had written, “Tom, couldn’t do it without you. Sincerely, Benny Golson.”

  • Christiana Drapkin on

    Deep love shines through all your observations here, David.
    Today was such a challenging day for me, chasing down unpaid gigs, going back to October and November. Getting the run-around, “we now have a 90-day billing cycle.” I feel like Trumpish bullying, stiffing us small “providers,” it’s already infecting some of the ways of doing business, not done in good faith.

    Then, reading your post today, I am so very much reminded why my group was hired in the first place. People might not realize it, but we need to live with music and art and grace, down to our molecular level. The administrative run-arounds, the monetization of what we bring to the scene, but what gets pressed into the marketplace, really takes away from the love and the power and the gift. Thank you for restoring my equilibrium again for the rest of the day.

  • Kenny Berger on

    The late Danny Bank had a tenor that he bought from Sam “The Man” Taylor, a great big-toned Coleman Hawkins disciple. Danny said the horn would start to vibrate the minute he opened the case. Pete Fountain had an old clarinet that belonged to Irving Fazola who included garlic among the many things he consumed in excess. According to Pete he couldn’t play the horn for more than a couple of minutes before the fumes became overwhelming. He was quoted as saying “Fazola lives” whenever anyone played it.

  • Nancy Valentine on

    Beautiful writing! I believe it to be true! Part of you that is expressed attaches to the instrument, whether a trumpet, a piano, a microphone, a costume…even a stage, a movie set or a pair of dancing shoes! It’s true!

  • Chuck Israels on

    Maybe we do some of this with our minds – imbuing characteristics to objects that we can’t prove that they contain physically. But it doesn’t matter. It’s how we fell about them that holds the story and affects the results of our efforts.

    Whenever I look at some Bill Evans autograph lead sheets I have, I am deeply reminded of his musical character. I know your “grass writing” manuscript (though I occasionally have trouble reading it) and Bill Dobbins’ meticulous felt tip pen writing. They both remind me of their authors. My computer generated scores and parts have a minuscule about of graphic personal character but hardly what would show in my handwriting. Maybe that’s something of a loss in favor of clarity and efficient editing possibilities.

    I hope the bass that I played with Bill – the one that now lives in the first chair of the LA Philharmonic – continues to carry some of the qualities of the music that was played on it. Or at least that its owner believes it does, so that it helps to inspire his playing.

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