The following are samples of actual comments made to the members of the Jim Cullum Jazz Band at the Landing in San Antonio, TX or on the road. I couldn’t possibly make this stuff up. I was inspired to collect these by the very entertaining book, Jazz Anecdotes by jazz bassist Bill Crow.
* * * *
Drummer Kevin Dorn was approached one night by a man wanting to know which of our CDs he should buy that “has the most tunes featuring Neil Armstrong.”
* * * *
Guests would often make tune requests. The Jim Cullum Jazz Band specializes in jazz as it was played before WWII, but many people, unaware of this, requested tunes by modern jazz artists with which they are familiar. One such customer asked me, “Do you know anything by John Coltrane?” I explained that no, we don’t play any modern jazz. “You’re kidding, right?” was his incredulous reply.
One night, a young woman, after asking if it was OK to request a tune, said, “Um…let’s see, you’re jazz…” She turned to her companion for help. “What should I request?” He said, “Um…anything by Grover….” There was a brief pause while he searched his brain for the name. Finally, it came to him: “Cleveland!”
* * * *
One night, a large group of high school kids was seated in front of the bandstand. Jim announced the title of one of the Bix Beiderbecke tunes, “Since My Best Gal Turned Me Down.” One of the girls in the group shouted out, “That bitch!”
* * * *
The single most frequently asked question by Landing patrons is “Do you guys have day jobs, or do you do this full-time?” This is actually a fair question, because the majority of musicians currently appearing at Traditional Jazz festivals indeed have some career other music. I usually replied quickly that we’re all life-long full-time musicians, some of us have advanced degrees from music conservatories, have held down other prestigious music jobs, etc.
But occasionally I encountered a doubter. “Nahh, that can’t be right. You must all be lawyers or doctors or something. You’re too well-dressed to be musicians.” Or, “You’re having too much fun up there to be professionals.”
So, to humor such a person, Jim would ask him to guess what he thought each band member’s “real job” might be based on his appearance. The interesting thing about the responses is that they tended to conform to what the person himself was engaged in. If there was a doctors’ convention in town, then we were all dermatologists, cardiologists, etc. If there was a convention of educators, then we turned into high school principals, college professors, etc.
* * * *
Old-school jazz, when played authentically, sometimes provokes some rather weird reactions. Every once in a while, we encountered a customer who, upon first hearing the band, had trouble dealing with long-entrenched musical and racial stereotypes.
One night, a rather tall, thin, well-dressed middle-aged white woman introduced herself to me as a member of the board of the Arts Council of a large state. “Let me ask you a question,” she began, “You guys are way too good to really be into this traditional jazz stuff. Come on, aren’t you all beboppers at heart just putting this on?”
I assured her that the members of the Jim Cullum Jazz Band have made the study of historical jazz a life-long passion. “Well,” she continued, “do you have any minorities in the band?” “Yes,” I replied, “I’m Jewish.” “That’s not what I mean,” she said. “You don’t have any minorities in the band, so it’s much harder for me to sell you to my Arts Council.”
I had no answer to this. I had the feeling there was nothing anyone could ever do to make that particular sale.
* * * *
On another occasion, after a spirited rendition of a Louis Armstrong Hot 5 tune, a fairly large, balding and inebriated white man of about 60 started walking toward the bandstand shouting “White men playing the black man’s music, this is bullshit!” To which Jim replied, “I think you must be a racist.” The man, on his way out the door, shouted “No, you’re the racist! Why don’t you play some Dizzy Gillespie or something?” Then he quickly ducked out the door.
There was a moment of bewildered silence while we all struggled to get our minds around what the man had said. We’re still trying to figure that one out.
* * * *
The Landing in San Antonio was designed by an acoustic engineer to enhance the natural sounds of the instruments so the band could play without the use of amplifiers and only one microphone for vocals and the guitar.
For road gigs, however, sound reinforcement becomes a necessary evil, and we were too often at the mercy of sound technicians. The degree of skill and experience among these folks varies from seasoned professional to rank amateur.
On one concert date, an eager young sound man had beforehand set up an impressive array of microphones, monitor speakers, amplifiers and other gear on stage. This happens quite often—the technicians are merely going with what they know as the requirements of a typical modern performing group.
Jim asked him to please remove everything except for one mic for the vocals and guitar, explaining that the group tried to get as close to an acoustic sound as possible. Not comprehending, the young man said, “Just tell me what I need to do to make it sound acoustic, and I’ll give it to you!”
* * * *
Pianist John Sheridan was with the band for 23 years. Toward the beginning of his tenure, John tipped the scales at over 300 lbs. He decided to do something about this, so he went on a diet and lost 115 lbs. in 4 months (and has managed to keep the weight off, in fact, to this day). Afterward, as is common with people who drastically change their size, he found it necessary to buy a completely new wardrobe.
A few years after he lost the weight, a customer came up to John on a break. “Say,” he said, “you really play great! In fact, I like your playing a whole lot better than that other piano player they had here before you. What was his name again, John Sheridan?”
* * * *
The Landing has an outdoor patio area on the San Antonio Riverwalk. It’s a very pleasant, shady outdoor café where patrons can sit under umbrellas, listen to a live jazz duo, and watch the people and boats passing by while sipping a tasty frozen Margarita.
For several years, I played some of the afternoon 4-hour duo shifts on the patio with pianist John Sheridan. One cloudy fall day, the Riverwalk was deserted and desolate. The sounds of our instruments bounced unheard off the buildings nearby. John and I decided that it was a good time to run through some of the tunes that we don’t normally play so we could get more familiar with them. We stumbled through a few of them, not caring about the occasional “clam” or missed note or chord change.
After about the third tune, we saw the familiar figure of guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli bounding toward us. We knew Bucky well from many encounters at jazz parties and concerts but didn’t know he was in town.
“Hey, you guys,” he said, smiling, “I’m in town with [famed jazz violinist] Stéphane Grappelli. We’re sitting over there at the next restaurant having lunch and we heard every note you played!”
John and I were, of course, mortified. “We were just messing around….” John began. But Bucky was his usual nice self and said, “Nahh, you guys sounded great!”
* * * *
This one was told at Summit Jazz in Colorado by bassist Paul Keller and brought a smile to the face of everyone who heard it.
The revered jazz bassist Milt Hinton died in 2000 at the age of 90. In his later years, and on Riverwalk Jazz, he was fond of performing a song composed for him called “Mona, Take Me Home.” One line of the lyrics was “Now I’m the oldest bass player standing, I’ve got shoes as old as you.”
One year, a jazz festival featured Milt, Paul Keller, and another outstanding bassist–Jay Leonhart. Unfortunately, Jay’s bass fiddle had suffered a serious accident at the hands of one of the airline baggage handlers who dropped it from a baggage cart, breaking the neck of the instrument.
The three bassists were discussing this incident. Jay asked Milt, “Have you ever had your bass dropped from a baggage cart?”
“Baggage cart?” replied Milt, “Hell, they dropped mine from a stagecoach!”
* * * *
In the normal course of performing, instrument malfunctions occur: guitar or banjo strings break, drum heads are punctured, clarinet reeds go bad, etc. While waiting for the broken part to be replaced, Jim Cullum came up with an entertaining time-filler: he would auction off the broken part to the audience members. The bidding would usually start off at a dollar, and the winning bid would typically wind up at about $5, the guest would go home happy with an authentic Landing souvenir and everyone would be entertained, by which time the problem would be fixed and the performance could then resume.
One night, Jim was auctioning off a broken drum head. “What am I bid for this genuine drum head, played by our drummer Ed Torres?” Spirited bidding ensued. After about 3 minutes of escalating bids, a woman’s voice rang out, “A blow job, I’ll give a blow job!”
All eyes turned toward the door where a couple was standing. They both quickly ducked out the door and escaped to the anonymity of the crowded Riverwalk.
There was a moment of stunned silence, then wild laughter for a good 5 minutes. The auction was over.