Current appearances and short essays by jazz bassist Don Mopsick

Posts Tagged ‘Jim Cullum Jazz Band

Landing Anecdotes

with 4 comments

Landing signThe 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.


Written by Don Mopsick

December 23, 2011 at 7:14 PM

Swingin’ Unplugged

with 2 comments

Electric instruments—especially the electric guitar—have become so universal and ubiquitous in the post-WWII rock-dominated world of pop music that a word had to be invented to denote the old-school way: “unplugged.”

Decades ago, an ad agency for 7-Up came up with the ingenious and successful “un-cola” campaign, and proved that defining things by what they are not can appeal to the impulse to stand out from the crowd, go your own way, and march to the beat of a different drummer.

As a mid-Boomer, I saw my first electric instruments at age 12 when my big brother Mike came home with a Fender Stratocaster guitar and a Precision bass guitar. Both of these instruments are solid-bodied, meaning that they have no acoustic sound of their own—they must be plugged into an amplifier to be heard. Mike let me fool around with the P-bass. In the quiet of our living room, without using the amp I could hear the tiny, plinky sounds the P-bass made well enough to learn how to get around on it.

I also played the trumpet in the junior high school Band, two hours per week during the school day, but after school I played bass guitar in a rock and roll “garage band” with its heady promise of raw sexual power. In theory at least, plugging in an electric guitar converted one’s testosterone into electrons, which were then broadcast directly into the brains of nearby females via an irresistible magnetic beam.

It turned out that we were the first generation of musicians steeped in the dual worlds of loud, electrified rock ‘n roll and softer, subtler unplugged jazz, folk, and classical music.

Jazz had discovered the electric guitar in the late 1930s with Charlie Christian, and Miles Davis embraced rock rhythms and all-electric combinations with his seminal 1971 albums Bitches Brew and In a Silent Way. Since then, electrified rock elements have been important contributors to whatever commercial success jazz has had in recent years. These days, the average listener is likely to encounter a live “jazz” performance not quite up to the volume of a heavy metal band, but very loud nonetheless.

As a young adult professional musician, I went through what I thought of then as reinventing myself as a  “jazz bassist.” In my work I used both the solid-body electric bass guitar and the bass fiddle. According to the fashion of the time, I explored every known method of amplifying the fiddle. My aim was to produce a sound at least loud enough to compete with the other players who would show up to the job with their amps and gear. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was contributing to an endless “arms race” of upwardly spiraling volume levels.

The results were rarely satisfying. In all of my experimenting, I never found a pickup or amp that sounded as good to me as the unplugged bass fiddle did in my practice room at home. The more gear I bought, the more frustrated and disappointed I became. In 1990 Jim Cullum called to offer me an audition with his band in San Antonio with the stipulation that the bass position involved playing strictly unplugged. That immediately got my attention. Then, a phone conversation with bass legend Bob Haggart convinced me that this was the way to go.

Our friend Marty Grosz, acoustic guitarist, singer, raconteur and guest on Riverwalk Jazz, has a lot to say about how electrifying stringed instruments changes the way they function in a jazz setting. “With an amplifier, your sound is not coming out of you, it’s coming from behind you out of a box.” Furthermore, he says, the string height of electric instruments is usually so low that the player feels very little resistance under his fingers. Marty says, you’ve got to have that “fight” or a certain amount of stiffness, to create a pulse that swings.

During 14 happy unplugged, amp-less years with the Cullum band, I’ve come to learn that creating swinging rhythm involves some physical as well as mental effort. I realized why jazz performances captured on old 78-rpm disks often swing more and sound more alive than on more modern ones: The pre-electric player had to learn how to draw a living sound and swinging pulse out of a hollow wooden instrument by moving and controlling a resonating air column with sheer muscle power and musicality.

Now we’re getting somewhere!

Today my music room closet is full of pickups, cables, amps, pre-amps, equalizers, etc., gathering dust. I should probably get rid of all of it on eBay, but it’s nice to know it’s all there in case I have to “go electric” again. But by then it will all probably be way obsolete, and I’ll have to start over from scratch.



Here I am 6 years after I wrote this, living in Southwest Florida and free-lancing. Yup, my gear turned out to be way obsolete. After 19 unplugged years I awoke Rip Van Winkle-like to the world of amplified jazz. I’m using a Gage Realist pickup and an Acoustic Image amp. Sometimes plugging in is unavoidable, especially in those “special” situations where the crowd has been drinking and, their hearing slightly alcohol- impaired, they start barking at each other, even before the band starts playing. Other times it works better if I play unplugged so guests don’t have to shout to have a conversation. That way the rest of the guests who want to hear the music can do so. I’m lucky that I have a nice Mittenwald round-back bass from about 1920 that has a robust sound of its own, especially strung the way it is with high action and gut strings. I bought an electric bass but have not yet used it on a gig down here. And I’m working 7 nights a week. Not every gig situation (or drummer) is suitable for unplugged playing, but those that are are the ones I want.

Written by Don Mopsick

December 23, 2011 at 6:21 PM

Still Driving, Still Breathing

leave a comment »

As early as 1994, I began exchanging email with Jim Robinson about his idea for a movie script involving a tuba player as one of the characters. I had played the tuba in a former life, in fact I had majored in the instrument at the Manhattan School of Music in the seventies.

Ladder of Fire

Ladder of Fire

The tuba is often thought of as a strange, exotic instrument (remember “Ladder of Fire” by the Surrealist painter Magritte?). It’s not exactly the instrument kids think of taking up to be a hit at parties. In fact, professional tuba players are a special breed. Only in the last 40 years has the tuba’s image been liberated from the “oohmpha-and-lederhosen” stereotype by composers like Alec Wilder, Gil Evans; pop acts like Taj Mahal, Leon Redbone; and gifted players such as Harvey Phillips, Howard Johnson, and Sam Pilafian. Sam in particular was my hero, and he was also my first teacher in New York. He is one of the rare players of the instrument equally adept in both the jazz and classical fields, having been one of the founding members of the acclaimed Empire Brass Quintet as well as his own jazz group, Travelin’ Light.

My studies with Sam included an introduction to the classic jazz of the 1920s. The tuba was the bass instrument of choice of bandleaders of that era (pre-electric microphone), and contemporary 1970s bands specializing in vintage jazz provided a lot of work for aspiring tuba players. Sam opened the door to this scene in New York for me.

Severe headaches eventually forced me to quit playing the tuba, but I never lost interest in classic jazz forms, which served me well when in 1991 I began what turned out to be a 19-year tenure as the Jim Cullum Jazz Band’s double bassist.

In 1993, the Jim Cullum Jazz Band was feverishly at work composing tunes for a radio jingle. Chuck Huggins, CEO of See’s Candies and a longtime supporter of the band and our public radio series, Riverwalk Jazz, had commissioned us to compose and record music for the See’s radio ad campaign. Between the seven band members, we came up with about two dozen tunes. Ultimately, John Sheridan’s “Just a Little Bit of Sweetness” was chosen as the See’s theme.

One of my tunes which did not make it was “Chocolate Fantasy.” I had written the melody a year earlier. I had always loved the slow movements of Mahler’s symphonies, and the working title of this tune was “Mahleresque.” For the See’s campaign, I wrote this lyric:

Last night I had a sweet choc’late fantasy,
Velvet ecstasy, it was heavenly.
My deep, dark choc’late dream, how it calls to me!
It could be your dream, too,
I know it can come true.
It was the kind of dream that haunts me throughout the day,
Not quite sin, must give in, can’t delay!
If choc’late was a wish, I’d have two or three
Choc’late fantasies, here at See’s.

My lyric was judged to be a bit racy for the jingle, but Jim Cullum liked the melody, so the lyric was dropped and the tune entered the band’s general playlist simply as “Fantasy.”

When Jim Robinson finally got the ball rolling on his film several years later, he again asked me for help in finding the right tuba player for the soundtrack. There was only one name which came to my mind—who else would be able to handle Bach, Verdi, Chopin, Louis Armstrong, and Bix Beiderbecke in the same session? I got in contact with Sam and he was hired to record with us for Still Breathing. I was also very gratified to learn that Jim Robinson had taken to “Fantasy,” wanted to include it in the soundtrack, and our arrangement of it was to feature Sam playing the melody on tuba.

Also recorded that day was our jazz band arrangement of the “Berceuse” (op. 57) by Chopin, a very important unifying musical theme used throughout the movie. I remember that Jim Robinson took time out from the session to have us listen very intently to his favorite piano recording of the piece so that we might get a sense of the romantic longing he was going for in the film. I was impressed by this.

Here is a YouTube clip from the film containing the band’s appearance (we’re in the 1st 4 minutes or so). Jim Cullum has a few lines. Celeste Holm is syncing Sam’s tuba part on our recording.

That day, I also remember Brendan mugging us through the control booth window. Such a kibitzer, this guy. During the period of the soundtrack recording and shooting of the film, Brendan hung out with us quite a bit at the Landing.

One day, early on in the production period, Brendan and I were discussing how best to appear to be playing a cornet, which he does at one point in the movie. “You studied singing, right?” I asked him. “Sure,” he said. “Well, it looks pretty much the same, the important thing is the breath motion like when you sing,” I told him. When I got to see the finished film, I noticed that, to my musician’s eye, Brendan really did appear to be playing the cornet. Now I know what they’re talking about when they refer to an actor’s craft in “attention to detail.”

Then it was our turn in front of the camera. This was not my first movie shoot, but it was the first time I got a sense of all the different skills that go into making a feature. Everyone on the set seemed to be a top professional in their job, including director Jim Robinson who throughout the day appeared to know exactly what he wanted and how to get it.

The guy that really impressed me was the SteadyCam operator. That thing must have weighed a ton. He could only keep it strapped onto him for a limited time, and they had to re-shoot stuff over and over! He must be an Olympic decathlete in his spare time.

I got a big kick out of seeing the completed film in LA. “Fantasy” is heard behind the puppet show during the party scene. Sam’s inspired tuba work is portrayed by Celeste Holm. Evan Christopher’s brilliant clarinet work can be heard when Brendan’s character drops a phonograph needle onto an old 78 disk of “Blue River.”

During my first tuba lesson with Sam, the very first thing he talked about was the paramount importance of deep breathing in playing the tuba. Tuba players can never get too much air, and my daily practice routine was to start with (before even looking at a tuba) lying on the floor on my back and doing a series of yoga breathing exercises to increase lung capacity. “You have to do this,” he said, “because the tuba is one instrument where you have to be in the driver’s seat, and if you’re not using enough air, before you know it, it’ll be driving you.”

I’m glad to see that Sam is still driving and still breathing.

Written by Don Mopsick

December 22, 2011 at 8:02 PM