The Thrill of First-Nighting

Recently, I began an email correspondence with the multi-faceted, New York-based jazz figure Bill Kirchner [1], on whom more later. Bill stumbled across my blog and left some nice comments, then contacted me by email. We’ve been back and forth quite a bit, exchanging thoughts, information and stories. We’re about the same age and while he’s a lot more accomplished than I could ever hope to be, we have a lot in common, including knowing some of the same people. Among other things, he sent me a link to an interview he did with Ethan Iverson, which made for very interesting reading indeed.

The other day I sent him some of the following stories which were suggested to me by various things in the interview and other subjects we’d discussed, which I’ll explain as I go along. He got back to me urging me to publish these stories, something which some other friends have been after me to do. I’ve wanted to make the posts a little more personal by including some stories from my own experiences, along with some of the more historical/biographical stuff I’ve been writing, which tends to be longer and drier. I’ve been reluctant to do so though, fearing that some “bandstand moments” don’t always translate – you know, the old case of “You had to be there…”. Also, some of the funniest stories are not always kind to everyone involved, and I have no wish to be unkind, there’s enough of that in the world already. For these reasons, I’ve withheld some names in a couple of these stories to protect the innocent and/or guilty.

After thinking about these stories, I realized that the common thread in all of them was that they each stemmed from the various first nights I ever played with Jackie Cain, Benny Carter, Al Cohn and Buddy Tate, long ago. The one about Phil Woods didn’t come from playing with him, but from the first time I ever heard him live in a club, which also happened to be the opening night of his engagement there. For this reason, I’m calling this one “The Thrill of First-Nighting”, borrowing a phrase from “Autumn In New York”.

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Jackie Cain. Bill Kirchner very generously sent me two of his first-rate CDs, the later of which features the wonderful singer Jackie Cain on two tracks and I mentioned to Bill that I’d worked with Jackie and her husband Roy Kral a number of times. I knew that  Roy died some years ago and Bill shared with me the distressing news that Jackie has been suffering from advanced dementia in recent years and that he stays in touch with Jackie’s daughter Dana, who’s been looking after her. Things have taken a turn for the worse lately, Jackie’s now a quadriplegic and has lost her sight. I feel awful about this and the best thing to do in a case like this – the only thing, really – is to remember the person at their best. Here’s how I remember Jackie Cain:

I worked with Jackie and Roy quite a few times in various Toronto clubs from 1983 on. Playing with them was a wonderful experience; they were very nice people and they knew everything and everybody connected with song. Roy was a nice guy, but all business, being the more serious of the two and a bit of a perfectionist. To be fair to Roy though, he wrote all their arrangements, played piano and sang, so he had a lot on his mind. Jackie knew this and tended to be a little looser and more humorous, as if to lighten things a little. The first time I worked with them they had a good vibes player named Paul Johnson with them and we played two weeks in a club where drummer Don Vickery and I were the house rhythm section. We had a long rehearsal on the Monday afternoon; there was a lot of music to get through, some of it fairly straight-ahead, but some of it pretty involved. It all went fine, and so did the gig that first night, right up to the very last tune. I forget what the tune was, but I made a pretty bad, exposed mistake – I missed a coda or skipped a line or something – we recovered, but I saw Roy kind of wince, he wasn’t too happy. He was cool about it later though, he went over the chart with me to make sure I had it right, and I apologized, explaining it was more a concentration slip than anything.

Anyway, I got off the stand feeling pretty bummed out – everything had gone so well, why did I have to goof so near the end? Jackie was standing at the end of the bar smoking a cigarette. looking like a little porcelain doll as always. She said quite ironically, “So Roy gave you a detention, huh?” and then, “Steve, you sounded great. Don’t worry about it – I step on it all the time, and I don’t even have one.” [2].

It took me a second to get it, then I burst out laughing, a little shocked that someone so ladylike and elegant could also be so earthy. It put me totally at ease and I fell in love with her instantly, right then and there. Nobody can ever say anything bad about Jackie Cain around me and get away with it – then again, nobody ever has, or would.

She sang “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” every night of course, people expected it. She must have sung it thousands of times, but somehow she always managed to make it sound like she was singing it for the very first time, which I believe is called artistry. I lived for this every night, it’s not that often that you get to play such a special and beautiful song with the singer it was actually written for. It got to me every time, I had a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes, I was helpless. Jackie picked up on this and it got to be kind of a joke between us. When singing “Spring”, she kept a tissue and held it behind her back so nobody else could see it, and she’d kind of wave it at me, like “take it if you need it”. It put me in that terrifying state where I was on the verge of cracking up but couldn’t and a couple of times I nearly passed out trying to keep it together. I could have killed her for this but also loved it at the same time. What a great lady, the best. Sweet dreams Jackie, and may the peace of sleep come soon.

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Al Cohn. This story wasn’t among the ones I sent Bill Kirchner, I thought of it later.

The first time I worked with Al Cohn was a long time ago, probably 1976 or ’77, so I was pretty young, 19 or 20. It was just one night as a sub, during a two-week stint he was playing at a Toronto club called Bourbon Street, which generally featured American headliners backed by local trios. The other guys in the band were pianist Bernie Senensky and drummer Jerry Fuller, both veterans whom I would play a lot with in the future. Jerry’s been gone for about fifteen years now and was one of my major mentors; Bernie recently turned 70 and we still play together pretty regularly.

I knew I was in way over my head this night and so did Al, he sensed how nervous I was. He could have shown an understandable irritation at such an unseasoned sub and suffered me, which would have only made matters worse. But, being the kind of guy he was, he took the practical route and tried to put me at ease. He sat down with me before the gig and gave me some pointers, asking me what tunes I knew and telling me if I didn’t want to take a bass solo, to just nod no, (which I did a lot of), while telling me not to worry about playing “in two” much except for the ballads, that “straight four” would do. He also showed me some lead sheets he had for some of the tunes I might not know (which there were a lot of.) He let me get comfortable by calling a medium B-flat blues as the first tune and having me walk a few choruses with the other guys as an intro, which was smart. I started to gradually relax with all this and I remember “In A Mellotone” in particular started to feel pretty good, mainly because I knew that one really well. A lot of the night is now a blur, but one of the big things I realized was that maybe I should start learning some tunes for real, because the more you know, the more confidently you can play.

I guess by the third and final set, Al figured I’d gotten my feet wet, as he turned to me and asked, “Steve, do you know ‘Them There Eyes’ ?” I answered no, and he said in his dry, Brooklyn-inflected W.C. Fields voice, “Well, I think it’s high time you learned it, we’re in F” and immediately counted it off at a pretty fast tempo. Bernie and Jerry both shepherded me through it (as they did a lot that night), the three of us laughing all the while. Al even made me play a bass solo on it, even though I shook my head no, saying “No, really Steve, play through, don’t be modest .” I remember him turning around and saying with some irony, “Now…that wasn’t so bad, was it? Sooner or later, you have to get some on ya”. What I remember best is at the end of the night, he shook my hand and said, “Nice job, Steve, and next time we play, try to be a little older, would ya?” Mostly Al got me through that gig with his unique blend of patience and humour.

This was actually the only night I ever played with Al in Toronto, but I got the chance to play a lot with him years later in the summer of 1985, when I played an extended tour with a small group led by Woody Herman, which Jake Hanna aced me on when the intended bassist, George Duvivier, was stricken with terminal cancer. Al was in that band along with Woody, Sweets Edison, Buddy Tate, John Bunch, Nat Pierce (who each played piano for portions of the tour), and Jake. I came to know Al very well from this, something I treasure to this day; he was the funniest jazz musician I ever met – which is saying something – and also one of the best.

Benny Carter. Kirchner talks about Benny Carter at some length in his interview with Iverson, mentioning how dignified Carter was, which made me remember this story. 

I still don’t quite believe this story about Benny Carter, even though it happened to me. I worked with Benny for exactly one night, as a sub, around 1982 or so. I don’t remember a lot of details about it, except that Benny was delightful to be around and everything went smoothly and we played some wonderful tunes, including some of his. A bandstand with Benny Carter on it was one of the happiest, most relaxed and respectful places I’ve ever been. Everybody parked their own agendas and played better than usual just because he was there; it was like this force field, a presence.

(As an aside, it was similar with Zoot Sims when it came to swinging and rhythm sections. I worked with Zoot quite a lot but one time I went to hear him when I wasn’t on the gig. He was playing with a good local rhythm section of guys that I knew. They played a trio tune out front and sounded good. Then Zoot got up there and didn’t say a goddamn word, just called the next tune and counted it in. The trio came in and played an intro, and they were swinging twice as hard as they had been, even though Zoot wasn’t even playing yet. I swear to God, it was just because he was standing there.)

Anyway, about eight or ten years after playing that one night with Benny, I was in an airport somewhere in Europe, humping my bass coffin around. I stopped to take a rest and heard a familiar voice say, “Steve Wallace, Toronto – how have you been?” I looked up and it was Benny and I just about fainted. I’d heard Benny never forgot a name or face, but still I was dumbfounded; I worked with the guy one night years before and he remembered my name and the gig and the whole thing. So we had a nice chat and got caught up and he asked me to remember him to some guys in Toronto, especially Don Vickery, who he really liked. That was the last time I saw Benny, but I’ll treasure it forever. He made you feel like an equal, even though you knew you weren’t even close – is that not the very definition of graciousness? Religious people talk about seeing God and all I can say is seeing Benny Carter came pretty close.

Don Vickery is a terrific photographer and has a picture he took of Benny at one of the great Christmas parties Don and his wife Fay used to throw. I was at a few, but unfortunately not this one. Benny’s sitting in an armchair, with a cello between his legs, of all things, kind of plucking it and grinning a big warm smile, his eyes dancing. He’s feeling no pain at all, but still radiates a charm. It’s a classic.

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Buddy Tate. Bill Kirchner tells a story in the interview about a drummer who shall remain nameless, who was playing a concert with Benny Carter, Ray Bryant and Larry Ridley. Benny called “Perdido” and let the drummer play a solo, and he just went on and on, playing way past his welcome and Benny never waved the band back in, he just stood there and waited, until the guy ran out of gas and just petered out. Then he went to the microphone and said, “You know ladies and gentleman, so-and-so is such a great drummer, nobody can follow him”. I saw something similar happen with a drummer the first time I played with Buddy Tate, also at Bourbon St.

The first night I ever worked with Buddy Tate was early in 1979, again as a sub, and I was maybe 22. I did okay though, because I was already addicted to Count Basie and that whole bag and knew most of the tunes, plus the piano player was Ian Bargh, who had worked with Buddy a lot and really knew Kansas City-style piano. The drummer was also a sub, one who was renowned for his polyrhythmic approach and playing across the bar lines, but wasn’t inclined toward, shall we say, “stylistic adaptability”. He was a good player and I generally liked playing with him, but sometimes he overdid the “hi-hat on seven and thirteen” thing. You know? Like, “Jumpin’ at the Woodside” is not a Greek wedding tune. I guess he did this once or twice too often that night with Lady Tate, because at the end of the night Buddy came over to me and said, “Nice job Steve, you’re welcome back anytime, come and sit in some night.” Then he turned to the drummer and said, “It was nice playing with your band.” There was a definite message there, but it was delivered with such subtlety that it went right over the drummer’s head.

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That story reminded me of one on the same subject involving Phil Woods in September of 1975; I remember the date because it was the first day I attended college. I went to hear Phil on his opening night at Bourbon St., playing with a local rhythm section of three people who were good players, but were never going to play together in a million years, it was just all wrong. The pianist was a good musician, but not suitable for Phil’s bag and the bassist was also good, but a little diffident at that point, which scuppered things a bit. The strongest of them was the drummer, who was a brilliant and very original player, but could be wildly inconsistent and moody. When he got bugged at who he was playing with – like the bass player and pianist that night – look out, all hell could break loose. Phil played “Speak Low” at a pretty fair clip and the drummer, trying to overcompensate for the others, sounded like he was building a ship back there. When it was over, Phil grabbed the microphone and said, “Folks, the name of that song was Speak Low”……..then, glaring back at the drummer as he continued, “…and carry a big stick.” I just about fell over. Things got so bad that Phil actually sent the rhythm section home and called it a night after one set, saying, “Folks, this is jazz. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. This ain’t workin’ so, good night, we’re done.” I’ve never seen anyone else have the balls to do that and I’ll never forget it.

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There’s another memorable story – an infamous story, actually – about the first night I ever worked with Mose Allison, but I think I’ll leave that one for another time. It’s quite different in nature from these others and is complicated and requires some set-up, so I think I’ll tell that one on its own. In the meantime, I hope readers have enjoyed these stories of opening nights, which tend to stay with me because I was on high alert. I’ll readily admit I’m biased, but most of the best people I’ve known have been musicians. Their generosity, honesty, spirit, humour and wit can just spoil you for other people and I’ve been lucky to have known so many good ones.

Notes. [1]. I referred to Bill Kirchner as a “jazz figure” because “jazz musician”, while accurate, doesn’t quite cover all that he does. He’s quite well-known, but deserves to be even better known than he is. He hardly needs me to pump up his tires, but for those who don’t know of him, he’s an excellent saxophonist and composer-arranger who has played with and written for a whole host of people. For many years he led an excellent nonet, for which he did a lot of the writing. He’s also a jazz historian and scholar, an educator (at The New School In Manhattan, where he has taught jazz history, arranging and score analysis for 24 years), a broadcaster (for NPR) and an excellent writer. He was the editor of the 2001 Oxford Companion to Jazz and A Miles Davis Reader, from 1997. He’s written fine, in-depth liner notes for many jazz labels including Mosaic, in fact he won a Grammy Award in 1998 for his great liner notes to Columbia’s release of Miles Davis and Gil Evans: The Complete Columbia Recordings.

These are just kind of the highlights, there’s much more. In short, he’s a kind of all-purpose jazz whiz and that rarity of rarities – an extremely intelligent guy who knows his worth but is also a really down-to-earth, nice guy, a mensch. I hope to meet him in person one day, I’ve really enjoyed our exchanges and have learned a great deal from them. He’s been very encouraging about my writing, which kind of blows me away. He sent me two of his CDs, which are both extremely good and perhaps in the future and with his permission, I may write something about them, because I found them so thought-provoking. You can learn more about him by Googling Bill Kirchner Jazz, which will take you to his website.

[2]. Some of you civilian types may not know what Jackie Cain meant when she said, “I step on it all the time…” There’s an old saying among musicians that when they make a bad mistake, they’re “stepping on their dick”. Take it from there……

© 2014, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.

6 thoughts on “The Thrill of First-Nighting

  1. Hey Steve, I agree that you should have these published if possible. They are really well written and the combination of a knowledgeable, down to earth writer along with some ‘in the trenches’ personal stories are magic.
    I hope you are well. I am enjoying ‘retirement.’ All is well here and I look forward to your your next post.
    Cheers,
    -dh

  2. Dearest Steve, I am thrilled that you will finally write your book. I shall be first in line (or on-line) when volume one appears.
    When I began my memoir (still in process), I allowed only my elderly friend Jo read my, stream of conscious, notes. One day when i returned to Toronto and visited her in her nursing home she said seriously ” Almeta, your book will have to be like Winston Churchhill’s, and i ask why is that Jo, she said well it will be so long it will have to be in two volumes. I was taken aback as i thought she knew these were notes and sketches. As I began to protest she laughed heartily and said she been waiting to tell me that for weeks. Yours on the other hands will be more than one volume. Be well and keep up the excellent work. Almeta Speaks

  3. Thanks for sharing those stories Steve, they re-kindled a few memorable first-nighters
    I had during my tenure in Toronto and also the many evenings I spent listening to you backing numerous great players in Bourbon St. or George’s………always cookin’ but also respectful of the artist and the style of music being played.

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