My apologies for posting this story a few days late, but Halloween and the days leading up to it were very busy, plus there was an ‘exceeded bandwidth’ issue on this site which made access to it impossible, even for me. This was not as serious as it looked, and my site administrator Citizen X had it fixed within five minutes of being notified. X told me that congratulations were in order because I’d gone from “Basic” to “Gold” in the bandwidth-use department owing to a greater amount of traffic than the other sites he hosts. Fixing the problem was simply a matter of allotting my site more “juice”. So thanks to all of my readers, I thought I’d forgotten to pay a bill or something. I’m old, yes, but gold? I’ve never earned gold in anything before, though I seem to remember winning a bronze for “Improved Posture” in Grade Three – I had nowhere to go but up. Anyway, on to the story.
In October of 1987 I did a Concord-Fujitsu tour of Japan with that year’s version of the Concord All-Stars, consisting of Warren Vaché on cornet, Dan Barrett on trombone, Scott Hamilton and Red Holloway on tenor saxophone (Red also played some alto), Dave McKenna on piano, Ed Bickert on guitar, Jimmie Smith on drums, and me on bass.
The other bands were the Phil Woods Quintet (Woods,Tom Harrell on trumpet, Hal Galper on piano, Steve Gilmore on bass and Bill Goodwin on drums) and George Shearing in duo with Toronto bassist Neil Swainson. Ernestine Anderson – still in her prime and a delight to be around – was also aboard, performing as a guest singer with each group. It was a kind of travelling jazz festival as we collectively played concerts in all of Japan’s major cities, always returning to Tokyo as a home-away-from-home base.
It was not my first visit to Japan nor would it be my last, but this trip would be the most eventful of them all. It started with several bumps and loud bangs, followed by strange and surprising doings – some comic, others momentous – which continued throughout the tour. I should really write it up while I still have the memories, except that there’s little chance of me forgetting any of it. A wonderful chemistry grew between all the musicians as we traveled together and got to know each other, but what made it really special for me was that my old friend and colleague Neil Swainson was along. It’s not often that two bassists from the same city take part together in a jazz tour of any country, never mind one as far away as Japan. It was a rare chance for Neil and I to hang out on the road Japanese-style and I’d have to say we made the most of it, we had some adventures.
The group I played in was a mainstream, JATP-style octet. Of course I’d played a lot with Ed Bickert, and also with Scott Hamilton and Warren Vaché. But Dan Barrett, Red Holloway and Jimmie Smith were new to me, each of them a delight to play with and get to know. Because Dan was very sociable and my age, and for some other reasons I won’t go into right now, he and I grew particularly close on this trip.
My familiarity with Dave McKenna was between these extremes; we’d done two or three sporadic Concord record dates together so I certainly knew him, but not as well as I did Ed, Scott and Warren. By the time I first met Dave in 1983 he’d cut down on his prodigious eating and stopped drinking altogether. As a result he was less of a terror and much trimmer, though still a huge bear of a man. Whitney Balliett once described him with typical aptness as being “anvil-headed.” Dave screamed “New England maritime”. He looked like the captain of a whaling ship, or someone who’d stepped out of a painting by one of the Wyeths – N.C. or Andrew, take your pick. He always dressed well onstage, but you half-expected him to show up wearing an oilskin sou’wester cap and rubber boots. His hands were giant meat-hooks, but with phenomenally deft fingers that traveled across the keys in many directions at once.
Dave was friendly, but also quiet and a little shy, and he was the only jazz musician I knew who actually used words like “gee”, “gosh” and “golly” regularly. He might have been hard to get to know, but he and I had two things in common that gave us much to talk about: a warm friendship with drummer Jake Hanna and a love of baseball, especially the Boston Red Sox.
On the very first day of the tour I bumped into Dave in the hotel lobby, as he was checking in. It was World Series time and he immediately offered his condolences about the Blue Jays, who had just blown their division race to the Tigers by losing their final seven games. He said he knew how I felt, but that now the Jays had the beginnings of a history. And that it would take a few more decades and collapses for Torontonians to understand how New England baseball fans had felt for eons. It was just a year after the Red Sox had lost the World Series to the Mets, with Bill Buckner’s between-the-legs gaffe opening the floodgates of disaster. We spent some time in mutual commiseration over that and hoped we would be able to see some Series games during the tour, somewhere, somehow.
We had a couple of days to build a band out of nothing but mutual familiarity and everyone knowing a lot of tunes. We had a couple of informal rehearsals, one with Ernestine, to set repertoire and overall approach. Our sets generally opened and closed with some straight-ahead jam numbers that everyone played on – tunes like “Ow”, “Robbin’s Nest”, “Dyna-Flow”, “Swingin’ at the Copper Rail”, “Sophia”, and some others. In between there were feature solo spots for each of the horns – some ballads, an occasional blues or a standard played as a bossa nova to add variety. Sometimes two of the horns would pair off in duos. We didn’t repeat tunes very often and Ed also played some feature numbers with the rhythm section backing him. As one of the world’s greatest solo pianists, McKenna would play his feature spots alone.
Sometimes he would tackle just one tune, giving it a thorough workout. More often though, he would fashion one of his droll medleys of several songs linked by a factor only he was privy to – a common composer, subject, or even just having the same word in the title. Knowing hundreds upon hundreds of songs, he could take this to freakish extremes. One of his solo albums features the “Ignorance Medley”, consisting of “I Didn’t Know About You”, “I Wish I Knew”, “I Don’t Know Enough About You”, “Teach Me Tonight”, “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was”, “I Wonder Why”, “I Don’t Know Why I Love You Like I Do” and “An Apple For the Teacher”.
Some years after this tour, I heard McKenna do this kind of thing playing solo at The Montreal Bistro. It was pouring rain that night, just Biblical, and Dave fashioned a set that kept everyone guessing. He interspersed obvious tunes like “Here’s That Rainy Day”, “Stormy Weather” and “Come Rain Or Come Shine” with others that hardly anyone would know, like “Lilacs In the Rain”, “Keeps On Rainin'”, “With the Wind and the Rain In Your Hair” and an old swing tune simply called “Rain”. It was unbelievable, and left me wondering what he would have played had it been a nice night out.
I said hello between sets and as he went up for his second set, Dave said, “See if you can figure this one out”. He played a bunch of great old standards with no common link that I could fathom and afterward I confessed I was stumped. He smiled in mock disappointment and said “Those were all Harry Warren tunes.” Right, Dave, piece of cake.
Meanwhile, back in Japan…… Dave’s solo features offered a welcome breather to the rest of us and a chance to hear the master at work. Well into the tour, we played a concert in Tokyo and Dave came up with a medley that was strange, even for him. He started out with a slow, ruminative “Ghost Of A Chance”, then kicked it into a turbo-stride version of “Skeleton In the Closet”(!?) and finished it off with a hard-swinging “Witchcraft”. It brought the house down and left me wondering where the hell he pulled this stuff from and what did it all mean? Especially the “Skeleton In the Closet” part, it had me scratching my head.
It wasn’t till after the concert when I was out in the street and saw thousands of Tokyoites in costumes and masks, that I realized – right, of course, it was Halloween. The disorienting culture shock of touring Japan had left me oblivious to things like what day it was, and I had no idea the Japanese celebrated Halloween. I thought of my kids Lee and Graeme – six and four at the time – getting ready to trick or treat that night, or would it be the next night? Or the night before? I couldn’t figure it out, but felt a sharp pang of homesickness, missing them suddenly.
Then McKenna’s medley hit me – a ghost, a skeleton and a witch, and suddenly it made perfect sense. Only he had realized it was Halloween, the sly bugger. My admiration for him, already quite high, grew in leaps and bounds. He was one of the nicest and best musicians I’ve ever known, and one crafty piece of work. Night-night, Dave.
“Skeleton In the Closet” is an obscure old novelty tune which I’d only heard a couple of times before Dave played it that night in Tokyo. For those who don’t know it, here’s a version by Louis Armstrong from 1936, courtesy of YouTube and recently circulated by Ted O’Reilly. It’s unlikely we’ll hear a better one. Some may find it dated and more than a little racist in its flavour – for example, there’s a lot of eye-rolling and a double-entendre “spooks” that registers with irony on Armstrong’s face. No doubt there was all kinds of Jim Crow in Hollywood and elsewhere in America back then, just as there is now. But as always, Louis rises above this with the sheer warmth and humour of his luminous and powerful genius. Thanks again, Pops. For those wondering, the featured drummer is Lionel Hampton, shortly before he joined Benny Goodman and became a star:
As it was a festive occasion and the night was still young, Neil Swainson and I decided to grab a cab and go to our favourite Tokyo jazz club, Body & Soul. It was operated by a welcoming but formidable woman whose name I forget, she was most often called “Mama-san”. She seemed to know every jazz musician of note in the world and the walls near the entrance bore hundreds of their autographs signed in special gold ink. And the small bar near the door was stocked with duty-free bottles of high-end liquor brought as gifts by jazz luminaries.
Neil and I and some of the other guys had visited the club before, attracted by its casual atmosphere of jazz authenticity. Some of us sat in with the good house trio, led by a very hip Japanese pianist. I can’t remember his name, but he was very tall and wore his hair in a ponytail that almost reached his waist. He played in a swinging, funky style that recalled Red Garland, and the bassist and drummer followed suit.
Neil and I were ushered to a booth/table right in front of the bandstand and we waved our greetings to the band, who were just about to start a set. As most of you are aware, the Japanese are crazy about jazz and baseball and as a result, a lot of surprisingly good English is spoken in Japan. But because their own language is unique and so different from ours, certain sounds in the English language elude the Japanese, leading to some funny pronunciations. “L” and “R” pose a problem and are often left out, or reversed. Thus did trumpeter Bill Berry become “Beer Belly” in Japan, and bandleader Percy Faith was once introduced there as “Pussy Face”. Perhaps best of all, poll-winning flautist Herbie Mann was announced on a Japanese tour, no doubt much to the delight of his sidemen, as “America’s number-one fruit.” Clark Terry became “Crack Telly” and drummer Terry Clarke “Telly Crack”.
Neil and I were well aware of all this, but were still unprepared for what we were about to hear. After a couple of trio numbers, a female vocalist was announced, and we thought “uh-oh” on general principle. The band played her on in a minor-key, medium-tempo groove.
Of all the tunes she could have picked, she chose “Love Me Or Leave Me” as her opener. The first lines sounded like this: “Ruv me or reave me, but ret me be ronery…”
Sitting right in front of the singer and ever-mindful of Japanese decorum, Neil and I tried to keep a straight face for about a nano-second, but it was hopeless. One of us sprayed a mouthful of beer across the table, and that did it. We collapsed in helpless laughter, our heads seeking refuge under the table. It got pretty damp down there in a hurry, with beer, snot, saliva and tears flying.
After a few shaky moments Neil managed to croak “I wonder if it’s safe yet?” and eventually we resurfaced to a fish-eye look from the singer. Barely able to look at one another and wrung-out from laughing, we struggled to keep it together through the set, on the knife-edge of hilarity.
After the set we went up to the singer and apologized, concocting a story that one of us had inadvertently told a really funny joke just as she’d come on. She seemed to buy it, nodding and giggling nervously.
Our sense that we’d managed to get away with it was reinforced on our way out when Mama-san treated us each to a giant shot of X.O. cognac from a bottle provided by Eddie Gomez, and then she invited us to sign the wall. Once more, good old Canadian diplomacy had saved the day and an international incident was narrowly averted. Whew.
Cheers, and a belated Happy Halloween.
© 2016, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.