Bobby Hackett remains one of my musical heroes, and I cherish his recordings, the few times I saw him in person, and the sound of his horn in my memory, a sound I can call up at will.
Bobby’s son Ernie—swinging drummer and vivid individualist—has fascinated me since I encountered him on Facebook years ago. Outspoken, tender, kind, hilarious, a man of deep perceptions and deep emotions, he’s been a remarkable presence to me. Recently, thanks to our mutual friend Clyde Groves—who appears here and here (Clyde is Billy Butterfield’s son-in-law)—Ernie and I had a delightful long phone conversation about the people we both love, a few noted in my title, which it is my honor to share with you here.
Now . . . here’s what Ernie told me, just before Christmas 2020—a big present for all of us.
Simplicity was Dad’s art. He loved the melody, and he knew how to play around with the melody, but he never got out of control. He didn’t like the spotlight, the glamour, and he rarely took the first chorus. What always hit me in the family, blessed as I was, was his wonderful sense of humor, his dry, witty sense of humor. He was going through Customs once, and the agent looked at the cornet case and said, “Is that a musical instrument?” Dad’s one-word reply was, “Occasionally.” Little things like that: all my life I was familiar with those little things.
He was one of nine children, in Providence, and he dropped out of school at a very early age, because he started playing gigs, I believe on violin, then ukulele in the beginning. He didn’t play horn until he was in his teens. I didn’t know many of my aunts and uncles, except Aunt Dottie was very very close with Dad, and she had the same type of humor. She and her husband used to visit us, after the family relocated to Cape Cod, because they were coming in from Providence. There’s something about a dry sense of humor with musicians to begin with. I can’t say why, but I’m sure you’ve spotted it. Dad’s favorite phrase, if anybody asked him about politics, was “When the President tells me how to play the horn, then I’ll tell him how to run the country.” Plain and simple, to the point.
When he was home, he constantly practiced in the living room. In his boxer shorts. He never played a tune in his practicing, nothing but scales. Modulating scales, up and down, that’s all he ever practiced. And if people were coming over, he might put his robe on, or a t-shirt. That’s how Billy Butterfield was also. I knew Billy to some degree, because when Dad and Billy happened to be in New York at the same time, and Billy was passing through, he would always stay with us at our house in Jackson Heights. And I’ll always remember, Billy, first thing in the morning, coming down in his shorts – at least he had a t-shirt on – hair all messed up, saying good morning to everybody. He was like a shorter, stubbier Dad.
I’d asked Ernie about Bobby’s generous nature, which sometimes led him to be taken advantage of, and his reaction.
I’d say he shrugged his shoulders, and always moved forward. The one thing that comes to mind would be the Jackie Gleason records. He never berated Jackie Gleason for that. My mother blamed Jack Philbin, his manager at the time, who I just recently learned was Regis Philbin’s father. It was Dad’s decision. He took the ten thousand dollars, because he wanted to buy a house for the family, for us, not knowing what was going to happen in the future. He wasn’t bitter about it. Nobody in the family ever begrudged him for making that decision. He did it for us.
He got along with just about everybody.
Mom was from Fall River, Mass., and Dad was from Providence. I don’t know exactly how they met, but I do know they married on Nantucket, and I think he was with the Casa Loma band at the time. Of course, this is way before my time, so it’s all hearsay and articles that I’m remembering.
Ernie asked his niece, Michelle, and she added this wonderful story: “Grandpa had a two week gig at a posh resort on Nantucket, with full accommodations. He asked Grandma to go with him, but she said she couldn’t travel with him as a single lady. So he suggested that they get married the first day they were there, then they had a two week (all paid) honeymoon on Nantucket.”
They were wonderful friends. It was a rocky marriage at times: we’ve all been through that. I’m sure you know that Dad was an alcoholic. We’ve always been realistic about that. It was out in the open. Dad’s loving term to refer to Mom was “The Warden.” I’m not going to say he never drank at home: he slipped a couple of times. It became ugly when that happened. My sister and I used to spend nights crying at the top of the stairs with Mom and Dad going at it, arguing. A day or two, they’d get over it and Dad would straighten up again.
Incidentally, contrary to popular belief of “Ernie Caceres”—I was named after my Mom’s older brother named Ernest, who died at an early age in a freak bus accident.
When I was about seventeen, I dropped out of high school. I was still playing drums. From what I understand, George Wettling showed me how to hold a pair of drumsticks when I was about five years old, though I don’t remember that. I’d spent a couple of years playing electric guitar in a high school rock and roll band, but I still had a set of drums.
If I hadn’t become a jazz drummer, I probably would have become a rock drummer. Actually my first choice of music was always rock! What sort of pushed my towards jazz was my association with all the guys that worked with Dad!
Dad had a detached garage that he converted into a sound studio, outside the house. I was in there one night and Dad knocked on the door, came in, and said, “How’d you like to come out on the road with me and learn how to play drums?” I was flabbergasted—I was seventeen—and the first thing that came to my mind was “You don’t dare say no to that.” What an experience. And that’s what proceeded to happen over the next couple of years.
The first thing I realized was that when Dad was on the road, he was off the wagon. My first professional gig with Dad was in Allentown, Pennsylvania. It was about a two or three-week stint, and Dave McKenna was with us. And I learned how to drive because it was very rare that Dad and Dave were on the road and could drink together, because Dad had to drive back to the hotel every night. However, they learned quickly that if the kid drove them back home at night, they could have fun during the gig. And that’s how I got my license. It could be sad at times: Dad’s playing suffered quite a bit when he drank, and it was obvious. He was always apologetic to me the next day. He was embarrassed that I saw him like that. But we muddled through it.
I really learned on the job. It was a good education. One of my fortes as a drummer was keeping very good time, not dragging or rushing. And the reason I got that way was because in the beginning, if I started to drag the slightest shade, Dad would stomp his foot, on stage, to the right beat. And, boy, I probably turned beet red. That’s embarrassing! If I started rushing, he would slow me right down. He would correct me immediately. But it paid off. I talk a lot about going into parochial schooling and then into the army, and all the discipline I went through, but when you look back at it as an adult, you’re thankful for it. It taught you. Things were done the right way.
I asked Ernie about Bobby’s dear friend and colleague (and my hero) Vic Dickenson.
Oh, boy. My uncle. He and Dad had a brotherly relationship. The thing that hit me the most is that after Dad passed, Mom and I relocated to New York City from Cape Cod. That’s when I started hanging around Eddie Condon’s and Jimmy Ryan’s, and getting ready to make my move in that direction, and Vic just took me under his wing like you wouldn’t believe. I’ll talk about the risqué parts—the many, many breaks we spent in his Oldsmobile 98, “The Office,” for our smoke breaks.
His sense of humor was astonishing also. Subtle, so subtle. One night at Condon’s, we came out from being in his car on one of the breaks. I remember standing there—he always had the best stuff in the world—I remember getting up on the stage and saying, “How the heck am I going to get through this? My God.” Usually getting high didn’t affect my playing, at least I didn’t think so, anyway, because I was high. So, we started playing, and it was during the first chorus. Now Vic, at Eddie Condon’s, always sat right in front of the mounted tom-tom. And Connie Kay, God bless him, always left his drums for me. So we were playing, and Vic turned around to me with a big smile, and he tapped the tom-tom, and said, “Whaddaya think?” And I said, “Whoa!” and his reply was, “Wait another minute or two. Just wait.”
What a wonderful soul he was, a loving person. You could easily see the love affair between him and Dad. In fact, I was just watching the Just Jazz program, where they were doing “Jitterbug Waltz.” You could just see the love between the two of them. It was just amazing. It was a wonderful show. They had such mutual respect for one another—not only as musicians, but as people. It was really quite a friendship. Vic was family. There was no other way around it. We all loved Uncle Vic, and he was just a sweetheart to all of us. And he never acted drunk. He’d drink Cutty Sark all night long, a straight shot in a glass, and a back of water, but he never lost his cool, ever, no matter how much of it he drank. God bless him. He knew himself—very much so.
I have to tell you about Vic and his joints. When Vic rolled a joint, it was the most perfect joint, and the trick was you’d have to roll it quite loose, and leave some room at the end to tuck that end in with the blunt end of a wooden match. So that way the grass wouldn’t fall out of it. And it was perfectly shaped, like an English Oval cigarette. So I taught myself how to do it, so I could roll a joint just like Uncle Vic. So one night we were in his car, hanging out, and I said, “Here, Vic. Do my stick here,” and he said, “All right, OK,” and I lit it up and handed it to him, and he looked at me and said, “Did I give you this?” And I just had the biggest smile, and I said, “Nope. I made that.” He said, “Get outta here!” I said, “No, I taught myself how to roll like you!” and he just got the biggest kick out of that. What an honor!
Dad had a clique of musician friends who came to the house. I’m told that Louis would occasionally visit our house in Jackson Heights! But I was too young to even remember. There was Ruby Braff, and I think Sam Margolis a couple of times. He was another sweetheart. Sam subbed from time to time at Condon’s, but we also worked together with Max Kaminsky, after Max’s regular drummer, Freddie Moore, a funny gentleman, really nice guy, wanted to retire, and Max asked me if I wanted to be in the band.
I could go on about Max: we had a love-hate relationship. Max could be pretty nasty when he wanted to be. There was one gig he got for us in North Carolina, a wedding at a golf resort. It turned out to be a pain in the neck: Sam was on it with us. We had to fly down, and the gig happened, and then the next day we were supposed to play in the garden for the reception, and it became obvious that we weren’t going to get paid at the end of the gig, but at the month, like a club date, he would have our money.
Well, I was living completely hand to mouth at that time, struggling to keep my studio apartment on Central Park West, and I got so mad at him, really mad. We were returning, and we were at the airport in North Carolina, at a long gateway, and I saw Max walking down from the opposite direction. I was just staring at him, because he knew I wanted my money. But sometimes you’d have to love Max, too. He took me off to the side, and he looked really nervous. He gave me a hundred-dollar bill, maybe half of what I was supposed to get, and he said, “I can’t give you the whole thing now, Ernie, but take this, I hope it helps you. Please don’t tell any of the other guys.” So I shook his hand and I kept his secret. We used to get mad at each other a lot, but we forgot about it the next day and hugged each other.
Tony Bennett wasn’t a frequent visitor to the house, but from time to time he’d pop in. Whenever Dad had these visits, everybody disappeared into the garage—are you familiar with the air freshener / deodorizer Ozium? They used to use that to cover up the marijuana.
On that subject: a few years later, before I was going in to the service, I was doing a four-week gig with Dad in New Orleans, my first opportunity to be in New Orleans, and we were at Al Hirt’s nightclub. At the time Dad had a pseudo-manager named Leo Kappos, a Greek gentleman, short little guy, likeable. Mom hated him, because she knew that he was Dad’s enabler. The funny thing was, that at that time, I’ll be honest with you, I was already a pothead. Dad used to try to smoke grass to stay away from alcohol, but it never really worked for him. So one night, I was going downstairs to the gig, in a tux, and I got in the elevator, and Leo was in there too, just Leo and me. And Leo started laughing, and he said, “Listen, I gotta get you and your Dad together, because the two of you are smoking pot all the time and not letting each other know about it. You gotta get to know each other!” I never forgot that.
Dad would try it from time to time, but his high of choice was beer. He had a very low tolerance, because he had a very slight frame, he always suffered with diabetes, which didn’t make drinking any easier. Half a Heineken and he’d almost be on the floor. It was difficult. He had quite a battle to stay away from that.
I’ll slide that around to another story that involves me introducing myself to Frank Sinatra.
Dad and I were playing at the Riverboat in New York, in the basement of the Empire State Building, 1966 or 1967. It had to be around July 4. Dad was featured, and I guess a six or seven-piece band. And one night, I noticed Tony [Bennett] came in, and he was only there for ten or fifteen minutes. He and Dad kind of disappeared. And at the next break, Dad came over to me, and said, “Listen. Tony told me that Frank’s going to be at Jilly’s tonight. He’s having a party. We’re all welcome to stop in there and join him.” My sister idolized Frank Sinatra all her life, so Dad said to me, “Call Barbara, and have her and her boyfriend meet us at Jilly’s, around 12:30 or 1 AM,” which I did. Dad and I got in a cab—I wasn’t quite driving at that time – up to Jilly’s, on 55th Street, I think it was, and we went in.
The party was in a private room at the back, and people were throwing firecrackers around the bar. It was Frank’s crew, because it was the Fourth of July and he felt like throwing firecrackers around. We went in the back room, Dad and I, and Dad started to drink, had a Heineken. My sister and her boyfriend showed up, and that was it for the family, the four of us, we’re at a table. Off to my left was a long Last Supper-type of table with Mr. Sinatra in the middle of it, with his back against the wall, and he was entertaining the people at the table. So all of a sudden, Dad said, “Ernie, I want you to go over and introduce yourself to Mr. Sinatra.” My legs almost crumpled out from under me, I almost fainted. When Dad was drinking, you didn’t dare say no. So I had to toughen up for this.
I walked behind the back of the table, and I came up right behind—I don’t like calling him Frank, he was Mr. Sinatra to me. He was in the middle of a story, a joke, whatever, and the two goons on either side of him, with their hands in their laps, were staring at me, like, “What are you doing here?” Nothing was said, but they would not take their eyes off me. I was waiting for Mr. Sinatra to end the story so I could quickly tap him on the shoulder and say, “Hi, I’m Ernie Hackett. My Dad said I had to say hi to you,” which is what happened. When I went to tap him on the shoulder, the two goons went to stand up, so right away, I blurted out, “Mr. Sinatra, I’m Ernie Hackett, Bobby Hackett’s son. He told me to come over, I should say hi.” And he was very gracious, stood up, shook my hand, gave me a big smile, said, “Thank you so much, Ernie. Very nice to meet you,” and that was that.
Now we fast-forward ten to fifteen years. Now I was playing at Eddie Condon’s. Dad had passed. Wild Bill Davison was in town, which is going to lead me into another story. I don’t know if you remember at Condon’s, the big table was the round one right in front of the bandstand, and that’s where the celebrities would sit. Sinatra came in with his wife Barbara, and a priest who always traveled with him—I think that was in case he needed the last rites—and three or four other people at the table, to enjoy Wild Bill. After the set ended, and remember, at Eddie Condon’s, the stage was about two or three feet off the ground, I got down from the drums onto the floor, and there was a table right there, and someone started chatting with me, I don’t know, about Dad or something, two or three minutes.
All of a sudden I feel a tap on my shoulder, I turn around, and it’s Frank Sinatra. I couldn’t believe it. He shook my hand, and all he said was, “I just wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed your playing, Ernie. It was just fantastic.” I didn’t know what to say! I just thanked him. I often wonder, with my sense of humor, if I had pulled a Don Rickles on him and said, “Hey, Frank. I’m just talking to people here. Can you wait a minute? I’ll be right with you!” but thank God I didn’t do that. He might have shot me: I don’t know.
But I always liked Frank Sinatra as a person. He was a wonderful, wonderful man, very gracious. He donated—I don’t remember the amount of money—the New Jersey Jazz Society had a benefit for Mom, and I think he donated two or three thousand dollars, which at that time was like ten thousand dollars. And he was at Condon’s one night, waiting for the rest of his entourage to come up from the rest room, and he was under the portrait at the end of the bar, just standing there, staring off into the distance. He wasn’t a very tall gentleman, if you recall. I went up to him and said, “Frank, I’m Ernie Hackett. I don’t know if you remember me,” and he just nodded his head. “I just want to thank you so much for the donation you made for Dad’s benefit,” and all he did was nod his head in acceptance. He wouldn’t talk about anything nice that he did. That was very private to him.
But the punchline is this. And I always wondered, and I would almost guarantee that he came up and tapped me on the shoulder because he remembered that’s how I introduced myself to him. I’ll bet you anything, he said to himself, “I remember that kid. He’s Bobby Hackett’s son. He tapped me on the shoulder once.”
Here’s the side story about Wild Bill. You must know about him and his background. He wasn’t the quietest of souls. Cliff Leeman, of course, was his favorite drummer. And Wild Bill would come in to Condon’s, maybe two or three times a year, for a two-week stint. He always insisted on Cliff being there. This time around, Cliff was starting to fail, and he wasn’t feeling well any longer. So he told Ed Polcer and [Red] Balaban, who ran the place, that he couldn’t make it this time around. Well, Ed and Red decided to give me a shot at it, which I was very thankful for. I get to replace Cliff? Good enough that I’m replacing Connie Kay every night!
So, Monday came, and I’m coming in again with my snare and my stick bag, because Connie always left his drums there for me. I walked in to the club, and I saw that Wild Bill and his wife Anne were sitting all the way in the back, having coffee or something. We had never met. I walked in to the club, deposited my snare drum and bag on the stage, and came up, introduced myself. I said, “Hey, Wild Bill, a pleasure to meet you. I’m Ernie Hackett and I’ll be playing drums with you for the next couple of weeks.” He stood up and shouted, “WHERE THE FUCK IS CLIFF?”
Well, that’s a fine how-d’you-do! How do you get over that one? Well, the ending of it was a sweet story. After the first set, Wild Bill came up to me and said, “I like the way you play.” And then he insisted, going forward, that if Cliff couldn’t make it, I had to be his replacement. So I had another medal on my chest. My head got a little bit bigger at that time. But I’ll never forget WHERE THE FUCK IS CLIFF? That was typical Bill.
Another one was Papa Jo Jones. You know how cantankerous he could be. He took me under his wing, and I used to love hanging with him at the bar after the gig, with the two of us getting drunk, or high, whatever, and he would go on a real rant, a tirade about anything! And then he’d turn around with a sly little smile, and wink at me, like “What kind of reaction did I get from that one?” He was letting me in on his game. He was very much an actor. God, what a talent. He used to sit in at the drums sometimes, after the gig, and just go up there with the brushes and play the drums. And my jaw would be on the floor. Then, the honor of letting me sit next to him at the bar, in his court.
One time, Ruby Braff and I had a falling-out. I joined the club! I interrupted him, one night when he was telling a joke. Oh my God. He stopped talking to me. I tried calling him, and he wouldn’t pick up the phone. Well, he’d pick up the phone (we didn’t have Caller ID back then) and hang up on me. We parted ways. We stayed away from each other a good amount of time, maybe six-seven-eight months. And then, all of a sudden, one night the Magic White Powder parade was marching downstairs and Ruby looked at me and said, “Come on. Come with us.” We both did that. And we came downstairs, we looked at each other, and started laughing, and he gave me a hug and said, “OK. The hatchet’s buried.” I said, “Thank you. It took you long enough,” and we were fine after that.
I loved Jimmy Andrews. Jimmy and I were the closest of friends. He was very quiet, but what a sense of humor, and a gentleman. I loved Mike Burgevin. Jimmy and Mike, they were like brothers. And Mike, a quiet guy but a real gentleman of a person.
My splash on the scene was after Dad passed, and I’m kind of happy it worked like that. It allowed me to be more of myself.
So when Dad passed, we were living up on Cape Cod there, and I was doing a lot of odd gigs there—Mom had the house. Mom wanted to sell the house and move back to New York, which is what we ended up doing, and I got married to my second wife at the time. We went back from Cape Cod to New York and got an apartment there. I thought, I have my drums here, I have a car, I’ve got to start getting into the scene. I’d drive into Manhattan and start hanging out at Condon’s and Ryan’s, three-four times a week, just to hang out, and eventually to sit in, which kind of broke the ice for me, because these guys got to hear what the Hackett kid could do.
And all the Black people had such respect for Dad and everyone took me under their wing. Do you know Jackie Williams? I understand he’s still going—another wonderful friend of the family, a funny, funny guy. I played with Roy Eldridge quite a bit, a wonderful guy, but I don’t think he enjoyed my style of playing as much as Condon’s did. But that didn’t get me. I don’t expect everyone in the world to love my style of drumming. But Roy was a wonderful guy. I loved him, and he always treated me with the utmost respect.
I loved Jimmy McPartland too, a great character. And his wife! We weren’t that close as friends because he wasn’t as much a hanger-outer. I think he was curbing his drinking. Marian was very polite and demure, such a lady, and a fantastic musician. The two of them took me up to Salem, Massachusetts for a one-week gig with Frank Tate—he and I were great buddies, through Dad—and we had a great time.
The hangouts after the gig were the cream of the crop at Condon’s. The gigs were great, but I had to stay sober until the end of it, so I used to ration one Heineken at a break. But then, after the last set, I started mixing shots of Johnnie Black with it, and that’s when the party would begin. It was such an honor to be exposed to all that, to get to know all these guys.
There’s a thirty-minute video on YouTube of a night at Eddie Condon’s. That’s me on drums. I’ll never forget that night. It was, I believe, a Monday night, and I was subbing for Connie. I came in and was setting up my snare drum, and a couple of college-looking kids were setting up very professional video equipment, right in front of the bandstand. And I was always a rabble-rouser. I’m not proud of it all the time, but if there was trouble to be started it was started by me.
I got done setting up the drums and rearranging the stands, and then I came down the stairs and the one guy who seemed to be more in charge—as it turned out, it was Red Balaban’s cousin—I politely asked him, “What are you going to be filming this for?” “Oh, it’s just a college project. It’s nothing more than that.” But there were two very professional-looking cameras. I said, “Oh, really. Is the club planning to pay the band scale for this, for the videotaping?” And he said, “No, we’re just a couple of college students.” I said, “Oh. I have to talk to Eddie Polcer about this,” and that’s how I left it. I think I told one of the college kids, “If the red light goes on, and we’re not getting paid scale, I’m not playing,” and evidently the kid went back to Eddie and told him.
So Eddie came in, and it was getting closer to hit time, maybe 8:30, and we were supposed to be going on in ten or fifteen minutes. I went outside to have a cigarette, and Polcer always bummed cigarettes off of me—that’s another story. Eddie came outside, and said, “So, you’re not going to play if the red light goes on?” I said, “Yeah, exactly. Eddie, you know how this works. You’re going to make a video, you’ve got to pay the musicians.”
We were going back and forth. He didn’t want to give in. Finally, he said to me, “Do you know how much scale is?” “No,” I said, “but we can both find out in the morning with a call to Local 802.” This is what really got under his skin. He said, “If I pay you scale, will you play?” My reply was, “If you pay the whole band scale, yes,” and he just looked at me like he wanted to kill me, and he gave in at that point, “All right. You got it. They’ll all get scale.”
Years later, he was at the Atlanta Jazz Party, and my wife and I, when she was still here, God bless her, we used to go every year and visit with the guys from New York, and Eddie and I remained close friends. We’d hug each other and reminisce. And he told me, years later, “Red Balaban went to his death never knowing that you did that, that night. If I’d ever told him, he would have banned you from the club completely.” I said, “Thank you.” I was always on the ins and the outs with Eddie Condon’s. They finally stopped using me. If you go back and look at that video, Jimmy Andrews and I were the only two they didn’t interview—because we were the rough guys!
The good old days. Just an honor! And as Vic would say, “Ding ding!”
“Just an honor!” sums it up for me. Bless Ernie, and all our heroes above.
Michael Steinman has been published in many jazz periodicals, has written the liner notes for dozens of CDs, and was the New York correspondent for The Mississippi Rag. Since 1982, Michael has been Professor of English at Nassau Community College in Garden City, New York. This story was originally published on Michael Steinman’s excellent blog Jazz Lives (jazzlives.wordpress.com), and is reprinted here with Michael’s permission. Write to Michael at [email protected] May your happiness increase!