Jazz, Sex, and Birds
It is well known that Lu Watters’ Yerba Buena Jazz band, in the 1940s, became a phenomenally successful ensemble as America’s first real revivalist band. He also composed a number of jazz tunes, many of which are still popular with traditional jazz audiences and bands. NGJB enjoyed performing these tunes and one, in particular, stands out: “Sage Hen Strut.” He actually named this composition to commemorate the mating habit of a bird! During my various conversations with Lu, I always wanted to ask why he did this but I never got around to it.
The greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus), also known as the sagehen, is the largest grouse in North America. During mating season, when the male of the species gets that special feeling, males fan their tails, strut, and announce their presence by popping air in and out of the yellow gular sacs on their chests—all to attract breeding partners. It was routine for me to inform our audiences of this unique information along with the statement that it was the only jazz tune about the mating habits of birds. Our tubaist, however, insisted that I also include the tune, “Turkey in the Straw,” in that category.
We were playing at a jazz festival in Portland, OR in 1994 when a lady approached the stage and told me, “I know you play many of Lu Watters’ tunes and there is one I am requesting. I can’t remember the name but is something about a horny bird.” I knew immediately what she wanted to hear and we honored her request.
NGJB was the opening band for a small bar, The Pioneer Rex, in downtown Jackson, CA for the 1993 Motherlode Dixieland Jazz Festival. As the band was setting up, it was noted that no piano was present, whereupon the bar owner wheeled out an old, dusty upright from the storage room. Noting the filthy condition of the keys, pianist Pete Clute found an old piece of cloth and began cleaning the keyboard.
This action caused a nearby jazz fan to ask, “Is that why they call it a ragtime piano?”
Bix Fest 1996 – Spiegel and Fritzie
The highlight of this weekend was our Saturday afternoon set dedicated to the senior citizens. Toward the end of the set, NGJB was honored to have the festival’s special guest musician, Spiegel Willcox, age 93, come on stage and join us for a few tunes. Spiegel, the 1995 emperor of jazz at the Sacramento Jubilee, was the last living musician to have played with Bix—and he was an exceptionally delightful individual. Saxophonist Fritzie Hartman, age 85, joined Spiegle and the band for the finale. She was the mother of our trombonist, John Hartman, and had been a child prodigy playing professionally and a member of the musician’s union at age 14!
After we finished the finale and as we were vacating the stage I heard Spiegel impishly say to Fritzie, “Do you need a ride home?”
A Swiss Beer Experience
Tubaist Dave Lewis and I always made it a point to try a sample of the locally made beer whenever we arrived in a new city or country. This resulted in some amazing brew experiences around the world and there was one that differed completely from all the others.
Upon arrival in Zurich, we checked in our hotel and immediately found a nearby bar. Dave then asked the bartender, “What is the best local beer that you have.” The bartender smiled and gave us his one word reply, “German.”