Last Minute Jazz Anecdotes

When Andy Senior reminded his writers we had an earlier deadline due to February’s being shy two or three days, there was a bit of a scramble. Hal Smith and I ripped through our Ain’tcha Got Music in “record” time—any misspellings or typos fall squarely on my shoulders as I do the final edit—and I was faced with what to write for this month’s My Inspirations column. With virtually no time this weekend—Anne and I left Jekyll Island, GA yesterday (Feb 10) after a wrap-up with our most recent batch of Road Scholars, made a five-hour drive to the Tampa area, performed a gig today as the Sweet&Hot Quartet for the Clearwater Jazz Society (with legendary reedsman Terry Myers and drummer/vocalist Dick “Spanky” Maley) and now are getting ready for “Bowl” Sunday (not the Super Bowl: the Puppy Bowl, an annual event on Animal Planet, real sports with no steroids: so there!), I had to feverishly flip through my files of as-yet-unpublished folderol. And BOY did I find a doozy! The following snippets involve incidents either eye or ear-witnessed.

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The film “Titanic” came out to great fanfare and of course most of us went out to see it. The late Bob Ault, a ragtime musician from Michigan who was proficient on 27 different instruments, once told me he attended the film with another seminal ragtime performer, the late pianist/historian Trebor Tichenor. The beginning of the movie features underwater photography of the sunken ship, sweeping across various artifacts covered in seaweed including a grand piano replete with fish swimming above and around the keys. As he viewed the lingering shot of the underwater piano, Trebor murmured, “I played a piano like that once…”

Red Wood Coast

I went to see the film with a band in which I was playing at the time on an off-day. Towards the end of the movie, the string orchestra is valiantly playing on deck trying to calm passengers embroiled in the chaos. They finish their tune, and in a shot complete with deck furniture caroming off screaming passengers as they jump overboard in the background, the string bassist looks around, says “Oh what’s the use? Nobody’s listening anyway!” and stomps off. We bandsmen started guffawing and were thrown out of the theater for ruining the mood of the tragic proceedings for those who didn’t appreciate the subtext.

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OVERHEARD: On occasion, an amateur musician with more money than talent worms his/her way onto the stage to sit-in after buying a round of drinks for the band. While the enthusiasm quotient can become much higher, the musical quality inevitably suffers. Thus you often get the following comments:

“Man, I heard what you were trying to do!”

Hot Jazz Jubile

“It doesn’t get any better than that! WHY doesn’t it get any better than that?”

And then these beautiful interchanges:

Sit-in to band member he apparently remembers from the past: “Gee, when’s the last time we played together?”

Band member: “Tonight!”

Sit-in: “Hey, how about we play ___________?”


Band leader: “Why, that’s my second favorite song!”

Sit-in: “Really, what’s your first?”

Band leader: “All the other ones!”


First-hand experiences

I was walking towards the MainStage of one of the festivals years ago to play piano as part of a quartet backing a parade of female vocalists for what some festivals call The Diva Set, during which a bevy of buxom belters blends with a chiffon of chaetiferous chanteuses to exude enough estrogen to harbinge the extinction of the male gender of the species (this eventuality is a given; it’s universally known that women merely keep men around to fulfill the biological imperative, and with technology spurting—a perhaps tasteless but inarguably appropriate verb—in leaps and bounds, testosteronetoting bipeds continue teetering towards termination) when I happened by two vocalists plotting their duet.

One singer asked, “How about doing ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got That Swing?’”

Her partner enthused, “Perfect, I love that tune!”


Well, I sing it in Bb.”

After a brief silence: “Wait, isn’t that too fast?”

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In the UK, my good friend, and terrific trombonist, Jim Fryer was offered a session as leader with a backing band of British musicians already playing at the festival. He chose the name “Jim Fryer and His Jazz Notables” for the ad hoc ensemble. Later in the evening, I ran across the piano player Jim had in his group and asked him how the session had gone. He shook his head, laughing, and said, “There were some pretty tricky roadmaps and we really cocked one of the tunes up; a real train wreck. After they’d cleaned up the blood, the bass player and I renamed the group ‘Jim Fryer and his Jazz Not Ables!’”

Since I’m visiting England, I’ll share a story of a run-in my friend saxophonist John Hallam had with the talented, though notoriously pugnacious, cornetist Ruby Braff some 40 years ago. They were appearing in separate groups at a large UK festival—one of those (then) European fetes that would span two weekends, lasting for nine days. In addition to the huge venues featuring headline groups (one of which Braff was leading) there were smaller venues to accommodate lesser-known, up-and-coming aggregates. Hallam was in attendance standing by the bar of a hotel function-room where a young Gypsy Jazz group was holding forth. In walked Braff flanked by two guys the size of dirigibles. He immediately shouted to the barman to get him a drink.

After a few minutes of Braff’s loud chatter, John tremulously addressed the jazz star,“Oh, excuse me, Mr. Braff, you’re disturbing the band.”

Hey kid, shaddup!” Braff roared before turning back to the bar and noisily demanding service.

Undaunted, Hallam tapped him on the shoulder. When Braff whirled around, John continued, “Take a moment and listen to them, Mr. Braff, they really are quite good…”

Don’t tell ME what to do, you pasty Brit!” barked Braff.

John drew himself up to his full height, grabbed Ruby by the lapels of his jacket, and growled, “Listen, Sunshine, you aren’t big enough to be so awkward!”

A tense silence ensued, finally broken by Ruby swatting John’s hands off his jacket, looking him square in the eye and saying, “Kid, that’s funny! Let’s have a drink!”

John Hallam has another good drink story: Many years ago, he was part of a band providing incidental music for the late, great UK comedian Tommy Cooper (famous lines of his: “Today I had a ploughman’s lunch; he wasn’t half mad!” and “I inherited a painting and a violin which turned out to be a Rembrandt and a Stradivarius. Unfortunately, Rembrandt made lousy violins and Stradivarius was a terrible painter.”). At the intermission, Cooper walked past the band and turned to the pianist/leader, enthusing, “You boys sounded extra good tonight,” then reached into his pocket to produce something he placed in the pianist’s breast pocket while encouraging him, “Get the lads a drink on me!”

The bandleader turned to the band and cried, “To the bar!” John and the band joined the pianist at the bar, where drinks were ordered and enjoyed. When it was time to pay the tab, the pianist reached into his breast pocket, expecting to withdraw a folded-up £20 note and was dismayed to discover Cooper had slipped him a tea bag!

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I have room for one final story: CA trombonist/guitarist/vocalist Steve Drivon revels in sharing an experience from years ago when he was part of a pit band accompanying various acts in a long-running variety show. Everyone—performers, musicians and crew—got along very well, excepting one soprano with a “Don’t-you-know-who-I-think-I-am” complex. Steve and the band would give her friendly greetings backstage and she’d snub them, nose in the air.

AI generated with a prompt for flying fish using Crayon

When they finally got fed up with her rude attitude, they hatched a plan. Her big feature in the show was “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man of Mine” from Show Boat. Whenever they passed her backstage, each musician would start singing sottovoce, “Birds gotta swim, fish gotta fly.” Of course, this elicited no response.

For months they kept at it with nary an eyebrow lift from her to acknowledge their efforts. Finally, the Pay Off! One night, to a packed house, Herself gushed the verse, paused dramatically to gulp in the requisite air, unhinged her jaw and bleated, “Birds gotta swim, fish gotta fly” and the pit musicians fell about in paroxysms of noisy nyuks! The result? She left in huff-and-a-half (being rather zaftig) and the band played on.

I’ll start a future anecdotal entry with that final phrase as the punchline of my first story. In the meantime, I feel compelled to finish this farce by once again quoting Ralph Sutton’s send-off (I used it to conclude my premier column back in July, 2021): “Keep Breathin’!” AND if you come across a swimming bird or flying fish, burst into song!

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Jeff Barnhart is an internationally renowned pianist, vocalist, arranger, bandleader, recording artist, ASCAP composer, educator and entertainer. Visit him online Email: [email protected]

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