What’s My Number?

We all struggle with the conundrum regarding Art and Life: which imitates which? Sometimes it seems as if we are watching rather than scriptwriting our own lives, looking from the outside in, as it were. Logically, this sensation is often accompanied by a sense of déjà vu: the feeling something has happened before. The opposite I’ll now dub vuja de: the feeling this has never happened before. It seems every time I hear someone shout out a number, any number really, I flashback to one Wednesday evening in the 1990s when I was playing in a seven-piece traditional jazz band in CT.

The opposite I’ll now dub vuja de: the feeling this has never happened before. Recall that? You are now amongst the first people to experience déjà vu about vuja de!

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Forgive me; I returned from the Bix Beiderbecke Festival with COVID and am experiencing even more brain fog than usual. I was masked at all times indoors except when I was performing on the (BIG) stage, with the nearest person to me nine feet away (I was playing a BIG piano) and this confounded thing finally took me. Two and one-half days into my Paxlovid and I’ve all but forgotten the past two and one-half years. My wife Anne would prefer I forget her, rather than texting every 37 seconds with “I want” or “I need” or “where’s” or just about anything. If she weren’t such a patient angel, she’d have already changed her mobile number (the 21st century equivalent of changing the locks on the door, perhaps).

As I mentioned before falling into the word salad you’ve waded through above, if I hear a number being called out, it takes me back to a fateful night playing with the Hot Cat Jazz Band at our weekly residency at the Griswold Inn. Both the band and location will elicit many more columns, so rich are the stories and experiences. For now, I’ll recount a time when veteran jazz guitarist and wit David Huxtable perpetrated a scam on our leader, trumpeter Ross Tucker.

The Griswold Inn, established 1776, in Essex, CT.

Ross had discovered the merits of pre-bop jazz at the first Great Connecticut Traditional Jazz Festival in 1987 when he appeared in it with the Griswold Inn Banjo Band (both festival and banjo band deserve several columns as well and will receive them in future). Here he heard the likes of Leon Oakley (South Frisco), Lew Green (Salty Dogs), Scott Philbrick (Jimmy Mazzy and Friends) and the late Peter Ecklund (Terry Waldo’s Gotham City Band) and was HOOKED on classic jazz.

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It took Ross five years to get just the band he wanted, but by 1992, he had that band and we were playing two steadies a week: Tuesdays at a pizza joint called Murphy and Scarletti’s (sporting 29 mounted flat screen TVs in every corner and wall space of the joint, including the eight mounted over the dance floor, each playing a different channel—it took Ross two months to convince the proprietors to turn the sound down on them…at least the ones on the stage with us!) and Wednesdays at the Griswold Inn (NO televisions, but there was a pesky corn-popping machine right behind me at the piano).

Griswold Inn taproom

When the leader of a jazz band is the least experienced member of the outfit, there are bound to be some learning curves and some ribbing from the “veterans.” And it’s this latter that brings me to the number game. [N.B.: Virtually every musician knows what follows to be a hoary old joke…and it IS, but we were able to enact it that fateful night! Non-musicians might not have heard of this old onstage tradition.]

After having carefully worked it out with all of the members of the band except Ross, Dave Huxtable put his plan into action midway through the 2nd set. We finished a rousing rendition of “Mabel’s Dream” and Hux yelled out, “14!” All of the band members except Ross fell about laughing. Ross turned around confused and slightly annoyed. He called the next tune, “Blue Bells, Goodbye” and off we went.

When that one finished, the applause ended and Sal Ranniello, our drummer, shouted “89!” More laughter from the band and more irritation from Ross.

Perturbed but single-minded, Ross stomped off the next tune, “Michigander Blues.” After the tune, trombonist Jim Fryer bellowed, “42!” The laughter from the band grew and grew. Ross was doing a fair Linda Blair impression trying to figure out how the numbers and nyuks nyuks were connected.

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Clearly daunted but indefatigable, Ross gamely began “High Society.” During all the solos, he was whipping his head around trying to catch somebody up to something! No luck. The tune ended and I barked, “112!” Everyone laughed but Ross, and our tuba player John Banker rejoined, “Gee, I haven’t heard that in a LOONNGG time!” That brought even more mirth.

By now, savvier members of the audience had caught on to what we were doing and were laughing after each number was called out as well, partly for the fun of the prank and partly directly at Ross, who still could not fathom what was happening around him.

The next tune was the audience favorite, “Tin Roof Blues.” We took our time with it letting the farce, and Ross, simmer. When we concluded that tune, Ross swung around on us, fire in his eyes. He looked at each of us one by one and finally set his eyes on our reedsman, Noel Kaletsky. Noel looked sheepishly up at Ross who slowly turned his squinty gaze back to the audience in triumph. “That’s enough of that, isn’t it folks?” you could almost hear him saying. He lifted up his horn, put it to his lips and prepared to begin the famous Armstong intro to “West End Blues” when Noel squeaked, “…six…?”…

The place erupted. Every musician and audience member was breathless, holding their sides, tears streaming down their faces. After about a minute of uncontrollable gaiety, Ross demanded, “Just WHAT has been going on here?”

“Oh,” Hux, exclaimed, “You mean you don’t know? I’m so relieved to hear that, Ross. I thought you’d lost your sense of humor. The cats in this band have been performing jazz so long that we know all of each other’s jokes AND all the jokes told on the bandstand. To save time, rather than retelling them, we’ve simply given each joke a number. That way we can simply call out the number of the joke we want to tell and since everyone knows what joke goes with that number, we all have a good laugh! Many of these audience members have been listening to this music for years and I’m sure you’ve seen some of them laughing as well.”

“That has got to be the most asinine thing I’ve ever heard!” Ross blurted. “That’s absurd! That can’t possibly be!” He shook his head to clear it, called off “Chatanooga Stomp,” and off we went. At the end of the tune, he looked around at us and was satisfied this charade had played itself out. Just then, a regular attendee, Woody, intoned “58!” from the audience.

The whole band (minus Ross) collapsed in paroxysms of giggles. Afterwards, Sal looked confusedly over at Woody and said, “Woody, I thought we removed that one a while ago.” That got everyone laughing some more and Ross was fit to chew nails.

He called our final tune of the set, “Emperor Norton’s Hunch,” and we blazed through it to the typical, albeit inebriated, audience furor at the end. The applause died down; we all sat or stood looking at Ross and the place went silent.

“75!!” He victoriously shouted.

Nothing; crickets; a vacuum.

Another five beats and Hux gently chided, “Ross, you never could tell a joke.”

It took him three weeks to speak to any of us again. Sad, really: “75” was actually one of the best jokes in the book. Of course, some déjà vu and some déjà von’t!

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

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