David Bruce: Music Anecdotes

In the late 1980s, two Village Voice writers had a disagreement. Nat Hentoff had written something about abortion that upset Allen Barra, and Mr. Barra criticized Mr. Hentoff in a letter to the editor that used the word “fascist” frequently. Mr. Barra was so angry at Mr. Hentoff that he didn’t even ask the jazz enthusiast if he had heard any good jazz albums recently. Not long after, Mr. Barra received a reply from Mr. Hentoff in his Village Voice mail slot. Mr. Hentoff had placed there a good jazz album by Pee Wee Russell. In addition, he left a note: “Hey, give me a break. You may need it yourself some day. P.S. Listen to this. It might clear your head out.” Mr. Berra, with tongue in check, wrote a couple of decades later about Mr. Hentoff, only without the use of the asterisk, “What an *sshole. Instead of jumping into the argument with pettiness and personal acrimony, he sought to create a dialogue with reason, tolerance, and jazz. What can you do with a guy like that?” Mr. Hentoff, of course, is not afraid to express his opinions, even when many or most people disagree with them. And he does not feel obligated to toe a knee-jerk liberal line. In fact, he once told a Village Voice editor, “When I want your opinion, I’ll ask [liberal] Tom Hayden for it.”

The musicians who make up the music group They Might Be Giants—John Linnell and John Flansburgh—occasionally engage themselves in creating engaging oddities of music. For example, on their 2007 album The Else appears a song titled “Contrecoup,” the lyrics of which contain the words “contrecoup” (which means an injury that is caused by a secondary blow), “limerent” (which means intensely and romantically desiring another person), and “craniosophic” (which means “having a deep knowledge of skulls). Why would Mr. Linnell write song lyrics that contain those three particular words? Because lexicologist Erin McKean, editor in chief of the New Oxford American Dictionary, asked him to. She is afraid that these words will vanish because of disuse, and to prevent that from happening she wants creative people to begin using these words.

In 1991, Tim Perlich wanted to interview Canadian jazz musician Oscar Peterson for a cover story in Now Magazine; however, Mr. Peterson checked him out first, telephoning him to ask, “What’s your interest in talking to me?” Mr. Perlich replied that he was impressed that Mr. Peterson had “never given up playing (and recording with) the piano” although many other jazz artists had “switched to electronic keyboards decades earlier.” This was good enough for Mr. Perlich to be invited to Mr. Peterson’s home for an interview, which was held in the basement den. Mr. Perlich expected to see many awards there and he was shocked to see many synthesizers instead. Mr. Peterson told him, “Shhhhhh! A man needs his toys.”

Someone once stole the valuable violin of Rami Salamanov, principal violinist for the Chicago Lyric Opera. Of course, this was a major loss for him, and to replace his violin he needed thousands of dollars, which he did not have and which he could not get a bank loan for. Fortunately, Julius Frankel, a wealthy man who loved the Chicago Lyric Opera, came through in a big way. He wrote out a big check for Mr. Salamanov, who bought the replacement violin. When Mr. Salamanov attempted to give Mr. Frankel a payment on the loan, Mr. Frankel declined to accept the money, saying that the check he had written was not a loan, but was instead a gift.

Danny Elfman wrote the theme for The Simpsons, but Alf Clausen does much of the music that appears within the episodes. In this long-time job, he has had the chance to work with many famous musicians, including the late Tito Puente and his orchestra. When the two men met, Mr. Puente asked, “Well, are you going to tell me what to do, or am I going to tell you what to do?” Mr. Clausen replied, “I’m a really good listener, Tito.” And Mr. Puente said, “Well, good. Then you tell me what to do.” The two men had a good time working together.

The early punk rock group Television wanted to play music at CBGB’s, so they asked owner Hilly Kristal for permission. He asked what kind of music they played, and in return they asked what the sign “CBGB-OMFUG” meant. Hilly told them it meant “Country, Bluegrass, Blues, and Other Music for Uplifting Gourmandizers.” The members of Television then lied and said that that was exactly the kind of music they played.

At one point, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson owned an apartment building in which she lived. However, she ran into a problem. She liked to sing whenever the spirit moved her, and the spirit moved her to sing loud. Unfortunately, the spirit did not always move her tenants to listen to her. She once wrote, “Even though they were my tenants, the people still came flying upstairs to scold me when I sang loud to myself.”

Jimmy Stewart was a big fan of Duke Ellington and his music, and the two even appeared briefly together in the Otto Preminger movie Anatomy of a Movie. Mr. Stewart even started staying up late to listen to Mr. Ellington play the hotel piano—something that adversely affected his early-morning wake-up call to get ready to act. Mr. Preminger was finally forced to forbid Mr. Stewart to stay up late listening to the music.

In 1911, Sir Thomas Beecham hired a soprano from Eastern Europe on the advice of some people from her embassy. She rehearsed with his orchestra for a presentation at Covent Garden of Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame, then left to visit Paris for a few days, promising to return in time for the performance. Sir Thomas never saw her again and never found out what had happened to her.

Country music superstar Chet Atkins once quietly joined a group of musicians who didn’t know who he was and played with them for an hour, then left. As he was leaving, one of the musicians called after him, “You ain’t no Chet Atkins, but you’re pretty damn good.” Mr. Atkins smiled.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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