David Bruce: Music Anecdotes

The Ramones were an odd-looking group to many people in the American Midwest. On one tour, they had been in a van for hours, and when they finally got out—somewhat bedraggled—and went into a Texas gas-station mini-market, the gas-station attendant turned to tour manager Monte A. Melnick and said, “It’s so nice of you to take care of those retarded boys.” Other people grouped the Ramones with such bands as the Sex Pistols because they played punk rock. Of course, the Sex Pistols were loud and cruel in their personal lives, and they trashed motel rooms. In the 1970s, in Cincinnati, Ohio, the Ramones stayed in a motel where the Sex Pistols had stayed, and Mr. Melnick saw this note behind the desk: “Watch out for the Ramones. They are dangerous.” Actually, the Ramones didn’t trash many motel or hotel rooms—they simply weren’t making enough money to pay for the damage. Not making much money led to some creative cost-cutting maneuvers. They discovered that in exchange for a few autographed photographs, they could often get free meals at such restaurants as the Cracker Barrel, and so they carried around a lot of autographed photographs just for that purpose.

As a child, future heavyweight champion Joe Louis sometimes fought other children in the streets. His mother wanted him to stay busy and stay out of trouble, so she bought him a violin and made him take violin lessons, something for which he had no aptitude. Of course, many of the people around him teased him about the violin. One day, Golden Gloves champion Thurston McKinney invited him to spar for a few rounds. At first, Mr. McKinney was able to hit Mr. Louis at will, but Mr. Louis got mad and hit Mr. McKinney—hard. Mr. McKinnon shook it off, then advised Mr. Louis, “Man, throw that violin away!” Mr. Louis did get rid of the violin. Another kid teased him once too often about it, so Mr. Louis broke it over the kid’s head.

Jazz musicians strive for perfection in their improvising; in fact, this striving is what Oscar Peterson calls the “will to perfection,” which he explains by saying that “it requires you to collect all your senses, emotions, physical strength, and mental power, and focus them entirely onto the performance, with utter dedication, every time you play. And if that is scary, it is also uniquely exciting … you never get rid of it. Nor do you want to, for you come to believe that if you get it all right, you will be capable of virtually anything.” As important as perfection is, however, one thing is more important than perfection: the striving toward perfection. Coleman Hawkins performed a brilliant solo in the Freedom Now Suite, but as brilliant as the solo was, a squeak appeared in it. The squeak could easily have been edited out for the album, but Mr. Hawkins insisted, “Don’t splice that! When it’s all perfect in a piece like this, there’s something very wrong.”

Younger musicians are often in awe of older, more established musicians. The 18-year-old jazz saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker washed dishes at Jimmy’s Chicken Shack, a nightclub in Harlem. Playing at the nightclub was jazz pianist Art Tatum. Mr. Parker learned about improvisation from Mr. Tatum during the three months that they worked at Jimmy’s Chicken Shack, but he was so in awe of Mr. Tatum that he never spoke to him. Of course, older musicians tend not to be in awe of younger musicians, even immensely talented young musicians. In 1943, the 23-year-old Bird was playing tenor saxophone in a style that he helped invent. Older tenor saxophonist Ben Webster, who played for Duke Ellington, took the horn out of Bird’s mouth and told him, “That horn ain’t supposed to sound that fast.”

Mishaps did occur when Bob Hope was entertaining the troops. While on a plane headed for Iceland, Les Brown, who provided music for Mr. Hope’s USO tours, learned that his drummer wasn’t on board, so the plane turned around to get the drummer. Once back in the air, Mr. Brown discovered that the sax player wasn’t on board, so the plane turned around to get the sax player. This time, the pilot of the plane wanted a head count before taking off again, but Mr. Brown said, “That won’t be necessary. Get out your instruments, fellas, and strike a chord. I’ll know then if anyone is missing.”

When Gustav Mahler was conductor of the Berlin Symphony Orchestra, anti-Semites made fun of his prominent nose, which they called Jewish. (In fact, he was a Jew.) Tiring of the anti-Semitism, Mr. Mahler eventually left Berlin and began working in Vienna. Because of Mr. Mahler’s talent as a conductor and as a composer, Berlin music lovers wanted him back, and they soon wrote him that conditions in Berlin had changed. Mr. Mahler wrote back, “Conditions may have changed, but my nose is still the same.”

Famed photographer Yousuf Karsh took cellist Pablo Casals’ portrait from the back, something he rarely did. The portrait was once on exhibit at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, and an elderly man came into the museum and stood in front of the portrait for a long time each day. Curious, the curator of the exhibit asked the old man, “Sir, why do you come here day after day and stand in front of this portrait?” The old man replied, “Hush, young man, hush. Can’t you see? I am listening to the music.”

Stephen Foster decided to write a song, and he asked his brother to name a Southern river that he could write the song about. His brother suggested the Pee Dee River, but Mr. Foster rejected his suggestion and instead wrote the lyric “Way Down Upon the Swanee River.” (The title of the song is “Old Folks at Home.”) Mr. Foster had deliberately misspelled “Suwannee” to fit the rhythm, and he never saw the Florida river. As advertising copywriter Edward S. Jordan writes, the brother knew geography, but Mr. Foster knew rhythm.

When Sophie Tucker needed an accompanist, she told Ted Shapiro to audition, and if he was good enough, she would give him a contract. Forty years later, Mr. Shapiro was still accompanying Ms. Tucker, and he still didn’t have a contract.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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