David Bruce: Music Anecdotes

• Canadian jazz pianist Oscar Peterson once played a practical joke on singer Ella Fitzgerald. She owned a fur coat that her manager, Norman Grantz, had given her that she was very proud of. In the days before ballpoint pens, Mr. Peterson bought a trick ink bottle that came with a fake inkblot. He then visited Ms. Fitzgerald in her dressing room and made sure that she saw him writing with his pen. She warned him to be careful with the pen and ink because her fur coat was in the dressing room, and he said that she had nothing to be worried about. But when she left, he put the fake inkblot on her fur coat and upended the trick ink bottle. He was pretending to cry when Ms. Fitzgerald returned to her dressing room. She was a kind person; instead of displaying attitude, she comforted him. Mr. Peterson said, “She was more concerned about me than the coat.” He called her “such a sweet person.” Of course, people respected her singing. After she appeared at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, California, in 1956, a spectator commented, “Ella Fitzgerald could sing the Van Nuys [California] telephone directory with a broken jaw and make it sound good — and that’s a particularly dull telephone directory.” Occasionally, however, a member of an audience would start acting up while Ms. Fitzgerald was singing — and she would add new lyrics to the song and give that audience member a warning. And if a technical problem occurred on stage, she would sing about it and let the technicians know what the problem was. How good was Ella? She won 13 Grammies (and a 14th for lifetime achievement), and for 18 years in a row Down Beatmagazine named her “Top Female Vocal Jazz Singer.”

• Rapper Kanye Omari West’s mother, Donda, looked through books of African names to find the perfect name for him. Omariis Swahili and means “wise one.” Kanyeis Ethiopian and means “the only one.” Of course, “K.O.” is a boxing term and means knockout. Donda said, “I knew he would be our only child, set apart, and special.” Kanye showed originality as a child, painting objects the colors he wanted to paint them. For example, he painted bananas purple. His mother let him paint the way he pleased. She said, “Kanye always had a distinct perspective. He always had his own spin on things.” She did punish him when he needed to be punished. When Kanye was a teenager, she caught him watching an X-rated video. She made him research the effect that watching such videos has on teenagers, and she made him a write a paper on his research. Kanye is known for his self-confidence, of course, and his self-confidence kept him from getting a record contract early in his career. Columbia Records executive Michael Mauldin was interested in signing Kanye to a record contract, but Kanye bragged during the meeting with him that he was more talented than rapper Jermaine Dupri. Kanye did not know that Jermaine Dupri was Mr. Mauldin’s son; Mr. Mauldin decided not to sign Kanye to a record contract. Kanye has the ability to grow as a person. Early in his career, he discriminated against gays, but when he learned that one of his cousins was gay, he changed his attitude. Kanye said, “It was kind of a turning point when I was like, ‘Yo, this is my cousin. I love him and I’ve been discriminating against gays.’”

• Almost everyone is familiar with This is Spinal Tap, a 1984 mockumentary directed by Rob Reiner, but not everyone knows that sometimes a version of something that occurs in the movie happened in real life to real bands. For example, the fictional band Spinal Tap had an on-stage disaster with a prop that was designed to look like Stonehenge. The prop was supposed to be 18 feet high, but due to a mishap was actually only 18 inches high. In real life, the real band Black Sabbath had trouble with a Stonehenge prop. Black Sabbath ordered a 15-foot-high model of Stonehenge, but the company that built it made it 15 meters high. Band member Michael “Geezer” Butler said, “It was 45 feet high and it wouldn’t fit on any stage anywhere, so we just had to leave it in the storage area. It cost a fortune to make, but there was not a building on earth that you could fit it into.” By the way, in American slang “Geezer” means old man, but Mr. Butler is British, and when he was growing up, in British slang “geezer” meant a good man or a cool dude.

• Taylor Swift learned how to play a 12-string guitar in part because of a bad deed and a good deed — and because of her own desire and determination. Here she explains the bad deed: “I actually learned [to play guitar] on a 12-string because some guy told me that I would never be able to play it, that my fingers were too small. Anytime somebody tells me that I can’t do something, I want to do it more.” A good deed helped her learn how to play. She explains that a computer repairman at her house helped her get started: “In this magical twist of fate, the guy who my parents had hired to come fix my computer [taught me]. I’m doing my homework and he looks round and sees the guitar in the corner and he looks [at me] and says, ‘Do you know how to play guitar?’ I was like, ‘Ah, no.’ He said, ‘Do you want me to teach you a few chords?’ After that, I was relentless. I wanted to play all the time.”

• In 1958, Esquiremagazine commissioned Art Kane to take a group photograph of many jazz musicians. He took it at 10 a.m. on the front steps of a house in Harlem. Jazz musicians almost always work at night, and some of the jazz musicians who were in the photograph stated that they had not realized that a single day contained two 10 o’clocks.

• “I take music pretty seriously. This scar on my wrist, do you know what’s from? I heard the Bee Gees were getting back together again.” — Denis Leary.

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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