David Bruce: 250 Music Anecdotes — Photographs, Politics, Practical Jokes


• In 1958, Esquire magazine 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 previously realized that a single day contained two 10 o’clocks.

• If you want a good photograph of a band, it helps if the members of the band are looking in your direction. Bass player Alex James of the Blur remembers that one female photographer tried to make the members of the band look in her direction by flashing her breasts at them.


• In 1979, Jello Biafra, the lead singer of the Dead Kennedys, ran a satirical campaign for mayor of San Francisco, during which his platform included such planks as 1) making everyone who worked in the business section wear clown costumes during business hours, 2) hiring back 7,000 city employees who had been laid off and making their job panhandling in rich neighborhoods at a 50% commission, 3) making police officers run campaigns to be rehired in the neighborhoods they patrol (residents in those neighborhoods would cast votes) and 4) legalizing squatting in buildings that were vacant because of tax reasons. As is the case with satire, his humor had a point. For example, he says, “In San Francisco, land of the homeless, there are so many buildings left empty for tax write-off purposes — it’s obscene.”

• After Dan White, a former police officer and city supervisor, murdered San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and city supervisor Harvey Milk, he used the Twinkie defense (he claimed that eating junk food had diminished his ability to use his reason) to get only a 5-year sentence as punishment for committing the two murders. Jello Biafra, lead singer of the Dead Kennedys, regarded this as outrageous, and when he ran for Mayor of San Francisco, he ran on a platform one of whose planks advocated the erection of many Dan White statues in San Francisco — along with concession stands where people could buy eggs and tomatoes to throw at the statues.

Practical Jokes

• 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.”

• Music critic Henry T. Finck and Steven J. Jecko were friends at Harvard, class of ’76 — 1876. They were regarded as musical prodigies, something they encouraged with a practical joke. They told their classmates that they could name each of a string of whatever notes that the other played. Mr. Finck sat at the piano and played several notes. Mr. Jecko then named several notes, and Mr. Finck said, “Correct.” Then they traded places. Mr. Jecko sat at the piano and played several notes. Mr. Finck then named several notes, and Mr. Jecko said, “Correct.” However, in advance each of them had agreed to say “Correct” to whatever notes the other named.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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