Above: Goodman plays to his Russian audience, 1962
The death in May of Joe Wilder, a beautiful, underrated trumpet player and delightful human being, reminded me that Joe had been part of Benny Goodman’s Orchestra on its tour of the Soviet Union in 1962. The tour was arranged by the US State Department as a sort of cultural exchange at the height of the cold war: I believe the Bolshoi Ballet visited the US in return.
Anyway, the Goodman tour was superficially quite successful (despite Khrushchev expressing a dislike of jazz in the course of a conversation with Benny), but behind the scenes it was a disaster in terms of band morale. The Goodman band included Joe Wilder on trumpet, Teddy Wilson on piano and as such ‘modern jazz’ luminaries as trombonist Jimmy Knepper, altoist Phil Woods and drummer Mel Lewis. Amongst the other ‘greats’ in the band were Bill Crow on bass and Zoot Sims on tenor sax, and when later interviewed about the tour, Zoot said “Everywhere you go with Benny is like Russia.”
Here are the edited highlights (with an emphasis upon moments involving Joe Wilder) extracted from a full account of the tour by Bill Crow. Bill has kindly given me permission to use excerpts from his often hilarious article:
Because his music was lovely, most musicians expected Goodman to be lovable as well. The stories about him make us laugh because they describe our astonishment at discovering his true nature. They may sound exaggerated to anyone who never dealt directly with the man. Benny apparently did something to insult, offend or bewilder nearly everyone who ever worked for him. He put together some wonderful bands, but he had a reputation for spoiling the fun. During my brief time with him, I watched him completely demoralize an excellent band.
Jay Finegold [BG's manager] had been nagging us for weeks about the contracts Benny wanted us to sign. A few guys had signed them, and he used whatever leverage he could devise to get the rest of the signatures. Joe Wilder’s trunk became a focus of his attention.
We had been warned that the laundry service would be poor and dry-cleaning nonexistent in Russia, so most of us had brought suitcases full of extra clothes and drip-dry shirts, but Joe Wilder had the largest single piece of luggage, a steamer trunk filled with the dapper suits and neckties he always wears. Jay told Joe that Benny was going to charge him for overweight baggage if he didn’t sign his contract.
Besides being a flawless musician, Joe Wilder is courteous, cooperative, and sweet-natured. He was delighted to be hired for the tour and was ready to do a professional job, and he couldn’t believe the way Benny was treating us. Joe never uses profanity. His strongest adjective is “blamed,” his most violent epithet “shoot!” If he quotes someone who uses strong language, he’ll say something like,
“He said to get the F out of here!”
But Joe said the secret word in Tblisi when Jay told him that Benny was going to charge him for his luggage. It was the last straw. He indignantly refused to ride on the bus with Benny that night. He walked from the hotel to the concert hall, a distance of two or three miles.
During the last week in Moscow, Jay told Wilder that Benny wanted him to give all the lead parts he’d been playing to John Frosk, since Joe was going to Sweden after the tour and wouldn’t be available for any work in the States. Then, on stage one night, Benny acted surprised that Joe wasn’t playing lead on Bach Goes to Town. Before one of the last concerts, Benny called Joe into his dressing room. He said,
“I just wanted you to know that I think you’re a fine musician.”
Joe wasn’t having any.
“As miserable as you’ve made life for me and the rest of the guys on this tour, do you expect me to be complimented?” he asked.
Benny received an invitation for the band to do a week of concerts in Warsaw on the way home. We were curious about Poland, and we could have used the extra money, but nobody wanted to go with Benny. Jim Maxwell called his wife and told her to send him a telegram saying there was an emergency at home and he was needed. The telegram she sent said:
“COME HOME AT ONCE. THE DOG DIED. THE CAT DIED. EVERYBODY DIED.”
Joe Wilder and Joe Newman were trying to get their flight information from Muriel [Muriel Zuckerman, BG's secretary]. They were to fly from Moscow to Stockholm to meet their wives, and wanted to let them know when to expect them, but Muriel didn’t get them the information. Before the evening concert she repeated her ultimatum. No contracts, no paychecks. We talked it over and decided that the only remedy was to refuse to play the last concert until we got paid.
At curtain time that night we were ready to play but wouldn’t go onstage without the checks. Muriel and Jay conferred, and told us that all they really needed was the first page of the contracts, the agreement on wages, in order to satisfy the paperwork required by the State Department. We conferred, and agreed to sign only that part. The other clauses were crossed out, the contracts were signed, and the paychecks were distributed as we were going onstage, twenty minutes late. Joe Wilder looked at his check and discovered that a couple of hundred dollars had been deducted for “excess baggage charges.” He told Benny he wanted his check corrected.
“Come on and play. We’ll talk about it later.”
Joe was adamant. He stayed backstage, and we played the last concert without him.
Joe Wilder decided to try one last time to get Benny to refund the baggage charge before he caught his plane to Stockholm. Benny said that such things were in Jay’s department, and not his concern. Joe called him a schmuck, and said,
“If we weren’t here for the State Department, I’d jump on you and beat your brains out!”
Muriel squawked, “How dare you speak to Mr. Goodman that way!”
Joe had a full head of steam.
“If it weren’t for shame,” he told Muriel, “I’d break your broom so you couldn’t fly out of here!”
Joe told me later that he wasn’t proud of that remark, and had apologized to Muriel when he ran into her a few years later.
“But I was really disgusted with Benny,” he said, “and I still am.”
After he returned to New York, Joe Wilder made a complaint to Local 802 about the money Benny had withheld from his salary. Officials at the local said it had happened outside their jurisdiction. They sent him to the national office of the American Federation of Musicians, where he filed charges against Benny.
The day before the hearing was scheduled, Joe got a call from a secretary at the AFM. She said,
“Mr. Goodman is willing to forget the whole thing.”
Joe reminded her that he was the one making the complaint, and insisted on seeing it through as a matter of principle.
At the hearing Joe produced a receipt from the post office in Seattle proving he had sent home everything over his allotted forty-four pounds when Jay had first complained that his baggage was overweight. Nothing had been weighed after Seattle. Goodman and his staff had just assumed he was still overweight, and had used it as a pretext to harass him.
Benny told Joe, “In all my years in the music business, you’re the first one to take me to the union.”
“That’s because I’m not afraid of you,” said Joe.
Joe told me he knew musicians who had been pressured into doing what Benny wanted through Benny’s influence with their other employers, especially in television. He said he wasn’t doing any work that Benny could interfere with, and he certainly didn’t ever want to be in his band again.
The AFM officers reprimanded Joe, saying he should have played the last concert and then brought his grievance to the union. They didn’t require Benny to refund his money, and Joe never got it…
Brian Peerless, Dave Green, Maria Judge and yours truly met up at the ‘Nellie Dean’ pub in Dean Street, London, last Tuesday. Maria is the niece of Jake Hanna (April 4, 1931 – February 12, 2010), and author of the book Jake Hanna: The Rhythm and Wit of A Swinging Jazz Drummer. Brian is a promoter who brought Jake (and Kenny Davern, Yank Lawson, Scott Hamilton and many other US jazz stars) to Britain, while Dave is, of course, Britain’s most accomplished and versatile jazz bassist.
We had a great evening of laughter and reminiscence ending with a meal and a couple of bottles of wine over the road at the Pizza Express, scene of many memorable gigs involving Jake and Dave.
Maria describes her uncle, who was a man of words as well as music, as a latter-day shanachie – an Irish storyteller, travelling from one community to another, exchanging his creativity for food and temporary shelter. Following the London visit, Maria went over to County Sligo to investigate the family’s Celtic roots
Brian told me that he once knocked Jake out by playing him this 1940 record with the amazing Davey Tough on drums:
Dave and I agreed that the most extraordinary (“frightening” was the word we settled upon) film of Jake we’d ever seen is this 1964 version of ‘Caldonia'(below) with Woody Herman:
My band, FRAKtured Fingers, is part of the line up playing for Strummerville.
Date: 22 December
Time: 6pm to late
Venue: The Banshee Labyrinth, Niddrie Street, Edinburgh
Strummerville is a charity set up by friends and family of Joe Strummer in the year after his death Strummerville gives opportunities to aspiring musicians and support to projects that create social mobility through music.
About a week ago, at a gig, someone told me Horace Silver had just died. I must admit that my immediate reaction was surprise: I’d assumed he’d died years ago. It turns out we were both wrong: Horace lives.
For some reason that has yet to be explained, a number of jazz sites and discussion boards last week carried the exaggerated news of the pianist’s death, and many have since published grovelling apologies. So Mr Silver, the founding-father of hard-bop and jazz-funk, joins the surprisingly long list (headed, of course by Mark Twain) of people who lived to read their own obituaries.
Strangely, that list includes another jazz pianist, Michael ‘Dodo’ Marmarosa (who’d worked with many of the great swing bands before joining Charlie Parker): his obituary appeared in a number of newspapers in 1992, ten years before his actual death. The explanation was that a persistent fan of his records – a Briton who lived in the Pittsburgh area where Dodo was leading a reclusive life – kept telephoning him to ask about the details of old recordings and demanding an interview. In order to put an end to this intrusion, Marmarosa answered the telephone with an assumed voice and announced that “Mr Marmarosa passed away yesterday”.
Anyway, back to Horace: here’s his big hit from 1964/5, Song For My Father, and if it sounds vaguely familiar to non-fans of jazz, that may be because the opening bass piano notes were borrowed by Steely Dan for their song Rikki Don’t Lose That Number, while the opening horn riff was borrowed by Stevie Wonder for his song Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing:
Berigan has always been one of my favourite jazz players, and he was Louis Armstrong’s favourite trumpeter. For my part, that’s because although he had an impressive technique, Berigan was fallible: you could never be sure he’d hit some of those high notes he went for – and, even on record, he sometimes didn’t. The booze (which eventually killed him) probably didn’t help. Michael Steinman, over at Jazz Lives pays tribute and introduces a new treasure trove of ‘live’ Berigan performances:
Any documentation of an artist’s work may be distant from the day-to-day reality of the work. In the case of the noble trumpeter Bunny Berigan, many of his admirers understandably focus on those record sessions where he is most out in the open — aside from the Victor I CAN’T GET STARTED, the small-group recordings with Holiday, Norvo, Bailey, the Boswell Sisters, Bud Freeman, Fats Waller, and so on. Some, rather like those who listen to Whiteman for Bix, delve into hot dance / swing band sides for Bunny’s solos: I know the delightful shock of hearing a Fred Rich side and finding a Berigan explosion when the side is nearly over.
But the Berigan chronology — on display in Michael Zirpolo’s superb book, MR. TRUMPET — as well as the discography shows that Bunny spent much of his life as a player and (too infrequently) a singer with large ensembles: studio groups, Whiteman, Hal Kemp, Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, before forming his own big band for the last six years of his very short life.
Ignoring Berigan’s big band records would be unthinkable, even for someone not choosing to hear everything. Goodman’s KING PORTER STOMP and SOMETIMES I’M HAPPY, the Dorsey MARIE and SONG OF INDIA; Berigan’s own Victors. Of course, like other bandleaders of the time, he was required to record a fairly substantial assortment of thin material. Almost always, Berigan bravely transcends what the song-pluggers insisted he record.
Even the bands that came through well on records sounded better in live performance. There is something chilly about a recording studio, especially when there are more than a dozen people trying to play arrangements flawlessly, that occasionally holds back the explorer’s courage. So if one wants to hear what a band was capable of, one must rely on recordings of radio broadcasts (and the much rarer on-location recordings from a dance date, such as the Ellington band at Fargo, North Dakota — itself a miracle). Radio was consoling in its apparent evanescence; if you made a mistake, it was there and gone. Who knew, fluffling a note nationwide, that someone with a disc cutter in Minneapolis was recording it for posterity?
Up to this point, there has been a small but solid collection of Berigan “live” material on vinyl — a good deal of it issued by Jerry Valburn and Bozy White in their prime. I cannot offer my experience as comprehensive, but I recall listening to many of those recordings and enjoying their rocking intensity, but often waiting until Bunny took the solo. But there were worlds of music I and others were unaware of.
A new CD release on the Hep label, “BUNNY BERIGAN: SWINGIN’ AND JUMPIN’” is a delight all through. It collects seventy-one minutes of material from 1937-39, nicely varied between well-played pop tunes and jazz classics. An extensive booklet with notes by the Berigan expert Michael Zirpolo (and some unusual photographs) completes the panorama. Eleven of the nineteen selections have never been issued before, and there is a snippet of Bunny speaking. The sound (under the wise guidance of Doug Pomeroy) is splendid.
Listening to this music is an especially revealing experience. Stories of Berigan’s alcoholism are so much a part of his mythic chronicle that many listeners — from a distance — tend to think of him as helplessly drunk much of the time, falling into the orchestra pit, a musician made barely competent by his dependence on alcohol.
No one can deny that Berigan shortened his life by his illness . . . but the man we hear on these sides is not only a glorious soloist but a spectacular leader of the trumpet section and a wonderful bandleader. The band itself is a real pleasure, with memorable playing from George Auld (in his energetic pre-Ben Webster phase — often sounding like a wild version of Charlie Barnet), George Wettling, Johnny Blowers, and Buddy Rich, Ray Conniff and others.
One could play excerpts from these recordings — skipping Berigan’s solos — and an astute listener to the music of the late Thirties would be impressed by the fine section work and good overall sound of the band. The “girl singers” are also charming: no one has to apologize for Gail Reese, for one.
Did I say that Berigan’s trumpet playing is consistently spectacular? If it needs to be said, let that be sufficient. A number of times in these recordings, he takes such dazzling chances — and succeeds — that I found myself replaying performances in amazement. Only Louis and Roy, I think, were possessed of such masterful daring.
And we are spared RINKA TINKA MAN in favor of much better material: MAHOGANY HALL STOMP, THEY ALL LAUGHED, BACK IN YOUR OWN BACKYARD, BIG JOHN SPECIAL, LOUISIANA, TREES, ROYAL GARDEN BLUES, SHANGHAI SHUFFLE, HOW’D YOU LIKE TO LOVE ME?, and some hot originals.
This disc doesn’t simply add more than an hour of music to most people’s Berigan collection: it corrects and sharpens the picture many have of him. Even if you care little for mythic portraiture, you will find much to like here. It is available here. To learn more about the wonderful story of how this music came to be in our hands and, even better, to hear an excerpt from ROYAL GARDEN BLUES, click here.
May your happiness increase!
Gig, Bannerman’s, Cowgate, Edinburgh
Sunday 9th December from 6pm
First band on 7pm
My band, FRAKtured Fingers, is on at 8:30pm.
Fritz Van Helsing was Embra’s first, original and lifelong punk rocker. He died Feb 15th of Hep C related liver failure. There was an amazing turnout of Edinburgh’s original punks and many others at his memorial gig earlier this year, out of respect for his 36 year dedication to the Edinburgh music scene and the punk rock attitude. The DVD of this event are on sale. Proceeds to The Hepatitis C Trust.
Rest in noise, Fritz. Punk’s not dead.
Headlined by The World Famous SHOCK AND AWE!!! with Mystery Guests..
The Cathode Ray
Geek Maggot Bingo
Babylon Dub Punks.
Norman Lamont and The Invisible Helpers
The Infirmary Inn.
Jet Hay will be collecting for Youth Music: Music is Power.
The Hepatitis C Trust will be hosting a special C Party in Bannermans from 6pm as part of the gig
Gig for Pussy Riot
Sunday 18th November 7pm
Parlour Bar, 142 Duke Street, Edinburgh.
A night of satire, spoken word, punk poetry and stand up comedy. With DJs.
Two spoken word sets from Kevin Williamson, Rodney Relax, Jess Hopkins,
Stewart Hogg and Rachel McCrum, Maze McPunklet, Rosie Bell, Rebecca
Music and comedy from Tommy Reckless McKay, Liz Cronin, Frank Discussion and Robert Murphy.
Compered by Andy ‘Mad Dog’ McFarlane.
Free gig. 10% of bar donated to the Pussy Riot Defence fund.
(Parlour Bar is a really nice pub with a good vibe.)