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The Mort Report

I Was Too Stoned to Perform: A Love Story, Kinda

By Published: February 23, 2013
It was some time in the early 1960s and this story finds me, still Mort Wise, and my band—still named the Wisemen—having just signed a contract with World Artist Management services, a very happening company whose roster had names like Red Skelton, Ray Charles, Jacqueline Fontaine and many others. I would be one of the many others to begin with, at the time, after working the toilets and rough and tumble out of the way places like the Bank Club in Ely, Nevada, where the world's largest open face copper mine just happened to be, giving employment to multitudes of men.

Another place was Winnemucca, Nevada, where there was a gold mine and I believe a silver mine both functioning with payrolls reminding me of some obscure piece of verse that I've retained throughout the years, "It was payday at the mines, and the bearded brutes came to town," ya da ya da. Do me a favor, any one of you out there; if you know from whence that verse came, please do not send it to me! At the Winnemucca gig, In front of the bandstand, there really was a large chicken wire net put there to prevent all of the empty (of course) beer bottles that were being thrown at the band (from hitting us) from the exuberant and joyful revelers that, by 11:00 pm, were in the very strong embrace of Bacchus. Remember the first Blues Brothers flick. Oh yeah!

Add the above and another hundred or so places for a very un-cool number of recreational social clubs for a large majority of the proletariats to hang and socialize and voila! You've got the picture of the kind of places (not venues) that a cat could make a few bucks at. No, not every cat could do it, but I feel that's why God invented mothers' little helpers, ya dig?

Those kind of places were great training grounds for damn near anyone who was going to try to make it in the musical show business phase of paying the rent and eating (it really is all about eating isn't it?) with your horn. I had pretty much given up the dream of playing jazz clarinet for a career and vocation; quite frankly, it wasn't happing then and It sure as hell ain't happening today. My group, the Wisemen, became a tight musical entity. Why? Because we were working, rehearsing, and playing together six nights a week and man, when you do that in any discipline you become tighter than a well diggers ass, really!

My personal manager, Robert Leonard, got us the deal with W.A.M. and I remember the day we all drove west towards the Pacific Ocean on beautiful Wilshire Blvd. to their very impressive offices , oh yeah! At that meeting is where we signed the contracts to do the recording of eden abez's piece of shit, "Wild Boy," (eden never used a capital "e" in his name) some kind of "I'm just a guy that walks among you" type thing. Whatever. The plan was to add two singers to the group, a guy and gal (we weren't doing hard rock now except for an occasional one or two a show). Did ya get that? A show, not a set. Oh yeah! The chick was a very nice looking blonde (sorry ladies, back then it was chick) who could sing and the guy was a very good looking fellow, a Dean Martin-ish type who also could really sing. I'm going to call them Dick and Jane for this little remembrance, OK? Cool.

We rehearsed each day at one of the rehearsal halls at Local #47 Musicians Union. We were getting a good selection of pop and show tunes down for performance, auditions and gigs. They, Dick and Jane, were doing singles and duets and we were doing our things, so after about a month of rehearsing we had a pretty good upscale supper club and stage show act for the "bright lights and big cities" that lay in wait for us to knock em dead!

Oh, did I mention? Surprise-surprise, Dick and Jane became an item. Oh what a joy. If you sense some uneasiness coming from me, you've sensed right. I'd been up the creek and over the mountain and back a few times in my life at the time (I was 25 years old); I'd been working, living, hanging with musicians and Hollywood types for a long time. Mostly as a leader of bands and doing a lot of early TV work and such. In other words, I was very hip to show people and their peccadilloes and nuances, and a little chill ran down my back—the dark cloud passed and all was sunny again—onward! We were tight, and we were ready and the agency knew it. We were booked into the New Golden Hotels showroom for two weeks and a two week option for more weeks at the hotel bookers pleasure—a standard contract back in the day. It was for $2,000 a week (in 1960 dollars), and a residency at the Hotel. Yes, we were excited; man, here it was a big chance to get away from the chicken wire type of clubs and like that—oh yeah! In fact, oh hell yeah!

The night before we were to leave for Reno, we had one last run through of the tunes and sequence of the two shows a night that we were to do. Everything was cool and we were definitely up for the gig. We were going to drive up to "the biggest little city in the world" in three cars a great road through the high Sierras. Oh boy oh boy; what excitement and happiness. Wooooowww!

I heard Dick say to Jane, "We'll go in my car," to which Jane responded with, "No, were going in my car." More words, a hell of a lot more words, until finally Dick firmly blurts out, "Well fuck you, I'm not going!" Dick says, "Mort, I've gotta talk to you."

The agency got a comic whose whole act was built around his ability to double talk and had him fly in to Reno for our opening night. The guy was a scream, not funny but a scream; needless to say, we were all underwhelmed with his hidden talents. The only good thing was to be with him in a restaurant, listening to him drive the waiters crazy ordering in double talk. Dude was pretty funny offstage. Yeah, I left the waiters a bigger tip for their misery. I had to keep talking to the house booker explaining that it was going to get better and that even as we spoke, Dick was gargling and spraying his throat and would arrive in a few days—and "Man, wait until you hear the great hit show tune medleys that we have worked out—yeah, man! Oh boy just you wait. If you cancel us now you'll never forgive yourself because man, we're on our way to the top," and like that.

Enter, Miss Jacqueline Fontaine. Femme Fatale—Hollywood, Vegas, Reno; an A class hotel main room singer extraordinaire and highly praised for her role in the Bing Crosby Grace Kelly Motion picture The Country Girl, where she plays the part of a nightclub singer and sings a tune with Bing. Jacqueline was a star—the real deal—and commanded top dollar whereever she appeared. She was headlining at the Sky Room at the top of the Mapes Hotel, a room Sinatra often worked. I had heard of her, but never met her nor was I in any way interested in doing so. I had heard that she was also working out of W.A.M.

One day I receive a note delivered by a messenger—a lot more meaningful than an email—from Jackie, suggesting that we get together for lunch one day in order to become better acquainted. Better? We met, and had a delightful repast. I think there was chemistry, so getting down to business, the day and time was set. I would finish my last show at 1:00 am and she finished hers at 1:30 am so, as said in days of yore, we had arranged a rendezvous. I remember putting on a little more Man Tan lotion then usual—ya know the stuff Jack Kennedy had on the night he beat Richard Nixon on the first TV debate (or was it Addison's disease?). No, it was Nixon! I arrived at the Mapes about 1:15 am, Jackie was into her closing number and she had the S.R.O. crowd in her hands, as in she could do no wrong—Hell, I was even impressed! The chick was dynamite! Oh yeah!

Later in her suite of rooms we sat and talked about kings and things ya know. It was winter, and when I felt that the conversation was beginning to lag, I reached down deep and came up with "I wonder if there is any good fishing in the Truckee river that runs through downtown Reno?" At that point she arose and ever so gently gave me a very sweet kiss on my forehead followed by those words that all of us at that time had heard in countless B grade movies—that being, "I think I'll change into something a little more comfortable." Oh, man! Freakin' zero hour is upon us. As she sauntered by me she said "Mort, the so 'n' sos sent me this little present (a very big name act) and I don't smoke and I'll be back in a jiff, so help yourself if you'd like." I open this very ornamental little box and there were ten tightly wrapped joints reposing on a velvet lining.

Ok. Time out! Let's recap here. I'm 25 years old, heading up my own band and lounge act in Reno, Nevada. My name is on the marquee, and in the Reno newspaper, all kinds of PR that the agency sent to promote Mort Wise and the Wisemen, featuring the two song stylists Dick and Jane. This was all put into motion before Dick's statement of independence that would behoove a brighter light then his 20 watts of star power—that being "Well fuck you, I'm not going!" Now, picture all of the people sitting (suits and ties back then) in this lovely décours showroom, where we, the Wisemen, had done three opening tunes "Swinging Shepherds Blues" and shit like that. I cue the drummer to do an Art Blakey
Art Blakey
Art Blakey
1919 - 1990
kinda tight press roll, zzzzzzoomm, ending with a loud 24-inch Zildjian cymbal crash!

Main spotlight hits center stage and I introduce the star of the show with something like—..."and here's that demonic comic, ya da ya da, ladies and gentlemen, please give a nice warm Reno round of applause to that master of double talk and innuendo, Mr. Sid Sluff"—and here comes this very overweight slovenly unkempt fellow (tie askew and food stains on his shirt), who waddles up to the mic, takes it and says "Good evening, ladies and germs," leans down to a ringside table and points at this gentleman and asks " Is that you face or did your pants fall down." Drummer's on top of it with a "ka boom" here and a radimacule there, some fellow says something to Sid, whereupon Sid lashes out with "One more crack like that sir, your wife and I are through! Ka Baam! He then goes into his double talk specialty. Like "Ya know, coming over her tonight I used a cab on the rehmissque—but when I cappasooed the driver he said 'the framus was on the nerel' To which I responded, 'your krill is re,'" and like that. I think that you've got the picture by now. I could sense that the crowd was starting to get ugly and the sound of scraping chairs was paramount as people where leaving, with some not paying their bills (who could blame them?).

Meanwhile, the house booker was going fucking nuts in the wings; two stage hands were restraining him (I can hear it today, screaming "Get him off! Get him off! For god's sake, bring on the chick aaaaahhhhhh mmmph!") and as I threw a neck lock around Sid and dragged him to the opposite wings, with him trying to yell "It's all part of the act ladies and germs—all part of the framous and cabbase." Enough!

Man I needed and deserved a little R&R: rest and relaxation.

So, now that you know—and hopefully empathize with me and where my head was during this catastrophic engagement in Reno—and one by one seeing and watching each one of my dreams and hopes all going away. Well, for that moment, in the time and place in Mort Wise's life, well I was about to catch the brass ring on this mad, beautiful and wonderful merry-go-round of life with all of its despair and love gone dead. But with the ring about to be firmly grasped in my hand, there would be a moment—a golden moment of requited love and the flame of achievement rekindled once more—yes.

I picked up one nicely and expertly wrapped joint, lit it and took a big hit. I was aware that the beautiful Jacqueline had returned. I remember sitting on a chair (with my top coat opened, but on with the collar turned up) and it seemed quite a bit of time had elapsed. But I couldn't take my eyes off of the drapes, the beautiful golden patterns that interwove continually seeming without beginning or end, not unlike an Escher painting. Could I have stumbled upon the whole cosmic paradox, the theory of everything? As I pondered this, it came to me that I was stoned out of my fucking mind! I also realized that someone was talking, a woman's voice saying something about she might as well get some sleep. I remember mumbling something about not being able to stand up or something like that. My thoughts immediately became focused (and I remember this very well); I had to get some of this shit back to the guys. This was fuckin' dynamite, and I kept thinking; that's about all I could do was think.

I was starting to reappear in the real world a little now and was aware that Jackie had come back in some very blue and very baggy men's pajamas. Daylight shone a bit through the drapes and I finally got up and made my way to the front room and door passing along the way I heard a lightly buzzing sound (all snuggled up in her blankets): a sleeping princess—one that I would never know or walk, hand-in-hand, through a multitude of stars.

The ordeal (gig) lasted for a few more days and, strange as it seems, we got our notice of cancelation—even wanting to send some people to help us pack and get shut of Reno. I chose to leave early closing night Oh, Dick showed up the last couple of days of the tragedy. I won't go into that here and now. As I drove out of Reno, I headed for the Mustang Ranch where I got some brain. Then I aimed south to Los Angeles ,where my newborn daughter (Sandra Jeanne Weiss) awaited. It was in fact, another day.

A postscript: The story above is all to very true. It happened February, 1960—53 years ago. I've alluded to you before, that when I finish one of these articles, I feel drained and a bit sad; good or bad, I've always had an excellent memory for just about everything that I've encountered in and during my life—not always a fun thing (the remembrance that is). One very well-known jazz CD reviewer recently said about me in his critique, "Mort Weiss has to be flirting with 80." Well, not quite; I'll be 78 this coming April, but I do hope to flirt with 80. When I write one of these remembrances, I do it as assiduously as if I was playing my horn—totally and completely immersed in the story and emotionally reliving all that happened and all the feelings that said story evokes—the laughter and the tears. Maybe I'm writing that book (with these pieces) a little bit at a time, but right now, right this moment, I keep hearing John Greenleaf Whittlers words, thusly:

"Of all sad words of tongue or pen, are these 'it might have been.'" Goodbye for now.

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