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Bertram Turetzky: Contrabass Pioneer

Robert Bush By

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Hartford Jazz Scene

AAJ: You've said, in earlier interviews, that the prevalence of drugs in the jazz culture scared you away from pursuing jazz as a career. Is that what led you into the world of classical music?

BT: I was in music school around 1951, 1952, and I wanted to be a jazz musician. So I began meeting the guys in the jazz world, and, again there were different groups. There were the black guys who played in the north end, and I used to go and sit in with them. And they were all very good to me.

The one thing I learned from them was, if you are in a black club and a black woman comes up to you—stay on the bandstand. Don't go sit with her, because if you do, you're going to start trouble. If a [black] woman comes up and says she likes your playing, say "Thank you very much," but stay on the bandstand.

AAJ: Was that hard sometimes, staying on the bandstand?

BT: Oh yes, of course it was. But I didn't want to get beat up; I wanted to be invited to be there. I didn't want to be an interloper. So, I treated them with respect, and they treated me with respect. One summer, I filled in for a black bassist at that club—it was an Elks Club—we called it the "Black-Elks Club." It worked out good, and, I began to play with "the cats." I learned stuff; I had a couple of epiphanies along the way.

The first week of music school, I didn't feel comfortable, and someone said there is a jam session that I should go to. So anyway, the pianist at that moment was Jack Elliot, who went on to be a big arranger in Hollywood, you know, "Barney Miller" and a lot of things on television. So the saxophonist calls, "Body and Soul," and he says "five-down" [five flats]. I barely know the tune, so I figure I'll play a D flat, and the pianist plays E-flat minor ninth, and the saxophonist looked at me sort of like, "nice— you dumb kid," but it wasn't nasty, I always appreciated that about him.

He was the leader of the Mancini Institute for many years, and one day when I was there, I told him that story and he collapsed laughing. So, that was an epiphany: I thought, "There's a certain way to approach this music, and I'm not doing it right."

So I bought myself a fake book, and I looked at "Body and Soul" and realized how bad I missed it, and I began studying those tunes. I began to get serious. I call that, "jazz craft." I was in school, and I learned, music theory and classical music history and all of that, but there was a parallel school—very informal, but the guys who were into jazz, we began to get together, and discuss the latest records and the news of what was happening, and stuff like "Philly Joe [Jones] was playing soft last night." So all the cats had to play soft because Philly Joe was; Philly Joe was where it was at.

So I began to learn more about the music. Prior to that I was an "ear guy." Duke Ellington used to call them "ear cats." I have no idea what I was doing on the guitar before that. It was probably very free-form. But they put up with me, and at school I tried to figure out, did they need a bassist; did they like me; what was hip—and I started to play with all these guys.

Anyway, I started playing in a neighborhood that was sort of a dangerous neighborhood—it was black and Puerto Rican, it was formerly Jewish but the Jews moved out. It had this club where we could play... so here's the other epiphany: I'm playing there and playing pretty well, and when the set was over, I'm sitting down, and this very pretty girl come up to me, and says "Man, you were playing your ass off!." Now, I'm leading this sheltered life, I had never heard a girl say "ass" before. She said, "Would you like to go for a drink?" I was a small-town kid, women weren't that forward.

She was from Hartford, capital of Connecticut. So I said yes, and started to hang out with her, have fun with her, for awhile, then someone said "Hey—are you seeing Judy?" I said yeah, we're having fun. He asked if I knew anything about her, and I said no. He then told me that Judy had a thirty-five dollar a day "habit," and that she supported that habit by being a hooker! He told me "Stay away from her—you're a good kid, I don't want to see you get in trouble."

So that scared the hell out of me and I began seeing guys go out for a little "J" now and then, and that didn't bother me, but she was involved with smack and that scared me. I was very naive; I had no idea till then what she was up to. And, so I thought, "Do I want to be around these people all of my life? No." I loved the music, loved the players, but the scene—I didn't like.

New York Reconnaissance / Meeting Mingus

BT: So, about the same time, I went to New York with a trio with Dave MacKay and Joe Porcaro. We went to audition for this agent. Dave also sang some beautiful tunes, and the agent says, "You guys are terrific! Which one of you does the comedy?" Well, we didn't do comedy. He asked if we had a chick singer with a strap-less gown, or a tenor player who could "Walk-the-bar," and we said "No. We just want to play good music."

The guys says, "Well, look. We can book you year-round playing Holiday Inns all over America. You could each make two hundred dollars a week. Is that what you want to do?" We said, "No, thank you." It was a good reality check. We went home sadder, but wiser.

So there were two brothers who played violin and trombone, the Landerman brothers, and I got recommended to them, and I played with them for several years. They had the big theater in Hartford, the Bushnell, and I began playing there. It seated 3800 or 4800 people, and I began to be the show bassist there.

So, I figure I can do better in the symphonic world and the show world and the commercial music world. So, all these things fell into place. I met my wife and, in 1959, we got married. I could help her go to school, because I had money coming in, because I learned to become a professional musician. I still loved jazz, and I played when I could, but I didn't hang out—that wasn't such a big thing anymore.

I went to New York again, after the audition. I wanted to do a reconnaissance, so I went to a club, The Royal Roost. There was a quartet there, with Buddy Rich, who was fantastic, I never heard anybody like that before. The bassist was, eh, a "B-flat bassist. I thought, "I could do that." I couldn't really, but I thought I could. I couldn't play those tempos; I didn't know all of the tunes. The guy might have been a junkie, and he was "B-flat," but he was okay.

Then I went to another place, and I heard George Duvivier playing, and he had perfect time. Perfect time. And I thought, "No, I can't do that." He had a beautiful sound, beautiful pitch, lovely time.

And then, I heard my main guy, Charles Mingus, play. I approached him about taking lessons, I was still...I had one foot in the concert world and the commercial world, and one foot that didn't know what to do. So, he interviewed me outside the club, it was winter, very cold, and asked me a lot of questions: "How much counter-point have you had? How much harmony?," you know. Then he said, "O.k., you can have lessons." Then, I heard that he had smacked one of his students in the chops, and that he could be quite "physical." So I thought, maybe I could study with him from afar.

So I would go to New York to clubs and learn what I could. My wife, Nancy, got a big kick out of it, because she said, "You know him, right, we should sit up front." I said, "No, we'll sit in the back, you'll see why." So Dannie Richmond was his drummer, you know, through thick and thin, Mingus got mad, and grabbed his ride cymbal, picked it up, and threw it at him. He pulled Booker Little's trumpet right out of his mouth for playing something wrong.

And Eric Dolphy was on the other side of the stage—he just smiled at him. Mingus knew that Eric always carried a knife in his pocket and if he fucked with him, he was gonna get cut. Charles McPherson told me he would always stand on the opposite side of the stage, because Mingus was not always in control.

Then later, much later, I recorded the "Goodbye, Pork Pie Hat," Lester Young's requiem, and I sent it Atlantic Records. Ilhan Mimaroglu was my contact there, and he told Mingus, "There's a bassist from California, and he recorded 'Goodbye Pork Pie Hat' in four tracks." "[overdubs]," Mingus said, "Yeah? It's a saxophone piece. What's he doing it on the bass for?" Mimaroglu said, "Charles, I'd really appreciate it if you came down and heard it, I think it's really good." So, he made an appointment, came down, heard it and said, "Well, he's classical, you know, that cat can play." So, he heard that I had studied him from afar, and he liked my work, so that was a big affirmation.

AAJ: So, you never went for one-on-one lessons with him?

BT: Never. I went to New York several times to hear him, and I listened to all of his recordings. The point is, I got out of my bubble, I didn't have to eat Kosher anymore, I saw girls that were not Jewish, I got more ecumenical as I went along. But the drug thing turned me off. My mother, who had walked across Europe from Poland, that was the last passport, to Marseilles, France, to come to America, and she was very concerned about security, you know, "How can you make a living playing music?"

When I was at music school and would come home to do a gig, she would say, "Well Mrs. So-and-so says you are playing music." That didn't sound right to her. So finally I told her to tell Mrs. So-and-so that I was concertizing, [laughs] that sounded better to her. So, anyway, things started to come together, I started to play some chamber music, and I started making some arrangements of classical music so that the bass could be heard, because, I wanted to play, man.

So the first guy I met when I came to music school, his name was Nicholas, and he was a composer and, he went overseas to, he got a fellowship to study in Italy, with [Goffredo] Petrassi, and somebody said, "Nicholas committed suicide." Well, now that I'm a little older, and lost some former students, and outlived many of my contemporaries, I'm a little more relaxed about death, I see that we live and we die. But, it upset me then. So, I put in a call to his parents, and I found out that he had some pieces with the bass, and, to make a long story short, we put on a concert and played one of the pieces, and it was a big success, and his parents were there.

They didn't speak English, but through his sister, they said that they were really glad to hear it because they had no idea their son was such a poet. Then I realized that maybe this is what's happening: composers write music, and often times nobody wants to play it; sometimes players, (especially bass players) don't have much music to play. So maybe we could come together.


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