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Mort Weiss: Mort to Come

Sammy Stein By

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Mort Weiss is a clarinetist with attitude. He has also achieved what few would dare—taking a break from music for almost 40 years and then making a successful comeback. Every man is a sum of his parts, his life story put together like pieces of a jigsaw. For some, the puzzle is simple, pieces slot together easily with all the clichés: steady home, school, college, first instrument, the break, career, marriage, kids, life, more or less in that order. For others creating the overall picture is hard because the pieces do not fit together easily. Such is Weiss' life.

Weiss is a master of illusion. Anyone trying to get underneath the veils which Mort deftly erects around his private life is treated to a lot of information but nothing deep at first. Weiss tells a few stories, gives ideas, throws a few red herrings and, to put it mildly, messes with your head given half the chance. However, persistence prevails and over time, the layers roll back off to reveal a man of deep sensitivity. Those around Weiss cannot help but be drawn in by his energy, the pictures he paints of characters he knew, places he's been and how he feels.

Weiss is a man who is surprising, deeply caring and reflective on occasion. He will suddenly, in the midst of seriousness, chuck a curve ball by telling you something—usually unprintable—which offers a small window into his soul and events which have made Weiss who he is today. Around each corner is a surprise—a few shocks and, more often than not, a revelation. Under the bravado, the delightfully colorful language and the middle-of-the-night emails to say how pleased he is to be creating a profile, is a musician who, unbelievably, still has self-doubt. And yet, when he plays, Weiss exhibits such talents that it either makes you wish you had never taken up the clarinet or vow to practice diligently until you can at least meet him halfway. Life has thrown a lot at Weiss and it is a testament to his tenacious nature that he is still here, still playing and still sharing his talent.

Weiss' overriding attitude to life is "first take." He says, "As in quantum physics, it's an empirical fact that two or more observers can and do change the outcome of an experiment. I have found this to be true in our three-dimensional existence as well—like too many cooks spoil the yada yada. I don't care how my portrait is painted, just so it's from the heart. Anything different would be analogous to me asking someone what notes I should leave in or take out of one my choruses. Life for me (and as in all of my albums) is all a first take print, warts and all." That kind of sums up Weiss; everything is on a first take—literally. No rehearsals, no prep, no preamble; the answers he gives one day might be different the next because he feels that way.

He reacts to the moment, expresses his thoughts, for better or worse, and goes for everything with the tenacity of a bulldog. He cares deeply about people, family, life and music, though not necessarily in that order. Maybe because he took a break before he met death head on, maybe because he eventually allowed himself to build a solid network of family, home life and friends, Weiss is sure enough of his foundations to show the world a "come on then" attitude, but underneath is a guy who cares one hell of a lot about a lot of things.

Chapter Index

Early Influences

Weiss' maternal grandparents—the Steins—came to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania from the Ukraine after fleeing the anti-Semitism and infamous Pogroms (Russian attacks on Jews, often violent) around 1900. His grandfather became a butcher and the Steins had five children including Weiss' mother and favorite uncle (crippled from polio from an early age from the waist down), Maurice Stein. In 1939, his grandfather had a stroke which left him unable to work so his grandmother bought a bar on Center Avenue, Pittsburgh, near the steel mills that ran 24/7, turning out not only processed steel but multitudes of thirsty men who gravitated to the Stein Café for a well-earned drink.

"My uncle Maurice started playing a clarinet (an old all metal one), with Graville-Paris stamped on the bell," says Weiss. "He never really learned to play, so in 1944 I inherited it. Oh boy; my parents and I lived in a little town about 13 miles from Pittsburgh named McKeesport, where the main industries were steel mills and coal mines. My father, Sidney P. Weiss, at one time took alto sax lessons from a steel mill worker named Mr. Lamb, who became my first clarinet teacher. I remember going to his home for my first lesson. He was about six-foot-five and looked like a wrestler, with fingers the size of sausages. After the lesson, he kept my clarinet and gave the mouthpiece back to me on its own to take home to practice making a sound.

"I made plenty of sounds/noises" Weiss continues. "Chickens in the neighborhood started laying eggs; dogs were biting the hands that fed them. As a young man, one of my reasons for playing the clarinet was that I wanted to play music as snippets to show the many freeze frames of existence of people in their daily struggles just to live and provide for themselves and their loved ones within their frame of reference and existence. I wanted to tell their stories in the harmonic language of words/notes to maybe inspire/encourage my brothers and sisters in this cosmic, sometimes not so grand opera that we find ourselves performing in. I also thought if I practiced a lot and got really good as a musician I could play in venues where there were a lot of chicks/groupies and that might lead to getting laid a lot. It really did happen when I worked in Las Vegas and Reno, not playing the clarinet but the tenor sax for shows. The tenor sax seemed to be a lot sexier."

Weiss showed an ear for music from a very young age. He explains, "I strongly feel people are born with certain affinities such as being athletic, good at math or painting. I was told that when I was 18 months old, if my folks missed turning on the radio at 7 pm for the Lawrence Welk Show with his orchestra playing I would cry until they turned it on; later in life I would cry until someone turned it off. The point is that, from very early on, I distinctly remember music of any kind got my attention and I mean really focused. Sad songs made me sad and even then I could feel the emotion in the music."

Mort Weiss—I'll Be Seeing YouWeiss remains deeply attuned to emotions and observes people surrounding him. He says that he loves the sound of children playing, gets emotional at the look of love between two people and claims to have "even cried at a supermarket opening."

Musically, his early influences included clarinetists Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw. From 1947, there was a great revival of Dixieland music in the US and in the UK. Acker Bilk and people like him emerged and started the trad jazz movement that exists to this day. Weiss got heavily involved with Dixieland and used to enjoy players like trombonist Kid Ory and trumpeter Louis Armstrong. Then, he says, "One day someone turned me on to sax players Flip Phillips and Illinois Jacquet, on trombonist Juan Tizol's [1942] song 'Perdido.' In 1950, two sax players, Elmo DeLay [alto] and Herb Adams [tenor] took me to their respective homes and played some weird stuff that this fellow named Charlie Parker was doing and, for about 15 seconds I had no idea what I was hearing. Then, all of a sudden, wham!—I knew, and I've known ever since.

"And right after the epiphany I discovered the only real hero that I ever had as a young man—clarinetist Buddy DeFranco," Weiss continues. "From then I only played and studied the clarinet. Later, when I was in the army, I picked up and played alto and tenor sax—I never practiced them, but made money playing them in rock and R&B clubs in and around Hollywood, Reno and Las Vegas. I dug other people too, like guitarist Jimi Hendrix, rock pianist Little Richard, guitarist/vocalist Bo Diddley and singer James Brown."

Weiss also listened to classical music as a youngster, including Richard Wagner, Bach and Richard Strauss. "The 'Liebstod.' from Wagner's opera, Tristan and Isolde ," he says, "would bring me to my knees, eyes awash." He describes Bach and Bird [Charlie Parker] as, "The baddest mother fuckers that ever lived, bar none." He says, "When I hear anything by them it gives me, 'what in the hell am I even doing trying to play music other than massaging my own ego?' Those cats did everything possible to do with the 12-tone scale that all musicians use to express themselves with. Bach had had the biggest influence on me."

Weiss listens to other musicians and lists them as sax players Stan Getz and Dexter Gordon; trumpeter Miles Davis up to the 1970 album Bitch's Brew (Columbia); saxophonist Sonny Rollins up to The Bridge (Bluebird/RCA, 1962); everything that saxophonists Sonny Stitt and Hank Mobley did; pianist Kenny Barron; "Mr. Clarinet" Buddy De Franco; organist Richard "Groove" Holmes; and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. "Many are cats" Weiss says, "that I have played and recorded with."

The Break

Weiss' decision to leave the business around 1965 came after a seven-year stint playing clubs and dance halls (during which time he also was a film extra and jammed with some of jazz's greats). In the '50s, Weiss had an early incarnation as Mort Wise and the Wise men, and they played rattling jazz/rockabilly tunes like Eden Ahbez's "Wild Boy" (released as "Nature Boy," Capitol, 1948), playing clubs and dance halls in Hollywood and casinos in Las Vegas and Reno. Of this period, Weiss says, "Yep, back in the day that's the name I went by for about six or seven years. Rocky Holman was my [Elvis lookalike] lead singer, and guitarist. Oh, on "Wild Boy," that's me on tenor sax and making all of the jungle sounds.

"I also recorded (on clarinet) part of a serious album of Eden's, called Eden's Island ( Del-Fi Records, 1960)," Weiss continues. "OK, back to my singer Holman (who gets top billing on the record, as the agency that I was working for—WAM world artist management—was footing the bills for all the above and they put Holman and me together and he became one of the Wise men). Rocky was a sex maniac. Wherever we were working—no matter the type of venue—during our breaks/intermissions he'd be prowling around, scoring chicks for later that evening. The problem was that by the end of the gig he'd have three or four lined up at various key points of the building—front door, mezzanine, parking lot and other places.

"Many nights," continues Weiss, "he would make his escape (with one or two or three of the ladies) in his high powered car—sometimes with irate boyfriends and/or husbands in pursuit—ultimately leading them to our hotel or where ever we were staying at the time, but we were all so freakin' high and stoned on whatever, that it used to turn into a great party, usually with the police breaking things up at about daybreak. Yet, let's back up a few hours and picture about 10 to 15 stoned out people in a hotel room. Rocky was in his element under those conditions."

The years of this kind of living took their toll on Weiss, and by 1965 this hedonistic lifestyle, together with a combination of drink and drug excesses, were beginning to exact a heavy payback, both personally and professionally. He was on a downward spiral to an early grave if things did not change and would have been consigned to the history of jazz had he not made and stood by a decision which would save his life but perhaps deprive jazz music of one of its most prodigious talents. He quit. Not for a few years but for almost four decades. He got his life together, made an uneasy peace with the past and became almost settled. About his break, Weiss comments, " If I wouldn't have quit playing in 1965 and made some course changes, I would have been dead a long time ago—yes, dead as in died—as still might happen someday if it gets to be too boring."


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