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Interview: Bill Crow, Part 4


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Most non-musicians think all jazz bass players are fundamentally alike. They believe they aren't there for us but simply to keep time for the band, the way a transmission is for a car. As one person who isn't a bass fan told me some years ago, “There's a reason they stand in the back, behind the piano." To be fair, they are indeed there to keep time for the band, like a human metronome. And in many cases, they do stand in the back or off to the side. But how they keep time—for the band and for us—is where their art thrives. What performing musicians listen for is time as well as swing and edge. In other words, buoyancy. It's hard to explain, but a great bassist will cause the other musicians to levitate, spiritually. The bass is the horse the other musicians ride, depending on the style of music being played. Jazz musicians feel those notes in their spines and when they're solid and strong, they gives the music lift.

Bill Crow has always been one of those rock-solid, uplifting bass players, like Don Bagley, Scott LaFaro, Chuck Israels, Curly Russell, Tommy Potter, Oscar Pettiford, Ray Brown, Milt Hinton, Eugene Wright and many others. For the contrapuntal groups Bill played with in the 1950s, his style, power and articulation kept the other musicians on the beam and deeply rooted as they improvised or played harmony. In a trio, Bill framed pianists like Marian McPartland beautifully, reminding them where the fence was as they roamed. And in big bands, Bill locked the rhythm section in the pocket. I'm overjoyed to be reunited with Bill this week through our interview.  

Here's Part 4—the final part of my four-part series of interviews with Bill Crow:

JazzWax: Two performances I wanted to ask you about. The first is you with Duke Ellington in 1958. How did that come about?

Bill Crow: The Gerry Mulligan Quartet had a concert opposite Duke Ellington at Lewisohn Stadium on the campus of the City College of New York on July 24, 1958. As we're standing there backstage waiting for Duke to go on so we could listen, we see Duke looking around. He can't find his bassist Jimmy Woode. And he's looking up at the sky, because it looks like it might rain. So he comes over to me. I was standing there with my bass. He takes me by the sleeve and says, “Come with me." Out we go onto the stage and he take me to the bass stand, which was right next to the piano in front of the trombone section. Sam Woodyard was the drummer.

JW: Were you flipping out?

BC: A little, but this band was my ideal. To be asked to play with the Duke Ellington Orchestra in 1958 was beyond thrilling. As Duke took me onstage, I walked with him as if in a dream. At the spot Duke left me, I saw the bass book on the floor underneath the stand. As I started to bend down to get it, trombonist Britt Woodman leans over and says, “Don't do that. That's all been changed." I turned to look at him. He says, “For this first number, just hang around B-flat. We'll tell you when to change."

JW: What happened next?

BC: We started on a rhythm tune in B-flat. Then the trombone section started hollering chords to me. After the first couple of chords, I could see where the song was going, so it wasn't that hard of a structure. Meanwhile, Duke's out front on piano doing his thing. Fortunately, he had sense enough to call all the tunes. Anybody playing in the jazz world know the standard Ellington material, but when he called an unfamiliar ballad, I really needed the music.

JW: Uh-oh.

BC: Instead of giving me a part, he did something else that was clever. He was at the piano right beside me, so just before I needed a note, he'd point to it on the keyboard. I would play that note. And as soon as he sees that I'm getting his messages, he just led me through the whole tune that way by pointing to the notes.

JW: Do you remember what tune it was?

BC: I have no idea. Just some ballad.

JW: How did the band sound?

BC: Glorious. I had such a big grin on my face and was obviously enjoying myself. So much so that Gerry's nose got a little bit out of joint.

JW: Why?

BC: Afterward, he came over to me backstage and said, “How come you don't have that much fun playing with my band?" I said, “Oh come on, Gerry, don't throw a wet blanket on my good time. You get to play with Duke all the time. This was my one shot."

JW: Ever run into Duke again?

BC: About a month later, the sextet was in French Lick, Ind., at a jazz festival, and I'm standing waiting for the elevator. The door opens and out steps Duke. He says, “Oh, Mr. Crow. I never did remunerate you for your excellent services at Lewisohn Stadium that day." I said, “Duke, that was the thrill of my life. It was my pleasure.” And we both bowed to each other.

JW: The other performance—or performances—were in 1962. What the heck happened with the Benny Goodman band on its Soviet Union tour that year?

BC: As you know, I wrote a book about it. But here’s the short version: On our tour heading to Moscow and other Soviet cities, everybody in the band had their guard up a little bit. We'd all  heard the many stories about Goodman’s odd temper and personality. Pianist John Bunch was the one who told Benny to hire drummer Mel Lewis and me because we were in Gerry Mulligan's big band at the time. John and Benny agreed we played awfully well together.

JW: What happened early on?

BC: We had several rehearsals in New York, and then we did two concerts on the way out to Seattle. We were heading there to play a week at the Seattle World's Fair as a break-in before flying to the Soviet Union. By the time our week in Seattle was over, we were ready to kill Benny.

JW: Why?

BC: A short rundown on his issue is Benny's unfortunate habit of moving players in sections around so he could figure out what he though each guy did well. Which is unnerving once you're on the road, since everyone likes to get set and comfortable with their part. When Benny was putting the band together, he insisted on having Jimmy Maxwell as his lead trumpet player. Jimmy was an old friend of his and had played with with him many times. At the time, he was happy playing on NBC’s Perry Como Show band. He told Benny he didn’t want to tour.

JW: So Benny offered Maxwell more money?

BC: Not quite. Benny called David Sarnoff, NBC's founder, and asked him to lean on Jimmy. Additional pressure was needed and, eventually, Jimmy had no choice if he wanted to keep his Como job. Then Benny brought in trumpeters Joe Newman, Joe Wilder and Johnny Frosk. These guys were all great players, but Benny started to do dumb things on the bandstand in front of audiences.

JW: Like what?

BC: Between songs, he'd motion to the brass section and say, “Jimmy, give John your part." This went on for several concerts. By the time we reached the Soviet Union, Jimmy was playing fourth trumpet. He was the most expensive fourth trumpet player Benny ever had. Benny wanted to put it to Jimmy for not immediately jumping at the opportunity to be on the band and for making him waste time putting the squeeze on. Benny was just a weird guy like that. And they were old friends!

JW: So he would just rattle musicians for sport, because he could?

BC: That was it. Then he brought along pianist Teddy Wilson, who had been with Benny since the the early 1930s. At the last minute, he insisted that John Bunch come with us instead. John had been advising him on putting the band together, and Benny was afraid Teddy wouldn't sound modern enough if he bought arrangements from contemporary arrangers. Maybe Benny was right, but it wasn't handled elegantly and without any care for Teddy's time or feelings. It was Benny being Benny.

JW: Obviously you guys are on disgusted and on edge based on how Benny's is snapping the proverbial towel.

BC: Yeah. And by the time we reached the end of the Seattle leg, we had joyous Joya Sherrill lined up to be the featured vocalist. A beautiful set of songs was put together for her. Joya opened with a combination of two tunes—Riding High and Shooting High. Al Cohn’s chart really burned. It was wonderful. The band understood it and played it well. After this medley, a bass vamp opened her next song that could go on as long as needed until the audience stopped applauding and settled back down. The vamp allowed her to go into her next tune anytime she wanted, audience noise permitting. For some reason, Benny grew to hate the arrangement.

JW: Why?

BC: I don't think he liked that Joya was such a big hit with audiences. So what he did was take away her opening number and had her start with the second number—the medium-paced one with the bass vamp. Instead of letting me start the bass vamp while she walked out and got settled, he would announce her without my vamp or the band playing. She'd walk out to the microphone and have to stand there in silence as Benny thought about the tempo for around 10 seconds. Then he'd turn to me and count off the tempo, and I would start the vamp. Which means she had to stand there for four bars until I finished before she could launch into her vocal. Benny killed the excitement and drama leading up to her vocal. Despite his antics, she was a big hit with audiences.

JW: She must have been happy about that.

BC: He wasn't finished with her. Then he started fooling around by going back into his band book and pulling out old Fletcher Henderson charts. On those, the vocalist had the third chorus after two by the band. He wanted her to sing on a couple of those that were arranged originally for Martha Tilton. She said, “Mr. Goodman, I have my material. I'm not the band singer, I'm the featured vocalist." Benny just looked at her. From then on, they weren't speaking. When we came back, he told Columbia producer George Avakian not to use her vocals on the album that would be released. She wasn't even in the liner notes as part of the tour.

JW: Good God. So when you get to Moscow, the band is ready to kill him?

BC: Oh, yeah. We were fed up with him trying to bring the band down. He had good players in there, and we were all there to play for him. But if Phil Woods played great and got a great audience reaction, Benny wouldn't have him play that chart again. Things like that.

JW: What ultimately happened?

BC: Everything I just told you took place in the early weeks of the tour. During the early days, management handed us contracts to sign that they said were necessary in order for us to get paid. The front page was just about our pay while the remaining three pages sounded like we were joining the Army. They included all the things we were agreeing not to do, and that violations gave them the option not to pay us. There also were options on our services for something like three months after we got back to the States. If signed, these would keep us from booking work until the time period elapsed.

JW: What did you do?

BC: I said to a musician friend, “I don't think he needs the back pages of this contract, and I'm not going to sign anything without legal advice because I don't trust him." Originally, they were just going to hand us checks in Moscow. We said, “What are we going to do with that?" So they had arranged for us to have some money sent home to our families while we were away.

JW: What about those contracts?

BC: During the last couple of weeks of the tour, management put their foot down, “You’ve got to sign these contracts or no more paychecks." We still refused to sign. We might have been in Leningrad by then. It finally came down to whether or not we were going to sign the first page and throw away the rest. Most of us signed just the first page. Then Joe Wilder discovered that when he got his paycheck, they had deducted the steamer trunk he'd brought along. We all knew this was crap because Benny wasn't paying for any of this stuff, the U.S. State Department was. We refused to go on stage until we were given our paychecks. And so they cut them and we went on and played.

JW: How was the performances in Leningrad?

BC: The thing that stuck in my mind most about Leningrad was that we were supposed to perform there with American classical pianist Byron Janice. He had just had enormous success in the Soviet Union playing two major concertos and was ready to fly home. Predictably, Benny had screwed around. The original deal was that Benny would not only present jazz on stage, he'd also play some classical music, which mollified Soviet bureaucrats fearful of wild audiences and riots if we played just jazz. So during our first week in Moscow, Benny was supposed to get together and rehearse with the Moscow Philharmonic.

JW: And?

BC: Benny still hadn't decided which of the three pieces he wanted to play. He kept changing his mind. By the time we got to Sochi, the Soviet Union's largest resort city, Benny had changed his mind so many times that the Moscow Philharmonic felt a draft and canceled the performance.

JW: Where did that leave you?

BC: The State Department was in a panic and weighed in. The result was that we'd play the Ferde Grofé arrangement of Gershwin's Rhapsody and Blue in Leningrad, and Byron Janice would play the piano part. Which meant Byron had to stay in Russia a few days longer than he had intended. They had leaned on him and he agreed to do it. We had one rehearsal, with Byron looking for Benny to conduct. But Benny never made a move and stood behind the piano's lid. Byron kept saying, “Mr. Goodman, I can't see you." So every tempo change was a train wreck because Benny wasn't conducting and keeping everyone in sync, with Byron looking to him for the next tempo change.

JW: Was Benny doing this on purpose?

BC: Who knows. Probably another ego issue: “Oh, this guy thinks he's better than me and wants me to wave a stick. I don't think so. If you're so good, figure it out. I'm a global star, you're not." Or some variation of that thought process.

JW: So who was the bigger jerk, Benny Goodman or Stan Getz?

BC: Oh, Benny.

JW: Bigger scale?

BC: And bigger stakes. As for that Benny-Byron get-together, we were supposed to straighten all that out on the second rehearsal. Benny canceled the rehearsal to go fishing.

JW: And the concert?

BC: Byron wanted to take a walk before the concert to clear his head, but the State Department prevailed on him not to. There was too much at stake, diplomatically. “All right," he said, “but the piano must remain where I've marked it, and I have to be on the first half of the concert so I can catch my plane." The State Department assured him all was good.

JW: Why am I sensing this story doesn't end well?

BC: Benny walked on stage that night and, during the first half of the concert, he didn't say a word about Byron. He also had the piano moved into a position he favored for Teddy Wilson. When the curtain came down on the first half, Byron was back there ready to kill him. They finally put him on but the piano isn't where he marked it. And once again, he can't see Benny, and ends up trying to conduct the damn thing with his left hand. He probably played worse than he ever had in his life that night. Then he stormed off stage seemingly ready to murder Benny. After the tour, Time magazine printed a long letter from him on what an asshole Benny had been.

JW: We could go on for days given your albums. We didn't even touch on Bob Brookmeyer's The Street Swingers (1957), the Gerry Mulligan Quartet with Art Farmer, recording with Swedish baritone saxophonist Lars Gullin (1959), Gerry Mulligan's Concert Band (starting in 1960), and so many other great albums that followed. Did you ever take lessons?

BC: I did finally have to get to a teacher. When I got with Gerry, I had never heard anybody talking about studying the bass, except Trigger Albert, who had mentioned he was studying with somebody. So I called Trigger and got the teacher's name—Fred Zimmermann , who was with the New York Philharmonic. This is in the mid-1950s. I'd study with him whenever I was in town. I didn't know how to use the bow until he showed me how to hold it and what to do with it.

JW: Did you have to undo some things?

BC: A few. But Fred taught me a fingering system that I didn't know existed and showed me how to be accurate in the upper register and all that sort of thing. He was very helpful.

JazzWax notes: For more on Duke Ellington and the Gerry Mulligan Sextet at Lewisohn Stadium, go here.

I highly recommend Bill Crow's books: From Birdland to Broadway (here) and Jazz Anecdotes: Second Time Around (here).

JazzWax tracks: Here's the title track from The Street Swingers (1957), with Bob Brookmeyer on piano, Jim Hall and Jimmy Raney (g), Bill Crow (b) and Osie Johnson (d). Shades of The Hucklebuck...

Here's the full album of News From Blueport (1959), with Gerry Mulligan (bs), Art Farmer (tp), Bill Crow (b) and Dave Bailey (d). Dig Bill's solo on Just in Time...

Here's the full album of Gerry Mulligan and the Concert Jazz Band at the Village Vanguard (1961), with Bill Crow on bass...

And here's one of my favorite contemporary Bill Crow albums: Reprise : Marian McPartland's Hickory House Trio, featuring Marian McPartland (p), Bill Crow (b) and Joe Morello (d), playing Falling in Love With Love, recorded live at Birdland in September 1998...

And here's the same song with the same personnel in 1955...

Continue Reading...

This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2023. All rights reserved.

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