On White Guys Playing The Blues, and Benny Goodman Practicing Nude

Mort Weiss BY

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Yes, I drank muddy water—and slept in a hollow log! Um, hmm! I said that I steady drank muddy water, and slept in a hollow log. Ah huh! An' all I wanna do is tell my story on dis here music blog. Oh, yeah!

The blues. If you can't play them, you ain't never had 'em. If you never had them, you can't play jazz—is this true? Or just some folk jive passed on down the line? For what all that it entails, I believe it's true and I'll broaden the scope to take in grand (and not so grand) opera. Yeah, I think the fat lady singing the part of Cio-Cio San in "Madama Butterfly" had a working acquaintance with the blues.

Fact: Black people created (came up with, invented, found, made it happen—whatever) the blues. It was, originally, theirs. They felt it, and through all the pain and suffering and bullshit that they lived through (at the time), from this quagmire of shit, came a birth—a vehicle, if you will. A zeitgeist of emotion was born, a primal shout arose from a people to a god, to someone digging a ditch beside them—to a humanity. Their own fears and weaknesses contributed to this feeling—I said, feeling—within the very soul of the people who were crying out. Yeah, dems the blues!

OK, let's move on:

Fiction: Only African-Americans can play the blues and jazz. That's jive.

Fact: Us white cats play it just as well. I think y'all accept that by now. I'm coming up on 77 years of age, and I've lived through all of the pejorative and PC labels for whites and blacks. Well, I got off that train of thought about black and white. There are only two races in this world: The decent and the indecent, period. I haven't the productive time to play the PC flavor-of-the-month game. Dig?

Onward: By way of introduction, my name is Mort Weiss. I'm the cat who took a 40-year break from the scene—and came back in 2001. (No, Kubrick had nothing to do with it.) I play clarinet. Are you still with me? Well, you see, it's a long, black musical instru—fuck it. If for some strange and sinister reason, you're not familiar with me, please just Google the name Mort Weiss and stand back!

Back in the day, the great vibraphonist Charlie Shoemake and I were playing a concert in a intimate setting, if you will. Charlie, being a very intelligent and erudite cat, walks up to the mic between tunes and flat out says: "Jazz is in the shithouse"—followed by the words "pardon my French." (I told you this was back in the day.) He then goes on to expound further on the subject, pointing out that classical music was supported by the wealthy—indicating that jazz had little or no financial support from various organizations, etc. Remember, I said that this was back in the day. As you now know, jazz is receiving hundreds of millions of dollars in support and endowments—wait. I'm confusing my thoughts with Lincoln Center. Geez, golly, and other expletives that I can't use. As it's been known to be said in China and other parts of the Orient: Oy. Yeah, I can just see these little old blue-haired ladies (widows most of them) contributing large sums of cash to something—oh, let's say to save the Village Vanguard—not even knowing or caring who Hank Mobley was. (Do you know who he was?) Yeah I can just see it now, the tour guide saying: "Right this year, ladies. Watch out for that first step down; it's a bitch." Ah, yeah, Charlie Shoemake. A great cat, and a real talent. We don't speak to each other anymore, but that's another story.

Speaking of vibe players, Terry Gibbs and I were playing some concerts around the Los Angeles area a few years ago. Terry was 80 years old, but had the drive and vibrancy of a cat in his 20s. Terry used to be a boxer, and still has the moves. (If you ever have the chance, ask him about the encounter he had with Stan Hasselgard, the great Swedish bop clarinetist.) Any way, one doesn't talk to Terry—one listens. His book Good Vibes is a must read. Let's face it: The cat's a living legend. (Really, just ask him!) It was a cool thing for me, hanging with the cat, going to his home and seeing all of the Downbeat magazine poll-winning plaques on the wall with all the other memorabilia. Terry was there from the beginning, not Adam and Eve. He's played with all the major cats—and all of the major cats played with him. (Sounds like a be-bop playground.) Don't forget Terry's Dream Band; the records are more popular now than when they were first released. Terry was the cat that introduced Alice McLeod (who was playing piano with him at the time in Birdland) to John Coltrane. If you want to know the rest of the story, just ask Ravi Coltrane—who, by the way, is a good friend of Terry's son Gerry, a real ass-kickin' drummer who I've also had the pleasure of working with. I produced a great record that Gerry did with his Thrasher Sextet, Faces Unknown. I'll be re-releasing it later this year. You can hear samples of same on my Web site.

Enough of the son; back to the father, Terry: He told me about Benny Goodman practicing in the nude. (For those of you from Bakersfield, that means naked.) Terry was working with Benny one day—they were on the road, though this has nothing to do with Kerouac—and he went to Benny's hotel room to draw some coin before pay day. Benny comes to the door buck naked, with his ax in his hands, and writes out a check—then goes back practicing. Cool! After hearing all this, you know what I started doing. Yep. A few weeks into it, I came down with this sore throat from hell, and the worst cold that I'd ever had. Once again: Oy. Terry Gibbs, a great cat and a living legend. We don't speak anymore, but that's another story. Must be something about vibe players. Hmmm.

This column is shared with our good friends at Something Else Reviews—where you can also find daily jazz, progressive rock and classic rock reviews.

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