Saturday, January 17, 2009

Bill Crow - Jazz Talk

After posting its initial piece on Bill, the editorial staff of Jazz Profiles begged and pleaded with Bill [oh, okay; I just asked him] to put together his recollections of what it was like to play with various musicians. Bill graciously responded to our request with the following memories to which we’ve added a series of photographs. Needless to say, we feel very privileged to be able to share Bill’s reminiscences with you on Jazz Profiles. You can visit Bill directly at his website: http://www.billcrowbass.com/.
“I was self-taught, having picked up the bass on a summer job in 1950. I joined Stan Getz in 1952, after several months of playing with Teddy Charles’s trio. (With Teddy, I learned some modern harmony and developed chops for playing fast tempos.) Jimmy Raney got me that first job with Stan, with Jimmy on guitar, Jerry Kaminsky on piano and Roy Haynes on drums. Jimmy showed me the chords on a couple of his originals, and what to use in certain places on standards like “Stella by Starlight” and “Round Midnight,” but I was otherwise left on my own. I could hear the notes I wanted to play, but couldn’t always find them quickly on the bass. It was a great learning experience.

Stan had a gorgeous tone and fabulous technique. He and Jimmy achieved a blend that sometimes sounded like one instrument. Stan once told me, “I never have any trouble playing anything I can think of. The trouble is in thinking of what to play.” He admired Al Cohn’s melodic ideas, and often used Al’s inventions in his improvisations.
Stan knew that I was mainly a rhythm player at that time, but he sometimes gave me solos on medium tempos, which I could handle. He seemed to like the way I fit into the rhythm section, and he kept me on through several changes in the group. Duke Jordan replaced Kaminsky, Frank Isola replaced Haynes, and then was replaced by Kenny Clarke. Then Raney left, and a little later Jordan and Clarke left, so Stan built a new group, keeping me on. Johnny Williams and Al Levitt came in on piano and drums. Bob Brookmeyer was to join us, but wasn’t available for the first two jobs, so Johnny Mandel substituted for him on slide trombone.

That rhythm section never connected with each other as well as the previous two had. Stan and Bob decided they needed a more experienced bass player, so Stan fired me and rehired his earlier bassist, Teddy Kotick. They went on to the west coast, and then the group broke up. During those six months with Stan, I learned a lot of new music, improved my solo playing a little, met and played with many good musicians, and had my first opportunity to record with a major artist.
Teddy Kotick had been working with Claude Thornhill’s band, so when he left to go back with Stan, I was hired by Claude’s manager, and I started a summer of one-nighters. My reading was good enough to play big-band charts, but I ran into trouble with Claude’s theme song “Snowfall,” which had a repeating bass line in D-flat that was very difficult for me to finger using my self-taught technique. I spent one morning figuring out an alternate fingering, and that started me on the way to learning a better use of the fingerboard. Claude’s music was lovely to play, and there were some excellent jazz players on the band, especially Gene Quill on alto, Dave Figg on tenor and Dick Sherman on trumpet. I got along well with the drummer, Winston Welch, and the band sounded very good almost every night.
When Claude cut back on his schedule, I left his band to take a job with the Terry Gibbs Quartet, with Frank DiVito on drums and Terry Pollard on piano and vibes. Then Gibbs moved to California, and I found a little work here and there in New York. One of those jobs was with Don Elliot, at a club in the basement of the Plaza Hotel called Cy Coleman’s Room. Cy and his trio were the main event, and Don’s group played in between their performances. We started out with Dick Katz on piano and Denzil Best on drums. Don played both vibes and mellophone. With Dick Katz encouraging us to try a lot of John Lewis material, we had a nice subtle swing going with that group, though Don seemed to need the occasional bravura ending, grabbing the mellophone and sounding a tantara, or whooping like a crazed ambulance.
Denzil was still recovering from a bad auto accident. Don loved the way he had played brushes with George Shearing’s group, and told him to take it easy and just play brushes. But Denzil’s hands would swell a little by the end of the job each night, and his left leg was too weak to keep a steady hi-hat beat. Despite Don’s reassurances, Denzil felt he wasn’t playing up to par, and quit after the second week. To replace him, Don hired a drummer that Dick Katz didn’t agree with musically, and so Dick also left the job. Don said he thought he would hire a piano player he knew from a kid band in New Jersey, and that was how I met Bill Evans. At that time, Bill’s playing had some Tristano influence, but he was well on his way to developing his own thing.
Don had me over to his apartment a couple of times to help him work on a multitracking project he was working on. He wanted to be a vocal group and play all the instruments he could play. This was before multi-layered recording heads and wide recording tape had been invented. Don was recording from one single-track tape recorder to the other, adding parts as he went. He finally interested Phil Moore in the project, and in a studio with multi-track capability, we did an album called “The Voices of Don Elliot” for ABC Paramount.
When Don’s gigs ended, I did a short stint with Jerry Wald’s sextet at the Embers, and then Marian McPartland called me to join her trio, with Joe Morello on drums, at the Hickory House on West 52nd Street. Marian made me very welcome, and gave me a lot of solo space. Joe was easy to play with, and the three of us developed a good rapport. The hardest part of that trio for me was that Marian loved to modulate into different keys, and some of them were finger-busters for me, with my homemade fingering system. I was forced to learn to play in all the hard keys, and I improved my technique a lot on that job.

Marian had a great harmonic palette, and I learned a lot from her. And I loved her melodic inventions. At that time, she wasn’t a strong swinger, though she aspired to strong rhythmic playing and worked hard at it. She did eventually develop an easy swing in her jazz.

Joe was adept at poly-rhythms and cross rhythms, and would do his best to lose us during his solos. We learned to count carefully while he played alone, and he always came out right on the money, no matter how complicated his improvisations.
Morello had developed what he called his finger technique, in which he could keep his left stick tapping the drumhead with just the pressure of his left forefinger, and then he could add accents by rotating his wrist at the same time. Sitting with him at a back booth in the Hickory House, where he always had a pair of drumsticks and practiced on a folded napkin on the table, I borrowed a stick and figured out his finger trick, and I could keep it going pretty well. Joe loved to tell admiring students who visited us at the club, “There’s nothing to the finger technique. Anybody can do it. Here, look, even my bass player can do it!” And he would hand me a stick and have me demonstrate.

Joe and I were in a good place to be heard at the Hickory House, and as a result of our exposure there, we were hired as a team by a number of recording artists, including Jackie and Roy, Jimmy Raney, and Victor Feldman. We were also hired on off days by Marian’s husband, Jimmy McPartland, through whom we met and played with musicians of his era like Vic Dickenson, Herb Hall, Tyree Glenn, Marty Napoleon, Pee Wee Russell and Bud Freeman.
I was happy with Marian’s trio, but I couldn’t pass up an offer from Gerry Mulligan to join his sextet, with Bob Brookmeyer, Zoot Sims, Jon Eardley and Dave Bailey. Gerry’s music was beautiful, Zoot was the most swinging jazz musician I had ever heard, and Brookmeyer’s playing had been a delight to hear every night when we were together with Stan Getz. I met Bailey and Eardley at our first rehearsal, and when we began to play, I was knocked out by the quality of the music and the good spirit among us. Gerry had a way of organizing the music without limiting anyone’s expression, and the result was very exhilarating both to the sextet and to our audiences.
Dave Bailey had the touch Gerry was looking for, light and swinging. We locked in together right away, and had a working relationship for a number of years, with Gerry’s groups and with the quintet co-led by Bob Brookmeyer and Clark Terry. Dave was a good section-mate and a good road pal. We enjoyed traveling together, and had many laughs. Dave had been a pilot during the war, and continued to add to his flight knowledge in his spare time. Whenever we were working near a place where he could study something new about flying, that would be how he would spend his daytime hours.

When Gerry’s work dwindled, and not much else was going on in the jazz business, Dave made a living giving flying lessons at Westchester County airport. I went up with him a few times, when he had the use of planes that belonged to his clients. Later, he was co-pilot of attorney F. Lee Bailey’s Lear jet, until it had to be sold. Dave went on to be supervisor of New York’s Jazzmobile program for many years. He refused to play in public any more, but we did get him to come down to St. Peter’s Church and play for the memorial tribute to Gerry Mulligan after he passed away.
After I joined Mulligan’s sextet, I soon realized that my lack of a good fingering system on the bass was giving me problems I didn’t need. With Marian, I played lines that fit my technique, since I was free to play whatever I chose. But Gerry had written certain things that I found difficult to play perfectly in tune every time, and it bothered me. Through a colleague, Trigger Alpert, I found my teacher, Fred Zimmerman, who at that time was the principal bassist with the New York Philharmonic. He straightened out my left hand, taught me how to use the bow, and set me on a path of discovery about the bass that I’m still on.
After a tour of Europe, Gerry’s sextet became a quartet, with Brookmeyer and Bailey, and a month or two later, after I had a disagreement with Gerry over something stupid, I resigned and went back with Marian for a couple of years, now with Dick Scott on drums, since Morello had gone with Dave Brubeck. That trio broke up on the road, and after a bit, Gerry called me to rejoin the quartet, this time with Art Farmer as the other horn.

I was delighted. Art was playing beautifully, and fit into Gerry’s quartet format easily, without losing any of his own musical personality. He was studying George Russel’s Lydian system of tonal organization, and really found it useful in his improvisations. I also went to George and bought his Lydian treatise, but he said, “I’ll sell this to you, but I’m not sure what you can do with it. My whole concept works off the bass line staying around the root of the chord. The horns can go as far out as they like, but it’s the roots that they are going far out from, and we kind of expect the bass player to be there for them.” I studied his scales and decided he was right… I’d do better to stay at the lower end of the chords.

Gerry’s quartet went off to California without me. I decided to stay in New York. When Art and Dave left to help form the Jazztet with Benny Golson, that version of the Mulligan quartet came to an end. A bit later, Gerry returned to the east coast with his Concert Jazz Band, and when Buddy Clark went back home to California, I was happy to join the band. I’ve described in my book “From Birdland to Broadway” what it was like to play with that band. It was one of the high points of my career.
Clark Terry joined the band at the same time I did, and I discovered what a spark plug he was in a band. He knew how to get a good section blend, and all his solos were exactly right for the arrangements. He had a very large bag of tricks, full of surprise and good humor. His technique was amazing, with very flexible lip control and a mastery of circular breathing that let him play amazingly long phrases.
Whenever Gerry’s work schedule had a hole in it, Clark and Bob Brookmeyer would put together their quintet for a week or two at the Half Note. Dave Bailey and I were regulars, and the piano chair, which belonged to Hank Jones, rotated among the subs Hank sent in: Herbie Hancock, Barry Harris, Tommy Flanagan, etc. We finally stayed with Roger Kellaway, who was with the group until it ended when Brookmeyer moved to California. Roger amazed us all. Blessed with great technique, he could play any style, from ragtime to space music. Whatever style he chose to play at the moment would be filled with wonderful surprises that kept the rest of us continually delighted.
Nick Travis was the lead trumpeter on Gerry’s band. He had a gorgeous sound, and with his experience with small groups as well as with the Sauter-Finegan band, he understood Gerry’s band, and was the perfect lead man for it.

Sitting next to Clark Terry in the trumpet section was Don Ferrara, who had an entirely different style. He had studied with Lennie Tristano, and had developed the kind of fluid lines I associated with Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh. Though Clark had most of the trumpet solos, Don also had a few, and when it was his turn, he always came up with something wonderful. I admired the way those three trumpet players, each with a strong individual style and sound in their solo playing, got such a good blend when playing together as a section.
Gene Quill was Gerry’s lead alto player. I knew Gene from the Thornhill band, and was glad to see him again. He had learned his big tone and strong phrasing from Charlie Parker’s playing, and was just the right man to lead Gerry’s sax section. He was also a fiery soloist. Gene was a drinker, and when in his cups could be belligerent. Not being a large man, this belligerence often cost him. He was beaten up several times by larger drunks. Toward the end of his life, one such beating caused some brain damage, and he lived his last years with severe physical problems. But his days on Gerry’s Concert Jazz Band were golden. He had the time of his life, and we all enjoyed his fine playing.

During the last years of the Concert Jazz Band, when Clark Terry had to take a night off, he would send in Thad Jones to replace him. I had gotten to know Thad when he was on the Basie Band, and I was playing opposite them at Birdland. He brought good nature and good musicianship to Gerry’s band, and we were always glad to see him. He also brought in some of his arrangements for us to play, which we enjoyed very much.
At that time, Thad was a little spotty as a soloist. Sometimes his solos just flowed out of him, melodic, inventive, and right on the money. Other times, he sounded like his ideas were a moment ahead of his technique, and his solos would sound muddy, his tone would suffer, and he would seem to be struggling. By the time, the CJB had come to an end, Thad and our drummer Mel Lewis had put together their Monday night band at the Village Vanguard. Every time I heard that band, Thad sounded wonderful. Evidently whatever it was that he had been going through as a soloist had been resolved.
Many years later, Nick Brignola called me to participate in a concert he was preparing at a theater in Cohoes, New York, up near Albany. Nick was to play with three groups, a traditional jazz group, a bebop group, and a free jazz group. I found myself in the bebop group, along with Thad Jones. During one of the numbers, while I was playing behind Nick’s solo, I noticed Thad standing behind me with a quizzical look on his face. When we finished our set and left the stage, Thad pulled on my sleeve and said, “Come with me.” We went down to the bar while the concert continued. Thad bought me a beer and then stood back and appraised me for a moment. Then he said, “You’re a big band bass player, and I know it! Now, don’t think about money for a minute. Just let me tell you where we’re going! First, we have three weeks in England. Then we have a month touring the major cities of Europe. Then it looks like we can do a couple of weeks in Africa!” I looked at him for a minute, and then said, “’Bye!” He laughed, and I explained that though I loved his band, I couldn’t possibly leave my family for that amount of time. “Call me for some subs at the Vanguard!” I told him. He did, but Richard Davis, his regular bassist, didn’t take off very much. The band was too good. Mel Lewis had joined Gerry’s Concert Jazz Band when it was formed in California, and that was what brought him back to New York. When I joined the band, we connected through the music right away. Mel liked the middle of the beat, and preferred the band to settle into the center of a groove, rather than press forward on the time. He had a wonderful beat, and the sounds of his cymbals were perfect for Gerry’s band. I liked the way he decorated the beat with patterns around his drums. He once told me, “I don’t like to play the accents with the brass section. I like to let them swing by themselves. If you play everything they’re playing, they get lazy. I leave them alone, and instead, I play what the saxophones are playing behind them.”

Mel also played great on the Benny Goodman band when we went with him to the Seattle World’s Fair and then on a six-week tour of the Soviet Union. When we went out to jam with the local Russian musicians, the rhythm section was usually Mel, me, and Victor Feldman, who was Benny’s vibraphone player. Victor was a fine pianist, and was up on all the latest jazz tunes, which many of the Russian musicians had learned from Voice of America broadcasts.

Once, when neither Mel nor Dave Bailey was available for some upcoming Mulligan work, I recommended Gus Johnson, who I had met at Birdland when he was with Basie. We had become backstage friends, and began hanging out together now and then. I had played with him once, when he sat in for Frank DiVito with Terry Gibbs’s quartet, and I loved his time feeling. At the time Gerry needed a drummer, I knew Gus wasn’t doing much. He was working as a bank guard in the Bronx to make a living. He came with Gerry’s quartet, and stayed for about a year.
Manny Albam liked the way Gus and I sounded together, and recommended us as a team on record dates. We made several records and quite a few commercial jingles together. In those days, record and jingle producers were always looking for rhythm section teams, the most in demand one being Milt Hinton, Osie Johnson and Hank Jones.

I recorded with Hank a number of times, usually on dates where Milt was unavailable, and I thought he was the perfect pianist. He had a beautiful touch, knew all the best ways around the chord changes, and swung mightily. And he brought an air of cheerful competence to every date, making us all feel that it would be possible to make some very good music that day.

While I was working with Gerry Mulligan, Jimmy Giuffre came to New York with his trio, with Jim Atlas on bass and Jim Hall on guitar. I became friends with Jim Hall right away, and he, Giuffre, Bob Brookmeyer, and I spent a lot of time together in Greenwich Village, where we were all living. Giuffre got a yen to have Brookmeyer in his group, and decided he could still do the trio gigs he had booked by doing without the bass player. So Brookmeyer joined him, and Jim Hall filled the role of both guitar and bass. In those days he kept a second guitar handy, tuned a fourth lower, so he could have that additional range available for certain numbers. And as soon as his financial situation would allow it, he went over to Kenmare Street and ordered a new guitar from the master luthier DeAngelico.
Since Jim Hall and I often went to jam sessions together, I got to play with him a lot. And now and then Mulligan would put together some work for a sextet, which included Jim. We made some nice records with that group, with Gerry, Brookmeyer, Art Farmer, Dave Bailey and Jim. I also played a couple of weeks in Hartford with Dave Mackay, one week with Jim Hall and the other with Jim Raney. When Jim Hall and Brookmeyer were with Giuffre and I was with Mulligan’s quartet with Art Farmer, we made a tour of Europe together, along with the Gene Krupa quartet. By the time we got to Italy, Krupa was no longer with us, due to previous bookings. In Milan, Italy, Jim Hall introduced me to a local guitarist, Franco Cerri, and to Lars Gullin, who was staying in Milan at the time. Our tour finished there, and I stayed for a week with Franco. Dave Bailey and I played a jam session with Lars, who sounded wonderful. A local businessman thought he could sell a record made with Lars and Mulligan’s rhythm team, so he asked Dave and me into a local recording studio. We had just played a jam session with George Grunz when we were in Switzerland, and so we asked them to fly him down for the session. Lars played well, and we all enjoyed the date, but for some reason the record never was released. The first time I met Phil Woods was on a rehearsal for a record date with Jimmy Raney. I was amazed at the strength and bravery of Phil’s playing. He really announced himself! Quite often after that, we found ourselves playing together on the same groups. And he was Gene Quill’s sub on Gerry Mulligan’s Concert Jazz Band. Since Phil moved out to Pennsylvania, I’ve had fewer chances to play with him, but occasionally the opportunity arises. He has lung problems now, but you would never know it to hear him play.

I met Al Cohn and Zoot Sims at Village jam sessions, and first worked with Zoot on Gerry Mulligan’s sextet. We got to know each other better when the sextet went to Europe. We sailed to Italy on the Andrea Doria, a year before it sank, and Zoot and I played a lot of ping-pong on deck during that trip. Zoot sparked that sextet in an extraordinary way, soloing with joyous abandon and infusing the ensemble parts with his special brand of swing.
Not long after that tour, Zoot left to start a quintet co-led with Al Cohn. Often, when their regular bassist, Major Holley, was busy, I would take his place, and it was always a thrilling experience. We were just swinging as hard as we could, all night long. The tunes Al wrote were both interesting and easy to play, and the sound that he and Zoot made together was almost too good to be true. Mousie Alexander was usually the drummer, and Mose Alison the pianist. What a band!

Zoot and Al would occasionally get jobs for just one tenor and a rhythm section, and I often worked those jobs with them. Al called me to play at the Three Sisters and at Gullivers, both in Paterson, New Jersey. His tone was huge, and inventive ideas just poured out of his horn. Stan Getz once said, when asked about his ideal tenor player, “My technique, Zoot’s swing, and Al Cohn’s ideas.”

One extended gig with Zoot was a whole summer I played with his quartet at the Atlantic House in Provincetown, Mass, at the tip of Cape Cod. We played every night, and always looked forward to doing it again. Paul Motian was the drummer, and Nico Bunink was the pianist. We spent every day at the beach and then swung all night long.

Though I worked many gigs with Zoot, I probably played more often with him at jam sessions. He never said no to an opportunity to play. We spent many nights together at loft sessions in the Village and in the flower district in the West 20s. On the road, we usually found some place to play after the gig. We jammed with the local musicians in Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, Seattle, Naples, Rome, Milan, Bologna, Paris, Geneva, Moscow, Sochi, Tbilisi, Leningrad, and Kiev. And after he bought a house in West Nyack, NY, about ten minutes from where I live, we often played in the rec room in his basement. And the last time, just a few days before his death, we played at Benny Aronov’s house in Dobbs Ferry, NY. Zoot tried to play, but couldn’t get more than a couple of squeaks out of his horn. But he was where he wanted to be, among friends at another jam session.”

Bill Crow Jan 15 2009: [C] Copyright protected, all rights reserved.

1 comment:

  1. what a great guy! seemingly good-humored (and humorous) at all times, and incredibly self-effacing even as he tells these astonishing tales from an amazing life in Jazz (and those sf-related words aren't meant as any slight, simply as expressing my admiration and sense of wonder).

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