© - Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
Bill Crow has had such a long, distinguished career, both as a bassist and writer, that it’s sometimes difficult to believe that he just didn’t appear fully formed on the Jazz scene.
And yet, as he nostalgically reminds us in the following piece, we all have beginnings in the music.
In describing how his own career evolved, the late author Ray Bradbury commented: “You Make Yourself as You Go.”
From his own pen, here’s how it was for Bill when he first arrived in New York in 1950 and how he made himself “go” [grow] during his first three years in the business.
© - Bill Crow: copyright protected; all rights reserved; used with the author’s permission. [Paragraphing modified in places.]
“When I left Seattle to live in New York City in January of 1950, I got off the bus with 50 dollars in my pocket, carrying a suitcase and a valve trombone. My friend Buzzy Bridgeford, a drummer, had convinced me that if I wanted to be a musician I had to be where the music was. In his estimation, New York was the only place to be.
I didn't see any reason not to believe him. When we arrived, Charlie Parker was playing with his quintet at Birdland, with Red Rodney, Bud Powell, Tommy Potter and Roy Haynes, and opposite him was a house band made up of Max Roach, Al Haig, Miles Davis, J.J. Johnson, Curley Russell and Sonny Stitt. The admission price was 95 cents, and you could listen to great music all night long without spending another dime.
After our first tough winter scuffling in New York, Buzzy wound up with a summer gig in the Adirondacks, at the Altamont Hotel in Tupper Lake, N.Y. It was originally Gene Roland's gig, but on opening night Gene had a fight with the boss's wife and walked off in a huff. Buzzy salvaged the job, and a week or two later he got me hired as a trombone player.
The boss wouldn't hire a bass player... he felt that piano and drums were enough rhythm. So Buzzy found a local kid who owned a Kay bass and paid him 20 bucks to rent it for the summer. Then he told me, "When you're not playing the trombone, you've got to try to play the bass. I can't stand playing without a bass player."
The other musicians sort of gaslighted me into staying with the bass... they didn't give me any positive feedback about my trombone playing, and constantly encouraged my bass playing. "Wow, on that last tune, you sounded just like Ray Brown!"
By the time I got back to the city, I had taught myself to play the bass well enough to accept gigs. I would rent a bass when I got work. It took a while to find one of my own.
As soon as I met a few New York musicians, I began to discover all the places where jam sessions might take place. Nola Studios, on Broadway in the 50s, was a main location. (Not to be confused with Nola Penthouse, the recording studio on 57th Street.) Nola's had a number of small rehearsal rooms, each with a piano, and one large room that could hold a big band. That was the room where jam sessions were often held, with a collection being taken up to pay the rental.
I found out about Nola's during a visit to New York City while I was still in the Army, stationed at Fort Meade, Md. I looked up a friend of a friend, who took me to a session there. About 20 people were in the big room, but only five or six were playing. A good rhythm section, a trumpet player, and Brew Moore on tenor. Brew had finished most of a gallon jug of Gallo wine, and was lying on his side on the floor, playing, with a lit cigarette tucked into his octave key. I was impressed with his ability to still swing when so far into the bag.
There were several private lofts and back rooms of bars where we could play, and on one nice afternoon when no one had any money for studio rental, Gerry Mulligan rehearsed some of his big band arrangements on the shore of the 72nd Street lake in Central Park. Until I got my own bass, I would hang out at sessions and rehearsals until the bass player got tired, and then would get a chance to play his bass. I played a lot on Teddy Kotick's bass, and on one owned by a Spanish bassist, Louis Barreiro.
Another great location was a room at 136th Street near Broadway. It was a basement that extended out under the street, so you could make noise all night without bothering anyone. A baritone player named Gershon Yowell found the place, and when he moved out, it was taken over by Joe Maini and Jimmy Knepper. We played there a lot. Sometimes Charlie Parker would drop by just to hang out, and he would occasionally play. 1 was too shy to play while he was around, but I enjoyed getting to know him. A very sweet, funny, intelligent and generous man, no matter what Miles Davis said about him in his book.
Whenever Bird played, Jimmy Knepper would turn on his tape recorder, and then, during the next day, he would listen to the tapes and write out Bird's solos. Those transcriptions became Jimmy's practice material.
A club date bass player in the Bronx let it be known that he had a bass for sale, and I heard about it at Charlie's Tavern. I went up to look at it, an old Kay that was in good shape, and he said he wanted $75 for it. I only had five dollars to give him, but he agreed to hold the bass for me until I got the rest of the money together.
I wasn't making much profit at the time... a club date might pay $15 or $20, and I had to pay five bucks to rent a bass for the weekend, and maybe another five to rent a tux. But I was also finding other work. Dave Lambert, who was also scuffling at the time, would come up with jobs we could do together, like moving somebody from one apartment to another, or painting someone's apartment, or babysitting, or doing minor carpentry jobs. I took a traveling job for a few months with Mike Riley's trio playing drums and singing, and even with the low pay I was getting, I managed to save a few bucks and send them to the bassist in the Bronx.
When I finally paid off the $75 and took possession of my bass, I quit my job with Riley and started working with Teddy Cohen's trio, with Don Roberts on guitar. After I'd been with Teddy for a couple of months, he told me one day that he was changing his name to Charles. "Charles Cohen," I said. "That sounds pretty good." He laughed, and said it was the Cohen he wanted to get rid of. He felt that the Jewish name was holding back his career.
He did all right with the new name, so maybe he was right. Other friends had already done the same thing: Donald Helfman became Don Elliott, Julius Gubenko was now Terry Gibbs, Herbert Solomon became Herbie Mann, and Anthony Sciacca became Tony Scott.
We rehearsed every day, and worked occasionally. Teddy taught me the right changes to all the bebop standards of the day, and playing with no drummer helped me develop a strong sense of time. I'd invented my own fingering system for the bass, which was a little awkward, but I didn't know any better. I improved it several years later when I began studying with Fred Zimmerman, of the New York Philharmonic.
Don Roberts got a better job and left us, and Jimmy Raney replaced him. Jimmy had been working with Stan Getz, but Stan had gone alone for some work on the west coast, and so Jimmy was available for a job we had on West 46th Street in the Iroquois Hotel, playing jazz and accompanying Amanda Sullivan, who was billed as "The Blonde Calypso."
At the end of that summer, Jimmy got a call from Getz. "I've got a week at the Hi-Hat in Boston. Roy Haynes is living up there, and says he'll do it. And I got Jerry Kaminsky on piano. So find a bass player and come on up." Jimmy asked me if I wanted to do it, and of course I did.
We got together at his apartment one afternoon and he taught me Stan's tunes, and then we took the train up to Boston.
I met Stan at the hotel where we were staying, and he said, "Do you mind if I check into your room with you? I'll split the bill with you, but I won't be staying there... I've got a chick in a room upstairs. This is just for the record." I agreed, and became Stan's roommate, on paper.
On opening night, we started the first tune and my D string broke during the first chorus. I tried to play around it, but was having a terrible time. There was another bass under the piano, which belonged to the house group that was playing opposite us. I decided to quickly switch basses, hoping the other guy wouldn't mind.
But when I began to play it, I discovered that it was set up for a left-handed player, with the strings in the opposite direction from mine. I fumbled through the tune, making many mistakes; and at the end Stan gave me a minute to put a new D string on my bass, and the worst was over.
By the second night I was pretty comfortable with the quintet, and the music went smoothly. But I was amazed at Stan's love life. In addition to the girl in the room upstairs, he was spending time during the day with another girl he had met at the club. And on the weekend, his wife came up for a surprise visit, and checked into the hotel. At the club that night all three women were sitting at a table in front of the bandstand, and each one was sure she was the one with Stan, and the other two were just friends.
When we got back to New York the next week, Stan called and said he had a week at Birdland. Jerry Kaminsky and Roy Haynes had stayed in Boston, so he hired Duke Jordan and Frank Isola. During that week we also played a concert at Carnegie Hall opposite Charlie Parker's quintet. Then Stan found us a week each in Baltimore and Washington, and we came back to New York for a week off.
That Tuesday, Stan called to say Birdland had a last minute opening for a week, so I went there and found Kenny Clarke setting up. I assumed Frank had already booked something and wasn't available. We began to play, and I got along with Kenny very well. We played the radio broadcast that was always done on the first set of opening night at Birdland each week.
When I got up for the second set that night, I looked over in the Peanut Gallery, the seating area beside the bandstand, and saw Frank Isola there. "What's up, Frank?" I asked. "I don't know," he grinned. "I turned on the radio and discovered I was fired!" Stan pretended not to notice him.
We did a recording session for Norman Granz and another for Teddy Reig, and then Jimmy Raney left us to take a steady gig at the Blue Angel with Jimmy Lyons. So we worked a couple of weeks as a quartet. Then Duke and Klook left to do something else, and Stan said, "Well, I guess I have to form a new quintet." So he hired Bob Brookmeyer, John Williams and Alan Levitt, and I stayed on bass.
That was an interesting group, but the rhythm section never really jelled. John wanted the time feeling to be up on top, and Alan wanted it more relaxed. I was too inexperienced to have a strong point of view, and Stan and Bob weren't comfortable with us. So Stan decided to go back to his original bass player, Teddy Kotick, and that was the end of my six month tour with Stan. Teddy had been doing one-nighters with Claude Thornhill's band, and I wound up taking that job for the next summer, and my musical education continued. I learned a lot from playing with Stan and with Claude, and had a lot of fun doing it.”