Saturday, February 4, 2012

Yet Another Mouthpiece Story

I know, one tale is probably enough when one is writing about mouthpieces, contrary to the subject of my previous blog, but since it's such a serious subject with brass players, I thought another might not be too over the top.

I was playing with the Bill Watrous Big Band in a performance for the International Association for Jazz Education (IAJE) Convention at the Long Beach Convention Center. My daughter, Mikie, was visiting and went with me, and we got there early, way before the other band members. Bill was the only one there, setting up the band, so I was getting my trombone out and checking out the music, when the door of the large room we were in opened and a lone gentleman walked in. He shuffled slowly down the aisle toward the bandstand as if he had some trouble walking. As I watched him approaching, I realized I recognized him from having seen him on TV: it was Al Grey, the legendary trombonist who played with the great Count Basie for many years. I asked Bill if it was really him, and Bill said, "Yes, go and introduce yourself." (The walking problem was because of surgery he had had on his feet, the result of his diabetes.)

Mikie and I did just that, and we talked with him for some twenty minutes or more. One of the things he told us was about his mouthpiece; hence this tale presents itself. One of my trombone heroes was Trummy Young, whom I had known when I lived in Hawaii (I actually played on his very first album as a leader, and my brother, Dan, who was visiting at the time, took photos of the four trombonists during the recording session, one of which was used on the back of the album). James (Trummy) Young was famous from his years of playing with Louis Armstrong, and his appearances in movies with Satchmo's band. But his path began years before, when he played with the popular and highly regarded Jimmy Lunceford Orchestra in the 1930s, along with such future luminaries as Gerald Wilson and Snooky Young. When Trummy left the Lunceford band, Al Grey took his place. In those days, bandleaders knew their audiences expected to hear songs as they were played on their recordings, so soloists were required to play the same solos they did on the records, note-for-note. When a new player joined the band, he had to memorize the recorded solos of the previous player.

Thus Al had to memorize Trummy's solos. And he said he could play them all, including the challenging "Annie Laurie," but Trummy's solo on "Margie" presented a dilemma for him: at the very end, Trummy played a low D (in the staff) and "glissed" or "ripped" up nearly 2 1/2 octaves to high F sharp. Al said he had no problem with the F sharp, but the tessitura of the entire solo was so high, he coudn't play the low D: his embouchure was locked into playing in the high register. When he bumped into Trummy a few months later, he related the problem, and Trummy reached into his pocket and handed Al a mouthpiece and told him, "Here. Try this."

And try it he did. For some fifty years. He called it "the magic mouthpiece." He said he could play anything and everything on it. Then tragedy struck. He had just done a Master Class at N.Y. University, and the music teacher invited him for coffee afterward. While they were having coffee, someone broke into Al's van and stole his horns -- and the magic mouthpiece! Al was, of course, devastated. He tried many replacements, including some fifty mouthpieces that people sent him from all over the world. And none worked. They were the wrong size, the wrong shape, didn't feel right, struck his dentures in the wrong place, or something.

Some time later, I remembered a mouthpiece that Trummy had given me years before in Hawaii, when his wife was making him get rid of extra stuff he didn't use. I located it and started thinking about a way to get it to Al for him to try out. Meantime, another celebrated trombonist passed away. Melba Liston was one of the few women to make a name for herself in jazz, both as a trombonist and as an arranger. I attended a service for her in Los Angeles at O.C. Smith's church, and performed with saxophonist Ann Patterson's band. After we played, I sat in a pew to hear the speakers and the other performers, when who should walk in and sit right in front of me, but Al Grey. I leaned forward and whispered a reminder of who I was and told him I had a mouthpiece for him to try. He was concerned because he had a high profile recording session with Tony Bennett coming up in a few days, and was worried about how well he would be able to play. We arranged to meet at his hotel the next morning.

When I showed up at his room at 9 AM, he had his horn out and was practicing. I handed him Trummy's mouthpiece, a plain one with no maker's name on  it; it simply was stamped with the initials "TY." Al stuck it in his horn and played a few notes, and his face lit up with an angelic smile. He said, "Now Les, you be thinking about how much you want for that mouthpiece. I replied that I couldn't charge him for it; I was merely the messenger. Trummy had come through for him again.

I phoned Al in New York the following Tuesday to ask how the previous day's session had gone with Tony, and he said it went great. Al played that mouthpiece the last year of his life, and after his death, his wife donated it to a museum, along with other memorabilia. I was unable to attend his memorial service in New York, but I wrote the story of the mouthpiece and his wife had it read it at the funeral.

The TY mouthpiece may have been a true match for the "magic mouthpiece," or it may have simply been psychological on Al's part. But it worked for him, and I'm happy to have been a catalyst to his happiness in his last days of the great player he was.

1 comment:

M. L. Benedict said...

Aw. What a wonderful story.