Friday, March 25, 2016

Trummy Young - and More Gerald Wilson

From a review in the Los Angeles Times by Chris Barton, June 14, 2015:

"...maybe the festival's most indelible nod to history came with the appearance of the Gerald Wilson Orchestra. Wilson, a brilliant composer and educator who essentially embodied Los Angeles jazz history until his death last year at age 96, was brought to life in a set conducted by his son, guitarist Anthony Wilson.

Gerald Wilson: b. September 4, 1918, Shelby, MS
d. September 8, 2014, Los Angeles, CA

I wrote about Gerald previously, but perhaps I glossed over one facet of his personality: he was always good for a story, and of course, after some eight decades in the music business, was a walking, talking history lesson. There was one particular area of that experience that affected me directly--my friendship with the great trombonist, Trummy Young in Hawaii. Some background is called for here.

I was introduced to Trummy by my dear friend, Ira Nepus. I had first heard Ira when he was with the NORAD Band, the multi-service military jazz band based in Colorado Springs. We both ended up in Hawaii after our  time in the military and became friends and colleagues. I remember the two of us getting together with Trummy at  his apartment to practice together, and Trummy would tell us stories about his career, notably his time with Louis Armstrong. I have a vague memory of Trummy telling us that when he was asked to join Satchmo, he thought playing "Traditional" jazz would be a step backward for him, stylistically speaking, so he tried to decline the offer by naming what he thought was an outrageous price. Trummy had made already made quite a name for himself, and the salary was agreed on immediately.

Our friendship with Trummy led to his asking us to play with him on his first abum as a leader, on which he used a section of four trombones (the fourth was my graduate school trombone instructor at the University of Hawaii, Richard Roblee, who was Principal Trombonist with the Honolulu Symphony). The last time I saw Trummy was after I had moved my family to Nashville and was back in Honolulu for a job. Trummy was headlining at the Sheraton Waikiki, in the Hanohano Room. I was dressed in my beach togs, and thought to go up to see Trummy, but because of my casual dress, took the back elevator and just stuck my head around the corner of the stage to say hello. "Psst! Trummy!" I whispered loudly. Trummy turned and saw me, and said, "Les, come up here!" I tried to demur, but he insisted. As I approached him, he thrust his trombone into my hands and said, "Play!" And he left the stage, leaving me to play with his band, underdressed and surprised as I was. Trummy passed away not too long afterward, after attending and performing at Dick Gibson's Jazz Party in Colorado, "dying with his boots on," as it were.

Where does Gerald Wilson fit into this story?  Pre-Louis Armstrong, Trummy was a member of the noted Jimmie Lunceford band, when young Gerald joined the band. He met the band on tour in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, and Lunceford told Gerald to just spend his first night out front listening. Gerald told me that the band was so good that he feared he wasn't good enough to play with them. In fact, he was so distraught that he became ill. After the band finished their last set,  Trummy approached him to help him get to the hotel and get settled, and Gerald told him, Trummy, I can't play with this band, they're too good." Trummy assured him everything would be fine, but when they got to the hotel, Gerald said he was so sick he couldn't climb the stairs to his room, and Trummy had to carry him up on his back and put him to bed. Ironically, Gerald adopted the same role when his friend, Snooky Young, joined the band a year later.

One of the most remarkable and memorable stories Gerald related to me also concerned Trummy. "Trummy wrote songs, you know," intoned Gerald. "But he didn't know how to write music, so he would sing it to me and I would transcribe what he sang. One night he approached me on the Lunceford bus and said, 'Gerald, you have to write this out for me right now; I'll forget it by tomorrow.' So I got out my pad and pencil and wrote it down. It was Travelin' Light!" Travelin' Light became a huge hit for Billie Holiday and others.

Super Nova

What better title to honor an important person in my distant past -- Nova Hudson. Nova was the proprietor of the Midway Restaurant, a favorite hang for music majors of my era at Tennessee Tech, namely the early to mid '60s. I don't know, and never asked, where the restaurant name came from, but it was located adjacent to the Tech campus, behind the women's dorms and a short walk across the street from the music department. Ignoring its rather pedestrian title, we simply referred to it as "Nova's."

What made the Midway unique, at least in the eyes of the musicians from Tech, was that Nova was a music lover, and as such, had jazz recordings on the juke box. Each booth had its own coin-operated controller, so you could sit and pump nickels into the remote box, with its flip-around menus, and pick your favorites. I remember that her offerings included Dave Brubeck; memory doesn't serve up much else, but it was the time when "Take Five" was a big hit, so it included tracks from that album. Nova loved to hang around and talk music with us, unfortunately to the point of boredom sometimes, so rather than be rude, we had a secret weapon. Nova seemed unable to tap her foot to "Blue Rondo Ala Turk," so we would drop in a quarter and opt for five plays of that arrangement in 9/8 meter, each bar repeating 2/8-2/8-2/8-3/8, relentlessly attacking the sensibilities of any decent Tennessean who loved a good two-and-four feel. About halfway through the second playing, Nova would surrender and disappear into the kitchen, presumably to help her husband, Pop.

Nova had the last laugh, even though she was probably more disgusted than anthing else. She approached our table one day and announced a "sad day in music:" Jack Teagarden had passed. We were too naive and unknowledgable to be very impressed, and she just turned around and went into her kitchen refuge. Of course we should have been embarrassed that we either didn't know enough about who Jack Teagarden was, or his stature and importance in the world of jazz history and trombone playing. Now, of course, we do, and that just elevates Nova into superstardom in our memories, that she was even privy to that kind of knowledge in our little world, our mountain town of 3,000 residents and our school of some 2,000 students, and our tiny music department of 23 majors. As it turns out, Nova's brother was Tommy Thomas, drummer on Don McNeill's Breakfast Club out of Chicago, for twenty years. No wonder Nova knew about music and jazz! Tommy taught at Tech for a year or two after his retirement, then moved on to Florida. Much later, he moved back to Cookeville and rode his bicycle around and played drums for other older folks until he was about 100.

Nova and her Midway Restaurant invoke happy memories of my time at Tech, of which there were many.

Capital Pun-ishment

I'm fond of a good joke, but I find a great pun irresistible. One of my favorites concerns Roy Rogers going for a ride on Trigger. Roy had gotten a new wardrobe, and was particularly proud of his spiffy boots. As he was riding through an arroyo, he was leaped upon by a puma that tore his boots to shreds. He escaped and returned home, where he told Dale what happened, grabbed his rifle, and headed out seeking retribution. He found and dispatched the lion and returned home. When Dale saw him ride in with the couger over his saddle, she sang (apologies to Glenn Miller--oh, maybe not), "Pardon me, Roy, is that the cat who chewed your new shoes?"

My nephew Nonda and I have been exchanging stories of this ilk since he was a wee lad, one of the earliest of which dealt with toilet paper and...well, we won't go there. But I fear he has had the last word. His tale:

Ghandi walked all over India, preaching peace and love, and since he was barefoot or wore very thin sandals, the bottoms of his feet became very tough. As he grew older and his health started to fail, he ate lots of curry to try to slow the aging process, which gave him bad breath. So he became a -- wait for it --

-- Super-calloused-fragile-mystic-hexed-by-halitosis. Take that, Mary Poppins!