Monday, April 8, 2013

"What color is he, anyway?"

That was reportedly the response George Shearing gave an interviewer who asked Shearing, "How come you're using a colored drummer?" "I never really thought about it. What color is he, anyway?" Shearing, you see, was legally blind, so "what color is he" might have been an appropriate response, if he didn't have any other of his six senses. I suspect that Shearing's tongue was planted firmly in his cheek, and that was his way of not responding in the nasty way he might have been entitled to. He was also British, where black and white seem to be colors more than separatist races.

The color of one's skin has long been an issue in the music world (and elsewhere, obviously), and this opining and sometimes outright discrimination on both sides deserves some pondering. Jazz bands were segregated for many years, but in the '30s some white bandleaders, notably Benny Goodman, realized what they were missing by not simply hiring the best players available, regardless of color, and began hiring black artists. Tommy Dorsey, wanting to expand the musical scope of his very popular orchestra, famously hired the great arranger Sy Oliver away from the also popular Jimmy Lunceford (black) band. Producer Norman Granz (Jazz At The Philharmonic) was a noted anti-racist and hired whites and blacks and treated them equally.

But from my experience in the jazz world in Los Angeles, there seems to be an undercurrent of separatism that I've been at a loss to understand. White bandleaders seem, almost without exception, to put together all-white bands. But the "why" is what I don't get; I played in a band led by a white drummer who had put together an all-white band that was working clubs around L.A. He once called me and said he was desperate to get a tenor sax sub for the following day's rehearsal. I suggested he call a black player who happened to be my friend and co-worker in another band (led by a black), and he replied, after a small hesitation, "Do you think he'd want to do it?" Meaning, I think, that he had a  great deal of respect for my friend, but he might have thought there was a racial divide that doesn't really exist. He did call Carl, who not only agreed to rehearse that day, but became an important, no, an integral, part of the band. (Carl has passed away since I started writing this, and some measure of respect and the high regard in which he was held could be seen in the attendance and participation in a fund-raiser that was held to help with his funeral and related expenses. It was attended by people of all races, who gladly performed to help his family in their time of need.)

I more recently played a rehearsal with a "white" band, and another black saxophonist friend was subbing that day. I welcomed him to the band, and he said he'd been trying to get into that band for years. I know that some, maybe many, maybe all, of the white band leaders work with black musicians in other venues, and have friends who are black, and respect them on both counts, so I don't get what's going on. It certainly and obviously has nothing to do neither with musicianship nor racism, as far as I can tell.

On the other hand, the black bandleaders seem to always have a healthy mix of players. I played and recorded with Buddy Collette at the Lincoln Theater in Washington, D.C. for the Library of Congress, and Buddy's band had blacks, whites, hispanics and even women. Buddy was definitely an equal opportunity employer, and hired on basis of musical ability and personality. Color never entered into it. I've played with the Gerald Wilson Orchestra for some seventeen years, and he has the same mix in his band. John Stephens does the same. There seems to be something like reverse non-discrimination here somewhere. Other players I've talked to have observed the same thing but don't seem to have an answer. Perhaps it's simply tradition, status quo, or not thinking about it.

Perhaps I'm seeing a problem where none exists; I do see and perform with blacks in other venues. I have black friends that I'm as close to as my white friends (and hispanic, and women, and even redheads -- take that, Conan Doyle!). I've spent a lot of time writing this in a way that makes sense to me, and have hesitated posting it out of concern for offending someone, so maybe it speaks more of me than the situation I've put forth. I was, after all, raised in a segregated community in the south, and only went to school with (a few) blacks late in my college career. My parents taught me to not be prejudiced, and when I enlisted in the U.S.Air Force, I worked with blacks on a daily basis and had the greatest respect for them and their wonderful musicianship (as well as for my white co-workers). But I still saw racism on some level, even there.

So what was the question?? More important, what is the answer??

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Who's The Leader Of The Band?

Not THAT band. We all (of my generation) know that that would be Mickey. I had that revelation reinforced during my eleven+ years working/playing with the Disneyland Band, with Mickey frequently leading us down Main Street, USA.

No, the band I'm referring to -- well, let me backtrack a little. When we first moved to Los Angeles, I found I had dived headfirst into a huge melange of music. There were numerous big bands, small bands of every ilk, brass and woodwind groups, orchestras seemingly in every community large and small, and on and on. One of the first bands I hooked up with, for a week of work, was led by the inimitable Bill Berry, the cornetist who played with the great Duke Ellington from 1961-1964, a rare example of a white player in a black band. Bill later led his own band, and I was called to join the group for this outing.

We played three or four nights at a theater in Oxnard, California, northwest of L.A. Then we did a couple of nights at what was then the jazz mecca of Los Angeles, Carmelo's Jazz Club in Sherman Oaks (Bob Florence famously dedicated a song to it, the title a nice play on the famous "Carmel By The Sea" -- Carmelo's By The Freeway). The amazing trumpeter, Cat Anderson, sat behind me, and played with such intensity that I wondered if I would ever hear again. There were other luminaries in the band as well, such as lead alto saxophonist Med Flory, the founder and leader of the amazing group, Supersax.

Which brings me to the title of this tome: Who's The Leader Of The Band? After our nights in Oxnard, we went into Carmelo's. Med Flory was replaced by the great Marshall Royal, who had just left relative stardom with the Count Basie Orchestra. And things changed. Marshall was such a domineering (and I mean that in a good way) player, such a natural, strong leader, that the entire feel of the band hand changed. It amazed me that one player, who was not the lead trumpeter or the drummer, could effect such a change (and for the better, I thought). It just somehow added something to the cohesiveness of the band. Med is a great player, and I certainly don't mean to disparage him or his musicality, but it was just...different. It was quite a music lesson for me.

I had the distinct pleasure of working and hanging out with Marshall many times, as he became the lead alto saxophonist with the Ray Anthony band, with which I played for ten years.


While I'm on the subject of leading, I am reminded of when I played lead trombone with the Toshiko Akioshi/Lew Tabackin Band for a while in the early 1980s. My first gig was three nights at the Chicago Jazz Showcase, followed by a concert at the Boston Globe Jazz Festival, held at the Berklee School of Music. The first night, I thought I should kind of lay low and see how the bone section did things. And it was a relative disaster! Starting the second night, I just played lead the way I know how, and everything was fine from then on. I coincidentally learned about dedication: when we hit the hotel in Boston, I think I hadn't even opened my suitcase when I heard Lew practicing down the hall. Lesson noted.