My friend, the clarinetist H. Grundoon Chumley (he’s Scottish – Malaysian, hence his beautiful and unusual name), called me up to tell me stories from the late Fifties onwards on Seventh Avenue South in New York City.
You know that the pianist Herbie Nichols played in Dixieland bands. One night, I popped into a club called the Riviera — across from Nick’s on Seventh Avenue — and there was a jazz band. The clarinetist was someone I knew from school and he forced me to sit in. To my amazement, I got through it. After the set was over, Herbie said to me, “Man, you’re a real player.” That really egged me on, encouraged me tremendously, so I stayed with the horn and enjoyed it. It was much later through a book by A.B. Spellman that I discovered the esteem in which Herbie was held. I do recall the band at the Riviera — a Dixieland band led by the trumpet player Al Bandini, a friend of Pee Wee Russell’s. Tom Lord played baritone. After Herbie died, Bandini got Eddie Wilcox (who had taken over the Jimmie Lunceford band after Lunceford passed) who became the house piano player at the Riviera. Once in a while Bandini would call and I would go down there and play. A lot of pros would come and sit in: in those days there were many places to sit in and famous people walked in. I never forgot one night. A chap in a sailor suit came in and said, “Can I sit in?” and took out his trombone. He played a solo on SWEET GEORGIA BROWN and our jaws dropped: it was Bill Watrous. Another trombonist was Benny Morton — a wonderful man. Once Dick Dreiwitz got us a gig to play Central Plaza (this would have been around 1961) because we all knew Jack Crystal from the Commodore Music Shop. At the end of the night, the two bands would get together to play THE SAINTS. I looked over at the other band, and it was Willie “the Lion” Smith, Charlie Shavers, and Jo Jones, and I couldn’t stop shaking. Then I felt an arm around my shoulders, and Benny Morton was saying to me, “Come on, man, relax. Just play!” And I did.
One other thing. We used to go to the Metropole and see all the greats — Coleman Hawkins, Buck Clayton, Gene Krupa, and Roy Eldridge. I was a friend of Jack Bradley and he called me up — around 1964 or so — to tell me that Louis was going to play one night there. There was a line around the block. But I’ve never heard a record that captured a live performance, and that night I thought the ceiling was going to fall down with the power and purity of Louis’s sound.