Happily for me, I have written the liner notes for pianist Keith Ingham’s new CD for Arbors — with Frank Tate and Steve Little, aptly called ROCKIN’ IN RHYTHM.
Keith invited me to his Manhattan apartment to talk about the songs he’d chosen for the date. But once we had finished our official business, he was delighted to tell stories about the American jazz masters he had played alongside when he was a young pianist in England, before coming to New York in 1978.
The first person Keith spoke of was the inimitable Henry “Red” Allen, someone not as well-remembered today as he should be, perhaps because he was having too good a time:
Oh, Red Allen was too upbeat. There wasn’t that aura of tragedy about Red. He was probably my first jazz gig in London, where I got a chance to play this stuff. He had a quartet, and he heard me and said he wanted me to play. I knew his tunes – SWEET SUBSTITUTE and a thing from a Tony Newley show, THE ROAR OF THE GREASEPAINT, something called FEELING GOOD. I knew that song – a bluesy, lovely gospelly song . . . so when he had to guest with another band, it was very embarrassing, because he’d be guesting with one of the name bands like Humphrey Lyttelton, and he would insist that I play the piano when he was on. So there was this awkward business of asking the regular piano player if he wouldn’t mind.
You have to do it courteously. I remember Dill Jones told me that he was playing somewhere and Martial Solal came in and just pushed him off the piano bench, just shoved him. And Dill, in his inimitable way, said, “He doesn’t have to be so bloody rude! He could ask me!”
Red was a larger-than-life character. When he came up on the bandstand, he wouldn’t count off a number with “One, two,” but it would be “WHAM! WHAM!” with his foot, and there it was! And what a player – what technique and what chops. I remember he had this wonderful red brocade jacket on, always a showman, and he looked great.
Once he was with a band – no names – and the rhythm section thought he was a bit of a throwback, a ham. And they wanted to be laid-back and play cool – and I remember Red actually getting down on his knees and put his hands together, almost imploring them, “Please! Swing!” They finally got the message.
He loved Higginbotham, too. I remember Red singing, in a wonderfully sad voice, Higgy’s chorus on FEELING DROWSY, that beautiful minor-key thing. He loved Buster Bailey, too – was always on the phone to Buster, and he told me that Buster was a superb clarinet player who, but for being black, could have gone into the symphony, which was what he wanted to do, really. Listen to Buster’s playing on Bessie Smith’s JAZZBO BROWN FROM MEMPHIS TOWN: his clarinet is pure and gorgeous, a wonderful sound.
Touring with Red was wonderful: he was such a generous soul. Like Roy Eldridge, the same sort of guy. Great characters and human beings.
Roy was over to the UK accompanying Ella, but he got some gigs on his own and I was lucky enough to be part of them, just a quartet. He was still playing then, and fabulous.
Roy loved hot food, and he said to me, “Hey, anywhere we can go for curry?” There was an Indian restaurant, and when we got there, he said, “What’s the hottest thing on the menu,” and they told him. He said, “I’ve got to have that.” It was a chicken dish and when it came out it was violently red with peppers. Then he went into his trumpet case and brought out the hot sauces he had with him, and threw them all over the dish. Well, for three days he couldn’t play because he came out in blisters on his lips!
I have happy memories of those days. I was fortunate enough to play with Benny Carter – now, that was an experience! I’d done my little bit of homework: he’d made a lovely record with mostly his compositions on it. So I’d taken them off the record and came prepared – would he like to play any of those, as well as WHEN LIGHTS ARE LOW? And he still played some trumpet! There was another guy – you couldn’t pick up a tab when Benny was around, any time you went out, he was that generous. I asked him to tell me how he’d broken into the Hollywood scene, writing scores for movies. I asked him about some of the other writers – Bronislav Kaper, who wrote INVITATION, ON GREEN DOLPHIN STREET, and ALL GOD’S CHILLUN GOT RHYTHM – for Ivie Anderson in that Marx Brothers movie – and Benny said, “Oh, Bronnie? Yes, I’ll tell you about Bronnie!”
What a great arranger – those things he did with Coleman Hawkins in Paris, amazing. And I knew people in England who had played in that big band, the one that recorded SWINGING AT MAIDA VALE, and they said Benny played every instrument in the band better than anyone – except perhaps the piano and the double bass. He could play chords on the guitar. One of the ultimate geniuses of the music. Wonderful to have that experience.
When Pee Wee Russell came over to tour, he was quite eccentric. People didn’t quite know what to make of him. Then, of course, everybody associated him with Eddie Condon, and he hated that – he said, “Condon was always making fun of me, making me out to be a fool or a clown.” The sound he got on the clarinet in the low register was just wonderful – he just projected across a big basement club like the Manchester Sporting Club. He didn’t need a microphone. He was just remarkable.
He took a liking to me, and I was very pleased. “Chum, meet me in the bar tomorrow around noon. I want to talk to you.” I was down there in the bar at lunchtime and somebody had hijacked him – they wanted Pee Wee so they went and collected him from the bar, and of course he wouldn’t say no – so before I got there, he’d disappeared with this bunch of characters, who took him to see the sights in Manchester, the fancy sights. Later he came back and found me, and I asked, “Well, what was the day like?” Terrible,” he snorted. “I’m glad to be back on concrete again. I saw a lot of leaves!” That was the last thing he wanted.
Everybody has a Ruby Braff story, but this one the wonderful clarinetist Sandy Brown in it. Ruby had no sense of humor about himself – he had almost no sense of humor at all, unless he was knocking someone or something. We were playing in the 100 Club, a basement club in Oxford Street, quite a big space downstairs, just a quartet. I was lucky enough to be on piano, with Dave Green on bass and Alan Ganley on drums. And Ruby was always perfect on the stand – excellent!
But when he got off, the club owner, at intermission, decided he’d put on some music. He pressed the button and on came the Woody Herman band – the First Herd with Dave Tough and Bill Harris, APPLE HONEY and that sort of thing, the trumpets shouting. And Ruby goes over to the owner and says, “What’d you put that fucking shit on for? It has nothing to do with what I play! I hate big bands!” And he started to go on and on, how he hated every big band except Duke’s and Basie’s.
Once you got him on a roll he would just keep going – a torrent of abuse would come out. So Sandy was standing there, listening to all this, and finally he said, in his Scottish accent, after Ruby finally got finished spitting out all his venom, “Hey, Rooby,” he said, “Why don’t you eat some of those chips instead of stackin’ ‘em up on your shoulder?”
Sammy Margolis, the great clarinet and tenor player, Ruby’s friend from Boston, would tell me things that Ruby said that would curl your hair. The two of them shared a house at one point – each of them had one floor, but there was only one phone line with an extension. One day the phone rang and it was Joe Glaser. Ruby had picked up the phone but Sammy was silently listening in. This would have been in 1957 or so, and it was something to do with a tour. Max Kaminsky didn’t want to do it, and would Ruby do it? And that set him off. “I’m not subbing for that son-of-a-bitch. He can’t play anyway. And who else is in the band?” And Glaser said, “Well, there’s Jack Teagarden and Earl Hines.” “They can’t play either!” And then he started to attack Glaser. “Well, you don’t know anything about jazz,” and Sammy said that was very dangerous. Ruby didn’t always work, and Glaser was not a man you’d cross.
I remember one story about Sammy. We’d gotten a trio gig at — of all places — Aqueduct Racetrack in the winter. Myself, Sammy, and a drummer named Nat who used to work with Eddie Condon. (Nat had terrible time, and Condon used to say, “Where you AT, Nat?”) But Nat was a genuine guy, a real New Yorker.
I arranged to meet Sammy, who used to live on the West Side in the Forties. And he’d been to the dentist that morning, had a shot of Novocain, and couldn’t feel anything — which must have bugged him. We got in the car and we’re about halfway there, and suddenly Sammy wants us to stop — he hadn’t remembered putting his tenor sax in the car. And it wasn’t there. So we went all the way back to his apartment. And there’s the case with the tenor, still on the sidewalk! Wonderful.
We get to the gig, and start playing away. All of a sudden, there’s this terrible commotion, people shouting, “Shut the fuck up!” The guys were watching the racing, but it was so cold that they’re watching it on television. They can’t hear the odds on the horses, because we’re playing too loud. So we had to play in between their calling the odds. Every time the intercom would come on, they’d holler, “Shut UP!” and we’d stop. We’d play forty seconds and have to stop, and we’d hear, “Rosebud. Twenty to one,” and then we could start up again. It was the funniest gig.
The greatest thrill was when I got the gig with Benny Goodman. We were playing a gig in Vermont, an open-air thing, and they wouldn’t let the bass on the plane, leaving New York. So it was just Benny, Chuck Riggs, Chris Flory, and me. And Benny wasn’t happy. So what I did was give him those chords in the left hand, paddling, you know — and he was happy. I had the room before we went on, and I was listening to him warming up — what a master musician! It was like listening to Horowitz playing scales.
So at the end of it, I wish I’d had a tape recorder, because he asked me to sit with him while he visited with his two sisters — they were pretty old ladies by that time. So he was talking to me, “I’m going to be calling you, Keith.” And I said, “May I ask you something?” And Benny said, “Ask me anything you like!” So I said, “Can I ask you about Chicago? Did you like Johnny Dodds?” And he said, “I loved Johnny Dodds. I used to go and hear him with King Oliver’s band at the Lincoln Gardens. That band was fabulous! But one thing you won’t know. They played a lot of waltzes. For the dancers.” He loved Kid Ory. They were people who weren’t perhaps of his stature technically, but he loved them. I wasn’t able to work more with Benny, because I had a steady gig at the Regency — security was important — but I’ve never forgotten this time with him.