Everything fell in place
fell in place
The inimitable Basie
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1975
I’ve been very fortunate. Everything fell in place; I didn’t arrange my lifeline. And I’m happy up to this point. If it was to end now, I’d still think I’m ahead, because it has been beautiful. I was in the right place at the right time. Well. we don’t do these things for ourselves; I was born in New York City, and everywhere there was music. People were buying live music then—so there was plenty of employment for the musician. Of course, we were misguided by that boom, because after a while it didn’t stand up that strongly.
We had competition. We had recordings, radio and television—and all of this is a substitute for our live music.
When I was very young, I remember the hotels in New York had string quartets playing music in the afternoon; they would do one session, go out for a couple of hours, do the second; then they could walk in the theatre and do a night’s work. There was just that much to keep them busy. And people danced all over the world. They danced and danced until that World War Two came along, and that stopped it, because we couldn’t use the gas for the big buses to move the bands around. Then a lot of young men went into the Services. It became too big a speculation for the ballroom owners to stay open. They rented some of them out as storage places to the Government, which was a guarantee, whether they put any goods in there or not. I watched all of these changes.
Luckily enough—speaking of that period—I was working in Cafe Society about six years; so I had coverage. There was quite a difference in pay, because I had been in some very good bands. that paid well. But this was a new club, the one in the Village.
It prospered, and then there were two clubs running at the same time—one up in Manhattan. at Park Avenue, Which is more of a swank, expensive area. Both were good jobs, and I worked them both—first with one band, then the other.
As for the sounds that motivated me in the beginning—I went to the theatre when I was, say, eleven years old. My step—father took me every Saturday night; I caught a lot of vaupeville acts. So your mind is beginning to accumulate a lot of thought, I had started playing trombone then, and there was one man who impressed me very much on the instrument, who I think would have stood up with the times. had he lived. They called him “Dope” Andrews, the reason being that this guy had big eyes, the lids came down, and it looked like he was sleepy all the time.
He played with Mamie Smith’s Jazz Hounds, and he could do everything that was necessary to be a good, all–round commercial trombone player. I caught him again in a concert brass band; the armoury for the 369th Infantry was just up the street from where I lived, and every Sunday I’d slip in and hear this band. After the rehearsal, this fellow and another trombone player would sit down and play duets together like two fiddles.
So he showed me everything that one man could do with a trombone. I said: that’s the way to play it, if you’re gonna make a living. We can take an attitude that we want to play just one way, but if that goes out of style or there’s no employment that way, then you’re out of business. I’ve tried to avoid that. If there’s a slump, the work might go in another direction. I’ve done about everything that was available.
My first professional job was in a club in Harlem, called Happy Rhone’s; there were six musicians and a couple of entertainers in this club. At that time, I was seventeen years old, and still going to high school. So I’d work until two or three o’clock in the morning and go to school at eight. I don’t know how much I did in school, because I had to be sleepy!
Then, by fate, I moved on. Musicians came in, who were working in Broadway jobs that closed earlier; they would visit other uptown clubs before going home. Cliff Jackson was the piano player, and his ,friends used to come round; they liked to hear the way he played. And they got to know me as “Morton”; my name wasn’t Bennie then—they tagged me with that later. One fellow said to me: “Listen, Morton, I’m working in the band with Billy Fowler, and we’re getting ready to open a job on the Strand Roof. Would you be interested?” It was a full show—in New York now we call it an off–Broadway show. The night–club was heavy entertainment at that time, with the stars, a line of girls, comedians, dance acts and so on. He came back in a couple of weeks and said: “You’ve got the job, on my recommendation.” That moved me downtown, and double the money that I was making. In those days, men were raising families on eighteen to twenty dollars a week. But I’d started uptown with thirty–five—this one gave me seventy.
So this took up more time; I just couldn’t make it in school, and work the hours I had to. Anyway, the word got around that here was a young fellow playing in the band; because everyone else was ten, fifteen years older than I was. After that job, I went to the Club Alabam, which was even more glamorous. We hear a lot about the Cotton Club. but that was uptown; this was downtown, right in the theatre district. It was the lower level of the Norah Bayes Theatre—which has since been demolished.
I had some very important experience, because we played for dancing, for the acts—whatever they were. I worked that way for a while; then that band broke up for some reason or other. Each job I had was like a stepping–stone for me. The next step: I was playing in Small’s Paradise; it wasn’t my job—I was subbing for a trombone player named George Washington. There again, a friend of mine came in—Louis Metcalfe, a trumpet player. He says: “Bennie, what are you doing tomorrow?” I told him: “I gotta come back here tomorrow night, and finish out this week for George.” He says: “Well, meet me tomorrow afternoon, and I’ll take you downtown. I want you to meet Fletcher Henderson.” Fletcher was playing a matinee at Roseland every Saturday and Sunday as well as an evening performance. So we went down to Roseland, and Metcalfe took me up into the electrician’s room, just before they go on the bandstand. When Fletcher and the boys came upstairs from the dressing–room, he introduced me. Fletcher says: “I see you’ve got a trombone there. Would you like to play?” I said: “Sure, I’ll try it. So I took the horn up on the bandstand, he called out several numbers, beat the band off, and I was playing with ‘em.
By the time we’d played a couple of sets, he says: “What are you doing next week?” “Well, I’m just between jobs.” “Would you like to join the band?” I said: “Yes.” That was the biggest step, and this was the way it happened. He said: “Your salary will be ninety dollars.” In those times, we had great big dollar bills, too. When I looked at this money . . . I was just a kid; I didn’t have any real use for it.
But the excitement of playing with this band was way a head of other bands, in catering for the dance public. The music was arranged, not only by Fletcher, but by Don Redman and Charlie Dixon. Also, since Fletcher was making quite a bit of money, he bought from various arrangers outside the band. And the book was complete with tangos, rhumbas, and so on. Because there were always two bands working Roseland; if the other band was off, and you were the only band there, you played all the music. This was a dance hall, and the people were aware of the music that you played. So you had to have this variety. Every tempo that was required—the slowest, fast, the Latin music and all.
Between that and the shows I had played with Billy Fowler—that was a practical education I got. With Fowler’s band, I’d played behind singers—because we’d worked a small club called the Everglades. Some of these people were already stars, but they grew even larger. To top it off was Ethel Waters; then there was Adelaide Hall, and another lady who had a Marian Anderson—type of voice at that time—her name was Katherine Yarborough. She later went to Italy, and joined an operatic company. So that’s the variety of music I had to play with the trombone, in order to make it. It was certainly an advantage to have been living in that city—to get all this experience before you’re twenty years old. The formal training—that was it.
Anyway, with Fletcher’s band, I went on the road—then I raised my money thirty dollars more. So, like I said, I was spoiled by that, and it was quite a blow when I had to drop to half in the wartime period. Because by that time I had a family. I worked under several Cafe Society leaders: Joe Sullivan, Teddy Wilson, Edmond Hall. They ran out of leaders by having two clubs, and eventually I had to be the leader at the club downtown, while Edmond went uptown with the rest of the band.
In between jobs, I have worked with just a piano, drum and trombone. A friend of mine was playing piano, and a saxophone player kept missing out; I went to fill in. That lasted about a year and a half; it was to my convenience if I didn’t have big jobs on the weekend. But I’d keep in practice, just playing the requests of the people on this small dance floor. I accumulated about two–hundred–and–fifty tunes that I had to play in a sort of Dorsey–type lead trombone style.
Here was another development. This piano player left, others came in, and I had problems with these musicians, because every time I called a number I was calling it in a different key to that in which he was used to playing it. The guys says: Well, that isn’t the original key. I say: “All keys are original; it’s just whatever you have to play it in.” All my life I’d been playing in piano keys; this time I told this little unit that they were going to play in the trombone keys. so they got used to it—this helps to develop one. I had to carry the melody, then turn it around, make it a little bouncy, but ensure that they still knew it was the same tune. This makes you think; it does something for the individual who has to play that way.
After about six years in that Cafe Society–orientated developing period . . . I had friends outside who were in the theatre, and a fellow came down and asked me if I’d like to work a Broadway show. But I had signed up for six months with the Cafe Society, and had about two or three months to go. I asked them if they wanted me another six—they said they hadn’t made up their minds. So I went into the show, and three of the fellows went with me. This was 1944, and the star of the show was Bill Robinson. They did a jazz version of Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore, with an almost all black cast, and it was a lot of fun.
It did well, as long as we could keep “Bojangles” around, but he was so much in demand, so the show didn’t last too long. From there I went into St. Louis Woman, and that led to a total of about twenty others—some lasted quite long, others had a short run. The ones I remember most are those that became pictures. Like, I played three years with the original Guys And Dolls show in New York, about a year–and–a–half with Silk Stockings, which were later movies. Another one that lasted almost two years was Jamaica, with Lena Horne.
Sure—the foundation of it all was being able to read. Before I went to grammar school, I knew, C, D, E, F, G. My mother could play the piano; she said: “No, that isn’t middle C.” She kept me busy, while she ironed; then she knew where I was. This was before I was six—I hadn’t been in school at all. And I learned the notes on the piano first. But I didn’t follow the piano any longer than I had to, because I found that my left hand couldn’t keep up with my right. By the time I was eight, I was looking for something else to do. She was making me practise, and I almost had to place my left hand to hold the chords down.
We had originally lived downtown, but having now moved to the Harlem area, I was aware there was more music. And this band that was up the street—you couldn’t keep me out of there. I might have liked trombone naturally, or else I was looking for an instrument that I didn’t have to finger with my left hand. So I begged for a trombone. It took me three years to get my mother to yield to my plea—but I walked in one day, and there it was. Well, I felt like I hit the ceiling—I was so happy.
My teacher was Romey Jones. He taught me more on the piano, but he also played brass; so he found an old trombone in a pawnshop. He brought it to the house, and he taught me where the positions were—but not much more than that. The mechanics, the things that I needed to play the instrument—I didn’t get it from him.
When I moved into Fletcher’s band, I found the demand was much more wide–ranging. That was the biggest test of all. It was not only the brilliance of the writing—his band was already into manuscript work. Whereas all the other jobs up till then, it’d been printed music. And the manuscript wasn’t as the professional copyist does it today; these people were just beginning to work at it.
Like, when I joined him, there was only one trombone player, and the ledger lines in the bass clef were liable to be for three, two or whatever notes there would be. For instance. a G should have three little marks for that tone—it might be close to the staff, and the E, which only has two, might be higher than the G. So you look at it, and you’re doing a very quick double–take—but you’ve missed it, and you’re not reading as smoothly as you should. It became difficult.
Fletcher’s band had been on the road the year before—but they didn’t take music–stands. Charlie Green was the trombone player, and what happened: he laid the music on the floor, and when he dropped water off the slide by shaking open the water key, some of this water dropped on the music, too. So, between trying to read the uneven writing and the blots . . . I must have played a few blots, but I got the job! Actually, looking back, you don’t know how you made it from day to day.
Another thing: that band was playing jazz in D natural, E natural, G flat, A natural and B natural—this isn’t common yet, for writing of that type. In actual fact, if they give you enough time to experience this, you can get very comfortable. Because you get your combination together, in these other keys, that you can rely upon—you know what you hear, but you gotta find it. This is instant.
They call it ‘instant replay’ today, on TV or whatever. But this is what the mind was doing, in that change—over, going into that band.
Really, it was the desire that made it. I saw that as my way out—for making a living. There weren’t too many opportunities for the black man to develop. We had an awful lot of talent come out of Harlem and areas where we were living—because the people were happy, in spite of anything that happened. Singing and dancing was very common. As Billie Holiday used to say: “If you can make it on the Apollo stage, you can make it anywhere.” There was so much talent sitting out there in the seats, that paid to get in, they were highly critical of the acts. Either you were good, or you were out. I just felt I had to make it—1 had no other way to go.
See, even in Fletcher’s band, I was surrounded by people who were older. Only Rex Stewart and I were the same age. You come in as a kid to them, and you gotta get in line. So it made me mature; there was no foolishness about my playing. It was a matter of trying to match the ten years’ experience they had before me. I had to do that immediately, and that was a great help.
Fletcher was very popular, and he could go on the road and make a lot of money. And as he saw talent, he was always open for a change, for anything that he thought would stimulate, improve or create more interest in his band.
Going back to Roseland—those people knew every arrangement that he played. And if he made a change of personnel, and the fellow came in and didn’t come up to expectations, they’d meet him in the middle of the dance floor when the band got off. They’d surround this guy, and say: “Where’d you get that bum?” They were serious. They danced to what you gave ‘em; they weren’t just swinging each other round—they were listening and matching up. They were very demanding—not only as regards Fletcher’s band—any band that played there. If they didn’t have the right repertoire, they let the leader know what he should buy and put in there, so they could dance to it. It was important to satisfy them.
Copyright ©1975, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.