There I was, standing in front of 20 of the heaviest musicians in the business. The date was Thursday, April 20, 1972. The place, Lococo's Manhattan in Manhattan Beach, Ca. Was I nervous?...you damn right I was nervous. I had just drank two martinis...this was my third; one more and I'll be conducting 40 musicians, not 20?
What was the occasion? Well, it goes down something like this. For several months, I had been scoring charts for a 20 piece jazz orchestra-I needed a place to premier this musical conglomerate, so I talked to the owner of Lococo's , Mike Lococo. He agreed to letting me use the big room in back with a stage; and his pride and joy, a round, marble dance floor covered with a map of Iberia; guess where Mike was from?
This musical cataclysmic eruption (rehearsal) was to occur on a Thursday night; what incentive could I provide to make the event more attractive for the musicians? Most of them live in Hollywood and in the San Fernando Valley. I had an idea...so I went to talk with Mike. I had known him for some years; I did many gigs at his place-quartet and big band. I asked Mike if I could bring two styrofoam coolers filled with beer. He agreed as long as I kept them behind the stage...problem solved-the band will have free beer!
During the week before opening night (opening night, I like that), I busied myself reviewing the ten charts I had scored and copied (copying, UGH!). I had acquired a number of charts from the library of Stan Kenton and a few others. I made a number of calls to verify what musicians will adorn the stage in Lococo's back room on Thursday; three weeks before the Johnny Carson show was to take over Hollywood! Little did I know but, when Carson hit Hollywood, three of my musicians were scheduled to work on the show!
Speaking of musicians, let me take a moment and mention some of the notables who adorned the stage that night in Lococo's back room; by the section: Trumpets-Merve Harding (lead), Mike Conlyn, Bob Comdon, and two others. Trombones-Dave Wells (lead), Tommy King, Chuck Anderson, Don Waldrop (bass trombone and tuba), and one more. Saxophones-John Kipp alto (lead), Dick Collins alto, Ernie Watts tenor (soloist), Steve Kravitz baritone, and one more tenor. Rhythm section: guitar-Ron Cook, drums-John Perret, bass-not known, piano-not known, and congas-not known. This was to be one-powerhouse of a band; just ask the neighbors around Lococo's restaurant!
Premier night was eminent-so was I! I had finished reviewing my charts, especially one; a blues I wrote in 1971 on the way home from the bank. "How To Play Marbles In A Square Circle." In short, I call it..."The Marble Song." Soon, the chart would be blessed with the tenor artistry of none other than, Ernie Watts; he wasn't well known at that time. The day of reckoning was here...and I would soon reckon with the fervor emanating from 15 horns and five rhythm as they come together to make a whole; a composite musical entity! I was in Lococo's back room setting up the music stands, putting out the library, setting up microphones (the sessions were recorded), and most importantly...the beer! I could see the musicians walking in; could also see the bar-I needed a drink, I was a bit nervous.
I greeted all the musicians, those I knew, and those I didn't know. They all knew their chairs, this was established before hand. After getting located, I heard the sound of horns warming up; these guys sound great-even in a warmup status; I could anticipate the incredible sound which would come from them as a unit! Still, there were a few not present yet...long drive from the valley; here comes the balance of what will make a passionate locomotive of sound...reading my charts and bringing them to life! Several of these musicians have "done time" in my 18 piece dance band here at Lococo's, and at various hotels around the LA airport area!
Now it's time to pay the piper; all were in place and one of them asked, "Whose on first Duffy?" I'm holding my second martini...I took a sip and, "OK guys, pull up #210..."With A Little Help From My Friends." One of the Beatles hits. I counted the chart off and with the congas adding a Latin touch, the chart sounded just great; after about 30 bars, we heard the incredible tenor artistry of Ernie Watts! As some know, Ernie went on to work the Johnny Carson Show!
The overall sound of that musical behemoth was abode with congruency. Ernie's tenor solo really brought the chart to life...gave it some spark, with the rhythm section adding some Latin flavor. Before the chart ended, I caught a glimpse of people; there were about 25, and our entourage was growing...friends and fans! I brought the chart to a close and we heard a round of applause. WOW! We're in the limelight-said my ego!
Now had you been there, you would have had the pleasure of hearing me sing the next chart (you didn't miss anything, too many martinis)! I called up # 305. The tune was my original composition and it was being played for the first time; in short, "The Marble Song." After I wrote the lyrics, scoring the chart was a pleasure; built-in power. The four-bar intro featured all 15 horns. After a sip of my third martini, I pointed out a few particulars to the band about the chart; sign, coda, solos, and so forth.
My built-in metronome was ticking along at about 150 and then I said this..."Two bars up front...one_two_one two three four..." On the fourth beat of the second bar, the reeds came in double forte, in unison, with double density; half a beat later, the brass made their entrance with sufficient power that I jumped two-feet off the floor...well, would you buy one-foot? Before I swallowed the microphone, I noticed a few loose tiles in the floor?
With mike in hand, I sang the first chorus, well, almost! Then Ernie Watts took off with twenty-four bars of the blues in F. He was incredible; he could play more notes in one bar than I could in four. Fast, that he was. He didn't know it then, but Ernie was to become a very famous and sought after tenor saxophonist. I remember Ernie being billed with the LA Philharmonic at the Pavilion. The reviews were outstanding!
Mean while, back at the chart, Ernie finished his solo and the band did an interlude to bring in the soloist, Mike Conlyn, on flugelhorn to play some more blues. Mike had a way of making that horn talk...with a subtle voice; he made the blues sound gracious...easy to listen too. Mike finished his solo and I went back to the vocal. The vocal ended into a four bar coda with the last chord an F 13th; with Merve Harding landing on a high F...! Except for my nervousness, I was happy with the "Marble Song." We ran down the "Marble Song" one more time. At the tenor solo, I opened up the chart so that Ernie could blow his heart out; he did! When he finished the solo, I was to bring the band in at a certain letter. Well, I was so tuned in to Ernie's blues, I forgot where? I brought the band back in at the wrong place. I missed a good part for the trombones...I heard about it from Dave Wells. "Hey Duffy, we were supposed to come in at E, you missed the bone soli." Coming from Dave, that was a complement. I told you I was nervous, next time, believe me...OK!
The next chart on the list was "Here's That Rainy Day, " arranged by Dee Barton for the Stan Kenton Orchestra. This beautiful balled begins with the trombone section; weaving in and out of four and five part harmony. With Don Waldrop on tuba, and Dave Wells on lead, I have never heard a more plush tapestry of horns. At the bridge, there was a piano solo; didn't come out too well on the tape, but you could hear it just the same.
On the second bridge, the piano had a short interlude; Merve Harding takes two bars alone then he leads the whole brass section and reeds into the final chorus, Harding's part has the highest note in the chart...an "E." But Merve wasn't happy with the "E"...so he very delicately goes a third above to a rich and stable..."G." Every time I hear the tape, Merve's "G" runs chills up my spine. In my 50 years as a musician, band leader, and arranger, the experience I have just shared with you is without question, the most exciting, rewarding, and musically fulfilling endeavor I have ever had in my career. The three charts I mentioned above are only a few of so many I have taped of my big bands. For me, the one very important thing that came out of this majestic session is, the respect I earned from all those great musicians for being a good band leader; they will always play a significant role in my as a musician; that gig really made me what I am today...A MUSICIAN!
Should you elect to jump two feet off the floor (lets be realistic, how about one feet), here's the necessary ingredients needed to effect this colossal phenomenon: five trumpets, five trombones, five reeds, five rhythm, and several martinis Pull up chart #305 and experience this paradox: "HOW TO PLAY MARBLES IN A SQUARE CIRCLE " If you heard any flat notes, that was me...lost! Thank you for listening. Next on Jazz Review..."Be A Musician...Be Respected!"