RUNNING WITH THE BIG DOGS, PART 3

By Jane Getz

This is part three of a three part series featuring excerpts from pianist Jane Getz’s in-progress memoir. For an introduction and to read RUNNING WITH THE BIG DOGS, PART 1, click here. To read RUNNING WITH THE BIG DOGS, PART 2 click here.

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Pony Poindexter was in New Orleans attending someone’s funeral. He said he’d probably be back in a couple of weeks, but you never knew with Pony.  A couple of weeks could turn into a couple of months with all his skirt chasing and imbibing of that weird green aromatic plant he liked to smoke.

Though Pony had been my main source of gigs for a while now, I couldn’t depend on his largesse in the near future. It was time to call some other cats in town, check out some different prospects. I needed some bread—and bad—because I had spent most of my savings (less than a hundred bucks) on a used dresser and couch. Though the dresser was fairly cheap, the Salvation Army couch was a little pricey because, as the saleslady explained, it was almost new. It was also kind of space age or, more accurately, what someone in the 1930′s would have considered “modern.” Added on to that, it was huge, measuring nearly seven feet in length with gull wing armrests and a back that curved outward like a turned up collar. I couldn’t pinpoint what style it was, but it didn’t matter. My new acquisition would serve the purpose of furthering my musical agenda. Now I could invite some of the cats over, like Carmel Jones, George Braith, or Joe Chambers, a young drummer who I had a secret crush on. These were some of the new happening cats in town that were starting a buzz. I wanted to connect. After those guys saw my new furniture, they would stop thinking of me as just some unsophisticated naive kid. I was making all my own money and supporting myself, wasn’t I? And now I not only had a new chest of drawers in the bedroom, I had a couch to boot. How much more adult could you get than that?

I gazed fondly at my new purchase, then went and plopped down on it. I also brought a pad of paper and a pencil with me so I could compile a list of piano players who might throw a few gigs my way. I’d just written down Horace Parlan’s name when I had a flash. I ran over to my phone book and looked up Chick Corea’s number. Now that cat had gigs coming out of his ears. He also had called me a few times when I’d been busy, so I knew he considered me good “sub” material. I dialed Chick’s number. Ring, ring ring. Shit, c’mon. I was ready to hang up when someone picked up the line.

“Hello?” Chick was out of breath.

“Hi, Chick? Hey man, this is Jane Getz. So ah, what’s happening?”

“Jane! Oh man, I just walked in the door. Can I call you back in five? I’ve got some macrobiotic takeout I gotta put in the fridge.”

“Sure.” I hung up the phone and plunked down on my new couch to wait. Uh, oh. Did I feel a lump? I started to run my hands over the tightly woven, scratchy upholstery when the phone rang.

“Hey baby, Chick here. Listen, are you still working with Pony?”

“Man, the cat’s out of town. He kinda checked out on me for a minute. What’s shakin’?” I was trying to sound confident while at the same time conveying a feeling that I was musically up for anything.

“I’m thinkin’ of going on the road with Joe Henderson, but I have to get a sub for this gig with Herbie Mann. Fact, I’m working with Herbie today over at the Apollo. It would be cool if you could come by, play a few numbers with the cat and let him hear you. The bread’s not bad either.”

“Thanks man, just give me the address and time. I’m already there.”

A few hours later I arrived at the Apollo Theater. A big old, boxy building comprised of huge slabs of sandy colored stone. Following Chick’s directive, I went around back and walked up some clangy steel steps. The guard, a strapping young dude with that Malcolm X bowtie getup, stood by the backstage entrance. The brother asked me my name, looked me up and down a few times, then checked my name off a rather short list.

I walked in and adjusted my eyes to the dim half light. Wow! The place was jam-packed. The audience was having a grand old time screaming and laughing at some rotund funny-man who was strutting around the stage, talking about all the edible parts of a pig. I stood there digging the scene for a, minute, then went to search for Chick.

I nosed around backstage until I finally spotted him sitting in the wings near the food table, reading a book on Macrobiotics. He was checking out the Number 7 diet—a very strict regimen. Damn. Chick was wafer-thin now. After a few bars of conversation, I followed him to a small dressing room to see Herbie Mann. Herbie was sorting out some music as we entered the room. He didn’t even bother to look up. I knew the game. I’d seen other Big Dogs do this. I stood there trying to be unobtrusive while at the same time checking the dude out. I could see by the way Herbie handled the music, that every move he made was deliberate. He was a planner. A guy with a road map who had memorized the route. Even the space around him was organized. The dressing room chairs were all perfectly lined up, the bottled water had cups neatly stacked next to it, and his toiletry kit was open and ready—every clipper, tweezer, and nail file in its proper slot.

Oh yeah, this cat was all business. Much too neat for my taste with his closely cropped, thinning brown hair, neatly trimmed goatee, and manicured nails. Nothing happenstance or spontaneous about him. He looked like some Upper East Side decorator had turned him out. His freshly ironed navy blue shirt was perfectly coordinated with his beige slacks. Casual tan suede shoes matched the soft leather belt he had on. Mr. Mann was one stiff dude. After Herbie finished what he was doing, he finally looked up and greeted us.

“Jane Getz,” Herbie said nonchalantly. “I’ve been hearing a lot of good things about you. I hope you’ll play a few tunes with us.”

“Thanks man, I’d like to,” I said, trying to get that team player sound in my voice. “I hear the band is smokin’. Yeah, you got some bad cats.”  I was talking about Dave Pike, the young vibes player, Bruno Carr, the drummer, and Potato Valdez, the little badass from Cuba who played congas. The three of us stood there rapping for a few minutes until Herbie excused himself, scurrying out of the room to round up the rest of the band.  After we exited, Chick and I walked around to the stage entrance and waited while the Master of Ceremonies made some lame jokes about fat chicks. About ten minutes later he finally got around to announcing the band.

“Ladies, and Gentlemen…put your hands together and give a grand Apollo welcome to the inimitable Herbie Mann and his….”

Herbie sprinted on stage with the band in tow and immediately gave the downbeat. Dave Pike played a little vibe cadenza, and then Herbie motioned to Potato. The little cat hit the conga a few times. The rhythm started to engulf us. You could see the streets of Cuba, alive with chattering, animated Cubanos: gentlemen in white suits and panama hats regally strolling down the lane puffing on cigars, and high spirited senoritas parading around in their pastel finery, strutting their stuff. The sounds were chili pepper hot. By the time Herbie came in with his flute, the mood was established. Oh yeah, and I also noticed that Chick had a hip way of playing the claves. I made a mental note to have Chick show me some of that real legit Latin stuff.

Impressed though I was with Herbie’s onstage entourage I was apprehensive as I stood in the wings. I not only wanted Herbie to think I was bad, I also wanted to impress Chick. By the time the maestro introduced me; my anxiety had given me a slight edge. I was on top of it now. I sat down at the piano. The audience, already fired up by the first couple of tunes, was about as enthusiastic as any audience could get. At the mere mention of my name (someone they had never even heard of), they started stamping their feet, clapping, and whistling. Cool. This was a win-win situation. Predictably, after I took my first solo on a tune called “Walkin’,” they went bonkers. Herbie started nodding his head when he saw the audience’s reaction. All right! I had just become another added attraction in the cat’s musical sideshow.

“Yeah baby, that was some nice work,” Herbie said as we walked back to the dressing room. “If you wanna do the gig at the Gate tomorrow, you got it! In fact, if you’re up for it, just meet me in front of my building at seven o’clock tomorrow. I can show you the book while we’re riding downtown.”

“Cool man,” I said, trying to sound casual. “Ah, where do you live?”

As I walked out of the theater I looked at the slip of paper with Herbie’s address on it. I knew approximately where it was. I decided to catch a cab back from the Apollo so I would pinpoint the exact street and building. As I suspected, Herbie lived a scant block from me, but that block—given this was New York City—was an entire universe away. The cat lived in the lap of luxury. I knew his building. It was a swank impenetrable fortress with a twenty-four hour a day doorman, a message service at the front desk, and a huge, sweeping, ambient green roof garden. Herbie lived on Central Park West and Ninety-First Street, where the rich and getting richer were domiciled. I simply lived on Ninety-First Street between Central Park West and Amsterdam, where the working stiffs, scrapers, and starving artists hung. Motoring by, I wondered if I’d ever live in such sumptuous surroundings or have anything to show for my mystical moments of creativity. What did it really take to get there? But it was just a fleeting thought. Fuck it. Who needed a jungle on their roof anyway? I had more important things to do. I was going to study my Slonimsky book later and see if I could lift a few hot licks from it. This was a book with strange repetitive intervals and offbeat sound patterns. A book Shoenberg might have glanced at. I’d even heard that Coltrane found a lot of shit in that book. Tonight I was going to pour over the pages and see if I could uncover some of the musical secrets some of the Big Dogs seemed to have accessed.

The next day I prepared for the gig by practicing a little, and lounging on my couch. The damn thing seemed to have petrified. It was as hard as a rock, with a few little marble sized bumps to make you even more uncomfortable.  As the sun went down, I got dressed, and then visited the bodega around the corner where I got a quick sandwich. After scarfing down a few dry slices of turkey on stale wheat bread, I sprinted down the block to Herbie’s crib. As I got there I saw the doorman was holding the door. Herbie waved to me, then proceeded to introduce me to a woman—presumably his wife—who had exited the building with him.

“Jane, this is my wife Ruth. Ruth—meet Jane Getz, my new pi-a-nist.”

Ruth smiled listlessly, making a feeble attempt to nod. She was fashionably turned out, the same ultra-straight way a secretary might be. Her knee-length royal blue mohair suit was expensive, but boring. Her auburn hair was smartly cut. But she was wearing so much Spray Net that her hair looked like a helmet. And why was she wearing those button earrings? The chick had no fashion sense. Nada. Zip. I glanced at Ruth’s shoes. I was just about to critique her footwear when some cat who looked like an officer in Napoleon’s Army ran into the street and hailed a cab. Why did doormen need military uniforms?

I hastily climbed in, and then watched as Herbie and Ruth maneuvered their way in. They positioned themselves so as not to touch or brush up against one another. The signs were clear. They didn’t like each other. I instantly came to the conclusion that there was some kind of weird “arrangement” between them. I didn’t know the specifics, but I knew it was there. Traveling downtown with Herbie and Ruth was creepy. It was more than just uncomfortable with all the bad vibes they were generating. And where were all the charts Herbie was going to show me? I sat there rigidly, looking straight ahead until the vehicle came to a halt. I breathed a sigh of relief as I saw the sign that said Village Gate.

Then I saw the marquee.

Wow! Miles Davis was headlining. One of my heroes. A Big Dog Supreme. For a moment I couldn’t catch my breath. To think! I was in a band playing opposite the great Miles! Now I was pumped up. I floated out onto the curb in front of this huge stone edifice while Herbie and Ruth wordlessly separated. I walked a little behind Herbie into the lobby. We were silently milling about until two girls, who looked to be in their mid-teens, walked up to the maestro and linked arms with him. Herbie smiled. He was expecting them. At that point I became extraneous. Just so much baggage until he needed me.

I strolled to the other side of the room and found a big, double door on the far end of the lobby that opened into the main room, a big barnlike drafty space with hundreds of little tables all scrunched together. A few customers who had arrived early were sitting around drinking and regaling their fellow jazz lovers with little-known anecdotes about some of the jazz greats.

“Hey didja hear what Miles said to Cannonball when he…”

I scurried past the enclave of noisy tables, smiled at a waiter who happened to be walking by, then found another door and wandered down a long dimly lit hallway. Suddenly, I heard what sounded like loud laughter and horn players warming up. I entered the band room and stood there for a second. Potato Valdez walked over and greeted me, graciously extending his hand. He had calloused green little fingers with swollen knuckles. The tiny Cuban (he was about 5’2″) gripped my hand, ceremoniously pumping my arm like a game show host. After giving me what he considered a sufficient welcome, Potato turned to Dave Pike and grinning broadly, said, “She an eenius.” Naturally, being called an “eenius” by the esteemed Potato gave me a jolt of self-confidence, not to mention credibility with the band. I was on a roll, chatting and joking around with the cats. I felt a certain amount of camaraderie with the band as we all exited the dressing room and walked down the dark corridor toward the stage. The vibe was cool.

The first set was pretty smooth. So far, the only thing that was bugging me was that everyone in the band except Herbie was relegated to taking two- or three-chorus solos. You couldn’t stretch out, get a fire going, or come to any kind of musical climax when you were allotted that amount of solo time. Hell no! Personally, I liked to take at least fifteen choruses. So what if I bored everyone silly? I was an artist and entitled to take liberties. Still, this was my first night on the gig, too soon to make waves or even do a little body surfing.

During the first break I grabbed a seat in the audience so I could listen to the headliner. Oh yeah, I wasn’t going to miss a note of Miles’s band. Listening to Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, Tony Williams, and Miles sent me into the stratosphere. Herbie was playing unique little counter rhythms to Tony’s innovations. The rhythm section sounded like a Fourth of July fireworks show with little, constantly exploding surprises. Miles weaved in and out of the mix, like a Martian tap-dancer strutting on some lunar bayou. You had no idea where he was coming from, but still, it was familiar, like an old folk melody that was just out of earshot. The band was burnin’. I noticed that when someone in that aggregation took a solo, they could play as long as they damn pleased. I was both euphoric and jealous.

The next set with Herbie was even more frustrating. How could anyone who could improvise well take just two or three choruses? There were so many great players in the band but nobody was getting to play. I needed some space. During the next break I decided to go outside the club to get some air. The West Village had some cute little shops that were open far into the night, so I thought I’d stroll down the street and do some window-shopping. Walking down the steps of the Gate, a low, raspy unmistakable voice said, “Hi Jane.”

Was it? No way. It couldn’t be. But as he stepped out of the shadows of the old stone building, I saw his face. Miles Davis, the Musical Maestro Supreme, had acknowledged me. I felt a knot in the pit of my stomach. A million thoughts flipped through my mind. I wondered if he’d been listening to me during the last set? How did he know my name? And should I say “Hi Miles?” Or, “Hello Mr. Davis?” Or should I simply turn around and try to strike up a conversation? Not knowing what to do I stiffly nodded my head, and looking straight ahead, kept right on walking.

As I continued down the block I started to feel weak, like I was going to throw up. I could have kicked myself. What kind of idiot keeps right on walking when Miles Davis says hello? Oh man, I had blown it. I walked back on the bandstand half an hour later depressed as hell. To make matters worse, Herbie repeated some dopey show tune from the The Smell of the Grease Paint, Roar Of The crowd. A tune where he furiously gyrated his hips while spurting out an endless barrage of high notes. I abstractedly took my requisite two choruses. I really wasn’t into it. All I could think of was that Miles had said hello to me. Being on this gig was like being a musical civil servant. Punch the clock. Collect your bread. This was the low end of the Jazz food chain.

Next tune was a minor blues by Oliver Nelson. I yawned, looked at my watch, then glanced around the room in a one-eighty. Oh, God! I couldn’t believe it. Yep, there he was. Miles was sitting right behind me. No doubt about it. He was checking me out. Knowing I’d spotted him, he looked up and almost imperceptibly nodded. It felt like there was some kind of radiant heat coming from his direction. My back actually started to feel hot. Miles was emanating! Now it was a whole new ballgame.

When Herbie counted off the next tune I was already in high gear, hyper alert and conscious of every lick, chord, and rhythmic pattern I was playing. Now Herbie was out of the picture. I was only concerned about what the guy who was burning a hole in my back was thinking. The tune was slow getting under way, but by the time Dave Pike took his solo, there was a nice groove happening. After Dave’s mandatory two choruses, Herbie pointed to the trombone player, Mark Weinstein. Mark stood up and sailed along on the groove until his time was up. Then Herbie looked at me and nodded. Okay pal, my turn.

By the time I had gotten midway through the second chorus, I was on fire. My fingers were literally flying over the keys. But unfortunately, it was time for the band to come in. Herbie raised his arms in a big flourish, giving the signal for the band to enter. No, wait…I wasn’t finished yet. I vehemently shook my head, signaling the aggregation not to come in. They followed my lead. I could see Herbie out of the corner of my eye getting uptight. His loyal subjects had defied him. He was looking like, “What the fuck?”

When my next chorus was over Herbie again tried to bring the band in. Sorry. I had more to say. Now I was doing a very difficult run in the upper register, something I hadn’t been able to execute before. The great Trumpet god was giving me power. The heat penetrating my back started to percolate through my whole body like a hot oil massage. Was this osmosis?

For the second time I gave a “no go” sign to the band. Herbie’s face had become scarlet red. The poor guy looked like he had gotten too much sun on his roof garden. For a minute I felt completely weightless. My fingers were faster than the speed of light. I took two more choruses, then stood up and ceremoniously waved the band in. I looked over at Herbie. His face was frozen. The only thing moving was his jaw, which was traveling up and down in a kind of mandibular Hokey Pokey.

On the brighter side, the rest of the cats were beaming. Potato surreptitiously stuck his little green thumb up. I had a cheering section. Unfortunately, Herbie was not in that crowd. When the set was over, he asked me to meet him in the lobby. My stomach started to knot up. I had a slew of emotions. Sure, I had just bucked the system, challenged the status quo and all that crap. But now what? I glanced around to check out the table In back of me. Shit! It was empty. Miles had split.

I thought about what had transpired. I did something every cat in the band had wanted to do but didn’t have the guts to. On the other hand I had also screwed myself. Yeah, after Herbie fired my ass, who did I think was going to pay my rent, phone bill, gas, electric, etc? This month I was perilously close to being out on the street. Now I might be forced to do the one thing that I dreaded most—call my mother. What if she tried to coerce me or even worse, force me to come home? She’d have been well within her rights. I wasn’t even eighteen yet. If that happened what would become of my apartment, my friends, my gigs, my whole fucking life? Come to think of it, what about my new couch and dresser? As I was contemplating the sheer and utter stupidity of my actions, Herbie entered the lobby. He stood for a minute in silence, narrowing his eyes and squinting at me—then out it came.

“You’re fired!”

He turned on his heels, then inexplicably spun around. “Didn’t you see me trying to wave the band in?” Herbie was hissing in a kind of controlled whisper. “Couldn’t you see I was frantically trying to get your attention?”

He wasn’t done yet.

“You, my-friend, who’s only played with this band a few short hours, are a finagler. You’re the kind of person that tries to make every situation work to your advantage. Well, that’s not going to happen, baby! I don’t know what you did with Mingus, but with me you toe the line!”

As he was engaged in his little object lesson, a few tears started to fall down my cheeks. Was I sorry? Not really. Was I stupid? Yes. Maybe those were tears of contrition for my own stupidity. Who knows? In any event, when Herbie saw those little rivulets of water trickling down, he softened up.

“Okay, look, I want you to make me a promise,” Herbie said dampening his tone a bit. In the corner of my eye I could see one of the young honeys Herbie had previously hooked up with in the corner waiting for him. The cat was in a hurry. “l want you to promise never ever to do that again.”

I dramatically raised my hand, palm up like I was swearing on a stack of bibles or becoming a boy scout. “I promise.”

“Okay my friend. I’ll see you tomorrow night, seven sharp in front of my building.” With that Herbie disappeared into a dark corner of the lobby and whisked away the little blond chick. I guess Mrs. Mann had split earlier that evening. In any event, I knew if I hung with the band for a while I’d get the scoop. I’d already heard a few rumors of shady little escapades that purportedly went on inside the Mann’s marriage. Rumors usually traveled faster than the speed of light. Soon I would know all.

Later that night as I was trying to find a comfortable position on my couch, I started thinking about how lucky I was. Oh yeah, I did an uncool thing as far as Herbie was concerned, but I really didn’t have to pay very much penance. Well, maybe a few seconds of feeling uncomfortable. As a matter of fact, having Miles Davis notice me was worth all the bullshit I put myself through. I was inspired, not only by him and his band but by the possibility that someday, somehow, I could play some real music. Some live floating-through-space, muse whispering in your inner ear kind of stuff.

On the other hand, perhaps I should have been thinking about my long-term welfare. What if Herbie had lowered the boom. My rent was due next week. And there was a waiting list a mile long of people who wanted to move into my building. I could be out in the streets in two seconds flat. Feeling destitute and penniless was not something I relished. Maybe I should open a savings account. Then I could pick and choose my gigs as long as I had enough money in the bank. Of course that meant that I would have to stop my impulse buying, which I dug. What about that fringe jacket I had my eye on? I quickly discarded that option. What if I had a boyfriend, like my mom had who paid all the bills and was always forking over cash? Damn! Where did I come up with that one? How disgusting. Anyway who’d want a chick that was always studying Stravinsky scores, notating Bird solos, and was too preoccupied to shave under her arms? That one went into the trash.

What about a roommate? I thought about that one for a long time. I couldn’t see any immediate disadvantages. If both of us kept to our separate rooms and shared in the expenses, it could be cool. You could almost go out on Amsterdam Avenue with a begging bowl and come up with the amount of money it took to live in New York, at least in my neighborhood, if you had a roommate. That was it! Now I had a plan. My new roomie could watch the apartment while I was on the road, pick up my mail and keep things in order until I got back. Maybe she’d even like housework! I had made a decision. Suddenly my depression lifted. Wow, this was so cool. Time to lay back, relax, think of other things, do some of that ol’ California mind surfing.

After spacing out for a while, I found myself thinking about the upcoming gig Herbie had at some university. What was it called? Bernard? Barnyard? Whatever…

3 Comments

  1. ron free Said,

    August 23, 2010 @ 2:16 pm

    jane, you are a terrific writer. i found each of these episodes to be absolutely riveting. they are funny, informative and insightful. can’t wait to buy the book.

    sorry i was no longer on the scene when you found your way to smith’s loft. i’m sure we could have enjoyed playing together and/or just hanging out.

    good luck with the book. i know from experience that writing can be really hard work, but you make it look easy.

  2. Massimo Said,

    September 3, 2010 @ 8:51 pm

    This is just wonderful! You make us feel the vibes and smell the places. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

    Cheers from the island of Malta!

  3. Carmine Calabro Said,

    October 11, 2010 @ 7:31 pm

    Wow!

    My experience with the “magic” Mr. Herbie Mann were in the making of the 1977 Atlantic Album Fire Island.

    He was the consummate business man. I met him at Warner when he was heading the Embryo division. After presenting 25 original songs at the request of Mr. Ertegun, I expected some insightful critique and choice selection. Herbie simply said choose 40 minutes that will sell and call me when its time to blow.

    Off I went with detailed charts for 20 instruments, vocal arrangements, scripted solos and such, armed with a $75k budget; booked the top studio players in the city and started recording the project.

    Alfred G. Vanderbilt Jr. was my engineer at CI Studios. We’d worked together on my projects for Mercury, Polytram, Bell, Stax, Volt and Hi. I’d show up with my keyboards, toys and woods set up and work all night at getting tracks down.

    Picked great musicians to play my tunes and soon we had some 7 solid sides to work with. Herbie came by now and then to listen and lend critique. Several weeks later we added strings, horns, vocals to the tracks at Atlantic Studios with Bobby Warner at the controls. Now we called in Herbie to solo.

    I agree with your observation about his obsession with “strategic planning”. I think that’s what endured him to me with my pages of hand-written sepia sheets and scores. He’d rehearsed carefully for this gig. Read all my charts and knew where to “shine” in this venue. He spent a week recording his parts and solos. We spent another week mixing and mastering the vinyl.

    While my album was critically damned by jazz purists, it had commercial success; Fire Island hit the Top 100 on the Record World, Cashbox and Billboard Charts and the Top 10 in Jazz eventually going Gold in global sales.

    We may not have made groundbreaking music or such, but the experience, both with Atlantic the record company and Herbie Mann, businessman and artist will always be priceless.