All that Jazz.
In late 1954 or early 1955 I twice traveled from my assignment at Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul, Illinois, to the University at Champaign-Urbana to hear some live jazz.
The first time, it was Erroll Garner, who sat atop his usual telephone book and didn't talk at all--just played.
The other time, it was George Shearing and his quartet (or quintet) with his guest Jean "Toots" Thielemans. Shearing and company played beautifully, and George chatted a bit between numbers. I recall him introducing his conga drummer, Armando Peraza, as "Armando ... Schultz." At the end of the concert, he thanked the audience for coming and added, "drive safely. It's Friday night, and there may be a lot of children out, and they are lousy drivers."
I was a longtime fan, and when I got my radio show in San Francisco, I interviewed Shearing and Mel Torme, and later "Shearing & Torme" several times.
When George first came on my show I was shocked by his appearance: He was frail, his clothes hung on him loosely, his face was pale, and his hair was shaggy and unkempt. In later shows, he was well dressed, not as thin, and every hair in place. He had married the wonderful Ellie, who had transformed him!
George and Ellie invited my wife, Barbara, and me to his home in San Francisco's Pacific Heights for dinner. He showed us his magnificent Bosendorfer piano--installed in his upper-floor living room by removing the picture window and lifting it by a crane--and gave us a tour of his record library and recording room. I had to remind him gently that we couldn't see anything unless he switched on the lights. (He laughed and apologized.)
When my family and I visited my brother outside Atlanta, Georgia, we all went to a local fairgrounds to hear a Shearing concert. It was outside, under a corrugated metal roof, in a huge open-sided warehouse. An afternoon rain began, and George segued into "September in the Rain." When a train passed nearby with a whistle toot-tooooot, George matched the sound on his piano, plink-plinnnk. At intermission, we went backstage to his trailer, and I said my usual, "Jim Eason from KGO," and introduced my family. He was stunned to meet us all the way across the country.
In the late 1990's, while living in Asheville, North Carolina, my wife and I attended a Shearing concert at the Grove Park Inn. Shearing followed a warm-up act, and the room was crowded and hot--with closed-circuit-television lights beaming on the stage. George complained a bit, but nothing was done, and he later complained angrily. When we visited him and Ellie backstage he was sitting in a large room (no dressing room, apparently), and it was chilly. He warmed up a bit when we said hello, and I tracked down the manager to complain bitterly about the conditions. We returned to that venue only once--to hear our friends Johnny Dank-worth and Cleo Laine.
When George and Mel recorded their album An Evening With ... I was the invited MC. They were both impressed when I quoted Kerouac's On the Road for Shearing and a New York paper's comment about Torme that he was Sir Galahad of the Knights of Jazz.
On their last appearance together on my show, one of them opened the hour with a joke he had recently heard. It was a musician's joke, and everyone in the immediate area laughed long and loudly. That joke set off a full hour of jokes--all related to music and musicians--but I have no record of that classic broadcast. I remember only these: A jazz combo was playing a gig in downstate Illinois, but the bass player was late. They went onstage without him, and halfway through the opening number he rushed in. He apologized: "I'm sorry I'm late, boss; but I got hung up on a bridge in Indiana." The leader replied, "There's no bridge in Indiana."
A mob-type owner of a club says to the pianist, "I have some friends here who want to hear Come Rain or Come Shine ... either one ... I don't care."
A fellow musician went to a club and was stunned at the condition of the piano. He went to the owner and said, "You gotta do something about that piano. That's Art Tatum, for God's sake." The owner said, "I just had it painted, damn it!"
George and Mel are both gone now, but not forgotten. R.I.P.