Crazy band leaders
There are so many. I used to wonder why, and then came the thought that they can’t help it. Power corrupts, more often than not. We see examples all around us in business, politics, religion, sports, and families. Why should music be any different?
There are some provocative audio clips that have been floating around among working musicians for years that include rants by Buddy Rich, Freddie Hubbard, Julie London, and a particularly funny one by Orson Wells who grew irritated with the copywriting for a commercial voiceover he was recording. Most of them are not family friendly, but can be found on the Web with a little work. Buddy Rich had a legendary temper, and in the clip I heard, chewed his entire band out on the bus for some unrevealed misstep, and threatened to fire them all. Apparently, this was a weekly occurance.
I’ve had my share of these experiences over the years and have written about them in my forthcoming short ebook, My Life in Gigs. Here’s another excerpt:
Luis, the sensitive one
Luis used to play with some famous jazz musicians and was something of a name in his own right at one time. But when I encountered him in the early ’80s he had transformed into a Bellevue outpatient with a healthy appetite for that illegal Colombian version of confectionery sugar. Life was one massive scam opportunity for Luis and he treated a number of us Austinites to his special brand of nightmare one muggy summer evening in 1983. Billed as “The Luis’ ***** Big Band,” we packed Austin’s 6th Street Live stage at something like 24-strong. Six saxophones, every trombonist in town, trumpets galore, drums, bass, piano, and two percussionists would provide the background for Luis’ bombastic trumpet playing. To say this gig was overstaffed would be a gross understatement. At our afternoon rehearsal, Luis passed out the charts we would be performing. There must have been some mistake. These were Junior High jazz band charts with all the horns playing in unison. Did he really need 18 brass and reeds playing Girl from Ipanema in unison? But the real fun was about to begin, and the bulls eye was pasted on the drummer. Luis was notorious for reducing grown men to sniffling basket cases with his explosive mindless tirades. On this day he aimed his ego at me. Two bars into Ipanema he cut the band off with a flurry of his arms and sniped in his Cheech Marin-like voice, “More power from the drums! Elvin, Blakey, Max Roach! Kick ass!” I took this to be Luis’s way of encouraging me to play the piece with more strength as he combined the names of famous jazz drummers with an invitation to commit violence on my instrument. He counted us off again…remember now, this is Girl from Ipanema – country club bossa nova favorite.
We made it through two bars before the arm waving commenced, this time accompanied by a shaking face with loose cheeks flapping from side to side. “Come on man! More power! Elvin! Blakey! Kick my ass!” I jacked it up another level, this time playing the piece more like the Ornette Coleman band doing a wedding date. I still only made it two bars in. “Oh man, can’t you play those drums!?! I want you to KICK MY ASS! ELVIN!! BLAKEY!!”
At this point I was about ready to kick Luis’ ass, and maybe Elvin Jones’ and Art Blakey’s as well. But being a nonviolent type I decided to see how far he would take this. Ipanema was counted off for a fourth time and I gave my best impression of Alex Van Halen at Madison Square Garden. “MORE POWER DAMNIT! I WANT MORE POWER! ELVIN!! BLAKEY!! KICK ASS!!!” The band members’ heads were in their hands and I was now on the verge of busting into that kind of laughter that signals the orderlies with the straight jackets to rush in. Luis counted the tune off one last time, shouting and spitting, “ONE, TWO, THREE, FOUR!,” like Der Fuehrer rehearsing a chorus line of SS troopers. Realizing there was no place for me to go musically, I stood up from the drum stool, leapt into the air, and came crashing down with all my might into the cymbals. I repeated this circus-like move, rapidly, for a solid two bars creating a very loud, disturbing sound (imagine a dump truck driving through a Bed, Bath, and Beyond® store.) I looked up and noticed the dramatic cut off sign coming from our crazed feature performer/conductor who appeared to be brushing away a swarm of African killer bees. “YOU !*$@&#! CAN’T YOU PLAY THOSE DAMN DRUMS?!? I WANT POWER, YOU WHITE @!#&*%$!
That was it. The man was deaf and now he’d gone racial. I stood up from the drums ready to rumble as the little lunatic approached screaming profanities at me and my mother (who was in Amarillo at the time and had not had the pleasure of meeting Luis).
Alas, there was no fight. One of the percussionists stepped in front of me like a secret service agent cutting off access to the President. As I began to pack up my drums the band members implored me to stay on as no one else in town would be willing to step into this furnace. I looked at their pathetic faces and turned to mush, agreeing to finish the rehearsal and play that night’s gig. Luis calmed down and the band promised to dogpile on him if he so much as spoke a vowel in my general direction. A highlight of the evening involved Luis trying to steal a band member’s flugel horn by stashing it backstage between sets.
I still have this nightmare about getting arrested with Elvin Jones and Art Blakey after beating up Luis in some place called Ipanema.