Jazz Professional               

The Jazz Watchdogs
Humour by
Ron Simmonds

Almost, but not nearly

The trumpeter Ack van Rooyen has sent me a copy of the print-out he received from an instrument maintenance and repair company. It is in the form of an oscillogram showing the tuning discrepancies in percentages of Ack’s flügelhorn.

I’ve included the chart below. The dots at the bottom represent the valves. According to the concert pitch diagram the low F#, middle Bb and F are nearly right; the low B is the worst with the only note in tune being middle C. All the other notes are bad to middling. A note from Ack with the chart said, ‘I told you it wasn’t me.’


The Jazz Watchdogs

Do you play trumpet? Any good? Make money at it? Then rest assured that the Jazz Watchdogs will have you on their files, and their spies are everywhere. They are a branch of the Thought Police, and they are watching you.

Hand on heart, don’t you ever make mistakes? Explain them away with a nonchalant wave of the hand? From now on this could be costly. A catalogue of fines has now been issued, and I have been sent a copy. The misdemeanours are many and varied, and there is no doubt in my mind whatsoever that each one of you has committed one, if not all, of them at some time or other.

There are sixty–one (61) musical offences listed, each with its appropriate fine in dollars, which I am authorised to collect. Europeans may convert to their own currency if they wish, but I accept dollars as well. Naturally I forward all the money on to the Jazz Watchdogs, and you have to trust me on that. Just send it all on here, tax–deductable as Conscience Money. The catalogue I received dealt only with trumpet sections, and their behaviour on stage, but others are being prepared, so the rest of you had better watch out.

I won’t describe all the offences, but just check these at $50 a throw: showing off during warm–up; using vibrato on unison passage; playing jazz licks on sound–check; failure to use 3rd valve slide; playing Bb when band tunes on A; taking tuning note up octave; taking tuning note up two octaves. You have probably done them all except the last one, which bears the maximum fine of $2500. If you have done the last one you are probably making so much money that you can afford the fine. I left out failure to swing there ($1000) because you know man that ain’t cool no more, know what I mean? Failure to use 3rd valve slide will earn the culprit a public flogging, and rightly so.

Lead Players : changing mouthpiece in the middle of a number; messing up high passage and blaming instrument; missing notes and complaining of overwork, lack of sleep, appendicitis, boxer’s lip; taking down passage you played up on rehearsal; blacking out after high note. These are somewhat cheaper at a throwaway $25. The punishment for missing the last note of In the Mood is $500 and public humiliation, which is bad enough as it is. The penalties for playing it down an octave are too hideous to contemplate.

Let’s look at some of those other errors. I once did a jazz gala with an American trumpet player, who shall be nameless (Lew Soloff), renowned for his fine small group trumpet work. Standing beside him, and sharing the same music stand, I could hardly see the music for the long row of mouthpieces he stacked up right across the stand. He seemed to need a different mouthpiece every few minutes, depending on the range of the part, the sound required, or just because he was plain crazy. Changing mouthpieces so often started to get on my nerves, especially as he would often grab one at the last second just before we had to play.

Finally, while turning one of the parts, I knocked the whole lot of them on the floor. He stooped to pick them up, clucking away in annoyance like an old hen, and muttering something about sabotage while the rest of us carried on playing. He kept bobbing up with a mouthpiece glued to his eyeball, trying to read the number stamped on it by the dim light over the music stand. One of the other guys leaned over and said that Doctor Jazz was on his way over right now to confiscate all of his mouthpieces anyway. He didn’t find that at all funny.

Bob Coassin told me about a trumpet player who will also be nameless (Al Porcino) who kept a similar row of mouthpieces lined up right across the mantelpiece in his Munich apartment. Left alone in the room for a moment Bob picked up and examined a few of them. When Al came back in again he made a bee-line for the mantelpiece and began to straighten and adjust the disturbed mouthpieces, fussing and grumbling until they were all absolutely in line once more, with the numbers neatly facing front. He must have been standing just outside the room all the time, watching to see whether Bob touched anything.

Earlier on Bob had played first trumpet in a famous American touring band that will be really nameless because I'm not that stupid (Buddy Rich). When the leader went short on him with some of his wages he left the band, taking the first trumpet book with him. Several days later a man wearing a dark suit, felt hat with the brim snapped down, and a face like George Raft knocked on his door to say could the leader please have his book back? A long black car full of his friends, all wearing dark suits, felt hats, with the brims snapped down, and—you get the picture—was parked outside the house. You didn’t mess with those people, otherwise you were liable to wake up with your head looking back at you from the top of the bedpost. He handed over the book and left for Australia at once. Nowadays the Jazz Watchdogs take care of that kind of thing.


As regards the second excuse, blaming the instrument: I was no stranger to that one. In times past very many trumpets had dreadful valve systems, leaky waterkeys, badly fitting slides. I once played a high F# with stupendous force and blasted my second valve slide out. It emerged with the speed of a Sidewinder missile, whizzed past the drummer, just missing his nose, and landed thirty feet away in the piano (I am indebted to Stan Reynolds for reminding me of that one).

When it happened I recovered from the initial shock within microseconds, and converted the disgusting wet sound issuing from the empty hole into a really glorious high F#, give or take one or two Herz, by use of the third valve.

This is by no means the alternate fingering for a high F#, but it's marvellous what you can achieve when you are in a blind panic, have the trumpet in a death grip and are locked on to one of those long final chords. It’s a good example of the well–known Brute Force & Ignorance technique, which I mastered quite early in my career.


Blacking out after high note ( $20). Well, I’ve done my share of that, too, the worst and longest happening with the Kenton band. I took an enormous breath to play the high, slow intro of Bill Holman’s Malaguena and passed out at once. In the dim recesses of my mind I could hear the rest of the band roaring away, but I was seeing what Stan Roderick used to call The Red Mist at the time, and couldn’t do much about it.

Luckily, the first trumpet part had nothing essential on it for a while. The trumpets played a long drawn out unison for a couple of minutes and I came back on page two in time for the rest of the number. I learned later that the same thing had once happened to Al Porcino in Kenton’s signature tune, triggering a medical article in the New Yorker explaining the real risk of death in some cases, i.e., falling off the back of the rostrum and breaking your neck.

A note here for anyone suffering from the syndrome. At the time that happened I was deep into a keep-fit bag. I ate very little, cycled every day, did workouts and drank only bottled water. For the first time in my life I achieved my ideal weight. I looked, and felt, great. Every time I played the Red Mist lurked around the corner, popping out gleefully if I breathed too heavily. My doctor listened to what I had to say, clapped me on the back and said, ‘Eat more, drink lots, make out with girls, no sport, $400’. The last bit was his fee. He pointed out that powerful opera singers are generally immensely fat. I agreed with him, got fat, began to enjoy life, and never blacked out again.

Section Players: missing entrance when lead player drops out on unison. Woody Herman once came over to front a band composed of British musicians, bringing trombonist Bill Harris with him. Ed Harvey and another guy whose name I forget were sitting with Bill in the trombone section on the first night on tour, and they had to play Woody’s signature tune Blue Flame before the curtains opened. This began with only low trombones going OOOHH—AAAAHH, OOOHH—AAAAHH in plungers. They’d only played a couple of notes when Bill felt a pain in his lip so he stopped playing. At once the other two stopped as well and there was silence. They started again, but this time Bill stopped on purpose. The others also stopped. He did this three or four times until Herman came over and told them to cut the comedy.

Successfully out–screeching lead player at any time. This was something Derek Watkins used to do to Maynard Ferguson. In the age–old words of Zero Mostel: If you’ve got it baby, flaunt it. $500 Derek, and cheap at the price.

Equipment Violations: Dropping mute (as in: dropping mute at end of record session to go into overtime ($10)); dropping horn ($20 + repairs); dropping dead (carries a warning); forgetting things (mouthpiece, horn, black socks, trousers, wife’s birthday, ($50 and/or divorce)); getting immovable object stuck down the bell (happens more often than you think, costs you $75 and a trip to the Magic Mouthpiece Maker, who knows how to remove it without smashing the horn to pieces.)  

Criminal Bad Taste: Beginning sentence with “When I played with Kenton..."(Oops! just did it myself ($50)). The rest of the offences are so disgusting that I am not allowed to print them here, but most musicians, including bandleaders, commit them. Ugh. Get $25 ready for each one you are caught doing on stage. You all know what they are.

Basic Stupidity: The stupidest thing you ever did was to learn the trumpet in the first place, right? But the gross errors here are listed as: Drunk on the gig ($25); stoned ($50); sober ($75); dining with bandleader ($100); being friends with trombone player ($20); dating trombone player ($75); discussing mouthpieces ($200).

The Exact Alignment Freak.
We all know at least one Exact Alignment Freak. This is the man who spends a good five minutes with his reading glasses on, making sure that a tiny filed mark, or one of the die–stamped numbers, is on the exact top dead centre of his mouthpiece. Now we all know that trumpet mouthpieces are turned on a lathe, and are therefore perfectly round. He doesn’t know that. He is convinced that if he does not have that mark right up there on top he is going to crack and split every note he plays. Try him out. Turn his mouthpiece around a little when he isn’t looking, and stand back. The Jazz Watchdogs have a remedy for it: a $1000 fine and they sandblast all the marks away.

The worst offence one can commit, and one of which we are all guilty, is looking at, fingering, poking, sniffing at, and finally trying out someone else’s mouthpiece. The victim is usually an internationally famous high note specialist. Benny Bailey and I once attended an Ellington concert in Munich. In the interval we went down to the bar and spoke to one or two of the guys. Cat Anderson came over to say hello. As far back as I can remember Cat always carried his trumpet with him, wherever he went, and kept his hand capped firmly over the mouthpiece, so that no one could see what he was playing on.

‘Hey man! Whatcha playin’ on there? Lemme see that,’ said Benny, who knew darn well that Cat wasn’t going to show us. Cat shrank away, holding on to the mouthpiece like a kid afraid of losing his favourite toy.

‘Oh, yeah, well—you know—it’s the same one, man,’ he muttered, and disappeared.

The trouble is that when you try and take a peek at some whiz–kid’s piece you expect to see something unusual, which will explain everything. You are doomed to disappointment. If you get to see it at all the mouthpiece will be massive, at least twice the rim, cup and bore size of your own, like a trombone mouthpiece, with a deep tread filed right across the cushion rim for an extra firm grip. That’s because the guy saw you coming and made the switch.

While you cannot get any kind of a sound out of his piece he will take your own sad lump of metal, do a clear four octave run from bottom F# up to a triple G, and hand it back to you, nodding seriously. Believe me. This is Criminal Bad Taste and Basic Stupidity all joined together, a serious rap, and the hounds are going to get you for that. Oh boy, are they ever. Remember this. The Jazz Watchdogs have you on their files, and their spies are everywhere. One of them is watching you right now.


Play it again, Sam

The vocalist approached the pianist with a sweet smile.

‘I’d like to discuss My Funny Valentine with you, if I may.’

‘Fire away, baby.’

‘When we do it tonight I’d like a fifteen-and-a-half bar intro, one of those weird flowery things that never seem to end. Finish on any note—no need to cue me in. Don’t pay any attention to what I’m doing in the verse. Then keep speeding up and slowing down the first chorus, miss half a bar but keep on going, regardless. Modulate a fifth higher in the release, jump three bars, play any notes and end abruptly before I’ve finished singing.’

‘Oh, I don’t think I could do all that.’

‘Why not? That’s what you did last night.’

Ron Simmonds


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