Sitting In

A jazz writer and amateur drummer turns temporarily pro on the

NOT long ago I went on a ten-day jazz cruise to the Caribbean on the Queen Elizabeth II.I had been on half a dozen jazz cruises on other ships, always as a critic. This time I went as a musician -- a drummer. I wanted to test Kenneth Tynan's famous aphorism "A critic is a man who knows the way but can't drive the car." I wanted to find out, once and for all, if I could drive the car.

My erratic noncareer as a drummer began in 1942, when I was going on sixteen. I was a freshman at Phillips Exeter Academy, and had been working blindly toward jazz by way of the jazz-flavored dance bands of Glenn Miller and Artie Shaw and Harry James. During my first Christmas vacation I was taken to one of Milt Gabler's Sunday-afternoon jam sessions at Jimmy Ryan's, on West Fifty-second Street, in New York. They weren't really jam sessions except for the closing number, a fast "Bugle Call Rag," in which all the musicians from the two alternating bands Gabler had hired got up on the tiny bandstand and let go. There might be three or four trumpets, several reeds, a couple of trombones, and a four-man rhythm section; the number, with its many breaks, would become a "cutting" contest, in which the trumpets in particular tried to outshout one another. It was the first head-on live jazz I had heard, and it was shocking and exhilarating. The famous old New Orleans drummer Zutty Singleton was hypnotic. He moved his head to the rhythm in peculiar ducking motions, shot his hands at his cymbals as if he were shooting his cuffs, hit stunning rim shots, and made fearsome, inscrutable faces, his eyelids flickering like heat lightning.

Back at school I started trying to play drums, to be Zutty Singleton. In fact, several of us, through some accidental shared chemistry, started playing together: two trumpeters, a clarinetist, a pianist, and I. We played in the basement of Phillips Church, which was honeycombed with soundproof practice rooms, one of them big enough for a dozen or more musicians. In the instrument room I found a snare drum with a hole in it, a small cymbal, and a bass drum. We taught ourselves a kind of baggy Dixieland, and by the end of the year we could play recognizable versions of "Tin Roof Blues" and "Shine On Harvest Moon." We gained momentum, and musicians, the following fall. We had jam sessions in the church basement, and on a dance weekend Mary Ellin Berlin (now Barrett), the daughter of Irving Berlin, sat in on our out-of-tune upright and played thunderous boogie-woogie.

In the spring we played a short set before the Saturday-night movie in the gym for an audience of some 800 students and faculty members. The closer was "Bugle Call Rag," and it featured a drum solo. Driven largely by fright, I had the sensation that I was getting faster and faster -- that I had become possessed and would never be able to stop. But, like all drum solos, this one got a big hand. We also provided seating music for the annual school musical. As we were about to go into "Blue Skies," which we had just learned, Doc Perry -- Lewis Perry, the gray, godlike headmaster of the academy, who made it a seignorial habit to interview every boy briefly once a year ("How are you, Balliett? Are you doing well in your work? Are you happy at Exeter?") -- got up from his seat on the far side of the auditorium, bore down on the band, stopped, and, leaning over, said in my ear, "Take that disgusting chewing gum out of your mouth." Red-faced and rattled, I did, fastening it to the underside of my bass-drum rim. (Gene Krupa had made it de rigueurfor drummers to chew gum while playing.)

By 1944 I had enough confidence in my playing to make a fool of myself. One summer night I went with friends to the Three Deuces, on Fifty-second Street, to hear Big Sid Catlett's quartet. The master of all jazz drummers, Catlett had become my god. Six foot three, he had enormous, magical hands, impeccable taste, time, and technique, and had played with everyone from Jelly Roll Morton to Charlie Parker, effortlessly buoying them all. His quartet at the Three Deuces included Ben Webster on tenor saxophone, Marlowe Morris on piano, and John Simmons on bass. In the first set Webster, standing stock-still and holding his tenor straight up and down in front of him as if he were a flag bearer, got off beauty after beauty, while Catlett, tending him at every turn, alternated miraculous four-bar breaks with a couple of short, intricately simple solos. In a kind of imitative madness I got up at the end of the set and asked Catlett if I could sit in on his drums with the intermission group, the Loumell Morgan trio. Morgan was a pianist, and, as was the fashion, often played standing up. Catlett made a face, said, "Don't break anything, boy," and sat down behind me. Morgan -- out to test this whitey -- went into "Mop Mop," a riff number based on "I Got Rhythm." He set a tempo so fast it would have taxed Catlett. I was left behind by the time we reached the first bridge, and that's all I remember. I don't know whether I tried to finish the set or got down from the bandstand and left. I do remember Catlett's drums, though: his tom-toms packed tight around his snare, his cymbals in an easy ring just beyond -- a small house for such a big man.

I was drafted in 1946, after my first term in college; I graduated eventually and didn't play much until the late fifties, when I bought the drums I have now. For a time I was part of a floating band that started out in the harpist Daphne Hellman's New York living room and then moved from loft to loft. It included mainly New Yorkerpeople -- Wally White (piano), Paul Brodeur (clarinet), Donald Reilly (trombone), Warren Miller (trumpet), Lee Lorenz (trumpet) -- augmented occasionally by full-time pros, such as the pianist Dick Wellstood and the bassist Hayes Alvis. Since then, more by accident than by design, I have sat in with some noble musicians, among them Marian McPartland, Jimmy McPartland ("Hey, you sound like Davy Tough"), Gene Bertoncini, Michael Moore, Dave McKenna, Bobby Hackett, Eddie Heywood, Maxine Sullivan, and Teddi King. I sat in with McKenna and Hackett at the Columns, on Cape Cod, and when Hackett, a man of inestimable humor, began telling McKenna a joke during one of his solos, I lost my way. Hackett leaned over and said in his gravelly Providence accent, "Hey, Whit, you're on one and three." (Jazz musicians of the older schools accent the second and fourth beats of the bar.) One New Year's Eve in the early seventies I played with Heywood and Marian McPartland at the Cookery, on University Place at Eighth Street, and when I went back to the table where my wife was sitting with Popsie Whitaker, the great New Yorkereditor and wit, he said in his nasal twang, "We wondered where you were."

NOT long before I found out about the QE2cruise, my wife and I had a musical evening built around Dick Miller, the longtime pianist in Woody Allen's Monday-night band at Michael's Pub; the Lee Wiley-inspired singer Nancy Harrow, now coming out again after raising two children; and Bob Greene, the Jelly Roll Morton pianist, who, we had recently discovered, lives just across the street from us. Miller, a swinging, updated Fats Waller and the repository of a thousand songs, accompanied Harrow and played solo, and I accompanied them both. Then Greene did half a dozen Morton tunes, and I accompanied him. I had written about Greene as a solo pianist and as the leader in the seventies of a phenomenal Jelly Roll Morton revival band. In his way he is the best of the various Morton pianists; he gets insideMorton's music. He is emotional, reverent, and swinging. We were immediately simpatico.

Hank O'Neal called a week later. He is the owner, with his wife, Shelley Shier, of HOSS, a small, high-class production company. He told me about the cruise on the QE2,saying that it would be devoted to New Orleans music. So far he had signed up one of the famous Preservation Hall bands (there are now three); the New Orleans Washboard Kings, a New York revival band led by Stan King, who plays washboard; the New Orleans singer Juanita Brooks; the New Orleans street band Frappé; the funky pianist Dr. John and his rhythm-and-blues band -- and Bob Greene, who had already done several HOSS cruises. O'Neal asked if I might like to come along to write about the cruise. Although I was pretty sure I wouldn't go, I asked him to keep me posted.

Then I had a wild idea. What about my going not as a critic but as a drummer -- with Bob Greene? I called Greene immediately and said I understood that he was going on a New Orleans cruise on the QE2, and he replied, "I need a drummer." I didn't say anything. He said, "You!" I said, "Really?" and we both laughed. Greene has a fantastic booming laugh, which descends from Mr. Magoo, the myopic animated-cartoon character who first appeared in the fifties, his voice dubbed by the comedian Jim Backus. I said, "Are you sure?" And he said, "Absolutely. It would be great fun."

I was curious about Greene, and I looked him up in the reference books. He was born in 1922 in New York, and got a B.A. from Columbia. He held writing jobs in radio and television in the forties, fifties, and sixties, including a Washington stint with the Voice of America. In the seventies and the early eighties he was a full-time musician; he has divided his time since between performing and writing fiction and biography. Greene has a dapper, tweedy, geometric look. His face is square and strong-chinned, and the rest of him is rectangular. His speaking voice matches his laugh, and he loves to talk, particularly about Morton. ("Jelly has taught me that you don't play the music; the music plays you. Youbecome the instrument.") If there were such a thing, Greene would hold the Jelly Roll Morton Chair of Music at an Ivy League college.

We had our first rehearsal a day or two after our telephone conversation. Greene had already stopped by to leave me a script, consisting of a loose, lyrical account of Morton's life interspersed with sixteen songs, most of them by Morton; I realized that he would be giving a kind of Jelly Roll Morton show on the cruise. Greene's script was out of forties radio. The first page went,



Good evening.
We'd like to invite you to take a
journey with us,
A trip back through time,
A voyage back to the turn of the century,
And the World of Jelly Roll Morton.

It's a quiet world, back there in the
year of 1904.
Sleepy little towns, Main Street elms,
Screen porches, green lawns ...
No radio, no television, no telephones.
If a town had a sound it would sound like this.

Greene would then play Louis Chauvin and Scott Joplin's delicate, airy "Heliotrope Bouquet," and the narration would pick up on the next page with "But that sweet innocence didn't last ... "

Our rehearsal, sans narration, went smoothly. Greene the leader emerged for the first time. I was told to use only wire brushes. The protocol within even a jazz duo is strict; leaders command and sidemen obey. The bassist and bandleader Charles Mingus used to flatten sidemen who displeased him. I seemed somewhat rusty. Greene took Morton's "Shreveport Stomp" at a fast clip, and I flagged. I promised to practice, and Greene laughed and said, mysteriously, that writers don't need to practice.

Our second rehearsal was not as smooth as the first. Greene, in his booming, genial way, leaned on me. Some of Morton's tunes have two-bar breaks, and he rightly wanted me to come in -- whap! -- precisely on the third beat, not somewhere between the third and the fourth. He also wanted me to listen to Morton's 1928 trio recording of "Shreveport" -- especially to the way the drummer Tommy Benford accents the second and fourth beats. After Greene left, I moved my snare drum next to the hi-fi and put on the old "Shreveport." Benford, who died recently, at the age of eighty-eight, had worked in Greene's Morton band, and Greene was close to him. Benford used his wire brushes in a peculiarly aggressive way on "Shreveport," hitting his snare heavily with his right brush on the accented beats and hustling Morton and the clarinetist Omer Simeon before him. (Drum Lore 1: Morton, the peerless braggart, claimed he'd invented the wire brush, which consists of a fan-shaped spray of fine, rigid wires retractable into a hollow rubber handle. Modern drummers have gotten louder and louder, and not many of them use wire brushes. Brushes once provided the carpeting for singers and ballad numbers and slow blues; there were even great wire-brush drummers, such as O'Neill Spencer and Jo Jones.) I played with the recording six or seven times until I got it right -- until, in fact, I noticed that the cuticle on the third finger of my left hand, irritated by the rubber handle, was bleeding. I made a mental note to pack Band-Aids.

DAY one on the QE2.After dinner Greene and I were walking past the Chart Room, a small bar on Q Deck, when he spotted a grand piano sitting outside it. Like a camel smelling water, he headed for the piano at top speed, sat down, flipped the keyboard cover up, and immediately started playing -- Morton, of course. "Buddy Bolden's Blues" and "Mr. Joe" went by, and Greene suggested that I get my wire brushes. I had planned to bring my snare drum, but had decided against it at the last minute. What to play on? I went to my cabin, remembering Sid Catlett's claim that he could swing an entire big band with a pair of brushes and a phone book, and collected my brushes and a thick leatherette folder containing QE2menus, writing paper, postcards, and the like. Frank Demond, the trombonist with the Preservation Hall band, had appeared next to the piano, and Greene suggested they do a pretty 1910 song by Herbert Ingraham called "All That I Ask of You Is Love." Greene said that Morton, when playing it, used to hide the sheet music and claim it as his own. Greene and Demond played the song through, and the wire brushes made a good shushing sound on the folder. Benjamin Jaffe, a bassist who is the son of the late Allan Jaffe, the first shepherd of Preservation Hall, stopped to listen, and Greene urged him to get his bass. He did, and the four of us played half a dozen numbers. A small audience had gathered, and a middle-aged gent in a blue blazer started dancing by himself. Greene was beaming.

DAY four. Hank O'Neal had told Greene and me that we were to play twice -- in the Grand Lounge that afternoon at five and in the Golden Lion Pub at 11:00 P.M. three days later. Greene felt that we might be lost in the lounge, a huge two-story room with a sizable dance floor and an encircling balcony. I wondered about attendance; it would be teatime for the countless British mums and dads on board. I also thought wildly of the incomparable Bob and Ray, and of the one-hour television special that their characters the Backstayges gave early in the morning, and of how it got one of the lowest Nielsen ratings ever recorded. Greene had persuaded Demond and Jaffe to join us on our last number in the lounge, along with Wendell Brunious, the fine trumpeter with the Preservation band. And Greene had asked Paul Bacon, the designer and book-jacket king (and member of the Washboard Kings), to sing and play his comb on two numbers. (Comb players, who were a staple of the old New Orleans street-corner spasm bands, wrap cellophane or tissue paper around an ordinary hair comb, press it to their lips, and hum through it, producing a buzzing-fly sound that in the right hands can be very hot.) Demond, Jaffe, Brunious, Bacon, and I gathered beside the bandstand just before five, and Coach Greene gave us instructions and a pep talk. I was told not to get onto the bandstand until he introduced me as the "local drummer." (Morton used whoever was available on his endless travels.)

Greene began his narration, and I sat down and waited. I had tried out the drums on the bandstand. The snare was pitched too high and had no muffler, and the high hat was loose and too small. (Drum Lore 2: A high hat has two facing horizontal cymbals that are opened and closed by a foot pedal. A good drummer must be more than ambidextrous. The first thing he must learn is to pat his head and rub his stomach simultaneously. The left foot and the right foot, operating the high-hat pedal and the bass-drum pedal, work with and against each other, while the hands, also completely independent, perform a kind of counterpoint to what the feet are doing. A wizard drummer like Elvin Jones can play three or four different rhythms at once.) My hands were icy, and my stomach had a knot in it. I heard the words "local drummer," and I stumbled onto the bandstand and sat down at the drums. The room in front of me looked enormous and shadowy. Greene went immediately into an up-tempo "King Porter Stomp," Morton's great three-tiered flag-waver. My fright vanished in the third measure, and I became riveted on what I was supposed to be doing: keeping perfect time. (Drum Lore 3: Drummers have long been regarded by horn players as the dummies of jazz, but jazz drumming is far more complex than it appears. A drummer should be able to play at the back of the beat, the center of the beat, and the front of the beat, according to the demands of the group he is playing with. I concentrated on the exact center.)

"King Porter" went down well, but I was relieved when Bacon appeared for easy medium versions of "I Ain't Got Nobody" and "My Gal Sal." Greene introduced the feared "Shreveport," and off we went. I bore down ferociously on the second and fourth beats, adding lesser accents on one and three, so that I got a kind of fast shuffle rhythm. Near the end of the number I started hitting the metal snare rim with my right wire brush. It gave a terrific ringing thwack,and Greene looked up and laughed. The next four or five numbers went smoothly, but I stumbled several times on "Tiger Rag," which is fast and has several irregular rhythmic passages. Brunious, Demond, Jaffe, and Bacon joined in on the slow "Mamie's Blues," and I released the snares on the snare drum, which made it sound like a tom-tom, put down my brushes, and played a press roll with my fingers -- a muted, mysterious sound. There was a good, if remote, round of applause, and I noticed how hot the spotlights had made the bandstand. For the first time I felt empathy for the countless sweating faces I'd seen on jazz bandstands.

DAY seven. Greene and I met in the Golden Lion Pub just before 11:00 P.M. for our second session. The bar is a hundred yards or so forward of the Grand Lounge, and is far more congenial -- small, low-ceilinged, with a tiny dance floor. I found out later that Greene had spent the afternoon asking various members of the Preservation band and the Washboard Kings to sit in with us. The drum situation in the Golden Lion was no better than in the Grand Lounge. A QE2quartet was playing for dancing, and the drummer had a cookie-thin snare, a raggedy-looking high hat, and an unmanageably large ride cymbal. There was no bass drum and no tom-toms. I remembered how Sid Catlett had once sat in for several numbers at a Sunday session at Jimmy Ryan's and made Zutty Singleton's limply tuned drums sound magnificent. The quartet finished, and I asked the drummer if I could use his stuff (strict drummer-to-drummer protocol). He said sure, and to my horror sat down two feet away to watch.

Bob Greene went into his narration and played "Heliotrope." "King Porter" followed, and Paul Bacon did "I Ain't Got Nobody." "Shreveport" was next, and I was cheered when Eddy Davis, the banjoist with the Washboard Kings (and with Woody Allen's band), sat down in front of me. He is an all-around pro and a great student of older jazz. In most hands the banjo has a metallic, totalitarian effect, but Davis plays with guitar delicacy. "Shreveport" was a piece of cake. Frank Demond played "All That I Ask of You Is Love," and Murray Wall, the Washboard bassist, and Stan King, the Washboard leader, joined us for "Mr. Jelly Lord." King, big and white-haired, put the traditional thimbles on his fingers and, scraping and thumping his washboard, produced a powerful four-four beat. There were six of us now, and the music was heating up. Russ Whitman, the Washboard clarinetist, came on for "Wolverine Blues," and Wendell Brunious and Simon Wettenhall, the Washboard trumpeter, for a languorous "Buddy Bolden's Blues." The horns played organ chords behind the soloists, and the hair on my neck stood up. Tom Artin, the Washboard trombonist, and Rupert Cobb, a trumpeter with one of the ship's bands, joined in for "Tiger Rag." Twelve strong, we were suddenly a small big band. I picked up my drumsticks for the first time on the cruise, remembering the exhilarating lift that Catlett got when he switched midstream from brushes to sticks. Bob Greene shouted, "No, no! Stay with the brushes!" but, risking life and limb, I shook my head and shouted back, "We need sticks now!"

"Tiger Rag" was followed by the slow "Big Lip Blues," and a magical thing happened. The three trumpets soloed together open-horn -- three friends talking and jostling their way across an evening meadow. Greene called for "Someday Sweetheart," and the closing ensemble was densely forested. I used rim shots on two and four, at the front of the beat. It was twelve-thirty, and the room was packed and jumping. Greene asked the audience if they wanted more, and they shouted "Yes!" We did Morton's mournful "Sweet Substitute" and closed with the hymnlike "Just a Little While to Stay Here." It was over. Eddy Davis, large and weathered, the music rolling off him, turned halfway and said over his shoulder, "Hey, we should do this again." It took a while to unwind, to savor the surprise of the music. Before we went to bed, Greene and Brunious arranged to meet the next day in the Great Lounge at three o'clock, so that Greene could teach Brunious "King Porter Stomp." Greene asked me to join them.

We met for what turned out to be our last session. Greene fed the tune, measure by measure, strain by strain, to Brunious, a quick learner. At three-thirty an exercise class arrived in the lounge, and we adjourned to the Chart Room piano. Greene looked up from the keyboard and laughed. "Can you believe it!" he shouted. "Ninety years! Ninety years ago Jelly wrote this, and here we are still playing it! Astonishing!" I found a square cardboard jigsaw-puzzle box on a table at the end of the bar, put it on top of the piano, and used my wire brushes. After Brunious digested "King Porter," the three of us played on for an hour, Brunious on muted and then open horn, the sea moving past the window, our time suspended.

THREE days after we docked, I got a hand-delivered note from Greene. He was homesick for the boat, he wrote. So was I. He continued,

We had every damn musician on the ship up there with us, and they were playing pretty too, with a minimum of banging and blaring. Granted we had good material, granted we dictated the taste and the tempos. But I don't think any audience had a better time than the one listening to us in the Golden Lion, and when I asked if we should stop you heard their cry and protest that we go on. And when we were done, when we had gone on almost an hour and a half without stop, we both know they would have stayed another half hour before their bed time. They were part of us, joined to us by the music.

Illustration by Barry Blitt

The Atlantic Monthly; January 1998; Sitting In; Volume 281, No. 1; pages 86 - 92.