losing all of Betty’s piano music

Betty Carter

Betty Carter

we had a wonderful rehearsal one afternoon, things were going well in the band. it was springtime, and it was a lovefest playing in Betty’s band at this time. in this moment, the band was my new family, my reason for being. my life was simple, i was young.

i was making ‘decent’ but quite steady money with Betty, so i splurged (i hadn’t a clue as to how much ultimately so in entering the taxi) and took a cab across the brooklyn bridge back into the village, thompson and bleeker, the intersection where the Village Gate and Lush Life were, for some reason, although in fact i lived on the upper westside.

just as soon as i closed the taxi door (‘don’t’ slam it, the door works fine!’ or a new york cabby will spurt some language in your direction), the driver briskly whooshed away to points unknown for his next fare.

BAM goes my heart. i feel lighter, i am carrying… nothing!

OH NO!! The Music. Betty’s Music. her piano book; her entire piano book of original big band parts from Gigi Gryce, handwritten charts from John Hicks… all of it –

gone.

no taxi receipt, no name of the driver, no cab number, no recollection of a logo for the company leasing this particular yellow cab.

it’s gone.

there are no words to describe the instantaneous feeling of failure-doom-inability to transcend the outcome of my unforgivable, unredeemable mortal blunder. it was plain and simply not my property to lose in the first place.

I was WRONG, and IT was gone.

nothing, nothing, nothing left to do, but face certain death – firing, some sort of banishment from living in new york, and for that matter, ever continuing my path as a professional musician.

selfish concerns? only that i had never considered that the way my life would end would be Betty Carter physically tearing me limb from limb. this was not going to be a good fate for my life. those were the selfish thoughts, but i honestly felt so overwhelmingly consumed by the worst flood of guilt you can imagine, and i knew that i had to telephone Betty immediately,

face the music of having blown not only my mere life, but of taking Betty Carter’s gift of inclusion in her musical world, and effectively ‘dumped’ all over it, and Her.

oh yes i was shaking. are you kidding?? dropping a quarter into the payphone in the phone booth at Thompson and Bleeker, i reached behind me to partially close the door to filter the noisy traffic.

i dialed 1-718… ‘Hello?’ it’s Her –it’s Betty–, the voice that had become maternal to me.

‘Betty, i’ve done a terrible, terrible thing, i must tell you, it is VERY, very bad and you will not be happy… there is NOTHING i can do, but i must tell you.’ i’m starting to cry a little, but my voice is fairly steady and somehow deeper than usual, from the diaphragm.

Betty: ‘what’s wrong, benny? are you alright?’

me: ‘well, Betty, i’m not alright because i’ve done something terrible that will definitely affect you’. kind of amazing i was able to be this coherent, but you know how things goes to slow motion in a crisis.

now Betty’s silent. ‘i’ve lost your entire piano book. i was in a taxi, i left it in the taxi, and it’s gone, Betty. i have no receipt or cab number, there is NO way for me to get it back. Betty, i am sorry, i know not to say that, but i don’t know what to do, other than to tell you that i am SO, so very sorry and… i don’t know what to do.’ it’s still silent on the other end. ‘i am sorry, Betty. i know there is nothing can say, i know you don’t want to hear my voice now, but i’m sorry. i don’t know’ —

“Are you alright?” says the Enlightened, highest manifestation of universal selfless compassion Betty instantly became. ‘me?’ i say in pure, genuine incredulity. ‘Yes, are You okay, benny?’. ‘well of course i’m NOT okay, because i’ve’ —

“Are you alright physically?”. now i’m the silent one. finally i try to say something in response to this most unexpected response from Betty ‘um, well…’ —

“Listen. if You’re okay, then i’m not worried about those pieces of paper. we’ll put it back together” [we’ll do it, she had said! there was still a ‘we’, oh my God, i’m still in Betty’s life, she’s speaking to me as a son. oh my God, there is salvation for Lois and Bert’s son.]

she continued, she has heeded the call and fully become mother Peace (may i NEVER sign off on another human’s potential character), ‘look, there’s still bass charts, i may have a few things here as copies. you’ll come over to my house, we’ll go case-by-case, and we’ll put the charts back together. as long as you’re alright, benny; Life Goes On’. and she sealed it with a real laugh.

“I Love You, Betty”. first time i’d ever uttered those words. “I Love You too, benny. now you try and relax yourself; go have a nice dinner, okay?’

bless You, Betty. i’m sorry i was not more appreciative of what you gave me. we traveled the world, and you kicked my ass. we played in every tempo and every key. you called me on it if i was falling into a ‘trick bag’ or repeating my licks. you made me THINK. you made me grow. thank you Betty. I Love You, I DO.

what’s natural for Bags

it was the summer of 1978, i was 15, and my wonderful piano teacher at the time was Bill Bell, who had worked for some years as Nancy Wilson’s accompanist, which speaks quite well for him we can agree. Mr. Bell would place quarters on the backs of my hands, if they fell off as i played my scales for him, which would indicate improper motion, he’d slap my hands briskly enough to alert me, without actually constituting grounds for a harassment suit by 21st century standards in which it’s just about federally underwritten that kids govern their instructors. great teacher. i was not and am not a whiz with the scales, but thankfully Mr. Bell focussed primarily on the finer points which even back then my concern was directed towards – the Feeling of this Music.

one day Mr. Bell thought to mention to me that he’d be playing the piano with the GREAT Milt Jackson for an upcoming S.F. club engagement. ‘Bags’ – more than the king of the vibraphone, but one of the elite upper echelon of Soul, creativity, devastating groove, innate virtuosic genius spontaneous inventiveness, the consummate embodiment of phrasing, taste, simplicity and hipness of a divine order, and… what did i leave out? did i already say SOUL?

Mr. Bell informed me that he would in fact be a part of a local, san francisco bay area rhythm section which would accompany the Man at a nightclub in S.F., called ‘Christo’s’.

I WANTED TO GO. i HAD to hear Bags! come on, it was BAGS! in town!

BAGS!

Milt Jackson and Ray Brown, New York, between 1946 and 1948 (William P. Gottlieb)

Milt Jackson and Ray Brown, New York, between 1946 and 1948 (William P. Gottlieb)

one of of the two records of Milt’s that i’d been listening to at the time was ‘Very Tall’, with Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen. Oscar’s hair was ‘conked’ in the 1961 album photo, it actually looked pretty slick to me and i imagined purple toned stage lights shining off it. the other record was one which my father had bought me, a second-hand copy of one the Modern Jazz Quartet’s greasiest, called ‘Blues At Carnegie Hall’. Milt was the angel masthead at the front of both of those quartet recordings. no one can ‘cut’ Oscar Peterson, yet if you listen not only to ‘Very Tall’, but ‘Reunion Blues’, ‘Two Of The Few’, and ‘Ain’t But A Few Of Us Left’ (one of both Ray Brown and Oscar Peterson’s all-time favorites of their own recordings, which Oscar ALWAYS had playing in his car whenever i was in it), you can see that, basically, Milt didn’t take no ‘stuff’ from Oscar. they were two undefeatable gladiators going at it with joy, class and laughter. Love. that’s what Jazz is. you can practice all day, and yet when all is said and done you play as you are, and how you feel, as Milt characteristically explained in a lot fewer words to me at the end of this story.

my father drove me into S.F. early to see how we could work it, for me to be granted entree to the nightclub as a minor. my dear dad, he flat-out assured me on the way there, that he would get me in to hear Bags, whatever it took. and we did not have a lot of money when i was growing up, so slipping a maitre’d $20 was not a tangible option. but Dad pretty much promised me, that we were going to get in, and that we were going to hear Bags. my dad, he was and is the BEST dad, ever. i come from angels, and just look at who has come into my life along the way…

we entered the street-level doorway. there was a long, straight staircase up to the club and restaurant. the doorman stopped us gently (i suppose a grease pencil mustache wouldn’t have quite gotten me over; i was a little guy). my father calmly and confidently asked the man at the door if the proprietor could please be summoned, to address the issue of me and him attending the show. in no more than a minute, the man who i’m pretty sure was actually ‘Christo’, came to speak with my father. my father explained that i was a student of the pianist who was performing in the club with Milt Jackson for the weekend, and, without even having perused the layout of the venue before, my father fortuitously asked ‘Christo’ if the two of us could lay low in a coat closet (really), and watch through an occasional opening.

kind Mr. Christo was agreeable! he gave us no hassle whatsoever about my dad’s proposed ‘seating arrangement’. even as a kid, i remember that i was totally knocked-out by the humanity. i’m telling you – angels. this guy, this man we’d never met, he must have been a real, genuine Jazz lover, he got the big picture – Milt, my teacher, the Music, me – he was in tune and he knew what was up. i swear, everything is easy with people who understand about Jazz, who really understand what This is.

as i’ve since recounted to Milt’s wife Sandy (S.K.J.) and her daughter Chyrise (Reecie), likely one time too many, my father and i took turns (i’d say 75% of the set he allotted for me), literally bending down and peering through a keyhole in a closet door, with a straight shot view of the very informal stage (area past the bar on the main floor). what struck me immediately about hearing Bags in person, this uniquely warm sound and feeling which like Louis Armstrong, once you’ve heard it, you’ll forever know in a few notes that it’s Bags, was that he swung the whole band and achieved his sound and feeling, which permeated the room, without playing loudly in the least. it seemed to me to be virtually acoustic; unamplified, but resonant like a M.F.! true resonance.

years later, on a cruise ship in 1995, when Milt and Sandy who is one of the most strikingly beautiful women on this planet inside and out (and who also like Milt doesn’t take any ‘stuff’) came to hear my trio and took a seat alongside the piano, Milt clearly found great pleasure (with big, repeated belly laughs which were always a welcome respite from his detroit-street scowl) in taunting me as Oscar Peterson and his angel of a wife and true partner Kelly, entered the room before ‘hit’ time, also to ‘check me out’, in taunted me with, ‘benny, you know that’s OSCAR PETERSON ’bout to listen to you?! hahahaha! that’s OSCAR PETERSON! HAHAHAHAHAHA, benny, OSCAR is gonna listen to YOU play right now, HAHAHA, you ain’t scared, man?! that’s OSCAR out there, man! hahahaha —

thanks, Milt. yeah, the term ‘f***ing with me hard’, would most definitely apply here. but He was one to talk of Oscar; Milt Jackson himself was seated right next to the low end of the piano keyboard. with Milt, Oscar, Ray, Art — people like this, kings like this, it’s all Love in the face of trial by fire.

my first opportunity to play with the great one, Milt Jackson, was at the old Bird Of Paradise club in Ann Arbor, Michigan. we were there with Ray Browns trio, and as Bags was nearby in Detroit, visiting with family in his hometown, someone arranged a funky old rinky-dink set of vibes, practically a xylophone, in hopes that Milt would sit in with us. Ray and Milt were true brothers, from their days together with the incomparable Dizzy Gillespie big band of the 1940’s, and they never looked back. Milt and Ray were, to say the very least, ‘thick as thieves’. Milt sat in with us and man, did it feel GOOD!! oh boy, this is what you live for.

he befriended me, i got to perform with him on numerous occasions, and was blessed and honored not only to be invited to play on his ‘Burnin’ In The Woodhouse’ CD, but that he was amenable to recording a tune i ‘showed’ him that i had heard on a Nat ‘King’ Cole trio recording, called ‘It Only Happens Once’, with an opening cadence akin to ‘I’ll Never Be The Same’.

once, after Milt virtually lit the stage on fire in a guest appearance with Ray’s trio on a concert in Japan, as we walked down a long fluorescently-lit corridor to the dressing room backstage, i was so utterly elated that i said to Milt, somewhat rhetorically, absolutely in awe, ‘Milt, man, i just want to ask you — how does it feel to swing like that?’

Milt turned around, never missing a beat, cool as a cucumber (no, cooler), and replied, ‘Natural’.

Cedar Walton and Dexter Gordon

i didn’t know Dexter Gordon and never got to play with him, but he is nevertheless a significant part of this story for me.

Cedar Walton

Cedar Walton

i was most fortunate in being befriended and in getting to know the great Cedar Walton. Jazz Messenger supreme, inarguably he is one of the all-time hippest, slickest, classiest, most brilliantly soulful pianist-composer-arrangers in the history of Jazz. his name and sound are synonymous with this music. he’s one of the people who’s made the music what it is today.

i really blew it, royally, for each of my first two opportunities to speak with the man. my initial faux pas occurred at the Keystone Korner in San Francisco, where i heard Cedar Walton many times, with his quartet, which included Bob Berg, Tony Dumas and Billy Higgins. also i heard Cedar at the Keystone Korner with the Timeless All-Stars, and on a special new year’s eve engagement by an inspired Jazz Messenger reunion: Eddie Henderson, Jackie McLean, Billy Harper, Curtis Fuller, Cedar, Dennis Irwin and Art Blakey.

when i finally gathered the courage to approach him it was probably 1979, so i was 16. on an intermission at the Keystone, Cedar was speaking with a very attractive young woman. i had blinders on to the fact that he was engaged in meaningful discourse, and just walked right up and interrupted ‘do you give lessons?’ – i didn’t even say excuse me or try to introduce myself, just the direct question and looking up at this man hoping for a safe landing.

‘no’.

‘oh… thank you!’ i said and walked quickly back to my seat. it still hadn’t hit me how clumsy and rude i’d been, all i could think was ‘i spoke to Cedar Walton!’

the next time i suppose went better but not by much. it was 1982 and i’d moved to New York a few months earlier. i wore my blue jeans to the Knickerbocker Cafe to nurse one glass of grapefruit juice from the bar all night which got me entre to stand right behind the piano and listen to the Cedar Walton and Ron Carter duo. they had made an album called ‘Heart and Soul’ and were playing much of the same wonderful repertoire and arrangements.

one of the songs they played that night, not on their duo recording, was the standard ‘Wonder Why’. i knew that i had an L.P. of the Jazztet playing the song, one of Cedar’s first recordings as a sideman, from 1959. ‘i’ll mention it to him’, i thought to myself in trying to get my opening line together, hoping for a reasonable excuse to speak with Cedar. really within it all, wanting to get to befriend him and ask him to somehow explain his musical wizardry to me.

i actually introduced myself like an adult, but i just wasn’t making a very good impression with the dirty jeans and self-maintained haircut. so i pulled out my ‘A’ material, ‘i heard you playing ‘Wonder Why’, i have the record of you playing it with the Jazztet, ‘Big City Sounds’.

‘i never recorded that song with the Jazztet’. ‘no, really’ bright boy continued, ‘i have the record, ‘Big City Sounds’, on Argo’.

for the second time, he responded succinctly ‘i never recorded that song with the Jazztet’. i could see that he was becoming annoyed. ‘thank you for the great music’. ‘you’re welcome’.

now here’s where Dexter Gordon helped my standing with Cedar Walton, and as i said earlier, i didn’t even know him –

Dexter Gordon

Dexter Gordon

the same year, i went to the Village Vanguard to hear Dexter Gordon’s quartet, and as was my way, i introduced myself and asked him if i could sit in. yes that was either very nervy or stupid, but i was far too insatiable to play with the real cats to even be afraid. ‘we’ll see how it goes, i’ll let you know’, said Long Tall Dexter to me in the kitchen at the vanguard. i bugged him more on the intermission. same stall from Mr. Gordon, which was graceful of him, when obviously i should have just been glad to be there listening, not pestering the giant to let me jam. but what he finally decided to do about me, proved to be a defining moment in my musical life…

at the end of his second set, i was sitting near the drums. anyone who’s been in the Vanguard know exactly where i’m talking about. Dexter, who was a physical as well as musical giant, comes over to me and he now knows my name – between me saying it each time i asked him if i could play with him, and the fact that Dexter had of course played with my namesake the great trombonist Bennie Green, he had my name in his mind, and he said in his deep voice ‘Benny Green, you want to play the piano?’ enunciating each word. i’m just looking up at him, shaking a little with nervousness (careful what you ask for) and slowly nodding my head.

‘well There It Is…’ says Dexter, motioning with his long left arm back towards the piano. everyone is still in the club. i walked up to the piano, trembling, and managed to play two tame choruses of a song Dexter had played earlier that night, ‘The End of a Love Affair’. i got up from the piano, ‘polite’ applause from the audience, and Dexter, who had stood there the whole time, let me know i was cool with him, ‘Benny Green, you’re gonna be aaaallright’.

Cedar was at the bar. i went once again to try to have a conversation with the guy who was probably my third childhood musical hero after Monk and McCoy Tyner. ‘say young man, you sounded good up there’. from then on, he treated me as a musician and encouraged me.

i asked Cedar for a lesson every chance i had. after repeatedly asking him over the years, once when we were both touring in Japan at the same time and met up backstage in Tokyo, Cedar offered, ‘let’s get together for that lesson you’ve been wanting. when will you next be in Los Angeles?’ he and his dear wife Martha lived on the west coast for a few years in the mid 1990’s. we made plans and he picked me up at the hollywood roosevelt hotel and drove me to his house – which was practically 40 minutes away! he didn’t charge me any money. ‘just watch my hands, and when you see me do something you want to ask me about, just stop me and say ‘that!’ and i’ll show you’. that’s just what we did. sweet Martha prepared broccoli rabe for us, but for some reason i had explained to Cedar earlier that i was going to need to leave soon to be back in L.A. for my show that night. Cedar then drove me all the way back, which meant 2 round-trips for him that day. then he and Martha came and hung out that night at my trio gig at the original Catalina’s bar and grill.

every time i’d see Cedar Walton after that occasion, he’d remind me of how i exited their home apparently oblivious the fact that Martha had actually cooked for us, that somehow he felt my action represented in effect that i was the artiste who was so self-absorbed that he couldn’t sit still for a home cooked meal. he would really let me have it and ‘lay into’ me if an audience of others were around. he’d retell the story to them – i couldn’t escape my history.

when Cedar passed, i phoned Martha. when i finally apologized for my blatant immaturity in having been oblivious to her spiritual and culinary offering on that day so many years ago, she just laughed and said ‘oh, but you were fasting. we understood!’ beautiful people. they really loved each other.

thank goodness for Cedar’s recordings. no one plays or writes so pretty and sexy as he, but we will bask in the light of Cedar Walton’s musical splendor forevermore. by nature of how he thought and lived, his music is forever fresh and filled with sunshine! we need his musical gift of everlasting pure joy and Love now and always, more than ever before.