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.

Betty or Art? choose both!

Photo Credit: Brian McMillen

Photo Credit: Brian McMillen

after that audition in which Betty hired me and changed my life, i had my 20th birthday in april of 1983, and we began rehearsing. She, Lewis Nash and David Penn were very cool to me, they were treating me as part of the family, although i was failing miserably at getting my ‘profile’ together, let alone any attempt of dressing as classy as Lewis Douglas Nash. i always wanted to belong and feel accepted as a part of this music, and i felt like i especially stood out being ‘white’, that i looked different from the people i wanted to be accepted as a brother to.

incredibly, the night before my very first gig with Betty, which was to be at the Tralfamador Cafe in Buffalo, NY, the switchboard operated ‘house telephone’ in my miniature apartment, #202 in bretton hall at broadway and 86th st., rang with opportunity. i didn’t yet have my new yamaha upright that my father paid for, there was only a single-size cot, a small cube refrigerator, a closet, and i shared a bathroom with other tenants (and cockroaches) down the hall. i didn’t mind these conditions in the least, it was liberating having my own space, my own clubhouse for the first time, plus i was living in New York City, with mighty living giants such as Dexter Gordon walking the streets; everything else was gravy, to say the least!

i answer the very short-corded grimy telephone, and the voice on the other end was Art Blakey’s pianist, my dear friend Johnny O’Neal, phoning long distance. Johnny tells me that 1) he’s ‘stranded’ (always a cliff-hanger with my friend) and 2) Art Blakey and the Messengers are playing at Mikell’s (a 12-15 minute walk at most, from my apartment to 97th st. and columbus) and “i’m gonna need you to ‘fill in’ (his words) for me with Bu tonight. can you do it?”.

mr. nubie here, greener than Green, would you believe that my first thought is: i need to have a good night’s sleep and be sure to be on time tomorrow morning at laguardia airport! i’m not kidding, that is what first went through my young mind. thank goodness Johnny was insistent. ‘benny, i really need you to do this for me. you know all the music, and you’ve been wanting to play in the Messengers, and i can’t be there, i need you to do this for me, please benny — i’m begging you” it was sweet of Johnny to throw that in there for good measure, and the man is calling me with a blessing and i’m so wet behind the ears that i’m thinking of being responsible and surprisingly i’m not literally bouncing off the walls that i have a shot to play with Art and Terrence Blanchard and Donald Harrison and Jean Toussaint and Charles Fambrough. instead, i’m thinking of being a good choirboy for my morning flight with Betty. where’s the odds in that? the best odds, i was soon to learn, the best of both worlds…

‘Johnny, you know i want to play with Art. it’s my dream, but i have a gig with Betty tomorrow, and Art might not even want me doing the gig.’

‘benny, i need you to do me this favor (favor?! hahahaha), i’m here in detroit and i need someone to cover for me, and you can do it – you know all the music. you’ll still be able to’ – then i interrupted, i was starting to come to my senses and become excited at the thought of playing with Art and the band. ‘Johnny, can you please call Art and see if it’s alright with him? because i don’t want to show up and then have him not wanting me to play with him, when i should have been in bed getting ‘a good night’s sleep’ haha. this is all real.

‘yes, i’ll call him’ says Johnny. ‘then will you please call me right back to tell me what he says?’ i say. ‘yes i’ll call you right back, benny. now stay near your phone, all right?’ what an angel. and poor johnny was probably running out of quarters, dimes and nickels; there is a strong likelihood that he was calling from a payphone.

ring… Johnny is affecting his most convincing maternal sales-pitch manner ‘benny, i talked with Art and he said he’d love to have you — he said it will probably be a real kick for you! you will have fun, benny!’

OKEY-DOKEY! i shower, gently pushing roach carcasses away with my brown flip-flops, jump into my one suit and tie, and walk briskly 11 blocks uptown and two long blocks east to Mikell’s. I’m going to play with Art! i arrive around 35-40 minutes before showtime, walk past the bar to the elevated stage in the back, where i’ve listened and watched the Messengers playing countless times before, where they were soon to record the album ‘new york scene’ with the great Mulgrew Miller playing the piano. Art is the only one onstage, he’s fine-tuning the positioning of his drums and no one in the club is bothering him. a record is playing quietly in the background, and some folks are just doing their thing at the bar and there are a few people dining in the other adjoining room on the 97th st. side with a huge glass window front. i walk towards Art, but i’m still standing on the floor level, and i just sort of plant myself there and wait for a directive from the man: Abdullah Ibn Buhaina.

he (who could read you like a book in i would say half-a-second) sees my position and demeanor, and gestures with a rather brisk but graceful easy swinging motion of his right arm and hand back to the piano (it’s sort of mounted flush against the back wall on it’s left, flat side and Art’s full drum set is basically in the middle of the small stage, with room for the three horns in front of him and for the bassist to stand sort of between us in the curve of the right side of the piano. Art simply and beautifully says ‘it’s all yours tonight!’ with a big, warm smile!

Welcome.

well, i did know the entire book, but outside of knowing all the arrangements and piano parts in my sleep, i didn’t really know what i was doing or have a clue in terms of comping. i would just sort of try to imitate things i’d heard James Williams and Donald Brown and Johnny do, and hoped it would fit while ‘Duck’ (Donald Harrison) and Terrence and Jean improvised, with mixed interactive results at best, i’d have to say. but just to feel that molten lava all over us and somehow within all of us coming through Art’s drums (he’d be inside you, as i’ve always felt from the records of the band with Lee Morgan, Wayne Shorter, Bobby Timmons and Jymie Merrit. Art would be playing YOU, he’s coming through every instrument in the band), Charles Fambrough’s (‘brosky’, although i never once called him by his nickname) powerful bass with his amp ‘cranked’, and the comet-like energy coming through the air from these three horn soloists — i was elated. all the guys were cool to me, they really were mature about the whole thing and no one ‘vibed’ me out that night, thank goodness.

dear and kind Donald Harrison actually had the thought to lean into the curve of the piano say to me ‘you’re a messenger now, baby’. what a gracious, big thing for him to do for me. thank you Donald.

at the end of this magical night in my life, Art’s wife, Ann Arnold, came to pay me $100, and she said ‘would you like to join the band?’

!!!!!!!!!!!!

i swear on my life, hand-to-God, it did not take me a full two seconds to take in that i’d just been offered to join THE band I’ve always wanted to play with, but that i had not only a commitment, but by now although we had yet to perform publicly, i felt a loving, familial relationship with Betty Carter. all in this split second i felt the miracle of maternal musical Love which Betty had shown my life in the past weeks of rehearsals. ‘thank you’, i say say calmly looking Ann straight in her eyes, ‘there is nothing i want more than to play with Art, but the thing is, i’ve been rehearsing with Betty Carter and tomorrow we’re going to Buffalo and then to Rochester. i’m playing with Betty now, and i can’t do it. but this is what i’ve always wanted, THANK YOU for asking me.’

Ann seemed taken aback, ‘this is the MESSENGERS. i’m offering you the job with Art and the MESSENGERS!’

‘i know’, i said to Ann, ‘but i must go with Betty tomorrow. thank you Ann. this is actually what i’ve always wanted’. ‘well, okay’ she conceded without further urging.

now most importantly i want to say, had i been like the proverbial dog with a bone in his mouth, who drops the bone to attempt to pick up its reflection he’s seeing in the pond below and winds up with no bone, that clearly, had i done the wrong thing and been greedy to play with Art when it was not truly yet my time, and effectively screwed Betty over in the process, i would have wound up with neither gig. instead, first things first and do the right thing, in the time and place intended for my life, i eventually got to play and tour with both incomparable great leaders, and more than just that i got to play with them, i got to learn, lessons which i am barely beginning to realize today in my life, human as well as precious musical examples, 30-plus years later, from both of two of the greatest leaders of young musicians in the history of Jazz.

all i had going for me at this time with Art, was merely that i knew the band’s book. i was not musically ready to be playing with Art, or Terrence, or Donald. i would have ‘covered’ until Johnny came back, been subsequently characterized, ‘photographed’ by my musical adolescence in the moment by Art and the guys, have utterly burned my bridge with Betty, become rather a laughingstock in New York, and i would not be writing this now.

life blessed me with opportunity, i did work hard from my heart for this, but everything we’re living is spiritual, and there is clearly something bigger and more interconnected going on than can be seen with the naked eye – music proves this to be so to me in my life. years later, during a moment when there were rumors during my 2 1/2 year tenure with Art that he was going to fire me, it was Betty Carter who came down to sweet basil’s on 7th avenue in the west village where we were performing, to get ‘up’ in Art’s face and tell him he’d be crazy to fire me. and indeed Art kept me in the band for a good year after that. thank you Betty.

by not being greedy, i got to play and be trained (and paid!) by miss Betty Carter for four glorious, challenging, calorie burning years, and then i got to play with Art. first things first.

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’.