The Mel Torme gig

Mill Run was a popular Chicago stop back when musical acts travelled around the country promoting their records. I had been in the house band at the Beverly Hills Club and the Lookout House in Cincinnati – playing guitar – before I moved to Chicago. The gig starts with a 3 hour rehearsal, probably on the afternoon of opening night. That’s usually a Monday or a Tuesday so you work out the bugs by the time the big crowds show up for the weekends.

John Frigo was a moderately well-known jazz fiddle player in the mid-70s when this happened. He would later become a very well-known jazz fiddle player. But before his fiddle work caught on, he played bass, and he had the house gig at Mill Run. His wife was a singer and John was her music director. It was mid-December and she had booked a Saturday night gig. John needed a sub for the first of two shows on Saturday night. Most guys would have just taken the night off, but the regulars had been sending subs a little too often, and Len Druss the contractor had tightened the screws on subs. So the deal John made with Len was he’d get a sub for the first show and be there by the second show.

Now he needed to find a bass player who wasn’t already booked on a busy Saturday in December. I wasn’t – because I wasn’t jobbing at the time. So he called and as soon as he said “Mel Torme” I was in. John put me in touch will Len and we agreed to meet a couple hours early on that Saturday to review the book. The book is a stack of arrangements – charts – that each singer travels with so all you need is a “pick up band” in teach town. Most singers carried a piano player and “picked up” everything else. Mel carried Donnie Osborne. Donnie would go on to keep the gig for over 24 years.

Most singers from that era had charts for 4 trumpets, 4 trombones, 5 saxes who doubled on flutes and clarinets, then a rhythm section of piano, bass and drums. Guitar was optional but the pop music of the time featured guitar so most of the time there was a guitar player. The really good singers had charts by Billy May, Nelson Riddle, Al Cohn or Clare Fischer, sometimes the music director wrote the charts, but Mel wrote his own book. Every note. And Mel prided himself on ball-busting charts. So it was with some trepidation that I showed up for my “walk-through” with Len.

One of the reasons I was keen to take the gig was I had devoured Mel’s Live at the Maisonette LP, particularly the 16 minute Gershwin medley. So Len and I went through the charts and suddenly there it was – the Gershwin medley. When you do a read-through like this you don’t look at every bar or phrase. Usually the guy(s) before you have pencilled in a pair of glasses — \OO/ – whenever there’s a tough phrase that’s easy to trip up. This book had glasses all over the place.

Lots of Mel’s tunes start with a nice easy two-beat. Then the bass moves to four as the chart builds. The medley does that, and the four is a nice pace for sight reading. Then everything changes and you’re reading as fast as you can. Pretend this line is 4 bars. Now pretend every word is a note. But it’s a different note from the last note – because it’s jazz. But some notes are rests. And some notes are in unison with the bass trombone or the baritone sax or the piano or guitar. So if you miss a note it’s not like no one notices.

I just remember thinking don’t lose your place on the chart. If you do, you’re screwed. That’s what I remember about the gig. Reading as fast as I could read and scared of losing my place. And at some point Mel played drums. And at some point Mel played piano. But mostly I was staring into the book – and it was staring back. \OO/

The other thing I remember – and I never said this until John passed- is that after the gig in the band room, Len and a coulee of the other guys I knew said that John had been playing the book all week and hadn’t nailed some of the trickier phrases that I had sight-read. I don’t consider myself a great sight-reader. You have to do it a lot to really be good at it. But I was good enough that night.

I played at the Beverly Hills club on and off from 1970 until 1974. I was there on October 20, 1973. Nancy Wilson was the headliner. Her opening song was “Strike up the Band” – another Gershwin song. It started as a rubato ballad then went into a fast jazz swing. Great opening number. So she sings it, then instead of jumping right into the next song, she sits on her stool and says “Ladies and gentlemen, sometimes it’s hard to come out and entertain, when things are happening in our country that you know are wrong….” And the audience – and the band – are looking at one another like “what the hell happened”. Because the audience and the band had been in the show room – no TV, no cellphones, no access to news. Then she explained that Nixon had fired the special counsel – the Saturday Night Massacre – and most of us breathed a sigh of relief that it wasn’t something worse. In retrospect, that was bad enough.

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