Joya Sherrill was a sensation in Moscow. Goodman didn't seem too happy about it. On the first concert in Moscow, the audience's response to Joya was thunderous. The Russians had never seen anyone like her. Joya, an elegant, beautiful black woman with graceful bearing and a mellow voice, was stunning in her white strapless gown. The Russians couldn't get enough of her. They especially loved the Gershwin medley Joe Lipman had put together for her.
For a sizzler to bring Joya on, Al Cohn had written a chart combining the tunes Riding High and I'm Shooting High. He gave it a long introduction to allow Joya enough time to walk across the stage to the microphone. There was a strong opening and a wonderful shout figure under her last chorus. Her second number, a Ralph Burns arrangement of The Thrill is Gone, began with a repeated bass figure at a slower tempo. Joya wanted me to start it while the audience was still applauding the opener, so she could begin singing as soon as the crowd got quiet again. In Seattle this routine had been very effective.
On our second concert in Moscow, Benny canceled Joya's opener and had her begin with The Thrill is Gone. He would announce her, let her walk out with no music, take her applause, and then after it was quiet again, he would count off the introduction, leaving Joya with at least four measures to wait before she could begin singing. It gave her a much less effective entrance, but she carried it off professionally and was very well received throughout the tour.
I never heard Benny refer to Joya by her name except when he announced her. She was always "the girl."
"Where's the girl? We'll put the girl on next."
One night Benny told me to play the introduction to The Thrill is Gone as straight eighth notes. It was a shuffle figure Ralph Burns had written to set the feeling for the whole arrangement. It would have sounded ridiculous as straight eighths, so I ignored Benny's instructions. As I started playing, he walked over and stuck his face right into mine.
"Straight eighths!" he yelled.
"NO!" I yelled back, right into his nose.
He snapped his head back and nearly lost his glasses. I wasn't going to play her music wrong just because Benny was jealous of her. Joya, unaware of all this, continued to sing, and I didn't hear any more about straight eighths.
One of Joya's songs was a Jimmy Knepper arrangement of The Man I Love. We couldn't understand why Benny insisted on also playing that song with the septet later in the program. It seemed redundant. There certainly were a million other tunes we could have played instead.
Katyusha was a prewar Russian popular song that Joya had learned in Russian. Benny didn't let her do Katyusha on the first Moscow concert, but even so, Premier Kruschev sent her a note saying her singing was "warm and wonderful." Katyusha was well received when Joya sang it on subsequent concerts.
The only place that song was not welcomed was in Tblisi, where the audience stamped and whistled until Joya stopped singing it. They were Georgians, and didn't want a Russian song. It was as if she had sung Yankee Doodle in Alabama. She skipped Katyusha and went into I'm Beginning to See the Light, with the band making up a head arrangement, and she soon had the Georgians eating out of her hand.
A letter in Izvestia criticized the "cabaret style" with which Joya sang Katyusha, and after that there were always a few in each audience who would whistle their disapproval when she sang it. Inside a bouquet she was given onstage at one concert was a note from a Russian fan praising her rendition of the song and claiming that the whistlers were "hired goons."
From the evidence contained on the RCA Victor album Benny Goodman in Moscow, no one would suspect that Joya had been with us on the tour. Benny specifically instructed George Avakian to omit her material, and told him not to mention her in the liner notes. George urged him to reconsider.
"It's my album," said Benny, "and that's the way I want it."
Toward the end of our stay in Seattle, Muriel Zuckerman had passed out individual contracts that she wanted us to sign. Most of us had thrown them into our suitcases and hadn't read them carefully until we got to Moscow. When we did, we were appalled. The first page of each contract was a standard specification of wages and weeks of employment. But the next several pages looked like army regulations.
There were restrictions on our deportment, and rules about our relationship with Benny. We were to agree to obey all of his instructions and be under his command 24 hours a day while we were out of the United States. Those clauses were insulting but not a serious problem. The one we balked at was an agreement to grant Benny options on our services, a week at a time, for a couple of months after we got back to the States, tying up our ability to book any other work, but giving Benny no obligation to hire us! The clause allowed him to drop the options at the end of any week.
Most of us refused to sign the contracts. Few of us had ever been asked to sign a contract with a bandleader before. Verbal agreements commonly suffice. We told Muriel that we had no access to lawyers in Russia, and didn't want to sign anything so complex without legal advice. Muriel countered with a threat to cut off our funds. We were getting weekly paychecks, which we couldn't cash in Russia. For spending money, Muriel advanced whatever rubles we needed, deducting the equivalent amount from future paychecks at what Phil Woods referred to as "the Muriel rate of exchange."
Jay Feingold kept telling us individually that there would be trouble if we didn't sign the contracts. At one point Muriel refused to advance any more rubles without a signed contract. Jim Maxwell began making loans to Zoot Sims and Phil Woods from a supply of cash he had brought along in case he needed to bail out and buy a ticket home. In Leningrad, Jim went on a hunger strike for about ten days to protest Jay and Muriel's tactics on Benny's behalf. The story made the newspapers in New York.
At the concerts, Benny continued to cramp everyone's style. He seemed indifferent to our best efforts and did what he could to undermine our confidence. His own playing was erratic. Sometimes he sounded wonderful, and sometimes he seemed to run out of gas, tootling aimlessly through his choruses, especially toward the end of a show. Terry Catherman attributed this to the tranquilizers he said Benny was taking. In a couple of weeks he had gone through a large bottle that Terry had expected to last for the whole tour.
Jim Maxwell was surprised to hear this. He said Benny had never used any crutches since he'd known him. Benny wasn't a drinker, only smoked tobacco, and had never taken pills. Jim said that this trip was important to Benny, who found being in his mother's homeland a very emotional experience. That may have been part of the reason he was so difficult on the tour. His back may also have been bothering him. He had suffered for years with a slipped disc.
Benny had celebrated his fifty-third birthday at the opening night party at the U.S. embassy in Moscow. I was thirty-four then and thought fifty-three was pretty old. I asked Teddy Wilson if he thought Benny's strange behavior could be attributable to age. Teddy snorted.
"The man is the same today as he was in 1936," he said. "You just have to learn to ask for enough money to make it worth your while."
I laughed. "Man, your price must really be up there by this time! Why do you keep taking jobs with him?"
"I have a lot of alimony to pay," he said. "Also, these jobs allow me to play with a class of musician I can't afford to hire myself."
Half way through the tour, Benny began to use John Bunch with the small groups as well as the band. He was using Teddy only on the opening number. John felt bad about it. He considered Teddy to be one of his musical fathers, and thought he deserved more respect.
Benny was killing Joe Newman with kindness. He had given him most of the trumpet solos on the band arrangements, and had him playing with the septet as well. Joe complained that his chops were hurting. Mel and I asked Benny to give Joe a break.
"These people know Teddy from his records and would like to hear him play. Why not let him do a trio number?"
Benny said it was a good idea, and tried it on the next concert. Teddy played Stompin' at the Savoy and Satin Doll with Mel and me. The audience cheered. Instead of leaving the stage, John Bunch had taken a chair in the back row next to Joe Newman, right beside the lid of the piano. He sat there, beaming with pleasure, and joined enthusiastically in the applause for Teddy.
Terry Catherman said that one of the most common Russian criticisms of the United States was of our treatment of African Americans. Always on the lookout for positive symbolism in our role as ambassadors, Terry encouraged Benny to continue featuring Teddy's trio number. It stayed in the program, but Benny seemed unhappy about the applause Teddy received. He behaved ungraciously while Teddy was taking his bows, turning his back to the audience until the applause died down.
One night Benny stopped me backstage and said,
"Pops, don't you think you ought to be playing in two for Teddy?" (Teddy's left hand usually played a two-four stride bass line.)
"I asked him about that," I told Benny, "and he said he likes to hear the bass in four."
Benny looked a little put out, and said,
"I've been meaning to talk to you, Pops. You're trying too hard."
This took me completely off guard. I said, "What the hell does that mean?"
He made his little waffling noise and said,
"Just play the notes, Pops."
I was flabbergasted. I thought the rhythm section had been sounding great, and up until then had thought Benny liked it.
"Look, Benny," I said, "on the new charts, I'm playing pretty much what's written until we get to the jazz choruses. But when we get back into your old book, those two-four bass parts are dumb, even if Fletcher Henderson did write some of them. This is supposed to be a jazz band. If I play those parts the way they're written, this will sound like a 1936 dance band. That isn't what you said you were bringing over here."
Benny peered over his glasses at me, twiddled his fingers, and said,
"We'll talk about it later, Pops."
We never did.
Sometimes Benny featured Mel Lewis on Sing, Sing, Sing. One night, after he and Mel had an argument, he called the number, but told Mel not to take a solo. He didn't tell the rest of the band, so we dropped out at the usual spot, and Mel took a solo anyway. He played a half-note triplet figure at the end of it, obscuring the obvious division of the measures. Benny lost track of the meter and didn't know where to come back in, but the sax section made the proper entrance and saved him.
Joe Wilder had a repertoire of classical trumpet solos. Benny told him at the first rehearsals to have a couple of them ready, but he never asked him to play them. In Moscow, we heard that Aram Katchaturian had written a "jazz fugue" for clarinet, trumpet and orchestra. Benny kept telling Joe they were going to play it, but it never happened.
The State Department had used Benny's classical repertoire as a trump card to win his acceptance by the Russians. Some Soviet officials had been opposed to having a jazz band tour their country. They lumped everything from Duke Ellington to Elvis Presley together under the term "jazz." They had heard of the rioting at the Newport festival. A jazz artist who also played classical music seemed a safer bet.
Part of the original deal had included an appearance by Benny with the Moscow Philharmonic. He was to rehearse with them during our first week there and perform with them during the final week of our tour when we were back in Moscow. I think he had told them he would do either the Mozart concerto, a Brahms sonata, or something by Prokofiev.
Terry Catherman told us the Moscow Philharmonic was upset because Benny had failed to rehearse with them during our first week. Benny had told them he would do the Mozart and they had been rehearsing it without him. In Sochi, Benny had Terry send them a wire saying that he wanted to do the Brahms instead. Later, when he changed his mind again, the Russians took umbrage and canceled the performance. Terry said Benny seemed relieved.
Our schedule called for thirty-two concerts: three in Moscow, five each in Sochi and Tblisi, three in Tashkent, six in Leningrad, five in Kiev and a final five in Moscow. We had been told that the jazz fans in the Soviet Union were eager to hear us, and we were prepared for mob scenes. Our first audience was courteous but not avid. What was wrong? Terry Catherman explained that this was the event of the year in Moscow. The announcement that Kruschev himself would attend had given us the official seal of approval. Any politician in Moscow who hadn't been able to get a couple of tickets for opening night was definitely low on the totem pole. Of the nearly five thousand people in that first audience, only a handful knew anything about jazz.
Premier Kruschev and his wife, U.S. ambassador Llewellyn Thompson and his wife, Anastas Mikoyan, and various other high Soviet officials were in the place of honor. After the first number, everyone looked at Kruschev to make sure he was applauding before they joined in. The Premier and his wife left at intermission, sending their congratulations and apologies backstage.
During the Anthology of Jazz, Hal Davis came onstage and displayed huge photo blowups of the musicians whose works we were playing. We felt it was stretching it a bit to include Paul Whiteman and Glenn Miller in such a small sampling of historic jazz, especially since we left out Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. But the Miller number turned out to be a crowd pleaser. Since the movie Sun Valley Serenade had just been released in Russia, they knew Miller's music better than Ellington's or Basie's. After our last number the audience threw bunches of flowers until the front of the stage was covered with them.
Alexi Batashev, a jazz historian and president of Moscow's largest jazz club, said in his review of the first concert:
"The music was a little bit old fashioned but very entertaining. We applauded Goodman from our hearts, but we expected more. The program was arranged as if intended for an ignorant and unprepared audience."
Actually, that was an accurate description of that first audience. At the remaining two Moscow concerts that week, we began to notice a more knowledgeable enthusiasm as the bureaucrats gave way to the jazz fans. When we played the 15,000 seat Moscow Sports Palace during the final week of the tour, the audience response was everything we had hoped for.
Moscow was more austere that the other Russian cities we visited. The golden domes of the Kremlin churches and the gay colors and fanciful shapes of the towers of St. Basil's Cathedral in Red Square made one think of a fair or an amusement park, but the heavy hand of government lay everywhere. The Muscovites who spoke to us on the street looked over their shoulders while doing so. This behavior was not so noticeable in the other cities we visited. Only a few years earlier, contact with foreigners in Moscow had been completely forbidden.
While I was exploring the city one day, I noticed a policeman directing traffic. As I walked by him I saw him blow his whistle at a car driving by. I hadn't seen the driver do anything wrong. He was nearly a block away when he heard the whistle, but he pulled over immediately, parked at the curb and ran back to see what the officer wanted. That encapsulated for me the difference between Moscow and New York. The authorities had power over people's lives there to a degree we have a hard time imagining.
Walking around Moscow, some of us were turned back when we headed toward the older neighborhoods with beam-and-wattle houses. Our Russian guides only wanted us to photograph the newer buildings. They seemed to be afraid we would take home evidence of their "backwardness." They pointed with pride to their new buildings, some of which, like the Leningradskaya Hotel where we stayed, were twenty-five story "skyscrapers." But most were housing projects and office buildings with little architectural interest. Many of the new buildings had wire netting rigged above the first floor to protect pedestrians from being hit by facade tiles that the severe winter cold had loosened.
With the assistance of our guides, we explored the Kremlin, the art museums, the GUM department store and the ornately decorated subway stations. But we weren't able to relax with Russian people until we left Moscow and flew south to Sochi, on the Black Sea.
Sochi looked like a Mediterranean resort, but there were only two public hotels. The rest of the buildings were sanitoriums built by various labor unions and operated by the Ministry of Health. Workers who earned a vacation there were given a physical checkup and health regimen as well as a week at the seashore.
We played in an open-air concert hall that seated about 1,700. Above the side walls we could see people sitting in the branches of trees to get a glimpse of us.
The first concert went well. Afterward, Benny gave us a champagne party in the hotel dining room. He apologized for being rough on us, blaming it on the tensions involved in putting the tour together.
"But it might happen again," he joked. Then he proposed a toast "to a great band."
On the next concert he seemed to have forgotten his toast. He snapped at Mel Lewis and Jimmy Knepper about their playing, glared at us and made us all feel miserable onstage. He tried to give Zoot one of Phil Woods's solos, but Phil jumped up before Zoot could get his horn in his mouth and took his solo anyway.
The authorities in Sochi seemed nervous about us. Security police patrolled the stage door. They rousted a fan who was taping interviews with some of us, and confiscated his tape. Terry Catherman was upset because Gallia, the interpreter who was translating Benny's announcements for the audience, wasn't giving verbatim translations of Benny's remarks. She was just announcing the names of the tunes in Russian. Terry interpreted for Benny on one show, but the Russian officials objected to this and the next night Gallia resumed her duties. Later Felix took over her job and was able to translate Benny's comments to Terry's satisfaction.
George Avakian had come along to supervise the recording of the concerts by an engineer Benny had chosen, Carl Schindler. Carl carried an Ampex recorder and a few Telefunken microphones. The Russians had given Benny a contract permitting the recording of every concert, but someone seemed to be deliberately creating difficulties.
George and Carl hadn't been permitted to arrive in Moscow in time to record the opening concert. They began recording on the second night. When we moved on to Sochi, Terry Catherman had to use his diplomatic influence to get permission for Avakian and Schindler to accompany us.
On the second night in Sochi a tough-looking little man with five o'clock shadow came over to where they were recording, waving his arms and saying in Russian,
"Turn off the machine."
George pretended he didn't understand, and began showing the man how the recorder worked. Terry came over and said,
"He's saying you must stop the tape machine, and I think you'd better."
"Do I really have to?" asked George.
"Look at the bulge under his arm!"
George told Carl to shut off the tape. The NBC-TV crew also had to stop filming.
Terry lodged a complaint through the U.S. embassy, but it him took two days to get permission to resume recording. The officials in Sochi were claiming that Benny's contract to record had been signed in Moscow, and therefore only applied to concerts in Moscow. After Terry got things straightened out, there was no further trouble about recording in Sochi. Tapes were made of the remaining concerts and the TV crew was permitted to resume filming.
Benny wasn't happy with the quality of the tapes he was getting. At one point he threatened to hire a Russian sound man he thought was doing a better job than Carl. During the last half of the tour, Benny called several rehearsals to try to get a better recording balance. I guess they didn't help much; George Avakian later said the editing process was extremely difficult. There was a different balance on every take, and in some cases he had to patch together different performances of the same number in order to avoid extraneous noises.
Our hotel in Sochi, the Primorskaya, faced the Black Sea. Each room had a small balcony. On our second night there, a party developed after the concert in the room occupied by Jimmy Knepper and Jerry Dodgion. The door to their balcony stood open to the warm night air. Phil Woods began holding forth on the deficiencies he perceived in Benny's character and personality. He improvised freely on his theme for some time, with a supporting response of amens from the chorus.
Phil conceals a romantic soul with a cocky hell-for-leather exterior. A musician with great ears, a daring imagination and complete command of his instrument, he is not a man who tends to mince words. At the climax of his diatribe, Phil stepped out onto the balcony, stretched his arms toward the sea, and in a voice made stentorian with vodka, declaimed,
"FUCK YOU, KING!"
On the floor below, Benny had stepped out on his own balcony for a breath of air. He heard everything.
We had planned to spend the next day at the beach, but at breakfast Jay announced that Benny had called a twelve o'clock rehearsal. We set up in the open-air concert hall in the bright sun. Benny spent several hours going over everything in the book that we weren't using. He said nothing about Phil's outburst from the balcony, but he gave us many significant looks. We hadn't all been at the party, but we were all being punished.
Benny called Let's Dance, his theme, and began working on Phil's tone and attack. Then he called Blue Skies, and went over and over it, poking his clarinet right into Phil's ear and playing along with him.
"Not like that, like this!"
Phil was a little hung over and not up to the battle. Benny shouted at him,
"You're just one of eighteen men in this band. I'm sick and tired of you thinking you're the only one here who can swing!"
Phil said later that he looked at the heavies sitting around him and couldn't remember having thought that.
Zoot told Benny to lay off Phil.
"What's it got to do with you?" Benny asked.
"You're pickin' on my roomie!" said Zoot.
Benny made a little speech to the band. He told us he wasn't making any money on the tour. He claimed that some of us were making more than he was. He said that if we had any gripes, we should take them up with Jay Finegold. Then he had us get out When Buddha Smiles. The chart sounded so old-fashioned that Mel started playing two-beat press rolls on his snare drum. Zoot turned around and said,
"Don't do that. He'll like it."
Teddy Wilson had nothing to rehearse, but Benny kept him sitting there anyway. He told Teddy to put out his cigarette. Mel immediately lit one and sat there glaring at Benny. Benny looked at him for a moment and then walked offstage. The rehearsal was over.
Jay tried to keep us for a few more minutes to announce the program for that night, but we all laughed at him.
"What's the point?" we asked him. "You know Benny will change it all when we're onstage."
As we were packing up, Jay told Jimmy Knepper that Benny had "demoted" him. He'd been playing the first trombone book, and Benny wanted Wayne Andre to take his chair.
"What's wrong?" asked Jimmy.
"Benny says you're making faces at him."
Benny didn't realize that was just the way Jimmy always played.
The beach at Sochi was a disappointment. The water was almost unbearably cold and there was no sand. The narrow beach was covered with rocks the size of baseballs. If you wanted to lie down to sunbathe, you had to use one of the wooden duckboards that were stacked conveniently at hand. Wading was difficult because of the stones underfoot. The people at the beach were very curious about us, and much less afraid to talk to us than the people in Moscow. There was always someone who spoke enough English to make communication possible when the interpreters weren't around.
One morning there was a tap at the door of the room I shared with Joe Newman. A pleasant dark-eyed young man introduced himself to us. He said he was a bass player and presented me with a bottle of Russian brandy and some rubles.
"Please," he said, "take my address. When you get home, send me some bass strings and a bridge. I play in a restaurant band, which has no official standing. I have nowhere to buy musical supplies."
He was an Armenian who had been raised in Paris, where he had learned English and French. He had returned to Yerevan to see his father at a time when international travel had been easier. Since then he had not been able to get permission to leave the country again. He had come to Sochi because he found life there "more European." I promised to send him the supplies (which I did, though I don't know if they reached him), and he took me around to the local restaurants and introduced me to the musicians there.
Throughout the tour we noted the ingenuity with which the Russian jazz musicians maintained their instruments. Most musical supplies had to come from the West, and that conduit was open only to official orchestras. The amateurs and non-official professionals had to make do with what they could find. A bass I saw at a Leningrad jam session was strung with used harp strings. A saxophonist in Tblisi showed Jerry Dodgion a mouthpiece he had carved from a block of wood. Soviet drummers had real drumheads only on the side of the drum that was beaten. The other heads were made of paper.
An alto player in Tashkent handed Phil Woods his horn and asked for his comments. Phil tried it, had trouble getting a sound on it at all, handed it back and shook the man warmly by the hand.
"Congratulations," he said. "I don't know how you do it."
We had expected to find jazz players in Russia, but we were surprised to find that they knew all the latest tunes. Willis Conover's Voice of America programs had been getting through. Russian musicians had tape recorders and good collections of American jazz. One guy in Leningrad told me about making dubs many years earlier on an old acetate recorder, using X-ray plates with holes punched in the center as substitutes for the unavailable acetate blanks.
Playing piano at jam sessions, Victor Feldman saved us from appearing ignorant of our own music, since he knew all the latest tunes Miles Davis and John Coltrane were playing.
The enthusiasm among the musicians was wonderful, though we didn't run into any really impressive groups. They had been figuring out the music on their own and were coming along fine, but they were in a tough climate for jazz. It had no official sanction until shortly before we arrived, and was actively opposed in some quarters.
Soviet citizens couldn't move freely from one city to another. The bureaucracy liked to keep track of everyone, and frowned on unauthorized travel. Consequently, it was difficult for musicians to gravitate to centers of action and learn from their best players as easily as we do here. The bureaucracy controlled the jobs in Russia, and bureaucracy is always pretty square.
In Sochi, Joe Newman made friends with a young fan named Valentino, who Joe gave a signed record album and a book. As they were walking out of the hotel together, two motorcycle cops pulled up, grabbed Valentino, confiscated his gifts and arrested him. Joe, horrified, ran into the hotel to get Terry Catherman. Terry raised some hell through official channels and we saw Valentino the next day among the crowd that came to see us off to Tblisi. But he didn't make any attempt to speak to us.
The food we were served in the Soviet hotels was generally sad. It ranged from dull to barely edible, with one or two exceptions. Meat was gristly, coffee was poor, vegetables were cabbage and leeks. Meals often looked like they had been prepared by army cooks. The dark heavy bread they served was nourishing and tasted pretty good, so it became the mainstay of my diet.
The food was not only dull. For a big man like Jim Maxwell, there wasn't enough of it. The servings were small, and Jim was happy when one of us left something on his plate that he could scrounge. His food problem was solved by Mr. Konstantinov, our commissary man. A Russian of large proportions, he saw Jimmy cadging someone's uneaten chopped steak one day, and had an interpreter tell him,
"From now on you get two of everything. I know what it is to be a big, hungry man."
Konstantinov and the transportation director, a little round man in a wrinkled suit who we nicknamed "Popsie" after Benny's famous bandboy, referred to us as "the collective." They were puzzled when we failed to do things as a group. I would come down for an early breakfast and find a table set with twenty places. At each one would be an egg cup containing a soft-boiled egg. The eggs were usually underdone, so as each musician straggled in, he would send his egg back to be cooked another minute. It worked out fine.
"Popsie" couldn't figure out why he had only a few people on the bus for museum tours. I explained that we all liked different things, but he kept on trying to fill his bus.
The first dinner at each hotel usually featured Chicken Kiev, a mock drumstick made of boned chicken breasts. It is supposed to be cooked with the outside crisp and the center filled with butter. We usually got it with the outside soggy and the center filled with what seemed like motor oil. Russian science evidently hadn't come up with a very good margarine.
After a couple of weeks of meals where the only greens in sight were a few slices of cucumber, we began to express a longing for some variety in the salad department. Our interpreters laughed.
"You should be here in the winter," they said. "Then, you don't even get cucumbers."
In the United States, we are so accustomed to an unlimited supply of fresh fruit and produce that it was surprising to us that a large country like the Soviet Union could be organized in such a way that no amount of money could buy a head of lettuce in the summertime. We saw people lining up to buy an orange. There were no apples, and bananas were unheard of.
The food in Tblisi was somewhat better than the norm, and in Tashkent we were served one meal of traditional Uzbek dishes, mainly of rice and legumes, that I found very tasty. In Leningrad we found a couple of restaurants that offered an improvement on hotel food.
When we returned to Moscow, the chief cultural attache, Rocky Staples, and his wife Charlotte invited the band to dinner at their apartment in the U.S. Embassy compound. They had sent to Denmark through diplomatic channels for all the food we hadn't been getting on the tour: fresh lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, corn, fruit, nuts, and best of all, fresh milk. We'd been warned away from the local milk. Most of us had been drinking bottled mineral water.
There was a liquid yogurt, somewhat the consistency of buttermilk, that was safe to drink and quite enjoyable. I found the Russian soda beverages too sweet for my taste. The one Russian delicacy we all liked was marozhny (ice cream). It was delicious, and was available wherever we went.
Teddy Wilson, careful of his stomach, had come prepared. One of his suitcases was filled with tins of sardines. He would come to dinner on the first night at each new hotel, shake his head sadly and say,
"No chefs here, either."
He would retire to his room and his sardines until we moved on. By the end of the tour he was looking pretty thin.
Teddy always presented himself to his audiences with a genteel dignity that perfectly matched his elegant playing. I was delighted to find that he was a warm and friendly person offstage, with a bright intellect and a delicious sense of humor.
Teddy liked to party. His room was often the place to go after the concert. I always dropped by, but never stayed long. I have no talent for alcohol. Besides, I always liked to get up early, since the mornings were the easiest and most pleasant times for me to explore the cities we visited.
It's just as well that I didn't stick around for the poker games. I knew even less about cards than Zoot and Phil, who were learning the subtleties of serious poker playing from John Frosk. On planes, at concert halls and in hotel rooms, whenever there was time for a few hands, the three of them would start a game, occasionally attracting a few extra players. John told me he never drew any rubles from Muriel Zuckerman for spending money during the whole tour. He used his winnings from Zoot and Phil.
The drinkers would stay up late and would rarely be seen at breakfast. Teddy wouldn't even show up for lunch. When he turned up in the afternoon, he would be looking very weedy, with a gray stubble on his cheeks and a weariness in his walk. By concert time, though, he would have himself pulled together and would appear at the auditorium looking natty, bright, and about twenty years younger. He'd spend a few minutes at the piano warming up, and when the concert began, he really took care of business.
Russian hotels excelled at one thing: counting the towels. There was a big scene when we checked out of the Leningradskaya after the first week in Moscow. The maids had found some towels missing. Suitcases were opened in the lobby and the errant linen was retrieved. The embarrassing thing was that they were such cheap, tacky towels. The Russians took a dim view of the collection of such souvenirs.
Joe Newman, my roommate, often woke up in the night craving a cigarette. He had nodded off one night while smoking, burning a small hole in his sheet and a large one in my peace of mind. My roommate was a fire hazard! The hotel billed Joe for the bedsheet with the cigarette burn, and for a dime-store glass ashtray that had cracked in half when he rested a hot travel iron on it. Joe paid the bill, but demanded the sheet, since they charged him so much for it. He waited indignantly in the lobby until a maid brought it down. He carried it in his suitcase for the rest of the tour.
Flying in the Soviet Union was no luxury. The planes were much less comfortable than western airliners, having been designed to be quickly modified for military use if necessary. They had plastic noses with bombardier compartments, and military-style doors with high thresholds to step over. The seats were hard and close together. The pilots flew military style. They crammed the planes right down onto the runway with a resounding "Wham!"
For some reason, planes were always parked far out on the airfield. At airports without jitneys, we had quite a walk to the terminal. I was glad I had brought a wheel for my bass.
We waited all day at the airport in Sochi for the weather in Tblisi to change. Tblisi is in mountainous country. Fierce cross winds there were creating unsafe landing conditions. After sitting in the Sochi airport lounge for thirteen hours, we were bused back to the hotel, and we didn't get out until the next day. Luckily, that turned out to be our only weather problem during the whole tour.
When we landed in Tblisi, the winds were still pretty strong. I had trouble holding onto my bass as we walked in from the plane. Over the whistling of the wind, we heard someone calling,
Three Armenian newsmen were running toward us across the runway. They had heard that George was with us and had come to greet him. George told them that Intourist had put him at a different hotel than the band, but they said,
"Don't worry, come with us."
They piled him into their car, drove him to our hotel and fixed him up with a room.
The next day, the local paper published a huge picture of George, Joya Sherrill and Gene Allen that the newsmen had taken. Because of the picture, George was deluged with Armenians who came to the hotel to see him. He was in the habit of signing autographs in three different languages, using the English, Cyrillic and Armenian alphabets. The Armenians in Tblisi shouted,
"Forget the Russian!"
George admonished them, in Armenian, to be careful what they said in public; the Russians might be listening. The Armenians said,
"Screw them. We're not afraid."
George's parents had lived in Tblisi (Tiflis) until he was about seven years old. His mother had given him the location of the house that they had owned. One morning George, Joe Wilder and I set out to find it. The street had been renumbered sometime in the ensuing forty years, but by following his mother's directions, we easily found the house. George, speaking Armenian, asked some people in the courtyard of the building if anyone remembered his parents. They found an old lady who had lived there at that time who remembered George as a child.
Our visit caused a lot of excitement, and the people insisted that we look at all the rooms of the house, which had been broken up into several apartments. George's memory of the place had faded, but we were interested to see inside some ordinary homes. George took pictures of everything. He told me later that his mother was delighted with them.
Turk Van Lake also spoke some Armenian. He and George became the underground connection for Armenians who wanted to send greetings to relatives in the States. There were always a few of them hanging around our hotels waiting to speak to Turk and George. Turk also got to meet his aunt Galipse from Yerevan. His mother had located her shortly before our tour, after a fifty year separation. Terry Catherman arranged for Turk's aunt and her son to travel to Tblisi to meet him and hear a concert.
Tblisi gave us our first encounter with a different culture in the Soviet Union. Although the people are loyal Soviet citizens, they are profoundly Georgian, not Russian. They let you know this right away. (Stalin, a Georgian, was still a hero in Tblisi.) The city is very old and sits athwart a group of hills clustered beside the Dura River. Walking around its streets, I felt a sense of timelessness. It couldn't have looked much different there a couple of hundred years ago.
Hearing a chorus of voices coming from an open cathedral door, I stepped into its shady cobbled courtyard and stood behind an ancient wisteria vine where I could hear without being seen. An Orthodox service was in progress. The entire congregation, mostly male, was singing the responses. The strength and resonance of the voices was entrancing. I stood there until it was over, and then wandered back to our hotel, and the Twentieth century.
Formal religion wasn't prohibited in the Soviet Union, but it wan't encouraged either. There were some operating churches in Moscow and Leningrad, but many had become museums, schools, etc. We saw one that had been turned into a power station. There seemed to be more official acceptance of the church in Georgia. Our guides took us on a trip outside of Tblisi to an old monastery where we met priests with long beards, dressed in traditional robes and square-topped hats.
Victor Feldman took some movies that became popular at parties back in the States because of one scene. While Benny was talking to the priests outside the monastery wall, a little kid came up and held out his hand for alms. Benny reached into his pocket and pulled out a handful of Russian coins. He picked around among them and selected one to give the kid. When Victor showed the film, he would reverse the projector just as Benny hands over the coin, making him seem to have second thoughts, take the coin back and return it to his pocket.
Victor was a prankster throughout the tour. His favorite prop was a plastic replica of a puddle of vomit, which he kept rolled up in his pocket. He pretended to be sick everywhere, on planes and buses, in hotel lobbies and restaurants. But in Kiev he had to be taken to the hospital when he contracted a severe case of dysentery. After that, he retired his fake vomit. It didn't seem funny any more.
On the return trip from the monastery, our Georgian guide pointed to a string of low hills to our south.
"Do you see the caves in those hills?" he asked. "That is where many citizens of Tblisi lived when the Persians came and captured their city."
He said that Georgia, lying in the passage between the Black and Caspian seas, had been overrun time and time again as empires to the north and south would become strong and move through Georgia on the way to conquest of larger areas. He said that the Georgians had always waited until the occupying forces had become corrupt and weakened, and then would throw them out and reoccupy their capital city. I got the impression that he considered the present situation to be another occupancy by a foreign power, and that he was biding his time.
In Tblisi we spent our free time during the day in a variety of ways. We all did a lot of exploring, of course, and many of us made friends with the local musicians. A few of them arranged for a jam session at the Tblisi Polytechnical Institute, where we played one day for a couple of hours with half a dozen Georgian jazz players while a large crowd of students and teachers listened.
When we were taken to Tblisi Lake for an afternoon of swimming we nearly lost one of our interpreters. Jim Maxwell was larking with Nadia. While they were wading, he picked her up as if she were a child and dunked her in the water. He didn't know she couldn't swim, and that she also had a heart condition. She passed out. Gallia, her partner, rushed out with some pills, and Nadia came around after a couple of minutes. She was okay, but we had been very frightened. Jim felt terrible.
On another afternoon we were given a private performance by the Georgian National Dance Company at their theater. They did their whole show for us. Then the children who were studying to join the company danced for us. It was Georgian folk dancing performed at a high artistic level. The dancers flew joyously about the stage with grace and precision. The traditional costumes were wonderful, the whole performance a delight. We especially liked a fighting dance in which swordsmen whirled and rapidly struck their weapons against each others' shields as they executed complicated dance patterns. Showers of sparks flew on the darkened stage as metal struck metal.
Since Jay had told us Benny wanted to play a little jazz for them afterwards, several of us had brought our instruments. When the dancing was over, Mel and Turk and I set up center stage as a piano was wheeled in for John Bunch. Benny, Joe Newman and Jimmy Knepper got out their horns. The dancers, who had changed into their street clothes, crowded around to listen. Benny looked disturbed.
"No, no," he said. "We wanted to get pictures. Can't they put their costumes and makeup back on?"
"Benny," we said, "don't ask them to do that! Don't you realize how much time and work that involves?" We wanted them to be able to relax and enjoy themselves.
Benny reluctantly agreed, and we began playing Caravan. Joe Newman lit a fire under the melody as Benny and Jimmy played a background riff. As Jimmy Knepper began his chorus, playing with his eyes closed, Benny saw the photographers coming down the aisle. He nearly knocked Jimmy down as he shouldered him aside to strike a pose for the photographers at the front of the stage. Mel and I looked at each other in disbelief.
When we finished that tune, Benny began urging "just one or two of the dancers" to get back into their costumes and makeup for some pictures.
There were two men in the company who had done a juggling dance with hand drums. Benny got one of them to play with us for more pictures. It had become a photo session instead of a musical offering. Mel and John Bunch and I refused to continue being part of such discourtesy. We felt, after having been given such a wholehearted performance by the dance company, that Benny had treated them shabbily. Rather than giving them our best music in return, he only seemed interested in getting publicity shots. We packed up and went back to the hotel.
Benny played another tune with Joe, Jimmy and Turk before he left. He complained of the "unprofessional behavior" of those of us who had abandoned him.
He had pulled a similar stunt after the first concert in Moscow, telling some of us to bring our instruments to the birthday party they gave him at the American Embassy. Even though we were guests at the party, we didn't mind playing a little, but Benny acted as if it were a club date he had booked, with us as the unpaid band. We were glad when he went off to talk to the Ambassador and left us to play by ourselves. He was hopeless as far as recreational playing was concerned. We learned to avoid jam sessions where he was to be involved. We could have had fun together if he had just played, but he couldn't stop being the boss, calling the tunes and directing who was to play when, and for how long. The publicity always seemed more important to him than the music itself.
The newest and most modern structure in Tblisi was the radio building that sat on top of one of the hills of the city. In it was a large restaurant with an excellent view. We were invited there by the Georgian Philharmonia for a banquet to follow our last concert in Tblisi.
When the party was announced that morning, Zoot and Phil planned their day so they would be in good shape for the midnight festivities. We boarded "Popsie's" bus at 10 a.m. to be driven to a restaurant outside of town for a shashlik luncheon. Zoot and Phil decided against bringing any hard liquor and, at the luncheon, they limited themselves to a single glass of wine apiece.
Back at the hotel, Phil wanted to stop at the buffet in the lobby before we went to the concert, just to stave off his hunger pangs until the party. Zoot wasn't hungry and went back to their room.
When Phil opened the door to their room half an hour later, he found Zoot sitting in a chair facing a hat he had placed in the middle of the room. He'd been throwing playing cards at it. There were cards all over the floor. An empty whiskey bottle sat beside him. He was completely smashed. When he arrived at the concert hall, he was a one man New Year's Eve party.
Liquor usually made Zoot feel like dancing and swinging. He often used it to get himself into the mood to play. If he went too far, he would lose the wonderful control of his fingers that he normally had, but he could still invent pretty phrases and, as long as he could exhale into the horn, he could always swing. He prided himself on being able to play no matter how much he'd been drinking.
He once told me that his dad, a vaudeville hoofer, had been stopped during the Prohibition era by two Los Angeles cops who accused him of being drunk. They gave him an impromptu sobriety test by ordering him to walk the edge of the curb. Zoot said his dad was indeed loaded, but he not only walked the curb, he tap-danced it. The cops laughed and let him go.
At the Tblisi concert, the rest of the band had settled down to what had become the serious business of doing our jobs. We had learned not to look as if we were having too much fun, or Benny would act like it was costing him something. But Zoot was mellow and ready to swing. Though he looked a bit bleary, he played his parts with gusto and got the rest of us feeling better. He clapped on the afterbeat and whooped like a cowboy while the brass section was swinging. Benny reminded him several times that they were recording the concert, but Zoot kept whooping it up.
Benny called a septet number (four rhythm, Victor Feldman, Joe Newman and himself). We were grouped to play right next to Zoot's chair at the right end of the sax section. During the first ensemble, Zoot joined in. After Benny took a couple of choruses, Zoot took a chorus, too. It was a wonderful octet, but Benny decided to put the lid on this little outburst of spontaneity.
He called Stealin' Apples, Fletcher Henderson's old chart on the Fats Waller classic. We hadn't played it much, and Benny correctly surmised that Zoot might have trouble with the reed chorus, on which he had the lead part. Sure enough, Zoot fumbled a few bars. During the applause, Benny gave him his famous "ray." Zoot beamed sweetly at Benny and explained,
"I couldn't see it!"
Georgia is wine country, and Georgians are fond of drinking toasts. Protocol at banquets requires the toastmaster to propose toasts that compliment and flatter the guests. After each toast, everyone is supposed to empty his glass. When the toastmaster has proposed all the toasts he cares to make, he appoints someone else toastmaster, and they start all over again.
At the banquet that night, the wine glass in front of me at the table looked like it would hold a pint. I knew if I emptied it more than once, I'd be unable to walk. I looked around to see how I might avoid drinking without insulting our hosts. There were large bowls of strawberries on the table and some of the diplomats were filling their wine glasses with the berries. Aha! I followed suit, and by tilting my glass at each toast while using the strawberries to hide the fact that I wasn't drinking more than a sip each time, I was able to stay in the game.
Zoot had rapidly progressed from jolly tippler to sloppy drunk, and we were afraid he would say or do something to offend our hosts. Phil spent the first half hour at the banquet hissing at Zoot:
"Come on, man, shape up! We've got to have some protocol here!"
Mr. Keepiani, director of the Georgian Philharmonia, had begun the toasts. He saluted music, Benny's Georgian mother, friendship, the tour managers, the American journalists, brotherhood, peace. (For that one, a dove was brought in.)
After each toast, Zoot would begin to lurch to his feet, feeling the urge to respond with a toast of his own. When Phil and I restrained him, he growled at us for spoiling his fun. Finally, Phil changed his tack.
"Okay, you mother. If it's going to be juice city, look out! Here I come!"
He immediately began doubling his intake of wine, trying to catch up with Zoot.
The toastmaster was preparing to yield the floor to Benny.
"And now, our guest of honor, a great musician. I give you...Benny Goodman!"
Right on cue, Zoot threw up all over his jacket front. Jerry Dodgion rose from his chair and kissed Zoot on the cheek.
We napkined off Zoot's red uniform jacket as well as we could, and he sat there quietly for a while. Then he nudged me.
"From now on," he whispered conspiratorially, "I'm only eating the strawberries." He pointed to his lapel. "Then if I throw up on my jacket again, it won't show!"
He sat back, chuckling at his clever plan. Phil bawled him out for losing his cool and his dinner, calling him "un-American." Two minutes later, Phil was leaning over the rail out on the side porch, throwing up.
Benny toasted Georgia, Mr. Keepiani, the band and Zoot, the audiences, Muriel, and Alice ("my most loyal fan"). We were unable to restrain Zoot the next time he was struck with the impulse to respond. He announced loudly,
"I wanna make a toast!"
Benny yielded to him. We held our breath as Zoot pulled himself to his feet, raised his glass, and carefully constructed a most courteous and proper toast. He complimented our hosts and their city and thanked them for their hospitality. When he finished, we all drank up and applauded with relief. Zoot made a courtly bow to the Russians, leered at the band triumphantly, and collapsed into his chair.
After Zoot's toast, the dam broke. Phil toasted the sax section, Zoot toasted Phil ("my room-ski"), someone toasted the trumpet section, someone else the trombones, someone the rhythm section. Then Phil toasted Mr. Keepiani and apologized for the lack of protocol.
"As musicians, we're really all one family," he said, and won everyone's applause.
Teddy Wilson toasted "peace in the world," and the Times reporter's wife toasted the muralist who had decorated the walls of the restaurant. Mr. Konstantinov claimed the last toast, saying we had to get up early to fly to Tashkent in the morning.
Most of us were feeling pretty unsteady by this time, with the exception of Joe Wilder, who doesn't drink. "Popsie" got us on the bus and down the hill to the hotel. In the lobby, Phil got a little loud, so Jimmy Maxwell picked him up, carried him up to his room, opened the door and threw him at Zoot. Zoot, having sobered up a little, lectured Phil about his behavior.
Everyone went to bed, but the night wasn't over for some of us. Gene Allen and John Frosk had the room below Zoot and Phil. Gene had collapsed on his bed fully dressed and was sound asleep, but John was kept awake by the noise upstairs. It sounded like they were breaking up the furniture. Shouts of protest in foreign languages could be heard coming from the courtyard. John grabbed the phone and called Zoot. Using a heavy Russian accent, he shouted,
"Stop that noise, or I come up there and beat you up!"
The noise abated and John went to sleep. In the morning he got the rest of the story. Zoot and Phil had called Jim Maxwell for protection against the irate Russian who had called. Jim posted himself in a chair in front of their door all night.
After Zoot and Phil had checked out, John peeked into their room. A cyclone seemed to have passed through. John looked in the bathroom. On the wall were two footprints, one on each side of the wash basin. Someone had obviously been trying to tear it off the wall.
To Russia, Part 2