David Bruce: Music Anecdotes

Hans Pfitzner, composer of the opera Palestrina, went to a German town for an event and stayed in a small hotel. He got up early and started composing, but at 7:30 a.m. workers began to break up with a drill the street outside his hotel room. Mr. Pfitzner opened his window and shouted, “Quiet! Pfitzner lives here!” Mr. Pfitzner once asked the young Hans Hotter to sing, with himself as the accompanist, some of Mr. Pfitzner’s songs and some ballads by Carl Loewe. Mr. Pfitzner asked Mr. Hotter to choose the songs by Mr. Loewe that he would sing, and Mr. Hotter chose some ballads that Mr. Pfitzner had orchestrated, thinking that his choices would please him. However, Mr. Pfitzner said to him after seeing a particular Loewe ballad he had selected (“Odin’s Meeres-Ritt”), “Are you crazy? I am not [noted German pianist Wilhelm] Backhaus! I cannot play this!” Of course, Mr. Hotter immediately said that he need not sing that particular song, but Mr. Pfitzner said, “No. It’s in the program. I asked you to choose [the ballads] and you have made this mess for me, and now I have to cope with it. See you tomorrow at 9 o’clock.” Mr. Pfitzner worked both hard and quickly and the next day played the difficult passage in “Odin’s Meeres-Ritt.” Mr. Hotter said, “Fabulous!” Mr. Pfitzner replied, “Isn’t it!” Mr. Hotter said much later, “He was so happy. He was in a better mood then than I ever saw him.” Mr. Hotter was also impressed that such an accomplished composer had gone through so much trouble for a young singer. By the way, Mr. Hotter once complained to Matthäus Roemer, his singing teacher, “What annoys me is that people say, ‘Of course, it’s so easy for you!’” Mr. Roemer replied, “You should take that as the highest praise. It is nobody’s d*mn business to know how much effort it took you to sound so natural.”

When Count Basie put together his 15-piece Count Basie Orchestra, it took time for the band to jell. They were playing at the Grand Terrace in Chicago, and they were supposed to play a score that the ballroom provided. Unfortunately, many of the musicians in the band could not read music, and they were forced to fake it. Trumpet player Buck Clayton said, “We had to do the best we could, which was nothing. We abused that show every night we were there.” Fortunately, bandleader, composer, and arranger Fletcher Henderson saw the show, realized the musicians were struggling, and helped them. He lent Count Basie his own arrangements for the show, and he helped coach the musicians on how to play his arrangements. Count Basie said, “He was the only bandleader in the business who ever went out of his way to help me. Without his help, we would have been lost.” Of course, the band soon jelled and became famous, and Count Basie helped other musicians, including a young Quincy Jones, whom he had met when young Quincy snuck backstage at a show by carrying under his arm a music instrument case — which was empty. Years later, Count Basie tried some of an older Quincy’s arrangements and liked them very much — and got popular records out of them. Of course, Count Basie learned a lot making music in St. Louis, Missouri, where musicians played hours and hours, including hours and hours after the show ended. One song could last a very long time. Pianist Sammy Price remembered those long jam sessions: He played, and then he left for three hours. When he returned, he said, “They were playing the same song.”

Serge Chaloff played baritone saxophone for Woody Herman’s jazz band. He could be very wild and crazy. For example, he once practiced shooting at a target with a pistol in his hotel room and did some serious damage to a door, which he was forced to pay for. Having paid for the door, he insisted that it was his, and he took it off its hinges and got help carrying it to the band bus. He was also addicted to illegal drugs and was a bad influence on other members of the band. Mr. Herman decided to fire him, but Mr. Chaloff did not want to be fired because he needed a salary to support his drug habit. So shortly after he was fired, he invited Mr. Herman to look through a window and tell him what he saw. He saw a river. Mr. Chaloff asked him to look more closely, and Mr. Herman said that he saw some litter floating in the river. Mr. Chaloff then said, “That litter is the band’s baritone book. Now you can’t fire me because I’m the only person in the world who knows the book by heart.” It took Mr. Herman another six months to fire Mr. Chaloff. When he did fire him, it was in a very crowded bar, and Mr. Herman remembered something that Joe Venuti had done to a person he did not like, and so Mr. Herman peed down Mr. Chaloff’s leg. Later, Mr. Herman told Mr. Venuti what he had done, and Mr. Venuti became upset: “Woody, you can’t do things like that! I can do things like that, but you can’t! You’re a gentleman! It’s all right for me, but not you!”

Some people greatly respect music. Franz Liszt once was disturbed by two women who talked while he was playing during a concert. He stopped playing, walked over to the women, and said to them, “Pray do not let me disturb your conversation by my playing.” The two women stopped talking, Mr. Liszt returned to the piano, and he began playing again. By the way, when opera singer Clara Doria was in Italy during the second half of the 19thcentury, tickets to the opera were inexpensive, and many working-class Italians attended many productions and knew opera well. Rosamond, Clara’s sister who also sang opera, was practicing at home while an Italian workman repaired a lock. The Italian workman listened as he worked, and occasionally would nod and say, “Bene, benissimo!” This surprised Ms. Doria, but such scenes of evidence of working-class Italians’ love and knowledge of opera repeated themselves and soon she grew accustomed to them.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved




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2 Responses to David Bruce: Music Anecdotes

  1. tref says:

    To my shame & ever-lasting regret I passed on a chance to see Count Basie when he played at my high school. RE-posted on twitter @trefology


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