“Benny and Gene! Together Again! ”
by Joe Levinson
Dave Frishberg told me this story back in 1962 in New York. He swore it was true and he should know: he was the pianist that eventful night at the Metropole.
The Metropole! Just saying the name brings back crazy memories. It was a large bar and restaurant smack in the heart of Times Square that featured small and large jazz bands on a narrow stage against the north wall, directly behind the bartenders.
The stage was just wide enough to hold an upright piano; a grand piano wouldn’t fit. It was so sparse that when big bands played on it, there wasn’t room to hold the players and their music stands. Musicians played from memory, at least all the big bands I saw there did. When I watched big bands play on that stage the view resembled a police lineup.
For a time I was a utility infielder at the Metropole. I worked with pianist Marty Napoleon and we’d be told to play at various hours of the day or evening to fit the joint’s schedule. Often, Marty’s drummer was George Wettling. We’d get a call to play from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. Or from 7 to 11 p.m. Any period of time was okay with me, because it gave me the chance to play opposite some of the finest jazz musicians in New York and those who were on the road.
Speaking of being on the road, I remember when Woody Herman came into the club with a septet. Not the big band; just his small chamber music group, featuring Bill Harris, Flip, Chubby—that crowd. Woody was in top form, playing clarinet and clowning with the guys in the band and with the audience.
The audience consisted of people standing at the long bar (there were no bar stools... you stood!) and the diners and listeners seated in padded booths. It was a big box of a room. The south wall was completely mirrored. When I was on stage, I’d glance across at that mirror, see myself playing bass left-handed and get a reality check.
Well, Woody and the band were wailing away up on that stage to an enthusiastic crowd of fans when a tune ended and one of the drunks standing at the bar shouted: “Woody! Do your tap dance! Do the old buck and wing!”
Unfazed by the request and boosted by all the adoration (and, perhaps, more than a few tastes of the vine), Woody shouted to the guy: “You want it, you got it,” counted off “Tea For Two” and proceeded to tap dance right there on that razor thin stage.
He did splits, twirls, fancy tap steps, clowning all the way and having the time of his life. He danced for several minutes, winding up in an awkward split, then grinned at the crowd and took several low bows. The room went wild with applause. I’d forgotten that Woody was a child prodigy who got his start in vaudeville in Milwaukee and knew how to do more than just play an alto sax or clarinet.
What a night! The Metropole!
In those years, one of the best small groups that played there was Gene Krupa’s Quartet. During one of his appearances, Dave Frishberg held the piano chair. Dave and I worked some gigs together in Manhattan and Brooklyn, at small jazz clubs. This was years before he began making a name for himself as a composer of sophisticated, hip, and funny songs and as a singer-pianist-entertainer and recording artist who traveled the world. He had come to the Apple from Minneapolis where he’d been a newspaper reporter.
One Saturday night in summer the Metropole was jammed. In front were the assorted characters that always hung around: grifters, skiffle dancers, pimps, street clowns, mimes and hustlers.
Just standing in front of the club, on intermissions, was a treat for me as I dug the action. It was a circus sideshow. Especially funny were the skiffle groups. They’d usually have a kazoo player and a ukelele player who'd sing and tap dance and tell off-color jokes, working for coins. One time I even saw clarinetist Peanuts Hucko playing on the sidewalk with some of those characters.
On the stage, Dave Frishberg was enjoying himself playing with Gene’s group which included Eddie Wasserman, an excellent tenor sax and clarinet player, and Jimmy Gannon, bass. (Note to the reader: I am assuming Gannon was the bassist. He usually worked with Krupa. Dave didn’t mention the bass player’s name when he told me the story. If I’m wrong, let me know.)
The way Dave told it to me, word had somehow reached the club that Benny Goodman was heading there with an entourage of friends.
On Times Square in those days, rumors moved just about as fast as e-mail does today. “Benny Goodman’s gonna come to the ‘Pole!” “It’ll be Benny and Gene!” “The King of Swing and Gene Krupa reunited! Tonight! Can you dig it? Benny and Gene!” “Get the word out!” “Together again! Makin’ history!” “At the Metropole, man!”
Once a rumor like that began to spread, the first to smell a financial benefit were the ‘camera girls,’ women who prowled the joints taking black and white pictures of the patrons at their tables. They’d give the exposed negatives to assistants, called “runners,” who would rush them to nearby photo labs that printed the pix and mounted them in cardboard frames. The runners would then dash back to the clubs and sell the framed 8 x 10s to the guests.
The rumor “Benny’s coming” was their clue to pre-sell pictures to Gene and Benny’s fans with the assurance that they’d have a treasured mememto of two legendary jazz giants on the very stage they were watching.
Think about it folks! Benny and Gene! Reunited! After all these years! God, what a moment! You gotta have a picture of it! And just think, they’ll even autograph it for you! Order yours right now!!!
To Gene, the thought that Benny Goodman would come to the Metropole to see his band was utter nonsense. They’d hardly spoken for years. Not a great deal of love was felt by Krupa for Benny. Frishberg said Gene pooh-poohed the rumors with a laugh.
So when Goodman’s entourage actually entered the Metropole, Gene was dumbfounded. “Shit!” said Krupa as they entered, “It’s the King of Swing!”
The street was right! The street had it down cold! Two legendary giants of jazz together once more and right here in the center of the universe! The street don’t lie, man! The street KNOWS!
There wasn’t an empty booth in the joint. It was packed to the gills. Ah!, but not to worry! The manager knew just what to do. Without even an ounce of protest from the patrons in one of the best booths, he shooed them out and seated Benny and his pals right there. Done! “What'llya have to eat and drink folks? I’ll get your waiter!”
Don’t ask where those poor guys in that booth went after being shooed out. Their story festers in the dimness of time. What matters is that the camera girls immediately got to loading film and flash bulbs in their Speed Graphics. (Speed Graphics adapted with 4 x 5 film packs and large flash bulb reflectors were the weapons of choice.)
Customers began to call out “Benny! Play with Gene!” “Benny! Get up there!” Then it was just a low murmuring: “Benny! Benny! Benny!”
Gene’s band ended their number and sure enough, without being asked by Krupa to join him, Benny Goodman walked over to the bar, ducked under the hinged bar top, and mounted the four steps to the stage of the Metropole. Without a clarinet.
“Benny! Gene! Benny! Gene!”
Eddie Wasserman, Gene's clarinetist, probably regretted the next moments for the rest of his life. He’d laid his clarinet on top of the upright piano—his sax was hooked to his neck strap. Without asking Wasserman for permission, Benny went right for the clarinet, wetted the reed and blew. Nothing happened.
Wasserman used a reed that Benny didn’t appreciate, so he unscrewed the ligature and threw the reed on the floor. He found Wasserman’s box of reeds sitting atop the piano, wetted a reed, put one on the mouthpiece, and blew—nothing.
Another reed—nothing. Another—nothing.
Wasserman was fuming as Goodman flipped his precious reeds on the floor, especially the first one, that he’d babied for a long time. Finally, Benny found a reed he liked.
The camera girls had been shooting pictures of Gene at the drums and Benny trying out reeds. But there was another glitch. Benny wanted to sit down to play, and, aside from Gene’s drum stool and the piano bench, there wasn’t a chair or stool on the stage. And there wasn’t a single chair or stool in the entire room, either. So moments passed while Benny insisted to Gene that he needed a stool, while Gene, frustrated, argued that there wasn’t one in the entire place.
Frishberg told me that finally a fan had the bright idea of running to a nearby deli and borrowing one of their stools. They lifted it up onto the stage for Benny.
The crowd didn’t care about the delay. This was a golden moment, an historic moment! Benny and Gene together again! "We’ll be able to tell our grandchildren!"
Benny is seated on the borrowed stool, Gene, at his drumset, fuming next to him. Wasserman is standing, glowering. The bass player is patiently waiting and Frishberg is seated on the piano bench taking it all in, amused and curious as to what the next moments will bring.
The next moments included a long discussion as to what tune they’d start with. Finally, a number was agreed upon, ‘Oh Lady Be Good.’ In the key of F.
Krupa counted off the tempo and the band went into ‘Lady’ in the key of F. Benny, however, was playing it in the key of B-flat! Several bars went by until Benny turned to the band, stopped them and said to Frishberg, “Kid, you obviously don’t know this tune, so lay out!”
Frishberg, quite a wag, simply smiled, folded his hands, and sat through the entire tune without playing a note. By this time the camera girls were blinding the guys almost constantly with their flash bulbs as they snapped those precious reunion photographs of the two jazz legends on that stage,
Sign up for your reunion picture now! Only $10!
Several more numbers were attempted, Frishberg was able to join in by waiting until the band was well into the tune in the key that Benny actually played, and then comped behind them and soloed in his usual talented way.
More flashbulbs popped, more cheering from the faithful: “Yeah Benny! Yeah Gene! More! More! More!”
The way Frishberg told it to me, they played about five tunes, ending with ‘Airmail Special’ to roars of approval from the cognoscenti. Gene was dripping with sweat. Wasserman was standing, angrily staring at Benny who seemed to not even notice him, and Frishberg sat at the keyboard trying hard not to lose his cool.
Benny decided he’d played enough. He climbed down the steps from the stage and started to duck under the hinged flap to rejoin his friends in their booth. However, at least 10 customers were clustered right there, holding their 8 x 10 prints, pushing them at Benny and waving their pens.
“No autographs!” Benny said, waving them away. “No autographs!” And he went to his booth. The fans, amazingly didn’t protest this snub.
Next Krupa came down the steps. Frishberg said, “Gene stood behind the bar and signed every damned picture! He even signed special requests: ‘Can you write “To Sidney from Gene Krupa? Would you dedicate it ‘To Mary from Gene Krupa’? Make it to my granddaughter: ‘To Gwendolyn from Gene Krupa.’ Gene was a real gentleman. He autographed every picture standing, sweating, tired, and holding back his anger.”
Krupa spent so much time autographing that the alternate band had to wait 10 minutes before coming up to play their set. Meanwhile, the camera girls were busy collecting their fees and quickly splitting to another joint to shoot more celebrity pix. This had been a profitable evening.
Goodman’s party left almost immediately after he rejoined them. “Someone other than Benny paid the check,” said Dave.
"There was a surprise ending," he remembered, “when all those fans got a good look at their picture: Benny seated on the stool, legs apart, the buttons on his fly undone and his fly spread wide open !”
Joe Levinson plays bass frequently around the Chicago-area and sometimes contributes to Bill Crow's column, "The Bandroom," for the Allegro (the NY union monthly paper).
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