Jazz Institute of Chicago

My audition for Satchmo

My audition for Satchmo
by Joe Levinson

I moved from Chicago to New York in 1959 after spending 22 months as the bassist with Dave Remington’s Dixie Six at the Wagon Wheel in Rockton, Illinois. Just turned 30, I had spent all of my professional life in Chicago. I managed to earn a master's degree in literature from the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia in 1954, but my thoughts of becoming an English teacher fizzled when I faced myself directly and agreed I was not fit to teach anyone. I lacked the patience to do it professionally, plus I had become soured on teaching while in graduate school.

Instead, I spent the years from 1954 working as a writer for several small radio stations and then for CBS in Chicago. When Dave Remington asked me to join his newly formed dixieland band at the Wagon Wheel in 1959, I was glad to do it. . .escape from Chicago and just play with that excellent sextet six nights a week.

The band consisted of Dave on trombone, Bobby Lewis, trumpet (replaced several months afterward by Dick Oakley, when Bobby was drafted into the Army and sent to Germany where he spent his tour with an Army band), Chuck Hedges, clarinet, Mel Grant, piano, Wayne "Hap" Gormley, drums, and me on bass. It was a helluva band. We made four albums during that period for Argo Records. Every once in a while I pull one of them down and play it. Not bad, very clean and professional. But I always remember what drummer Bob Cousins says: "You’ll never improve just listening to your own recordings!"

It was then that I met the girl who became my first wife, and we got married in 1959. Things were fine, but Hap Gormley, Dave's drummer, and I had visions of moving to the Apple to try our hands in music there. It was all happening at the Apple.

We left almost at the same time. By the way, Hap’s still living and working there, while I returned to Chicago in late 1962, when my wife became pregnant. We felt we'd rather raise a family in Chicago.

This story took place around the beginning of 1961, as I recall. I’d gotten close to an excellent cadre of musicians after arriving in New York, and played in many of the jazz clubs that were active at that time, including The Roundtable, The Embers, Nick's in the Village, Eddie Condon's, the Vanguard, etc.

Off and on, I was the "utility infielder" at the Metropole, a jazz joint in the heart of Times Square. I'd get a call from pianist Marty Napoleon, who headed trios and quartets there a lot. "Joe! Wanna play the Metropole today from 4 to 8?" "Joe! We got the call to do a quartet this weekend from 7 to midnight opposite Woody Herman! You open?" Sometimes I started there at 3 p.m.; sometimes at 9 p.m. It didn’t matter, I was called a lot. As a result, I got familiar with all the usual suspects that played there or hung out. . . 'bones, pianists, clarinetists, drummers, trumpeters. . . .the whole slew.

My abilities, it seemed, were becoming known, which was probably the reason I got a phone call one morning at my pad in Brooklyn. On the other end a woman's voice identified herself as an agent for Joe Glaser, the powerful personal manager of Louis Armstrong. She said that Satch was going to make a State Department goodwill tour of the Far East in a month or so and that Arvell Shaw, his bassist, had decided not to travel with the band, reasons unknown. She said Satch was holding auditions in a few days to line up a replacement for Arvell and would I be interested in auditioning?

Until that moment, I had played with many sidemen and a few leaders whose names would be instantly familiar to you, but I'd never worked with a star of Louis Armstrong's stature. I was taken aback when she asked me that question, possibly because I am white and I couldn't recall Louis using a white bass player in his bands (though some jazz historian might prove me wrong, anything's possible!). But I had enough chutzpah to pull myself together and say "Yes! I’ll do the audition! Where and when?"

She gave me the details: a studio in midtown Manhattan at 3 p.m. on a day that week. I started thinking: chances were that I’d never get the gig, but it would be worth it just to play a few numbers with Louis' pianist, Billy Kyle, and his drummer, Danny Barcelona.

Was I nervous? You bet! Look, I’d played professionally in Chicago and in New York for a long time. Played for crowds of people at jazz joints, ballrooms, country clubs, hotel ballrooms, dance halls, you-name-it. I was never nervous—never. But this was different. This was just going to be me and Billy Kyle and Danny Barcelona, with those guys letting Satch know if I was okay or not.

It's different from playing for a crowd. In an audition, everything you do is under a microscope. You have nowhere to hide. On stage with a band playing for a live audience, you play a clinker and nobody notices, it's buried among all the sounds that are being created, and, after all, parts of live jazz performances ARE the sometimes strange or incorrect notes that musicians play.

But you play in someone's living room where you have immediate eye contact with the people there and see what happens. It's different. Suddenly you start focusing on each note you're playing instead of letting it all happen naturally. You stiffen up. I'd rather play for ten thousand people in a stadium than for just five in a small room. Many musicians, I think, would agree with me.

Anyway, I showed up at the studio a little early, found the room and walked in carrying my bass. It was a large, gloomy room. No one was there, but the drum set was in plain view next to the piano so I took the bass bag off the instrument and tuned up to wait for the guys. They showed up about then and we introduced ourselves. They made a real effort to put me at ease, and we talked for a little while before they asked me to do some tunes. I remember telling Billy Kyle that I had many of the John Kirby Sextet records on which he played such brilliant piano solos, and he seemed pleased.

They asked me what I wanted to play, and I recall saying that they should select the numbers. . .it didn’t matter to me at all. I knew just about everything Satch used in his shows, as I’d seen him perform many times in person and heard him even more on dozens of records and on the air. Besides, I’d played Louis’s material going back to Dave Remington’s Dixie Six and later in New York at the Metropole, at Nick’s, and at the Roundtable and Condon’s. I knew the turf. So we started playing tunes and I dug in doing what I felt was the correct phrasing, timing, etc.

After a number or two that I began to get the distinct impression that someone was seated in the shadows, ’way back of me. I looked and saw Satch sitting there, head bowed a little, almost as though he was sleeping, but I knew he wasn’t. He didn’t come forward. He didn’t say a word.

Well, I pulled myself together, we did a few more tunes, often not all the way through, but enough to get across that I knew the roadmap. After about 10 minutes or so, Billy Kyle said he thought I had it down and that someone would get back to me to let me know where I stood. They thanked me and I packed up, shook hands, and left. Satch never got up, never said a word. My impression was that my performance would elicit a "don't call us, we'll call you!" It was a gloomy ride back to Brooklyn.

After about a week I’d mostly put it behind me, figuring that I'd bombed. I threw myself into doing gigs at the clubs I usually played and chalked it up to another unfortunate musical experience. After all, who likes auditions anyway? I don’t know anyone who’ll tell you they’re fun. They’re a pain!

Well, you guessed it. A week later the phone rang—the same woman who'd called before. "Louis wants you to join the band for the Far East tour. You'll need to get inoculated for various diseases, so go to Mount Sinai Hospital where they'll give you the necessary shots. I'll call back in a few days to tell you other details and to schedule rehearsals with the band before the trip."

I was stunned, was on a cloud, and called the hospital to arrange for the shots, which I got a day later. Days passed. A week passed. No call. I began to wonder what was going on. Finally she called.

"Guess what? Arvell's changed his mind. He's going to make the tour with Louis after all. . .Sorry!"

I was devastated. I'd gotten asked by one of the greatest jazz artists in the world to join his band. What a boost to one’s ego! Now, my ego balloon was busted, kaput. No more cloud.

I thought, if I’d made that tour my entire future would be changed, my whole life would be different, I’d be propelled into a higher level of professionalism, meet great artists, maybe get asked to play with their bands, travel the world!

Life went on, of course. I continued playing with many fine—and not so fine—musicians in New York, earned a decent living, and had many of the strange and often funny experiences that all musicians live through. Many, thankfully, I’ve forgotten.

But that audition for Satchmo, playing with those two fine musicians and being invited to join his band, even for just a little while, I’ve never forgotten. Some things burn themselves into your little gray cells so deeply you can never remove them.

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).

Copyright ©2003. All rights reserved.

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