My Boys Don’t Drink or Smoke!
A Musical Episode in The Apple
by Joe Levinson
In a recent story I wrote about the late trombonist Dick Rath in New York City, I mentioned Whitey Mitchell, a fine bass player and brother of Red Mitchell. He often played at Nick’s in the Village, a famous (now, sadly, long-gone) restaurant-jazz club that featured traditional and swing bands.
I, too, sometimes played at Nick’s, usually filling in for other bassists, like Whitey, who glommed onto an occasional high playing society gig and needed someone like me to cover for them. That way I got to be heard by other musicians who might then recommend me for whatever might come along. Today, in sophisticated circles, it’s called “networking.”
Between working jazz clubs, I had found a kind of financial security working for various New York society band leaders, like Bill Harrington and Lester Lanin.
Meyer Davis was a highly visible society leader, competing with Lanin for the best jobs, but I never worked for his office. I also worked for other, lesser-known NYC band leaders, but here in Chicago the names I’ve mentioned may still ring a bell or two among the cognoscenti of a certain age who remember the golden age of jobbing in the Apple.
I lived in Brooklyn, in Fort Green Park, then one of the toughest, most dangerous parts of the borough. I never had a problem, though, because all the gangs knew me and knew I was a working stiff who played bass and was, in a way, “okay.”
One hot July night I came home at about 2 a.m. from a country club gig in New Jersey and parked my little station wagon in front of the brownstone where I lived. Across the street I saw and heard a band of my neighbors. They were sprawled over the steps of their brownstone, drinking beer and playing Latin jazz.
It was a strange and wonderful sight: they’d unhooked a wooden door and it was lying across the knees of three guys seated on the lower steps. They were playing it like a conga drum, using their palms. They played well. Several women had beer bottles and glasses and were playing on them with spoons and dinner knives. They were good, too.
The star of the band was a flutist who lived in their building and who worked with some of the major Latin bands in New York. He’d just arrived home from his gig and was wailing with them, playing great.
They saw me pulling my bass out of the back of the wagon and shouted, “Hey! Pal! Amigo! Come on over and join the band!” I was exhausted from a long night of playing at that Jersey country club and really just wanted to collapse into bed and sleep, but...politically...I did the correct thing and hauled the bass and myself over to their steps.
Immediately, a cold beer can was shoved into my hand and I was greeted warmly. So I unpacked the axe and found a place on the step above the conga players and joined in.
I think the sun was coming up when I finally told them there were no notes left in me or the bass, and I fell into bed across the street, wiped out. It was a great night...much more fun than that society gig.
Oh yes, about Whitey Mitchell. One day in the Fall of 1960, I got a phone call from him. “You working this Saturday?” he asked me. I answered I was–with a Lanin band booked into a gig out on Long Island somewhere.
“No,” he told me, “you’re taking my place on Lester’s “A” band.” I said I was already committed to the gig I’d been booked on, but he said not to worry, the office would find someone to replace me on that band and that I was going to sub for Whitey on the “A” band, Lester’s own 14-piece society orchestra.
It seemed that Whitey had an important record date booked that day and he knew it would go very late. He’d definitely never make the 7:30 start time for Lester. And, like all big time record dates, it would be paying far more than a night working for Lester, which was pretty damn good pay in itself because it was continuous playing—a much higher pay scale.
I could save his ass and he’d get the prestige of working a major recording date, while the Lanin date would go smoothly because I knew all the tunes Lanin played. He knew I could cut the date easily. Besides, the big band job was a continuous and the first one I’d been booked on wasn’t. So I’d be making a lot more money subbing for him.
I said I’d do it, of course. It was a no-brainer. Still, I’d never played for Lester himself. I’d always worked for his little five and six-piece bands under sub leaders working for the Lanin booking office.
On many a weekend, Lester’s office could have 10 or more small bands working the area. He was a master at booking music for parties and made a fortune doing it. And he knew the art of public relations.
I’d watched the guests clamor for the Lester Lanin beanies that the leaders threw out to them at the start of the final dance sets. It was always amazing to me how the millionaire crowd coveted those cheap felt beanies with “Lester Lanin” embroidered on them. They wore them home to their mansions in the Hamptons. Go explain.
I’d often heard the stories that went around...ones about Lester’s many idiosyncracies. Still, I wasn’t nervous about taking Whitey’s place that night.
“But you’ll need to know a couple of things...” he said on the phone. “What’s that?” I said.
“First, the date is a cotillion ball in the Grand Ballroom of The Plaza Hotel in Manhattan. It’s a biggie, and you need to get there as early as you can because Lester’ll never tolerate seeing anyone on the band arrive at the last minute for something as big as this date. So get there real early.”
I told him I would. “What else?” I asked.
“The band’s been together for around 14 years,” he said, “and they’ve developed a certain ‘style’ of playing when a substitute is on the band. So be on your guard, okay?”
I knew that some of Lester’s players were legendary characters, like his trombonist Big Chief Moore, who played out of the side of his mouth...an astounding picture when you saw him perform. I also knew that there wasn’t a single sheet of music on Lester’s music stands.
The band faked everything, in perfect harmony, with absolutely no charts. Can you try to imagine what it would be like for, say, a trumpet player to fake the second part of every tune that they played, no matter what the tune was? It was a challenging feat of musicianship for that crazy group of players, and they did it all the time for years and years, and they did it well. Today I wonder about how their brains were wired.
I could fake bass parts with the best of them, though. I’d been doing that for years. No problem for me. Whitey knew this, of course. “But, Joe,” he warned me, “just watch out! They’ll lay for you. Keep your ears and your eyes open.”
Then, he hit me with: “And get this: for the majority of the night, Lester won’t even know that I’m not there. He’ll be too busy signing autographs and shmoozing with those society ladies who are the chaperones for the dance. But, Joe, late in the night, he will turn around and look at the band and he’ll see that I’m not there and he’ll stare at you, probably for the rest of the evening. Pay no attention. He won’t do anything. But he WILL stare at you!”
“Okay,” I said, “I think I can handle that.”
So, Saturday night arrived and, as cautioned, I arrived early, among the first of the band to show up.
The Grand Ballroom of the Plaza was a vast and ornate room, famous around the world for hosting the most glamorous balls in the Apple. I found my place at the rear of the top riser, next to the drums, and unpacked my bass from its bag.
Down in front, ahead of the sax section’s music stands stood pencil-thin, wiry Lester, surrounded by middle-aged and elderly chaperones of the cotillion committee. They were gushing over him, getting his autograph and generally making him feel even more important than he ordinarily felt.
I cast my eyes over the rows of empty cardboard music stands lined up on the two risers below me. They were battered and stained. I couldn’t believe that a major, big time society leader like Lester would travel about with such miserable looking music stands.
Soon the rest of the band members were getting seated and unpacking their horns. Lester paid them no attention.
Eventually, a tall foreign looking waiter approached the chaperones. One of them spoke to Lester saying “Oh! Mr. Lanin! This is Armand your waiter. He’ll be serving the members of your orchestra throughout the evening. Have the musicians give him their drink orders and he’ll bring them to the band.”
Lanin was astounded. “Madam!” he said in a haughty voice, “my boys don’t drink or smoke!”
The waiter then started to leave when one of the sax players grabbed his arm, holding him, and said to Lester: “Chief, could Armand bring us Cokes and ginger ale?” He said this with a furtive wink to Armand, and quietly slipped a five dollar bill into the waiter’s hand.
“Sure!” Lanin said. “Cokes and ginger ale is okay, but my boys don’t drink or smoke!”
Armand, a wise professional, left and we continued to get ready to play the cotillion. Just before we hit the opening number, Armand returned with a large tray containing highball glasses filled with ice and an array of Cokes and ginger ale.
I opted for the Coke, took one sip and realized it was solid bourbon whiskey. The “ginger ale” was, I learned, straight gin.
By the first dance set, there was a cloud of cigar and cigarette smoke hanging over the band. Partially smoked tobacco was placed delicately on the music stands, near their edges, ready for a quick pickup when one wasn’t playing one’s horn. That accounted for the many stains on them.
By the middle of the evening, many of us were feeling very little pain as we consumed our Cokes and ginger ale.
As the initial dance set evolved I realized what Whitey Mitchell meant when he told me to “watch out!” The band had methods learned over the years to flabbergast any new player.
On a tune like “Lady Is a Tramp,” for example, they played the first 16 bars and instead of going into the bridge they played the same first eight bars again—but only seven of eight of them—then jumped into the bridge, gracefully dropping or adding beats as they went, then finally getting to the last eight bars, or perhaps not quite all eight. I never really could analyze their game completely. And they did this together, as an arrangement!...on tune after tune.
One would have thought that their famous leader would have been somewhat addled and angry at their manhandling of these classic dance songs, but no! He was too busy taking requests and continuing to shmooze with the dancers. In fact, he never seemed to be aware of the antics taking place behind him, the cloud of smoke hanging over the 14 men in the band and the quantity of booze being consumed by them.
When a request came to Lanin for another tune, something happened that I'd never heard in my musical career. If the band was doing what it did best–the businessman’s bounce tempo, occasionally referred to as The Peabody—and someone wanted a ballad like “My Funny Valentine,” Lester would turn to the band and shout “Valentine!” and all 14 gentlemen would go right into “Funny Valentine”—at that same tempo!
You want “Valentine?” You GOT “Valentine!” No segue. No waiting. Bang! You got it! A request is a request and dammit! This band’ll play it at once! It was hard for me to keep from laughing, and it was equally hard for me to play that slow ballad at such a furious tempo. But by God! the people danced to it and no one seemed to care that it was all wrong.
The hours passed. It was definitely a continuous job and, like most guys who’ve been drinking “Cokes” or “ginger ale” for a while, I found that I needed to relieve myself in the men’s room. No problem!
One of the sax players moved up to take my bass while I hit the men’s room. He didn’t play a note, but looked great pretending to play it, and Lester never batted an eye or even noticed.
Whitey’s final prediction about Lanin came true. He finally turned around and scanned his boys, ultimately casting his eyes upon poor little me. And, just as Whitey said, he stared at me until the gig ended. We never spoke to each other. I packed up and drove home to Brooklyn, a sadder and wiser bass player than when I started, and two weeks later the very generous check arrived in the mail.
Whitey called me the next day, “How’d the gig go?”
“Pretty much the way you laid it out,” I answered. I told him about the waiter and the Cokes and ginger ale. “Smart bunch of guys in that band,” he said. “Clever and resourceful.”
Then he told me an episode about Lester that he’d actually seen take place. It was at another big society party in Manhattan and again Lester was surrounded by a bunch of ladies all gushing over him and thanking him for playing their important party when one lady said to him, “Mr. Lanin! Several of us were wondering—are you Jewish?”
“Not necessarily,” he answered.
July 4, 2003
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).