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Jazz Corner: Personal Jazz Anecdotes

Autographed records from Dizzy Gillespie, sitting in on jam sessions with Clark Terry and sharing a drink with Bill Evans

Sunil Sampat May 17, 2018

Dizzy Gillespie toured India in 1985 with pianist Louiz Banks. Photo: Roland Godefroy/GFDL/CC BY 3.0/Wikimedia Commons

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This theme has been suggested to me by a very dear friend with whom I often have esoteric discussions about jazz. We talk about unique, personal interactions with jazz musicians and he felt I should set down some such experiences. I have felt that these meetings have added immeasurably to my love and appreciation of jazz. I hope this doesn’t sound either pompous or pretentious in any way; it is not meant to be.

Way back in 1962, I was in London for two days en route to a university in the U.S.A. The great American pianist, Bill Evans —fairly fresh from playing on that all time great album, Kind Of Blue—was playing at Ronnie Scott’s, the famous jazz club. Excited, I went along at showtime only to be told I couldn’t get in; the minimum age was 21 and I was 19. The kindly grey-haired doorman suggested I sit on the stairs leading down from the street into the club. I did. To my good fortune, the band was playing closest to the entry door and I was about 10 feet away from them. During the break, Evans walked out to me and asked why I was sitting there. When I told him, he ordered me a coke, himself a beer and spent his entire break chatting with me.

A couple of years later at the New York World’s Fair in 1964, I went to the Louisiana Pavilion to hear percussionist Gene Krupa with his quartet with Charlie Ventura on baritone sax. Krupa had a Hollywood film, The Gene Krupa Story, based on his musical life and I expected a large audience. I walked in at about 5:20 p.m. for a 5 o’clock show and was taken by surprise to see the legendary tenor saxman Ben Webster playing in the band as a guest. Upon my entry, Webster put down his saxophone, looked in my direction and applauded! I thought he was being sarcastic for my being late. Instead he smiled and said, “With you coming we now have more people in the audience than on the stage!” There were five master musicians on stage and only six of us to see it; I suppose jazz is meant only for special people.

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I shall never forget Dizzy Gillespie. He was a very great trumpet player but he was an equally great human being. He had come to India in 1985 for a three-city tour and for these concerts, Louiz Banks was his pianist. After a long show at Mumbai’s Rang Bhavan, I walked up to him backstage and asked if he would autograph ‘a few’ vinyls I had of his. I produced 20 albums for him to sign and he said, “You know, I got up in Detroit, flew to New York, from there to London. After a five hour wait, we came into Bombay at 4 a.m.Then they wouldn’t let me in saying I didn’t have a visa! We sorted that out at about nine this morning with the embassy people intervening and here I am, having finished a tiring concert. I am 75 years old. You want me to sign all these? But you know what? I am happy to; it makes it all worthwhile to know there is somebody in India with 20 of my albums.” I didn’t tell him I had another 16 at home.

Another great musician and human being I have been privileged to meet was trumpeter Clark Terry. Once in Toronto, where I lived and then in Mumbai. In Toronto he played a week-long stint at a jazz club. I had heard him every night and we would talk between sets. One evening I said I wouldn’t be coming the next day as I was going to a concert by the great jazz composer Duke Ellington. Terry then asked if I would like to come back to the nightclub after closing hours as “some of the boys from Duke’s band are coming here for an ‘unofficial’ jam session!” I was let into a most sensational session of jazz that went on till the wee hours. I got to hear saxophonists Johnny Hodges, Paul Gonsalves and more playing just for themselves.

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In Bombay, Terry played in the first Jazz Yatra in 1978. It was a seven-day festival and he played on the opening and closing day with five days to kill in between. The organizers, in their wisdom, had put up this veteran and his band at a hotel near the airport, where they had to fend for themselves. I would go and visit Terry each day and brought him home for dinner once. The stories I have from him about so many jazz greats—including Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and others can be made into a book… maybe one day.

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