by Chris Bacas
Z was a generous and kind man. Still, in a diner, he could embarrass me to death. Last off the bus, joining us at a crowded table, he rubbed bleary eyes, grabbed utensils in his fists and banged them loudly. We lowered our heads while sugar packets and jelly cups scattered. Sometimes, we scattered. “Hungry bear….hung-gree bear…. HUNGRY BEAR!”
An already harried waitress summoned a weary smile and attended to him first. He was the boss and my grandfather's age. No disrespect came out of my mouth. Sometimes we were repaid our patience with a free meal. Well acquainted with the good life, Z survived addiction to pharmaceutical speed and heavy alcohol consumption in the heady era of 'round the clock New York studio work. He related the tale of a rock and roll session with a superstar power couple. Arriving at the studio, the players, all veterans, were greeted by tables overflowing with every possible substance; a smorgasbord of drugs. In those days, it was just another studio expense. Some folks overdid it, of course, and had to be replaced as the day wore on. The offer of a steady paycheck to cover prodigious debts brought him back on the road. Z's wife had power of attorney. It said so right on the checks. He now led a name band whose violent, alcoholic leader, forty years ago, repeatedly cursed, punched, fired and re-hired him.
On a Mississippi river boat cruise, the widow of our namesake showed up. It was her right to join us, gratis, anytime. She treated her “employee” like an incompetent peon. Z bit his tongue, hard. On the last night, drunk and thoroughly addled, the widow felt emboldened to make a speech. Taking the microphone, she rambled about the greatness of her late husband (an undisputed fact) and his kindness (pure fantasy). Teary-eyed, she ended with: “..and…wherever he is, I know ALL the Angels are playing trombones” A devilish grin on his face, Z looked straight down, toward the River Lethe, and stomped his foot twice, saying loudly “you hear that,_______, you hear that?” Despite his indentured servitude, our leader was a colleague more than a boss. For that alone, I grew to love him.
Food remained his last vice. Sitting next to Coach in the bridge, the two mates sang out anytime they saw a roadside buffet: Fried Chicken, Prime Rib, Chinese, Italian, Pizza , Seafood or the reliable Big Boy all-you-can-eat breakfast. They'd meet at 6am for a marathon run through troughs of melon chunks and gelatinous eggs sided with limp bacon. We called them the Buffet Brothers. Plenty of folks met Z in one of his lives: swing era prodigy, hit-maker bandleader, or recording studio stalwart. Anyone who knew him, knew he loved to eat. Breaking bread with a walking history lesson was a thrill and an honor. Before an evening show, on the dime of a local celebrity, our leader might down 3 dozen raw oysters and follow those with more shellfish, or carve up a couple pounds of prime rib with all the trimmings. He wasn't taking himself out for these meals, he was on a budget. In his speed days, he'd know what he ate the night before by looking at the vomit in the can by his bed. Sitting in the first tenor chair next to him , I would know by the fumes he gave off. Seafood was the worst, its low tide stench burned my nostrils. He'd step back from the mic and turn toward us giving a huge downbeat, his face showing little-boy mischief. Behind me someone would groan. Z might start cackling uncontrollably. The cackling would lead to a red-faced coughing jag which he'd cover with a jacket sleeve, still facing away from the audience. When a prolonged run of rich food brought a gout attack, Z sat and delivered soaring high notes from a bar stool. His swollen left leg propped on a second stool.
He made playing look so easy, it was possible to forget, momentarily, how rare this kind of control and musicianship is. A clear sound, unforced in any register, immaculately tuned, came out of his horn, even after ten days off. He had no interest in practice, warming up or learning anything new; a stance I couldn't appreciate at the time. I wondered what could possibly impress someone who heard Art Tatum and Louis Armstrong in person many times; who played countless nights with Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman and Bix; who was on staff at NBC under Toscanini. He remained a working musician, despite the demands of leadership. Overwhelmed by clueless presenters, he'd stride cursing onto the bus. Backlit through its' windows, he reached under the front seats and retrieved a half-gallon of vodka. We saw him in silhouette uncap and upend the bottle to his mouth. The liquid inside glugged silently two, three, maybe four times, sending huge bubbles to the bottom. Now fortified, he capped and replaced the bottle, stepping briskly off the steps on the way inside.
Z's standard greeting was: “Hey, ________ ,how's your (gender-specific slang for genitals)?” If the bus tv, tuned as always to General Hospital, broke for a commercial featuring Robert Goulet, he would call out from the captain's chair “Hey, Bobby, how's your cock?”
In a fit of goofiness, he might sing mock operatically:
“If I had the wings of an angel,
and the balls of hairy baboon,
I'd fly on up in the heavens
and piss all over the moon”