By Jonathan Bellman*
Late in my doctoral program at Stanford, I got an eleventh-hour call from a friend, a conducting student who was helping organize a Stanford Orchestra concert with Stan Getz, the (then) living Jazz legend and the figurehead of the Stanford Jazz Program. A new work, a symphonic Jazz concerto for tenor sax and orchestra, had been commissioned for Getz, and the piece had a small piano part. Because a Jazz combo was going to do a few numbers with Getz early in the program, the group’s pianist had agreed to play the part, until he saw it; then he pulled out.
I got a call: Jon, please, could you? It’s not that hard….
It was true; the piano part was simple. There were just some strummed chords and stuff, so I agreed. When I showed up to rehearse, though, I found that the set-up of the Jazz combo earlier in the program meant that I was to be playing with my back to the conductor. To see him, I would have to squint backwards over my left shoulder while — presumably — simultaneously playing from my unmemorized part. I tried to object, but no, Jon, we’re sorry, we can’t do anything, you’ve got to understand, we can’t re-set the stage, Getz dislikes playing from music and has decided he might not even play the piece anyway, the conductor is already upset enough so don’t bring it up, feelings are running so high…
On the evening of the concert, Getz decided against performing the work, throwing everyone off balance. At precisely that moment of general consternation I showed up, stewing about my own impossible situation and — at the time — neither knowing nor caring much about the fact that Getz was bona fide Jazz Royalty. Backstage, the composer, in a tux and big pink tie, set to work on me, since I was the only ear he could get: I should go talk to Stan, get him to do the piece, I’m in the piece, he’ll listen to me, Stan should just improvise the cadenza rather than play the one written.
“That’s the feel I wanted anyway,” he wheedled. “I mean, you can see what I’ve accomplished with this piece!”
Unable to fend him off, I — a last-minute, Jazz-ignorant walk-on — was sent to convince The Great Stan Getz to please play this guy’s concerto. The Spartans at Thermopylæ went to their demise with lighter hearts.
Getz doesn’t know me from Adam. Choosing the very worst course of action, I opt to jolly him up. He’s reluctant, in nervous pre-performance chat with the strutting, oh-so-cool Jazz combo. Winding up my pitch, I say “Oh, come on, schmuck…”
I have always heard the word “schmuck!” in my father’s voice, and despite its literal Yiddish meaning (“prick,” from “ornament”), the word always had an affectionate connotation. Dad would say “you’re a schmuck!” when I scored a point on him about his driving or his caving to my mother or something. Since my house defined my knowledge of yiddishkayt, I took our unique family dialect for standard, government-issue American Yinglish, and that word was always warmly meant and heard.
Wrong. Getz snapped back, “DON’T YOU CALL ME A SCHMUCK, SON!” Oh, no. I apologized, immediately, profusely, and resentfully, and mentally washed my hands of the entire situation.
The program was reordered, and ultimately Getz did play the piece, with me wretchedly craning my neck throughout and making hash of the piano part. Afterward, just before slinking off stage left, I saw Getz in the wings, stage right, looking at me.
I thought then, I see in my memory now, and for the rest of my life I will believe I saw regret in his face. Maybe I was delusional, but he was looking at me, sadly, as if knowing our previous contact hadn’t gone right.
A mensch would have approached him, expressed regret at our previous conversation, and congratulated him on his performance.
I turned and left, sick: sick of blowing our encounter and getting dressed down like a fourteen-year-old, sick of having been manipulated into that position, and above all sick of the way I had been forced into embarrassing myself on the piano. Two years later Getz was dead.
Musicians tend to tell two kinds of stories. One is a bitter account of how famous musicians treat the less-exalted; the celebrity is usually vilified, shown to be undeserving of his or her fame. The other kind is the ad astra per aspera (Latin: “to the stars through adversity!”) variety, where the storyteller somehow prevails over impossible odds; these stories usually end, “And the performance was a triumph!”
My story, of course, is neither. Musicians don’t usually like to share this kind, where the result is either a train wreck for which we bear responsibility or a success to which we contributed little or nothing. We all have them, though, and such memories quietly but unceasingly tax our hearts and harden our arteries: fish-hooks in our psychological flesh.
These songs, alas, also linger on.