There Were Big Stars At This LA Party, But I Didn’t Shine So Brightly
Now, to the party: I started driving west on Sunset Boulevard towards the ocean, a beautiful drive in those days through the stripBeverly Hills, Bel Aire, Pacific Palisades, right down to the Pacific Coast Highway, now known as 101. When one of any sensitivity made that drive back then, you could not help but be cognizant of the vibes and the songs and voices of some of the giants that lived, loved and played in all of those beautiful homes along Sunset and the surrounding hills. I was driving down the final hill that led to the oceana view that I never failed to get a little thrill from when first seeing it. Many years later, I got to play on it, as I was to get involved in sailing heavily. (International yacht racingthat and the tie into jazz will be coming in later articles. Stay tuned!) OK. I turned right on the PCH in a 1948 Chevy convertible that I bought for $50. I was now heading north towards the Malibu Beach colony, as it was named. I would venture to say that, back then, at least 75 percent of the world-renowned celebrities had a spacious beach house there. I was not happy about this gig, as I sensed something was amiss, especially when Maury told me twice about bringing the tenor sax. What I just told you about the date at the beginning of this story was unbeknownst to me at that time.
So, I had a couple of hits of the vodka that I always carried in the door panelfor snake bites and other emergencies. I arrived at the colony and as the gate guard was disdainfully looking at my wheels, I convinced him that I was supposed to be there. I find Miss Bergen's home, and quickly take another hit from my classy brown paper bag-covered bottle. (After all, there could be beach snakes.) I'll let you, the reader, picture this home: Believe me, you can't overdo itwith the big picture window looking out at the ocean 50 yards away at low tide. The main part of the party was outside on the beach. It was freaking unreal. Tiki torches in the sand, three full bars, beautifully set-up tables with all kinds of finger food, etc., etc.
There were two permanent-looking bandstands, with a huge wooden dance floor in front of the palm trees. Flower displays abounded, with mics and speakers everywhere. A sound guy was working the board and, back then, they had two channels. I hear a couple of violins tuning up, and I look at where the sounds coming from only to see these old cats (must've been in their 40s!) with freaking tuxedos on with cummerbunds and bow ties. The trumpet and trombone players were warming up, and it sounded like my high school orchestra tuningnot one lick!
As I write about this, 47 years later, my hands are ice cold: Let's just say that I knew something terrible was in for Mort Weiss that night. I had been in a lot of tough and tight spots, and I had always managed to subdue and or get out of any situationbut I knew that this time, I was fucked! I met the leader, one of the violinists. Fritz spoke with a heavy German accent. The first thing out of his mouth was: "You're not vearing a tux!"
OK, let me hip the reader about gig suits, back then. Every cat had a very dark blue suit, one that looked black in a smoky lounge) and a tieand dude, that was it! I had black shoes with holes in the soles (sounds like a Herbie Hancock tune out of the 1970s), with two layers of cardboard inserts that I cut out. It was cool until you had to walk on water (no, not making a reference about that cat) then you had to walk on your heels. Never forgot the time when I was going through this drill, and two brothers passed me. I heard the one cat, referring to me, say: "Motherfucker walks like Donald Duck." Believe me, if you ever have had this experience, you'll never look at any piece of cardboard without sizing it up! No matter how wealthy one gets to be, I know.
People were arriving, and we were to do the first couple of sets. The leader sees that I am carrying a tenor sax case and a clarinet case, and he firmly states: "Nicht mit der clarinet." Oh, great! When he wasn't looking, I assembled the clarinet and put both instruments on the horn-holding stand. These groups where known as society bands that played for the very wealthy. They would play songs from all of the big Broadway shows and such. That night, we were going to start with all of the songs from "The King and I." They had lead sheets for you to play off, but the extent of my reading music on the tenor sax went as far as reading "Tequila," the tune by my friend Danny Flores, aka Chuck Rios. We start and I'm giving it a try-to-do-it on the sax. Man, I'm missing notes and squeaking. So, I reach for my clarinet, knowing that I could probably fake about 90 percent of the tunes. I get a few notes off and ol' Fritz turns around, pissed and yelling "Nein, nein, no clarinet! Zaxaphone! Zaxaphone!" I keep trying to play my clarinet and ol' Fritz is yelling (but with a smile on his face for the guests): ZAXAPHONE!