Bill Mays: Inventions, Conventions and Dimensions
BM: I would do some writing as a rehearsal pianist. But when you go in to record a soundtrack for a TV show or a movie, a composer had already written a score and sent it to a copyist days in advance. You walk in, you go to the piano. There's a folder on the piano with cues, individual partsa cue could be anywhere from five seconds long to three or four minutes.
AAJ: So you sight-read your part into the final product?
BM: Well, there'd be a rehearsal. You might make anywhere from one to five takes on a cue, depending on what was needed, and if there were any mistakes. Or you might record a cue, and the director hears it back immediately and says "it's a second-and-a-half too longtaper it off a little."
Anyway, I worked on hundreds of TV shows and movies and did that pretty constantly. I was with Sarah Vaughan in '72 into '73 and doing studio work while I was with her. Since we worked all the time on the road, I'd do an occasional date when I was home. As things picked up in the studio for me, it was one of the reasons I left her. I just stayed in LA and did studio work. Probably played jazz four nights a month.
At that time, Bud Shank was playing out a lot, and Shelly Manne, and they also did a lot of studio work. Also Howard Roberts, the guitarist.
AAJ: Sounds like a lot of fun.
BM: It was a great life! I had the best of both worldsmade a lot of dough. I left it in '84, and came to New York. I happened to have the gig with Gerry Mulligan as I was transitioning.
AAJ: Why did you leave such a great life?
BM: I was tired of it. I'd gone through a divorce, I was tired of doing studio work. I saw that I could stay there the rest of my life and do it, and I just said, "I want more."
I knew I'd never get a chance to play with Al Cohn or the Village Vanguard Band or anybody if I'm not there.
AAJ: So you got there.
BM: I got there. And I got to sub for Kenny Werner he was the pianist at the Vanguard for awhile, and I was the first-call sub for a long time. And then Michael Weiss was the sub, and then Jim McNeely was back, and I got to work with Al Cohn a couple of times. I also got to work with Mel Lewis and a lot of trio settings. I had the gig with Mulligan for a few years, and left. I got Bill Charlap on the job, and then I think Ted Rosenthal followed him.
AAJ: I think you should use the word "begat" in there somewhere.
BM: It does kind of fit.
AAJ: Steady work is such an anomaly for a jazz musician.
BM: There were a lot of jazz musicians in the studios back then, like Bud Shank, Shelly Manne and Joe Porcaro, Chuck Domanico Chuck Berghofer and Mike Lang. Everybody was afraid to leave town and go out on a tour because the contractors would call and say, "Can you do MGM on Tuesday and Universal on Thursday?" And if you were gone... you couldn't.
Near the end of my time in LA I started turning down studio dates on Fridays to stay home and rehearse with my band. I had a band with Ernie Watts and Abe Laboriel, the bassist, with Steve Schaeffer on drums. We would gig throughout LA. So if a contractor wanted me on a Friday, I would say I was busy, but wouldn't tell him why.
So there was a lot of all kinds of work. It was a golden era. It really was.
AAJ: I bet you have some good stories from all those different experiences. Can we have a sample?
BM: During my studio years I often was called to play the annual Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Telethon. It was a lengthy TV affair, lasting over 24 hours. The big band would play dozens of acts, sometimes getting a quick rehearsal during commercial, or often sight-reading the charts. It was challenging, and given the live aspect and the long hours, everyone's nerves were stretched.
Several hours into it Pia Zadora, who had just recorded an album, showed up to sing "The Man Who Got Away." We were afforded a few minutes to rehearse her chart. She had, amongst her entourage, a personal assistant who would express the diva's needs and desires, as if Zadora couldn't speak directly to the band. I played the solo piano intro as written. Pia, standing only five feet from me, said to her P.A., "Please tell the pianist to play the intro exactly as written."
P.A.: "Ms. Zadora would like the intro as written."
Me, to P.A.: "Please tell Ms. Zadora I'm playing the written notes of the intro exactly as the arranger has scored it." Intro played again.
Pia whimpers: "Tell the pianist something's just not right."
P.A.: "Ms. Zadora says something's just not right."
Me: "Perhaps Ms. Zadora would like me to forget the written notes, and, using the chord symbols provided, do something a little different."
That was relayed, replayed, and rejected, and it was requested the notes be tried again.
I did, but petulant Pia shouted, "I want it as written, note for note."
To which I offered, "Please tell Ms. Zadora I'll play it again, exactly as written, every f**king note!"
The P.A. turned to her and said, "You heard him."