By Tim Henney
Charlie “Yardbird” Parker and Dizzy Gillespie blew America’s musical roof off with bebop jazz in the late 1940’s. Softer, conventional jazz—my kind—languished. Their feverish screeching eventually wore out their fans. Fortunately, Miles Davis came along. He tamped things down. With his quiet horn and taciturn stage persona Miles became the king of cool. Simultaneously, some of the finest popular music ever composed and performed also characterized the era. Much of it romantic and sentimental.
As an ancient romantic who loves lyrics and is a noted authority on jazz, popular and classical music, I want to salute three musical giants who made me who I am today. I mean, I can’t even read music. How can I be a musical legend? Well, Sinatra couldn’t read music either. And he did okay. I am a jazz, pop and classical music legend because of my good friends Miles and Frank. And Donald Voorhees.
An older stepbrother, fellow Californian Gary Lewis, played jazz piano and trumpet. He was booted out of Stanford in the late ‘40s for smoking/selling pot on campus. In those days marijuana, weed, grass, pot, mary jane, was commonly called “tea” by jazz and swing musicians. That’s mainly who smoked it. Famed big band drummer Gene Krupa got nailed by the feds who found tea in his hotel room in early 1943. A budding pre-teen big band fan, I remember it well. Headlines almost as large as when the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor 13 months earlier.
In the summer of 1951 I was in NYC learning military newspaper skills. Stepbrother Gary was in the city writing a corporate magazine. He took me to hear Miles Davis at Café Bohemia, off Sheridan Square, deep in the heart of Greenwich Village. We sat at a small table and ordered drinks. Miles motioned to Gary to sit in, to lead the combo, while he, Miles, took a breather. Miles was not a global legend yet, but on the way. He joined me at the table and someone brought him a beer.
I think Miles stayed maybe two minutes. He probably asked me about music. If so, I might have raved about Patty Andrews singing “I Can Dream Can’t I?” Or praised The Ted Weems orchestra revival of “Heartaches” featuring Elmo Tanner, whistling the chorus. I was also a devotee of singers Billy Eckstine and Billie Holiday. Both black, like Miles. And of the original King Cole Trio. Also black. But I was young, white, and it was 1951. If I balked at talking to Miles Davis about Billie Holiday it might be that I felt unqualified. Miles might have suspected me of angling for inclusion among the cool. Had I mentioned Nat Cole or Billy Eckstine to Miles he might have stuck around another minute or so.
But commending Patty Andrews would have sent the jazz genius scurrying for cover. Since that musical conversation I have considered myself a jazz gourmet. I mean, I seriously doubt if Tami or Dave Gunter, Ben Olson, Charlie Packard or the Shook Twins have ever talked music with Miles Davis.
My musical resume was further enhanced by my good friend Frank Sinatra. In 1950 I pledged a fraternity at USC in Los Angeles. Eddie Pucci was a pledge brother. Several years later Eddie started popping up in Life magazine, Look, and other publications, standing next to Sinatra, glowering at photographers. He had become Frank’s body guard. And I had known him! But that’s not all. In the mid-1960s my 1957 bride and I left NYC’s gray corporate world for a job with Litton Industries at its sunny Beverly Hills headquarters. Litton’s president, Roy Ash, lived in Sinatra’s former Holmby Hills home. The house where daughter Nancy (“These Boots Were Made For Walkin’”) grew up. On weekends I wrote speeches for Ash and delivered them, usually on Sunday nights, to Sinatra’s house. How’s that for intimacy with Ol’ Blue Eyes!
But there’s more. Having slunk back to New York after a year among the movie stars and starlets, I would fly to L.A. on AT & T television business. Chasen’s famed celebrity restaurant was the place to dine and drink. Providing the company was paying. On some trips my traveling companion was Maestro Donald Voorhees, distinguished conductor of The Bell Telephone Orchestra. AT & T, then the world’s biggest company, sponsored The Bell Telephone Orchestra for decades on NBC radio and television. Donald and Dave Chasen were about the same age and old buddies. When one accompanied Don to Dave Chasen’s restaurant, one got a great seat.
On this particular night Sinatra and the rat pack were raising hell in an adjacent private room. On their way to pee, Frank and fellow rat packer Peter Lawford brushed by our booth. A giggling Frank was slurring the lyrics to the pop hit, “Fly Me To The Moon.” His customized version went, “fly me to your room…”. Naturally, Lawford was breaking up at his leader’s wit. After they had passed by, Donald Voorhees, many years their senior and not really into rat packs, mumbled “bums!” So much for musical collegiality and bonding.
To make Don feel better we ordered two more Beefeater martinis. Straight up. His with an olive, mine with a twist. Upon returning to our Beverly Hills Hotel bungalows we undoubtedly paused at the illustrious Polo Lounge for Beefeater nightcaps. If Liz and Richard Burton could hang out there, so could we. And we did. It was 1969. It’s what celebrities like us did in those halcyon days. And nights. And that’s how I became a connoisseur of jazz, popular song and classical music. Through professional association with Miles Davis and Frank Sinatra. And Beefeater martinis with Donald Voorhees.
With the publisher’s permission, in a future Reader I’ll cite some songs and singers that shaped me into the noted musical authority I have become.