It wasn’t until about three in the afternoon that I got back to the bar. After the show the night before, we partied in the bar with the band until about four, then went to someone’s apartment, I think she was with the band, who knew or who cared at that point, it was a place where we could keep going. I left about nine and most of the band was still there, drinking whatever was left, blowing coke, pretending the night was still happening, ignoring the fact they didn’t have another gig lined up.
Leaving a party to go home to sleep when everyone else is on their way to work or has been at work for two hours already always makes me feel decadent, and it’s a joyous anarchic feeling, one I never want to leave me, but I know that feeling, inside and out now, and I don’t need to do it anymore. Then again, I’m getting older, and it’s more difficult to keep doing it now, especially when most of the time, it seems exactly the same. These young bands, in their twenties, haven’t been doing this for long, but I’ve been booking bands for thirty years now, and nothing changes, except the clothes.
I hang out with the bands after the shows, partly because it’s good public relations, but mostly because there’s nothing else to do at two in the morning, and you’ve been up for only twelve hours. I keep doing it because it’s taken on a rhythm of its own.
The bar still smelled of stale beer, and I told someone to open all the doors and windows even though it was February. The one customer complained about the cold, but he was a regular and already half in the tank so no one paid any attention.
I sat at the bar, listened to the chatter of the staff and Talking Heads on the stereo, had a coffee and looked at the band schedule for the next few days, non-descript rock bands, a couple of punk and a couple of metal, “alternative” I’m always told, but when you’ve heard everyone from Little Richard to the Beatles to the Damned to Nirvana to Bonggage and everything in between, it’s hard to think of loud guitar, bass, and drums as anything but generic rock, and it’s hard to see how they’re improving on anything done five, ten, twenty, sixty years ago. Maybe it was time for me to try something, anything, else.
All of a sudden, at exactly four o’clock, and I know this because I looked at the clock deliberately due to the lack of activity, the bar went really quiet, and I felt a chill that didn’t come from the winter wind; it was inside me.
I looked to the door, and three men had entered. The sun was behind them, and I could see them only in silhouette, three dark bodies with the backs of their heads illuminated. The first thing I noticed was that they were all wearing hats that looked about seventy or eighty years old, and I don’t mean decrepit, but just really old-fashioned. As they came into the bar, I saw that their overcoats and shoes were of the same vintage. They unbuttoned their coats, and they were all wearing vintage suits as well. Maybe the style’s coming back; I don’t pay much attention to fashion. One of them carried what appeared to be an alto sax case, another a guitar case, and the third guy, who was pretty fat, came up to me, put his hat on the bar, and said, “I’m looking for Danny Thompson.”
“That’s me”, I said, “what can I do for you?”
“I’m Jimmy”, he said, and extended his hand. I shook it. “This is Claude and Caughey.”
“How ya doing? How can I help you?”
“We’re the band for tonight.”
Well, you think nothing can surprise you anymore, and then something like this happens. I hadn’t been expecting classy black guys in vintage suits. In fact, I knew the headliners were Dentist Drill, three scrawny white guys from Hamilton, but I didn’t know anything about the opening act, Proud Vermin. They’d been recommended to me by my friend Benny, another booker working in Montreal, but I thought they were Quebecois Celtic rockers, and these guys didn’t look like that. Throw out your old stereotypes; anything goes.
“Great to have you here, Jimmy. I’m looking forward to hearing you. I’ve heard a lot about you.”
Jimmy was looking at the stage. “Pretty small stage”, he said, “are we all going to fit?”
I didn’t know if he was making a joke about his weight, so I just left it. “Sure hope so.”
“Is the piano here yet?”
“Yeah, you got us a piano, right?”
“No, sorry, I don’t know anything about that. Um…”
The other two guys joined us, and the one with the guitar case said, “And music stands? Did you get us stands?”
Music stands? Who uses music stands? I was really confused. “Uh, no,” I said, “how many you need?”
“Eleven or twelve,” said Jimmy.
“You’re a twelve-piece band?” Where the heck was I gonna put them?
“No, fifteen, but I don’t need one and neither do Jo or Bill if you have a piano.”
It finally dawned on me. “You’re not Proud Vermin, are you?” The looks on their faces told me they weren’t, and that they didn’t take the question the way I meant it.
“Excuse me?” said Jimmy.
“Oh, there’s been some misunderstanding. I wasn’t expecting you. Who booked you?”
“You’re Danny Thompson?”
“I spoke to you two days ago.”
“You sure it was me?”
“No, but the man said he was Danny Thompson.”
“I’m sorry, man. I think someone’s pulling something on you.”
“We came from New York for a joke. Hell, man.”
“I don’t know what to say. We’ve got Dentist Drill and Proud Vermin playing tonight.”
José the bartender was passing at that moment. “Danny, Proud Vermin’s not coming. You cancelled them two days ago.”
“I cancelled them?”
Jimmy laughed in a big bass voice. “And I thought musicians smoked a lot of reefer. Hahaha.”
I laughed with him. “OK, guys, you’re on. You start at nine, play for an hour, hour and a half, whatever. Now, a piano and some stands.” I wondered if Steve’s rented stands…
About seven-thirty, the drummer was there, setting up his kit, and at eight, the rest of the band slowly began to filter in. They were all carrying horn cases, and dressed immaculately. They were a jazz band! And they were also the classiest looking bunch of guys we’d ever had playing in our bar. This was going to be special.
As they warmed up their horns, to the confusion of the crowd already there, in came someone I recognized. He saw me looking at him, and I went over to him. He extended his hand. “You must be Danny Thompson,” he said.
“Yeah, that’s right.”
“Yes, I know who you are. It’s an honour to meet you. I’m a big fan. How did you know who I was?”
He laughed. “Jimmy told me to look for the guy who looks as if he’s never seen so many Negroes in one place.”
I laughed. “No, it’s not that. It’s just that I’m overwhelmed by your being here. And what makes it even funnier is that I don’t think anyone else in this place knows who you are.”
“They will. We’re pretty good. Man, you’ve got some great city. The cars, I’ve never seen anything like them. And your subway. And the buildings. You’re way ahead of anything I’ve seen in New York. I never knew Canada was like this.”
“Not all of it.”
“Did you find me a piano?”
“No, but the other band said you could use their keyboards.”
I introduced him to Dentist Drill, and Bill quickly took to the keyboard, making the most horrendous noises anyone has ever heard, and laughing hysterically about it. At the same time, Dentist Drill’s guitar player showed Claude what would happen when he ran his guitar through a pair of Marshalls. Claude tried to convince the other band members this was the edge he needed to overcome the volume of three trumpets, three trombones, and three saxes. None of them would have it, so Bill promised him an extra-long solo.
At nine-thirty, I took the stage mike. “Ladies and gentlemen, you’re in for a rare treat. I know you’re here for Dentist Drill…”
There were screams and whistles and applause.
“… but the opening act is also something you’ll never forget. And I know I’ll never forget it. Nor ever know how it happened… From Kansas City, and recently from New York, where they’ve been at Roseland, the Savoy, and the Apollo, they’ve also appeared at Chatterbox in Pittsburgh and the Ritz Carlton in Boston—”
“We haven’t played there,” said Bill.
“You will. Ladies and gentlemen, it’s my great honour to present… Count Basie and his Orchestra!”
Without a pause, they launched into “One O’Clock Jump”, and I’m sure my smile was evident to everyone. I know my face hurt the next day.
And they played “Boo Hoo” and “Good Morning Blues” and “Topsy” and “Swinging At The Daisy Chain”, and all of the great ones, and I couldn’t believe it. Now this was alternative. Lester was especially hot, blowing great solos with his mouthpiece sticking out at an angle from his mouth, Jo put down a solid backbeat, echoed by Walter on the bass, and they kept the band hopping all night. The crowd was polite at first, probably confused, but I think they realized the band would be playing for the next hour anyway, and had better either like it or leave. So a lot of them did go for awhile, usually leaving someone at the table to keep it for them while they smoked a joint in the alley, but some of them did like it, and danced, and when Bill Basie announced their last song, there were some shouts of “No!” and “More!” People even came in off the street when they heard what was playing, and we had to turn people away.
Dentist Drill didn’t take the stage until midnight.
We shut the bar down about three, and the jam started. Dentist Drill sat in with the Basie Orchestra and played until six. By that point, Dentist Drill knew how to swing, and the Basie Orchestra knew how to rock. We all had a few drinks and someone even lit up some joints, but it was all about the music, that’s what was motivating these guys, not the lifestyle. As I left, I asked Bill to come back the next night. I could see something special was happening. I didn’t sleep much that morning.
I was back at work by three, and discovered that I’d cancelled both bands for that night, and also the bands for Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, and that there were already posters advertising Basie through the weekend. That worked out for Bill and we sold out every night.
There was also a jam every night, the band wrote a few new tunes on the spot, and our sound technician recorded them. And if you ever listen to the recording of “Phoenix Boogie”, after the second chorus there’s an ascending bridge in B flat. I wrote that.
Sometimes we went back to the hotel where they were all staying and talked about music until the small hours. I played them some later Ellington and Hawkins and Goodman and Miller and Parker, which they liked, and some Davis and Coltrane, which they didn’t.
I don’t know why, but they never asked about the things you think they’d want to know about, like cable TV and computers and CDs and streaming, maybe they just thought that Canada was so different from the U.S. that that explained it all. They liked the technological things, but nothing seemed to faze them; it was as if they didn’t notice that anything was different. They even read newspapers and it didn’t even seem to dawn on them that, not only were they reading about something that happened the day before on the other side of the world, but they were happening in places like Zimbabwe and Chechnya, which for them shouldn’t have existed. I showed them the dates on the newspapers and they wondered why Canadians had a different system for counting years than Americans did.
The band was in great form every night, we packed in enthusiastic audiences, but they were generally an older crowd, and we didn’t sell as much alcohol. We tried to move some tables out to get more standing room, but the Fire Department told us we couldn’t do that. We had to find a larger venue. Not only could we get more people appreciating the band, we could also make more money by charging a higher cover, and we knew that people would pay a lot to see the Count Basie Orchestra. Even if you didn’t like the music, wouldn’t it be something to say that you saw them in their prime? So what if it cost you a hundred?
I greased a few palms and managed to book the ballroom at the Royal Lancaster Hotel for the following week, Monday to Sunday, two shows a night, with extra matinees on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. Sure, the band would be tired and their lips semi-shot, but they’d be getting great experience, and they’d be paid pretty well. I took care of the advertising and had to grease a few more palms at radio and TV stations and local websites to be able to rush the advertisements on the air. We received a lot of advance sales so we took that money and built a temporary second level in the ballroom so we could put more people in and make even more money.
On Monday afternoon, I went to Basie’s hotel to tell him about the plans, but he, and the rest of the band, weren’t there. I asked if they had checked out, and the desk clerk didn’t even have a record of their being there.
I got a phone call later that day from Benny, my booker friend in Montreal. He’d heard that Proud Vermin had done a great show for me last week, and that he had them booked for three shows. I told him that Proud Vermin hadn’t been here, that instead we’d had Count Basie and his Orchestra for a few days, Lester Young, Jo Jones, Jimmy Rushing, Claude Williams, Caughey Roberts, Walter Page, all of them. There was a long silence after that, and I’m not sure if I ever spoke to Benny again.
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