Art Farmer at the Bermuda Onion,
Victory, From the Jaws of Defeat.
I have been fortunate in my career as a jazz pianist to share the stage with a few greats.
In some cases these “brushes with greatness” were more than mere brushes. Sometimes they started off as skirmishes that developed into full fledged alliances, fighting together for the common cause, music.
Back when there were at least 3 major jazz clubs in Toronto, The Bermuda Onion was one club which featured major jazz artists for a WHOLE WEEK, accompanied by a local rhythm section.
One of these gigs came my way, to spend a whole week on the bandstand with ART FARMER. (6 nights! Ah, those were the days.)
No mere “brush” with greatness, that!
At any rate, the management of the club neglected to inform us that they had scheduled a rehearsal for us (Jerry Fuller, Steve Wallace and me) with Art, the afternoon of the 1st night of the gig. We showed up our usual 45 minutes before the start time to a somewhat pissed off Art Farmer who was wondering where we were for the rehearsal. Believe me, it’s no picnic starting off a gig with a jazz legend from out of town who is faced with a rhythm section he doesn’t know, and whose 1st impression of his “local rhythm section” is that they are a bunch of irresponsible bums. If you think we caught the flak that the management deserved you’re right. We’re the guys who had to accompany a sensitive jazz artist who rightly felt that he’d been slighted. Not the ideal way start what could have proven to have been a LONG week.
The 1st night actually showed Art that in spite of no rehearsal we actually played really well, individually, collectively as a rhythm section and were sensitive accompanists for our visiting jazz master. This seemed to take the heat off and by the end of the night Art wasn’t so nervous and mad about us missing his rehearsal. He called a rehearsal for the next day which went well. That night we hit and the music was great inspired playing and only got better every night.
Further into the week (maybe Wednesday) when I was starting to feel confident that Mr. Farmer was happy and relaxed, I started getting harmonically frisky, as piano players sometimes do. One of the tunes Mr. Farmer played was Yesterdays (Jerome Kern) and I had gone off the chart and had come up with some unique way of harmonizing the part of the tune that has the lyric “Days are new as happy sweet sequestered days” with one chord per syllable, descending bass in contrary motion to the melody… yada, yada, yada ….
So, here’s this musician who is part of Jazz History (the last one to speak in the documentary “A Great Day In Harlem” (link below), who worked with the greatest players of his time, in the golden era of jazz. I mean, really… harmonic geniuses like Hank Jones and Bill Evans no less, worked for him. Cedar Walton, yikes! And I’m sitting in their chair. I could pinch myself.
Anyway, he comes up to me at the end of the night and says:
“Mark, about that spot in Yesterdays?”
I figure that’s it, the jig is up, he’s bugged with all that self-indulgent harmonic nonsense.
I say with trepidation:
“Would you mind showing me what you were doing there?”
Like I’d be doing him a big favor or something. Like he’s a student.
So I start explaining this thing and demonstrating how it all goes with the melody and he’s genuinely enthralled with discovering a new way through a very well-worn standard. And not shy about admitting this to a young, white, ‘wet behind the ears’ piano player in Toronto. NO EGO! Not when it comes to learning about music.
Fast forward to Sunday, our last night.
We finish what was a great week of music, a busy week with lots of witnesses. Smiles. Jerry and Steve are packing up, the club is nearly empty, we got paid. It’s all over but the goodbyes, when Art Farmer comes over to me at the bar and says:
“Mark, do you remember those chord changes you showed me?”
“I was wondering if you could come over to the piano and run through them again. I want to make sure that I remember them correctly.”
Un-believable. Like I said, no ego.
That’s my “brush with greatness”.
From this I learned that if someone loves music nothing will get in the way of that person doing anything to learn more.
Art Farmer was not going to cheat his musical curiosity because his ego couldn’t allow this seasoned Jazz Master to ask a question of another musician who was really a nobody. Music was too important to him. All that other stuff was B.S. That is dedication and intensity.
And this attitude never goes away. It is what makes a great player great.
(at the time Farmer was at least 60 years old, I was mid 30s)
To see Art Farmer talk movingly about the jazz greats (go to 5 minute mark on this clip)
These opportunities were the BEST schooling that a musician could ever hope for.
I was thrown in the deep end with great players. I am talking not just about the visiting artists, but the great bass players and drummers in Toronto that had way more experience than me. School’s one thing but having Steve Wallace and Jerry Fuller hand hold, challenge, and teach you all the subtle moves needed inside a rhythm section is quite another.
Kind of like a finishing school.
The astute reader will note that today my story (and the experience gained) can almost never happen again. And not because players and personalities like Art Farmer are rare, though they are. But because most gigs are like playing the 1st night related above and then stopping. No chance for redemption. The opportunity for a band to build a relationship even through adversity is not possible. If that gig with Art was a one nighter, he would have left Toronto with a bad taste in his mouth and we would have remembered only one disastrous missed rehearsal and one night with an angry intense big name jazz artist, with us playing on eggshells. No real connection would have been made. But because the opportunity to play multiple nights was there, the music started off good and got better. And the audience got to experience that.
Additionally, look how much more efficient it would be for travel, carbon footprint and all. Audiences could come out a couple of times for a gig, or if they missed Thursday could come Friday, Saturday, or Sunday.
Anyway, rant over.