This is a story about an exchange I had with Sarah Vaughan when playing with Boston Pops
I want to express gratitude and thanks to all of the parents and kids and young musicians and trumpeters and (not as young) folks that I have had the honor of meeting, talking to, teaching and learning from down through these many years. These voluminous interactions have defined a large portion of my life and have been so filled with warmth, love and basic human feeling that there is no way to convey the depth of my appreciation. Reading comments about that performance took me back to that time.
First of all, it was in Symphony Hall one of the most fantastic and beautiful places to play in the world. Secondly, it was with the Boston Pops and their tradition was known and respected across the country. Thirdly, John Williams was conducting and every trumpet player in the world loved him for writing Star Wars, and finally, I was playing with the Divine One, Miss Sarah Vaughan known to be hard on the unprepared. I was sooo nervous standing there wondering, (what in the world am I doing here?). But everyone was unbelievably kind and supportive from the back stage crew to the orchestra to Mr. Williams himself (who was also a jazz pianist). Their treatment emboldened me to do the best I could.
This is a story about an exchange I had with Sarah Vaughan that day:
As we exchanged pleasantries and salutations in one of the backstage rooms, I thought would impress her by playing an obscure Duke Ellington song, “Tonight I Shall Sleep (with a Smile Upon My Face)” on an elderly upright piano. This piece has a sophisticated, involved melody and very advanced harmonies.
Knowing that there was probably not a 21 year old on the planet who knew this song, I assumed that this ignorance applied to all. I asked her, “Miss Vaughan do you know this?” I played it through with very rudimentary piano skills and a few incorrect harmonies on the coda.
(At that time, I didn’t know that she had grown up playing organ in her mother’s church, played 2nd piano and organ in Earl Hines’ orchestra, played 2nd piano in the Billy Eckstein Orchestra that featured Dizzy Gillespie, Dexter Gordon, Charlie Parker, Gene Ammons and Art Blakey, AND she accompanied herself singing). She said,“Wow, that’s a great song. Duke! But you played some wrong changes on the coda baby.” She then sat down and played the complete coda flawlessly and with so much technique I thought (Damn! she plays piano like that, but has chosen to SING?)
She smiled and said, “That’s it.” Then went on to say, “When you learn tunes figure out how the melody is constructed and then learn the logic of the supporting harmonies. That way, you will never forget a song. You understand the what and the why.” She finished making her point by playing the entire song with all kinds of
alternate harmonies and elegant improvisational responses to the melody, and concluded by saying, “See baby?”
“Yes ma’am. I see.”