Some Jazz Humor for You

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Great Day in Harlem All
A Great Day in Harlem, 1958

Jazz has its own type of humor. Tenor saxophonist Charles Lloyd once told me that he was with a bunch of musicians in Thelonious Monk’s big early 1950s Buick with Monk at the wheel, when he almost crashed the car, spinning it around a full 360 degrees. Recovering from the shock, they heard him say, “Ain’t ya glad I’m driving.”

Joe Venuti
Jazz Violinist Joe Venuti

Pioneering jazz violinist Joe Venuti was known as a bit of a prankster. He once put an ad in a local musicians’ bulletin saying there would be an audition for a well-paying job for upright bassists, and that any interested musicians should meet down on the street corner below his apartment at an appointed time. From up above, he watched a number of bassists lug their heavy basses to the designated space below, all looking around trying to figure out who the point person was. On another occasion, Venuti pushed a piano out of his apartment in order to determine its fundamental tone when it crashed onto the pavement.

Double bassist Charlie Haden also had his share of humorous stories with his grueling tour schedule. Once, on a plane traveling with the Ornette Coleman band, the pilot said his usual greeting, “This is your Captain. We’re expecting a smooth flight, so sit back, relax, and enjoy the friendly skies.” Then, about 15 minutes later, that very same voice blurted out over the PA system, which had not been properly turned off, “Boy, I sure could use a strong cup of coffee and a bl%w job!” The stewardess (that’s what flight attendants were called back then) promptly rushed down the aisle toward the cockpit. One of the band members yelled after her, “Don’t forget the coffee!!!”

The wonderful film, Great Day in Harlem, is based on a single photograph: New York City’s greatest jazz musicians gathering in front of a Harlem brownstone for a morning photoshoot by an inept photographer. All the greats somehow turned up. Jazzmen, being mostly nocturnal animals, one of them commented, “I never knew there were two ten o’clocks in the day!”

Jazz lingo can be ironic, too. In the early 1950s, Miles Davis was once strung out on junk and haggardly dressed in seedy clothing. Upon encountering encountered his idol, the smooth, bespoke baritone, Billy Eckstine, the latter remarked to the former, “Hey Miles…You’re lookin’ good!” Davis was so humiliated he went returned to his father’s farm in East St. Louis and spent three days in the barn kicking his heroin habit cold turkey.

Lenny Bruce impersonated a hyped-up jazz musician on his album, Interviews of Our Times, with a guy named Henry Jacobs playing the straight man. You can listen to a cut below. It’s a real classic and a display of Lenny’s knowledge of music.

One of the funniest things a jazz musician ever told me, however, came from a trumpet player and Mingus alumnus whom I used to listen to regularly at Le Chat Qui Pêche, a small Parisian underground jazz haunt in on the Rue de la Huchette. When Curson visited me in L.A. for an early show I did back in 1977, he told me that he was about to come into some big money. When I asked him how, he replied, “Got me a chinchilla in heat!!!”

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