Me and Stan Getz (and a Concerto for Tenor Saxophone and Orchestra)

Jonathan Bellman

OK, Re-Peteby popular demand, here is my one rather unfortunate connection with the late Stan Getz.  Late in my time at Stanford—I believe it was the last year of my doctorate, 1989–90—I got an eleventh-hour call from Charles Barber, a friend and at the time a conducting student there.  He was organizing the Stanford Orchestra concert, which was some kind of mixed program with Stan Getz, the titular head of the Stanford Jazz Program.  Getz had, I think, almost nothing to do with Stanford other than showing up periodically, being a figurehead, disseminating misinformation about the Jazz Program on Johnny Carson, and so on.  There was a commissioned work on the concert, a symphonic Jazz concerto for tenor sax and orchestra composed for Getz by I can’t remember who (it is NOT THIS ONE, but MAYBE THIS ONE, though I don’t think it was by Bill Holman).  This piece, as it turned out, had a small piano part.  Since a Jazz combo was going to do a few numbers with Getz early in the program, the pianist had agreed to play the part, until…he saw it, and demurred.  He doesn’t read much, he’s an econ grad student, he’s really busy.  Jon, please, could you…?  It’s not that hard…

It was true; the piano part was not that hard—just some strummed chords and stuff, so I agreed. When I showed up, though, I found that the combined insecurities of Getz (who didn’t like playing from music), the conductor Andor Toth, Sr. (who was not comfortable with Jazz, though he was called upon periodically to do it), and the logistics of the Jazz combo earlier in the program meant that I was to be playing with my goddamned back to the conductor.  To see him, I would have to look backwards over my left shoulder while simultaneously, one presumed, playing from my unmemorized part.  I tried to object, but no, Jon, we’re sorry, we can’t do anything, you’ve got to understand, you’ve got to work with it, Andor is already upset enough, no don’t bring it up to him, Getz has decided he won’t even play the piece anyway, feelings are running so high…

Apparently Getz was not confident about his music-reading ability.  Another Stanford student had made him a tape of the solo sax part played on piano, so Getz could learn it by ear, but he was still insecure, and had decided at the last moment not to perform the work.  Everyone was at sixes and sevens, and in walks yours truly, unhappy enough for my own impossible situation, completely uninvested in Jazz per se and neither knowing nor caring much about the fact that Getz was bona fide Jazz Royalty.  Backstage, I meet…the composer, whoever he was.  He sounded to me like a fast-talking Hollywood Mr. Smooth-It-Away type, full of strutting self-promotion (“I mean, you can see what I’ve accomplished with this piece!”), with his tux, big pink tie and equally strutting adolescent son by his side.  Since I was the only ear this guy could get, he began playing me: I should go talk to Stan, get him to do the piece, I’m in the piece, he’ll listen to me, it’s fine really, Stan should just improvise the cadenza rather than play the one written (complete with fulsome faux-flexibility: “That’s the feel I wanted anyway,” he claimed), etc.  I was raised in Los Angeles county and have a lifetime’s experience with the L.A. type, but still couldn’t fend this guy off.  So, somehow, I—a largely Jazz-ignorant doctoral-candidate last-minute walk-on—was given the assignment of convincing The Great Stan Getz to please play this guy’s concerto.

Well!  Wasn’t this a recipe for success!

What tack to take?  Getz doesn’t know me from Adam, and he wasn’t even there for the rehearsal.  Maybe friendly familiarity… [those of you thinking “Uh-oh; cue the Don Giovanni D Minor chord” have it exactly right.]  So, I go to jolly him up; he’s nervously talking to the strutting, oh-so-cool Jazz combo (you know how Jazz guys can get when a classical musician is in the room).  He’s reluctant, and I’m trying to jolly him up (this is a stranger, remember) and I wound up with, “Oh, come on, schmuck…”


In my mind, I have always heard “schmuck!” in my father’s voice, kidding and above all affectionate.  Yes, thanks, I do know what schmuck means literally, but in my family it always had a kind of “ah, geddadda heah’ ya joik” sense; Dad would say “you’re a schmuck!” when I scored a point on him about his driving or an unsavory aspect of his youth or my mother’s zinging him or whatever.  So for me the word was always a slight elbow in the ribs, always warmly meant.  OK, so my house was the only one I knew that had any discernible yiddishkayt in it, and so I thought our unique take on the various family dialects was standard, government-issue American Yinglish.  Wrong again, Jon!  This was brought home in a very uncomfortable way when Getz snapped back


Oh, sh–.  So I apologized, immediately, profusely, and resentfully, turned and walked away, mentally washing my hands of the entire situation.

The order of the program was changed, to put the concerto at the end so Mr. Getz could change his mind at any point.  Piece by piece the concert progressed, and at the end we all went on.  Getz played, improvising during the cadenza rather than playing the written one. I craned my neck wretchedly throughout and (if I recall correctly) made hash of the piano part.  After the concert, I was about to exit stage left, and turned around once more: there was Getz in the stage right wings, looking at me fixedly.

I thought this at the time, and it looks this way in my memory, and for the rest of my life I will believe: there was regret in his face.  Probably I’m giving myself far too much credit, but that’s what I saw: he was looking at me, sadly, as if knowing our previous contact hadn’t gone right.

A mensch would have walked gingerly up to him, expressed regret at our previous conversation, and congratulated him on his performance.

I turned back and left, sick of the entire situation: sick of blowing my conversation with him and getting dressed down like a fourteen-year-old (I was probably 32 or so), sick of the stupid, manipulative composer’s having put me in that position, and above all sick of the way I had been forced into embarrassing myself on the piano.  Two years later Getz was dead.

What was I saying about the strutting pride of those awful stuck-up Jazz musicians?  God knows classical musicians never present any such behaviors.

It’s a shameful story, I freely admit.  I was insecure and unhappy about my own inglorious role and the untenable position I was put in, and I was resentful about the way he snapped back at me—but this does not belong in the category of That Stan Getz and How He Treated People.  One ought to know better than to call a stranger, particularly someone of Getz’s profile and accomplishments, a schmuck of all things!  I have always been a slow learner, though.  This one was my fault, not his, and it is a memory I will forever be ashamed of.  I do, however, hereby publicly own it.  And yes, I warned you that it was a long story.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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11 Responses to Me and Stan Getz (and a Concerto for Tenor Saxophone and Orchestra)

  1. Pete says:

    Thanks for indulging me with what was a long but certainly interesting story. And all things considered, at least you didn’t call Charlie Mingus a Schmuck instead.

  2. Peter (the Other) says:

    I find that story interesting for multiple reasons, the most curious is how it sheds some light on the strained relationship between the two musical worlds. It would be hard to imagine that a Getz, raised in big band situations, might not be a confidant reader, yet then again, sight-reading is a skill that gets lost without practice.
    Once (again) very drunk, circa 1980, at the bar of The Troubadour in LA, I espied a recently released from prison (taxes, morals?) Chuck Berry, busy chatting up some lovely woman. Having to expose my coolness to the man, I tapped him on the shoulder and slurred “so, did you play Deep Feeling on a peddle steel?” “What Do You Think? ASS-HOLE” was replied and the man turned back to his business.
    Maybe Getz was a schmeckel? 🙂

  3. rootlesscosmo says:

    Yes, by that time Getz was a long way from reading “Four Brothers” in the Herman band, and actually there are only about sixteen bars of music to the whole chart, plus a first ending-second ending variation.

  4. I feel ya, man. My great uncle, a man who idolized Winston Churchill, was in London in the early 1960s reading one of Churchill’s books in a library. When a man came up behind him and said, “I see you’re reading…” my uncle snapped and said “Do you mind? I’m trying to read.”
    It was about 30 seconds before my uncle realized he’d snapped at the Lion himself. To his dying day he regretted not going after him and apologizing.

  5. Mark says:

    This was a good read. What was surprising to me was that SG wasn’t a good reader: I would have guessed that he could read the fly poop on last year’s sheet music. That he was an asshole I can totally understand. Thanks.

  6. David Cavlovic says:

    My moment of shame (amongst many): as a teenager, working in a record store, I told a member of the Canadian Brass that I was not fond of the Canadian Brass, only, I didn’t know he was a member of the Canadian Brass. Ah, the impiety of youth.

  7. I don’t like the idea that somebody’s “profile and accomplishments” should make any difference in whether you can call him a schmuck, and I don’t think you have much to be ashamed of. As far as I can tell, your willingness to be impolitic is part of your charm. You schmuck.

  8. Jonathan says:

    WILLINGNESS to be impolitic, Galen?! How about COMPULSION, or inability to be otherwise? One great afterbeat to this was after my son Ben read this Getz blog over my shoulder, while I was still writing it. The next morning, I was asking (nagging, obsessing) about a particular grade of his that was something under perfect— as is my habitual wont. Without even bothering to get upset, rebel, be resentful, ANYTHING, he simply put on his grandfather’s voice and said, “You’re a shmuck!”, putting all three of us on the floor for five minutes. As a wise mother once said, you can’t kill ’em if you’re laughing too hard.

  9. Fiddleroof says:

    Thanks for this angle on an interesting musical encounter, and for your humility. For the record, the composer’s last name is McKinley. I was in the orchestra for that session. The piece made little sense, and your having “made hash” of the piano part merely added color–had you played every note as written, it would have added, well, different color! The piece was a mess from the get-go. McKinley’s wild applause at the end of the performance confirmed my suspicion that he had either no sense of what the music should sound like, or no shame, or both.
    What I remember most vividly from that day was the astounding contrast between Getz (whom I knew to be, as you say, Royalty, but whom I’d never heard play) sweating bullets, playing gibberish, and making everyone around him uncomfortable during the concerto–and Getz on the jazz numbers with the orchestra, doing something I’d never heard before and have never heard to the same extent since: playing ever so slightly AROUND just about every beat, hardly ever landing on it, and with utter fluidity, giving a keener and fuller sense of the music’s pulse than I realized was possible. It was an awakening.

  10. trent1280 says:

    Jon’s story has the additional merit of being entirely true. I am the ‘Charles’ he refers to, having helped set up the entire mis-adventure as a fundraiser for the Stanford Symphony, shortly heading out on a tour of SE Asia. Stan agreed to do a $-raiser for our program if we would do one for his. Fair trade.
    The first half of this contract was a joy. I prepared the orchestra for the great Marty Paich, who gave us his famous Gershwin charts and took the first concert. Except for my arhythmic bungling, it was a complete success. In personal terms, it led to a ten-year relationship working in LA as assistant to Marty — and changed my life.
    Awhile later, at Stan’s request, we commissioned William Thomas McKinley, of the New England School of Music, to write what became his ‘Tenor Rhapsody’ for the second concert. Stan’s only demand was that it contain NOT A NOTE from ‘Girl From Ipanema’, of which he was entirely fed up. We made this VERY clear to Prof McKinley.
    You’ve already figured out the rest.
    Jon, a very fine friend and so-so musician, takes on too much blame for what could have been a total fiasco. He left out the part about the standing ovation. Amazing.
    Unsurprisingly, the ovation was led by Prof McKinley. Andor and I just stared, Stan glared, and the audience was utterly unaware.
    We should be so lucky at every concert.

  11. trent1280 says:

    PS: Stan was, in fact, not a good reader. I had been warned about this, but didn’t quite believe it. His musicianship, inventiveness and colors were all so amazing I couldn’t quite believe the tale.
    When the McKinley score arrived I phoned Stan. He asked that I bring it over to his house. Later that night I arrived, and laid it out on his desk. He asked me to play it for him.
    I put his part on his music stand, and began playing the orchestral introduction on the piano. At the point of his entry, I turned and waited. And waited.
    “What the fu-k are you waiting for? I can’t read this sh-t. Play it for me.” And so I played his part. Night after night. And then we made the tape, so that he could work with it.
    Here’s what astonishes. Next time, I started playing the orchestral part again, and Stan played. First pass? Rather mechanically. Second? Something I didn’t realize was even on the page. Third? His own property, first note to last. Even between the curses (about every ten seconds) re ‘Girl From Ipanema’, Stan was simply astonishing. Co-composer. Genius of music.
    Reading music is not much more informative than reading Mapquest directions. Stan Getz did it mostly by ear, by phenomenal memory, and by unerring instinct.
    It’s true that Stan Getz was a very poor sight-reader, to say the least. It’s more true, and more important, to hear what he could do with a line once — whatever the process — he got it into that stunning ear of his. Jeeze.

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