OK, Re-Pete: by 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
“DON’T YOU CALL ME A SCHMUCK, SON!”
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.