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Count Basie and Me
The Tale of My Greatest Jazz Disappointment
In 1983, I finished my graduate degree, and moved to a cheap upstairs apartment on Wellesley Street in Palo Alto, a couple hundred yards from the Stanford campus. To give you an idea of how different Silicon Valley housing costs were back then, consider the fact that the rent on this two-bedroom pad was just $600 per month.
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I shared expenses with my roommate Tom Panelli—a young lawyer who was also learning to play the alto sax and had wide-ranging intellectual interests. I’d met him by pure chance one day at the Crothers dorm for grad students, when I heard a Miles Davis album blasting at full volume behind the closed door of someone’s room. I knocked loudly to get heard over the music, and when Tom answered, I said: “Anyone who is playing ‘On Green Dolphin Street’ in this godforsaken building is a person I need to meet.” On that simple basis, we developed a close friendship, and after I finished my degree we decided to share an apartment nearby.
Tom got the slightly larger bedroom, decided by a coin flip. But still, I thought I had a pretty good deal, paying just $300 monthly for my share of such a choice location. The tiny and beat up wood-frame home owned by the old man across the street—who constantly told people that they weren’t allowed to park their car anywhere near his residence because “I pay the taxes”—recently sold for $3.4 million dollars, more than $3,000 per square foot.
So I can only imagine what rent would be now at my formerly affordable digs.
I was doing a lot of work back then on Sand Hill Road in Menlo Park, the epicenter of venture capital in Silicon Valley, which was only a 10-minute drive away—a commute that took me right through the middle of the Stanford campus. On my return home, I often stopped at the music department building, where in 1986 I would join the faculty through a strange set of circumstances (that’s a tale for a different day). At the time of my story, however, I had no official connection with Stanford, but I would still pay a visit daily, and try to find a practice piano somewhere, so I could continue my self-directed jazz studies.
By then I knew the location of almost every playable piano on campus, and had already spent thousands of hours on them—especially cherishing the secluded ones where I could work on new musical ideas in private. For better or worse, my jazz studies were always self-directed, because I never had a teacher—not that I wasn’t interested, but simply because I’d never had access to a jazz teacher anywhere I’d lived or studied. I envy the youngsters of today, with their elaborate jazz studies programs and educational tools at their disposal. There were no YouTube videos back then, or even good method books, so I had to figure out my own study program, based almost entirely on listening, imitating, and—that old standby—trial and error.
But I was definitely making progress. I was now doing regular piano gigs, writing articles on music for obscure periodicals, and working on a book—meanwhile balancing these pursuits with other better-paying projects outside of music.
My mastery of the keyboard had advanced considerably over the previous few years, and I would soon enter the recording studio to make my first album. But I didn’t think many people were paying attention to my music. Maybe nobody was paying attention—to either my writing or my performing. Did anyone really care except me? I doubted it.
But someone must have taken notice. Because I got a surprising phone call in that Wellesley Street apartment one evening.
Voice on phone: I’m trying to reach Ted Gioia. Is this the right number?
Me: Yes, you’re speaking with him.
Voice: You don’t know me, but I’m calling from the Willard Alexander Agency in Chicago.
That name was familiar to me. I recalled that Willard Alexander was an influential jazz booking agent. He had helped launch the careers of many jazz stars, going back decades.
And he was phoning for me?
I had an instantaneous vision of myself going on the road, playing at concerts and festivals. I imagined my name on the marquee of famous jazz clubs. In my mind’s eye, I could even see people lining up to get my autograph, or to tell me how my last set totally cooked.
Me (a little breathlessly): How can I help you?
Voice: I’m calling to see if you want to hire Count Basie.
This must have been the most bewildering phone call I’d ever experienced in that cramped apartment. Even more peculiar than the time a stranger named Harvey Pekar cold-called me from Cleveland to play a Pony Poindexter sax solo for me over the phone. Or when Chet Baker phoned while I was out, eager to talk with me, but refusing to leave a call back number with my roommate. Or when I got those late-night calls from the local woman who wanted to share juicy details of her longstanding love affair with Duke Ellington.
Me: Uh, you want to know if I’ll hire Count Basie? I’m sorry, but that makes no sense at all. Doesn’t it usually work the other way around?
Only gradually did I figure out what was happening. Willard Alexander was booking Count Basie on one of his last tours. Basie had an open night in his schedule, and would be in Northern California. The agent was looking to fill that available slot. Someone must have told him to call me.
In other words, my caller thought I was a concert promoter.
Voice on the phone: Yes, I want to know if you want to book the Count Basie Band. He’s going to be in your area, and I can give you a very attractive rate.
Me: Book Count Basie? [Long pause] You mean in my apartment?
Now that I had figured out what the call was really about, I decided to play along.
“Let me see,” I continued. “I probably could fit the rhythm section in the living room, but it’s small so I’d need to move the couch. The sax section can squeeze into the kitchen, but it’s not very big, so that’s the limit. That means trumpets will go in one bedroom, and trombones in the other one.
“This probably will work. But there’s a possibility that guitarist Freddie Green will need to work out of the bathroom. My apologies, but I promise to clean it up before the gig.
“I guess it’s possible,” I summed up. “It will be a little tight, but we’ll manage somehow.”
Now it was my caller’s turn to be puzzled. When he finally figured out that I wasn’t a concert promoter, he quickly hung up. I thought my monologue had been rather funny, but the folks at the Willard Alexander Agency were clearly not amused.
As a parting gesture of kindness, I gave him the names of some actual people in the area who did book jazz events.
I soon forgot about the call, until a few months later, when I read that Count Basie had died at age 79. As best as I could figure out, he had stopped performing only a short while after my conversation about booking his orchestra in my apartment.
Four months later, I read about the death of legendary booking agent Willard Alexander. He was 76 years old, and the New York Times obituary boasted that “among Mr. Alexander's clients were bands led by Maynard Ferguson, Buddy Rich and Artie Shaw; the Count Basie Band, and the Duke Ellington Orchestra, Guy Lombardo, Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey and Russ Morgan Orchestras.”
It seemed as if the Swing Era was over—that extraordinary interlude in American music when the smartest and most sophisticated jazz musicians were also the biggest selling commercial artists in the whole country. Most of it happened before I was born, and I seriously doubted anything like it would ever take place again, at least not in my lifetime.
That’s when I started to regret that I hadn’t taken that phone call more seriously.
After all, why couldn’t I have found the cash to showcase the Count Basie band in my apartment? The caller had told me he could cut a sweet deal—Basie had an open night on his schedule and needed to fill it. I had saved a little bit, despite all the student loan payments. The cheap rent had made it possible. And maybe my roommate and neighbors would pitch in and help defray the costs.
That’s my biggest jazz regret. Not that the booking agent wasn’t calling to hire me—I don’t really like going on the road anyway. I’m more of a homebody. But I’d been offered the rare chance of bringing legendary talent right into my own crib. And I’d let it slip through my fingers.
True, it would have been a spectacle. A crazy unplanned and unprecedented event. But isn’t that what the jazz experience is all about?
Of course, I’m not sure what Count Basie would have thought about the idea. But I don’t rule out the possibility that he would have approved—after all, he had played for those rent parties back in Harlem. So why not in Palo Alto? And it’s a city for innovators, so they say, and by that measure the Count would have been perfectly at home.