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Joe Henderson
Joe Henderson

The Worst Jazz Gig Ever!

Bill Royston spins the tale of the worst Jazz gig ever...including No Show Joe Henderson.

The phone was ringing. It was just after dinner in October. I had just finished my first summer at Penn's Landing. It was my boss from the City of Philadelphia. We got along well and talked all the time, but we rarely saw each other. She was in the Center City office on the 20th floor, while I was in my underground bunker under the amphitheatre down by the waterfront. What was wrong?

"I didn't want to wait until tomorrow to tell you," she said. "We've secured funding for a major winter jazz concert. We've already confirmed a Saturday night at the Annenberg Center for January. Budgets are set, and I want you to program and produce it... But you'll have to work with a committee!"

Gulp! The Annenberg Center was Philadelphia's Palace of the Arts. As a theatre critic, I had reviewed lots of productions there, but had never dreamed of mounting a music performance on that stage. Then she told me the budget. Double gulp! That's a lot of money for just one show. I did a quick investigation to make sure that I didn't need to change my underwear.

She would form a committee, which would meet in the next few days. I would start planning and fantasizing immediately. "Oh, and figure out how much to pay yourself!" She hung up.

Fortunately, the committee was small with a few City bureaucrats, a couple of media types, a corporate mogul or two, a prominent physician, and a woman from the Afro-American Cultural Museum, who viewed me skeptically. The physician even arrived with a stack of about twenty lp's from which he hoped we'd book our headliner. It was left to me to inform him that half his stack was dead people. For the next two hours, we compiled a long wish list of talent, leaving it for me to find a winner.

The physician kept trying to micromanage the situation. He wanted to personally call artist representatives and get a clearer picture of how this was all done. Finally, I couldn't hold back, "You know, I've always wanted to try my hand at surgery. Could I stop by your operating room next week and do an appendectomy?"

My boss gave me a look, but the doctor smiled. He got it. But after that meeting, he didn't return.

I went back to my bunker and got on the phone. It was now near Halloween and the performance was right after New Year's. It was gruesome and only got uglier. While piling up the long distance charges, I went through their 3-page hit list. No one was available. No one. I literally couldn't give away their money!

There were more committee meetings, but each time fewer people attended. We were now down to one media rep, the woman from the Afro-American Museum, my boss, and myself. "What about...?" Not available. "What about...?" Not available. I hated being so negative but the fact was that my telephone was now permanently attached to my ear.

"I think we need someone with Philly roots who is black! " said the Museum lady. No one disagreed, but I was thinking that we would settle for anyone who could carry a tune. "Think outside the box and get creative!" my boss said sympathetically to me. Meeting adjourned.

It was over Thanksgiving weekend that I hatched the idea of a big, all-star jam session. No more committee meetings, I was flying without a net. Monday morning I was back on the phone for another round with the same agents and managers. They could relate to my dilemma, but only offered random pieces.

Victor Bailey. The bass player originally from North Philadelphia. And he was African-American. Victor had an interesting story: while in high school he received a telephone message to call Joe Zawinul of Weather Report, but thinking it was a prank he ignored it. The next day, "Hello, Victor Bailey. This is Joe Zawinul. Why didn't you call me back? I want you to play bass in Weather Report." Pause, and then Victor replied, " Hold on, I have to ask my mother. " And the rest was history.

As they say on Hawaii Five-O, "Book'em Danno!"

We have a bass player. Next, someone suggested Steve Smith, the former drummer from Journey. I knew Steve. He was a great guy and a fabulous drummer. Along with his buddy, Santana keyboardist Tom Coster, Steve had formed Vital Information, which in my humble opinion was/is the best fusion band on the planet. He certainly had jazz chops! I called Steve. He was game, but Coster wasn't available.

We had our drummer! A white guy, but an excellent drummer. "What about the Breckers?" Smitty queered. Brilliant idea. Randy and Michael Brecker grew up in Cheltenham, a Philly suburb, but rarely came back to perform. I immediately called Randy's agent, and to my surprise Randy was not only available but loved doing this kind of pick-up stuff. Mike, however, was not available, and didn't do jam sessions.

All right, we now had bass, drums, trumpet! The Brecker agent volunteered Randy's home phone number. His records indicated that Randy's wife, pianist/keyboardist Eliane Elias, was available, but I best speak with Randy first. I called Randy and explained the situation. We had met before, but didn't really know each other at that time. There was silence. With hesitation, he handed the phone to his wife. I could sense reticence, but she eventually confirmed that she was in. She just wanted a separate contract sent to a different manager.

What I didn't know was that Randy and Eliane were going through rocky times. Within a year, they would be divorced, and Eliane would hook-up with Randy's sometime bassist Marc Johnson. Later, the three would confront each other by happenstance in an airport concourse. Randy decked Marc, and all hell broke loose with federal security and the whole nine yards... But this gig was all pre-rumble!

Randy got back on the phone and suggested that Joe Henderson, the legendary sax man, could be a replacement for Mike. I asked if he would be compatible with the group already assembled? "I think so," replied Randy. They had just made an album together and it was all good vibes. Randy volunteered to call Joe, but first he had to be assured that the money was good. It was.

Randy got back to me almost immediately. Joe was in, but he wanted more money. I was to call this woman in New York who did Joe's taxes, and she would make the deal. I called. She was a nice old lady who insisted on double what I was offering with two-thirds deposit paid in advance.

Whew! I was desperate. I countered that I wanted all musicians to arrive on Thursday, rehearse and do media on Friday, and then hit on Saturday. Joe had a gig Thursday night in New York, but would come down Friday morning on Amtrak as long as we would pick him up at the station. With some trepidation, I confirmed the deal... Book'em, again, Danno!

Bass, drums, piano, trumpet, sax. We had a working quintet! I called my boss at the home office, she was relieved. "How many from Philly? " Two, kind of, Randy and Victor. "How many are black?" Two, definitely, Victor and Joe. Plus, Eliane was Brazilian. Hmmm. She said I ought to call the woman at the Afro-American Museum.

I did better. I walked up to her office. It was now December, snowing, and exactly one month out from the evolving jam session. The museum was festively decorated, and she received me warmly. She gazed at the lineup. She was understandably underwhelmed. Thinking out loud, "What about adding some members from Sun Ra's collective from Germantown? That would spark interest in the black community!" This was insane and completely incompatible, but I lied and said that I'd already checked them out and they were "Unavailable." This had become my new favorite word.

"All right," she said, "But there is one great musician, who I know is available, because he's a personal friend. He's an excellent guitar player, and a beautiful black man. His name is Hiram Bullock. He's from New York, but he'd be perfect! Here's his phone number..." I'd heard the name, but knew nothing about him. I was too weary to argue besides I had Christmas shopping to do that afternoon.

I called Hiram the next day. I must have woke him up. He directed me to his agent, who coincidentally was the same guy representing Randy Brecker. "You're nuts!" the agent said. It wasn't about the music, I explained, it was something else. In five minutes, we made the deal--cheap, but he had to be paid in cash. No problem.

The next day I even went over to the television station and met with the other survivor from our committee. She knew nothing about the music, but kept saying what a wonderful job I had done in such a short time. Her only issue was she wanted their eleven o'clock news anchor to act as master-of-ceremonies. Again, no problem.

Before breaking for the holidays, my only remaining task was to draft names and biographical information for the PR agency tasked with promoting this monster and selling 1,500 tickets in less than a month. Strategically, I put the Philly names first:

Randy  Brecker
Victor Bailey
Eliane Elias
Steve Smith
Hiram Bullock
Joe Henderson

On Christmas Eve, I rationalized that on paper it didn't look so bad. It wouldn't be for a couple more weeks before I realized how fortuitous it was to list Joe last.

After the holidays, I made several trips to the Annenberg. Their technical department was a real treat. Lights, sound, band gear, box office, front-of-house, it was all so easy at the Annenberg, especially when you had the money to spend and City government had your back. Finally, I went over to the University of the Arts where the rehearsal would be held Friday afternoon. It was directly adjacent to the hotel. We were set.

On Wednesday, I went uptown and met with my boss. She had carefully marked envelopes with cash for each artist, which she handed to me with a slight, nervous twitch: "This is going to work, right?" Of course. It's just another gig! What could go wrong?

"Oh, by the way, the show is sold out! I meant to tell you earlier." she said as I was leaving. "Also, there will be a big reception after. Wear a suit." Great!

Thursday, I deployed my ground transportation team for airport pick-ups. Eventually, I checked myself into the hotel, and had the envelopes placed in the hotel safe. I already had a message to call Hiram Bullock's room, but it would wait until tomorrow.

Friday morning I sent my best volunteer to pick-up Joe Henderson at 30th Street Station. Joe's nickname was "The Phantom," because of his habit for not showing up. I wanted to be absolutely sure. Then, I got a phone call:

"I'm standing in the center of 30th Street Station with my "Joe Henderson" sign. His train arrived 30 minutes ago, but he's not here! "

"I gave you a photo. Is there anyone around who looks like him."

"There's one guy in the far corner that might be him, but I held up my sign and he didn't respond."

"Walk over and ask him if he is Joe Henderson."

Pause. "Yep, he's Joe Henderson!"

"Why didn't he respond earlier to your sign?"

"Because he says he didn't know me.. "

Calmly, "Get him in the van, and get him to rehearsal!"

Surprisingly, the rehearsal went ok. Not good, but ok. Randy and Eliane brought their toddler along, and were not speaking to each other. Hiram was on edge, and kept saying that he had to speak with me. Joe was aloof, and the more they played the more detached he became. Randy kept assuring him. It was difficult because there were at least two dozen media documenting, photographing, and taping the rehearsal. The City had certainly done their job.

After rehearsal, we all went back to the hotel, but we agreed to meet in the lobby for a late dinner. Except Joe, who was meeting a cousin from Philly, but we would catch up tomorrow.

I had three more messages from Hiram by the time I reached my room, and I had just left him. I called. There was this emergency, and could I advance him his money tonight? I was still naive to this, and figured it was all right in an emergency, besides he was friends with the Museum lady. I went down to the front desk, retrieved his envelope, and journeyed up to his room. I immediately knew better. He was naked. Beautiful black man, my ass! He was pacing furiously around his room. He grabbed the envelope, said "Thanks, Man," and pushed me out the door. Never again would I do cash advances!

Saturday finally arrived. Maybe it will snow, and we can cancel! No such luck. It was a beautiful, cold day. I arrived at the theatre much earlier than I needed to, but I knew I would be herding cats all day and wanted to be prepared. The musicians arrived on time, except for Joe, who wasn't in the lobby. I called the hotel, "Mr. Henderson checked out last evening at 10:30pm."

I called his quasi manager in New York, but she had no clue. "Maybe he stayed at his cousin's, " she volunteered. There was no cousin, but to her credit she did call me back. "Joe didn't feel right about the circumstances, but happily he's back home and safe!" It took me almost a year to get back my deposit.

It was 4pm. Time for soundcheck. I brought the band together and told them about Joe. No one was surprised, and besides what could anybody do? It was back to a quintet, but where was Hiram? We eventually found him back in the Annenberg costume shop trying on outfits. He was stoned out of his gourd! "Don't worry," said Victor, " Hiram doesn't need a soundcheck! He'll just plug into his stack of Marshall amplifiers and blow the roof off the place. " He was absolutely correct.

A half hour before showtime, the television anchor showed up to play MC. It took less than thirty seconds to figure this guy out. Getting into his mind was like tap-dancing in an empty warehouse. It was all veneer but he was all we had. I gave him a list of the artists' names minus Joe Henderson. He was to introduce them individually, and they would take their places. Remember, No Joe Henderson! Keep it simple; keep it brief... Right. No problem.

Showtime! The hall was packed. SRO! Cue the master-of-ceremonies in his perfect suit with perfect hair. After a moment of gibberish, he jumped right in:

"Ladies and gentlemen, Steve Smith!" Steve enters and sits behind the drums.

"This guy sounds like he's right out of the WWF! " whispered Randy into my ear.

"Ladies and gentlemen, Victor Bailey!" Victor entered and plugged in his bass.

"Ladies and gentlemen, Michael Brecker!" Randy looked at me, shrugged, and walked out.

"Ladies and gentlemen, Mrs Randy Brecker, Elaine Elias! " ELAINE? Expressionless, Eliane entered from the opposite side of the stage from Randy and sat at the piano. Cold.

"Ladies and gentlemen, Mister Hiram Bullock!" Hiram literally leapt on to the stage, shirtless with tight black leather pants and no shoes. He plugged into his stack of amps and there was horrible feedback. Hiram screamed "No fuckin' soundcheck!" He was bouncing all over the place!

The MC froze. What was he doing? He was done.

"And, ladies and gentlemen, last but not least... The living legend Joe Henderson!"

Nothing happened. The musicians looked at each other as if they had just realized that they were standing naked in front of 1,500 strangers. I have no idea how long they stood there in silence until someone from the balcony shouted "No show, Joe!"

It broke the tension, but our master-of-ceremonies was not quite finished:

"Ladies and gentlemen, your First Annual, All-Philadelphia, All-Star Jazz Jam Session!"

Smitty immediately hit the drums, and somehow we got the TV guy off stage. He shook my hand, "Sorry I can't stay, but I have to get back and do the News..." Great, we can take it from here!

For the next 90 minutes, it was loud. Very, very loud. Especially, Hiram who was inter-planetary by now. Some may have loved his stage antics, but most of us just wanted him to leave. At one point, he jumped off the stage and walked the room with his nine miles of guitar cable. When he had finished he literally wrapped the audience in electrical wiring. Finally, he just ran out of gas and retreated backstage before the last tune and collapsed.

Individually, the remaining four played well, but collectively it was just noise. Ugly, cacaphonous noise. Eventually, Smitty ended the misery with a brilliant drum solo. It was over, and no one had died. To our mutual shock, the audience went wild! Curtain calls! Standing ovations! Encores! Someone roust Hiram! No way, he was not to be found.

The remaining four had run out of commonly-known music. Exhausted, they made their final exit. There were hugs all around, even Randy and Eliane for at least a moment. We all started chanting, "No show, Joe! No show, Joe!" Everybody really liked each other, but everybody knew. 

In musical terms, this had been a clusterfuck.

Someone reminded us all about the VIP reception in the lobby. The musicians slowly started to go out front and drink champagne. I couldn't bear to put on that suit. I settled for just the jacket, and made the slow walk out to face the firing squad.

But everyone was so happy! Gleeful! Festive! At the very end, my boss came up to me, grabbed my arm and said, "Beyond our wildest dreams! Start thinking NOW about next winter!"

Oh, shit! I opened the front door and headed out into the cold, dark night.

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