Mort Weiss: There were big stars at this LA party, but I didn't shine so brightly

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Let’s set the scene: Actress Polly Bergen’s Malibu Beach house, 1965. The cast of participants includes Jack Lemmon and his wife Felicia Farr, Kirk Douglas, Jackie Gleason, Steve Allen and his wife Jayne Meadows, Sandra Dee, Cary Grant, William Powell, a bevy of young starlets and many more show folks. And the bands! A Guy Lombardo mini combo had been flown in from New York City, just to play this gig. When they took their break, the other band — get this! — was Johnny Rivers, a rock band that was riding high on the charts with the song “Memphis, Tennessee.”

Stay with me, as I’m going to put Mort Weiss (“hey that’s me”) smack dab in the middle of all this, as a musician paid to play with the Guy Lombardo Orchestra as the lead tenor saxophonist — since their guy had missed the plane. The plot thickens! Hell, I’m starting to get nervous, just writing about what’s to come. For some of you new readers of “Notes from a Jazzman,” 1965 was towards the end of my “AFUP” (all fucked up) period. (Check out some of my prior writings on Something Else! Reviews for more on that.)

I was working part time with the famous/infamous Maury Stein, at his little music store in the parking lot of the AFM musicians union local No. 47 in Hollywood on North Vine Street. This store was the hippest, happening, swingingest spot: They had rehearsal rooms in the main building, and some even practiced in the parking lot next to and around Maury’s store. Many of the loiterers there just happened to be some of the greatest musicians in the world! Some of them were coming to the union to get checks that were owed to them from the studios. On any day you could see some of the Wrecking Crew, getting all those big bucks. I’ll give you one example of how freaking hip the scene was: Picture Maury’s store in this big parking lot, with bushes all around the place. There were no signs saying “music store”; this place wasn’t for normal people. Four feet from Maury’s door, is the door to rehearsal room No. 3 — and one day, room No. 3’s door is open and Count fucking Basie’s whole band is in there playing their asses off. Picture about 15 of us standing outside, just digging the shit out of the whole fucking scene. You now have a little feeling about the scene at the time, at local No. 47 Hollywood, California, 1965.

Yes, I digressed a bit — but it will all tie in as you read farther.

Maury Stein (brother to the great Jules Styne, whose family name was Stein — but they hated each other and never spoke) was a great reed man — and a first-call cat to all the major studios. When anyone needed a musician for a Class A gig, they called Maury for a recommendation. So when the cat in New York missed the plane, Maury was called. He liked my playing on the clarinet, and had heard me rehearsing some of my Vegas rock and roll bands on tenor sax at the union building. He didn’t know that the extent of my sax playing was limited to a bunch of R&B and rock ‘n’ roll licks that I did very well. I never took a sax lesson or practiced the horn — but always the clarinet, though nobody ever called me for a gig on that. So my sax playing was rather limited, although looking back at those days I did pretty well with some Smirnoff and Benzedrine in me. My band would be on stage, all amped up and playing full blast while I ran through the club playing my horn. Ultimately, I’d end up leaping on to the bar, still playing (even though the horn wasn’t mic-ed), running up and down the bar, kicking drinks all over and in to people — then falling on my back, still on the bar and still playing, legs flailing. Next, I would be jumping up, making a quick run into the ladies room (still playing) and back to and up on the bandstand … with a huge, loud and very long final chord! The place wold go fucking nuts. So now you know what my tenor sax playing was limited to.

Now, to the party: I started driving west on Sunset Boulevard towards the ocean, a beautiful drive in those days through the strip — Beverly Hills, Bel Aire, Pacific Palisades, right down to the Pacific Coast Highway, now known as 101. When one of any sensitivity made that drive back then, you could not help but be cognizant of the vibes and the songs and voices of some of the giants that lived, loved and played in all of those beautiful homes along Sunset and the surrounding hills. I was driving down the final hill that led to the ocean — a view that I never failed to get a little thrill from when first seeing it. Many years later, I got to play on it, as I was to get involved in sailing heavily. (International yacht racing — that and the tie into jazz will be coming in later articles. Stay tuned!) OK. I turned right on the PCH in a 1948 Chevy convertible that I bought for $50. I was now heading north towards the Malibu Beach colony, as it was named. I would venture to say that, back then, at least 75 percent of the world-renowned celebrities had a spacious beach house there. I was not happy about this gig, as I sensed something was amiss, especially when Maury told me twice about bringing the tenor sax. What I just told you about the date at the beginning of this story was unbeknownst to me at that time.

So, I had a couple of hits of the vodka that I always carried in the door panel — for snake bites and other emergencies. I arrived at the colony and as the gate guard was disdainfully looking at my wheels, I convinced him that I was supposed to be there. I find Miss Bergen’s home, and quickly take another hit from my classy brown paper bag-covered bottle. (After all, there could be beach snakes.) I’ll let you, the reader, picture this home: Believe me, you can’t overdo it — with the big picture window looking out at the ocean 50 yards away at low tide. The main part of the party was outside on the beach. It was freaking unreal. Tiki torches in the sand, three full bars, beautifully set-up tables with all kinds of finger food, etc., etc.

There were two permanent-looking bandstands, with a huge wooden dance floor in front of the palm trees. Flower displays abounded, with mics and speakers everywhere. A sound guy was working the board and, back then, they had two channels. I hear a couple of violins tuning up, and I look at where the sounds coming from only to see these old cats (must’ve been in their 40s!) with freaking tuxedos on with cummerbunds and bow ties. The trumpet and trombone players were warming up, and it sounded like my high school orchestra tuning — not one lick!

As I write about this, 47 years later, my hands are ice cold: Let’s just say that I knew something terrible was in for Mort Weiss that night. I had been in a lot of tough and tight spots, and I had always managed to subdue and or get out of any situation — but I knew that this time, I was fucked! I met the leader, one of the violinists. Fritz spoke with a heavy German accent. The first thing out of his mouth was: “You’re not vearing a tux!”

OK, let me hip the reader about gig suits, back then. Every cat had a very dark blue suit, one that looked black in a smoky lounge) and a tie — and dude, that was it! I had black shoes with holes in the soles (sounds like a Herbie Hancock tune out of the 1970s), with two layers of cardboard inserts that I cut out. It was cool until you had to walk on water (no, not making a reference about that cat) then you had to walk on your heels. Never forgot the time when I was going through this drill, and two brothers passed me. I heard the one cat, referring to me, say: “Motherfucker walks like Donald Duck.” Believe me, if you ever have had this experience, you’ll never look at any piece of cardboard without sizing it up! No matter how wealthy one gets to be, I know.

People were arriving, and we were to do the first couple of sets. The leader sees that I am carrying a tenor sax case and a clarinet case, and he firmly states: “Nicht mit der clarinet.” Oh, great! When he wasn’t looking, I assembled the clarinet and put both instruments on the horn-holding stand. These groups where known as society bands that played for the very wealthy. They would play songs from all of the big Broadway shows and such. That night, we were going to start with all of the songs from “The King and I.” They had lead sheets for you to play off, but the extent of my reading music on the tenor sax went as far as reading “Tequila,” the tune by my friend Danny Flores, aka Chuck Rios. We start and I’m giving it a try-to-do-it on the sax. Man, I’m missing notes and squeaking. So, I reach for my clarinet, knowing that I could probably fake about 90 percent of the tunes. I get a few notes off and ol’ Fritz turns around, pissed and yelling “Nein, nein, no clarinet! Zaxaphone! Zaxaphone!” I keep trying to play my clarinet and ol’ Fritz is yelling (but with a smile on his face for the guests): ZAXAPHONE!

(Sidebar: I knew a lot of the guys in Lawrence Welk’s band, in particular the lead alto saxophonist Skeets Herfurt — a first call in Hollywood for years. He often regaled us with with many stories about all the cats he worked with. Welk insisted, especially on his weekly TV show, that everyone smiled continuously, whether they were playing or not. It was not the easiest thing to do with a sax stuck in your mouth, but it was the best paying gig in town — so, smiled they did.)

Back to the nightmare: I just wanted out of there. I wanted to be anywhere but there, but Fritz insisted that I stay on the stand with the sax hanging around my neck — not to play, or make any attempt to, but make it look like there was nine men on the bandstand … because that’s what was paid for! Occasionally, I would make a grab for my clarinet but dude had eyes in the back of his head: NEIN! NEIN!! And it went on like this for two or three sets, with me hitting one of the bars at every break and popping bennies just to keep cognitively in the game.

Johnny Rivers hadn’t started yet. People were still arriving, and most were getting settled and were partaking in social lubricants. I found myself in the house near the front door, where Polly was greeting the arrivals. I’m about three-quarters in the bag by now — sitting in a chair with my glass of vodka, contemplating the great questions that life seems to hand us on occasion: Like, where am I going to sleep tonight? Like that. I happen to look up toward the entrance, and I see Steve Allen and his wife Jayne Meadows walking into the house, saying their hellos to all. I look at Steve and I remember that Steve is not only a musician of sorts (my old friend Terry Gibbs’ combo did his TV show), but also a general all-around bon vivant. I take another swallow, swishing the ice cube around the hexagonal glass, sigh deeply, start to nod … and fucking exploded! Mind, body, every nerve that was still firing: Steve freaking Allen played Benny Goodman in the movie, “The Benny Goodman Story.” He even worked with Benny, learning how to play just enough clarinet to make the movie while Benny played the soundtrack. This man knew about clarinets, and clarinet players.

This is what I remember: I had rushed up to him and I asked him if I could have five minutes of his time in the next room, and that I was a great jazz clarinet player, and I wanted him to hear me play and on — and on! Upon seeing me in my gig suit, he said: “Well, you’re in the band, aren’t you?” I said, yes, and he said: “Well, when you fellows start to play, then I’ll hear you play the clarinet. Right?” I said, and I’ll never forget the look on his face when I said it: THEY WON’T LET ME. He quickly took Jayne’s arm and led her out on to the beach to join the normal folks. Time stopped for me. I had a moment of great clarity (the pills were coming on), and I realized what I said and how I said it — and how it must have sounded. There came a great welling up from within me — a visceral firestorm fueled by the thoughts that I’m going to make something good happen this night. No more Mr. Nice Guy and, like that, I was in my attack mode!!

Back up on the stand, the band’s playing and I’m swaying. People are now dancing, and I have a plan. Here come Steve and Jayne, slow dancing. They get within five feet or so of the bandstand and I (with great panache ) go: “Psst, Steve! Over here!” He looks, sees it’s me, grimaces. I make a grab for my clarinet, and ol’ Fritz senses something, starts to turn and (still smiling) yells “zaxa –” before I elbow the cat off the fucking stand. I then run up to the mic with my clarinet. The song being played was “Stardust,” a tune I knew. I put that horn up to my lips to play. (Stop! Freeze frame!: OK, some points here. Remember, the whole affair was being held on the beach. The tide had been steadily coming up since I arrived, night had descended as had a fine mist. My clarinet had been out in the open for three hours and the reed, a thin piece of bamboo, was thoroughly soaked and warped — enough to make it unplayable.) When I got to play, nothing comes out. I blow harder, only emitting a little squeak! Now, I’m pissed and going all out: SAWAK! ERRRGAAAA! ITCHHH!

I saw Steve’s face. Everything became distorted and wavy. I remember leaping off the stand. Fritz had landed in some kind of pineapple concoction. My visual concept of his head was very Teutonic. He was wearing some kind of hat or something with a spear/spike sticking up out of it! I ran through the dancing people, to one of the outdoor bars and helped myself to a fifth of Smirnoff, ran down to the water’s edge and drank — and drank, and drank some more. I sat there for I don’t know how long, and all of a sudden I hear something that made some kind of sense to me: It was the Johnny Rivers band starting up. The Fender bass was booming as Rivers sang “in-for-ma-tion, op-per-a-tor, give me Memphis, Tennessee.” Yes! This made sense to me. I can do this, with all my sax licks and rock and R&B experience. Why, I can be a hero and reverse the shambles of the evening past! I somehow get to the other bandstand, grab my tenor sax — and, remembering the clarinet debacle, I made sure that the reed was OK and the mouthpiece was on straight. I then headed for the rock bandstand, where Johnny and the guys were ripping it up on “Bony Maronie.” I knew it! So, I jumped up on to the stand while they were playing. I was ripped/stoned, and happy! The looks I got from Johnny and his guys, however, were not. Fuck ’em! I grab a mic, bring it down to the bell of my sax and start to play.

First, a little music lesson, if you will: Guitars and rock singers quite often play and sing in musical keys that have many sharps, which is good for them — but brutally hard for a tenor sax, trumpet and/or any b/flat instrument. All my sax licks were in the keys of C b/flat, g & f. One sharp these cats where blowing in the key of E or D, a harmonic landscape that I had never traversed on any thing but clarinet. Within five notes, I knew that something was terribly wrong: Every note I hit was wrong. I make try after try, but every trick I knew made it worse. I remember people had stopped dancing. Johnny and his band were all decked out in tight red pants, fancy shirts with sequins and neckerchiefs. Picture me up there, with my gig suit. The guys had stopped playing, and I was told in no uncertain terms to vacate the bandstand or be thrown off.

I stepped down, then went and got my horn cases. I didn’t see or hear anyone; I had tunnel vision. Everything and everybody just sorta started fading away. The mental house lights on the drama that unfolded that evening were dimming. I could hear the traffic on Pacific Coast Highway. Fritz had given me $65. I, at first, wouldn’t take it but he insisted. Now that I reflect back to that evening 47 years ago, I realize ol’ Fritz had a long day’s night at that Malibu Beach Colony, also.

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A FEW WORDS: When I was approached to do these articles by the editors of Something Else! Reviews, I was told that I would have complete freedom to voice my opinions about music, and those things that accompany the musician trying to tell their story through the medium of sound and harmonics. I’m happy to say that this relationship has prevailed through these nine articles, and I’m looking forward to a long and productive association with same. Now, as far as a completely musical article with major names that would resonate with the reader — people that I know/knew, recorded and played with — and the jazz scene (such as it is), I would strongly recommend one to read these articles in the Mort Weiss “Notes from a Jazzman” series.

I’m not going to be doing a review type of column, as in “he played beautifully through the lower registers of the work, substituting a G maj 7th for the usual Aug. 13th with the flat 7 at that point of the choruses,” you got it? That being said, I’m a cat that’s been there, done that, took pictures and was at ground zero 1948 in LA, when it was hopping. Most of my contemporaries at the time are either dead, or writing with crayons now. I know how it was and, since my return to the scene in 2001, I know how it is. (Not much!) Having an identity is/should be very important to any of us. When I first saw the name my editors came up with for this series, “Notes from a Jazzman,” I thought it was a little presumptuous and kind of corny. But the more I revisited my past life and looked around at what’s happening with Mort Weiss today, I cannot think of anything that describes me more honestly.

Nothing but the best to all of you. I remain, MORT WEISS … A JAZZMAN!

Mort Weiss

Mort Weiss

Mort Weiss is a bebop-oriented clarinet player with 11 albums as a leader. During his teens, Weiss studied with the L.A. Philharmonic Orchestra's Antonio Remondi, and later soloed on several TV programs with the Freddie Martin Orchestra, aka “The Band of Tomorrow.” Since a return to music in 2001, he has worked with Joey DeFrancesco, Dave Carpenter, Roy McCurdy, Luther Hughes, Bill Cunliffe and the late Sam Most. Contact Something Else! at
Mort Weiss
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