The death of Clark Terry (1920-2015) this past week brought back memories of watching him in concerts when I was teaching in Vienna several decades ago. He appeared at a small jazz venue called Jazz Land, run by Axel Melhardt, an Austrian man who clearly has a great love for American jazz. Somehow, he has been able to book great American jazz artists for his small club off Schwedenplatz, near the banks of the Danube. Jazz Land lives in a small brick cellar that you reach through a dark alley, under St. Ruprecht’s Church, not an obvious jazz venue to people just casually passing by. Concerts are played in a dark room about 30’ x 50’, with a low-arching ceiling and rickety wooden chairs arranged in closely packed rows and tables. Two archways lead to the bar area in an adjoining room, and there are several smaller rooms leading off of that, down some steps. That’s where the band retreats to rest between sets, but audience members can mingle with them, buy them drinks, and get autographs.
One of the notable features of this venue is a small coterie of jazz aficionados that sits in the front row, occasionally bending down to tinker with something under their chairs. One evening when I was sitting in the second row and could see clearly what they were doing, I realized they had small tape recorders running under their chairs, creating tapes which they exchanged among themselves, I assume. Several of the men took photos and then sold the glossy black & white photos to patrons the next night. If a musician is booked for multiple nights, the photographers provide indelible markers for autographed photos on subsequent nights. (I have no idea what financial arrangements they make with the musicians.)
Jazz Land customers are an incredibly attentive audience. Anyone who tries to carry on a conversation while the guest artists are playing is promptly told to shut up and no one needs a second reminder.
Sitting through two or three sets was a challenge for me back in the old days, because of the clouds of smoke that eventually hung down from the ceiling and more or less engulfed the audience. I suspect there were ventilation shafts running out of the room, but they were clearly overwhelmed by the amount of smoke produced by the patrons! Every night I went home with my hair and close smelling of smoke. But, whenever I complained, people who’d accompanied me would probably remind me that we had a great time. I haven’t been back in a long time and so for all I know, the place is now non-smoking.)
From the late 80s through the early 90s, I probably made seven or eight trips to Vienna to teach in entrepreneurship program of the Wirtschaftsuniversität Wien. As I was there for a week or two on each trip, I typically was able to see two or three great jazz artists. Some evenings it was just local artists, but other evenings Axel had booked guests such as Benny Carter, Eric Reed, Art Farmer (who lived in Vienna for over 30 years, preferring it to the US), Gene Harris, Frank Wess, Bob Wilber, Joe Williams, and Howard Arlen. Wild Bill Davidson (1906-1989), a great jazz trumpet player from my home town in Northwest Ohio, often appeared there. (I had no idea Wild Bill had grown up in the basement of the library I used to frequent – I only learned about it when I was in my 50’s.)
Usually the club was packed, but occasionally the crowds were sparse, giving me an opportunity to spend some time with the musicians. For example, Howard Arlen was in town for two nights and on the first night, only about 15 or 20 people showed up. We gathered in a circle around him and he entertained us with tunes and tales. I asked him a question I’m sure he’d heard before, “are you related to Harold Arlen [e.g. “Over the Rainbow,” “Stormy Weather,” “Let’s Fall in Love”] the song-writing guy?” He paused, sighed, and said, “If I were, do you think I’d be out on the road like this?”
On one memorable occasion, I got a chance to talk with Gene Harris (1933-2000) and Frank Wess (1922-2013), who were backed up by three local musicians. Of the two, Harris seemed more lively and talkative, but oddly enough, Frank Wess outlived him by more than a decade. When I told Wess that I was from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, he mentioned that he had “bivouacked” nearby on one of his tours. At first I thought he was talking about being in the Army, but then I realized that he would’ve come through in the days when black artists couldn’t stay in local white-only hotels and so he had to stay in a hotel in Durham that accepted black customers. Times have changed.