High notes, low notes: Observations of a jazz musician on tour

By Robert Weast


Just before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, my dad bought me the love of my life: a brand new $75 Elkhart trumpet.


I opened the case which unveiled a resplendent, sparkling, golden horn that was embedded in plush, purple velour. This was like a magical treasure chest opening my entire future. I was thrilled beyond measure.


Three short years later, this novice, self-taught-14-year-old from Wisconsin, received a phone call from the Musician’s Union: Did I want to join a band that needed a trumpet player?


With a resounding “Yes!” I accepted and began a several month stint at a type of speakeasy, a gambling, drinking joint in Germantown, Wis. The entrance had a one-way mirrored, buzzer-operated door that led to booze and gambling upstairs and dancing downstairs. The speakeasy was my initiation to the professional world of playing music.


In 1945, our dance band from Waukesha, Wis., placed an ad in Downbeat magazine stating that we wanted to “go on the road.” We soon received a telegram from bandleader Lee Baron of Omaha, Neb., who arranged for an audition. He liked what he heard and we were thrilled to receive another telegram offer of acceptance. We headed out to Waterloo, Iowa, to rehearse for a week and then to play one-nighters throughout Iowa, Minnesota, Kansas, South Dakota and Wisconsin — all for $40 a week. Even at that time, the pay was paltry.


“Porky! I told you not to sit on that side of the bus! Now you just blew out another tire,” barked the band leader to rotund trombonist Billy “Porky” Johnson for sitting over a threadbare tire on our tour bus nicknamed “Blue Goose.” We typically had a blowout every day on our worn-out old tires, placing patch-upon-patch on the inner tubes. This was during World War II when tires were rationed and new ones were almost impossible to find.


The Blue Goose was made up of two Ford sedans welded together. Our 12-piece road band crowded into the four rows of seats, with luggage and music instruments stacked on top of this vastly underpowered hybrid rattletrap. We dubbed it the Blue Goose because when we tried to climb the steep sand hill roads of western Nebraska to reach our next dance hall, the poor, underpowered Ford just couldn’t make it to the top. Half-way up the incline, when the bus was about to stall and conk out, we filed out and pushed it over the top, or “goosed it.”


One of the first dances that we played that summer was the Corn Palace in Mitchell, S.D. As we drove up to it, we were in awe of its size and majesty. We eagerly set up the bandstand in preparation for the dance. As we began to play, suddenly, as if on cue, mice began to fall from the ceiling onto the stage all around us. As soon as they hit the floor, they scampered off. The ceiling was adorned with corn cobs and evidently was a breeding haven for mice that lost their footing. I don’t know if the dancers had mice drop on them, but we found it amusing as they fell among us as we played.


As teenagers, the hardships of endless travel weren’t minded at all. Traveling 300 miles a day wasn’t unusual and we always ended up sleeping in a cheap hotel.


One early morning, after the night’s gig at approximately 2 a.m., we went to bed. Soon everyone began to itch and scratch. Turning the lights on and pulling the covers back revealed lots of bedbugs or lice — I’m not sure which. We complained, left the hotel and slept that night sitting up in the Blue Goose.


That fall, we all went back to school and by the next year we were ready to go again.


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