Updated: Jul 30, 2021
In April I was interviewed for Island Space, the organization behind the Caribbean Museum Project in South Florida. About a week before the interviewer, Executive Director Calibe Thompson, promised: “I'll get you the questions / topics, video conference link.”
I shrugged: “You needn’t… It’s more fun to wing it.”
Going on 22 years ago I was invited to talk about pan at a Carnival conference in Connecticut. I wrote out what I was going to say and it was the last time I’d do that. Apart from my galloping laziness, I also found that words frozen on paper inhibited my interaction with the audience. I couldn't respond to its mood. I'd focus on recalling what I'd written or worse – surreptitiously reading it – rather than surrendering to the energy being exchanged between myself and the audience. So at best I might use four or five bulleted reminders of the direction I’d like to explore. Still, that moment in April was the first time I realized another equally important reason why I improvised my presentations. It was more fun to wing it.
“Haha!” replied Calibe: “I love that response!”
I shared with her a story recounted by Paul Shaffer, the Canadian musical director and bandleader for David Letterman’s TV show for over 30 years.
Sammy Davis Jr. - from Radio Times/Getty Images.
Sammy Davis Jr. (1925-1990) was scheduled to perform on the show but Shaffer couldn’t get him to select a song and schedule a rehearsal. “Every time I called he was either working or sleeping. He never did return my calls," Shaffer recalls. "The morning of the show I was feeling some panic. Sammy was flying in, and we still didn’t know what he wanted to sing.”
Then Shaffer gets a call: “ ‘Once in My Life’ will be fine, Paul,” says Sammy. “Key of E going into F.”
Shaffer immediately arranges the song for his orchestra, rehearses and records it. Later Sammy arrives and visits backstage. Shaffer is taken aback. Sammy looks extremely tired and frail leaning on a cane. Shaffer greets him warmly and says, “We have an arrangement, Sam. You can rehearse it with the band.”
Shaffer is himself vastly talented, a singer, composer, actor, author, comedian, multi-instrumentalist and bandleader. But Sammy Davis Jr. was one of the greatest American entertainers, and he replies, “No need, baby. Gotta conserve my energy. I’m just gonna go to my room and shower.”
“I’ll just play you a tape of the arrangement… That way you’ll hear what we’ve done.”
“Man, I know the song.”
“But what if you don’t like the chart?”
“I’ll like it, I’ll like it.”
“But what if the key’s not right?”
“Okay, if you insist”
Shaffer puts on the cassette. Sammy closes his eyes and nods to the groove. “It’s swinging man,” he says with a smile, “but think of how much more fun we could have had if I hadn’t heard this tape.”
It was an encounter, not only between two great musicians but also a clash between two different approaches to music-making, and it almost traumatized the Canadian musician. “His words still resonate in my ears; the notion still haunts me,” Shaffer wrote in his memoir We'll Be Here for the Rest of Our Lives: A Swingin' Show-biz Saga.
“Sammy swung that night but as he was performing I couldn't help thinking that his carefree feeling about time – as opposed to my lifelong notion of the pressure of the time – was coming from a higher spiritual plane,” he confessed. “As a musician, I've always thought I rushed. I still think I rush. The great players never rush. It reminds me of that moment when I watched Ray Charles turn to his guitarist, just as the young guy was about to solo, and say ‘Take your time son. Take your time.’”
He never quite grasped where Sammy was coming from, however, or Ray for that matter. Sammy wasn’t carefree about time. His timing was impeccable. Even Ray, he wasn’t advising his guitarist to play slowly, he was telling him: fast or slow, be passionate but also be calm – be cool.
One famous instance was the 1998 Grammy Awards, at which star attraction Luciano Pavarotti cancelled 30 minutes before showtime because of a sore throat. Producer Ken Ehrlich asked Pavarotti's friend Aretha Franklyn, who was there to perform songs from The Blues Brothers alongside Dan Ackroyd and Jim Belushi. “I just ran up to her dressing room and asked her if she would do it," he recalled. Pavotti was to sing "Nessun Dorma", the opening aria from Puccini's opera Turnadot. "She said she wanted to hear the dress rehearsal. In those days, we had a boombox with a cassette. And I brought it to her and played it for her. When she heard it, she said, ‘Yeah, I can do this.’ ”
The Queen of Soul did more than fill in for Pavarotti. Her "Nessun Dorma" blew away the audience that had come to hear the opera superstar. She received a standing ovation and created one of the most memorable moments in the history of the Grammys.
Aretha wasn't green to the aria, she'd performed it two days before at a fundraiser. Still, the most famous example of barely-rehearsed magnificence is Ella Fitzgerald’s 1960 performance of “Mack the Knife” in Berlin.
In the US Louis Armstrong had covered the song in 1956. Then in 1959 it was big hit for Bobby Darren hit. The song was from the 1928 Threepenny Opera by German socialist Bertolt Brecht and (music) Kurt Weil. The libretto was based on the highwayman Macheath from John Gay’s 1728 Beggar’s Opera, itself about an infamous thief, Jack Sheppard. Brecht’s MacHeath a critique of the modern capitalist, was far more cruel and sinister than his earlier avatars, however.
And the opening lament “Die Moritat von Mackie Messer”, translated as “Mack the Knife”, had only ever been sung by men when Ella decided in West Berlin to give it a shot, even thought she’d hardly rehearsed it with the band.
Ella was at the peak of her fame, the show was attended by thousands. The band struck up. “We’d like to do something for you now,” Ella told the audience. “We haven’t heard a girl sing it and since it’s so popular we’d like to try and do it for you. We hope we remember all the words.”
Then she launched into it:
Oh the shark has, pearly teeth, dear
And he shows them pearly white.
Just a jack knife has MacHeath, dear
And he keeps it out of sight.”
Ella was rocking, nobody could resist the stylishness of her “Mack” and nobody noticed she’d replaced “pretty teeth” with “pearly teeth”. The next two verses were fine but then, mid-way through the song, she forgot what came next. That’s when she reached into the black traditions she’d inherited and began to extemporize:
Ohhhh, what’s the next chorus
To this song now?
This is the one now, I don’t know
But it was a swinging tune
And it’s a hit too
So we try to do Mack the Knife.
The black aesthetic of performance is not to get someone else’s composition exactly as written. Rather, it’s about using the material to generate a bond between performer and audience that’s unique to the specific moment of performance. So no two versions of the same song by the same artist are the same. As Billie Holiday said, “I can’t stand to sing the same song the same way two nights in succession. If you can, then it ain’t music, it’s close-order drill, or exercise or yodeling or something, not music.”
The greater the challenge the artist overcomes to achieve this, the more unique and memorable the moment. So when Ella admits in the song that she doesn’t know what comes next, the audience catches its breath. What’s she going to do next? Everyone knows how stage fright can derail even the best performers, how the stress of striving for excellence can throw everything into disarray. How cool it is, then, when we can look at it in the face, steups and laugh.
Ah Louis Miller… oh something bout cash
Yeah Miller, he was spending that trash
And MacHeath dear, he spends like a sailor
Tell me, tell me, tell me
Could that boy do something rash?
She extemporizes about the wreck they’re making of the song, she scats a verse in a brilliant Louis Armstrong voice, and she trumps that with:
So you’ve heard it, yes we’ve swung it
And we tried to, yes we sung it
You won’t recognize it, it’s a surprise hit
This tune called ‘Mack the Knife’.
As for Sammy Davis Jr., he was no young guitarist, he was a brilliant, veteran entertainer with decades of experience. To even begin to stretch his artistic muscles he needed to interpret the song without rehearsing alongside the band, without even hearing their arrangement beforehand. That is how that short, black, supremely talented man, who’d been humiliated by his white “friends” and considered by some but especially and most tragically by himself, to be ugly, still managed to be the coolest person around just because it was more fun.