From The Archive
Artie Shaw
No. 8  December 1995

Music Lesson

  

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On a Wednesday evening in June, 1935, a new radio series, “Robert Neal Presents Albie Snow and his Orchestra,” made its debut on the CBS network. Featuring a small jazz band combined with a classical woodwind quintet—flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and French horn—the first show came on over the entire network at ten-thirty p.m. after two whole days of the longest and most grueling rehearsals ever heard of for a popular music program, especially one with no sponsor. The second, a week later, took even more rehearsal than the first.

People in the business agreed that the series represented a radical departure from any other musical program on the air. But there were problems. Aside from the amount of money it would have cost to keep the show on the air for a full thirteen weeks—which was obviously an important concern to the CBS accounting department—the thing that brought the series to an abrupt end was the simple issue of economic practicality. As Bob Neal, the programs producer, had remarked the day the band got together for its first rough run-through, CBS was not in the concert business. And while the programing men in the New York office were aware of the enthusiastic reaction of musicians and other such people, they knew there were not enough of them out there to warrant continuing a series that required almost two days of rehearsal for each half-hour show before its finicky young conductor was sufficiently satisfied with his band’s performance to permit it to go on the air. The whole project had become a thorn in CBS’s corporate hide.

And so here was Al Snow (or “Albie,” as he was now known to whatever audience had heard his band’s first two broadcasts), at age twenty-four, sitting in Bob Neal’s little office the day after the second show, sipping cup after cup of stale black coffee and being told that unless he agreed to certain “compromises”—which amounted to abandoning the entire concept of the program … and play more hit songs instead of all those old standards nobody gave a damn about … and add a couple of singers to give the band some commercial appeal … and, most important, cut rehearsals down to a reasonable schedule … say, four or five hours, which was in fact a fairly liberal amount of time for a “sustaining show” that, as it stood, no sponsor would touch with a sixty foot pole—unless he agreed to all those conditions, the series would be canceled after the next program.

“But—Jesus, Bob!” Al burst out on being confronted with that ultimatum after what he had thought was a fairly good second show. “How can they expect me to agree to all that? I can understand why they’re disturbed by all that rehearsal. And if there was a way to cut down on it, you know I’d do it. But there just isn’t. And as for adding singers—that’d be the end of the whole thing. This isn’t that kind of a program. Besides, I wouldn’t do that kind of a program. Hell, rather than that I might as well go back to being a sideman and forget all the headaches of getting a band like this to sound the way it should. The only reason I wanted to do this show—without even knowing whether I’d ever be paid for all the arrangements I did—was that I figured it’d be … I mean, I had no idea a thing like this would … aah, the hell with it.”

Bob sat there, shaking his head. His hair was rumpled and he looked haggard. He had just spent over an hour and a half in Mark Royal’s office with several of the top CBS management people.

“Well?” he asked after a moment. “What do you want me to tell them? I said I was sure you wouldn’t agree. I knew that. But they said to talk to you and explain that if you didn’t there was nothing further to discuss. Either you go along with their suggestions or—”

Suggestions? Those aren’t suggestions, man. They’re telling me to toss the whole idea of the show into the nearest toilet. Can’t you make them understand this is an entirely new type of band, and that if I do what they want, there’s no point in going on at all?”

“Don’t you think I tried? What do you think I’ve been doing all morning? My God, Al, I want this to work as much as you do. But you don’t know these guys. They just lean back in their chairs and look at you with those ball-bearing eyes, and no matter what you say they just shake their heads and go ‘Yeah, well, there it is, son, take it or leave it’—and that’s it.”

Al said nothing.

“So?” Bob asked. “What’ll I tell them?”

Al felt sick. He wanted to go someplace real quiet and lie down and go to sleep for about a month. He sat there, his guts churning with all that rotten coffee, unable to think of a thing to say. What’s the matter with these damn people? he thought. If they’d just leave us alone for a few more weeks….

“Listen,” he said, “you think it’d do any good if I talked to them? You know, try to make ’em understand why I can’t do what they’re asking? What do you think?”

“It was damned fine music, no one could possibly argue with that. But you see, that’s not the business we’re in.”

Bob shrugged. “I don’t know, Al. I don’t think so, I don’t think anything’d make any difference. But if you want me to, I’ll call Mark Royal and see if he’ll meet with you. But you have to understand, this guy is a very busy man and I don’t know if he’ll even talk to you. But…. ” picking up the phone, “okay.” Then, “Operator, will you please ring Mr. Royal…. My name is Bob Neal, I was just in there with him a few minutes ago…. No, I don’t have an appointment…. Yes, operator, but if you ring his secretary, I’m sure she’ll…. No, I just want to tell him something about what we were … ”—closing his eyes and making a sour face as he listened to whatever the operator was saying. Then, sighing, “Yes, operator, I know that. Yes, of course, that’s all I’ve been…. Fine. Thank you.” And a moment later, “Hello … Iris? Yeah, it’s me again…. Uh-huh. Look, is the boss-man free to talk to me for just one minute? Thanks, I’d really appreciate it.” He looked at Al and shrugged. “Says she’ll see what she can do. If he’s free, she’ll try to—” Then, his manner abruptly changing, “Hello? Mark? I just wanted to—Yes, I just finished telling him the whole story, everything we discussed…. Well, no, not exactly…. No, no, it’s just that he’d like to see you for a minute, if you can spare the time. He wants to explain something about—No, Mark, it won’t take more’n a few minutes.” Then, his eyebrows rising as he looked at Al, “Yes, that’ll be great! Thanks a lot, Mark…. Yes, I understand. Fine, we’ll come right over. ’Bye.”

Rising, he came out from behind his desk and, heading for the door, said, “Come on, let’s go. He’s waiting.”

Bob’s office was a broom closet compared to Mark Royal’s suite. Iris, a tall, thin, efficient-looking woman in a gray suit and a white ruffled blouse, and another, younger woman, sat at two separate desks flanking the door leading to Mark Royal’s private domain. As Al and Bob walked in, Iris rose and greeted them and told Al how happy she was to meet him after hearing so many nice things about him and his new band over the past few weeks.

Iris opened the door for them and Al followed Bob into Mark Royal’s office. Mr. Royal stood up and gave each of them a cordial handshake. He was in shirtsleeves, and looked much bigger than Al remembered him from the first time he’d seen him. There was another man with him, seated at the far end of the large walnut desk. Al recognized him as the man who had come into the studio with Royal the day the band had first got together.

Royal waved toward two leather armchairs facing his desk and introduced Al to the other man, whose name was Jim Wilson. Then, turning to Al, he said, “How are you, son. Say, I enjoyed that program of yours last night. You sure have whipped that band into shape since the time I heard it at your first rehearsal. Quite a job, I gather from what Bob tells me. Congratulations.”

Al thanked him, and as they sat down Royal went on, “I understand Bob has explained some of the problems we feel we have to lick if the series is to continue. So … what can I do for you?”

Al was dumbfounded. Clearly Mark Royal was not the crude monster intent on destroying people’s dreams that Al had imagined after what Bob had just told him. “Well … ” He hesitated, feeling as if he’d been about to use all his strength to push open a heavy door and then found it opening at the mere touch of a finger. Blurting out the first thing that occurred to him, he said, “Bob tells me you people aren’t exactly happy with the band, or the music we’re playing, and that you want me to make a lot of changes I don’t see how”—trailing off as Royal held up a hand.

“I don’t mean to cut you off, Albie, but this has nothing to do with what we want. It’s simply a matter of what works for CBS, that’s all. As I say, I really enjoyed the two shows, and so did Jim here. And we both recognize the amount of skill and hard work it’s taken you to get a band like that to sound as good as it did on last night’s program—and on your first one too. It was damned fine music, no one could possibly argue with that. But you see, that’s not the business we’re in. Our problem is simple. Or simply stated, anyway. We have to attract the largest possible audience we can for every dollar we spend. That’s all, nothing complicated about it. And the quality, or content, of any given program has very little to do with that. Unfortunately. Personally, I happen to enjoy good music, and I appreciate what you’re trying to—no, no, seriously. You see, I once played in a dance band myself. At Stanford, years ago. Tenor sax. I even fooled around with clarinet for a while. Point is, I’ve heard quite a bit about you, and I’ve listened to some of the records you’re on, and I have a lot of admiration for your work. Let me assure you—Jim’ll back me up on this—that’s the reason we accepted this idea of Bob’s.” (Bob’s? Al suppressed an urge to ask what Bob had to do with it.) “Right, Bob?”

Bob gave Al a sheepish look, but all he said was, “Absolutely, Mark. That’s exactly what you said.”

Al had not expected any of this. He drew a deep breath. Then, clearing his throat, “I don’t understand. I mean, if that’s the case I just don’t get it, Mr. Royal.”

“Mark,” Royal said. “And if you don’t mind, I’ll call you Albie, all right?”

“Well, sure,” Al said, laughing uneasily. “Although I still don’t see what was so bad about Al.”

Jim Wilson spoke up now. “Don’t give it a thought, Albie, nobody else understands it either.” He laughed shortly. “Andy Rogers, in Publicity, insisted that ‘Albie’ had more, uh … intrigue, I think he said, than plain Al. Something of the sort. And since you didn’t seem to have any objection, we decided to go with that.”

“Yeah, well…. ” Al shrugged. “No, I don’t have any particular objection. Albie was a pretty famous name around New Haven when I was a kid. He used to play football at Hillhouse High, and then when he went to Yale he became—”

Mark Royal smacked his palm against his forehead. “Albie Booth! Of course. The best damned quarterback Yale ever had! Oddly enough, until you brought it up, I didn’t make the connection. Well for heaven’s sake…. ” And to Jim Wilson, “D’you suppose Andy knew that? Nah. Andy isn’t old enough to—” Then, turning back to Al, “Anyway. You were about to say something, Albie?”

Al nodded. “All I wanted to know was, if you liked those first two shows, why not let us go on for a few more weeks and see how the band improves. I guarantee you, you won’t believe what you hear if we can just keep going for a couple of weeks. Every musician I know thinks it’s a terrific idea. I’ve had more long distance calls from guys I’ve worked with around the country who happened to tune in and … well, more than I’d have believed.”

“I don’t doubt it for a moment, Albie,” Royal said. “As I told you, I think it’s one of the most interesting and unusual bands I’ve ever heard. But what we’re after is a large enough audience to persuade a sponsor to pick up the series so he can reach that audience. Surely you understand that, Albie. That’s what radio is all about. My personal opinion of this or any other program has nothing to do with it.”

“In other words,” Al said slowly, “unless something has commercial value, you aren’t interested.”

“No,” Royal said, “I might be very interested, and Jim and Bob might also be. And every musician in the United States. But I work for CBS, and while CBS is always interested in new ideas, the final question is, how large a share of the listening audience will a given program pull in? That’s all there is to it. To put it bluntly, the expenses on these programs are completely out of line for a series that doesn’t have mass audience appeal. Repeat, mass. That’s the business we’re in, son.”

“You just have to remember one thing if we’re going to communicate. It’s an imperfect world, son.”

“I see,” Al said. Then, after a brief pause, “I appreciate your taking the time to see me. But—do you mind if I ask you something? Of course, if you’re too busy…. ” And as Royal shook his head, “What I don’t understand is … you’re obviously a well educated man, and a real smart one too, or you wouldn’t have this job. How do you square that with some of the things you have to do? Like, cancelling a series you know is good. You don’t have to answer that, but I’m really curious. See, I had no idea what kind of a man I’d be talking to before I came in here, but now that I’ve met you I realize I could learn a lot from you. The thing I can’t figure out, though, is how a man like you … how do you live with some of the decisions you’ve got to make. Doesn’t it make you feel sort of … rotten?”

Royal had sat there quietly, smiling benignly at Al. Now he nodded and said, “All right, Albie, let’s see if I can help you with that. The point you’ve raised is not unfamiliar to me. You just have to remember one thing if we’re going to communicate. It’s an imperfect world, son. The big difference between us, aside from some ten or fifteen years, is that I’ve learned to accept the idea that the world is not perfect. So I do what I must to survive and try to have as good a life as I can. Or, to put it another way, I do the best I can in the circumstances. Does that help?”

Jim Wilson and Bob had sat there looking from Mark Royal to Al and back again as though they were watching a ping-pong game. Al glanced at Bob and shrugged. Then, turning back to Royal, “No, Mark. See, I’d already figured that out from some of the things you said. You know—it’s an imperfect world, and since we can’t make it perfect we may as well accept its imperfections. And of course that lets us all off the hook. What I can’t help wondering is, doesn’t it still make you feel pretty bad at times?”

Royal looked over at Jim Wilson, then suddenly let out a roar of laughter. And as Wilson gave him a startled look and then began laughing uncertainly, Royal turned back to Al and said, “Let me tell you a little story, son. A good friend of mine, who spent a number of years trying to become a serious painter and darn near starved to death, finally decided he’d had about all the nonsense he could take about the ineffable spiritual rewards of a life devoted to fine art. He ended up a very rich man. In the insurance business, of all things. And when someone who’d known him when he was still a struggling young artist asked him how he felt now that he’d sold his soul to the Devil, he said, ‘Well, you know, I hung around for about ten years waiting for the old boy to make me an offer, but he never did show up.’” He began laughing again.

Al smiled. “Your friend’s got a point there all right. Would you like to hear a story I’ve always liked?” Royal nodded. “This one is an old Chinese fable. A boy’s father ordered him to go into the woods and pick up some twigs and branches to make a litter so they could carry the boy’s grandfather out into the forest because the old man was too old to work and they couldn’t afford to keep feeding him. The boy had no choice but to obey, and he and his father carried the old man way out into the forest where they set him down. The father was about to leave when he saw the boy helping his grandfather off the litter and then picking it up. ‘We don’t need that anymore,’ he said to the boy. ‘But father,’ the boy said, ‘we will when you get old.’”

There was a momentary silence. Mark Royal’s expression underwent a subtle change. He gave Al a quizzical look, then nodded. “That’s an interesting little yarn, Albie, but I don’t quite see how it applies here.”

“I’m not too sure I do either,” Al said, “but it seems to have some bearing on the things we’ve been discussing. Want to know what I think is wrong with this imperfect world of ours? This may sound sort of sophomoric to you, but it occurred to me while you were talking about the mass audience and what it would or wouldn’t accept. Care to hear it?”

“Why not?” Royal nodded, but Al sensed he was getting a bit impatient. “I’m always happy to learn things I may find useful.” And with a polite smile, “Who knows? Perhaps I’ll quote you at our next sales meeting.”

Al laughed. “I don’t think so, Mark, but here it is anyway. No matter how deep anybody buries shit, the mass audience will find it, and dig it up, and buy tons of it. How’s that grab you?”

Mark Royal glanced at Jim Wilson, then at Bob, and though his manner remained as smooth and controlled as ever, Al had the feeling he might be just a tiny bit miffed. All he said, though, was, “I can’t say I disagree with the basic thrust of that, Albie, but I’d hate to believe that was all there was to it.”

Al rose to his feet. “Yeah, well, that’s something I can understand. I don’t imagine it’d be pleasant for a man like you to accept the idea that no matter how hard he tries to make himself believe otherwise, he’s using all his knowledge and energy to sell piles of shit to millions of people who don’t know any better than to keep buying it.”

“My God, Al!” Bob said when they got out to the hallway and started walking toward his office. “Did you really have to make that last crack? After all, the guy does the best he can, and when you get right down to it, what he says makes a lot of sense. I mean, Mark really knows what he’s talking about. So what was the point? What’d it get you?”

Al looked at him. “What’d it get me? Nothing, Bob, not a goddamn thing. What bugs me is, maybe there is a decent guy hiding in there behind all that polish and sophistication. But he just knocked our show off the air, never mind all the thought and hard work we’ve put in on it. And he’s finished me off along with it. So don’t expect me to like him. I could understand it if he was some dumb shmuck who doesn’t know any better. But there he is, in that great big office sitting in that fancy leather chair behind that great big desk—with that stooge at his elbow ready to laugh at his jokes and agree with everything he says—and meanwhile telling me how much he enjoys the music I’m trying to make, and yatata yatata. Including that remark about having once been a musician himself, and all the rest of that horseshit. Jesus H. Keerist! A man like that, with all the expensive education he must have had to get where he is. And for what? To spend his life selling piles of shit? Mass audience my ass! Fuck it, man. I’m sick and tired of the whole damn mess. I’ll do next week’s show, but I don’t want to talk about it anymore.” They had arrived at the row of elevator doors at one side of the corridor. Al stopped and began stabbing viciously at the Down button.

Bob looked surprised. “Where’re you going? Don’t you think we ought to go back to my office and try to find some way to—”

“No. There’s not a goddamn thing we can do. You heard what the man said. And he’s right.”

An elevator door slid open, and as Al stepped through it Bob stood there with a disconsolate look on his face. For a moment Al felt sorry for him. But as the door closed and the elevator started down he thought, Screw it, what’s the use of feeling sorry? For him or anybody else? We all did what we had to. I know I did, and I guess Bob and Mark Royal and Jim Wilson and everybody else did too. Yeah, and look what happens. Talk about an imperfect world. That’s what’s wrong with it, all right.

Or is it? Because if not, I’d sure better find out what the fuck is wrong with me!

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