Jack Gregory--Unforgettable

Shortly after I moved to Nashville in 1971, I began doing "sub" work in the bands at WSM radio and tv. That's where I met Jack Gregory--clarinetist, saxophonist, band leader, and Southern gentleman. Jack had played on WSM radio's "Waking Crew" since before World War II, and he also played each weekday on WSM tv's "Noon" show.

Each weekday morning, after the opening musical number and commercial, the emcee entered the "Magic Circle" to talk to the guys in the band. Jack always had some wisecrack or one-liner to offer up, and he frequently left everyone chuckling or roaring with laughter. The best example of Jack's quick wit came on the very last day of the "Waking Crew" in 1981. Teddy Bart, then the emcee, asked Jack if he had any parting comments after having been on the program since its very beginning in the 1930s. Jack replied, "Teddy, if I'd have known it wasn't going to be a steady job, I never would have taken it!"

When Clarence ("Dutch") Gorton, the regular trombonist on the "Noon" show, quit in 1974 to become secretary of the Nashville musician's union, I joined the band. For the next seven years, I saw Jack almost daily. From time to time, I would be on vacation or take a day off to do a recording session, but Jack was virtually never gone. Jack seemed to be an "Iron Man," but beneath that solid, reliable exterior was a guy who was scared stiff to take any time off. When our leader suggested that he take some vacation time or take a day or two off with a particularly bad cold, Jack would reply, "Yeah, and when I come back, there'll be another guy in my chair." We were never able to persuade him otherwise, but he did take several days off when his wife passed away.

Jack was a pretty darned good Dixieland clarinet player, and he could play the old-time "sweet" style on the alto sax well, too. He even sang a little. One thing that drove the rest of us nuts, though, was his mental block on playing "rock" rhythms. Rock music does not swing, and its rhythms are usually written in 8th and 16th notes, rather than quarter and 8th notes. It has to be precise to sound good. When Jack saw a cluster of four or more 16th notes, he typically panicked. He lost all concept of time and played the notes as fast as he could, leaving me and the trumpet player in the dust. That would be fine, except that we sounded wrong, because we finished later than he did! Joe Layne, the "Noon" show bandleader, who also wrote the arrangements with those rhythms, was reduced to rolling his eyes and shaking his head. After several futile attempts, he knew that teaching rock rhythms to Jack was a lost cause.

I also saw Jack from time to time on weekend musical engagements that he booked and led. He had a very unorthodox instrumentation in his band: himself on clarinet, piano, bass, drums, and three trombones! Some of the arrangements were "faked," but Jack had a substantial and gradually growing "book" of three trombone "charts." I was privileged to write some of them, including one on the Beatles' "Day Tripper." Even with knowledgeable writers supplying the music, however, it was still an odd-sounding combination at times. (And at other times, delightful.) One thing's for sure: Jack kept trombone players busier than most other bandleaders in Nashville did.

Jack was also a connoiseur of lovely and/or sexy women, and he never wanted for an attractive girl vocalist. Being most appreciative of finely presented female anatomy myself (ahem), I recall with fondness one singer with (in Jack's words) "legs that wouldn't quit" and another with a rather commanding set of "lungs." One of Jack's favorite admiring comments, often heard from him, was, "Ooooh, she's got a crazy little shape on her!"

When Jack was a sideman musician, he was at least as much a rascal and cutup as the next guy. When he put on the leader's hat, however, he became extremely nervous. It wouldn't matter if there was a four-measure introduction by the rhythm section before you had to play, Jack invariably would be all over you, if you didn't have your horn up to your face as soon as he thought you should. Since I sat closest to Jack, my cohorts in the trombone section--James ("Bucky") Doster and James Beverly ("Bev") LeCroy--usually got into trouble more than I did. Their crime? Talking to each other, then grinning sheepishly when Jack "caught" them. Tsk, tsk. Naughty boys.

For a number of years, in February, Jack had the band for the Outdoor Show at the Municipal Auditorium. We sat up on the large stage and played for the singers, log-rollers, and animal acts. My all-time favorite memory of the Outdoor Show was the year we played for a guy with a bunch of different monkeys, apes, etc. During our rehearsal, Jack pointed out that the orangutan, in particular, was "a mean little shit." And so he was. And so I was, too! Whatever possessed me, I don't know, but when Jack and the ape trainer weren't looking, I pointed my trombone slide at the orangutan and shook it at him a number of times. This, of course, enraged him (the organgutan), and he tried to grab the end of my slide. I pulled back in alarm, and he then reached for the next nearest thing, which happened to be Jack's music stand. He wrenched it up off the floor and bashed it sevral times before hurling it away. Music flew everywhere. The other musicians were paralyzed with laughter, and Jack was shocked and stunned. No one told on me, so Jack never realized that I had provoked the seemingly vicious, unprovoked attack by the "mean little shit." Like the song says, "All the monkeys aren't in the zoo."

While I'm confessing my sins, I had better mention the time I wrecked the piano at WSM tv. One Sunday morning each December, a week or two before Christmas, Jack's band played at the station for WSM's "Crusade for Children." Our job was basically to provide holiday "pep band" music for a group of indigent children, their parents, and the people who escorted the children to a nearby shopping center to go on a shopping spree for their loved ones. One year, Jack's piano player, Gary Weaver, failed to show up for the job, so we were less a piano player. I gallantly volunteered to boom-chuck the best I could, to get us through the job. Everything went swell, and I was the man of the hour, until we did "Jingle Bell Rock." I decided to get fancy and show off with some Jerry Lee Lewis piano gliss licks. I leaned hard into the black keys and, to my horror, three of them snapped off in the process. As luck would have it, these were the most important black keys in the middle register of the piano for playing in B-flat and E-flat and F, which we did a lot. Not being an expert pianist, I was totally hamstrung and at a loss to be of any further help on the old 88. I sheepishly retired back to my slide trombone. Jack was quite forgiving. Actually, I think he got some pleasure out of imagining how the regular country-western show's piano player would react at 6 am the next morning.

Jack had a soft spot in his heart for little kids, and it sometimes showed in a rather unexpected way. A perfect example of this happened one year when we were at WSM tv on a Wednesday, getting ready to pre-tape the Thanksgiving Day "Noon" show for airing on the following day. (This was a courtesy to the station's staff, so we could be home with our families for Thanksgiving dinner.) Jack seemed particularly upset by the table display for the regular weekly cooking feature. Appropriate to a holiday in the South, that show's display centerpiece was a glazed (and, therefore, very shiny), roast suckling pig with a big red apple in its mouth. But Jack was horrified at the thought that all the little kids, home from school for the day, would see that display and think that we had "gone and killed Porky Pig"! Jack was so agitated by this prospect that he spoke to the emcee, who in turn told the producer that the roast pig had to go. The cooking lady (former Tennessee governor John J. Hooker's sister, Teeny Hooker Buchtel) was understandably miffed at having to redo her presentation around a less full, and thus less interesting, table. The emcee, being Jewish, probably could have cared less about a pork-less cooking feature. The other band members, who were all distracted by the grossly shining pig, were relieved that it was carried away. And Jack was in his glory: he had saved the children of Middle Tennessee from a Thanksgiving trauma!