O Say Can You Play?: Star-Spangled Jazz Musicians

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Kim Love

With spring just around the corner, it’s time for baseball players to head south for training, for NBA and NHL teams to get ready for their respective playoffs, and most important, for jazz musicians to start practicing one particular song: Francis Scott Key’s standard that we’ve all covered one time or another, the “Star-Spangled Banner.” (My apologies to our international readers.)

Sports-obsessed jazz fans may have noticed high-profile national anthem performances by prominent jazz artists such as Branford Marsalis, Wynton Marsalis, Natalie Cole and Boney James. Lest anyone think those folks have the market sewn up, crunch on these numbers: in a given year there are more than 5,000 games in the big TV sports (MLB, NBA, NFL and NHL). And we’re only talking regular season, not the high-profile playoff and championship games. We haven’t even added in the minor league, college or high school games or all those other sports like soccer, volleyball and curling. Clearly, the possibilities are multitudinous for jazz artists to get off the road grind and play one-song shows (although with hockey games, artists may have to do double duty with “O Canada”).

Jane Jarvis ought to know.

The renowned jazz pianist was the one and only organist for the Mets at Shea Stadium for 16 years and for the Milwaukee Braves for 10 years before that. When she was behind the keyboard, she accompanied more than just one hyperventilating singer. “All those years when I did the national anthem, everyone rose and sang it together. Now, there’s no community singing,” Jarvis says, though she admits that it’s not the easiest song to sing. “That’s why I played it just low enough so they could hit those high notes.” For the record, Jarvis played it in the key of A. She had one irate music fan write her and tell her that she was doing it in the wrong key. However, Jarvis countered that the melody for the song actually came from an old English folk or barroom song.

Living now in Florida, Jarvis is still active on the jazz scene as a pianist, but she has retired from playing the organ at ballgames. “When you’ve done the best, you don’t step back.”

Jarvis would be pleased to know that at least in Arizona, the fans are still in the band. Jeff Golner’s official title is director of game operations and entertainment for the Arizona Diamondbacks, and one of his responsibilities is getting the requisite 80 or more anthem performers for the season. He says, “It’s a great way to get fans involved,” and that for the D’backs’ home games, fans far outnumber the pros as performers. The team holds auditions the day before the season begins, and fan after fan after fan sing half of the song (they start at “Rockets red glare”), and more than a few are called up to the big leagues. Pros do still make appearances, particularly in the postseason when Major League Baseball applies pressure for the big names, but at least in 2001, the Diamondbacks grooved on one particular performer. Just as the Philadelphia Flyers of the ’70s counted on Kate Smith as their good luck charm, the Diamondbacks had local trumpeter Jesse McGuire doing the honors during the team’s remarkable run two years ago. “He only lost one game, and he even did the big game seven” in the World Series, Golner notes. I knew Gonzalez’s bloop hit was lucky; now I know why.

With all those fans doing the honors, you would think there would be loads of material for America’s Funniest Home Videos, but Golner remembers only one disaster, when a singer just fell apart mid-song. Even that story had a happy ending: she was brought back a few nights later and she nailed it.

She should take some consolation from a story jazz industry veteran Dick LaPalm told me about Nat “King” Cole. Cole did the anthem for the opening game of the 1959 World Series game in Chicago, and instead of “O’er the land of the free,” Nat sang “O’er the land and the sea.” LaPalm was with Cole afterward and recalls, “Nat accepted the kidding with his typical grace.” That is, until a Canadian journalist came into his dressing room at a show that night and, according to LaPalm, “Asked Nat if he botched the line intentionally because of the black situation in the country. Well, Nat hit the ceiling. He ignored the question and asked the guy to leave. Nat said, ‘Can you believe that guy thought I would do that intentionally?'”

LaPalm adds, “Nat did the second game of the 1962 World Series, and you can believe that it was perfect.” José Feliciano can attest to what can happen when a person of color takes liberties with the song. His inspired version during the 1968 World Series lit up TV network switchboards and got him more negative publicity than he could have imagined.

Singer Karrin Allyson did the honors at a Seattle Mariners baseball game and kept the improvising to a minimum. “I personally prefer it sung rather straight, but as heartfelt and naturally as possible.” Not that singing that song naturally is always so easy. Allyson agrees with Jarvis that “it’s important to start low enough in the tune in order to make that high climactic note. I’ve only sung it accapella, so you have to have the starting pitch in mind.”

Naturally, instrumentalists don’t have to worry so much about the starting pitch, but they have plenty of other issues. Bassist Brian Bromberg calls his performance before a Seattle Supersonics versus Minnesota Timberwolves game “the most bizarre gig I’ve ever done. Standing with an acoustic bass out there in the middle of a basketball court with 15,000 people in the audience and tall skinny guys staring at you. It was the first time I’ve played for that many people and not one had come to see me. Very strange.” He later released his masterful two-handed arrangement of the song on his recent Wood CD. Because the response has been so positive, Bromberg’s now considering more anthem appearances. At least he already has quite an audition tape in hand.

Beyond risking public embarrassment, what do performers get for their “Star-Spangled” effort? Golner confirms that these days payment is definitely of the in-kind variety, with a complimentary video of the performance and, of course, great seats. Too bad that many of the artists, like Allyson in Seattle, end up running off to their gig at Jazz Alley and forgoing that perk. Hey, that’s what scalpers are for.

Clearly, jazz performers are welcome except for that pesky time limit thing. Golner says they strongly recommend that the performance last no longer than a minute and a half. So much for that segue into “A Love Supreme”-brevity matters in this genre. Bromberg confirms that he probably went a little long that night in Seattle. “It was a playoff game. The fans were screaming and cheering halfway through, and when I got to that high note, they just went crazy. It was great.”

Bromberg wasn’t worried about the reception to his unorthodox version because the team officials told him that Max Roach had done a solo drum rendition the year before. “When they told me that,” the bassist says, “I thought, ‘Why should I just do it straight?'”