The "Domicile" was on par with Ronnie Scott's in London, the Montmartre in Copenhagen, and several other major European clubs. It was part of "the circuit", so one got to see all the major jazz legends who came over from the States (plus some of the top European musicians), on a consistent basis, with the usual length of engagement being 5 or 6 days. Eventually, even I had the opportunity to play there with some frequency. I got to see people like Dizzy, Blakey's Jazz Messengers, Joe Henderson, Johnny Griffin, Woody Shaw, Archie Shepp, etc. I took a lesson from George Coleman and sat in with Freddie Hubbard.
The Domicile was also, in the Summer of 1980, where I got to experience the likes of none other than one Edward "Sonny" Stitt.
On his first night, I got there in the middle of his second set of three (I must've had something else to do). I was like, "Wow, there he is. This is almost like seeing Bird!".
Sonny Stitt was sometimes known as the "Lone Wolf" because he traveled all over the world as a solo, Chuck Berry style, and performed with local rhythm sections; sometimes great and sometimes not.
Unfortunately, on this particular gig he had to deal with the latter, namely, a very unswinging, unrhythmic "rhythmless" section of young Germans from Hannover, if memory serves.
Sonny was sitting on a bar stool in front of the mic and he looked subdued, uninspired and just plain pissed off. Who could blame him? I thought, "Aw man, this is a drag!", and I felt sorry for Sonny, 'cause the music just wasn't happening.
When the set ended, Sonny made his way over to the bar. Of course, I had to go try to talk to him, but I gave him a minute or so to get himself a necessary and well deserved taste before going over and introducing myself.
The conversation went something like:
Me: "Hi Mr. Stitt. It's an honor to meet you. I'm a tenor player and you've always been one of my idols on saxophone."
Stitt: "Tenor player, huh?
Stitt: "OK..... Howmanykeysonthesaxophone?!?!"
Stitt: "Twenty-two! Twenty-three with a high F#."
Check it out yourself. I find it interesting now that he would differentiate between horns with a high F# and those without. I believe they started mass producing saxophones with high F sharps and G's at some point in the 1930's, if not before. Stitt, who was born in 1924, most likely played on saxophones without a high F# key when he started out. The "how many keys" question was possibly one of the first things he was drilled on as a youngster. It's like asking your average American (or anybody, for that matter) how many states make up the USA. Try it sometimes.
Since the Domicile had a closing time later than the other clubs and bars in the area (which was 1 a.m.), the last set usually started around 1:30 a.m. to accommodate the overflow from the joints just closed. That meant there was a long break in between sets, at least an hour, as I recall.
It was during that time that I began talking with this American guy who I had never met, probably in his mid 30's, hippie type, who had a tenor saxophone with him and who said that he knew Sonny Stitt very well. In fact, he claimed that Sonny stayed on his farm in upstate NY for a while and "rehabbed" from certain alcoholic excesses.
It was during this long break that I'm pretty sure I must have downed several half liters of Munich brew (one of my own "excesses", and which is something else the city is known for), so by that time I'm sure I had me a nice buzz (as did most of the people in the place).
When "Stitt and the Stutterers" finally went back up for the last set, the dude I was talking to starts unpacking his tenor like he was going to sit in. I thought, "Wow, I guess he really does know Sonny". Somehow, I must have convinced homeboy to give me his tenor, 'cause the next thing I knew, I was on stage blowing Rhythm Changes in Bb. Stitt looked like he was rudely awakened, and gave me a glance like, "Who's this gunslinger punk trying to take over Dodge City".
After the set he told me, "Boy, you looking for beauty and the truth. Come back tomorrow night and bring your horn." I was like, "Wow, Sonny Stitt asked me to come back tomorrow and sit in again. Awesome!" I was like a little kid. I told everybody I knew that I was going to be sitting in with the great master, Sonny Stitt.
So, the next night, after my gig finished at a nearby club, I hurried over to to the Domicile for the last set to sit in with my "main man", Sonny.
When I got to the stage, it was in the middle of a piano solo on a medium tempo, no stress blues in F. There was a chair in the curve of the piano and Sonny motioned for me to sit down. I did as instructed and looked at him, grinning like a 12 year old. When the chorus ended I started to get up to play, but he looked at me hard and said gruffly, "Sit down!". This routine went on for each of the next 4 or 5 choruses; each time I, anxious to play, started to get up, only to have Sgt. Stitt order me to "Sit down!" again. I was still grinning like a fool, though. Finally, at the end of the umpteenth piano chorus, Mr. Stitt pointed to me and said:
I got up and did something that I would never have done if this situation took place today. Since Sonny was perched on a bar stool right in front of the only microphone, I thought then that the only thing to do would be to squeeze myself between him and the mic, which, as I was then skinny enough to do so, I did.
At that time I was playing original music with a very loud, very amplified "fusion" band and had, up to that point, very little experience playing in a totally acoustic setting. I never even considered playing without a mic. Today the situation is opposite. I'll only use a microphone if absolutely necessary, as I have enough confidence that I can fill an acoustical space with my sound. The Domicile was a fairly large room, though, and even today, I think I would opt for a mic in that situation.
When the tune ended, I found myself standing on the other side of him. He said, "Boy, you need to learn some stage manners. Why don't you be a friend like HIM!", pointing to a well known trumpet player, who in the meantime had taken the stage, along with several other local resident musicians.
I really didn't understand what I did to offend the man and it took me quite a few years to figure it out, honestly. If I was in that situation today, I probably would have moved and readjusted the mic stand, so as not to have to stand directly in front of him and block him out from the audience's view. Sorry, Sonny! Blame it on my youth.
So he continued, "What do you wanna play?".
"Stella", I replied.
"What?", he asked.
"Stella by Starlight", I answered.
He said, "OK, but in A, not in Bb."
Before I could say anything, the piano player said excitedly, "No, no. I ken no play zat!"
I was glad he spoke up, 'cause I could no play zat zen eizer (I could now, zough), hah, hah!
Stitt just counted off "Hello Dolly", a tune I had heard enough up to that point in my life that I was able to ear it through a short solo. I then got my butt, with the imprint of Sonny's horn still on it, off the stage, as the atmosphere had turned somewhat frosty.
I was thinking, "Man, that's one ornery old dude!"
After the set was over, as he was packing up, I went up to him and told him I wanted to apologize for whatever it was that I might have done to piss him off. He just said something like, "Ahhh, forget it. Take my alto there and take me to the hotel, OK?"
Of course, I was thrilled to do so!
I thought, "What about you sounding like a copy of Bird on alto?", but I kept my mouth shut.
"But, hey, you sound good, Bobby", he added after a minute. "You sound good, boy..... but you got to pay your dues!"
When we got up to his room I put his alto down and was going to leave, when he started talking.
"You got a name?" he asked.
"You got a name?" he repeated.
"Yeah, Bobby Stern", I answered.
"No, I mean, you got a NAME?"
"Maybe locally, in Germany", I told him.
"Boy, you got to pay your dues", he reiterated.
"How many melodies do you know? I know thousands of melodies", he proclaimed. I had no doubts that he did.
It was apparent why Sonny Stitt was the "chops champ" of the saxophone in his day. Regardless of his then declining health, his reflexes were still extremely quick, and he could still play that way when inspired. He got me at hand slap almost every time and I only got him once or twice. The man was fast!
I asked him about the possibilities of taking a lesson with him, and he said, "Come back tomorrow at 3:00 PM and I'll teach you".
So back I came at 3 the next afternoon prepared for a lesson with the master himself. I went up to his room and knocked on the door for about a minute with no answer. I could hear the radio on inside, which didn't necessarily mean he was in there, so I went back down to the reception and asked if Mr. Stitt had gone out. The receptionist saw that his key wasn't there, so he assumed he was in his room. I went back upstairs and knocked again for about a minute with still no answer. I figured he just didn't want to be bothered, so I left; feeling disappointed and somewhat annoyed that I came downtown for nothing.
When I saw him at the Domicile again that night, his last, I told him that I was there at 3 like we had planned and was knocking on his door. He replied, in his gruff manner, "Well, you should have knocked louder!"
I guess I wish I had.
From the mid 1950's when Stitt was at the very top of his game.