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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Frank Zappa And The Black Page

As we were finishing guitar overdubs on the latest Snew album last night, we were talking about musicianship and I was reminded of another Frank Zappa story. Frank was a historic stickler for great musicianship, but if you didn't play with heart and have a great natural feel, that didn't work for him either. But more than anything else, Frank hated anyone with an attitude.

Frank was looking for a piano player, but he needed someone who was a particularly great reader. Steve DeFuria (his then Synclavier programmer and now VP of Corporate Strategy at Line6, and one of my oldest friends) and I knew a piano player from our Berklee days who just moved out to Los Angeles, and we gave Mr. Piano a hearty recommendation. Frank once again cautioned us that he "had to be a great reader" and we told him that Mr. Piano was a former Berklee teacher and could read a fly running across a page. Trouble was that Mr. Piano had a bit of a superiority attitude, which we assumed he would tone down in the presence of someone so esteemed as Frank Zappa.

Just to be sure that Mr. Piano had a fair chance at the reading part of the audition, Frank gave him 2 pieces of music to work on a week before the audition was to take place. One of these pieces is called "The Black Page" which was pretty dense with notes and a real challenge to play. Challenge enough that Mr. Piano kind of gave up learning it as precisely as needed and decided he was good enough to wing it during the audition instead. Fatal mistake #1

When the audition started Mr. Piano gave Frank a little of his natural superiority attitude - fatal mistake #2! Frank's acerbic side reared up and about 4 bars into The Black Page he stopped Mr. Piano as said, "Can you play the song backwards?" Mr. Piano now starts to sweat a little bit as he realizes that he's in for more than he expected.

After about another 4 bars of playing Frank stops him again and says, "Can you switch hands so that the right hand is playing the bass clef and the left hand is playing the treble?" Mr. Piano is now really obviously nervous since he's way deep in unfamiliar waters (Frank Zappa's natural environment), his playing is completely inverted, plus he's still attempting to play the song backwards (from end to finish). As a result, his attitude comes back to earth in a sudden crash, just where Frank wants it.

After another rather limp 4 bars Frank comes in for the death blow. "Can you play the song without using your thumbs?" Now Mr. Piano is a quivering mass of jelly and can't even get a bar through when he stops and says to Frank, "That's impossible. No one can play it this way!" To which Frank replies, "You're a pretty good player, but you're not that good. I know 3 drummers who can play this with no problem."

And with that, Mr. Piano player was on his way, his ego definitely in a different place than when the day started.

But to show the other side of Zappa's love for musicians, Frank was playing a gig at the Cobo Arena in Detroit when one of the janitors came into the green room with a guitar before the gig. "I just have to do this," the janitor said with an "Ah, Shucks" kind of attitude. Frank gave him the go sign and Mr. Janitor did a couple of songs. Frank thanked him and asked for his card. The band chuckled, thinking that would be the last time it would touch Franks's eyes, but six months later Mr. Janitor Ike Willis was on an airplane out to Los Angeles to sing on a record with the esteemed Mr. Zappa. And he sang on almost every record Frank made until the end.


matt said...

Anonymous said...

Interesting article, but the part about ike willis is the best.

Rodrigo said...

Hahaha, that's one awesome history!
Zappa was indeed a crazy guy.

BillfromPgh said...

"Janitor" is a bit of an exaggeration according to the interview with Ike - he was a stage crew member at college with lots of gigging experience, but Frank was willing to listen to him play and then hired him. How many other big stars would do that?

Unknown said...

Indeed -- Ike was not at a Detroit show, it was at Wash U. in St Louis, Missouri.

Not a janitor- he was on "local crew", and met Frank at the dining/catering where Frank said hi and they got into a conversation.

The guitar happened when Frank found out thru talking that Ike played guitar and sang.

Wow -- where did the story come from?? Really interesting how stuff gets spread around, lol.


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