by Dan Moore
For Terry Gibbs, boxing is a metaphor for his life. He once wanted to be a boxer, and many of his most significant life experiences relate in some way to the pugilistic arts. That Gibbs is a percussionist who makes a living hitting things is perhaps a bit of a stretch, but 76 years young, Gibbs is still swinging-and connecting. There was a time in the not-so-distant past that four names dominated the field of jazz vibes players: Lionel Hampton, Red Norvo, Milt Jackson, and Terry Gibbs. The "Big Four," as they were known, were the earliest exponents of that newfangled jazz instrument, the vibraphone. This year Terry Gibbs joins his three "Big Four" colleagues in the PAS Hall of Fame and completes the quartet. When asked about being inducted into the Hall of Fame, Gibbs responded: "I'm very honored to be selected for the Hall of Fame. Over the years I've been nominated in different polls, such as the Down Beat and Playboy polls, but they were just popularity contests. This is different because it's from my peers. Looking at all the great musicians on that list-what an honor to have my name mentioned with them."
Gibbs has shared the stage with celebrities Steve Allen and Regis Philbin as musical director for their television programs. He held the reins of one of the hottest big bands of all time, The Terry Gibbs Dream Band, which featured the likes of Mel Lewis, Conte Candoli, Bill Holman, and Frank Rosilino, to name only a few. He toured with Benny Goodman and jammed with Charlie Parker. He was honored by the city of Los Angeles and the L.A. Jazz Society when September 14, 1997, was proclaimed "Terry Gibbs Day." He can still be heard today with the Kings of Swing featuring Gibbs and long-time friend Buddy DeFranco, and on the recently-released recording Terry Gibbs and Buddy DeFranco Play Steve Allen, a collection of tunes written by Allen.
Before getting to know the legendary vibes player and band leader Terry Gibbs, you first must meet Julius Gubenko, a tough, wise-cracking kid from Brooklyn. Gibbs was born-at least, he says, he hopes he was-"in a house, in a bed somewhere," but claims he was too young to remember for sure. He entered the world as Julius Gubenko on October 13, 1924, and grew up, in his own words, "on the streets of Brooklyn, New York."
Gibbs doesn't talk much about his real name, but when put on the spot, his story goes something like this: "When I was young, there was a fighter called Terry Young, who I sort of emulated; I wanted to be a boxer, and I liked how he fought. All the guys started to call me Terry, so I was Terry Gubenko.
"When I was about 16 1/2 years old, I went with a bandleader named Judy Kayne. The billing was `featuring Terry Gubenko on drums and xylophone.' Music Corporation of America (MCA), which was the biggest agency at the time, didn't like my name. Without telling me, the publicity came back saying `featuring Terry Gibbs on drums and xylophone.' I thought I got fired-thought they'd got another drummer-because I never heard that name; nobody'd asked me. So I became Terry Gibbs."
Gibbs' mother was pretty upset by the name change. "My mother got bugged-`Who's going to know it's my son?' I was starting to make a little noise, get publicity, and I finally got my name on something and it's not even Gubenko."
As a youth, Terry played drums. His older brother, Sol, played xylophone. But whenever the opportunity arose, Terry would sneak into Sol's room to play the off-limits xylophone. The first tune he learned was "The Boulevard of Broken Dreams." Gibbs remembers accompanying his brother to a resort where he was playing one summer. During the day while Sol was out golfing, Terry would slip off to practice his favorite tune on the xylophone, which was set up in the hotel casino. A casino patron heard his practice sessions and urged him to perform in the weekly amateur contest sponsored by the hotel.
Rather than being flattered, Terry-under strict orders from his brother not to touch the xylophone-pleaded, "Don't tell my brother. He'll kill me." As it turned out, Sol was pleased to discover his younger brother's secret talent. Terry performed in the amateur contest and returned home to begin xylophone lessons with Fred Albright, one of the most respected teachers of percussion at the time. Albright would make a three-hour trip to give young Terry a lesson for three dollars. Gibbs still speaks fondly of his former teacher, remembering him as "a great man and a great teacher."
A nine-year-old rough-around-the-edges boxing enthusiast and xylophone prodigy from Brooklyn, Terry Gibbs was no doubt a handful. He recalls, "Albright would give me a lesson and say, `You understand it?' I'd say, `Yes' and I'd play it for him right there. He'd give me all this hard music, like `Flight of the Bumblebee,' and I'd play it perfect because I'd memorized it. After about seven or eight weeks, I think he got hip that I was memorizing everything, not reading the music, and he'd said, `Take this piece of music from here,' and he'd point somewhere in the middle. I'd say, `No, let me take it from the top.' I didn't know where `here' was because I was memorizing everything."
At age 12, Terry entered another amateur talent contest. This time the contest was Major Bowes Amateur Hour, one of the most popular radio programs of the day, and Terry won. Almost from that day on, Gibbs would be on the road playing professionally.
Terry was, by his own admission, not a stellar pupil. While his fellow students passed notes or doodled in their textbooks, Terry would be writing music. He never completed high school as a result of a run-in with a badgering teacher, a story he is still reluctant to relate. His undoing?_he threw a good "combination," also known as "the old one-two" punch, that laid out the harassing teacher and got Terry expelled. But the 16-year-old knew what he wanted to do in life. He wanted to be a jazz musician. Gibbs went on the road with Judy Kayne.
During World War II, Terry turned 18 and joined the Army. He was trained as a tank driver but never got overseas. Gibbs recalls: "We did our three months of training, I got my shots, I'm ready to go overseas, and all of a sudden I get sent to Dallas, Texas." Dallas was the home of the 8th Service Command whose job it was to make Army movies and produce radio programs for bond drives. They needed a percussionist. Gibbs ended up fulfilling his commitment to Uncle Sam as a stateside musician, playing drums and writing arrangements.
During his stint in the Army, Terry discovered bebop. "I came home on one of my furloughs and my friend Tiny Kahn says, `You gotta hear a new music called bebop.' Now the word `bebop' sounded completely foreign to me; it didn't make any sense. Tiny took me down to hear Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. I didn't believe what I heard. The people I loved at the time were Roy Eldridge, Lester Young, Benny Goodman, and Count Basie, and they played simple_nothing technical. I didn't know what Bird [Parker] and Diz were doing harmonically, but I was intrigued with the whole thing because of the technique they had."
He was so intrigued that he could hardly think of anything else. "For the fifteen days I was on my furlough, I never saw my folks. I would go up to 52nd Street to Three Duces, or wherever they were playing, and when they finished there I went up to jam sessions till 10:00 in the morning. I followed them around, all these guys, everywhere they went for fifteen days. I was so into that music. So I started to play vibes again."
One time my son, Gerry, when he was about 14, said, `Dad let me ask you a silly question. Have you ever cried when you listened to some kinds of music?' I said, `Yeah, a lot of times.' He says, `Because I do that sometimes when I'm listening to some of these jazz things.' And that's how I felt about that music then. It gets to where it almost hurts because you want to do it so bad. Well, these two guys turned my whole head around, and when I went back to the Army I started writing little bebop things. They were pretty trite, but it was what I remembered. When I got out of the Army, I got to 52nd Street and I started to play with the guys and really learn."
He certainly did learn. Well over 300 songs have flowed from the pen of Terry Gibbs-songs that have been recorded by such luminaries as Count Basie, Les Brown, Nat King Cole, and many others. The list of names Gibbs has played with includes Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Goodman, Woody Herman, Miles Davis, Bud Powell, Ella Fitzgerald, Buddy Rich, Tito Puente_or as Gibbs puts it: "Everybody you can think of, especially during the bebop days. I've been fortunate through the years."
Several thousand gigs later, Gibbs is still knocking them dead everywhere he plays. In a 1964 interview he said, "All in all I'm happy with Terry Gibbs today. All I ever want is to keep on swinging." Some thirty years later, I asked him if he still felt that way. He replied, "How can you quit when you're really having fun playing? It's like a fighter-you have to practice in-between all the time to be able to do what you're capable of doing. When I'm ninety years old, I'll probably say the same thing. I'll probably be out on the road. I keep threatening to retire some day, but so long as they call me, I can't quit. As long as I can still think of something to play on `I Got Rhythm' and the blues, how can I quit?"
The Terry Gibbs Short Stories
Terry Gibbs is down-to-earth, modest, and witty, and he has a great gift for storytelling. Having worked with some of the world's most influential musicians and entertainers, he has amassed an impressive collection of what I call "The Terry Gibbs Short Stories." Here are three favorites.
Two Choruses for Woody
On Woody's band, my big solo was `What's New.' Johnny Mandel wrote me an arrangement of that tune, and I only played two notes of the melody. From there on I played four billion notes; nobody knew what song I was playing. I just ran through the changes, because I could hear the melody in my head. Woody, who was like a father to me, came over to me one time and said, "You know, Terry, I think if you played the first eight bars of melody...," and I wouldn't even let him finish. I had a hot temper. I said, "Who are you to tell me how to play? You can't play. I know twice as much as you do." I thought he walked away crying, he felt so terrible. Just a few years before Woody died, I was playing the Royal York Hotel, in Toronto, Canada, and Woody came in to see me. I told the audience the story I just told you, and I said, "Now, I'm going to play this for you, Woody." I played two full choruses of the melody of "What's New"-no jazz, just two full choruses of the melody. I owed that to him.
Benny couldn't remember names. He called everybody in the world "Pops." We did The Ed Sullivan Show. Now Teddy Wilson was, besides Art Tatum, the most famous piano player at the time, and the whole world knew that Teddy was black. Teddy could not make The Ed Sullivan Show, so Benny's office hired a piano player who was white. The whole week we were there, we rehearsed every day. Benny never said hello to this piano player, didn't know his name, didn't care.
Now, come show time, we play our one song, and we're about ready to walk off when Ed Sullivan says, "Hey, Benny, come here."
So Benny walked over to Ed Sullivan, and Sullivan said, "Who's in the band?" Now Benny loved my real name, so he always called me Gubenko. When he introduced me he tried to say Terry Gibbs, but he couldn't: "Uh, on vibes, Gubenko." My mother loved it.
He remembered the drummer's name and the bass player's, and he looked at the piano player-who he had never said hello to-and said, "On piano we have Teddy Wilson." We all did a double take. A white guy is sitting there; Teddy Wilson is black. We didn't believe it. Make up a name-Irving Schwartz, anything. Don't say Teddy Wilson.
Benny was that way; he was very foggy. But he could play the clarinet. Benny was so into the clarinet that if you told him World War III just started, he'd say "What key is it in?" That was one of the highlights of my career, just to play with Benny Goodman, because I grew up listening to him.
Charlie Parker, as everybody knows, was hooked on dope. It's a shame, but he was hooked. He'd be standing out in front of Birdland and a musician would walk out and Parker would say, "Hey, give me a dollar." Then he'd say, "Where are you playing tomorrow? I'll be over to sit in with you."
Bird asked me for a dollar one time. I said, "You ought to be ashamed of yourself, asking people for a dollar. Greatest musician in the world begging for money." He said, "Where you playing tomorrow? I'll be over." I gave him a dollar like everybody else. Now when he told everybody he'd be over, he'd never show up. But this time, we're playing and all of a sudden Bird walks in.
I got so scared, I didn't believe it. We were amateurs compared to him. He came up on stage and I'll never forget, the tune was "Out of Nowhere," which is a 32-bar tune. He played the melody, then came out blowing.
On the 30th bar of his first chorus I bent down to tie my shoe. On the 30th bar of the next chorus I tied my other shoe. On the 30th bar of every chorus I was on the floor doing some ridiculous thing because I was not going to be standing up when he finished playing.
After about the 16th chorus, my piano player looked down at me on the floor and says, "I know what you're doing, and I'm not going to follow him either." We were all scared. If somebody would have asked me in those days if I would rather follow Bird or fight Mike Tyson, I'd get in the ring with Mike Tyson in two seconds. At least I'd get knocked out and that'd be the end of that. With Bird, I suffered for 35 choruses while he played so great. There was no way anybody could have followed him-except Dizzy Gillespie.