Sid Gillman and his love of jazz

When I first got into the book-writing game, I thought you could throw all your research, all your interviews, all your written words into your masterpiece of a tome. And there it would stick, all your thoughts (every single one) for all the book-reading public to consume.

I had all the space in the world, right? So, I figured, why not mash all the good stuff in there? Somebody gave me an excellent quote that didn’t really fit the context or the narrative? Shoehorn it in. I discovered a story that’s too good not to include somewhere? Make room for it. Or, in the case of my first book, I’d done too much reporting on a season not to include the whole freakin’ thing, no matter how irrelevant that slate of games was a half-decade later? Fold it up like origami and stuff it in. I was writing a book, dammit. Pile that sandwich high and shove it down the reader’s throat.

But here’s the thing: 300 pages or 100,000 words really isn’t all that much. Yes, it’s an enormous mountain to climb when you’re at the base and you haven’t conducted interviews or written a single word. But when you have dozens of folders stuffed with research and an entire flash drive filled with transcribed quotes – and you have hundreds of stories that need to be resurrected – those pages and words disappear faster than your oxygen at the mountain’s peak.

And with my latest book on Sid Gillman, I had too much good fodder. I couldn’t use it all, and then, after turning in my first draft, I was told I had to cut about 30,000 words from the manuscript. I had to lose most of an American Football League section. I had to cut out some good stories. I had to delete some fantastic quotes. Really, it wasn’t much different than editing down a 25-inch newspaper feature story into a 15-inch hole. I had to keep what was absolutely essential. A good quote or a strong story wasn’t enough. I had to be selective – and that’s what I learned going from Bearcats Rising to Sid Gillman: Father of the Passing Game.

Which brings me to Gillman’s love of jazz.

Gillman was an accomplished piano player. His mother started him on lessons when he was 7 years old and living on the north side of Minneapolis. He got good enough on that spinet to join a few bands in high school and college and keep himself well-styled.

“When I was in high school,” Gillman once said, “I was the best dressed man because of the extra money I made.”

Obviously, he didn’t make it a career (though he once held a summer job playing the keys at a honkeytonk during prohibition where he collected tips from a glass dish that sat on top of his piano). But it was an important facet of his life for quite a while. In fact, the first time he ever encountered his future wife, Esther, was when he was sitting behind a baby grand, providing the background music of a Sweet 16 party many decades ago.

I write about his piano-playing in the book, even if it became just a passing fancy once he grew to be a big-time football coach. But one of the concessions I had to make for the final draft of the book was to exclude Gillman’s love of jazz. It was intriguing and compelling – at the very least, it helped round out his character – but quite honestly, I couldn’t figure out where to place it in the book. Never could find a home for his obsession with jazz. Or, as one feature writer from the late 1960s penned, “To Sid, jazz is the elixir, the cure-all, the youth machine, even in defeat a precious ennobling balm to the spirit.”

Gillman loved jazz so much that one writer who penned an article entitled “The Old Man is the Hippest“ couldn’t stop himself from gushing about Gillman’s top-notch 33 rpm vinyl collection – which featured mostly jazz artists like McCoy Tyner, Nina Simone, Cannonball Adderley, Dave Brubeck and Fatha Hines (with the exception of Simone, who died four months after Gillman in 2003, I know nothing about any of these musicians, though Brubeck is still apparently alive and well at 92 years old).

As for rock music, here’s what Gillman had to say in 1968: “No musicianship. The big trouble is that most rock n roll musicians are terrible. On the other hand, some of the Beatles songs are great, very pretty and they sound fine when good musicians play them*, like a Buddy Rich or Wes Montgomery or Quincy Jones. Rock n roll is still young, still groping and maybe something good will come out of it. But as yet they don’t have much of a game plan.** It just isn’t very interesting.”

*Is Gillman saying here that the Beatles weren’t good musicians? That’s kind of what it sounds like. But hey, at least none of them played the clarinet, am I right? (Don’t worry, you’ll get there in a minute.)

**Even when discussing one of the other loves of his life, Gillman just couldn’t stay away from the football analogies.***

***To further illustrate that point, here’s what Gillman once said about his idol in high school, a near-blind pianist named Art Tatum: “Tatum was the greatest of them all. He commanded that keyboard like a quarterback calling a perfect game. When Tatum improvised, he was Unitas, Starr, Van Brocklin rolled into one.”

In one of those feature stories from 1968, Gillman was asked to name his all-time all-star jazz team. Though I couldn’t figure out a way to shoehorn the results into the book, I present it to you here. Because it was a passion of Gillman’s, and because … why the hell not?

  • Piano: Oscar Peterson (“But I want some backup pianists in there – Ahmad Jamal, Bill Evans, Denny Zeitlin, Bobby Timmons, Red Garland and Billy Taylor.”)
  • Guitar: Wes Montgomery
  • Saxophone: Cannonball Adderley, Bud Shank, Paul Desmond, Gerry Mulligan on baritone
  • Clarinet: None (“That’s a lost instrument. You just don’t hear much good clarinet anymore.”)
  • Trombone: J.J. Johnson, Kai Winding, the whole Stan Kenton trombone section
  • Bass: Ray Brown (“Who else?”)
  • Trumpet: Dizzy Gillespie, plus Miles Davis, Nat Adderley, Clark Terry and Bobby Bryant
  • Drums: Buddy Rich
  • Vibraphone: Terry Gibbs
  • Singer: Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Billy Eckstine, Buddy Greco
  • Co-coaches: Quincy Jones for composing and Shorty Rogers for arranging
  • Team captain: Dizzy Gillespie
  • Consultant: Duke Ellington
  • As Gillman said at the end of that recitation: “There’s my team. Have tux, will travel.”

    In reality, the all-time all-star jazz team is a detail that’s probably only worth the 1,200 words I just dropped on it here (and it’s probably not even worth that). Which is why you won’t find it in the book. But that’s OK. This particular detail didn’t deserve to make the book. My only regret with the exclusion, though, is this: I just wish I could have figured out a way to write about Gillman’s disappointment with that era’s music – with the birth of rock n roll and the death of the clarinet.

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