Woody Allen fans know Jerry Zigmont. He’s the trombonist for the Eddy Davis New Orleans Jazz Band, the outfit that have been playing every Monday night with Woody Allen for decades. Year after the year, the band plays almost every week (with a small break for the holidays and to make films) at The Carlyle in New York City.
We’ve been wanting to chat with Jerry for a long time. We finally worked it out and he gave us an exclusive – Woody Allen and the band are heading west this August. As he says, it’s unusual for the band to play in the US outside of New York. We assume it ties in with the filming of Allen’s 2016 film.
Below, we talked to Zigmont about his time with the band, some of the famous faces that he’s encountered and what to expect if you catch a show.
I’ve been trying to work out when you started with the band. It’s been almost twenty years?
It’s pretty staggering when you think about it. It doesn’t feel that long. You know that old saying goes “familiarity breeds contempt”, but it seems fairly fresh.
Did you think this would be a 20 year gig when you signed up?
I had no idea.
The way I got into was I was filling in for the regular trombonist at Michael’s Pub, where the band started playing regularly. It has since gone out of business, but it was located mid-town, on the East Side of Manhattan. Michael’s was a small dinner club and people like Mel Torme, George Shearing or other well known jazz acts would go in. And Woody Allen would play there on Monday nights for since the early 1970’s.
Growing up I was aware he played New Orleans jazz and actually went down there one night. I didn’t know anybody in the band so I wasn’t able to walk up to the bandstand and say hello to anybody. But I sat there as a Woody Allen fan and saw him play this kind of music which I was a little bit steeped in, never dreaming that many years later not only I would play in Michael’s Pub, I would be a regular part of the band.
I live in the greater New Haven area, close by to Yale University and New York is not that far. When I was younger it was always a big deal when you’d you go New York even though it wasn’t that far away. That was kind of a major thing to wrap my head around – driving down to New York every Monday night to do this gig – are you ready to commit to it? But I probably would have done this for free when they asked me.
How did you get the gig? Did you audition?
Woody had been approached over the years to go out and tour with the group. He had always been reluctant to do that because he felt the old band never quite nailed the style he wanted to play. I’m not sure how the whole documentary with Barbara Kopple came into being (Wild Man Blues) but it was that for that Wild Man Blues tour that he said he would consider doing it, but perhaps with different musicians. So Eddy Davis (technically the leader of our band) said, no problem, we’ll put a band together that can really do the style that you want to do.
That remains the genesis of the band that we have today. It didn’t include me, it included a trombone player Dan Barrett – he’s in the Wild Man Blues video. They did that tour and Woody was very happy with the results but he was approached to put out this soundtrack. And so we ended up re-recording a lot of the numbers from the Wild Man Blues tour and he liked that a little bit better. When Dan came back to New York he decided he was going to move back to the west coast and that’s when Eddy called me and said Dan’s not going to be in the band anymore and would I like to be the regular guy.
Were you known as a New Orleans jazz player at the time?
Playing New Orleans jazz is a lot like playing Klezmer or Appalcahian folk music or something. They’re small little niches. Usually when people play in a certain style, you end up knowing everyone in the community. So I was sort of a known trombonist that was out there in the New York area.
I had the opportunity to fill in at in Michael’s Pub, so Eddy heard me play with Woody and was convinced enough that I played a style of trombone he would like. So when Dan decided he would move away, I was asked to be a regular part of the band.
When did you first hear jazz and in particular New Orleans jazz? You grew up far from New Orleans.
The way I got steeped in the music was when I was in college. There was a group of musicians who played that style and they were looking for a trombonist. I came into it with a pedigree of classical trombone, never having any familiarity at all with – not being derogatory – very crude and a very rudimentary jazz style that makes up what we call authentic New Orleans jazz.
For me it was just some jazz work on the weekend that paid pretty well. It was in Hartford Connecticut and this band had a regular gig, and they said here’s some cassettes to listen to – have at it. So in very short order I was able to play by rote some of the more celebrated trombone solos so the band was thrilled, and that’s how I got steeped in it.
For a long time I felt it was pretty rough stuff and I didn’t really have an appreciation of it. I sometimes make the analogy that It’s like drinking scotch. Your first glass of scotch – you don’t really understand what the fuss is about and it doesn’t taste that good. And I had that reaction with that music. As the years have progressed I’ve gained a much greater appreciation of it.
There’s parallels with the simplicity of the music to things like Miles Davis. That’s what Miles was going for in a lot of his solos. paring it down, throwing out the technique, throwing out the versatility and the high notes and playing in a very show boat style. Trying to strain it down to it’s essence.
And you listen these sort of very simple Miles Davis solos on Kind Of Blue and some of his classic records and they’re extremely beautiful and extremely plaintive but they’re extremely simple. It’s not about versatility, it’s not trying to show the people how fast or how high we can play. It’s being able to put a song across in this very heartfelt way.
It’s seems like a type of music that leans towards being played live. The records are great but seeing a band play it live and the energy is the joy. Would you agree?
Without a doubt. There’s tremendous amount of spontaneity. Without bragging we have an extremely deep repertoire. And we can do that because a lot these songs are very simple, either popular melodies of the day, New Orleans marches, hymns, spirituals and there’s literally hundreds and hundreds of songs. And if we were playing a double header and Woody called the song both nights, it would sound completely different. And it’s due to the spontaneous nature of jazz and it’s the way the guys were feeling.
For the most part a lot of music that we play was really functional dance music. The music that Woody listened to were these New Orleans guys, and a lot of them were not very facile at playing their instruments but they were just jobbed out to play at the local dance hall for five hours.
Were you a film person growing up? You were a fan of Woody?
It was a different time. If you were a film person, you would go and see it with your pals at the theatre. This predates VCR so there was no collecting of films. So whatever we saw we saw at the theatre, whether it was the Deer Hunter or The Godfather. I was in high school when Annie Hall came out and I recall the theatre that we went to and seeing that movie and enjoying it. I also remember seeing Sleeper.
When did you hear that Allen was also a musician?
Probably around college time, when I started playing New Orleans jazz. I peripherally heard that he had a band that performed in New York regularly that aped that style. Of course, there was that anecdote of him missing the Academy Awards – he probably wouldn’t have gone to the Academy Awards anyway even if he didn’t have another commitment – but the Academy Awards used to be on Monday nights and the band has always played on Monday nights. So that was 100% true.
How many songs do you reckon the band knows?
Probably close to a thousand, without exaggeration.
When we go out and we do these multi-city tours Woody delights in not calling the same tune for the entire tour. We have our flag wavers, sometimes he refers to it as we have our ‘a’ show, but he would more often than not delight in calling the more esoteric stuff, stuff that we haven’t played in a while, just so he doesn’t have to repeat a number out on tour.
Which is interesting because if you think of how most stand-up comics work, they have their rehearsed 40 minutes that they would get up and do and it would not vary that much from night to night and city to city. If you think about it, there is nothing really spontaneous about a comedian’s repartee.
It surprises me how different Allen approached music and film. He preserves the history of this music, but he doesn’t seem to care about preserving his own history?
He loves the immediacy and going out on a Monday night and playing.
If you told him we want to record the next 25 Monday nights and we want you to review everything and we want to put it out. He would probably say OK, let’s do that as long as I wouldn’t have to pay for it, and then he would listen to the stuff and he would probably not sign off on any of it.
He would say everybody sounds great but I sound terrible. And there’s no sense of false modesty, this is the way he is. He has a real tough time listening to himself play.
I’ve talked to Eric Lax about this, and nobody has ever really done a deep dive into what this is all about. This is such an important part in his life. He’s totally committed to doing this.
From what I can tell with Woody from interviews, he almost loves music more than films and if he could he would do it every day.
He probably can’t devote the time to it he would like and there’s probably a certain level of frustration. I think this little thing that he does with the band is a great way to check out and not have to be Woody Allen and just be the clarinet player. I think likes it because it’s an escape.
He’s made the analogy sometimes people it’s like people going out to play a golf game. This is what I do – play music.
It does feel like with directing, he could be leading a band. Especially in later years, he picks good actors like musicians, here’s the song, or the script and you play it.
A lot of actors say he doesn’t say very much, and that’s the way he is on the bandstand. He would be the last person in the group to offer any sort of critique. Very much like he does on a movie set. He knows when it’s right for him, and it’s also very easy for him just to tell them to do it again. Very much the same way if we were recording tunes. So I think there’s lots of parallels. It sounds like he just enjoys being a member of the band. Even though he has to front it.
Here’s the interesting thing. In most cases he prefers the name of the band to be Eddy Davis New Orleans Jazz Band and begrudgingly – with Woody Allen. Yet anytime we’ve ever played in Europe it’s the Woody Allen New Orleans Jazz Band. And most times when the band gets other than sometimes in the US, it has to be billed that way.
Have you played in front of many celebrities?
Not as many as you would think. The Coldplay story was really funny. At that table was Christy Turlington, Ed Burns, Chris Martin and Gwenyth Paltrow. And some of the band knew Ed Burns, and somebody said to Chris – what do you do? And Ed says he’s in a rock band called Coldplay and it had absolutely no recognition from anyone in the band. He was potentially the biggest star there that night and nobody knew who he was.
And it’s heartbreaking because Chris asked us to open for them at this free concert they were giving at Madison Square Garden, and Woody said “I don’t think so”.
Some of the people who have been in his movies have come. Sean Penn‘s come a couple of times. Jesse Eisenberg, a lovely guy, a real sweetheart. Penelope Cruz came. Bill Murray came most recently about a week after they did the big Saturday Night Live tribute. That was thrill for me. Van Morrison came in. He stayed for about a number and half and then left with his girlfriend. He just hated it.
Joe DiMaggio came one night. And Woody’s a huge baseball fan. When we were done at the end of the set he almost crawled over booths and chairs to get to Joe talk to him. It was really special for him. And he never runs out in the audeince to seek somebody out but that was one person he really wanted to talk to.
What is a typical show like?
The Carlyle is very small inside. It only seats about 150 people. So it’s very close and very intimate. Folks that come from out of town and want to say they came to New York and saw a celebrity, this is a good way for them to pay some money and make that happen. The Carlyle is one of the last standing New York supper clubs.
Woody arrives with a set in his head. He knows what he wants to play on any given night. We never know and we like it that way – it keeps it fresh. Sometimes people will shout out little things like “I love you Woody” and he
We start around 8:45 and we play for a solid hour. And then myself and the trumpet player and the bassplayer do a walk off. Woody will stay on stage and play in a small little quartet setting. And then, usually, he has these little stock tunes that Eddy will usually get him to do a little sing along. And you’ve probably seen those on youtube.
As musicians we really get our kicks when we do something really special. Like going back to Monaco. We hadn’t been there in 10 years and this time we played at the Monte-Carlo Casino Opera House. That was a thrill, just to be on that stage. I never dreamed in a million years I would be playing at the Campidoglio in the Roman Forum, or the stage of La Scala, or in the opera house in Lucca where Puccini composed his operas.
If you played in Wynton Marsalis‘s band or you’re Keith Jarrett, those are gigs that you do. You don’t play ragtime trombone and play among Roman ruins.
You seem to have taken the band’s profile alive in the internet age.
I think it’s important that the information gets out there. I think Woody would be disappointed if the numbers at The Carlyle started to drop. But The Carlyle has become an institution. Certainly it’s important to make people aware if you’re out there playing in places beside The Carlyle.
If a video is posted on YouTube or somebody post photos, I collect those. I think they’re important to have. If not for the rest of the band members then for my kids.
Speaking of going abroad, you have some tour dates to announce?
We’re going to play in Minneapolis and then the west coast. It’s unusual because we don’t perform too much in the US. Woody is really revered and celebrated when we go to Europe so it’s always a completely different vibe when playing in the US. But there’s something important to him about wanting to play here, so we are
excited to play for our US based fans.
We have some dates that we are going to play.
Back to New Orleans Jazz. for those unfamiliar, where would be a good place to start?
If you just wanted to hone in on what Woody is going for with his band on Monday nights it would be George Lewis or Sidney Bechet.
When jazz caught on in the 20s, a lot of the real talented musicians went to the big cities where they could record and get a lot more work. And there were a lot of local guys who stayed in the city and maybe they dabbled in playing music on the side. They’d go to a pawn shop, they’d buy a clarinet or a trombone and pick up a little bit of extra income on the weekends playing in a jazz band.
Then in the 40s some musicologists went to New Orleans to discover the guys that were around when Jazz was first invented. So there was this big New Orleans revival and there was a lot of romanticism surrounding finding these old time guys who were still playing the real Jazz. George Lewis was one of the musicians who was at the center of the movement. He had a band and he toured around the world, including Japan. Woody just adores traditional New Orleans jazz and clarinet players like George Lewis, Sidney Bechet and Johnny Dodds.
Where do you think this will be in ten years? It seems like there’s no end.
I think that if the pace of his filmmaking should slow down in years to come, he will still play faithfully, every Monday night.
Pretty exciting news about the West Coast tour, and things seem to be coming together for the 2016 film quite nicely. We will post all the venue details and ticket links to the tour as soon as we get them.
You can find out more about Jerry and how to get yourself to The Carlyle for a Monday night show at his website – jerryzigmont.com