Three degrees of separation.

Like fans of Kevin Bacon, we’re fascinated by odd relationships, familial and otherwise. Not necessarily the truly strange ones, like the estimate that 8% of all Asians living today are descendants of Genghis Khan. Say what? Apparently, it’s so, but we’re not sure they asked everyone involved for proof. Talk about the wrath of Khan! No, we’re talking about odd connections between famous people, with an emphasis—as befits this site—on jazz.

Lots of famous folks have predecessors or descendants who are in the same business, like Kirk and Michael Douglas, or Martin and Charlie Sheen. That list is endless, especially when one considers royalty. With peerage and inbreeding, it’s always about keeping the business in the family. Those kinds of relationships are common, even in jazz, although typically minus the incest and the entitlement. The Marsalis clan, Brubeck and sons. Thelonious and T. S. Monk. Nat and Natalie Cole. Duke, Mercer and Mercedes Ellington are all examples, and the list gets fairly extensive without even trying all that hard.

What we have in mind are those really unexpected connections. Siblings, spouses, in-laws or offspring who end up famous for endeavors wholly unrelated to those of the other famous relative. It’s not all that surprising when a famous person passes his or her vocation on to one, or even two or more, subsequent generations. What’s odd is when a relative gets famous in a completely different arena. Like when Paloma Picasso became known as a soft core porn star in the 1970’s, before becoming better known as a designer of jewelry. Or the great movie director Jean Renoir making his even more famous impressionist painter father proud. But even those aren’t as weird as some connections. Sometimes, it takes marriage to create the weirdest of them. As for those, we go to work when it involves jazz.

For starters, consider that producer John Hammond and big band icon Benny Goodman are brothers-in-law. At first glance, this seems like one of the less-than-odd connections described above, since both of them worked in the same circles. Indeed, it was Hammond who suggested that Columbia Records sign Goodman, well before either Goodman was all that famous or Hammond had a real job as A & R man at that label. The odd part, we suppose, is the path that Hammond took to jazz in general. Hammond was a great-grandson of the Vanderbilts, and grew up amidst great wealth, power and privilege. In the early ’30’s, this young playboy began focusing his energies on scouting talent, first for British Melody Maker magazine, and eventually for Columbia, who contracted with the magazine for tips on acts and buying trends from overseas. Hammond eventually suggested Goodman’s band to Columbia, although the band was already on the label’s radar, and the two men became well-acquainted, if not friendly.

They couldn’t have been more opposite in almost every regard. Goodman was a Jew born into abject poverty, a self-made musician and ultimately a self-made star. Rich, gentile Hammond was a stereotypical playboy idler in many ways, and one needs to judge his efforts, talents and ultimate successes more gingerly than those of Goodman. Through their common ground, however, Goodman eventually met and fell in love with Hammond’s sister, and Goodman married her in 1942. What had been a distant but functional relationship became one of complete animosity, and Hammond and Goodman rarely spoke after the marriage. After having helped in the “discovery” of Count Basie and a brief revival of Bessie Smith’s career, Hammond stayed with Columbia in various capacities into the 1960’s. While his contributions to their discoveries can easily be overstated, Hammond was—to varying degrees—responsible for Columbia’s signings of Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. What one would never have predicted, especially before about 1935, was that Hammond and Goodman would end up as family.

Next, we present the strange case of Milt Gabler and Billy Crystal. Crystal is, of course, the famous actor-comedian first noticed on Saturday Night Live in the 1980’s. Subsequent roles in “When Harry Met Sally” and “Analyze This”, and a long stint as host of the Academy Awards telecasts, all made him a superstar. The oddball connection is that Crystal’s uncle is Milt Gabler. Gabler, as fans of old jazz might know, was the owner of the Commodore Record Shop in Manhattan in the 1930’s. After becoming one of the only stores in New York catering to jazz fans in the Swing-centric ’30’s, Gabler started hosting jam sessions at the club next door, Jimmy Ryan’s. Those connections led him to start up a small, independent record label, Commodore Records, which recorded dozens of  jazz greats in the late 1930’s and early ’40’s. These were typically by the musicians being utterly ignored by the major labels, like Hot Lips Page, or those laboring away fairly anonymously in big bands, like Roy Eldridge and Chu Berry. Perhaps Gabler and Commodore’s greatest triumph was being asked by Billie Holiday to record her controversial anti-lynching anthem, “Strange Fruit”, which had been rejected as too hot to handle by every other label. Crystal recalled in an interview years later that he actually met all all of these greats—including Holiday—when he was a child and visiting “Uncle Milt’s” house.

Our last—and we think best—completely-out-of-left-field connection is that of comedian Shecky Greene and saxophonist Vido Musso. Shecky Green is the still-living embodiment of stand-up comedy as it transitioned from Borscht Belt, formulaic schtick to the edgier—and still often quite Jewish—material of comics like Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce. Greene, who’s 86 now, worked the cusp of that transition. For him, not being firmly in either camp was his ticket to stardom. By the early ’70’s, he was one of only a handful of acts commanding six-figure salaries in Las Vegas, and while he’s often seen in retrospect as a stereotypical lounge act, his reputation among his peers was—and is—sterling.

Musso was an Italian-born tenor player, who first became famous with Benny Goodman’s band in 1936. He went on to be a big band hired-gun over the next 15 years, going to high bidders such as Tommy Dorsey and Stan Kenton. It was his work with Kenton that brought him his most notice. While not considered a great player by most critics and historians, he was an able one, and he had a feel for real jazz. His downfalls were twofold: he tended to be a rather self-indulgent soloist, going for cheap thrills rather than thoughtful creation, and he was generally considered to be the loudest saxophone player in the world. That’s either a plus or a minus, of course, depending on your priorities. The point of all this? Shecky Greene is Musso’s son-in-law, although Musso died before knowing that. It was after Musso’s death—which occurred not coincidentally in Vegas—that Greene married Musso’s daughter, Marie. Who woulda thunk it?

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