Correspondence: Shank’s Clay Pipe

Tony Bill writes from Venice, California:

When Bud Shank died on April 2 at 82, there were hundreds of
thousands, probably millions, who were reminded of his recordings,
concerts and performances. But there were also about a dozen guys who
remembered a single, private and magical half-hour of his life…and
their own.
I met Bud on a boat. He was a sailing pal of my brother, John – a
professional skipper who had raced on Bud’s boat, Xanalyn. I owned a
sailboat, too: Olinka. And in May of 1977, I decided to enter the
famous Newport to Ensenada race. My brother suggested Bud as one of the
crew. I wasn’t a big jazz fan, so Bud Shank’s name meant nothing
musical to me. I didn’t realize he was one of the world’s great
flautists, who would, only a few years later, give it up for other
instruments. But I knew he was a sailing man; one of the best.
There were 12 of us on the boat. Most of us already knew each other;
hard-core ocean racers, signed up for a good time on a beautiful, but
dated, wooden yawl. Built in Sweden in 1952, Olinka was also a handful
when racing; it took a dozen or more very good sailors to wring the
best out of her. And Bud was clearly qualified. We had a great time and
a great race, crossing the finish line at sunrise, ahead of the fleet.
First in class.
Bud went ashore with a few of us in Ensenada to stock up for our
celebratory breakfast: huevos; tortillas; tomates; cebollas; limones;
tequila; sangrita with a woman’s picture on the bottle. It was Cinco de
Mayo: the Mexican day of Independence. And on the way back to the dock
we passed through the sleepy, hungover, once-a-year swarm; past kids
setting off fireworks. There was an old blind man selling little
handrolled clay pipes with a few random holes punched in here and
there; little flowers and donkeys painted on next to the Ensenada BC;
the kind of souvenier trinket you’d buy for your kid to prove you’d
been to Mexico…and hope they didn’t try to play it.
So the guy holds up a pipe, and Bud gives it a quick try, buys it for a
buck (overpriced even 32 years ago) and sticks it in the grocery bag.
And we go back to the boat, fix breakfast, and settle down to catch
some of the sleep we lost during the 20 hour race. Then, rocking in the
early morning sun, watching the scores of boats still trailing across
the finish line, we start to hear Bud Shank, alone on the foredeck,
playing Antonio Carlos Jobim – purely and flawlessly – on what only moments
before was a crude, cheap toy; a piece of clay before that; and dust
before that. It was the most memorable outdoor concert of my life.
First in class.

(Mr. Bill produced The Sting, among other motion pictures. Films he has directed include Crazy People and Flyboys — DR)

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  1. Mel Narunsky says

    Lovely story from Tony Bill.
    By the way, before Mr. Bill became a motion picture producer, he acted
    in many films and TV productions. He acquitted himself admirably in
    his first feature film, Come Blow Your Horn (1963) which Norman Lear
    adapted from Neil Simon?s play, in the role of Buddy Baker, the
    younger son. This movie is my favorite Frank Sinatra comedy.

  2. Robin says

    Wow..this brings back memories. I remember the ‘Olinka’. I’m not sure of the correct boating being a yacht/yawl/ship..
    It was a beautiful piece of work!
    We chartered it for the day a few times back in the late 70’s early 80’s. John Bill was an amazing skipper/captain and an all around fun man to hang with. We all had an absolute blast! Hope he’s doing well these days and sailing to his hearts content.
    Peace ~ Robin