In response to yesterday’s item about the passing of trombonist Bill Watrous, Alexandra Leh sent a comment so interesting that I am taking the liberty of converting it to a stand-alone guest column. I hope she doesn’t mind. I certainly don’t mind her making me homesick for Jim & Andy’s. Ms. Leh is a writer and actress who comes from—to say the least—a musical family, as she explains.
By Alexandra Leh
Bill Watrous was in his mid-twenties when I first met him at the Manhattan musicians’ hangout Jim & Andy’s. I was 11, and had walked the six blocks to Jimmy Koulouvaris’ establishment after school, where I knew my father would land after one of his record dates. We had a bite while waiting for Mom to get off work and join us, and Dad introduced me to Bill, who seemed surprised that a young girl would be hanging out with mostly male musicians at a bar. He soon learned that we were not a traditional family by any means, and Jim’s had been my home away from home since I was two, the year Jim & Andy’s opened.
Bill’s vocal timbre was unexpectedly deep, and as mellifluous as the tone he got on his trombone; whether you were walking into Jim’s or a recording studio, if he was speaking, you could spot him. Sometimes, his delivery of a line was comedically lascivious…like the one he used on me the next time he saw me at Jim’s, a year after we met. It was 1966, and Bill had just returned from touring in Scandinavia and Czechoslovakia with Paul Anka. Dad (who had played on all of Paul’s early hits) had been on the tour, too, but hadn’t returned with the band; he had appearances in London and Amsterdam, where Mom flew to meet him. (An aside about the Anka tour: Bill drove Dad crazy with his antics. “It’s a good thing he’s such a great player, or I’d have to pop him one.”) I was staying with friends while Mom and Dad were in Europe, and would walk over to Jim’s whenever I wanted a really good meal (usually the baked ziti, with a tortoni for dessert). Bill saw 12-year-old me walk down the steps into the bar, and called out, “You sure are getting to be a big girl, Zan!” I blushed and giggled, and all the guys had a good laugh. But I was in no danger; nothing bad would ever happen to George Barnes’ daughter at Jim & Andy’s. Jimmy, Rocky the bartender, and Pete the cook, simply wouldn’t allow it.
After that, Bill repeated his line whenever he saw me…I was 18 when I started working at A&R Recording, and if Bill was on a session, I’d inevitably hear, “You sure are getting to be a big girl, Zan.” He and Dad both recorded albums for Famous Door Records at the same time in 1973, and shared legends Hank Jones and Milt Hinton on their sessions at A&R. Bill walked into the A-2 control room during a playback of Dad’s “Merchandise Mart Indians,” walked over to me, and whispered his special greeting in my ear.
I heard him shout it on the streets of Midtown, from the stand at a nightclub, backstage at concert halls, at the China Song next to the Ed Sullivan Theatre (where Jim & Andy’s regulars convened when Jim’s closed for summer vacation…and after Jimmy had a fatal heart attack behind his bar in 1972). I moved to Los Angeles in 1978, and was working in Movies and Miniseries at CBS Television City in 1999, when I headed over to the Whole Foods across from the famous Farmer’s Market at Fairfax and Third to pick up lunch. I was waiting in line with my food, when I recognized Bill’s unique haircut waiting in the line next to mine. It had been over 20 years, and I was thrilled to run into him on the other side of the country.
“Bill Watrous!” He looked at me, and didn’t drop a beat.
“You sure are getting to be a big girl, Zan.”
Rest in peace, you brilliant musician, you silly, funny, terribly dear man.
Ms. Leh operates a Facebook page devoted to her father. You can see it here.