Julius Gubenko, 12-year-old xylophonist, is sent on for an opening and the kid just about steals the show. When asked for an encore he literally had to beg off, for the half pint was too nervous to make the speech that would have taken him off.
Julius Gubenko, who earned this reaction to his public debut at the Stanley Theatre in Pittsburgh, had been heard the night before as a winner on the Major Bowes radio amateur hour. Soon after, he went on the road with Bowes; eventually he became Terry Gibbs, the award-winning jazz vibraphonist.
Celebrating his golden anniversary, Gibbs still talks exactly the way he plays: the words gush forth like the phrases in an "Air Mail Special" solo. His hyper manner and musical enthusiasm have never slackened.
He worked his way from bebop groups on 52nd Street to big bands (Buddy Rich, Woody Herman and his own orchestra); from road tours leading his quartet to conducting assignments, most often with Steve Allen, in whose sextet he played in 1958, and who has played a central role in his career for the past 17 years.
When Gibbs took up the vibraphone hardly anyone else in jazz played it except Lionel Hampton and Red Norvo. "I didn't listen to vibes players anyway; my idols were Roy Eldridge, Benny Goodman, Lester Young. When I started out as a drummer I listened to Joe Jones, Buddy Rich and the Basie and Goodman bands."
When he tells you that music was his whole life, you can believe it. "I wanted to be either a boxer or a drummer. While I was on the road with Major Bowes--they sent a teacher along so I could keep up my education--I was quite an athlete; I'd sneak out of the theater and join any bunch of kids playing ball. I worked the mountains, the small towns, all over. I knew every cockroach in every hotel in the world."
He stayed with the drums for several of his early jobs because, he says, "I had so much technique on vibes that I didn't know what to do with it. Then while I was on furlough from the Army, my friend Tiny Kahn, the arranger and drummer, told me, 'You've got to come and listen to this new music that's going on. It's called bebop.' Well, I listened to Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and my mind went berserk! I started to play vibes again, triple time; I was writing bebop tunes; the guys in the Army band thought I was nuts."
Out of the service, he joined the guitarist Bill De Arango and earned a Down Beat encomium ("the most exciting musician on the scene in many, many months . . . a musician who excites everyone who hears him.")
"Then I had an offer to join Tommy Dorsey. My mother wouldn't let me fly--in those days you listened to your mother--so I took four days to get to California by train, played one tune with Dorsey and knew right away this music was not for me. I decided to quit. Now Tommy had a temper, and being a boxer, I had my hands ready. 'Nobody quits my band,' he said, 'You're fired!' I said, 'If you fire me you have to pay my way home.' He said, 'No, you quit! Pay your own way!' "
The only advantage of this disaster was that Gibbs met Dorsey's drummer, Louie Bellson, who in turn introduced him to Lionel Hampton. "Hamp called up and said, 'Hey, kid, you play drums? I'll make you my protege. You play drums and I'll give you 12 vibes solos.' But I guess Lionel's wife didn't want any young kid upstaging him, not that anyone could upstage Lionel. But he reduced the offer to six, then two vibes solos, then none--he just offered to hire me to play drums, which I didn't want. So he paid my way home, which was nice--more than Tommy would do."
From the day he joined Herman in 1948, the good times never stopped rolling. "Woody handled young musicians so well, and he knew how to generate excitement. What a band that was! Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Al Cohn, Chubby Jackson, Lou Levy, Shorty Rogers, Ernie Royal, Oscar Pettiford--he never had a bad soloist. When I left, he replaced me with Milt Jackson--a great player, who was harmonically ahead of me, though I had all the technique in the world."
Throughout the 1950s one gratifying gig followed another. For a while he co-led an all-star combo with Bellson and the trumpeter Charlie Shavers. For two or three years off and on he worked with his childhood idol, Benny Goodman.
For several years post-Goodman, Gibbs toured with his own quartet, playing his own part in breaking down the sex barrier: at one time or another his pianists were Terry Pollard (who also played vibes duets with him), Alice McLeod (who later married and toured with John Coltrane), Pat Moran and Joanne Grauer.
After moving to California in 1957, he formed his own big band. "That was a real dream band--I discovered some unissued material, taped live in Hollywood, which will be released next week on Contemporary Records.
"I went back East for a while, but by 1964 things looked bad for jazz. Birdland closed down and rock was getting very big. Luckily I got a job conducting for Regis Philbin's show in Los Angeles." This series, for which Gibbs composed all the music, helped build up an ASCAP rating that eventually became substantial, later increased with his writing credits on Steve Allen's show and on a successful ABC-TV series called "Operation Entertainment," performed at Army bases, for which Gibbs served as musical director, composer and conductor.
The 1970s were devoted mostly to extensive travels with Allen and a variety of jobs with his own small groups. Then, by chance, a new association began that has proved valuable to him and a gifted partner, the clarinetist Buddy De Franco.
"In 1980 Buddy and I were both booked to play with our own groups at Ronnie Scott's in London. Ronnie asked if we'd like to close the show by doing a number together. Well, we just broke it up, and the next night we did two tunes together. We said to each other, 'Hey, we ought to do this more often."
Out of this accidental encounter, Gibbs and De Franco, who had known one another for 35 years but had never before shared a stage, began to accept joint booking, leading a quintet on a successful KCET television special and on club and concert dates at home and around the world. Critics called them the Lionel Hampton and Benny Goodman of the bop genre, and indeed they did generate the same excitement. Their live album taped in Los Angeles for Palo Alto confirmed the value of the chemistry between them.
"We don't work together often enough to keep a permanent rhythm section together," Gibbs said, "but we always manage to find great people. In June we have a half dozen dates in the Bay Area with Mel Torme, in an all-star group with Louie Bellson, Hank Jones, Remo Palmier and Milt Hinton. You can't do much better than that!" Torme is an old friend and associate, on whose New York TV series Gibbs played regularly in 1950-51.
One area of jazz with which Gibbs has rarely been associated is Latin music. This is now being corrected through an association with Tito Puente.
A special source of pride nowadays is the frequent presence in his quartet of the 22-year-old drummer Gerry Gibbs. "He's never been into rock--he's always been a jazz drummer. A really talented kid--I'm proud of him; and he can relate to me the way I never could to my own father. My Dad had a successful band in Brooklyn, and he could never understand why I'd turn down a nice-paying job with him because I wanted to go out and jam.
"I've always had a philosophy about performance: You never play a first set, you always begin with the third set. I don't believe in building, I believe you should start swinging from the moment you hit that stage. When it gets to the point where I don't feel like doing that, I'll quit. I play to please myself. If the audience likes what I'm doing I'm ahead of the game.
"When people ask me who my competition is and I say I have no competition, they think I'm cocky. But what I mean is, I'm my own competition. I'm not competing with Milt Jackson or Bobby Hutcherson or Lionel or any of the great people. All I ever want is to play better this evening than I played last night."