Frank Nizzari, in costume
for a performance with the
Bubonic Bassoon Quartet
Pranking with Frank
As Told by Terry MacDonald
Musicians are suckers for bandstand pranks. But my late friend, Frank Nizzari, seemed to live for them. Music came first, of course. But practical jokes were a very, very close second.
Frank was a wonderfully talented musician. His first instrument, growing up, was clarinet, but he played virtually all the reeds, including one of the most difficult of them, the bassoon, and played in both jazz and classical contexts. He was a frequent presence on the bandstands of the major Boston jazz clubs back in the day, and he recorded with Carla Bley. He taught saxophone at Berklee, played in the pit bands of Boston’s theaters, and was a guest soloist with both the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Pops.
Music he took very seriously. The rest of it, not so much.
In 1957, when we were both very young, Frank got me hired as the drummer in the band of a traveling USO show. It was a big band that backed a troupe of singers, dancers, an acrobat, and a joke-telling rope-trick artist. (Could I make this stuff up?) As we entertained the troops in the Caribbean, the British West Indies and Iceland, Frank’s practical jokes kept us all amused and wondering what he’d come with next. What he came with one night was his best prank of the tour, and nobody saw it coming.
So here’s the setup. Wimpy Hall was our comedian. He mostly told jokes, but ended his act with a rope trick. Seriously. He’d have a lasso in his left hand, another in his right hand, a third dangling from his mouth. Across the small of his back, Wimpy attached a broomstick, from each end of which hung, yes, a lasso. That made five lassos, which he would set into motion one-by-one until he had all five of them twirling at once. As Wimpy gyrated, Frank would rise from his seat in the reeds section and play the famous snake charmer’s song (you know, the one about what they don’t wear in the sunny side of France). When Wimpy reached the pinnacle of his performance, he’d toss all five lassos into the air, and, as he took his bow, the band’s director,Fred Harris, would cue the band, and we’d play a loud resolving chord. Ta-Daaaaaaaaah! You get it?
On this particular night, as the band squirmed in its seats, having seen Wimpy’s rope-trick act a hundred times before, Frank as usual rose to his feet from the reeds section. But this time, he played the snake charmer’s song a little differently: up a half a tone.
Now think about that. Frank, of course, knew what he was up to, but the rest of us—nobody apparently having the gift of perfect pitch—was the wiser. So when Wimpy triumphantly threw his five lassos in the air, taking his big bow, and the director cued us for the big resolving chord, we all did what always we did. But this time, it came out wrong. Very wrong.
And I’ll leave the rest for your imagination.