The Funniest People in Music: 250 Anecdotes

These are the first 10 anecdotes from my book The Funniest People in Music: 250 Anecdotes, available for .99 CHEAP at online booksellers such as Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Apple iBookstore, Kobo, etc.


 Jazz musician Duke Ellington was active in the civil rights movement. In Baltimore, he performed at a concert. Afterward, he presented himself at a restaurant where African-American students had protested segregation. Like the students, Mr. Ellington was not permitted to eat at the restaurant, but his action succeeded in giving lots of publicity to the civil rights struggle in Baltimore. In addition, Mr. Ellington declined to perform a concert in Little Rock, Arkansas, after learning that the audience would be segregated. A short time later, he did perform in Dallas and Houston — but only after he was promised that blacks and whites in the audience could sit together.[1]

Because African-American actor/singer Paul Robeson used his right of free speech to criticize prejudice and injustice in America, the United States government revoked his passport. In 1952, he attempted to cross the border into Canada — which is normally permitted even when one doesn’t have a passport — but he was stopped at the border. It looked as if the concert he had planned to give to benefit Canadian union workers would have to be cancelled, but the workers traveled to the border, and Mr. Robeson sang to them from across the border in the United States.[2]

World-famous cellist Pablo Casals often took a stand for his beliefs. In Brussels, Belgium, he once declined to perform unless the musicians were paid for their rehearsal time. Tickets had been sold to the rehearsals, and Mr. Casals believed that the musicians ought to be paid when they performed at any event that people paid to attend. In addition, when Francisco Franco took control of Spain, Mr. Casals opposed him, and he declined to perform in countries that recognized Francisco Franco’s fascist government.[3]

On a trip to Southern Rhodesia, which was then part of the British empire but is now the self-ruled country of Zimbabwe, jazz musician Louis Armstrong insisted that he play only in front of integrated audiences. For the opening concert, 25,000 people showed up and the seats were filled with both blacks and whites. During his concert, Mr. Armstrong looked out over the audience and said, “I gotta tell y’all something — it’s very nice to see this.”[4]

Pianist Artur Rubinstein cancelled a tour in Italy because of the then-government’s anti-Semitism; he also returned a prestigious award — the Order of the Commander of the Crown. Although people talked about how much money Mr. Rubinstein would lose, he talked about how many hearts he would win. He signed the letter with which he returned the award, “Artur Rubinstein, Jewish pianist.”[5]

World-renowned conductor Pierre Monteux was once denied a room at a hotel, but when the manager discovered that Mr. Monteux was famous, he said that he could arrange a room for him because Mr. Monteux was “somebody.” Mr. Monteux refused the room and departed, saying, “Everybody is somebody.”[6]


 The aged conductor Serge Koussevitsky disliked the spiritless playing of a musician, so he told him, “Don’t play like an old man.” The musician responded, “You are an old man yourself.” Maestro Koussevitsky replied, “I know that. But when I conduct like an old man, I will give up the job.” The musician thereafter played with spirit.[7]

For decades, Sir Thomas Beecham conducted from memory. However, in his old age he sometimes used a score while conducting. When Neville Cardus asked him about this, Sir Thomas replied, “I have been going through my scores recently, and I find that they hold my interest from the first page to the last.”[8]

Latin singer Ricky Martin, famous especially for the huge hit “Livin’ la Vida Loca” (“Living the Crazy Life”), sang when he was a teenager as a member of the Latin boy band Menudo, but he left the group before he turned 18. He had to — the group’s mandatory retirement age is 17.[9]


During the early part of the 20th century, dancer Anna Pavlova toured in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which is famous for its beer. There, Ms. Pavlova’s music director, Theodore Stier, asked a traffic officer where he could find a place in Milwaukee that sold really good German beer. The traffic officer looked Mr. Stier over for a moment, then he said, “Brother, there’s a place on every block — thank God!”[10]

[1] Source: Stanley I. Mour, American Jazz Musicians, pp. 35-36.

[2] Source: David K. Wright, Paul Robeson: Actor, Singer, Political Activist, p. 94.

[3] Source: David Goodnough, Pablo Casals: Cellist for the World, pp. 65-66, 97.

[4] Source: Wendie C. Old, Louis Armstrong: King of Jazz, p. 99.

[5] Source: Lore and Maurice Cowan, The Wit of the Jews, p. 62.

[6] Source: Leslie Ayre, The Wit of Music, p. 21.

[7] Source: Laning Humphrey, compiler, The Humor of Music and Other Oddities in the Art, p. 9.

[8] Source: Humphrey Procter-Gregg, Beecham Remembered, p. 188.

[9] Source: Herón Marques, Latin Sensations, p. 39.

[10] Source: Theodore Stier, With Pavlova Around the World, pp. 113-114.


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