Guerrilla Diaries II
Four years later, and everything had changed. I was still on the road, working my ass off (and I still am…) but from a decidely more professionally secure position. Still: what a ride…
July 1, 2001
I am 33. 34 by the time you read this. I keep thinking that, at some point, I’ll get it together. I’ll frame a schedule of music, writing, reading, listening and business which makes sense and allows time for the rest of my life. But it never really comes.
This summer I was going to read, practice, go to the lake with Jenny & go out to hear music – catch all the acts at the Jazz Showcase, and get caught up on all the scraps of ideas I carry around. I was going to work out regularly & take naps and generally recover from the last seven years or so of personal and professional trail blazing and road living. I have been working as hard and as smart as I’ve been able to make a place for myself in the world as a Jazz singer. Strike that. As the Jazz Singer. No sense in denying it.
You have to believe in yourself all the way if you are to overcome everything that comes flying at you in life. I remember reading that Charlie Chaplin, of all people –Even when he was just a poor nothing kid tagging the streets & stealing oranges – even then he thought of himself as the greatest actor in the world. Had to, he said, if he was ever going to get anywhere near the fulfillment of his dream. And I’m no different, I guess. Too much in life wants to tell you “no”. I make things as I have taught myself, from the ground up, always watching and learning (or trying to learn). You need focus, will power, patience, business acuity, sit-down-ability, a sense of humor.
This summer I needed a break from the tempo. I just got tired, is all. At a certain point, you just have to say, “enough”. I even called off some solid dates with Billy Childs, my friend Herb Graham, Jr. and the great poet Kamau Daa’ood at the Jazz Bakery at sort of the last minute. I really wanted to hit that gig, but was just too worn out on too many levels. I can only hope that Ruth and the cats have forgiven me by now. Tired is tired.
It’s been five years since my first stab at New York – the guerilla tour – when just trying to get traction was a big enough struggle. In that time I’ve made four more records for Blue Note, written five shows for the Steppenwolf Theater’s “Traffic” Series, written and directed Chicago’s Millennium show, toured Europe, four times, Japan twice, Australia three times, hit countless gigs & rehearsals in the States, logged a thousand repetitive interview hours, called the charts, sold & signed the cds, driven the van, paid for the hotel rooms & the bass overweight, fired the drummers, watched the clock & generally busted my creative and professional ass to get things moving. AND I’ve stayed married.
And still I wake up at 2 or 3 or 4:30 and think of ten things that need to be done – I need to get a drummer to sub on some gig. I need to send a thank you note to some promoter. I need to get with LH & write a lead sheet for some tune. I need to make calls to set up a Borders tour in Chicago suburbs. I need to get money from somewhere for lighting design for the record release, need to make sure fliers are printed & put up, need to call guests for the Green Mill. Need to shed. It never fails. If I’m not utterly wiped out, I’m Thinkin’. Drives me nuts.
All I was going to do was see if I could help out a bit. You know, go to a couple of meetings, make some suggestions. After all, with all its rich history (The Sutherland Hotel, the Bee Hive) and all the cats who live down here, Hyde Park needs a Jazz club. Plus, it’s my summer off . . . I ought to get into it at home, right?
So I go & of course one thing leads to another. You put pieces together in your head, you know? I remember I was on the road & reading in DownBeat about this place “Geri’s Palm Tavern” over on 47th Street. They called it “The heartbeat of Bronzeville’s golden age.” All the cats used to stop by after their sets at the Regal and Metropolitan Theaters. Dizzy came to relax with Geri after sets. Duke brought his whole band in one time & treated them all to steaks. Dinah Washington got up and sang for kicks at the piano after desert wearing a mink coat. Joe Louis, “The Brown Bomber” got engaged in booth number six. The place has only been open since the repeal of Prohibition. Of course, somebody wants to kick the owner, Geri Oliver, out after forty years & demolish the place.
“I’ve got to see this before it’s gone,” I thought. So I get off the road & go & dig the scene one afternoon.
It’s a ruddy old room – press tin ceiling, scuffed up brown tile flooring. Old paper party favors hanging down; glee from parties ten years past. A lot of the leather in the booths is covered over in some kind of faux-leather tape. There is everywhere the detritus of Geri’s forty years – clothes on hangars by the side door in a pile, a couple of non- working tv sets, old plastic flowers stuffed and taped into different spaces, old garage sale pictures of a beautiful young Sarah Vaughan, Count Basie in a suit. But there are signs of life, too – a pile of dictionaries and encyclopedia behind the bar to settle arguments. Also small printed signs all over the room, saying, “Truth tellers are not always palatable. There is a preference in life for candy bars.” Or, “We must remember that we have the same aldermen in city hall that were there when Harold Washington was mayor . . . THEY ARE ONLY OLDER.” And, of course, Mama Geri herself behind the bar, weary, but lit up in the reflection off the bar of the summer sun.
“What ‘chu want, Baby?”
“Gin and tonic, please,” I say.
“You want well gin or premium?”
“Well is cool.”
I dig the people while she fixes my drink – old dude in a chair by the front door, passed out. Some of Geri’s regulars at the bar. There is a group of younger folks at the piano, too, singing gospel tunes at the tops of their lungs – turns out to be the cast of “Blues For Jesus”, a musical review by the house playwright Fernando Jones, who is rehearsing them himself in signature fedora and hip, shiny shoes. Oddly, there’s also a small film crew from Northwewstern University coiling up cables and packing cameras.
“They’re here recording my last days,” says Geri, laying down my drink and noticing my quizzical look. “This is IT for me, baby. The city’s gon’shut me down.”
Fielded calls about my Palm Tavern Idea today, for a total of around three grueling hours. It’s a tough racket, community organizing. Have already met with the neighborhood committee twice, the head of Empowerment Zone funding, Michelle Boone, the head of Gallery 37 and her staff, We’re still on for the meeting with the Mayor’s wife and the head of the Chicago Historical Society’s Architecture Preservation board for Wednesday at The Palm. (I guess it’s still standing after the arson attempt two days ago,) we’re not sunk yet.
Plus fifteen calls about the record – my second Blue Note side to encounter cover art misfiring. I’ll come up with a cover myself before I let them move the release date back. I’ve worked too hard this summer planning the release concert – finding the venue alone took two months! Plus, we’ve scheduled an entire week of events around August 28, including a radio-sponsored master class the day of the release, open rehearsals at Gallery 37 and the set at the Chicago Jazz Festival that Friday night. Even now, I’m trying to work out a bartering deal with a local publicity house just to work the Chicago area. No way we’re moving the date. I’ll make the cover myself.
Took a break tonight & caught Nina Simone at the Chicago Theater. A sweltering hot night – typical Chicago mid-summer humidity making your back sweat as you drive & your face drip wet as you walk. I was sure we’d be late (we’re always leaving late), Plus, I’ve been hitting it all day on the phones & trying to practice in between so I’m all wound up & frustrated.
We’re racing to drop the car off in the garage at the time when the paper says Nina’s supposed to be on stage and I’m sweating, pulling Jennifer along frantically, practically by the hair. Of course, we round the corner on State Street & we see just what Jennifer calmly said we’d see: hundreds of people lined up outside waiting in line – sweating & talking, smoking – still hoping to buy decent walk up tickets. She’s right again: plenty of time.
We go to will-call & score, then to the bar.
When she finally does come out, Ms. Simone is a queen, an idol. She is a walking landmark – a monument to her own idiosyncratic career, commanding ovations after every song with a scepter of African horsehair, speaking ex cathedra, doing arrangements she’s done a million or more times. Many in the crowd sing along. Many weep. We’re all were made to stand many times to pay homage. Fascinating. Cult artists always have the most interesting relationships with their fans. Don’t you think?
Walking out from our apartment by the lake I see couples and families, a scruffy black kid dragging and laboring a webber behind him on two wheels – almost tipping it over (’cause it’s too big for him) every two or three steps.
An older cat in shiny gold cufflinks sits close up against a woman – his arm around her shoulder. She’s a workingman’s Nancy Wilson. Not as refined and subtle, but a similar smile, a similar natural grace. Cat is clean. Pink stripe shirt, big gold rings & hip blue shoes & he’s singing to her, quietly, in her ear. He’s singing and she’s giggling – back of her hand at her lips while he lays his best Marvin Gaye on her. I imagine it must buzz and tickle in her ear, though she doesn’t seem to mind. She’s laughing, ’cause she has this man who sits next to her on a park bench in the summer evening and pitches romance with a song as though she’s the only girl in the world.
Later, looking back from the cool greenish clear toward the land and summer trees, I spy a penthouse atop the red brick Hampton House Apartments, in the building where Mayor Washington lived. It’s a perfect, modest, clean-lined penthouse – not always announcing itself, you know? – a place with quiet stature. Plants indicate a roof garden with big windows looking out. Though he never did, I’ve always imagined Saul Bellow living there in manly intellectual luxury – the wide view crow’s nest on a rocky perch looking out over the trees, the city in the distance, his eagle inner eye focusing on the exchange of two sherry & cracker professors or horn-rimmed students as they discuss Hegel or Simone Weil and climb the rocks getting into the lake. My boyhood-self has always wanted a house like this.
Bellow lived in Hyde Park for years in a Dorchester Brownstone – I imagine he took his liquor at the Quad Club, Coffee at the Div School, got groceries at Mr. G’s with his young, curly haired wife; one more Pulitzer-level genius-colossus casually sitting down to Thai food on 55rd Street.
There is another stunning blush of golden-red evening light over Chicago tonight, with fire-frosted clouds and the last jet vapor trails of the busy day. It is my favorite time. To the west, the trees diffuse the bronze light in leafy patterns and the old buildings of Hyde Park look as if covered in a soft wrap of restful blue smoke. To the east, there is almost a monochrome of water and darkening sky – no horizon at all. To the south is the tremendous rounded scoop of Lake Michigan shoreline where they built the blackened steel mills and red-and-white-smokestacked power stations of South Chicago and industrial Gary. But to the north is the gleaming tall sophistication of the American city ending the day, putting on hip evening clothes, fixing a six o’clock cocktail.
After the Great Fire, much of the new city was remade on landfill – on the burned, leveled wreckage of the old. They made something like twenty square miles of public parks on the new land and asked this designer-head Frederick Law Olmstead to come and design them with Daniel Burnham himself looking over his shoulder as one vast, contiguous, green idea. (He was a real macher, this one. He got the gigs doing Centraland Prospect Parks in New York, too. And the Boston Commons.)
So, From Hyde Park in the South to the mouth of the Chicago River, 8 miles of USDA Prime lakefront property was established – all of it open with fountains and trees for the good of Civilization. Behind it to the west rose a mighty behemoth: the cultural-industrial/social-economic capitol of the Midwest; a grand palace of architecture and a striding giant of The New Thing.
The city was hitting with idealism and optimism when they completed the job just before the turn of the last century. Can you imagine the get-back-up of those Chicagoans who faced the fire? Here’s a roughened ward alderman in a meeting, chomping down on a cigar, “Let’s see, the whole city is leveled for thirty square miles. Let’s feed the wreckage to the lake, add acreage to the city and remake the shoreline.” “Forever open, clear and free,” says the charter. They were so proud when they were through, they invited everybody over to check it out. In fact, they held the biggest, most elaborate world’s fair anyone had ever seen. And then, when that was through, and on that same site, Rockefeller built the University of Chicago, current home of boatloads of Nobel Laureates. If you swim out far enough from where I am now, you can just make out the top of the mammoth chapel tower.
A hundred & twenty years ago, they took some of the rubble leftovers and made “The Point” a fifteen-acre spit of land in Hyde Park where people rode horses or took carriage rides in grand style in the old days, wearing gloves, staying for a week in luxury at the Shoreland Hotel. Students play ultimate on the great lawn now. Huge families hold reunions in matching red tee shirts under the pine trees. Folks get married in a limestone field house with a round turret and picture windows. Everybody comes out here for Fourth of July, bringing grills and blankets and dogs and flags. Enough people bring electric radios and turn them up so we can all dig the symphony in Grant Park eight miles to the north, and watch the fireworks over our shining city.
And I swim in the cooling bright water after boiling through another summer day, and watch the twilight sky, like an island; loving the city, imagining myself a great artist some day, living in Saul Bellow’s old imaginary penthouse, remembering and creating stories of Chicago, looking out over the expanse of the great lake, toward the first star of the summer night.
I hate packing. Hating it slows me down. Sometimes I’ll take two hours to pack for an overnight trip – for one gig. I want to be done quickly, but I have to figure out the banalities of what goes and what stays. It’s the varying scope of the challenge that gets me; i.e., how many different weather, business, health and social variables must I intuit this time, and how much of what could happen in the next 24 hours (or 48 hours or two weeks’) can fit in this small bag?
Nevertheless, here I go packing again, wrecking the night before & then leaving by 5:30 in the morning to drive to O’Hare. Having overcome the usual fly morning headaches by a timely 7:00, I find the band and I have won the daily double. Our flight is delayed & we get to spend the next six-and-a-half hours in an airport waiting to fly two. On a Sunday. On the other end waits Hartford, Conn., where we played, I think, once before, in a doctor’s house. I remember snow and try not to watch the clock.
Hartford is blazing hot this time. We walk around for an hour dodging flops in the otherwise deserted, scorching upturned dumpster streets before giving up and finally taking lunch back in the hotel. It’s just LH and me. We talk about the cover art problem and the gigs I have planned for the release week. Also about The Palm, and how the time in the rhythm section is feeling these days, and whatever else is on the list. And how tired we are.
Ten minute nap in the room. Warm up next, and play for a while. Check the time. Fix the set list and dress. Call the cats. Dig the contract. Grab the charts and the microphone and the discs and the briefcase and elevator down to the lobby to go.
We’re over to the gig in time to catch Gary Burton and XXXXXX composing intricacies to a crowd of 15,000 laid out under the summer sun, on the late afternoon rise of the expanding capitol green. That’s the first handsome thing I’ve seen all day. By the time we’re through with our set and it’s dark and Herbie Mann comes on,10,000 more will have come out with their beers and their baskets of chicken and their umbrella hats. How about that! People want to hear it in Hartford! I hang back to check out Herbie’s band, sign some discs & down the (very good) spicy ribs and corn they have going back stage. They treat us real nice & everybody seems jaked.
When I hook up with the cats again, they’re washing down the last of a huge plate of greasy hot buffalo wings with icy vodka in the hotel sports bar, gawping at the final ten minutes of “The Green Mile” as it plays out on the ten-inch screen which is bolted to the orange formica table where they’re hunched. I’m in Hartford with the band. Right now, back home, dark-haired Jenny is having friends over, eating olives and drinking wine on the plant-filled back porch with candles and incense. It will be another fourteen hours or so until I’m home.
Cats and I got to play music for an hour. One hour of what we do vs. twenty-three of doing what we have to. We don’t get paid to play. We get paid to travel.
Well, I guess I’ll just come up with a cover for the record on my own. Time is running out, in spite of all the good planning. If there’s no mutually approved cover in twenty-four hours – that means artist, manager, label and me- we’ll have to bump the release date. There simply won’t be enough time to get the manufacturer to physically produce copies in time to have anything in the stores by August 28. And that means all the many gigs which I have personally envisioned, planned and solidified on calendars across town would become a lot of fuss over nothing. All the non-refundable events of week one – the NPR-sponsored free master class and concert at Roosevelt, the open rehearsals at Gallery 37, the gig with all three horns at the Mill on Wednesday, the press push on Thursday and even the prime-time Chicago Festival hit on Friday – would amount to one very public attention-grab pointing to nothing but empty jewel cases.
It’s funny. Jenny and I had so much talk about my lazing around all summer & recuperating from the bruises and warping and growing of the last bunch of years – just wanting to dig sides & work on music, read and work on the house & go swimming and dig some of the huge Chicago scene. So of course I end up spending all the time I usually spend wearing myself out – taking on the assault of the road, jet lag packing, doing six- hour interview sessions from anonymous, window-won’t-open hotel rooms, minding the band, driving the vans, enduring the food, the endless airport hassles, trying to land on my last-minute feet somewhere solid in the middle of the squishy strangeness of it all and still be musical – I take all that time and I put it to use planning the next round. And now – right now – I need to design a record cover. How droll.
On my way summer’s day walking over to Ribs &Bibs and bumping into my main man, Karl Johnson, after some years of near misses in clubs and on sessions. Just as tall- walking as I remember. Karl was my first piano partner, and we hit for, probably, two or three years altogether. This was, maybe, ’90 to ’93. We’d play three sets on Tuesdays or Thursdays downstairs at “Milt Trenier’s (empty) Show Lounge”. (Well, nearly empty. Maybe my girlfriend Lisa in a little black dress and pearls. Maybe old red-cardigan Roosevelt, who lived across the street in a lonely 34th floor McClurg Court apartment. Maybe one of the fat, fast aging, low-level “made men” in a suit – Asian call-girl in tow.) Sometimes people would come and clap. Most times not. I’d work for the door ($2.00 cover); maybe make ten dollars. Maybe six. Maybe nothing. (I never knew, or even asked, what Karl made, though I know he wasn’t playing for any door. I didn’t mind. I had a gig.)
Those days, cat was bad, man. Cat was bad. He was a strong cat, too; whip thin, with a commanding intellect and mojo for days. He was forceful in his approach, with a vice grip on time – forceful in the statement he was making: weird, hip supernatural arpeggiated fractals crashing headlong into true-blue, church-certified gospel licks, careening off into a kiltery, odd-time bebop. Nothing subtle here. He played a squint-eyed challenge and could back it up, like a jackknife springing.
On set breaks he’d tell me road stories and come across with ultra-serious advice about music, women, money, cars and self-protection. Or else stride over in his shiny black boots and black leather jacket & probably a hip bolo tie & boldly put the make on some bad chick who’d come in.
Cat had history. Ran his own all-black USO band in the mid sixties, piloting his green Cadillac through Southern overnights. He’d advance the date in the next town while the band packed up the gear and piled into the bus to sleep sitting up through lampless, two-lane highway nights. In fact (?) one time, as integration was becoming policy, they had a white lady as the band’s business manager. She came on the road with the band once, but she wasn’t digging the bus. Naturally, she started crashing in the back of the Caddie while Karl smoked and drove through the dark.
It was one of these times when they were out there somewhere that the local Klan got wind of the deal, saw red, and set up a roadblock with torches and sheets, the whole nightmare. I don’t know how many cats were in on it – enough to matter. He sees the thing coming at a little distance and has time to quick get out his double barrel sawed-off shotgun from under the dashboard. (!)
Well, he opens his window and, with his left hand, lays the barrel end pointing forward on the side-view mirror, finger on both triggers. Then, he gets that great big-assed V-8 all charged up and roaring. The Sheet-Heads dig this mother bearing down on them (I guess they just had a mess of cats there but no logs or anything to jam up the actual road) and try to close ranks. Karl waits until he’s within about two hundred feet of them. Before they can even raise a brick filled hand he throws up the brights and lets the have both barrels. Manager wakes up screaming, but all she sees as they blow through is a red and white blur whooshing by and the reflection of fire and headlights.
Karl said that she was still pretty shaken up when they stopped a couple of towns down the road to call the band to tell them to stay put for the night & not to venture out. As I say, she came on the road with the band once.
Another time, he had a steady at a roadhouse owned by the outfit in the far southwest suburbs where you had to check your gun at the door. He comes out at two or three in the morning when he comes off work & finds his brand-new ’72 Olds Cutlass missing. Now, he’s seen other cats have cars towed out of the lot before – usually because they owed somebody money, or because they had insulted someone higher up. Sometimes they were just held for a while, as an inconvenience or a lesson to the car’s owner. Every once in a while they’d dump one in a nearby swamp. But Karl wasn’t in need of a lesson.
He was in good with the company and had kept himself clean. He was just the piano player.
“Plus,” he said, “I had just had to lay off this one chick I had been stayin’ with cause she was talkin’ about marriage too much. So I was in no mood, to put up with any of that bullshit!
“Now I never checked my gun at this club, ’cause they trusted me and never asked me about it, so I was still carrying, you dig? So I walk right back into the club – the place is only about half full ’cause it’s late, see? – and I walk right up to the bar, pull out my gat and SLAM it down. (That gets everyone’s attention right away.)
“‘Now,’ I say, ‘which one of you motherfuckers stole my car?’
“Come on. I know one of you motherfuckers had it towed or drove it out & parked it somewheres. Now goddammit, I just bought that car & I’m gonna have it back tonight. So nobody’s leavin’ until I’m packed up and sittin’ in the driver’s seat with my foot on the accelerator makin’ dust fly. And there’d better not be a scratch on it.
“Comes a voice: ‘You mean the Cutlass, Karl?’
“I say, ‘You damn right that was my Cutlass. Who’s that talking?’
“Out from the shadows steps the big man – that’s right – the man himself, & says, calmly, walking towards me,
“Sorry, Karl. I thought it was my punk nephew’s, and it’s too handsome a car for him. Tony, go and get Karl’s car for me and have them put it out front. Sorry, Karl. My mistake. Al, get Karl a drink while he waits. And Karl, put the gat away, will ya? You’re makin’ the ladies upset.”
I picture him standing there, waiting silently, ominously at the bar; smoking a cigarette, burning from within, grinding his heel.
“They had my car out front and shined up in fifteen minutes.”
I believe every word. Cat was a jazz super hero.
Spent the first afternoon in the great disheveled Tokyo metropolis reading Martin Amis, swimming in the sun-bronzed pool on the roof before going in to practice- potted palms and an old green hedge blocking out Tokyo’s cement gray labyrinth. But even seven flights up the haze from the city’s exhaust joined with humidity vapor clouds to make the ultimate urban muck. Steam rises slowly from the patio tiles so that, just ten feet away from something, there was a ghost between you and it. Five zealous, uniformed pool attendants ran around all afternoon through the tropical goop at top speeds bringing towels and drinks for the three or four of us who had lucky days off.
I can dig that amount of dedication to work; running in the heat. What I cannot imagine is going day after unspeakable day having to block out the poolside music they have at the Tokyo Grand. For five straight hours I hear the same forty-minute loop: “Elton John’s Late-Career B-Side Banalities”. Let’s see, there was “I Never Lied to You”, “I’l Always Love you”, “Isn’t Love FUN!?!”, and the ever popular, “It’s So Cold Without You” – all done up in the stock pop professionalisms of composition and orchestration (Did somebody say, “Drum Machine”?).
The Horror. The Horror.
The opening reception of the Madarao Festival, at a ski lodge way up in the green misted mountains on Japan, feature speeches and toasts in a noisy brown room, food steaming and waiting on banquet tables all covered over in saran wrap – 1/2 miso- oriented, with fish and squid, 1/2 beef-oriented with pasta and green salad. Fifty or sixty Japanese business cats in suits chattering and smoking cigarettes as the guests of honor (Arturo Sandoval’s band, Karl Denson’s cats, my own quartet and the 4-star band of Wayne Shorter) take it all in with interest and jet lag. Arturo, sweating, in baseball hat and shorts and towering over our hosts like the biggest kid in fifth grade and just in from dodge ball recess.
I get to meet Wayne there. Danilo Perez and John Patitucci kindly introduce LH, me to him over in one corner by the wine & ice cream. We all shake hands & over the din of giant traditional ceremonial Japanese drummers hitting at the other end of the hall I thank him for letting me write words to some of his pieces. I doubt he knows who I am or what I am talking about, which is fine.
Wayne is the spearpoint – the very tip of the innermost cutting edge of the music. Even Miles knew this, calling Herbie on the road in the old days to ask, “What does Wayne do all day?” – i.e., how does this super genius of composition and line spend his time? (I, on the other hand, am the furthest fragment of wood at the very other end of the spear pole & spend a lot of time following the rest of the spear around.) The cats and I have been looking forward to hearing Wayne and seeing the band on this gig ever since we found out we were coming. Meeting Wayne now, I get that wide-eyed, breathless, try- not-to-say-anything-stupid you get around your ultimate hero the first time you meet him.
I hope I don’t make an ass of myself. Thankfully, Wayne is open and very kind. I’d also like to say a brief word about the strength, joy and ultimate light of kindness flowing from the cats in Wayne’s band, both on and off the stand. I’m happy to say that I’ve gotten to play a little with each of them Danilo and I share some friends in Chicago and try to catch up each other when we can. I first met Patitucci in Malta, of all places. We also were on this Joanne Brackeen side together, with Liebs. John has been beautiful to me every time. Brian Blade was even on a gig or two with LH and me on our first tour of New York. Just smoking.
Every time I’ve heard any of them individually I have been moved and strengthened. However, what I will dig over the next week or so tops everything that’s come before. (I am writing this part retrospectively.) Over the coming days of concerts, we’ll discover each man playing at the very top of the game, far beyond the already masterful playing we’re all used to hearing from them – inspired, as they’d each admit, by their time with Wayne and by his musical and personal example. Each one steps into the freedom and play of the concept the band is pursuing in such a way that the whole band is improvising as a unified consciousness, as one single, strong gesture after another. Such freedom, mastery and trust creates the ultimate in tension and release; the build and wreck, chase, catch and let go of improvised music at its highest level – tossing waves of color all over the place, with energies bouncing and caroming off and to and through the people listening. “This is IT,” I say to Laurence, breathlessly, when we finally get through hearing them play. “The very END. The MOST. The reason they invented the word MOST.”
I am not mistaken: the whole world must hear this band.
Two of my favorite things seen on Japanese TV in the late-at-night hotel room:
1-What I though was a reality/talk show featuring a couple of youngish, long-haired “regular guys” in jeans and tee-shirts as the hosts going to a pet store to buy a snake. Here they are talking to the old clerk and joking around as she pulls out different snakes from different drawers built into a wall-sized cabinet. However, once they choose a snake, something about a yard long, they don’t put it in a bag or an aquarium. Oh, no. Instead, they sit down to a dining room table in the next room and squeamishly watch the clerk expertly “bleed” the snake into their soup bowls.
That’s right. A live snake has just been cut open on national TV and its blood dripped into little cups of what looks to be room temperature vinegar for these cats to eat. More jokes and more close-ups as the proprietrix (for what else can you call her) takes a meat scissors and cuts off the snake’s head, upending the snake & squeezing its body like a toothpaste tube into the bowls. As a further culinary gross-out, she laughingly puts the severed head on the white tablecloth, so it can watch itself be eaten and create more fodder for joking over dinner. The cats can hardly take it. They double-dog dare each other to down the stuff (as they know they must, this being the Japanese version of “Jackass”).
SURPRISE! They hate it.
2 – “Lets Sing!” : A tiny, middle aged woman in a yellow t-shirt with sparkly blue bears tries to coach two housewife types on the finer points of delivering “The Tennessee Waltz” in English, in tune and with conviction. Two other ladies – I guess the talk show hosts – ask questions and encourage the singers with applause in between tries. They all try writing out phonetic pronunciations on big white cue cards & the coach uses a blue pen to show accents. They try it over and over again while she stops and starts them.
When they get the pronunciation vaguely right, the coach pulls out magnets of little suns, rain clouds and, of all things, Tinkerbell figures and puts them on the cue cards in different places to indicate interpretation possibilities. The singing itself is, well, interesting.
The coach finishes out the half-hour show by accompanying herself at the piano and squeezing out her version of her very favorite song – eyes clamped shut with passion, her delicate touch at the keyboard just about creating intimacy, tension and velocity, her squeaky voice fairly crackling with emotion. She sings, you guessed it, “You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman”.
It is truly terrible.
Oceans churning. A fox hunt – first from the mind of the fox, briefly, then from that of the fastest hound. Then spirals of paisleys. A forced flow of colors spinning and tumbling over the people and up the ultra-green mountainside. New worlds come next, and also new tendernesses. All this and more in spite of a terrible and deafening, punishing feedback cutting everyone on stage during Wayne’s first set.
Him keeps a fight up – a fight? No. A consistent and positive energy flow. In fact, they all do it. Here’s Danilo laughing, whistling and calling out. Here’s Brian with his hammering, liquid intensity. Here’s Patitucci pounding and dancing away – all graciously over the piercing needle of feedback. This is Big Buddha energy.
“Yeah,” says Danilo afterward, smiling and sweating. “One time we came off the stage and we were all complaining about the sound, you know, something similar, and Wayne said, ‘What are you complaining about? This is the struggle to make music. It’s always the same. Don’t cry about it. This is what we do – we struggle to make music. It doesn’t matter what the struggle is specifically against – it’s all the same. Feedback is just one more attack from the stuff that wants us to stop.’
“And that was a big lesson, and I’ll never forget it. It’s the only time he’s really gotten mad at us, you know? I mean, shit, man. We’re playing with Wayne! What do we have to complain about? He’s playing more shit now than he’s played in years, and we’re the band! And he’s laughing all the time!”
It’s true. At one point in the set, when everyone has been covering painful ears over and over because of the intense feedback, Wayne squints like he’s blowing and fingering his axe, but no sound comes out. At first all of us who are looking on furrow our brows together and think, “Oh No! Now his mic’s gone out. But that’s not it.
He’s miming. Cat is clowning. He’s playing like he’s blowing lightning licks, but with a twinkle in his eye because he’s not really playing at all. He’s just tweaking the situation and give the cats a boost – laughing at the challenge.
So now everyone in the band is laughing, because they dig. Cats on the side stages notice, and they start laughing, too. Then people in the front rows start laughing. Then, basically everybody – everybody overcoming at once. Laughing at the puny feedback. Laughing at the thought of being here, now. Hearing the music. Laughing with Wayne.
The next two days, Wayne and the cats played tremendously, thunderously, leaping and gliding. They gave it away as a matter of course to a crowd culturally educated, and ready to receive such a blessing. The people were all ages. They were all open. Older weekenders sat on their red blankets, accepting. Little kids put down their shovels and sand pails and waited, wide-eyed in little yellow hats. Long-haired hipster young people in shorts & hemp shoes stood still and watched, or sat, allowing themselves to be led. Beautiful people.
On stage, Wayne created from an unimagined space with the same hooded, Buddha eyes Kerouac reports having seen on Bird when he played – looking nowhere but within. Eyes which say, neutrally, “All is well”. Same ultimate genius intensity. Same relaxed and masterful power surge. Not seeing any one thing – seeing many things at once. Giant-eye view.
Thick fog came in during the last set and silently covered the grass, the people, the tents, the speakers, the roof of the stage and all the mountain, so that it all disappeared. And pretty soon nothing was taller than Wayne and his band and his Buddha eyes.
Ok, a few days off, I’m afraid. Who has the time for reflective journaling? It almost always ends up being lists anyway – lists if phone calls to make, of thank-you notes to be written, tasks to execute or plan, what needs to go with me on the plane. In fact, and I’ve heard this from other cats too, the airplane can be the most productive place you have – if only because nobody can call you on the phone there. (I wonder if there is a keyboard somewhere small enough to fit on your lap in coach with headphones & maybe a Pro-tools or Finale hook up?)
Had a great listening party last night at this place “Maxim’s”. This was for record buyers form Border’s, Sam Goody, et al. Also came cats from EMI Distribution (hello Dave Saunders!), press people & friends. My friends Tony Karman, Mike Orlove and I have been working on this gig for a while & could only afford the space because of Mike’s and my connections downtown. Also Henry Peters from EMD and Saul Shapiro from Blue Note. Tony even hooked up great hors’d vours from Blue Plate catering. All of this represents many, many phone calls and meetings – especially by Tony Karman.
This stuff doesn’t happen on its own, as they say, nor does it pay for itself. A two-and-a-half hour hang of respectable proportions takes a month or more to put together. And now there are more thank-you notes to be done. More music work from it, though – i talk of a more extensive Borders tour in the Chicago suburbs. Also corporate date possibilities from the room manager, not to mention excitement over the recording itself.
The great young EMI staff (who you need to have on your team – just imagine how many artists they are told to push every month to their record stores!) – you need these people to dig you and your record. They are the foot soldiers of your campaign to sell discs and maintain job security. After all, it’s not just how well you play. It’s also how well you play the game.
Field reps put up posters in stores and push you to the buyers (“no, really, you are going to love this”). They can talk up your concert and supply you with table tents and big posters when you go out on the road. They can take care of you when you are doing an instore or signing discs after a show. They represent for you and the label where the rubber meets the road, and they have the power to help make your career. Or they can ignore you, if you are a jerk.
But now let’s recap: Last night I worked the party ’til eleven or so, then came home to pack. Up at 5:45 this morning to get to the plane (delayed 1 hr) to LaGuardia to drive the rental van through a storm for 5 hrs, doing two crackly phone interviews on the way while driving. On arrival, went straight to a 3 hr rehearsal (no warming up), checking into the hotel after & getting invited out to dinner at a high-class place (or so we all thought) by the promoter who ends up not springing for it – SURPRISE! And here we all are looking at each other wondering if we have the per diem bread between us to cover our costs. (Did I mention that I’m losing money on this whole weekend & that I took the gigs for their high-profile status? Not complaining – just reporting.) Back to the hotel after to steam my jacket (which is probably too bright for TV anyway) and give Jenny a call. It’s now 12:45 am. Let’s see, shall I practice now?
Up at 5:45 again. Shower & shave & down to the lobby by 6:15. Check out & drive out, with the horn cats in their own rental following ours. I’m driving again, ’cause I’m liable. It’s another 4 1/2 hours up to Newport, RI through thick fog & rain, Sunday traffic of both super highway and old-fashioned east coast colonial pokey-road (25 mph, please). Cats pass out, or help me navigate. No good radio reception, though we do almost hear an interview of some cat who works as the archivist at Louis Armstrong’s house & handles to all of Pop’s old self-made conversation tapes.
When we get to Newport we wait at a Citgo for someone from the festival to lead us through the foggy town labyrinth & festival security to back stage parking inside the old fort where they keep the grand old festival going. Quick from parking the rig to the dressing rooms (in trailers) to eat a banana & warm up. Given the rain, we were lucky to have arrived at 11am. We’re scheduled to hit at 11:30.
We can hear the foghorns in the harbor. I look out the trailer window one minute getting hot dog stands ready and thirty or forty mangy seagulls in a loose, meditative spread over an empty, greening lawn. A minute later and I can see they’ve opened the gates. Here come hundreds & hundreds of the brave ones storming the field in colored ponchos & rubber hats with chairs to snag the best spots. All right, people!
We do about a ten-minute line check on stage, I check the order of charts with everybody, they announce us, light come up & we’re off. Now I can see the water. The richies park their water cruisers close enough to hear the music first-hand but still lose the crowded feeling on shore. I sing out to them but focus on the later-to-be-soaked-to-the- skin faithful on shore & the PBS cameras.
Voice feels good & does most of what I ask it. Cats are playing great, Rob and Frank really digging in on “Resolution”. Solos are also cooking & by about halfway I can feel people warming onto us. What sells it, though, is “Home Cookin'”, Jon Hendricks’ swinging take on the great Horace Silver lick. God bless Jon Hendricks – again!
LH’s new horn arrangement of “Nature Boy” really kicks it, though, & brings us all into the final length with colors flying. But why does the stage manager, unable to intuit that we are in the process of wrapping things up, rudely gives me the international signal to “wrap it up”? I mean, we’d had the big drum solo. I was introducing the cats, for Pete’s sake. Clearly we are in the home stretch. Stupid, useless, power signifier is what that is.
Bows. Then BAM. I’m off the stage and directly to a TV interview for 20 minutes. Then to a 30-minute signing at the JVC tent. A 10-minute radio interview follows. I chase down the money, this time in cash for expenses. Photo ops with fans and my agent & his kids (weekending at the festival). Quick say “Hi” to Patitucci on the way to change. Very sorry to miss Wayne’s set – he’ll be on in another half hour. Instead, I sign fifty festival posters for the promoters, grab a plate of food to eat while I drive. I gather the cats, who are getting anxious about the time – we’ve got a plane to catch. Last minute directions from a friendly trooper standing out in sad coastal mist (“Just keep the water on your left ’til you get to the bridge”).
It’s all a rush; a mostly friendly obstacle course of events for the strengthening of focus, a series of engagements for the creative spirit in quick succession. It’s very difficult, this taking care of business thing. It can string you out pretty badly.
Driving all the way, through the six-hour drive back to the plane the cats and I debate whether we’ll even get to the airport in time – the weather is becoming a mess. If we miss it, should we try to get a cheap hotel out here somewhere? Should we go into Manhattan, see who’s playing, maybe go & sit in & just stay up all night to catch a morning flight? Either way, it’s me who’ll be paying the ticket changes.
Thankfully (?), the same weather which slows us down also slows down the air traffic & we end up instead waiting at the airport for a further three hours ’til the plane leaves.
I don’t even remember what time I finally got home.
Hit at the Mill again last night with the cats. Our good friend Brad Wheeler sat in on tenor. He’s just in from Paris where he’s been living for the last ten years, and he sounds great. He plays all the real shit – angry, whole tone stuff & diminished ideas & moves them around by major thirds – really dark & cool sounding.
Also with us was Tom Garling on trombone, late of Maynard’s band & a good friend of Rob’s.
Two voiceover sessions today for Kenmore. That’s three-and-a-half hours of, “This is not a refrigerator. This is a one-way ticket to Planet Fresh . . .” It’s easy work, ultimately, but it can take up your whole day. Plus parking is always a challenge. But the real difference between session work and a regular gig is that there is no room for a timing error. Baby, you’ve got to make it on time or you’re through. They’re paying top dollar for you and the studio & engineer & they can’t waste a minute.
In between sessions I race walk uptown, going to two wrong addresses first, for a meeting with John Iltis, a publicist I am hiring out-of-pocket to help Tony Karman and me manage the local record release details. I’ll give him three specific assignments: whatever happens in the first week of the release, including the festival hit on the 31st, The Park West release concert on the 15th of September, and the suburban Borders tour.
I know what you’re saying. You’re saying, “why doesn’t Kurt just let Blue Note handle the business?” Well, I’ll tell you why. I do let and expect them to handle things in 99% of the world. And they do a great job, as a rule. However, I live in Chicago and I know what’s possible here on a promotional front. There are 9 and 1/2 million people in the greater Chicagoland area to sell records to. I’ve got to use the hometown advantage as much as possible. You’ve got to have a home of operations & sales somewhere, something to build on for the rest of the country. And it’s a flyover town for most of the record industry. Can you imagine?
Also, how is a lifetime of gigs just supposed to happen on its own? Well, it won’t, that’s how. What do you think is in store for me creatively and professionally thirty years from now if all I ever do are Mill dates and the occasional festival hit? My goals are simple: to play music and write as well as I can and to assure myself the best possible opportunities for creative work in the future. First, be an artist. But be a businessman, too. Unless you are Jarrett or Wayne you have to be. Even if you can become some tremendous sideman like Idris Mohammed or Billy Hart it will be hard enough. But how many singers get called up as regular sidemen? You can only be a leader, so you have to kick ass as a businessman. You can’t get away from business, even if you hit like Diana Krall or Cassandra Wilson.
So, yeah, I’ve hired my own marketing guy & publicist just for Chicago. They’ll help me coordinate the events in town which will propel the success of this record and my reputation and my creative horizon. I want more & better gigs to play. I want to never have to worry about having a record deal. I want always to have contact with the best players. I want more diverse artistic commissions. I want an interesting, surprising, creative path. I do these things now so that the others will eventually come to pass.
But let’s be real. I am a young white male who lives in Chicago & is trying to make it singing jazz. I need to work the system. I need to be smarter and quicker than the system. I need to work harder and longer and more obsessively than the system wants me to if I am to get the kind of creative horizon expansion I’m thinking of. You want the gigs? You want to write tunes with Bob Mintzer or Dave Brubeck or even, in your wildest dreams, with Herbie or Wayne? You want to meet Ken Nordine & spend the day talking about art history & maybe start writing plays together? Have the chance to be flown to L.A. to create a new act for the clubs with Herb Graham, Jr. &, maybe, Macey Gray? Then get to work.
And then again, sometimes it’s just too much; the level of complexity is just too great. Lately, Jenny and I have had much trouble with our computers, and keep having to call one expensive specialist after another, so I can’t keep all the gigs straight and I forget one that’s coming up. When Jenny reminded me the other night about having to fly to Virginia the next morning at 8:00am, I went into a rage. Here we were coming home after a nice dinner with friends & finally relaxing a bit (as I had hoped would happen all summer – it’s the reason I took the summer “off”). It’s eleven or so, we’ve been listening to Courtney Pine in the car and I’m dreaming and thinking about all the writing I will be able to get done the next day and maybe some thinking, too, and then I am reminded. It means having to leave home at six forty-five. It means I have to go up and pack now. I just got back from Newport four days ago, did the Mill & now it’s time to go again?
Looking out the window of the plane I see signs of people on every stretch of land. There is not one mile squared that I can see from 35,000 feet that does not contain a farm or a house. This cannot be right & makes me wonder where I could possibly go to get away from people. Of course, then I’ll be there, and I’m a people. Can’t I go and turn into a bear or a bird; exit humanity for a while and live outside the maze – without plans, without things, without burdens?
I am 21st Century Schizoid Man.
Finally got the finished record today with cover art and all – one mere week before the street date. Listening to it again on headphones with coffee while waiting to get new tires put on the car, watching people pass under the el tracks in the windy sunshine midday. For some reason, records always sound better in mass production. It’s funny – almost like they put an extra coating or gloss on it by making so many. Now all I want is for it to come out so people can have it.
It’s the quiet, smoldering Sunday before the storm. Today, it’s my job to sit in my writing chair and do the creative visualization it takes to come up with the final plans of set lists and speeches for five different kinds of gigs in the coming week. What should Rob and I play on the early morning talk show? What needs to happen at the master class at Roosevelt University on Tuesday & what should we play at the concert that night? The pub crawl happens at the Mill on Wednesday – we’re alternating sets with another band — how should we handle those sets? There are two open rehearsals at Gallery 37 – what order should we take things? I’ll have to go across the street & score some lunches & coffee for the cats. What should the set list be for the gig? Can I borrow my friend Billy’s van on Friday to drive the band in one van from the festival sound check to the second rehearsal & back to save time? Is the press reception set up yet & where & when is it? It’s two days to the release & we still don’t have the seven thousand postcards from the printers announcing the record and the release concert. Will all of this hang together? What is unfolding?
Has anything really changed for me since the first record? Five years ago my idealistic, untested self hit New York for the first time hoping to get anybody interested in listening to my first record. Now I’m in the thick of it again, just about to kick off the release of my fifth record for Blue Note. Things have accelerated quite a bit since the first outing, and I’m still running to keep up with the schedules I set – or else crashing, exhausted, my mind blanking on the simplest things – flatlining, really. That’s the gig.
I remember being very young; young enough that I could only just reach over the sides of the sink in the upstairs bathroom. Somewhere in the still prairie darkness I’d get up, all on my own. Stretching my arms, on the balls of my feet, my shoulders bunching into my cheeks to twist the handles above the calm white porcelain. I remember the night in the summer quiet dark. Being thirsty, but waiting, with one or two fingers in the flow, for the water to get cold. I imagined it rushing up from deep under ground, where things are always dark and cool. Then I’d cup my hands, and gather the fresh clearness, feeling the chill. I’d wait a moment more, knowing how good it would taste before I’d even had a drop on my tongue; how chilled. Hearing the small splashing from the faucet, I’d wait just a moment longer with the water in my hands. How clear it looked, reflecting the distant moon. Shiny. Sometimes I can still hold a moment like that, and look at it, and have it. It’s the moment of pure resting; of no thought, no need, no speak.
It’s the night before the record hits. Had a good rehearsal with the cats today & they sounded great. Went for a good run, too. Also some stress. But now that’s done & I can’t do any more about it tonight. I’ll worry again tomorrow – or not.
But tonight, for a moment – after a weary rain and listening to a the echo of freight train on its way to the South and looking out off the back porch without seeing – I had it. No thought. No need. No judgment. No thing.
It’s what we chase, but you can’t chase it. Sometimes, it’s where music comes from; sometimes a kind of enlightenment. And sometimes, it’s nothing. Nothing but holding the cool water in your little hands a moment longer.
Don’t shut down. Stay open. Change your life. Accept what is offered. Do what you wish.
Smooth road, clear day. Festival’s through, and I think we did just fine. The horns came across great. I think people heard what we were going for, too, & I signed autographs for an hour after the set – one hundred and fifty discs. Made it back stage in time to catch the last fifteen of Dave Brubeck’s set.
Here’s a happy man. In love with his wife, Iola (& who wouldn’t be?). Still touring. Nothing to prove to anyone. Just swinging & digging & enjoying himself at every turn. In fact, never have I seen another elder statesman of Jazz take so much obvious pleasure in younger peoples’ playing. He is the proud uncle of anybody who comes across in love with swinging, with his huge smile, wide eyes & laughing with delight. Dave is the best and most generous audience imaginable and regularly wears a look on his face which says, “Holy Cow! I never thought I’d hear anything as swinging and wonderful as that! It’s fantastic! And you wrote that?” Laughing all the while & loving every part of it. He once sat through a whole set of ours in Danbury, Connecticut, in a pouring wet downpour – him with a feeble little umbrella over his head, shoulders getting wet, with exactly that look on his face the whole time.
Long may you wave, Dave.
However, it was a full day. Last minute shirt ironing and chart gathering until 1am the night before. Almost no time to eat that day. Warming up while dressing and packing. Then, rushing north in Billy’s van – later to drive the cats in four trips back and forth from the sound check to the rehearsal space at the height of Friday after work downtown Chicago pedestrian traffic. Then grab a bite backstage & dig Von’s set with Ed Petersen & Eric Alexander in a three-tenor battle – killing! – while changing & warming up. Also sat in later on at the Jazz Showcase W/ Vonski. Man, he always make whatever happens the right thing. I really love Von. If I could, I’d take him wherever I go. Crashed pretty late, but slept the sleep of the just.
Got an email from Bill:
“Debut at #18 on Billboard. Best ever first week of sales: 821. Congratulations!”
Best ever – 821. All that work for 821 discs.
I am not, as they say, 21 anymore. Wednesday I was up at 6:00 to make it to WGN TV for their morning show. Nothing like singing to an empty black velvet room at 7:10 in the morning, I always say. Neglected to shave. This, of course, accentuated the lines of my already truly strange-looking rubber face (the Cro-Magnon brow, gap-y teeth, odd, flibbety lips). Plus, when the interviewer cat comes out he must be seven feet tall, so I look impressively short as well. When I see the spot played back at home I have to laugh. My hair’s still all sticking out from the pillow & I have huge dark pouches under my eyes to indicate the hour (“No, sir, I never really have slept. It’s just not in me”). Anyway, the voice sounds pretty good & in tune & nothing like how I feel, so that’s good.
Then it’s off to breakfast w/ LH (who has similarly roused himself today) and my friend Alyosha. Alyosha hasn’t slept since around a day-and-a half ago. He was up at the computer all night working on some crazed graphics project and drinking shots, listening to Zappa. His roommate, Thor, got in from bartending around five, and they spent a couple of hours dancing to booming-loud trance music until Thor passed out on the floor. Between then and now, Alyosha kept busy, ordering some medical calipers online & bidding on an old wooden wheelchair for his collection (he uses them as dining room furniture). He’s been on the phone with AT&T for an hour trying to get his new cell phonegoing. He’s stopped at the post office to mail off a pile of ideas to friends in Berlin, Senegal, Australia & New York, something to the U.S. Patent Office – and also to the Pope about suggestions he has to “alter the Gregorian calendar for the good of society at large”. Needless to say, he’s ready for coffee.
An hour or so later, I’m acting like a grown-up again at a board meeting of the Recording Academy’s Chicago Chapter office, where I serve as a National Trustee (!) along with Jazz harmonicist Corky Segal and the great remixer Silk Hurley. I have to split early, though, because I have to make it to the Palm Tavern site to meet with the city & dig what’s become of it since they took over. Here’s the head of the Chicago Historical Society’s Architecture Board, my friend Mike Orlove from the Department of Cultural Affairs, assorted city operatives, some security people, and the head of Gallery 37 (the after school arts program I have suggested to take over the site).
There was an arson fire here last month. Somebody wants this place leveled. Right now it’s empty of chairs, stools, all the old bar gear that Geri had been using, and all the personal items she chose to take. I guess Mama Geri had been living in the back of the place for a while, in a windowless shoebox 10′ by 8″. You can’t even stand up straight there – the ceiling’s only 5′ high. The place was her life.
I had suggested the city put in a nice apartment upstairs from the Palm and make Geri the “Proprietor Emeritus”. What could be better for kids coming in to study Jazz than to have somebody on hand to say, “Coleman Hawkins sat right in that booth in between sets down the block. He’d always order the same thing . . .” Or, ‘Josephine Baker got up and danced on that table. What a scandal she made!’ Or, ‘Louis Armstrong loved the pork chops they served here; used to write the chef post cards from all over . . .”
Back in the thirty’s and forty’s they had all white tablecloths and linen napkins. It was a proud room with hand-painted murals on the walls, waiters who wore white waistcoats, and a clientele made up of the crème of Bronzeville society. It was never really a performance space. It was a restaurant. (The only reason there is a stage in the club is because Bruce Willis used the place for “atmosphere” in some movie & had the production people build one.) But it’s still the only standing Bronzeville era business. Now, the alderman for the ward wants the whole block leveled so she can build a brand- new blues museum. A blues museum? There were no blues clubs in this part of Chicago – this was the heart of the Jazz scene; of cultured, northern Blacks. She wants to change history. She wants to demolish the Palm.
“Another red letter day for the Ellings”, I say sarcastically. “Another red letter week” (Emphatic now; all upper case font.) “I won’t have it any other way.” I make fun of myself, masking anger and frustration with irony like a character out of Albee. Much more wordplay there than usual. Will my job become a job after all?
Sunday. Day of rain. Day of rest. Wet and gray blusters above and rain freckles the back porch every time I step out on it to go for a run. I hit the dreaded treadmill for a 20 minute go with the speed control and the t.v. remote. Jenny and I have got to leave the house by 3:30 to meet Rob in time for an ACLU benefit we’re playing. I’m taking my amp, speakers and voice to a 9th district fundraiser in the backyard of a local jazz publicist who is hosting. Did I say backyard? Well that was the intention. Seeing how I got circus-dunked just taking the gear out to the car, I can’t think we’l have to worry about standing under any poplar trees getting struck by lightening.
Sure enough, Jenny and I arrive to find the hosts, some guests and a neighborhood volunteer setting up a during-cocktails-only keyboard in the living room and trying to decide where Rob and I should be. It’s a little tense & last minute at first. But nobody blows it and we discover a good place to set up once they move a couch out. Other furniture goes upstairs, food comes out to the buffet and after some minor wrangling by the pianist who’s brought the wrong cables, the guests arrive.
Jenny, Rob and I are the first to attack the buffet – Rob out of habit, us out of habit too, I guess (I’ve worked my share of casuals). And before we know it, the room is filled and it is time for the candidates to give speeches. They go and go and last up is a certain Congressman M. who wants the Governor’s chair. I’ve done for him before & he’s on the right track. Even so, he fits the part of the professional young politico – the hair, the perfect grooming, the ready smile, the vague pronouncements about education, taxes, et al – no difference between the brief stump here & ones I’ve heard him give before except that here the words ” progressive politics” are thrown about once a minute.
After the gig he comes over to congratulate us and say hi and then he asks about our hitting for him once he’s Governor. He’s excited ’cause last week he discovered that whoever is governor gets a summer house paid for by the state. He’s also found out that there is an airplane involved and that jakes him even more.
“Sure we’ll come down and play for you. Anytime,” I say, taking care of business.
After he splits, Rob asks me with a knowing smirk if it wouldn’t be more prudent for the candidate in question to spend more time worrying about the issues & maybe wait until after he’s been elected to start planning any larger Jazz-oriented debauchery at the governor’s downstate dacha. That’s what I’m sayin’.
The other candidates all come over, in time to thank Rob and me for doing our bit to help out, including one cat who says he’s a big fan of mine. He’s quite tidy, and is precisely dressed in the standard, gray, pin stripe, low-budget Brooks’ Brothers. He seems nice enough, but there’s something I can’t put my finger on; something unfocused. Looks young, maybe 34, and it seems like he feels a little out of place among the slightly older and more established guests whose votes he’s counting on. He reminds me of all the cats I knew who would never have found their people in college if it hadn’t been for Chess Club.
I ask him what he’s running for. He says, quietly, “Lieutenant Governor.”
I ask Rob about it later, and he says, joking, “Sure. Lieutenant governor. That’s the loneliest guy in town.”
“Well, him and the bass player,” I say.
Laughs all around.
I’m changing my life. Horoscope confirms it: “Time to stop running and walk toward your goal, Scorpio Boy”.
Amen. I’m all for it.
We’re in the home stretch for the record. Yesterday in the corner booth on a street level Michigan Avenue with three walls of windows, Rob and I played a bit and talked to Dean Richards on the air at WGN. In the spare waiting room, we dug that Charlton Heston and Mrs. Charlton Heston were still finishing up an interview on air. In another corner of the room the very nervous executive producer of their show, “Love Letters”, listened along, jittering his legs nervously in a too-small blue steel chair. As the nearly inevitable NRA questions begin, he squirms in coiling frustration.
He says, “Oh, why did he have to ask about the guns? Why can’t they just talk about the show?” His black hair glints sympathetically.
Rob: ” Well, he was the president of the NRA right?”
KE ” Yeah! (Now in a Heston accent) For the wrath of God man, I’m keeping the gun for when the Pharoah strikes!”
It’s good doing interviews with Rob ’cause they can be a drag & Rob’s always ready to get a bit going. In a minute he reminds me that I’m supposed to stop introducing him as my bass player and start calling him my lieutenant governor. I’m just promising that I’ll do it on air if he’s not careful when we’re called up.
What I said to open the release concert:
Thank you for joining us this evening. I am proud to be with you tonight – of all nights. Proud to know how strong we are as Chicagoans and Americans.
(LH begins playing free here)
I came tonight to sing for you tonight because someone wants to make us all suffer. Someone wants us to fail – as a nation – a culture – a civilization – as a people. We fold? They win. We stay home in fear or depression? They win. Culture must continue. Joy must come out. Life is stronger than death.
I know what my father would say, quoting Job: “Though he slay me, yet will I trust Him”.
The cats and I are here because it our intention as artists to increase the sum total of Beauty and brotherhood in the world; to increase the positive energy and to give expression to the human condition. Music can help us see beyond the darkness – this terrible darkness – which has brought neither the will of god nor righteousness. Music can give us a healing, an empowering, a lightening of the load – not in a frivolous way – but in a mysterious way – one which allows us to know and understand what the German poet Holderlin meant when he said, “Near, and Hard to grasp is God. But where danger grows, the Deliverer, too, grows strong.”
The sun shone so brilliantly on Tuesday and Wednesday – the New York times said, ” . . . as if to mock the continuing horror.” But that’s not right. They should have said “. . . as if to remind us of how small all human events really are. As if to remind us of the faithfulness of the sun, of return, of the placid smile of the Buddha, saying, ‘all is well'”.
This is not to deny the horror or the pain. It is to put it into a more complete context. We are not encircled by darkness. We are surrounded by a circle of light whose center is everywhere, and whose circumference is nowhere. We have beheld this glory; It is full of grace.
If we were to ask a god of such grace, what do you think the god would say?
(Directly into “Not While I’m Around”)
October 23 – Boston, MA
I am 33. 34 by the time you read this. I am blessed and thankful and happy in every way to be a working Jazz musician. It’s tough, but no single gig or solo or award marks the finish line. I’ve already crossed it and won. I’ve got the gig.
In New York at Joe’s Pub last week we had three packed nights. People needed to be fed, and they trusted us to do our best. I am still moved by their open hearts.
Here we are in Boston again – having finally heard the magic words at check-in, “It’s nice to have you with us again, Mr. Elling”. (I have always wanted to hear the front desk cat say that.)
Manager Bill told me that we’re #1 on Jazz radio for a second week and that the show this Friday at the Kennedy Center has already sold out. Who’d have thought?
Gotta fly now. Got a gig to get to.