The following odyssey was published in the November 1997 issue of Jazziz Magazine. Since the intro is part of the original text, I’ll just leave you to it.
Published in the November, 1997 issue of Jazziz Magazine
Some time in the summer of 1996, as Laurence and I were driving back from gigs in Minneapolis, we decided to try to make some work for ourselves. We had heard how bands like the Pat Metheny Group had gotten started by piling into vans & going town to town playing whatever clubs would have them. I called my manager from the road.
“Why don’t we just call a bunch of clubs in New York where nobody knows us, hook up with local cats and play gigs wherever they’ll have us? It won’t cost the label much, the press will be great (‘who are these guys anyway?’), and we get to hook up with local players.”
Three quarters of a year later we were on our way to playing a demanding but successful set of dates in Manhattan, Boston, D.C. and upstate New York. Looking back, I can’t believe we survived the tour. So much has happened since then that I also cannot believe that the tour only happened a few years ago, in 1997.
Anyway, the press angle worked right away. I was even asked by my friend Larry Blumenfield over at Jazziz Magazine to keep a journal of the tour for excerpted publication. Below you will find the unabridged version. (Many of the individual and club names have been changed to protect reputations – after all, how often does the Jazz singer actually get to “tell it how it ‘T-I-S!?”)
Thanks once again to Reavis Moore, Robert Singerman and Andre at SingerManagement for setting up and managing the tour; to Tom Evered at Blue Note for sponsoring the scheme; to Bill Traut for overseeing and advising all; to Jennifer Elling for rescuing me on every level when I needed it most; and to Laurence Hobgood for agreeing to go through it with me and for being an incredible stalwart support and friend.
Enjoy the ride.
April 30, 1997
We ARE luminous, we human beings, and the light that has come into the earth is illuminating the life of all things. This is really how I think as LH and I sit in the gray airbus on the way to NYC. I look to him and say, “We are ice breakers.” Laurence smiles, puts on space-age headphones and takes a hit of Jarrett.
Laurence is the biggest energy conduction unit I know – absorbing and percolating the light – now, like an overgrown toddler splashing in the light bath, any minute now, like a man-sized popping lava-star. (I like to think of my own space as more of a high-static lightning field – at least, once I really get going – the kind of thing that crackles and sparks instead of pflopping like a molten something. Don’t get me wrong. I mean, lava can dance when it wants to. But there’s a difference between a hammer and a switchblade.)
So here we are on the way to The City: him with Jarrett and me with yellow missile earplugs and Kerouac – reminding me that Jarrett and Kerouac sound so much more alike than most people know and also are similar in their approach to creating: each man sitting down and making a start before allowing “thought” to censor motion and so letting the ideas pound poink and play through their trunks brains hearts and arms – long full lines and unexpected washes of sound; essential statements coming close on the heels of three stooges-like thoughtplay. Kerouac’s work is as fresh today as whatever brilliant and timeless passages Jarrett is right now hearing in his gigantic fortress-of-solitude mind. And as empty as this hour in history is of great art these two voices continue to speak palaces of light into the void. It is their fate.
But how will it be for LH & me? From the void into “now” and “now” come energies: time, love (if we’re ready), danger or fists, a steady climb or quick fall. We are trolled, swirling, through space – pulled ineluctably along, leaving wakes large or small – bashing and careening into and enveloping one another. This eternal caroming of lights is the dream-life of God. This is true. In this dreamscape firestorms flare up or dud charges misfire, depending on the sharpness and character of the intersecting charges. So: KE + LH + NYC = ? Pistols at ten paces? Moses before Pharaoh? The return of Martin Guerre? Odysseus at Troy? The Beverly Hillbillies? Homer says that “In every venture the bold man comes off best, even the wanderer, bound from distant shores.” Whichever fate is ours, now on this airplane, it is the time to pray.
New York walked by me today in gold blue red brick pants & while eating an orange she eyeballed me suspiciously – sidelong – & kept right on walking without ever breaking her stride.
I step outside my house- now filling with incense as quiet morning-dove epiphanies – to a crammed-crowded street and Jimmy McGriff pounding out the blues from car windows and my own cab with windows full of the city – a squawking turban-headed bagel-eating Moishe’s Moving van bricked-up American potboiler day. Had to have my wife call from Chicago at seven am as alarm clock to make it to Newark in time for my first interview of the tour. (“976-W-A-K-E” notwithstanding, nobody in the city wants to have to call “the artist” at seven – I mean, they would have, I’m sure, but by the time last night I discovered no alarm clock it was 11.30 pm and too late to call anywhere for help except home.) Pas de problem, though, ’cause the wake-up let me talk to Jenny first thing, and that is VERY good way to start the day.
Impressions of the road on the way to Newark: Wires and lonely smokestacks amid abandoned land with bright green trees and tagger-assaulted rocks. Ponds and swamps between swirling highway miles accompanied by burning Christian McBride footpads. A cardinal. One blooming tree. Then, suddenly, warehouse outskirts like the far west side of Rockford, Il or like Alameda, Ca. – poor, small shops, wood frame and some brick houses one foot apart. Then, impossibly, flowers and sidewalks and kids on their way to school in happy clusters. Older gents sit in doorways laughing with cops in clean morning uniforms under giant, low-flying dust-laden cottonball clouds threatening rain.
Sat tonight – night before Birdland with icy-sweating Polish vodka and incense watching the lightning out the window, digging the rain sounds with Ginsberg and Prez while trying to feel or be led to feeling for this city, for the people. Smelled someone’s good cooking through the rain-clean breeze. With the wind’s help the tree just out the window tried to grab the books off my desk for attention’s sake. It was a no-go – although soon enough Tree will have my undivided attention as her young leaves fill out toward June and help her stand in the way of the city lights and street below.
Radio folks at ‘BGO were kind to me this morning, but I’ve not yet heard THEIR stories and so I don’t yet know what to give them. Maybe all I’ve really got is my own honest confusion and a good Chicago handshake. New York is like a beautiful complicated song I’ve heard once or twice and am supposed to solo on tomorrow except I haven’t gotten to see the chart yet. I’m worried that when I play it will be like trying to make love to a girl whose name I anxiously can’t remember.
Yesterday, after getting the set together and walking around trying to dig the city a bit, we had our first & only rehearsal for Birdland. It’s likely we should have planned for two rehearsals since we had the time – not because the cats can’t make the scene on only one rehearsal. In fact, far from it. But LH & I come from a slightly different school of playing. It’s natural that it would take more than a quick run through of tunes before the four of us really wrapped our heads around a mutually fruitful musical space. As it was, we had only about 45 minutes? rehearsal for two 75 minute sets & even had to rush through the sound check ’cause of a late start – and this for our Birdland NYC crowded house debut! How cavalier! How foolish.
However, here comes Tony Reedus all composed with his drums and all decked out in black – in city cool, with a vibe that says, “it’s just likely that I know more than you do about this situation. So I’ll be just coolin’ here in the back part of my head for a while ’till you show me otherwise, ok?” Not a bad vibe, mind you, just, uh – confident. He’s a professional, New York style. A minute later comes Essiet Essiet, late of Omaha, NE., ready to work now, and later to tell a thousand jokes in kid-like good-natured “Bushman” humor. We establish good vibe pretty much right away, and that’s 75% of the battle.
Now one thing that you’ve got to look out for in groundbreaking situations is the possibility of doing yourself in. I know full well that this game is really all about trust and balls. So I hope to say that it was just something I ate between the rehearsal and the hit that changed the trajectory of my outlook. What actually befell me was a pretty quick descent in mood from a reasonable watchfulness of the situation at hand to an unnecessary and anxious rumbling of ill forebodings. I should have just eaten a candy bar before the set and brought myself down.
Expectant and full of many hopes – my own and my manager’s and the lable’s and God knows who else’s – I know it’s up to me alone, and I throw myself on the mercy of life holding on to the words of Saul Bellow in the opening chapter of Augie March: ” . . . first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes not so innocent. But a man’s character is his fate, says Heraclitus, and in the end there isn’t any way to disguise the nature of the knocks by acoustical work on the door or gloving the knuckles.”
So I step onto the stage – full house with suits and cocktails, candles aglow and expectant hush. I feel the energy of people throughout the night trying to decide – “Well, turn him over again, that other side might be cooked by now” – whispering, talking to each other behind napkins, taking notes – one cat even with open laptop & keyboard pointed right at me and typing! I watched his fingers poking. (Europeans would throw THIS cat outta’ the club!)
How did it go? Well, I can’t really remember the opening tune (except that my voice sounded quavery to me). Do remember getting damn scared on Night Dreamer. Tried to just focus on my pitch but that made my intonation waver. Wrestled myself to the ground & again I can’t remember what happened next. I think I was shrink-wrapping myself. And yet here’s Essiet, focused and watchful and in fact, throwing around enough swing to shake the stage lights loose. His solid foundation is really holding me up – all smiles, he vibes me the vibe of the true swinging brotherhood. And even Tony Reedus seems to suspect that we just may mean business after all (I mean, we ARE doing Wayne Shorter). But then Tony, who is all business and gives no quarter to mere scuffling, gives me a different look when I turn the time around while trading 8s with him. One eyebrow cocks in my direction as if to say, “Oh really?” And then LH squirms to me that we need to stretch the set out: we’ve only been on stage for 40 of an expected 75 minute set and I think we’re 80% done with our rehearsed material.
That was where I gave up, I think, made some remark to the crowd about feeling about as competent as Inspector Clueseau (which either came off like cornball inanity, full-blown self-serving false modesty or like a young hopeful buckling under the pressure – none are good options). Went from there straight into Lord Buckley, and then into “Polka Dots And Moonbeams”. (If all else feels like it’s failing we can still hook ’em on the ballads.) I did, in fact begin to notice the vibes being sent out by a couple of the women in the room – subtle warm starlights spotting the room with sparkly eyes. Thank God for the women – except I also thought: :Oh, great, so now in the New York press I’ll be known as the Julio Eglesias of Jazz.: But I do relax and relent then, and the ice brakes -I return to my body and we make it through the set without any bloodshed.
In fact: smiles and back-slaps all around! Backstage, then, comes Mgr., club owner, Blue Note friends. – the ship of happy fools: they’d smelled the fear but took it for their own! I told ’em I owned it but they wouldn’t hear a word and I gratefully accepted their honest vibes of real victorious excitement and relief (or at least well-acted enthusiasm – I’ll take either). Checked in with the cats (who, as it turns out, also said the gig was kickin’!). Then & grabbed a bite to eat (famished!). Second set better and more settled – still laden with lame stage patter. Just dug in to do the job knowing the worst was over.
Home to ringing silence at 2.30. Slept a waking sleep till 11 or so, up and strung out. With vitamins, rain, sound of a morning dove and dripping water outside in the day. Later, empty gray skies and thought-filled eyes.
Well, ok then. Lesson learned. My strength really does lie in acting naturally. Maybe I’ve actually been hiding myself in performances because of the uphill battle in clubs where I’ve had to ‘go after ’em’. I’d really stopped having fun. Well, at Birdland for night 2, I came in stone cold sober and actually a little sleepy feeling from waking-sleep throughout the day. I must’ve blown off a lot of dendrites or whatever you call them to have needed so much quiet. (As I think of it, I don’t think I’ve been sleeping very well at all since about two weeks before our record release concert in Chi.) So I didn’t worry or think or even pray too much – and everything was, well, ok – certainly better than the night before – by 20 or 30x!
Full house again (thanks to bus loads of unimpressible French tourists with their cigarettes and ennui and gaggles of gray hair Playbill-holding Broadway heads). But, hell, full house and all the staff happy – delighted, in fact and treated us warmly and brotherly. Thanks to Richie, Christina, John, David, Brian & Jeff and all the waiters! Everybody happy & the music opened up.
Some good hang time too: Essiet told me a terrific story of his boyhood in Steven’s Point, WI. One winter on the way to school he noticed a dog that had been hit by a car and thrown by the impact into the river at the side of the road. Well, it was winter and the river was so close to freezing that the dog’s body got encased about a foot under the ice. You could see it – it looked like it was running on its side. No pain, no blood. Just a big reddish setter frozen in the ice. Every day he and his friends passed the place walking to school. They’d look for it to make sure it was still there. “There’s that dog again!”, excitedly, & start running to get away. They looked for it every day ’til spring came and the ice melted and one day the dog was washed away. “It was just gone,” said Essiet. What a mysterious, significant thing to tell me. I wonder what it means.
Meanwhile it’s on to DC by train. Next to me is gentle father and beautiful Buddha son spending time quietly digging each other (the wife two seats back with the other kid) – the boy curious, willful, though gently persuaded by giant, strong v-back dad to settle it down and relax into the trip. Dad’s a good sort, a laborer, a worker in baseball cap and clean white pocket t-shirt and new jeans bought especially for the trip. He’s the kind you see hundreds of every day. He probably make things go.
Also, here’s LH with futuristic headphones like a kid brother with a new erector set radio crown pretending to dig Martian transmissions from beyond the pale. And out the windows all the time are sad toothless three-story brick industrial eastern towns all left behind by the energy of change – the broken glass and old bumpers, lamps, carriages in heaps beneath eyeless warehouse window frames. Can’t even tell the town’s apart ‘cept for the occasional schoolyard signpost. This is the sad broken East.
Now at DC. when we lose the train I call to make sure the radio interview is still happening and to make sure it’s quicker/easier to take a cab straight from the train rather than sharing one with LH to the hotel 1st, checking in, & then on to the hit. (It’s not.)
So I drop LH with his gay John Wayne impressions at the Georgetown Arms – a joint all done up in that ubiquitous colonial Georgetownish style that makes you feel like you’re in town to testify or be some senator’s paramour du jour or act like you’re in a spy movie. I strike out into the blistering hot DC pm for the NPR @ UDC.
There, thanks to low listener support and even lower gov’t concern, only one CD player works (and it skips like a scratchy LP right in the middle of April in Paris) and the studio headphones look like somebody’s dogs got a hold of them. The people are beautiful and trying hard to make things go but smart radio is pretty hard up in the US. We give it all we can.
Once we’re done, rush back to hotel for one minute (no kiddin?) to dump my coat & grab the cash that’s flying out the window from the summer heat-wind. After quick gyros while I walk I make it just on time for the rehearsal.
Now it’s the dreadlocked loose-limbed Harold Summy on drums (Sonny Rollins for two years!) and the very swinging James King on bass sounds (from Stanley T’s band – so you know HE knew Sugar) – both beautiful, giving cats and able to extend big swingam. King is a real Jazz-head – the kind you read about in stories, and who Hollywood loves to pretend to have always in the background of movies where the white character is hip enough to actually know some (briefly appearing) black characters by name. He’s scratch, cool, twiny, a Jazz prince, a sound artist in swiveling, velvety ink. He’s the kind who, if he’s reading this right now, is saying to himself, cocking his head to one side, eyebrow down, “well, now, I don’t know about all that “- him sounding strong and assured like lion-padded paws down a jungle dirt road. Beautiful.
Strong 2 hr rehearsal & sound check, then quickchange (5 mins only in hotel room to space out and begin warm_up), eat running again and then to gig. All smiles now as Ralph the Manager (who remembers us from last year) greets us all professional-like with a house full of 1/2 German doctors (out zu hear der Jazz) and 1/2 who-cares-as-long-as-they’re-here types. The German contingent is a particular point of interest could mean trouble ’cause tourists can be THE WORST. Now there’s only time to dive into it.
But grace does prevail and we pull off two of the tidiest experimental sets you could ask for (except for my scatting which always suffers on the road from lack of shedding time because of schedules like today’s).
On the break one of the waiters, a young gentlemanly articulate brother nicely requests “Never Say Goodbye” from our first album (and for which I foolishly left the chart at home). I tell him that I’m in a different space now than when I wrote it – I’m hooked up happy married lover boy with perfect flower wifey at home waiting for me. But he’s persistent, “That’s sorta where I am right now, man. I really hear it, you know what I mean?” I’m sorry we couldn’t play it, but we never got to it in rehearsal. I’ll definitely catch my man on the b-side, though, if he shows.
At the end of the night and by the grace of God we collect more than half again the amt. of the guarantee in overages – enough to make even my mgr. in faraway LA happy. All I want now is a brain chill, but I start in instead to worry about my invited appearance with the Mingus Big Band in a few weeks. I need information & shedding time and LH is at the mind-control with car chases and guns and cartoons and it’s 1.30 am and I’m dead on my dogs.
Digging on Mingus in the headphones at the National Gallery and fall into intake synchronicity when I come to Lyonel Feininger’s painting, “Zirchow” (1918). Mingus and Feininger: two unlikely geniuses conversing in the unlimited universes of creative mind space!
Izzy’s is a two story club; ground and underground. It’s run by an excellent young French group who love the music and treat us in the hip and respectful style of their culture. It feels like the right shirt, which is fortunate ’cause it’s also where we’ll be playing six consecutive Wednesdays. At the Izzy Bar things finally relax and really settle down. We are joined and strengthened by Ugonna Okegwo and Yaron Israel – also by a packed, open-hearted house of neophyte Jazzers (and, I’m told, one return reviewer).
Such is the power of the good vibe in the room that I really relax into the groove and have fun on the set. Ugonna is clearly a kindred soul – a cat who is in it for the sake of the music. He’s open-eyed and responsive to the slightest musical cues. He’s also willing to stick his neck out once he realizes that LH and I really do want his input. It also doesn’t hurt me that Yaron plays with a time feel I identify with right away – and in fact I find out later he comes from K-Town on Chicago’s west side, where I served a two-year internship in grad school. Plus, he and I share the same teacher in Von Freeman, Chicago’s great squealing rabbi, so you know we could get together there. Yaron and I fall into it right away. LH senses my relaxation and allows himself to shake off some of his own tension in the music’s healing vibe.
Shame it was only one set? No way: we’ll be there 5 more times and often with two sets. It’s best to hit ’em hard and walk away the first time. You know, don’t show ’em EVERYTHING you can do the first night, you dig? All beauty and respect to Yaron and Ugonna who picked up much sound in small time. Also to my man Pierre, who takes care of sound, and to Izzy herself who hosts us with excellent worldly moxie (and is, in fact, just the sort of raven-haired Frenchwoman men forsake homelands for). Post-hit relief and kicks, endless drinks and new friends.
Tough next day traveling. Up and still stumbly-drunk at 7.30 packing for car trip by 9am with LH to Boston on exceptional blossoming bloom-of-spring day with brand-new out-of-the-box blue sky above – us marveling at our continued blessings and gifts and having a good hand with silly goofing talk and deepest-bag Dexter G. all the way. Talking of plans for future creations and anticipations also. A good trip north in spite of queasy hangover.
But we’re due in Boston @ 2.30 and by the grace of God that’s just when we arrive, driving up the hotel path to find the club publicist waiting. There’s not time for me to check in before my live radio spot with Fred B.
I’m glad to meet Fred. He’s a lovable, funny guy – a bird watcher, jumping up at 4am in springtime. He’s also a nutty, scatterbrained thinker like me – all glasses and elbows – who has to defend himself from technological attack in the studio every show. The first CD track Fred plays during our interview is accidentally from somebody else’s record! No worries, though, just good vibe laughter and everybody pitch in on air ’till he’s ready with the right disc. Later, I fall right in the same bag, though, forgetting the names of our soon-to-be musical sidekicks & muttering some foolishness to try to cover my own tracks, all the while hoping their wives aren’t listening ’cause I’ll catch hell if they are . . . (Later Fred asides to me that he does his radio show secretly, telling his day job hosts he’s got a long lunch to take on personal business once a week. How can they not have found out, though?)
Rush back to the hotel after handshake farewell to lovable, mistake-making Fred. Next question: Is there a rehearsal @ 3? Have I missed it and has excellent LH taken care of everything while I’ve been gone? PLEASE say it’s so. Exhausted while talking to Fred I was hoping for nap possibilities to arise and not just further tribulations upon my return: I still haven’t even checked in! But alas – LH is asleep and rehearsal isn’t until 6! How we’ll get through two 75min sets on a 1&1/2 hour rehearsal I know: Hard-assed-up & running WORK. Except NOW it’s 6.30 & no sound guy and no drummer. (There’s always something!)
Saw the pinched faces of Boston in a mist of city grayness, also beautiful tree bouquets of cherry blossoms and magnolias and also tulips. But I’ll bet apart from the flowers, dancing is allowed only at college formals and officially sanctioned, sensible shoes events. No dancing allowed in THESE streets. It’s a button-down town & closes down at 11 pm. No kidding. Even the Jazz joints.
Glad to be back in the city again after long drive with swinging Prez and O.P. along tree-lined blossoming upstate NY. Home to beautiful lithe dancer-wife come to the city to roost full of kisses and happy-faced conversation. We are happy. Also, she has brought along some of my books and socks (much needed now 10 days into the tour). After hurry-up run the car back to Avis we’re back @ the apt in time for 5pm phone interview and quick eats. Then it’s focus on the get-ready ’cause there’s another show tonight.
Now The Flying Fox from the outside looks to me like the kind of joint I’d never check out on my own – not because it looks treacherous or burned-out but because it looks too cool or attitudinal for a cat like me to really dig, relaxationally speaking (There is in fact a giant scary looking fox above the front door in red lights which reminds me of Dante’s gateway. Inside blue neon foxes hang from the rafters of this converted church and the place is upholstered like a red scene out of Anne Rice). In my terrible midwestern earnestness I’m the outsider in joints like this, all filled up with fashion-plates, ravers & gothic, pierced kids. But it’s on the schedule, so here I go, Pony Girl in tow.
Young Rob at the door surprises me with open-hearted enthusiasm and graciousness – likely it doesn’t hurt that Jennifer is decked out for her first night in the city in striking, eye-popping NY threads. I’m a lucky so-and-so to have such a lover – What a dream girl: slim, toned and gorgeous from dance classes -exactly made for me but still clearly the most compelling AND the nicest, funniest and smartest girl in the room if not New York City! Rob sees all this at once and digs how strong the vibe is for me to be with her. Plus, Jennifer jumps right in with business details I routinely forget about so’s I can (for once) walk right into the joint feeling like a care-free king and just focus on making good music.
At one hour before the hit the crowd could still go either way – at the tables are possible listeners: couples wearing colors and some white-shirted after work business types even families (even parents who’ve brought their five-year-old twins who sing along & dance in their seats and know all the words! In The Foxy! Terrific!) Meanwhile, upstairs are the hipsters in brown & black – sleek and opinionated – looking down from over the railings with drinks and loud-mouthed talk. They are friends of the band to follow us and the session after that. If they feel like it they can shun us, even drop their cold drinks on my hopeful head.
So how to play it? Absolutely straight. Pull no punches but pull no beauty either. Silence implies consent. In a crowded club in NYC it implies attention and the possibility of victory. By the second a cappella note of my segue away from the first tune I hold silence in my hands like a fragile soap bubble. How is this possible? Even without the against-me-stacked-odds of ambivalent hipsters above I’ve got troubles: a constant buzzing in the mains thanks to the host of ceiling-hung neon fleidermausers, worthless monitors on stage and an ungrounded microphone that ouchfully shocks my lips whenever I get to close. I mean, maybe thirty or forty times that night – “POP!” goes the sound of the charge – right into the house sound! (Eventually the sound cat brings me a can of “Static Guard” & tells me I should spray the floor around where I’m standing like it’s my fault. Static Guard!? So I work it into the show & go for laughs.)
We plow through our set with muscled arms – Yaron and Essiet are no strangers to heavy lifting on the scene & LH is impervious as always. We just keep the momentum going ’til the last crash of Nature Boy. I guess they liked it well enough – autographs and free drinks after – also photographs, handshakes and even good vibe hipster greetings. Those among that tribe who had continued blathering after the show started had been dealt with by the downstairs crowd – a blessing I’ve come to count on at my shows and a trademark of an intelligent, strong-willed audience. So that those same three or four shunned hipsters (who had reconvened their gabfest elsewhere in the club) now came dribbling back into the main room with sideways glances in my direction. These slide right by without impact ’cause now I’m being taken up into friendship be the oncoming band and by people who’ve waited & who have to split (it’s 12am, Monday morning!).
What else? Magazine photographers and European reporters who tell me they’ve sought me for two or three years and some famous to-be-named-later Jazz cats who’ve come out to dig the scene. Bravo to the residency plan for making these hook-ups possible. We make our own breaks. Then home to normal off-the-job happiness with the woman: mint milanos & toasty kisses at 2.30am. Nothing wrong with that.
Dreamed of nightmare rehearsal with 3 pianos and double_booked drummer & not enough space or time before the hit – pretty basic stuff, really, except that it also involved some evil cutting bartender from hell, smoking and making comments about my “junior boy” weenie drinking habits. Also there was a second dream intertwined about the president or some such VIP coming to listen. Not that frightening and even a little silly on paper, I know, but that bartender chick was the kicker for me to want badly out of that dream. Of course, it didn?t keep me from sleeping in to 11.30.
But then got up to brunch of groovacious eggs tomatoes toast mustard & Sco (for rhythm). We had an internet interview with the cool Jazz Central Station folks to do, and there was a car waiting for us.
Our driver, Jason, is a proud native son of this island, and he showed us all the history and personality of the neighborhoods we passed on the way from Grammercy to the Battery. He’s a smart guy and has assembled a city full of friends from his years of three-jobs-at-a-time-just-to-keep-place-in-the-city dues. He’s got no regrets at all. Just pride and gratitude, ’cause I figure by now I’ve walked just about every street in the city & I got a friend on at least every block so I know how to get around traffic every time.
“And if you can’t get around it you can just park ’cause you’ve got a place to stay,” says I with a hint of congratulatory jealousy in my voice.
“My dad is sorta’ like the mayor around Grammercy East,” says he. See, he’s been a policeman up there and has been for, like, 30 years and he knows everybody up there. When we drove back from a Florida two week’s vacation last year he wouldn’t even stop at home to drop me off. He just drove up to Grammercy & at 11oo at night we just drove around the neighborhood with him sayin’ “Hey I’m back!” you know’ “Hey, Jerry! Good to see you! Yeah, Florida was hot all right…” You know, just lettin’ people know he was back on the job. He couldn’t wait to get back – He loves it up there. He showed us his grandmother’s building on the way, too, ’cause we were interested – also his aunt’s house on Houston street before dropping us off around the corner from Wall Street.
There we do a little 1/2 hour internet conversation with maybe 8 or 10 people online: Cleveland, Pittsburgh – even Paris & Milan! I guess they must’ve known who I was ’cause they asked about the records and the Bulls (It’s playoff time & Chicago will be dominant once again, I assure you) – tough questions too and some easy ones.
I was in decidedly big company for this interview – they’d already hosted Bob Mintzer, OP, Metheny & Charlie Haden – real cats! – even Chick! And here comes little, tag-along me – Yow! But people take it for granted & so here I am answering questions about the state of culture like a pundit – all the while hoping not to step into the Le Brea tar pit of foolish stupidtalk. I guess it works out ok ’cause they still give Pony Girl and me coffee when we’re through.
World weary and sorta’ sad in beautiful sunlight day after 2nd Izzy’s night. We needed that Village Voice review to come out today to get some momentum happening. I’m told it’s written and even on the net but it’s not in the edition on the stands. So we had only 2/3 house for our two sets. I guess things were bound to be a little anticlimactic after last week’s debut victory. Still, we’re here to create our own momentum, and last night was the first of six dates in a row at six different joints.
I even had the kindness of new friends warning me to take it easy on the voice. They don’t know I’ve been through all this before – not that I’m cavalier about my instrument. It’s just that a more vital concern to me right now is trying to come up with enough interesting musical and poetical ideas to keep the band and my own self interested and in a fresh dream space over six straight nights of impossible shenanigans. In that dreamy-dream space everything is available to us and that’s good. Except that everything in life is just that: a dreamy scheme, a walking shadow (W.S.) and none of it’s real -the songs and audiences and food and laundry and beautiful girls asleep in quiet impossibility – even friends and books and angel-wife are phantoms of beauty. Not even my own weary swirling watery blush-and-peach colored elliptical glove of the soul is for real. Nor yours. Nor anyone’s.
Today I woke up alone and stupid and hungry for company but no one’s on earth. Trees sway outside the window like gangly long seaweed in a great aquarium of light. No one can tell me where the sensible space is (except some silent waiting guru somewhere maybe who can point me toward the hidden door). There’s no writing to be done, no real work – not even shedding. “God is busy today, sir. He cannot come out to play.”
Well, we’re trying to settle into The City in a more organic fashion. After coffee and writing at the leafy window, I walk downtown on workaday second avenue to meet LH @ 18th street for lunch. Two cats who, for 5 or 6 years now have wrestled collided created fought grown and laughed and traveled the world together. We get to see the landscape of one another’s lives – the loneliness and self-deception the goodness and triumphs an even the occasional nobility and greatness. We are one another’s witnesses. We are also one another’s chief pain-in-the-ass: pushing and pulling and neglecting and bitching and knocking each other upside the head.
All hail LH the space-taker! The genius! The petulant child and selfish and giving! The great beefy oaf who smashes and dances and flies over the piano! Gigantasaurous Rex tossing about great hulking boulders of chords like clumps of sand by a god on holiday! And today, at lunch, the 37 year-old man: glasses, short salty hairbeard squeezed into a booth. Lonely and proud and good to know.
We talk and eat – Ed Debevic-style waitress and very excellent freshness on a plate at 1st Av & 10th St – watching beauty pass by in summer skirts and tight pants. Forget the museums. Dig the eternal passing dream-beauty of the flesh of stunning New York girls in barely-on summer clothes! (Tan or black or pink or cream or bronze or beige, men do want each and every one, you know.)
Dazed walk home in sunlight and street smells: patchouli and car exhaust, sometimes gutter stench right after Channel #19. At home with Herbie (The Prisoner) and a message from Sue Mingus: “Just come on out tonight & play with the band!” But I am afraid. I’ve been blocked or something when it comes to new poetry and ranting. Stress and growth and an accelerated information intake rate have stretched and emptied me at the same time (this on top of the stretching I’ve already been getting in the last year, ie marriage, moving, et al.)
So I’m thankful for the gig at Kerrigan’s because it’s like playing a casual date in a restaurant. People are eating and talking loudly and it’s not meant to be a listening room. The band is in a long and narrow crow’s nest looking from brass railings 20 feet down to the bar and over to the tables with TVs going and city-crazed tourists ordering pasta primavera (with chicken). It’s a make the rent date and exactly the kind you must reconcile yourself to if you are going to have a good time at all, musically. Yaron, Essiet, LH & I are there to have fun, loosen up and not have to play “the show”. I mean, sure, we’re there to play well and make music, but I can just call tunes and we’ll play ’em, no worries. Plus, like I say, we settle into the vibe of The City in a more organic way: as working musicians. Nothing like a casual date to make you feel like a regular cat (and remind you of your blessings). And anyhow, the staff only gives us good vibe, no “please come through the back way, please”. There’s good food. We sell records (three to Canadians on parade, one apiece to two brothers riding a birthday vibe, a few more to assorted surprised and now enlightened New Yorkers: “I never thought I’d come in here and hear music THIS good,” et cetera). Not a bad night really, sitting after hours with Essiet telling jokes and laughing. A regular gig: easier done than said.
“Out of the Frying Pan. . . ”
The good thing about working non_listening rooms is that the crowds’ expectations are low or unconscious, through no fault of the working musician. Good bands are regularly paid to look respectable and provide acoustic wallpaper for an uninterested public come to gorge itself at one trendy trough or another. Now, if I can get the people to hear in an environment where the task of listening is not overly odious I know I can get 90% of them to like what the cats and I are going for. In a situation like Kerrigan’s it’s still possible to rouse a good 40% to active listening just by turning the volume the energy and the concept up twelve notches from what’s expected (provided conditions are “ideal” and you have the full support of the house staff). The bad thing is that if you are unprepared to do battle, or if you are thin-skinned, or else expect an evening of great art and audience interplay, you are likely to be buried.
So here we are at Kerrigan’s on the last of a three night engagement. It’s a Saturday night and noisier that ever: birthdays, a big anniversary group, waiting lists, shrill blond voices and clueless suburban types out for a big city night, thoughtless of the decibel level of their conversations.
Just before we go on the manager – with urgent strides – brings me face-to-face with a tallish white guy, frazzled-looking, with wild sidewalk-colored hair, mustache & glasses. With an angry scoff and in one unbroken sentence he snorts out,
“Yeah, man, I don’t know what the problem is here but your publicist has been harassing me trying to get me to come out & listen to you for weeks and I’m SUPPOSED to have a free dinner and they don’t know anything about it downstairs an, listen, I REALLY don’t have time for this kind of bullshit. I’m a very busy man.” (This really happened.)
I offer to work something out: “Well, I’m not sure what’s, shakin’ as far as reservations go, but my road manager, Robert, will be here in a minute and I’m sure we’ll be able to take care of things as soon as he arrives. How about if I get you a drink at the bar. . . ”
“Well, no, man,” he interrupts here, still snorting, “I just don’t have time,” etc. “I may just have to go. But really, you should call your publicist ’cause this is a REALLY BIG ****-up.”
“Well, I guess maybe you should just do what you think is right,” says I – and down the stairs he runs (!) and out the door. The manager and I exchange the looks of men who just now (and personally) saw a live, five-headed chicken from Ripley’s Believe it or Not.
“Sorry,” says he.
“Not to worry,” says I. “It wasn’t the Times. Plus, in his mood – wired, exhausted, clearly not focused on the big picture – he’d have written a bad, probably sloppy review anyway.”
And so the battle begins: the trio is announced in the mains. A slight drop in the conversation occurs as people within in earshot try to decide whether or not something important has been said. And LH begins his attempt to establish a vibe and convince the people that what is about to happen is what’s important. Some small number among the great wash of blathering do sense that music is being produced, but the majority have not yet had a broken their jawing. LH tries a few different tacks: blowing them kisses, painting spring-fed ponds in the woods, chiding them, offering them treats, showing them a picture of a threatening bull pawing the dirt. But finally realizes the odds (soon four of us will be playing, but now it’s just him and the mob) and decides to go into the tune, albeit with ribald musical commentary on the unwieldy crowd. Only scattered applause at the end of the tune.
However, the vibe has gone out whether or not the majority of customers know it. Plus some tables are being turned over and as I approach the stand I’m starting to see faces I recognize – not many, but enough to start a slo-mo chain reaction of eventual increased listening. There’s the girl from UW Kalamazoo and her boyfriend and her mom. There’s the guy who keeps buying CDs and giving them away to his friends – even brought a few tonight. The wait staff is definitely on the team just as they have been the last two nights – even stopping to listen & just dig it, making time to do so. And just as I go into my first number here comes Selma, a beautiful 70’s-ish woman who dug it so hard last night she danced a jig in the second set. All weighed down in gold rings and dark glasses, her hair just back from the salon, she’s getting set up with her usual: double rum & coke (ice on the side). She’ll help us out later I think with more dancing and good vibe. Hope against hope.
LH helps mightily as we try with Essiet and Yaron to conquer with grace what cannot be conquered with volume. Hopeless smiles and occasional sympathetic head shaking give way to outright mutual digging as we all put on our casual date armor – now Essiet pulls a joke out of his solo and bats it around in perfect exuberant virtuosity – now Yaron quotes Elvin Jones on creating contentment and strength in any context – now LH sends streamers of red-ribboned passages over the air like a wry third-timer in full cruise-ship departure mode. We expand our conversation to fill the space. We work. We hope.
Nevertheless, it is Saturday, and even with our “space expansion” and our excellent few allies scattered silent here and there it is still louder in the house than it is under Niagara Falls. Now, it’s one thing to go up against a certain level of steady crowd rumbling. It’s quite another, I propose, to go up against a mob engaged in outright yelling. This is what we’ve got, I’m afraid, and in spite of myself the clash of sounds is turning evil in my head. It starts to really get to me, and just as I consciously focus my spirit toward a more positive attitude and in the middle of a tune I get handed a $20 bill and a scrawl that reads:
Glenn & Peggy
50th Wedding Ann.
Night and Day
CLEARLY, now, the boundaries of my patience are being pushed. I’m tempted to sneer, shake my head, drop the note off the balcony and end the set right then and there. But my friend the manager – who has treated us better than he is used to treating the cats, comes up and sorta’ friendily pleads with me to PLEASE consider singing Happy Birthday to a group of three people at a gigantic loud table across the room.
So what do I do? Well, I mean, we’ve come here to work, after all – no sense gettin’ all in a lather about it. I roll my eyes and laugh to LH. We’re doing an extended “Cold Duck Time” to close the set and I just use my solo to screwily work in all nutty, off-kilter notes for the happy birthday routine – including all the damn names AND the anniversary announcement – finish my solo & go over to boogie down with 70-year-old Selma to loud applause and a second $20 from the anniversary table (“Just ‘ause you’ve got style, kid”)!! We never did play Night and Day.
Gig at The Stampede went well, by all accounts. But imagine suavemeister Tony Reedus all in cashmere black half-hidden behind his drums and a stuffed rank half a buffalo made to look like it’s charging the stage! Think of black-light sweating Elvis posters and scores of bumper stickers from places like Abaline, TX and the Dixie Diner Truck Stop all around urbane Ugonna Okegwo’s haloed head and you have some idea of the visual incongruity of the evening.
Mark, the owner, was there himself to run sound (an open and likable cat in denim jacket, tired unshaven face with bleary eyes from whiskey & no sleep – a good ol’boy in The City). A stuffed-to-the-gills brick room with mostly white collar white kids there to hear the “Flying Neutrinos”, an updated jump band I never got to hear because of the help the human crush afforded me in exiting quickly and completely after our show.
Mark pumps the volume like a rock show. (Do audiences in these joints always listen to sounds this loud? Are people’s ears hiding in the earth?) One of our fans stuffs cotton in his overburdened ears at the first crashing chord of LH’s night (thereafter digging it and relaxing). Plus slamming Tony Reedus – with a New York edge to his time feel that bespeaks a man fully hooked up to the super-bustle of the First City of the World. His shattering pulse couples with Ugonna’s cosmopolitan counter melodies to pound bound and expound all around the spellbound underground. The sound is stronger than the sight, you dig?
Plus, I can dig from the stage that some return friends have brought whole tables full of uninitiated with them, so the word of mouth vibe is spreading. We are doing the job we came to do. Big applause at the end of the night and good vibe from all sides. I’m relieved ’cause while I could sense victory during the show, There were actually very few visual signs to go on. The audience looked passive. Maybe they’d never heard anything like what we do (not impossible). Maybe they couldn’t move ’cause the force of the amplified sound waves crashing around them held them straitjacketed! Maybe they were HYPMOTIZED!!
Well, another non-listening room, sort of, conquered, sort of: Boubon Street Cafe last night in faux New Orleans Mardi Gras tin-roofed roadhouse vibe with peanut shells on the floor & old-style upright piano. We open for the Smokin’ Swingers (or some such name) – another stylish knock-off jump band in resale spectator wing-tips and fedoras who play way out-of-tune very extremely white bread NOT EVEN THE RIGHT CHANGES covers of Louie Jordan b-sides. Their fans are nubile short-skirts and the men that chase them, sweating and dancing. The owner’s a stout seen-it-all kind of a businessman who comes on in beard, long sweaty hair & Hawaiian shirt. You expect him to be the guy who chews up a cigar a day without ever lighting it. He takes me aside and lays down a scene-cynic, squint-eyed trip like,
“Last year at this time I had a Ska band in here & THAT’S what they came for. Ah it’ll change again by next year & these guys ‘l be outta’ work -but YOU guys: You gotta’ LONG career ahead of YOU!” He goes on swaggering right out loud in front of customers & says, “All this swing shit’s popularity’s just a reaction to grunge anyway – ’cause grunge is anti-sex & these kids wanta’ HAVE FUN and GET LAID. I mean, here’s a situation where the girls wanta’ look like girls, you know’ & get danced around on some guy’s arm & show it off a bit. Next year they’ll do it to different sounds, though.”
All this just after we do our 60 minutes. It’s got to be loud charts and with a phat swing ’cause this room’s the noisiest yet.
So: X of the Season
quickish, bluesey piano segue
Night Dreamer — drum segue
April In Paris (a little faster) . . .
You know, just punch it out.
Excellent free food after: relaxed & spicy catfish & cornbread – that and free drinks. The cats & I sit quietly with beers at the table, watching the dance floor, not talking, and thinking what men think. I decide it’s probably best to just get home & call my wife, so once we eat (it’s a little loud, young and silly anyway), I help Tony with his drums, have a quick night cap & taxi home to phone & zone.
Well, I skipped a day of writing for all-out break from exhaustion, but more on that later. Rose on am of 22nd early to catch the car to do another interview. Pony Girl came along in well-used stretch limo all up Riverside Drive in wind and gray, the wind almost blowing a man and his dogs over when they cross the street. The studio is inside Riverside church (Reinholt Niebuhr’s ex cathedra ) but by the time we’re through two hours later we forget to stop and check it out.
We waited in the office room on a beat green leather couch digging the sounds of a back woods bluegrass duo singing “You’d Better Pray to the Lord When You See Them Flying Saucers – It May Mean The Coming Of The Judgment Day” (only on college radio!). An older press photo hung above our heads and had drawn the snidery of some nimble collegial mind because the caption clearly read “The Pat Metheny Group” and only showed Pat leaning against a wall, smiling, amid alley debris. “Hey!” – somebody wrote with arrows pointing – “The Pat Metheny Group! Woah! With Spare Tire on piano and Brick on bass! You should hear him wail! What an excellent BAND!! These guys ROCK!”
The interview itself went well, though I sensed some kind of confrontational vibe in the air. For a while I thought it might turn surreal with intellectualism like an interview I did at Berkeley where the shaggy-haired mechanic-outfitted host turned combative with one-upsmanship in an absurd debate about black & white movies & whether or not “one” had really “taken in” that kind of “cinema” if “one” had merely “seen” it on TV rather than in a “movie haus”. So at first I’m a little wary when spotting a few signs of the smirky smart-guy syndrome from my wiry, myopic host – petty nomenclature corrections & statistical snottiness like pointing out correctingly that Louis Jordan’s career apex lasted “only about two years, not five” (squinting and nodding now). But, I can tell you thankfully that “Rick” and I actually had a pretty open and easy time of it after the initial “how d’ you do”. Also, John & Saachi Pattatucci show up so John can be done in the next interview re his new record “One More Angel”. He’s a very generous and beautiful cat as well as a total mf on bass, and I was glad to get the chance to hang with him and Sacchi (Here’s the world famous Red Baron holed up with two jazzers and their burning-fine-moxie dark-haired wives in a white-washed basement.)
Then there’s a call for me. It’s the other shoe.
Comes a measured aggrivated street cadence: “Hey, man, I just have one concern about what you said earlier, man. Did you realize that if you’re workin’ for the door at these joints that you’re putting working musicians out of work!?”
“Man, I AM a working musician,” says I.
Confrontational now, he says, “Man the ONLY person who wins on a night when a cat like you plays the club is the CLUB OWNER! – And cats who live by the music are out of a job because of you – Have you considered THAT!?”
I start to tell him how a) there are at least three more cats per night who are making a living from MY music because I’M working my ASS off to get something started in the world, and also how b) I happen to be living by the music. But there’s no time to go there – the song’s almost up and it’s time to talk on-air again. So I say (always trying to work it out),
“I’m sorry, man, but I’ve got to do this thing – If you’d come out to a gig I’d be happy to talk more about it…”
“I AIN’T comin’ out to no gig!” (dismissively, angrily) “You’ve clearly not considered the IMPACT of what you’re doing & also DON’T CARE!” – CLICK!
We get the driver to drop us off in rainy Soho so Pony Girl can look into galleries & so’s I can hang with the beautiful artist Fred Hersch. Fred and I met when we shared a manager. We grab a bite at a wood & fern flavored cafe and later go back to his crib to dig sides; specifically, his new Monk record. It’s a deep and rich artistic message – often more like duets for two hands than solo piano work. We also play a few tunes together at his baby grand. And then, “It’s 5:00 already?!”
Brisk walk back home with carrot juice and anxiety re my appointment with the Mingus band set for later that night. I shed for an hour or two, then it’s 9pm and we’re off to Fez to kill or be killed. (All this on a day that’s supposed to be my day off – in fact, the first in 9 DAYS!)
Anxious cab ride downtown. And then, in line, Suzanna, Sue Mingus’ daughter, is taking the bread at the door. She welcomes me, hands me a Mingus fake book, wishes me luck & tells me how excited people are to have me come down to sing. Is this for real? Schmoozing? A come-on? I’m a nobody singer from Chicago – whence all the fuss?
Now it seems to me that it IS a pretty big honor and sign of respect even for regular cats to get to sit in with this band – at least SOMEBODY high up takes you for a cat, a pro, you rock, etc. But for a SINGER and as a featured guest (why can’t there be some other way for a singer to sit in?), well, you just better come ready to throw down. I mean, it’s a band of CATS – a large junket of heavy New York working musician CATS. It’s a SCENE with regulars, visitors & stand-ins who know each other (or at least know OF one another). This can be the toughest kind of tribunal from an anxiety standpoint. It’s not the critics, who are really only important from a business standpoint. It’s not the audience, who certainly ARE important but who can be fooled. It’s THE CATS. (Or, it’s at least it’s a big group of them.) Plus, just to put some more zing into it, Bruce Lundvall & Tom Evered are here from Blue Note and full of gleeful anticipation, also the reporter I met in DC from Reuters, assorted and expectant friends and a super-crowded house amid the mirrored pillars and red velvet curtains. And here’s Sue Mingus at the last minute, excitedly: “I won’t even TELL you who’s here to hear YOU tonight!”Good. Don’t.
I get Pony Girl situated in a booth, and then it’s time to meet w/ the band leader pro tempore.
“So, man, what do you want to play on?”
“Well I’ve got some lyrics to So Long Eric, but Sue said that she didn’t want me to use something that I was prepared to do or pre-written. I’m not sure what’s going on with that – she said she wanted to put my feet to the fire . . .”
“Spoken like a true non-musician. Well, we can do whatever you want . . ”
But just then Sue comes up and announces: “You’ll do Nostalgia In Times Square and it’ll be GREAT.”
I spend the set warming up backstage at the same time as Craig Handy & brainstorming ideas with myself. The band spends the set kicking the audience’s ass. All too soon it’s Sue Mingus at the mike: “. . . special event. . . great singer . . .fantastic talent. . .nothing like it. . .actually MAKES UP LYRICS and is a young genius,” etc. Nothing like high expectations to wreck yer night, I always say.
Then it’s a blur – I shake hands with cats, Andy Mckee with lion-headed bass and maybe two other cats. 9/10 of the band has never laid eyes on me before. We count off and BAM! I’m blowing – plowing, actually. Work into my ranting no monitor, work in wacked NY energy – then on to notes: ribbons, I hope, of musical merriment (that actually come from personal harriment) and keeping me from too much embarrassment because of my predicament. Work in, “just then the Mingus band rolls by like a terrific swinging train.” Then “blow, Blow, BLOW your boat, bursting at the seams!” Digging in for sounds I’m gonna’ BASH myself through this electric current – crashing and slamming. The people are with me now and calling out “Go a’head, man!” and clapping in bursts as I go. people are standing up to get a better look and one girl is standing on a chair yelling “WoOOOOOO!!” But I’m getting worried ’cause I haven’t heard from the cats yet. I can tell Andy’s into it – He’s pulling hard and slamming out the changes with surprised smiles, and the rest of the rhythm section, too – the energy’s up and climbing as I reach for the next chorus (praying and glossalailing all the while).
But it’s not until Godsend Kuumbwa Frank Lacy stokes it up for me with a simple and sincere, “Blow Man!” that I feel the tide turn. The two of us lock eyes, my life saver & me, so I play to HIM. Then back to the crowd. To the band. Now things are really cooking. The bounce is bumping and the sound is thumping and all the cats are in mid humping and I’m just about to jump into the way SUPER gonasphere when I hear “THANK YOU”.
Smack. Thunk. Wall.
It’s that universally recognized commanding voice that tells a guest he’s overstayed his welcome, and I barely hear it from all the concentrating I’m doing on the SOUND. But somebody in charge isn’t having it. I’m getting the hook. Maybe I HAVE gone on too long – but, Christ, it’s a FEATURE. I’m the INVITED guest and I’m only 2/3 done!
“THANK YOU”. – Again the voice of doom. Ok. Ok. No problem. Finish the chorus & sit down, lowly eyed. Except the crowd goes NUTS with wild applause – yelling Frank Lacy, too, standing up with shouts from Andy Mckee. I sit down to surprising back slaps and extremely good vibe.
Then great crazy long Craig Handy solo to close the set. (Later, the Bari player tells me he “just wanted to get to Craig’s solo” & I can see why. But I guess he said it to me as apology ’cause all the cats were vibing him for cutting me off, and Sue Mingus REALLY vibed him right in front of me with, “yeah – if Bari-Boy hadn’t been such an ASSHOLE by cutting you off! Wha’d you DO that for, you prick?! He sounded GREAT!?”)
Plus Jeff “Tain” Watts comes up, both of us sweating in fraternity hugs, etc. Also Frank Lacy, who sent the love when I needed it most. We hung & dug each other. And Evered comes over all smiles now & others, too. But I’ve reached the end. I’ve held my mud as long as I’ve had to.
“Double vodka. Neat.” Thanks to a few more cats then. But it’s escape I’m after – enough of stress & days & nights. Quick goodbyes. Then cab it home with Pony girl to a refill and relief. I made it. Thank God. Safe on the other side.
Ok, so Fortissimo: It’s a neon-lit beer joint @ 2nd av & 14th St. that’s unique of all the joints I’ve ever played in, in that it features a pretty wide selection of video games just as you enter the joint (“Uh oh,” says I). It’s got Beavis & Butthead on the behind-the-bar and Harley-patched leather rubbing on the stools. It’s got a cramped black-walled smoky aisle that leads back to an all-purpose cabaret room in beat-up black bent wood chairs & tables with a similarly dented & doomed baby grand.
About 45 before us hopeful Charlotte Spark sings and plays nervously, hem trembling @ first in fishnet stockings & rosebud tattoos under a torn slip of a dress. She’s trying to get it together, so you gotta’ respect that. Plus she’s REAL – open hearted, honest fear and grateful and bashful when applause comes. People are kind, and she’s done in 1/2 an hour anyway (good thing, w/ compassion-less LH smirking and scowling obviously and kindless-ly in the foreground).
Then, on with the show: Ugonna’s swinging beat surviving well in bad house sound, LH’s excellence overflowing the possibilities of the sad, bashed-on piano, me ranting about toast & Marian McPartland in a full room – loose & funny segues & joking all around. Cool gig, all told, plus $195 for us in free will offering after they pass the hat.
Beat empty flaccid droning flat dreary dull lifeless pale wasted days of gray woolly skies and stillborn waiting for green and golden days full of lilacs and summer lake swimming with trees and laughing. It won’t come to you THIS spring in NYC under ground in pounded pavement and screeching subway brakes. Today I play the uptown stop of the 1 & the 9 train at Columbus Circle with my man Sayyd (he of the blessed spirit and late of the Duke Ellington Orchestra) and Sun Ra guitarist Bruce Edwards. We’re doing a benefit at the Fez tomorrow night for Subplay discs and Share Our Strength, a city charity. But even with all our hearts showing clear in the underground fluorescent lights the people pass by without hearing – somnambulists on city streets all dreaming in the great dream space of the hopeless day. All of them want what comes next from the mouth of the void to be a thrill or love or a forgetting or at least a laugh or a smile and not just some other dreary hopelessness.
One man I see – so hopeless and lost – he kerbels his way through the turnstiles to buy magazine and gum @ the kiosk in high heels and worn-out girl’s designer jeans – blush and beard crowding the same cheek with yellow butterfly barrettes and orange lipstick. Who loves him? And the woman coming now off the train, middle aged and round in her gray open coat and a mustache of tears – gold ringed fingers clutching a sagging gray purse in front of her as she walks. What can we give to her? What? A Train? Yardbird Suite? She’s not even here. It is June 3rd and there’s a pavement-colored sky and only 65 degrees. Who could be happy in the cold urban Diaspora?
After somber day of rain and cold sad conversations I shed for the gig and read. “The Times” is finally supposed to come tonight, but it seems kinda’ anticlimactic because of all we’ve been through and all the notes we’ve already played since we came on the scene. I guess that may be likely for the best. I’m too tired to stress about it.
So, after celebration Chinese dinner with Jen & LH we train up to the upper west side to play at the Starlight Lounge. Now, the Starlight vibe reminds me right off of a joint in Chicago called Milt Trenier’s (owned by the youngest of the famed Trenier Bros., late of Las Vegas) – except that the Starlight is trying really hard to be what Milt Trenier’s is: the last of the rat pack’s hide-aways. There are framed pictures of Sammy Davis, Jr on the wall right alongside some “vintage” Playboy pinups. There are faux leopard-skin couches and wacky old lighting fixtures. They’re trying hard to be retro-loungy for the 90’s. I meet the owners and they’re excited and glad to have us there. Nice people. They DO have a real piano and a good sound system, but it’s lounge lizardy, all right.
By now, I have learned the one should never underestimate a tour’s ability to throw you some curve balls. Tonight the curve ball is that we have a 10.00 hit and it’s now a 10.15 full house and no drummer. (It’s the story of my professional-critical life: the most important gig w/critic on-the-way & the situation gets screwed up. Even for my first review ever anywhere I’m in the middle of my first solo in the first tune of the first set and the duct-taped sound system (no kiddin’!) blows out & I have to play the rest of the night w/out!)
So no drummer this time. Ok. Fine. We’ll play it like we play trio gigs in enlightened restaurants: less punch & more pleasant. Of course, Laurence is a strong enough player to make orchestral sounds, and Ugonna by now knows all of our charts, so he’s good to go. Nevertheless, I’d give anything if only some other drummer would show up, say, Victor Lewis. (It’s not impossible – he’s done four or five hits with us now, and he didn’t hate it. Talk about fun – here’s a guy who combines all the different kinds of fun – from sandbox to hard knocks to paradox – with virtuoso chops and a teenager’s energy. Who’s your lucky dance partner tonight, oh Victor-ious one?)
We’re subtle-ing our way along and still trying to show what kind of energy we own. Even though we’re sweating, things seem ok. We’re playing the right notes, we’re having good cross-communication, it’s not so bad. Laurence and Ugonna are strong, and we’re feeding each other’s strengths. In fact I start to project us (in my mind’s eye) as maybe like the three kings from the east – each with a gift of gold, frankincense or myrrh. Except there’s some drunk at the bar arguing with some other regular and it sounds like it’s getting out of hand. It pushes the magi scenario right out of my head and quickly gets louder and louder until and as with one voice the CROWD SHUSHES THE DRUNKEN BAR. Awesome. What could be better? But then, as I end my already interrupted ballad, the owner gets up frantically onto the stage and grabs my microphone and apologizes to the whole room – the listeners AND the drunks AND me.
“There’s room enough for everyone to have a good time,” says he, “and I just want to make it clear that NO ONE IS BEING ASKED TO LEAVE.” He’s upset because my listeners are bumming out his rent-payers with their tremendous shushing but he still wants my listeners’ money, too. What a bizarre thing to live through – him taking the bull by the horns in the middle of my show looking all harried in beard sweaty red nose and button-down brown sport coat – his left hand crumpling up fliers in consternation and me looking quizzically at the floor, one hand on my cheek like Jack Benny.
Fifteen or twenty minutes later the show ends anyway (to loud applause, thank God). Afterward comes a mob of record-buying well-wishers and four people offering to run & go get their drummer husbands or brothers “for the second set.” Well, lemme tell ya’ they ain’ gonn’ BE no secon’ set, Jack! Not in THIS jernt!
Saw a big fight in the streets before Izzy’s: scowl-faced black muscle frowning in Nikes and stomping on this panicking kid in a red shirt, cowering and thinnish – almost laughing from fear under a van on 2nd avenue – all bystanders and people in a sushi bar just eyeballing, impassive, and saying things like “well, I guess summer’s here.”
Well, first of all, one month is enough. One month of residency in a town that’s more than, say, an hour from your own actual home is enough – especially if you were married only six months before you are scheduled to begin. We’ve gotten what we came for – good playing time in the city with city cats, a certain following, terrific word-of-mouth in the industry (“A for effort,” I’m told), good reviews in the big papers, good vibe, etc. . .
The real proof of the overdue ending, however, is a sprained ankle – a feat accomplished in the catskills coming down a mountain path all by my flatlander self and showing beyond a shadow of a doubt that I should really be getting home before I hurt myself any further. All thanks and good vibe in the direction of Bruce, Carola and Gideon Moor. They came to the rescue – volunteering at the end of a gig where I spent an agonizing night seated and performing with ice bags on the aformentioned aching and forlorn appendage. With them leading in the mountain darkness we go in cars over twisty forest roads to the hospital in Kingston. Two or three hours later & after all the advice, red tape, the x-rays and the gigantic pain and an even MORE gigantic shot in the leg LH & I are on our way out the door with crutches and a bandaged foot. It’s now 3.15 am & tomorrow we’re due back in the city at the City Wall with Japanese TV.
After an all-too-short night and a quick bite we race back to town to drop off the rental car change clothes for a scheduled 5.30 rehearsal and sound check with Adam Nussbaum. Except that now comes the story about the sound guy from hell. First he sneeringly tells Adam (who’s shown up first and who calls me to tell me that) there’s nothing doing in re a sound check of any kind. So I call the mgr. who says, all exasperated, “of course there’s a check. I told him so!” But the sound guy doesn’t TAKE orders from THIS manager, and tells him so in foul smelling language right to his face a little later in front of customers and the bands. It turns out he’s been the sound guy in this room for the last FIFTEEN YEARS and right through every club that’s come in. He’s kinda’ psychotic and makes people afraid of him the way a borderline personality will, threatening real and ugly violence behind the sneer of a mere smoke-blowing prick. Plus, he’s probably charmed the different owners time and again and made them feel like he knows better than anybody on the planet how this PARTICULAR room sounds (as supposed to, say, ANY professional sound engineer might know just from experience, training, etc.). So, ok, the manager’s not strong enough to change things and there’s no need for the musicians to get killed. My advice to jazzers is to stay out of the room unless you get a contract IN WRITING to bring your own sound cat with you or else stay out of this club until this guy is gone.
On this night in July 1997 we do not have this option, what with Japanese TV, a roomful of guests, the Jazziz Mag photographer, Makanda Ken Mackentyre ready to sit in & me on yet another chair in icy pain. Plus, it’s the only scheduled hit with Adam & we don’t want to miss that – he could save us all!
So we decide to ride it out – no sound check & just a talk-down. Before ours there’s an “early show” – a musical review called something like “But Mama, I LIKE White Music!!” (I’m serious) which features an all-black ensemble doing medleys of hits from do-wop to disco and included wiggy, costumed impressions of people like Caren Carpenter and Sonny & Cher. (The “cast” often tried to get the audience to clap and sing along, but it seemed only the European tourists complied. On vacation in der Grosse Apfel for the first time in their lives, they weren’t about to go without getting their money’s worth.)
Two hours later, when we’re through with our own roller coaster single set, including tons of surprises, and gifts passed from cat to cat (there’s compassion and valor, challenges to joust and round-the_horn flashy passes, there’s joking and grandiose operatic posturing, also Ken Mackentyre sits in and honors us in doing so) we make it fine. But I can barely remember the finish of the night’s story from shear tiredness. Sustaining the energy of a bulldozer for a month is exactly as difficult as you think it might be. Even on a night when everything comes out great. When will this trip be over?
Just after dinner the next day, LH walks (and I hobble) over to RedJack’s. We’re tired and kinda ornery. We’ve given it our best and we’re ready to go home, so having to play again in another new joint is a drag. I know that cats in the old days would go on the road for six months or a year and think nothing of it. Ok, it was a tough gig. But then, road high with a band meant that the music could develop over many shows with the same cats in front of some kind of jazz-acquainted audience. Tonight we’ll be playing with our seventh rhythm section in a month, in another room used to only God-knows-what kind of sounds, and for people for whom the word “jazz” is probably synonymous with “lame”.
Though we set our sights on mere survival, the actual sight of tonight’s venue is, to be honest, not very encouraging. You see RedJack’s is sort of a painted black metallica-vibe rock joint just on the border of Alphabet City and the East Village. When we walk in all we see are tattoos, black neon shirts or cheap brown denim with silver piercing & a van dyke or two. The place is mostly empty of people, but the cigarette smoke of many crowded nights is pasted to every surface with hundreds of band stickers (“NoseBug”, “Blasphemy”, “Pig In A Poke”, etc). Did I say hundreds? They’re everywhere you look – covering doors walls windows shelves the mixing board the bar. Make no mistake: at RedJack’s they serve beer and well drinks and there are no chairs. We are wearing suits.
Nevertheless, the manager is cool to us. Unshaved and wearing black Converse All-Stars, he’s an old friend of our excellent road manager Robert Singerman. AND he’s heard and dug our sides. Still, the set-up is nutty – drums in the middle on a high stand with lights that flash when Yaron plays. The place is still pretty empty when we hit. But all thanks and praise to big swingam Andy Mckee on bass who immediately digs where the fun is and leaps out into the land beyond. HE’S the one who moves the band tonight. He’s a fresh horse and also surprised, I think, to have so much go ahead on a singer’s gig. He takes us all the way out and we finally do all go screaming away on Herbie Hancock’s tune “Hurricane”. LH covers the room in freshly minted notes as Yaron stuffs it full of backbeat. After a quick 45 & a few huzzah’s we’re off the stand for bar-type aftersweat & unscramblification. (The next band gets on dressed like they’re on their way to a square dance at Hillel House, so I guess I needn’t have worried about LH’s Versace. Plus they sound like a spot on the dial where ironic self-conscious geeky retro Vegas sounds splatter with bad jazz & the inevitable David Byrne. Maybe it’s “lounge night”.)
While I’m still trying to figure, up comes Andy & introduces me to a friend of his – a sweating, gray haired hipster in stripy shirt who claims to have performed with Lord Buckley and given Kerouac his first LSD. (It seems old Jack ran home in tears to tell his wife, “Mommy, they made me take it!!”) Also I talk to James Lein from CMJ who is a very nice and knowledgeable cat. LH, too. (He an I are SUPPOSED to go out to dig Ugonna & Jacky T.’s gig uptown, but we’re so beat we decide to call it off. It’s just as well, ’cause my ankle is hurting and I can barely walk anyway.)
Cab to Bed.
Another hot and useless day with the foot and with sweating. Did get started with chapter three of The Odyssey, though. Maybe I should’ve started at the beginning of the tour, but I doubt I could’ve kept up – after all, Odysseus didn’t spend time reading while he fought the Cyclops. What could he have taught me, though? Don’t leave your wife behind for twenty years & don’t piss off Poseidon, I guess.
The last gig, at The Knitting Factory for the NY Jazz Festival, was sorta’ anti-climactic. As I say, we’ve gotten what we came for: some beautiful, generous reviews, a lot of radio support, a little CNN hit. We’ve made nice with some of the top players in town and learned from them. We’ve made friends with some club owners and some crowds, too. Except for my damn foot it’s been no blood shed. In fact, it’s been alright for us. I hope to God the next time we come back everything will be cool.
So last night we got to play it with Victor Lewis and Ugonna, which was beautiful. But there wasn’t much stretching out ’cause we only had 45 minutes to make our point. Half the room had split at the 20 minute mark anyway to get good seats for Bill Frissell upstairs. So we just played for each other, knowing it might be some time before we’d hook up again. At least I could stand again to sing (albeit with some stiffness).
And tomorrow I pack the rest of my stuff. (Thank God Jen packed most of it already since I can’t walk around without crutches yet – also thank God I married the right girl.) I swear I could sleep for a month but there won’t be time – Jen & I are moving back to the South side in five days & we go to Japan the week after, so sleep will have to wait. Oh well. Sleep is overrated anyway. As my long lost friend Denni always said: “It’s better to do than not.” At least we’ve done New York. For now.