March 31, 2014

Take A Chorus

Musical terms can be surprisingly nebulous, especially when they transcend eras and styles. This blog is an addendum to the entry entitled “The Lost Chorus” and was inspired by a question from a musician named Paul in Hawaii. We’ll get to the question shortly, but I’d like to take a quick look at the musical terms as they apply to song form. Songs in the pop and jazz world use any or all of these sections in their construction:
Intro: A brief instrumental section that sets up the tempo and feel of the song.
Verse: Typically an 8-measure section where the singing starts. Verses are repeated (the melody basically the same each time) but the lyrics change to tell the story in sequence.
Chorus: A song may have multiple choruses — each one with identical lyrics and melody. The chorus often contains the title of the song and the hook. The hook is the part that the songwriter and the record company hope will be stuck in the mind of listeners, thus inspiring trips to iTunes.
Bridge: A bridge is a section that is often heard only once — new melodic material and new lyrics that link one section to another. Not all songs have bridges.
Musical Interlude: In pop music especially, this is usually a repeat of one of the sections above without the singing — a solo instrument is assigned the role of either an improvised solo or an instrumental rendering of the melody.
Tag: If a tag is used it will always come at the end and is typically the last four measures of a song repeated a number of times. A fade may occur during these repeated tags.
While the terms are easy to define, their role in songwriting is often nebulous. I was watching “The History of Rock & Roll” DVD today and heard a song that provides us with an excellent example of these terms. Paul McCartney wrote “A World Without Love” early in his tenure with the Beatles. It ended up in the hands of Peter Asher, who was the brother of Paul’s then-girlfriend, Jane. Peter & Gordon recorded the song and it became their first hit. Here’s the musical schematic:
Brief Instrumental Intro
Verse 1 (Please lock me away…)
Chorus (I don’t care…)
Verse 2 (Birds sing out of tune…)
Chorus (I don’t care…)
Bridge (So I wait…)
Verse 3 (Until then lock me away…)
Chorus (I don’t care…)
Musical Interlude (guitar solo over verse and chorus)
Bridge (So I wait…)
Verse 4 (Until then lock me away…)
Chorus (I don’t care…)
Vocal Tag (I don’t care…)
Instrumental Tag
It looks complicated, but the musical puzzle fits together seamlessly.
The term “chorus” has multiple meanings. A chorus is a group of singers or speakers, as in the Greek Chorus, or a “chorus of dissenting voices.” During the Great American Songbook era, the chorus was the whole song minus the infrequently-heard verse. “Our Love is Here to Stay” is an example. Since we rarely hear the verse, we think of what remains as the whole song, which the composers called the chorus. Musicians hear it in two parts, (a) It’s very clear …, (b) And so my dear ….
This brings us finally to our musician’s question: “if the bandleader says ‘take a chorus,’ what actual part of the song will you be improvising on?”
In the jazz world “taking a chorus” means a player creates something new using the chords and form of the song as the basis for his improvisation. The best answer to our Hawaiian musician is to use your eyes and ears. That is, watch other groups and how the players negotiate these musical situations. If you’re playing from the Great American Songbook, you will not be soloing over the verse as it probably wasn’t played in the first place. Most often the improvisation is taking the place of the melody, so the soloist gets featured for the whole song form. It may be a 12-bar blues, or a 32-bar A-A-B-A (verse-verse-bridge-verse) form. Many jazz standards use the A-A-B-A form and a musician might get the whole form or only the first two A’s, at which time the singer or melody person comes back in at the bridge.
Confusing? I would say so. The experience and learning involved goes under the category of dues paying. These procedures only make sense on the bandstand. Eventually, following the roadmap becomes second nature.

March 21, 2014

Iola Brubeck, 1923-2014

Iola Brubeck, in 2011

In the process of gathering 300+ interviews for the Fillius Jazz Archive, I have found myself in a number of memorable settings, none more so than the two visits to the home of Dave and Iola Brubeck. My interview with Mr. Brubeck took place on November 21, 2001, and we made a return visit on July 17, 2011 to do a session with his wife, Iola. This time my wife Romy accompanied me as cameraperson and for logistical support. Going to the home of a jazz icon can be intimidating, but both Dave and Iola put us at ease.
Iola Brubeck passed away on March 12, 2014. She was a wife and mother, and an integral part of Dave’s career, acting at various times as manager, critic and as creative collaborator. Iola wrote lyrics for a number of important compositions, and acted as a sounding board and second set of ears for Dave.
One of their important collaborations was the play with music entitled “The Real Ambassadors,” recorded in 1961 with a stellar cast, and performed only once at the 1962 Monterey Jazz Festival. I’m happy to learn that “The Real Ambassadors” will receive its first New York performance on April 11 and 12, 2014, in the Appel Room at Jazz at Lincoln Center. It’s bittersweet that the Brubecks will not be at the performance. Iola’s contribution to this work was lasting and memorable. My favorite composition from the production is “Summer Song” — an enchanting piece that features Louis Armstrong on the vocals. We wrote about this appropriately in the summer of 2012, and you can read that entry here. There is a gorgeous cover version of “Summer Song” (combined with “Summertime”) by Jackie Cain and Roy Kral, featuring Brubeck’s longtime saxophonist, Paul Desmond. Oddly, neither Dave nor Iola had heard this version of their own song, and I was pleased that I could play it for them and later send them a copy. Personally, if any of my compositions had been performed by well-known jazz artists, I would have been all over it.
I was pleased to learn that the late singer Joe Williams (who was instrumental in the creation of the Fillius Jazz Archive) played a role in the birth of “The Real Ambassadors.” Jazz people all seem to know one another, and we get the impression that everybody loves everybody else. Iola told this anecdote regarding Joe and Dave:
IB:    It’s interesting too, and I should have brought it up when we were talking about where did you get the idea for “The Real Ambassadors,” because Joe Williams was a part of that. That summer I was in New York and I went to Central Park and Joe Williams was with the Basie band, and he was just so great. And the night before I had gone to a Broadway musical. And I said to myself Joe Williams said more and reached more emotionally with the Basie band that night than that big production I’d seen the night before. And that was one of the reasons why I started thinking in terms of a Broadway show.
MR:   Well thank you Joe. He was a big help to us getting this started.
IB:    That’s what I understand. Well I loved Joe Williams. He was a wonderful, wonderful man. He was another example of a black man who, right at the height of the sort of division that was going on in jazz was not effected by that. And I can remember in Europe one time, Joe and some other musicians were sitting outside a hotel in the summertime, on a sort of patio, and our car pulled up and Dave and I got out of the van and Joe got up from where he was sitting with the other musicians and came over and they embraced, he gave Dave a hug and so forth. And it was just kind of a way of him saying “cool it guys.”
MR:   Another great story.
IB:    A lot of humanity.
In my house we have a certain back and forth about creative work, and I often wondered what a conversation was like between Dave and Iola when he presented her with his latest effort. I do know that she did not simply say “oh yes, that’s fine, keep going” if she didn’t like the direction in which he was headed. Iola addressed this in our interview:
MR:   I’ve gotten the sense over the years that [Dave] has used you as an opinion and a sounding board about some of his work. When I was here ten years ago he was working on a piece. Unfortunately it was the beginning of the Afghanistan war, and he was working on a piece that I believe he said the text encouraged women not have children because the times were so awful. And you told him nobody’s going to want to sing that, it’s too sad. And it made me think that you’re fairly forthright with your opinions about his work.
IB:    Well yes. If it’s in an area where I think I know something I’ve always felt that I was sort of like the audience. And if I think there’s something that an audience would really love I will tell him that, or if I think it’s something they won’t — musically I won’t step in that area at all. You know I’m not qualified in any way. But going back to the first recordings of the trio, I remember there is a recording on one side, in those days it was 78’s so you had two sides. “Body and Soul” with Cal Tjader on bongos. And Dave didn’t think that maybe that should go on that side. And I said “that’s the best thing you’ve done” because I was thinking from an audience standpoint. And sure enough it was something that really went over extremely well. So I guess a sounding board is maybe what you would call it.
MR:    Well it’s very valuable to have an outside ear I think, because sometimes musicians can’t divorce themselves from what they did personally on the performance.
IB:    It isn’t always an objective opinion perhaps, but at least it’s outside the actual creating of the piece itself. And then of course we’ve worked together on a lot of different projects, and that way we are — I was going to say critical of each other, but we’re not critical of each other, we’re just honest with each other.
I asked a question of Iola that I have never asked of anyone else. As I was talking to this gracious and charming woman, I was trying to picture her displaying a temper, and I couldn’t imagine what would make her mad.

MR:    I don’t know if you can answer this question, but you and Dave seem like such peaceful people. I wonder, is there anything that makes you angry?
IB:    Yeah. Injustice. That is something. It’s not a just world. You have to accept that fact, but I hate to see anyone treated badly, not even the right to be themselves, and the stereotyping of people, that’s an injustice, by the color of the skin or the way they look or the way they walk or the way they’re dressed or whatever. That I really can’t tolerate. That’s where I’m intolerant.
MR:    Are you an optimist though? Is Dave an optimist?
IB:    Oh yeah. Why not? The alternative is to be unhappy and not enjoy the day as it is. I think you know, at this point in our lives we have to accept each day as a gift and I think that being pessimistic and all that angst that one goes through one times in younger people, it’s okay. I mean that’s part of growing up and coming through it. I think we’ve all had those periods. But generally speaking Dave and I both, even at the worst times, have felt well we’ll get through this.
I’ve been fortunate in this work to converse with and stand close to a select group of people who exude a consistently positive and uplifting spirit. Simply being in their presence made me feel better. Dave and Iola Brubeck both radiated this quality, and I feel fortunate to have had the chance to capture them on camera during their later years.

February 24, 2014

The Scholastic Jazz Festival

Most junior high and high schools now support a jazz band, formerly called stage bands, formerly called big bands. March and April are the months when many directors take their jazz groups to juried festivals. I adjudicate at least one of these every year, and have seen them develop and change, mostly for the better. Many festivals are now set up in a less competitive fashion, avoiding those situations where a band wins “first place” by a margin of .1 (as at marching band competitions). Bands can earn a bronze, silver or gold rating, and individual players can be recognized for an all-star category. From an adjudicator’s standpoint, here are a few observations for directors and student musicians.
Ideally, when your band comes out to perform, the first thing the audience and the judges are going to hear is the downbeat of your first song. This is not the time for tuning up or practicing that annoying little lick that they just can’t seem to get. Your guitar players and bass players may have to make sure their amps are working, but keep extraneous noise to an absolute minimum, so the first thing we hear is your band playing together.
Young brass players tend to point their horns at the floor. Make sure your students put the stand high enough that they have to lift their bells up for the sake of projection.
Adjudicators usually have a form they’re looking at, and a certain number of points are assigned to each category. There’s one category that says “appearance and enthusiasm.”  As far as your band’s enthusiasm, I don’t feel a “locker room speech” works in this situation. Your band should look like they’re having a good time, smiling and supporting each other. This attitude comes from rehearsals, where making music is fun, not a chore. The enthusiasm will follow the group onto the stage. I don’t have specific advice about uniforms, but your band should have some kind of look. I prefer the all-black or white shirts and ties, as opposed to the band tee-shirt — not a terrible choice but a bit informal for the situation.
Regarding soloists, judges like to see students attempting improvisation. We can usually tell when a student is playing a written out solo, most obviously because they are standing up but reading from their chart. Judges would rather hear a simple improvised solo than a well-played performance of a written solo.
And then there’s the microphone. Why should a student be expected to know how to use a microphone? This needs to be practiced beforehand, and they need to understand that a microphone does not make you sound better, it only makes you sound louder. If you play with a tentative tone, what the judges will hear is a loud tentative tone. Students need to practice knowing how close to be to a microphone; they need to learn how to project; and to listen to the hall, meaning “play the room.”
Some school bands come in with oversized ensembles: eight, nine, ten saxophone players, twice the normal amount. I used to be annoyed by this until I realized that numbers are important for music teachers to help justify their programming. But I don’t know of any judges who give points for the most players. Be aware that the more players you have, the unintended consequences may be problems with intonation and cohesiveness.
When I listen to high school and junior high bands I find that most of my comments have to do with the rhythm section, and there’s a reason for this. Rhythm players are eventually required to play things that aren’t in the music. This process takes a lot of time and judicious choices, including what not to play. In the words of master bassist Milt Hinton, referring to bass players and rhythm sections, “we provide a rhythmic service first.” Here are a few specific comments for rhythm section players and directors.
Piano players, your parts are going to be overwritten almost all the time. The music is written for non-jazz piano players and it behooves you to learn what chord symbols mean and how to use them. If you’ve ever seen a video of the Count Basie Orchestra with Mr. Basie at the piano, you will notice that for many measures he is playing nothing, he’s simply waiting for his moments. Playing nothing is a lot harder than playing something, but often times is the best choice, so keep that difficult concept in mind.
For guitar players, you need to learn about the “Freddie Green.” Freddie was a key factor in the Basie swing machine, strumming subtly but with force on every beat. Modern master guitarists Bucky Pizzarelli and James Chirillo follow the Freddie Green style. As explained by bassist Jay Leonhart, the technique is described below:
Jay Leonhart
JL:   The two of them [James and Bucky], they’ll take the third and the seventh, right in the middle of the strings, right in that nice middle range around middle C, and they’ll just sit and play the third and the seventh. It’s either a minor third or a major seventh. Or maybe a sixth if they want to get adventurous. And they can just sit there and play like that. And the only notes coming out of the guitar are the relevant ones. And they’re not doubling the third, like making Bach turn over in his grave.
I have been told that heavy strings combined with minimal amplification and aggressive strumming will help “do the Freddie.”
Directors, if you have two guitar players, they should be taking turns unless one of them can be assigned to double a melody or a bass line at certain parts. Taking turns can also apply to pianists and guitarists as they comp behind the soloists.
Bass players, make sure you’re set up next to the drums with your amp behind you or at least to the side. You should never be sitting behind your amp, and you should always be tight with your drummer.
Drummers, you’ve probably all heard that Buddy Rich — who was often called the world’s greatest drummer — could not read music, and he was not alone. Traditionally in professional swing bands the drummers were self-taught, and they learned the chart by listening to it and finding the appropriate thing to play. I find that drum parts in current scholastic jazz music are far too complicated. Every brass hit and every rhythm written for the horns seems to be included. This does not mean that drummers should play all of them. Swing is established by syncopated rhythms reacting against a smooth 4/4 beat. If every instrument is playing the hits and the syncopation, there will be no swing. Bucky Pizzarelli had a relevant comment about Basie’s All-American Rhythm Section:
Bucky Pizzarelli
BP:    If you study, I have, the music of Count Basie, the rhythm section never played figures with the band. When they [the horns] played eighth-quarter-eighth, they [the rhythm section] just kept chunking away through the whole thing. And it works better that way. The minute everybody’s doing the same thing it doesn’t work. It’s like a drummer hitting figures with the brass section. It’s terrible.
The drummer’s first responsibility is to keep time, to help the band swing or rock or make things funky. Do that first before you try to react to everything the band is doing. Try playing the arrangement without the music. You will listen harder and internalize the musical moments that need to be reinforced.
And directors, you have a responsibility. While most schools have jazz bands, the music colleges do not necessarily require the appropriate training in the curriculum. So listening and observing is required for you also. Make sure your band is set up as well as possible in these festival situations, especially your rhythm section. Avoid identifying your soloists in mid-song, but rather introduce them before or after. We are trying to listen to the music and not your voice. Pick charts that are a challenge, but playable for your group, so that they can make their best impression. Encourage enthusiasm and, during the year, experiment with setting your band up in different configurations so that they can hear the music in a new way. Have your horn players face the rhythm section, or try the Stan Kenton “Flying V” formation with the rhythm section in the middle, anything to get students listening. And encourage them to listen. Why should they know how to play swing music if they have not heard it? Everything is available these days so they should be listening not only to the charts they’re playing, but the classic Basie, Buddy Rich, Thad Jones-Mel Lewis groups. Encourage the festival hosts to arrange their event in a manner that allows bands to listen to and support each other.
Often times judges (at least this judge) get to a point where all they really want to say is “you’re young and you’re doing fine. Carry on.”

January 16, 2014

Road Travails

One reality of the music business is that you have to go where the gigs are. Bands eventually have to venture out from their hometown to play in other venues. Traveling has changed dramatically for musicians in the past five decades and nowadays artists are most likely to have complaints about delayed flights, expensive taxis, and problems with airlines and valuable instruments.

During my rock and roll period with Mr. Edd in the 1980’s, my bandmates and I shared more travel nightmares than I can remember. A Ford Econoline van with next to no heat and a finicky carburator played a major part in most of our road stories. It’s a young man’s game and not something I would choose to do again, but my experiences pale in comparison to the stories I heard while gathering interviews for the Fillius Jazz Archive.
During the era of the big bands, the following ordeals were commonplace.
In this short excerpt from trombonist Eddie Bert, we learn about a common practice among road musicians, “ghosting”:
Eddie Bert
EB:    When I went with Benny Goodman, he was going out, but he was going to stay out there [in California] for six months he told us. He stayed for six weeks and then started coming back. So that was kind of a drag.
MR:    What was it like to be on the road at that time? Was it a tough life?
EB:    Yeah. I mean you don’t eat right and all that. Because you’re traveling by bus mostly. And when you stop you stop. You’re liable to stop in some place that don’t have that good food and stuff like that. So it’s kind of a scuffle.
MR:    And a typical day, would the bus leave after you’re done playing?
EB:    It depends how far the trip is. If it’s 300 miles or 500 miles, you’ve got to leave after the gig. And you had to pay for your own hotel in those days. So a lot of guys ghosted. In other words, you had two in a room instead of one. Or three. Whatever you can get away with.
MR:    And what was the [weekly] salary like?
EB:    Yeah. From a bill and a half to two bills [$150 to $200]. But your expenses had to come out of that. So it wasn’t like today. Today they put you up. It’s different.
In our Mr. Edd travels, we did a lot of ghosting. But even with three or four to a room, sleeping in the van was often the better choice.
There were positive things that occurred on the road, but the unpleasant incidents stick with us. Drummer Sonny Igoe related one such memory from the Woody Herman band bus:
Sonny Igoe
SI:    I was always a Boy Scout. I could have more fun with the guys — they were smoking a joint or something like that they’d say “come on, Sonny, you never tried it.” I said “all right I’ll try it.” So I tried it. Nothing happened. I said “I can have more fun on a bottle of beer. I don’t need that.” And so anyway I never got involved with that. And a lot of the fellas got involved with that pretty heavily and then they went into some other things pretty heavily, like heroin, cocaine and stuff like that. And several guys actually, lives ruined completely with that stuff, because they could never kick it. And I won’t mention any names, but some very good friends of mine, guys I admired as players, got screwed up badly with that stuff, really bad — are you ready for another story?
MR:    Sure.
SI:    We were on one nighters with Woody Herman’s band when I joined. In 1950 he was fighting big debts, you know IRS and GMAC, his booking agency, I think he was in to them for about $90,000 or something like that. And he owed over $100,000 to the IRS, that’s from the manager who screwed him up. And he had this guy Abe Turchin as manager, who got him out of debt and then he screwed him up. He died broke because of him. But anyway we were on the bus and this dear friend of mine, marvelous trumpet player — I won’t mention his name — could play anything on the trumpet, played high screeching, beautiful soft ballads, fast bebop, any style, Dixieland, swing, bebop, anything. World class. And he was a junkie. And when they would run out of junk they’d drink whiskey like it was coming out of a water faucet, to try to help get over it. Well we were in an un-air conditioned bus, we were down in Kentucky or South Carolina, someplace, I don’t know, Georgia, in that kind of country. All rural, all hot. And we each had a double seat because there was a lot of seats on the bus and there was 15 guys or whatever. So right across from me is this guy who is a dear friend. And I’m finally falling asleep and I said “go to sleep, go to sleep.” I almost said his name but I don’t want to say his name. So anyway I’m falling asleep [sniffs]. I smell burning flesh, okay? And I look over and here’s this guy, he had a cigarette with his hand — he was unconscious practically. He has a cigarette and it had burned down between his two fingers and was burning his flesh and smoking. It was actually smoking. So I go like this across the aisle, knock it off, naturally wake him up. And he started in on me like — I can’t mention the words he used and how dumb I was and what’s the idea and blah-blah-blah. And I tried to explain to him. The next day he saw it, it didn’t bother him at all. He played like it never happened. But that’s how, unfortunately, some of those guys ruined their lives with that stuff. I was a square. It was good enough for me.
MR:    Yeah. Stick with being a Boy Scout.
Sonny bequeathed his musical genes to his son, Tommy, who now leads the high-powered Birdland Big Band from his drum stool.
Pianist Jay McShann spoke of the relationship between dance halls and traveling bands. His recollections offered a fascinating look into the day-to-day life of a musician in the forties.
Jay McShann
MR:    You had some pretty good records with Walter Brown.
JM:    Yes, yes, yes. We were lucky to have Walter Brown.
MR:    And you toured around the country?
JM:    Sure did.
MR:    What kind of places were you playing at the time. They were dance halls?
JM:    Well we were just playing dances. A lot of parts of states at that time were hungering for dance, hungry for music, hungry for hearing something different, and so quite naturally a lot of bands, road bands, were traveling. And you could get into Texas for two weeks, because you had all those towns and all those dance towns. See what I mean? Start at Dallas, Fort Worth Sunday night, Austin Wednesday, Houston Thursday, Galveston Friday. And just town after town like that. And that’s the way they could book ‘em.
MR:    Were you playing for segregated audiences at that time?
JM:    Yes. In some places we played I mean whites on this side and blacks on that side.
MR:    How did they keep them apart?
JM:    Well they might have a rope coming down.
MR:    No kidding. I bet you played some bad pianos over the years.
JM:    Oh, we’ve had some awful pianos. I know I used to — sometimes we’d get pianos and the pianos would be so bad I’d get drunk. Yeah I’d get in front of that mess you know, and say “well now we ain’t going to have no piano tonight.” I says “Brown, there ain’t going to be no piano tonight, you’ll have to sing with the horns.” And some of the pianos you know you’d have to tune, like we used to tune up with A. Sometimes you might be tuning up with C above A. Or maybe F below A you know. Now that’s how far they were out of tune some of them. And a lot of times if the band was playing in A flat I’d probably be playing in B flat or B natural. That made us have to go get drunk on that night. I had my excuse already made out. I’d get in front of that mess, cut out and go back to the hotel about 11:00.
In their youth, reedmen Lanny Morgan and Kenny Davern had their big band road experience when the call for those ensembles was diminishing from its swing era peak. They learned about long hauls, hotels, and road cuisine.
Lanny Morgan
MR:    What was the travel situation like, the road [with Maynard Ferguson]? Was it a tough grind in those days?
LM:    Yes. Looking back at it you forget all those things. It was a wonderful experience but I wouldn’t want to do it again. Yeah, because we didn’t have a bus, we had station wagons. And starting salary on that band was a $120 a week. I made $135 because I was not only the lead alto player but played a lot of jazz too and because he’d known me. And so $135 a week and he had two station wagons and then he drove himself. I wound up driving one of the station wagons. And well you can imagine, if you have a one-nighter in Chicago, I just found a pay receipt for this the other night, it was for $23.65, a one-nighter in Chicago. Now out of that tax was taken, so you get about $19.00. Out of that you have to pay for your own lodging and for food, so we used to stay at the Croyden Hotel in Chicago, that was like $2.50 a night, another fifty cents if you wanted a black & white T.V. And say another $6 for food maybe. So in other words you’re coming home with $11.00, $11.50. So I took the driving job because we got one cent a mile. Well now Chicago is 960 miles, so I would come home with an extra 18, or a little over 19 dollars, plus my 11, would be 30 bucks I would have see?
MR:    Yeah. Gee that was like an extra night of work.
LM:    That’s right. When I joined that band we rehearsed that day, the day I got back there, and the next day we opened at Birdland. It seems like we played there for three weeks. A good band. And then we had one day off and we went to the Brooklyn Paramount and we played there opposite the Jazztet, the newly formed Jazztet. That was for ten days. And then we had about four gigs on the road — Pennsylvania, around Philly, in that area. And then, and I thought, this is wonderful. What is that, like 135 times 5 almost. I’m rolling. I was paying $155 a week for a place at 85th and Broadway in Manhattan and I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. Then we didn’t work for a month and a half see, and nobody was on retainer.  Everything was pro-rated when we did work. So the reality set in there. Because then I really went from wealthy to poor in about five weeks. But the driving was terrible. I’d set out like at 8:00 at night from Junior’s or Charlie’s Tavern at 52nd and Broadway, to go to Chicago or even Pittsburgh or some place, and it would be snowing so hard you couldn’t see somebody standing as close to me as you are, and have to drive all that way, and usually we’d leave late so we could catch the day sheet, which meant you’d check in about 6 in the morning and you’d grab a few hours’ sleep, and then you’d leave right after the gig and come back to New York to save money.
MR:    The day sheet?
LM:    Well the day sheet begins usually at 6 or 7:00 in the morning. In other words that’s that day.
MR:    Are you talking about a hotel?
LM:    A hotel.
MR:    Okay.
LM:    It’s like this hotel ends, and they don’t want you to leave until 11 or noon maybe. But their sheet for new people checking in begins at probably 7 or 8:00 in the morning, if they have any rooms available then. So we would try and catch that and get a good day’s sleep and then leave after the job and drive all the way back to New York which was difficult.
MR:    You mean you drove to Chicago [from New York] for a one-nighter?
LM:    Oh yeah. Several times.
MR:    Boy, I thought the rock and roll business was something.
LM:    No we did that quite a few times.
MR:    And probably the Thruway system, the roads were a long way from where they are now.
LM:    The thruways and the turnpikes were finished, but the interstates were not. And of course although we got reimbursed for tolls, it took time to stop and go through the toll booths all the time. And when you’re on a roll, you know I couldn’t drink during that period. I had to stay sober. Because driving through a blizzard with these guys — but you just get on a roll and you want to go. It’s kind of hypnotic, and I really shouldn’t have done that. But we would try these new interstates and they were a drag because you’d take an interstate for a hundred miles and you’d think oh this is wonderful, and they were brand new roads and so forth. And then it would say “END” End of interstate. Merge into one lane. So you’d come into one lane and then it would take you probably an hour and a half to get back to a decent road. So that part of it was a drag, and there were some places like Cincinnati that it was almost impossible to get to. There were a lot of two lane highways, back woods gas stations where you were almost afraid to stop. We had a couple of carloads of kids follow us into a gas station in West Virginia once and they had chains. You know they were going to get us good. Fortunately our car was newer and we got out of there fast. But there was a lot of that really. It was not completely safe to be traveling, even with six guys in the car.
On March 16, 2001, Kenny Davern, in his inimitable style, gave us a wonderful picture of his reality check on what was then a young musician’s dream. His brief tenure with the Ralph Flanagan Big Band helped him decide on one thing he wouldn’t do for the rest of his career:
Kenny Davern
KD:    We did 60 one-nighters in 90 days. We made the most amount of money any band had ever made on the road, I think it was — whatever it was, I don’t want to quote any figure I’m not sure of. And all the guys came up to me and said “oooh, wow, you’re the big time.” “Big time my ass” I said. Horrible. It was awful out there. You know, shaving on the bandstand before the gig. I mean it just wasn’t —
MR:    Why it was awful?
KD:    Well first, maybe you’re driving through Keokuk, Iowa, on the way to Ames. Or maybe it was Ames on the way to Keokuk. Anyway, the most you might see was a Stewart Drive Inn, a root beer and hot dogs. You know you’d have that and an ice cream. Back in the car, some more traveling. You get to this place, you’re in your jeans and sort of like a man dressed in hell. Well it was hot. The cars didn’t even have air conditioners in 1953. Some did but ours never did. And you’d get there at maybe 5, 6:00 and you’re right at the gig, at the ballroom. And there’s the ballroom. The ballroom is like on Highway 483 midway between, you know, Chicago and Detroit. And to shave you had to plug in, there was one outlet by the bandstand. You’d plug that in, each guy would take a turn with his electric shaver shaving. Next. And then there was like one sink in back of the bandstand with cold water only and a naked light bulb hanging down, and a cracked piece of a mirror. And that’s where you washed up. And you put on a shirt. Nylon shirts had just come out. Short sleeve nylon shirts. And it was the summertime. Because you needed something you could wash out right away and hang up and dry and cotton shirts just weren’t in then. I mean you could do that but it wasn’t really practical. And so you know these shirts were hot, I’m telling you, you closed up that collar and you put on a black bow tie, which you had to make yourself in those days. And then you put a wool jacket on over you, and your tuxedo pants. You were roasting. And you did four sets, four hour sets, and then you packed up the horn and folded up the book and put it on the pile and packed up your horns and they put them on the truck and you got in the car and you rode, let’s say maybe 350 more miles, and you’d go through the towns at that time, obeying the speed limit because they were all speed traps, and if you’d go one mile over they grabbed you and you had to pay off. So all the drivers were aware of this. And a lot of times you almost got killed speeding on — on a three lane, the middle lane was for passing in either direction going through.
MR:    So it wasn’t like thruways and all that.
KD:    No there were no thruways, um um. So I’ll finish with this road travail. And what the hell, you ever doze and try to fall asleep in the back seat of a 1953 Buick? What do they call it, where the hump is?
MR:    The driveshaft?
KD:    The driveshaft. Well the drive shaft was like two feet up, so you had your knees in your chin. And two guys on each side of you. And two guys up front. Well I mean you’re zooming along and all of a sudden you hear “hold on to your hats,  fellas,” and you look up and you see two 18-wheelers, one on each side of you, one going this way and the other one going that way, and you’re in the center of the two of these guys. Very frightening. And a lot of guys got killed in those kind of precarious road driving things at the end. And then you get into the town where you’re going to go, you know you left at about 11:30, 12 let’s say. Maybe about 6:30, 7:00  in the morning you’ve rolled into the other great town which boasted of a Milner Hotel at $3.75 or $2.75 a night, I forget which, and you couldn’t check in you see. So you’d have to put your luggage, the bell captain would take your luggage. And these were very cheap hotels. And then you’d walk around town. You’d have breakfast in one of those Dew Drop Inn places, maybe visit the local music store to see what kind of instruments they have, because good horns were still relatively easy to find, premium horns. Of course none of us had any money, but if we needed it we would borrow or whatever. And then when you checked in maybe at 11, 12 or 1, you may have gotten a haircut, whatever. Anything to kill some time. And you slept ‘till about 5:00, and that’s when you had your wake-up call, you got dressed, you shaved and showered and you went down to the local buffet, cafeteria style. And you had spaghetti or whatever, depending on what part of the world you’re in. And then you went to the gig and that night you were able to stay over but you left at 9:00 the next day because again, you had 350 miles to go. So you know you do that —
MR:    Day after day.
KD:    Yeah. It was really quite hard. But you know as a kid you don’t care about that. I think I made I think it was $125 a week, and I cleared $117.50. You could save money, believe it or not, in 1953.
MR:    Because the rooms and the meals weren’t that expensive.
KD:    Right. Every other night it was $2.75 or maybe $3.00.
MR:    Well that experience may have put some perspective on things for you.
KD:    I expected much more. From then on I just got very — like I said when I came home I said — oh boy they all said, you know, starry eyed, and thought I’d be stage struck. “How was it?” “It was the f---ing worst” I said. Plain and simple. Ohhhh, they all wanted to do that. And I had done it. So I didn’t see any romance to that whatsoever.
Kenny spent the rest of his career playing with small groups, where he was less likely to be stuck with the driveshaft. Even if the big band era was still healthy and vital, these music/life experiences would not be taught in jazz schools. They are part of learning on the job and paying your dues.
As Phil Woods remarked in our interview concerning the challenges of traveling, “The playing is easy. [The difficulty is] all the nonsense you go through to bring your horn up to the bandstand. That’s the altar. That’s the safe place.” Phil’s traveling story can be read in a previous blog entry here: Gig Reality Check.