April 20, 2012
Gig Reality Check
The call comes in at 10 PM for a gig two days hence. As a working musician, being available means you take the date, a sideman engagement in a jazz quintet. This is an event which will involve playing before a speaker who is expected to draw a large crowd to a cavernous gym. The performance time for the gig will be for one and a half hours as the audience is being seated.
I expected this might be a difficult load in, so I arrived well in advance of the scheduled start time. Security Guard #1 in the parking lot asks my business, then directs me to the area where I will have to unload. After driving around a small circle, Security Guard #2 again asks the same question, implying I suppose that Security Guard #1 wasn’t doing his job. After walkie-talkie-check with Security Chief, I am directed to the area near the back of the stage which will facilitate the best load in. Once again I encounter, this time, Security Guard #3, who points to the door where I will unload, but cautioning that I will not be able to leave my SUV in this vicinity, I can merely unload but then will have to move my vehicle to an appropriate space, approximately a quarter of a mile away. Said door is firmly locked from the inside. Athletic pounding by Security Guard #3 eventually gains entry.
The book we’re playing from has no order in it, and the leader calls the tunes out of earshot. Since playing with these musicians is rare, there are no expectations of what’s to be called, and you’re reading down charts for the whole time. But this is not what I will remember about the gig.
I was reminded of the amusing story Phil Woods told of what training should be required of players who will become working musicians in the future.
MR: There’s a couple of statements that I read that were kind of humorous from you yourself, that part of jazz education should be getting in a bus and riding around.
PW: Yeah. Get some ill-fitting uniforms, you know, very uncomfortable. The lightweight in winter, the heavyweight in the summer. A bus whose windows don’t open and no air conditioning, no walkmans allowed. Everybody’s got to double. All the saxophones have got to have at least four or five cases to carry, and a big thick book of about 400 charts. Put everybody on the bus and just drive around in circles on the campus for about twelve, fifteen hours. Then get off the bus, everybody put on these terrible uniforms, call out a set, and the book is never in order. It’s like Gene Quill style, you know, one, two, forty-seven, ninety-three, two hundred and seven, five. Call out the set real quick — everybody gets all their instruments out. Okay, put the instruments back. Put the music back. Put your book in order. Hang up your suit. Get back on the bus. Drive around for another twelve or fifteen hours. Do it once again. And I think you might cut the wheat from the chaff. Who wants to do this? I mean it’s an exaggeration on all points, because there are no more big bands where you could even do this. But I mean that’s the way it used to be. I don’t think it has to be that way. But nevertheless the hardest part of the music business is the traveling, whether it’s a bus or a plane, or just the idea of existing. I mean it ain’t about playing. The playing is easy. It’s all the nonsense you go through to bring your horn up to the bandstand. That’s the altar. That’s the safe place.
Fortunately for me on my speaker-warm-up date, the exit was the easy part, though it has not always been so. The drummer and myself threw all our gear out the back entrance, to be packed up and loaded into the car as the speaker began. I recall a gig years ago where I played a pre-game gig before a Syracuse-Georgetown basketball game at the Carrier Dome. SU Orange versus the Georgetown Hoyas is one of the fiercest rivalries in the NCAA. Because of the expected audience of 20,000+, an early arrival and load-in was required. In hindsight, this was the easy part. We performed on the far side of a huge blue curtain which divided the Carrier Dome in half. Again, the music itself was not the frustrating exercise on this gig. As the band ended, the game started. After packing up I was informed that the only way to exit the Carrier Dome was the way I came in, at the far end of the basketball court. My plea to the Security Guard for another exit from the stage fell on deaf ears. Two choices were presented to me: neither of them good. First, I could have piled up all my gear and left it for the time being, found a seat and watched the game. As an Orange fan, this option was tempting, but this would also mean I would have to go “up the down staircase” at the end of the game, against a tidal wave of 20,000 fans. Option two required me to carry my gear (electric keyboard, amp, keyboard stand and accessory bag) down the sideline as the game played on. I chose option two since I had already invested six hours of time for this “one hour gig.” I loaded myself down like a packhorse and stood at the end of the court waiting for a break in the action. When the ref blew the whistle for a time out, I negotiated my way down the sideline, terrified that I would hear the second whistle that resumed play. My relief in reaching the exit was dampened by my realization that I now had to find a safe corner to store my gear as I fetched my car from the eight-story garage. Of course I was not allowed to park in close proximity. All the way home I told myself “never again.” As you can see from the opening paragraph, there will always be an “again.”