January 1, 2015
For working musicians there are few things worse than being home on New Year’s Eve. Not only is a New Year’s gig typically profitable (as in double scale), but also a musician’s pride takes a big hit if they are not working. I played my first New Year’s Eve gig in 1966 while still in high school. I don’t remember why it happened, but I got a call from a drummer who led a Ukrainian-American band and needed a saxophone player. This was not an easy gig. We played hand written charts, mostly uptempo polka-type material. It was challenging sight reading. The two things I recall the most were: my first and last shot of whiskey; and the $30 I made. For a 16-year-old, making $30 playing the saxophone was significant. Since 1966 I estimate that I’ve only spent four or five New Year’s Eves at home, but I only remember that first one and the one I played last night.
Last night’s New Year’s gig was one of the better ones. My four-piece band played in a beautiful hall for ballroom dancers. The band was a hit and the dance floor was never empty. And these folks can really dance. They know what they want, and it is a challenge to hit the tempos and grooves they practice to. Before the evening was done we had played a cha-cha, a polka, several waltzes, numerous jitterbugs, a samba, two disco tunes, and even a slow Muddy Waters blues. I am fortunate to work with guys that take it all in stride, and feel a certain sense of satisfaction in playing all these styles, as do I.
During these kind of gigs there is usually a memorable moment, and last night was no exception. I’ll remember one of the dancers who came up to make a request. This man was expecting to have a conversation with me while I was playing my saxophone. If you’ve ever played a saxophone you know it’s difficult to talk at the same time, so I simply leaned over and he whispered in my ear, “how about ‘Could I Have This Dance’?” In between phrases I said, “you got it,” and we played the Anne Murray waltz as our next selection.
A band leader always has obligations and tasks that sidemen happily do not. Beyond the contracts and negotiations, there’s the responsibility for basically running the evening. In the case of New Year’s Eve, you dare not miss midnight. As the evening went on, we did a few “check your horns” those annoying plastic noisemakers that are distributed on all the tables, and a few cracks about only having a few minutes to make good on your 2014 New Year’s resolutions. I always try to time it so that we end a song about a minute before midnight. One feels a sense of power as you intone the countdown, whether your watch is off or not. With a drum roll you count down from ten and launch into the required “Auld Lang Syne.” I can never resist adding that wide simpering vibrato that was so famous with the Guy Lombardo saxophone section. It seems that this band rang in New Year’s on television forever, at least in my childhood memory.
Some gig-less musicians will say they decided to take the night off. Right. Translation: no one called. Musicians don’t like to admit they were home on New Year’s, and I’m already hoping that the group we played for last night will call soon to book us for next year.