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.