Wednesday, April 28, 2010
Leaving New York
12:37 am edt
I never thought it would happen. I figured I would live here the rest of my life. A friend
of mine told me that once you make it past the five-year mark you become an official New Yorker. I made
it past the first five years. In that span I endured two muggings, vandalism, theft, threats from roommates, a fair
amount of vibing from fellow musicians, and the non-stop mishagos that comes with living in the big town.
it was great.
I played with some of the best musicians in the world, and I met some of its great characters.
I hung out until all hours of the night. Got drunk at the West End trying to meet college co-eds, invariably failing
and staggering home. There I saw Bob Berg play an electrifying sax solo and not get paid at the end of the
gig. I saw Benny Green execute one of the coolest sit-ins ever at Sweet Basil when in mid-tune he replaced Larry Willis.
I saw Woody Shaw at the old Star Cafe almost deck a guitar player who was pestering him. I saw Elvin Jones at
Fat Tuesdays play John Bonham licks.
I lived in Manhattan in a room a little larger than a walk in closet. I
lived in Brooklyn in a house with four roommates, one of whom stole from me and threatened to beat me to a pulp.
A few years later I would move back to Manhattan’s Upper West Side where I lived in an apartment nicknamed
“the dungeon” by my first cousin for the amount of direct sunlight it received: two minutes a day.
played at great venues and I played at dives. In the early years I gigged at a McDonald’s where I had
to climb over a steel railing to get to a piano that was encased in a loft suspended 15 feet above the
restaurant. I worked at Princess Pamela’s Little Kitchen when the East Village was still dangerous. I accompanied
a fat blues singer who would verbally abuse her yuppie clientele. I was fired for asking for a five dollar raise.
I worked at the Empire Diner on 10th avenue from 11PM-3Am on Saturday nights where I would meet my future wife.
A few months after we began dating we drove across country in a Nissan Stanza that had a sun roof which we nicknamed
the Stanzaterium; a drive we will reprise this August.
I played at the Village Vanguard, The Blue Note, The Village
Gate, Sweet Basil, Fat Tuesdays, Birdland, Lincoln Center, and Smalls. I never played at Carnegie Hall. Didn’t
I met my best friend in the upper deck of Shea Stadium between games of a Mets/Cubs double-header.
Together we attended a myriad of sporting events. We saw game I of the 1996 World Series, a game which the Yankees lost
by 11 runs to the Atlanta Braves. Little did we know that game would be one of only three Series games that
the Yankees would lose in the next six years.
While I lived here the Mets won one World Series
and played in another. The football Giants won three Super Bowls (!) and the Knicks, though they made the playoffs
almost every year in the 1990′s, made the finals only once, losing to the Houston Rockets in seven games. Most
improbably, in 1994 a few days after my first-born arrived, the Rangers won their first Stanley Cup in 44 years.
three children, unlike me, are native New Yorkers. Just as I did, they will have started out on one coast only
to emerge on another. Unlike me, however, they carry the cache of being from New York. They are savvy
city kids who will not be easily rattled and are much greater equipped than I to deal with this move.
I find myself in the unenviable position of starting over. This fall, and for the foreseeable future I will
be living somewhere in the Bay Area. I do not know any musicians there and I have no gigs. Part of me is
relishing this new challenge. After all, I knew only one musician when I moved to New York 26 years ago. All
I ask is for a good bassist and drummer, a few laughs, and the occasional gig to get me started. I know it
can work — there are great musicians all over the world. There will be some where I’m going. Just
got to find them.
Friday, April 9, 2010
Business, pleasure, or both?
1:46 pm edt
The music business is a strange one. Leaving out Broadway
shows and symphony orchestras, most of our gigs are freelance affairs which are most often one time engagements done
without contracts. On any given night there is nothing standing in the way of a club owner paying the band other than
his conscience. Yes, there we have small claims court, but this is a lot of trouble and expense to go through to
collect one night’s pay. Even if the court rules in favour of the musician, collecting the money is no easy feat.
So we take our lumps while developing an admittedly
unscientific, but surprisingly accurate risk/reward analysis before accepting a gig. The more you improve
as a musician and the more gigs you play, the better situations you find yourself in and you can minimize the amount
of drama. You pick your fights and you realize, that like parking tickets, the occasional shortage of money is inevitable.
Then there are the grey areas worthy of Talmudic study.
Because we tend to get along personally, as well as musically, there can be a blurring between business and friendship.
For example, say a club owner decides to short the band 50% because of a low turnout. The leader wants to go with it
so that he can get a return engagement. You, as a sideman have agreed to a certain price and think that the leader should
hold out for the full amount. Arguing is almost always futile and leads to bad blood. I believe that at this point
the sideman has only one recourse and that is to not accept the next gig, in effect quitting the band. You have to weigh
your principles against the future earnings that will almost certainly be lost.
There are so many factors. How much do these gigs pay? How often are they? How close are you with
the band and how much enjoyment do you get playing the gigs? Sometimes quitting is the right thing to do. Sometimes
it’s better to suck it up and take one for the team.
I have quit gigs and felt terrible, and at other times I have felt that I did the right thing. I
once had a steady Thursday night with a jazz quintet at a dive bar. The piano was horrible beyond belief. To this
day it remains one of the worst pianos I have ever played. I’ll never forget — it was a Young Chang
that was finished with a gumball-blue lacquer. It was perennially out of tune and had an action
that was so heavy it required chops of steel. There were, however, some positives to the gig. The
joint became a kind of Thursday hangout and great musicians used to stop by and sit in with the band. Joe Lovano,
(sometimes playing drums!) would play, and Ralph Lalama, one of the best saxophonists in the world, was in
It wasn’t the worst spot
in the world to be for a young pianist who had only lived in New York a few years. After two years of battling
with the piano I couldn’t stand it any longer. For a while I was lugging a keyboard and amp to
the gig — up and down subway steps — and that was even worse. So I quit. Looking back I think
I should have stuck with it because the pluses outweighed the minuses.
On the other side of the coin I used to work with what we East Coast call a “club date”
band. This is a euphemism for wedding band. The leader kept us very busy with gigs, but he constantly
lowballed us, paying as much as 30% too little. True, the gigs paid 3 times as much as jazz gigs, but they were way
under scale for these kind of affairs. In that situation you can be assured that somebody is
making money. The fact that the leader was making hundreds more than me, yet refused to pay me a small percentage
more than what I was making led me to quit that gig. Even though I lost out on a large quantity of work I felt better
about myself — not the least because I was no longer degrading myself musically — and I would
eventually end up in better situations.
Sometimes I look at salaried people and I am envious. They are free of the barter system that we musicians
are entrenched in. This feeling usually lasts until the next gig. By the middle of the first tune
I’m thinking “Now what was I mad about?”
Friday, April 2, 2010
What's in a break?
4:16 pm edt
Dizzy Gillespie’s NIght in Tunisia has been recorded
hundreds of times. It is a forward looking tune, especially when you consider that it was written in 1942. It’s not
quite be-bop and not quite modal, but a little bit of both. It consists of vamp centered around Eb7(-5) to D-7 and an 8 bar
bridge that came to be known as,, well, the Tunisia bridge.
Tacked onto the melody is a 16 bar
interlude — a series of descending chords building towards a four bar break on Fmaj7. What to do with this break, especially
after Bird played it, has challanged and befuddled musicians throughout the decades. (I can personally own up to my share
Charlie Parker, damn him, set the bar too high. In a 1946 recording
for the Dial label, Bird played a seven second break that is stunning not only for its flawless technique — an unbroken
string of 16th notes encompassing the entire four measures — but its dense harmonic underpinning. What he played was
miles ahead of what anyone else was doing at that time. I would argue that it is still ahead of our time. Bird had a way of
approaching major 7 chords that was so complex that we have yet to decode it! The track, however, was marred by mistakes in
the ensemble and was not used at the time. It was subsequently released as a fragment because of Bird’s break.
So what do you do with that break after Bird? Sonny Rollins had the answer. He recorded Tunisia
live at the Village Vanguard on November 3rd, 1957 with Donald Bailey and Pete La Roca. That night, Rollins played Tunisia
at a medium-fast clip, much faster than Bird did. By the time he reached the break 16th notes, even for him, were out of the
question. He executed an angular [mostly] 8th note break that is striking not only for its harmony, but for its warmth. It
is intense, but in a way that invites you into the piece and it perfectly sets up the solo which is driving and filled with
My favorite Tunisia break comes from John Coltrane. In 1960 he recorded his original composition,
Liberia, with McCoy Tyner, Steve Davis, and Elvin Jones. Liberia is based on the Tunisia changes except it has its own bridge
consisting of one chord for the entire 8 measures, in effect transforming it into a model tune. Trane includes the interlude
but adds his own set of chords.
Trane’s break is stunning and practically indescribable.
He keeps the 8th note feel (the tempo is roughly the same as Rollin’s) while inserting harmonics and false fingerings,
all without dropping a beat. It is unexpected, innovative, and thrilling. Not being a saxophonist, I cannot effectively describe
what he is doing. I wonder if the most accurate, and artfully prose could do it justice.