Wednesday, April 28, 2010Leaving 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.
And 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.
I 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 practice enough.
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.
My 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.
Now 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, 2010Business, 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 the band.
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, 2010What'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 of befuddlement)
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 humor.
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.