Monday, June 14, 2010

8 Days Until NMA Reunion

Wow! We're now down to single digits in the number of days until the NMA Reunion in San Antonio. I'm feeling better about my chops now than I did a few weeks ago, but I'm sure once I "hit the deck", I'll have some butterflies. On the other hand, I'm confident that my fellow Navy MU's that they can bend their elbows with the best, and let's face it, the more they drink, the better I'll sound. Still, I get frustrated with myself that I don't sound better than I do, yet.

Back in the early seventies in my first Navy Band (Orlando), I was frustrated with myself as I learned how to improvise. Very frustrated! So frustrated, in fact, that after a particularly fruitless practice session, I became angry and threw my guitar into its case. I shudder to think about that even now, and I'm sure you do, too. But it wasn't as bad as you might think: it was one of the gazillion cheap Fender Mustang guitars that the Navy big-whigs dumped on us in the early seventies.

You see, in the early seventies the Navy was down-sizing after Viet Nam. This was the same down-sizing which reduced and reorganized the musician branch from around 1,500 musicians down to 900... then 700. The same down-sizing which resulted in very few musician promotions for many years.

While the Viet Nam war was in full swing, the Navy had sunk a whole lotta recreation fund money into fairly cheap instruments and equipment for impromptu ship bands. After Viet Nam, a lotta those ships were being "moth-balled" and the Navy had a whole lotta equipment gathering dust in the warehouses. Some bone-head in Washington convinced the Navy to give all this gear to the Navy Musicians in order to save some money. Trouble was, all this gear was crap! Trouble also was, the Navy Music Program wasn't going to be able to buy any similar equipment until the crap in the warehouses was all used up. Naturally, we Navy Musicians took this as a challenge!

We settled in to destroying the crappy instruments and equipment as fast as we could. Unfortunately, there seemed to be an endless supply of Fender Mustangs. Also unfortunately, this guitar was pretty durable and it took a lot of abuse to render it unplayable. I can't remember all the cheap instruments and equipment we received, but I do remember the EV microphones. Those microphones were easy to break, in fact they would often break all by themselves in the middle of a gig, but the Navy seemed to have an enormous stock of them. We'd bang them around, play catch with them, even use them for pucks for dance floor hockey. We destroyed them by the case but the Navy would just send us more. This dance went on for several years until they eventually ran out of EV microphones.

But I digress.

I was talking about being frustrated by my inability to learn how to improvise as quickly as I would have liked. After tossing the guitar in its case I sat down and stewed about it. Seeing my angst, then MU2 Jim Hayward gave me some really great advice. I listened: MU2 Hayward was, and is, one of the best musicians I've ever known. He was, and is, highly respected and admired by many musicians. I've had the pleasure of listening to him for many, many years --- and I've yet to hear him play a single clam! Jim told me that he understood my frustration ("Yeah, right!" I thought, "Easy for him to say"). But he gave me a book of jazz licks (I can't remember who it was written by) and told me that he had been listening to me; that I had a lot of potential; that if I kept at it, I would eventually succeed. Then he said something which I've never forgotten and have tried to incorporate into my playing. He said, "When you take a ride, don't try to play every lick you know. Save some for later. Just get in, say what you've got to say, and get out", and he advised me to listen to as many jazz masters as possible.

In those days, Disney ran a jazz club... the Buena Vista lounge. I heard a lot of jazz greats there: Red Norvo on vibes, Stephane Grappelli on violin and, of course, Barney Kessel on guitar. There was one time when Barney, who always seemed to enjoy getting laughs as well as applause, was playing a soft chord solo... when a bartender started up one of those annoying blender machines (I'm sure you musicians know what I'm talking about). He stopped playing, leaned over to the microphone and said to the bartender, "If you're going to do that, please do it in D-minor, since that's the key I'm playing in." Barney loved bantering with the audience, and still did ten years later when I performed with him.

Barney, as well as Charlie Byrd, and Herb Ellis used to play a couple times per year at the King of France Tavern in the Maryland Inn in Annapolis, MD. Barney would often tell jokes or quip with the audience between tunes. The three guitar players performed together as the "Great Guitars" and cut a few albums. All three of them had the same manager who lived in the Annapolis area, so they would often meet with him when they were in town. For a short time, Barney had an apartment in Annapolis. I was stationed at the Naval Academy Band at that time, so I tried to make as many of their performances as possible. There was an Eb Clarinet player in the USNA Band... MU1 Steve Fowler. Steve owned an instrument repair shop in the area and was an excellent luthier. Herb and Barney trusted Steve's work and would have him work on their guitars when needed.

One time, Barney brought in his old Gibson Charley Christian model guitar to be re-fretted. It needed it badly: the frets were paper thin and Barney complained about buzzing. Steve was excited about working on Barney's guitar, as was MUCM Jim Cunningham who, at the time, was learning the luthier trade from Steve. BTW, Jim still works on and/or builds guitars under the name Atlantic Woodworks (link in side bar) and, while the website only makes a small mention of the guitar works, he is the best! I've played a few of his instruments (more about that in an upcoming episode), so if you are thinking about having a custom guitar built, you should definitely consider Jim.

At any rate, Barney's guitar needed to be re-fretted so he took it to Steve and Jim. Barney's guitar was one of the first or second generation electric arch-top guitars... basically a Gibson ES-150 with a cutaway and armed with a magnetic blade single coil pickup. Unlike more modern electric guitars, the pickup on his guitar was unshielded and sometimes provided unplanned comedy when the pickup received and amplified CB radios from the truckers on the nearby interstates. Steve and Jim re-fretted the instrument and, for free, buffed and polished the oxidized brass work. When Barney tried out the refurbished guitar, he was taken aback by the now glittering brass work... It seemed like Barney preferred the old tarnished brass. He also said he needed the frets filed more; that they were too high. Steve and Jim filed the frets some more, but it was still too high. Barney brought the guitar back a couple more times for more filing. In the end, when Barney was satisfied with the fret height, we looked at the frets... they were almost as paper thin as they were when he first brought the guitar in.

As I said, Barney loved to get laughs. When the Great Guitars performed, he acted as the MC of the group. However, when Barney performed with Herb Ellis as a duo, he would mention that the two of them represented two-thirds of the Great Guitars, so he tried to come up with a name for the duo which was about two-thirds of "Great Guitars". He said the best he could come up with was "Those Wonderful Guitar Guys" which he reckoned was right at two-thirds. So, when I lucked into playing a week with Barney at the KoF Tavern as just two guitars, he announced our "group" the same way. I surprised him with t-shirts emblazoned with "Those Wonderful Guitar Guys".

Sometime during that week, Barney announced that we would play the "Theme from M*A*S*H". I said, "Suicide Is Painless," and he looked at me incredulously. The audience, of which many were musicians, agreed with me that the correct title for that tune was Suicide Is Painless. If you remember, in the original movie M*A*S*H, the dentist's nickname was "Painless Polosky" owing to his ability to practice his art with little or no pain to the patient. Painless was an avid ladies man, but one night, after he was unable to "perform", he concluded the reason must be that he was gay, so he decided to commit suicide. Hawkeye Pierce and the others decided to help him by putting on a mock "suicide" and the tune "Suicide Is Painless" was played during the "ceremony". Barney, it turns out, had no idea that that was the name of the tune and admitted, "I've been playing it for years and never would have guessed its title."

Of course, I loved listening to Herb and Barney at the KoF Tavern, but one of the best parts of our association was hanging out with them and MUC Steve Abshire (who hardly ever missed an appearance). We would often go to a Shoney's or Denny's for breakfast, afterward. One of these "breakfast clubs" happened during the period when the latest fad amongst the jazzers at the Navy Band in D.C. and the NavAcadBand was to talk like the mock Canadian "McKenzie Brothers" from the Saturday Night Live sketches. We wore out quotations like "What a hoser!" and, "Take off, you knob," to the point where our wives begged us to stop (which, of course, just egged us on). It was hilarity to the max when it caught on with Herb and he said to the waitress, "I don't need a menu, eh? I'd like some beer and jelly donuts, eh?"

Late at night, we would trade humorous "sea stories". Herb, naturally, had a million of them, but my favorite of his tales involved Ray Brown when the Oscar Peterson trio visited Italy. As they exited the Rome air terminal they looked for taxicabs to take to the hotel. European cars tend to be much smaller than American cars and an upright bass won't fit in just any cab. But Ray Brown, having traveled extensively in Europe, knew exactly which models would take his bass. The story is funny, but much more funny if you have lived in Italy. While ques in Germany are very ordered, Italian ques are decidedly not! For instance, in a German bank, there will be clearly marked lanes and even flashing lights to tell you when to move and to which teller. In an Italian bank, however, a "line" is a bunch of people pressing up to the tellers; the person who can yell the loudest is the first in line.

So Ray Brown found a taxi which would hold his bass, even though Ray, himself, would have to follow it in another cab. Once the cab driver understood what Ray wanted, he refused, saying that the bass wouldn't fit. Ray said it would fit, but the driver disagreed and argued with Ray. Soon, passersby began listening to the argument and began to kibitz, some saying it would fit and some saying it would not fit. The arguing became more heated. More and more Italians joined in the discussion, passionately arguing their opinions. Soon, a small crowd had gathered, gesturing and arguing in Italian. Seeing his opportunity during all the confusion, Ray Brown took his bass, threw down the front passenger seat, put the bass in the cab and slammed the door. Noticing what had happened, there was a moment of silence from the audience, after which they threw their hands up in the air and, the matter decided, went about their business.

Yes, memories of those nights hanging out in restaurants are precious to me. I haven't heard many musician sea stories in the last few years and I'm looking forward to doing some of that at the NMA Reunion. Most of my blog entries have some sort of "moral" to the story, and this entry is no different. Listen:

Cookies and punch.

Cookies and punch are two of the three most important benefits of being a musician. Why do we do this thing? Why do we expose our innermost feelings from the stand, baring our souls for audiences to either accept or reject as they will? Cookies and punch --- and while it may be disguised as scrambled eggs and coffee, potato chips and sodas, or even beer and jelly donuts --- the effect is the same. The third benefit is not, as you might think, the paycheck... That is the fourth reason. Cookies, punch and communication with each other is why we do it. All Navy MU's and, I daresay, musicians around the world enjoy sharing some time after the gear is unloaded in the band-room. We congratulate each other on tunes well played and commiserate about our mistakes. We "solve the problems of the world" as some musicians put it.

Playing music is a very personal thing. We put ourselves out there and hope to get positive feedback from the audience. It's like we are asking them, "Do you love me or not?" If we get applause, we feel good. If we don't, we take it personally and feel bad. And as much as we bitch about promotions (or lack thereof); as much as symphony musicians bitch about pay and benefits, we all do it for personal validation. Most of the musicians I know are pretty intelligent people and it's not like we couldn't do something else for a living... and be very successful at it! It's the same in all the arts, but especially in performing arts: The money is entirely secondary. I submit that the most "successful" artists are those who are satisfied enough with their financial situation that they can play for art's sake alone. Don't get me wrong. It's not that wages are of no consideration, because they are. But it's important to keep priorities straight. We all remember the cookies and punch after performances when we were kids, when parents and/or others praised us for playing so beautifully. So when the tires hit the tarmac, isn't that why we got into the music business in the first place?

Cookies and punch. That's what I'm all about now. Yeah, sure, you can put the check in the mail, but where are the cookies and punch? I didn't understand it years ago when Arturo Sandoval performed with the Memphis Symphony and he complained to me, "Where's da food? Da food for me and my guests?"

Sorry, Arturo, I know that back then I kind of shined you on. But now I get it!

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