Still seems so hard to believe, but Prince will always hold a special place in me, in lots of ways.
I had the great fortune and privilege to meet and rehearse with Prince back in 2009, thanks to a generous invitation by the great trombonist, arranger and amazing musician and person, Greg Boyer. And by "meet" I do mean in it in its most basic sense: that first day, having arrived at Paisley Park from the hotel, we approached him and I nervously uttered a timid "hello." He may have nodded. And that was the full extent of the interaction. But that was fine by me. What more was I supposed to say to someone like him, of his stature? To be sure, I'm not the fawning type when it comes to celebrity but honestly, I couldn't help but be awed by this man. I had grown up listening to his music. His lyrics, melodies and grooves had provided the soundtrack of so many events in my life. So, I couldn't imagine having any sort of small talk with him, at that point at least. He just had this 'larger than life' air about him. Fortunately, I didn't have to worry about any of that. For him, it seemed to me, it was all about the music. His music.
Pop star, he was of course. But he was also a serious musician, as the two often do not go hand in hand. And other monikers handily come to mind when speaking about Prince: artist, composer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, entertainer, innovator, cultural icon, collaborator, entrepreneur... the list goes on and on. But don't sleep: he was a serious musician and artist.
He was meticulous and demanding, and required that his music be performed exactly the way he heard and intended it, to his high and uncompromising standards and specifications.
I remember the time playing tenor with that fat sounding five piece horn section Greg had assembled, and we were playing some punchy close harmony which Greg had written (which incidentally, the remarkable, perfect pitch wielding Greg could impeccably pen sitting at a table somewhere, anywhere, unhampered by the lack of a piano or other instrument, all the while steadily engaging in a conversation with the band members, just "hearing" the notes it as they came to him!).
The horns were alto, trumpet, tenor, trombone and baritone. A 5-piece horn section! Not very common in pop music these days, unfortunately. In the middle of a performance of one his classics, Prince stops the band. Something obviously wasn't right. He turned to face the horns, his piercing gaze sewing fear and trembling in me. I cowered behind my sax. What did we play? A wrong note?! My mortal ears couldn't discern. It all sounded amazing to me! But he had heard something he didn't like, and pointed at one of us horn players, and told us to change a note. How he heard that one note, in the midst of the dense sonic atmosphere created by all of the other instruments (guitars, electric bass, keyboards, drums, back-up vocals), nestled in a cluster of fist-tight horn punches and moving lines, I'll never know. Obviously, Prince had HUGE ears. He then counted us back in matter-of-factly, kicked off the song and went on with the rehearsal. And those rehearsals were focused, intense and painstaking, and the above anecdote is just one of many instances where he stopped the band to address some issue or another, to tighten things up. Again, to my ears everything sounded great. But alas, I'm just a mere mortal.
Looking back, I think it was more reflective of his desire to try new things, to experiment with sound, rather than owing to any 'wrong' notes played (though I know I played some!). And that was characteristic of him.
I grew up listening to his music, like so many of us. I remember being a ten year old kid watching Purple Rain (1984). Some grownups had it on. I didn't really understand what I was watching, but it did leave a lasting impression. Especially the steamy love interest scene! It was only after re-watching that semi-autobiographical film, post meeting and rehearsing with him at Paisley Park many years later, that I understood not only what the film was about, but had gained a little more insight into him as an artist- one who was fiercely guarded and private in many ways.
Some musicians get a bit elitist when talking about genres that they regard as "pop," not "serious" or are lacking in artistic weight or merit. Snobby classical and jazz musicians (and listeners) readily come to mind. From my experience, these types really miss out on so much beauty that is to be experienced and enjoyed in the world. And aren't derision and labeling just more examples of the activities of a closed mind? There is bad music out there in abundance, in all genres, without question. But there's also a lot of great music out there, if you've got ears to hear it.
Prince, to me, represented the opposite of the closed minded mentality and approach. He -like Miles, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Hendrix and others- refused to squeeze his art into neatly tailored, convenient categories, and was constantly searching for new, exciting and different ways of self-expression. He was far too busy creating and breaking new ground to care what people thought, and that's evidenced by the huge opus of work (from 1979 onward) that he's left us with to enjoy, untimely though that may be.
After that week of rehearsals, back home and back to my normal reality, I definitely floated on a cloud of excitement for quite some time, hoping, yearning to get 'the call' to do some big time performing with the Legend. As the weeks turned to months, the hopes began to wane, whither and fade. Flannery O'Connor wrote that the virtue of hope is two parts suspicion and one part lust. All three were abundant in me those first couple of heady weeks back home, waiting and hoping for that call, all the while suspecting it would never come. And it didn't. It just wasn't to be. Still, it was a great experience!
So, all this is really my way of saying thanks, for broadening my mind as a musician, and for widening my perception of what it is to be human being.
Appreciation | Lessons from Mr. Butch Warren
October 8, 2013
I hated him back then. And though it took place many years ago, I can still recall the incident as if it happened only yesterday.
It was a Sunday night, and I couldn't wait to play my saxophone at the weekly jam session at Twins Lounge. I walked down the street with urgency. The dry leaves crunched under my sneakers as I hurried along the cracked asphalt of the sidewalk, a cool evening breeze blowing across my forehead, an orange, fall moon hanging low in the starless night sky. My moist fingers clutched the wooden handle of my saxophone case, my stomach a flock of butterflies.
I was twenty-one and badly wanted to learn to play like my idols: saxophonists Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon and John Coltrane. How could they play the way they did? I wondered. How did they bring those oddly shaped pieces of metal to life? Eyes closed, with no sheet music in front of them, producing those beautiful melodies, as if they had channeled them from some other, mysterious realm. Or maybe, just maybe, they created the music themselves. Perhaps it came out of them, out of the depths of their experiences, their instruments just a mere vehicle for them to transfer what they were thinking and feeling, and hearing in their heads. However they did it, I knew that that was what I wanted to be able to do.
I had been going to the session regularly on Sunday nights and, though terrified most of the time, I looked forward to being able to try out the things I had been working on at home and in the practice rooms at school.
As I walked toward the neighborhood club, I could hear the faint sounds of music drifting through the air. Getting closer, the volume seemed to increase with each step.
I finally got to the corner of Colorado Avenue and Longfellow Street. I could hear the block chords of the piano, the steady thump and pulse of the bass, and the pop and tang of the drums. Standing outside the club, I could tell that there was a good crowd. I could hear people talking and clapping while the band played. I turned the brass doorknob, pulled the old, creaky, wooden door toward me, and entered the dimly lit bar.
The room was small, and because of its size there wasn't really a bad seat in the house. Walking in, you could see the bandstand to the left, and chairs and tables were packed in, right up to the foot-high stage. The place was packed, smoke rising from the orange embers of cigarettes peppered throughout the room.
A grand piano claimed most of the stage. The drum set occupied the opposite end, an upright bass nestled in between, and together the three formed the sacred trinity known as the jazz rhythm section. This house band trio usually opened the set with a few pieces, after which horn players and vocalists would be invited to sit in.
I listened carefully. From the chord changes, I could tell that it was a rendition of “Just Friends,” the 1931 song written by John Klenner and Sam M. Lewis that had become a jazz standard. I first heard it played by Charlie Parker, on the famous Bird With Strings record I had.
The bearded pianist's head hung low, hovering just above the keyboard, his fingers adeptly negotiating the black and white ivory keys. Eyes shut, he mouthed the tones he played in unison with the notes that sprung from under the lid of the piano, the small hammers doing their work in the darkness of the body of the Kawai. The bassist winced as he pulled the strings of the upright, as if the instrument demanded a bit of pain, as well as skill, for it to be played. The drummer reinforced the beat with his ride cymbal, all the while engaged in a steady rhythmic dialogue with the pianist.
That night there were a lot of musicians in the club, as well as patrons. An army of horn players was perched on the stools at the bar, lined up, champing at the bit to sit in with the rhythm section. I knew some of them, but a few I had never seen or heard before.
I wanted to play well that night. There were people there who could really play, and I wanted them to respect me as a musician.
At that time, I was working on the Sonny Rollins composition “Airegin.” I had memorized the changes and had worked out some licks and patterns to help me safely navigate the quickly changing harmonies of the tune. The musician signup sheet usually sat on a music stand up near the piano, but I didn’t see it that night.
As I waited by the bar, I took out my horn, chatting with a few familiar faces, my heart thumping uneasily in my chest. With all those horn players, I would have to wait a while to blow. There was applause as the band finished up the number. Unexpectedly, the pianist gestured for me to come up and I worked my way through the crowded, narrow path in front of the bar. I took to the stage, alto hanging from my neck, trying to appear calm and cool. A few other horn players were called up, a trumpet player and a guy on tenor. They seemed to know each other. A man came up on stage behind us. The younger bass player yielded to him, and there was a changing of the guard in the rhythm section.
"What do you want to play?" the pianist asked me.
"Airegin," I said.
“Count it off,” he said.
I didn't recognize the bass player. He was an older man, tall, lean and imposing. His face was a perpetual scowl. He wore a big ten-gallon hat, a suit and tie, and seemed to exude a dominant presence on the bandstand.
After an awkward moment of silence, I counted off the tune. "One…two...one, two, three, four...." Then, the ride began! The tenor and trumpet played the melody with me, which at that tempo was a feat by itself. It must have been 300 beats per minute. The trumpet player charged into the first solo chorus. That was fine by me, as it would give me a few moments to review the changes in my head as they played. I had a decent reed on that night, and my horn had felt great earlier that day. One concern was that if the trumpet player sounded too good, it would be hard to follow him. But I didn’t have time to worry about that.
He blew a strong solo and after a couple of choruses, I could tell he was finishing up. It was time. As the last few notes exited the bell of his trumpet, I got in on the top of the next chorus. I closed my eyes, lips wrapped around the mouthpiece, reed moist, and played. The changes moved quickly and I struggled to get my ideas out, fingers fighting the alto. I'm not sure if one ever masters an instrument completely, but at that moment I found myself struggling just to coax a decent tone out of the horn, not to mention the challenge of playing the instrument at that tempo, owing to my lack of technique, or “chops.” The horn had felt great earlier, but not so much now. The band was swinging but I was struggling to keep up, realizing that I hadn't learned the song well enough. I started bullshitting, playing flurries of notes to disguise the fact that I couldn’t quite make the changes. A few choruses went by, and I kept at it.
Then, as I was blowing, I suddenly felt the ground beneath me shift and I felt as though I was standing on air. The bottom of the music had fallen away. I kept playing, hoping things would settle after a few more measures. Then the drums dropped out, followed by the piano. Befuddled, I opened my eyes, took the horn out of my mouth, and looked out into a sea of silent faces. The club was now eerily quiet. A heavy, pregnant silence hung in the air. Puzzled, I looked behind me. The song had ended so abruptly. I had been right in the middle of my solo and then jolted back into reality.
The drummer looked at me briefly, looked down, averting his eyes, and shook his head with pity. I looked back at the bass player, who now held the neck of his bass in front him with one hand, its mahogany wooden body balanced perfectly on its steel peg.
"It's not about playing a bunch of notes!" His words, deliberate and weighted, shattered the silence. "It's not about playing up and down your horn. It's not about that," he said, the words now shattering much more than the quiet of the room. He did not once look at me as he spoke, nor did he call me by name, not that he would have known my name, but it was obvious that I was the target within the crosshairs of his words. And though terse, they were razor sharp and cut right to the bone.
A warm but uncomfortable sting of hurt pride welled up in me, blossoming gradually, and I felt uneasy in my skin, the humiliation spreading all over me as it did its work. Dejected, I carried my horn off the stage and sulked in a chair, off to the side, near the drum set. I had diligently practiced that piece and that old bass player had embarrassed me in front of all those musicians and patrons, whose eyes I could now feel on me, burning through me. The moment seemed like an eternity, as if everything had happened in slow motion. I sat there, trying to be cool, wishing that I could disappear within the cigarette smoke all around me, or crawl out of the club unseen.
At some point, though exactly when I can no longer recall, the band kicked off another song and music mixed with chatter to once again fill the room. I walked to the back of the club, near the bathroom, to put my horn back in its case. Some friends tried to console me, but it was no use.
"Fuck that guy," I said. They continued speaking to me, but I was too angry to listen to them.
"But don't you know who that is," they said. "That's Butch Warren. He played with Dexter Gordon, Joe Henderson, and Herbie Hancock. He was Blue Note’s house bass player."
"I don't care who he's played with," I said. I packed up my alto and walked out of the club. As I drove home, I contemplated pulling over and throwing my horn off a bridge.
* * *
Years later, I would see Butch around town at gigs and other jam sessions. Intimidated, I would never sit in with the band while he was playing. I harbored ill feelings towards him for a long while, but as I got older, I gradually understood what he had said that night, and why. Still, I wouldn't play if he was playing bass. The incident was still fresh in my mind. He probably didn't remember it, much less me, but I surely did.
One night, while driving home, I saw Butch on the street. Incidentally, I had been listening to Joe Henderson’s “Blue Bossa” in the car. Butch had recorded on that seminal 1963 Henderson album, Page One. Conflicted, I pulled over to say hello. He asked me for some cash. I doubt he remembered me. I had a ten on me and handed him the bill through the passenger-side window. It was a cruel irony that Butch had played on that classic record that I had been enjoying just then, and now I was driving home, while he was left to walk the streets.
One day, much later, I played at a jam session and he walked in. After the song, he spoke to me. Some of the musicians must have told him that I was afraid to play with him.
"Lyle Link, you can play with me anytime," he said. “You sound good.” And that was all he said. He was a man of few words. But it felt good. I never brought up the jam session incident, but I wish I had thanked him for those lessons that fateful night. This was a man who had worked and recorded with giants – Thelonious Monk, Hank Mobley, Joe Henderson, Freddie Hubbard and Jackie Mclean, to name a few – and he had never known the impression he made on me.
Some lessons gleaned from that humiliating evening: 1. It's not how many notes you play, but what you play, and how, that matters. 2. It's not about ego and grandstanding, but about the music, period. 3. As a horn player, the rhythm section is not your personal Aebersold play-along, but a living, breathing group of musicians whom you are playing with, whom you are making music with, and who are supporting you and, ideally, helping you to sound your best. So have some respect. 4. Be prepared when you go up on the bandstand.
That night, I was playing with “sound and fury but signifying nothing,” and Butch called me on it. And for that I'm thankful. I wasn't at the time, but we're not always ready to deal with the truth when it hits us right in the gut, especially when we’re young and impetuous.
In the last years of his life, I, along with many other musicians, were privileged to be able to perform with Butch on a number of occasions. We all knew that he didn’t like to play very long, and we would always keep our improvised solos short during a tune he was playing. I would play conservative when I played with Butch. One day, he said, “Lyle Link, you can play all that crazy stuff. I like it. Play your horn.” I smiled. Butch was telling me to stretch out.
When he was in the mood, he would start telling stories. I remember him telling me about a time he went to see a movie with Eric Dolphy. I wish now that I had asked him to tell me more.
Butch, though plagued with problems, was a positive guy. He talked about wanting to practice and “get his chops up” and still loved to perform, up until the end.
“It's not about that,” he’d said. The “it” he refers to, in my estimation, is the music itself, as well as the process or act of making music, particularly in the jazz context. That was the aesthetic he was getting at. The saxophone can naturally lend itself to the transgression of overplaying, with its enviable ability to be played fast and fluidly. There is the ever-present risk of quickly descending into tastelessness and mere posturing. As the saying goes, just because you can do something, doesn't mean you should. Restraint is never a bad thing. In any art, there is freedom as well as parameter. Without freedom, there can be no life or creativity, but without structure we invite chaos. And while the art of improvisation extols and lionizes the virtues of spontaneous composition (and does not enjoy the benefit of editing or revision as do, say, writing and painting), there nonetheless is a way to play with judgment, discernment, tact, taste or whatever you choose to call it. It's not an easy task and some of us will never fully master this art, but it is something to aspire to.
Butch exemplified this whenever he played. Even when he had slowed down and had become enfeebled, he always played with consummate taste, as if he were plucking the best, most perfectly chosen notes that could possibly be played in that particular situation. His sound and beat hearkened back to an era when one's sound was paramount, and was one’s signature. You knew within a few notes that it was Butch playing the bass – not an easy feat on an instrument that unfortunately gets relegated too often to the background. His quarter note was big, thick and wide, and unmistakable. And he taught me those lessons with his bass, much more clearly than I could ever hope to do with words. But I was too young to understand. Wisdom, like youth, is truly wasted on the young.
And so, I'll miss hearing him walk a twelve bar blues, play ‘Laura’ or ‘Little Chippie’, and chat over a Coke outside of Columbia Station on a lazy Sunday afternoon.
I'll miss you Butch. But I’ll always carry those lessons with me, and I hope to keep a small part of your legacy alive, in some way, every time I take my horn out of the case.
May you rest in peace.
A Night in Bahia May 2011
On a break the other night before the last set of the gig, I went outside onto the crowded street to get some air. I bought an empanada and I sat on a bench at a bustop, taking in the spectacle that is a late Friday night in the city. A woman, dressed up for a night on the town, got out of a cab and dropped her keys as she closed the door. She was wearing a black and white sequined dress with matching bag and very high heels. A man in a suit came over to her and they started to walk away toward one of the night clubs.
The keys were lying there on the street. The cab driver waited for them to close the door. I got up from the bench with my half eaten empanada.
"Your keys," I said, pointing to the ground by her feet.
She looked at me blankly.
"Your keys," I repeated, with a mouthful of spinach and dough.
She had that same empty stare. She was completed gone. Wasted, high or both.
The man looked down and picked up the keys and they walked away, never acknowledging me. It was ok.
She didn't have a clue. I did a good deed. Had I not been there, she would have no doubt freaked out the following morning, upon realizing that she couldn't remember anything from the previous night, much less the fate of her big ring of keys.
I went back inside the club and we played the last set. After the final song, the house lights came on and I saw a credit card left on the table in front of me as I was packing up my alto. This wasn't a restaurant. It was a late night bar, and there were no waiters or waitresses. Someone had obviously been drinking and forget their card. Someone named Cecily. I gave the card to the bartender.
Aren't drugs wonderful? While enjoying their effects, you do things that you would never do otherwise. Like lose valuable belongings. Like keys or credit cards.
But that's ok, so long as there is a good Samaritan around to help out. And, this time, that just happened to be me. I'm not patting myself on the back. I just happened to be in those situations and it didn't require
much effort on my part to help the person out. I've been in similar situations, on the other side, so I can relate. And thank God someone was out there watching over me.
I remember playing at a late night Go-Go a long time ago. I was wasted. I had been drinking a forty ounce of malt liquor and at the end of the night, not surprisingly, a fight broke out. I didn't remember much the following day, but I was told by a friend that I had been mouthing off and someone had pulled a gun on me and pointed it right at my face. I was so bent that I didn't even realize that I was on the wrong side of a '38 special caliber revolver. My friends had pulled me away and hustled me outside to safety, away from the menacing barrel of that pistol. My friends that night were my Good Samaritans.
These incidents reminded me of a little episode that took place one night while my girlfriend and I visited Salvador, Bahia recently. We had never been to Brazil and, on the night in question, we had planned to go out and hear some music.
Earlier that day, we were coming back from Morro de Sao Paulo, one of five villages on the island of Tinharé. We had only spent one night there, but it was worth it. It was beautiful, relaxing and breathtaking.
That first day on the beach reminded me of one of those Corona beer commercials where you see the clear blue water of the ocean, and on a little table sit two bottles of beer. No talking, no noise, just the eternal ebb and flow of the sea, the gentle breeze rustling the palm leaves of coconut trees and the lilting call of an occasional gull flying overhead.
After an all too brief visit, we boarded the boat in the late afternoon and planned to be back in Salvador in time for dinner.
The boat pitched and rocked as it moved over the water, leaving rolling waves in it's wake. It was an hour and fifty minutes from the island back to Salvadore. It had been a nice pleasant morning but this was the rainy season and you never knew when a gale would come up unexpected, bringing with it a fierce rain. A woman was on the back of the boat selling bottled water, beer and bags of corn chips. We bought a bag. They tasted like breakfast cereal, like Captain Crunch, but salty and cheesy instead of sweet.
It was about three in the afternoon. The night before, I had to change my clock, pushing it an hour forward, from Washington DC to Sao Paulo time.
The boat was of a simple design. Mostly moderately comfortable seats in the cabin, and some deck areas in the front and back of the boat where people sat outside and enjoyed the nice bay side view of coastal Morros de Sau Paulo as it disappeared in the horizon.
The clouds were big chunks of cotton drifting through the sky and the water was a bit more turbulent on the way back. The passengers were a mixture of tourists and locals, from elderly to young.
An hour into the ride, as my girlfriend dozed, mostly out of boredom, I bought a Skol, the beer that seemed to be ubiquitous in Bahia, and nursed it while standing out on the deck looking out onto the infinite blue expanse.
After a while, I went back inside. There was a tv in the cabin. A talk show was on. The low hum of the engine obscured the voices, but it wouldn't have mattered. I don't speak Portuguese. But I could tell it was the usual day time talk show format. The host, a woman in her fifties with short dyed blond hair, showing tantalyzing cleavage with a crucifix dangling just above, was interviewing guests.
After a few minutes, having tried to discern what the topic of the show was, there was a commercial break. One for shampoo showed little kids tub dancing as they were getting their hair washed, light kids voices sung in the background. Some sort of Johnson & Johnson ad. Interestingly, there were no black kids in the commercials and no black faces on the talk show. Of course, I had been in Bahia thus far and that was in no way a representation of the country at large.
A woman, an employee of the vessell, changed the channel and shortly after an American movie came on, with Portuguese subtitles. But the commercials got me thinking.
I had felt comfortable there in Salvador. What mystical place had I arrived at? Where people looked like me? People of all shades and persuasions? It was a feast for my eyes. Such variation, such diversity. And everyone living in harmony. Wait, now I'm going too far...
But with the exception of the Dominican Republic, this was the first place that I had traveled to where I didn't feel the usual feelings of the perpetual outsider. Perhaps I would feel this way in Cuba. The irony here is not lost on me. I'm in a foreign country and I don't speak the language. But physically, I fit in and no one gave me a double take. Why? Because many people here looked 'mixed.' The history of miscegenation here- the Europeans, the Africans and the Native people- created the rich racial and cultural tapestry that is Brasil. That mixing occurred in the U.S. too but, though much has happened in terms of social progress, our country has yet to fully come to terms with this aspect of the race question.
These are some of the thorns and thistles, the barbs, the annoying pebbles in my shoes. As someone who has African blood, as well as Cherokee ( supposedly) and is said to be related to Lewis or Clark on my mother's side ( that's right, the famous explorers), perhaps I tend to think about these things more than the average person, black or white. Naturally, having been there just a few days, I had been privvy to just a fraction of the country and was libel to make all the usual, flawed generalizations that tourists are apt to make. With that qualification, however, I felt that the racial history there, at least in Salvador, was something that seemed to be more acknowledged than in the U.S., where sadly it is treated as the ugly stepchild of our history, something taboo, not to be talked about openly, and if it is, in hushed whispers. These things happened. Lets deal with it, and get over it.
My great grandmother, my Nana, who herself had 'Indian' (native American) features, possessing high cheekbones and straight black hair, and a copper complexion, was highly offended when someone in the family once referred to her as 'black.' 'I'm coloured!' she yelled. 'Don't call me black!' To her, and many of her generation, black was synonymous with all things bad, evil, dirty. She was born in 1910 and thus did not come up during the James Brown 'I'm black and I'm proud era of the 1960's.
So, in the midst of so many people that looked like me, I felt at home. I could fit in, at least until I opened
my mouth. This is not to say that there is some racial panacea there. Far from it. But it seemed that people acknowledged the history and legacy more so than we do. But, I could be wrong. I was just a tourist. I'll have to do some research as well as talk to my Brazilian musician colleagues.
Funny how a seemingly innocent commercial got me thinking about these things. How certain images on television are sanctioned and are offered to the public as representations of reality, however flawed and inaccurate.
Race is a funny thing. I'm talking about the concept now. It can't really be defined adequately,
and yet everyone feels like they know what it is. I have yet to read or hear a satisfactory definition. It, like many aspects of our daily living, is a social construct. And yet it effects so many lives. We are obsessed with it in the US.
Obama is considered a black man, though he was born of a white mother, and raised by her. Interesting. Illogical, but interesting. We are obsessed because being considered 'black' or 'white' had, and has, serious sociological ramifications in our world. Hence the obsession to know what one is, and hence the 'one drop rule.'
As someone who been called a nigger by whites, as well as a white nigger by blacks, as well as 'yellow boy,' 'red,' 'red bone,' 'high yella;' someone who's been called an African while in Turkey, having been lectured to in Italy about American blacks being good at sports and music, as if I weren't one of them; called an Eyptian or Moroccan while in Syria, an Ethiopian, a Hawaiian here in the U.S. , a Mauritian while in China; a Dominican or Cuban while in other parts of the world... the list really does go on. These experiences have compelled me to brood over these things.
If, from a theological stand point, we all come from Adam and Eve, then we really are all the same.
If, on the other hand, we look at race from an materialistic anthropological Darwinian lens, we all are descendants of Lucy, or some other homo habilus. And still, from the perspective of cosmology, we are all mere stardust from that primordial first event, the Big Bang.
So, which ever way you cut it, race, that most seemingly fixed part of our society is but a chimera. We are all the same, once you get past the physiological differences in hair texture, melanin, facial features and phenotype. One human family, with one ultimate fate. Perhaps one day we will realize this.
After the nearly two hour boat ride, I saw the glow of city lights on the horizon and shortly after we were docking at the peer. We deboarded and walked back through the city to our hotel, enjoying the crepuscular evening sounds and sights of Salvador.
It drizzled as we walked along the cobbled street. After a twenty minute walk, we found our hotel along side cafes and restaurants. I went in, dropped my bags and stood out on the balcony. It commanded a great view.
A gentle evening breeze drifted across the calm waters of the bay. Ships were moored a short distance from the shore and from the balcony I could see cars driving along the avenue below. At that height they
looked like little toys.
This hotel was designed in what seemed to be the old Portugese colonial style and when we first got there, the driver had to navigate along those narrow roads, avoiding fruit vendors, with shops on either side, to get to our hotel.
Only after going into the hotel did you realize that the edifice was perched on an embankment. The window of our room afforded an impressive view of the bay and the surrounding city below, and the balcony was sublimely outfitted with a hammock so that you could take in the sights as lazily as possible.
White and gray billowing clouds covered the sky and a light rain had just let up. The air was heavy, warm and humid and I could hear the occasional horn of a car or bus from the street down below but mostly just the engines and the faint sound of the rubber tires rolling over the damp pavement of the street.
We were hungry and had decided to take a walk out into the town to find a cafe or restaurant. According to our travel book, this was once one of the most important Portuguese settlements, second only to Lisbon and we wanted to see some of the old parts of the town.
We also wanted to hear some music. It was a Tuesday but we would learn that this was a festive night in this town. We changed clothes and went out into the street. I brought my horn with me. It wasn't long before we heard the drums.
Drum corps marched along the narrow streets, their beats echoing off of the brick and stone walls of the shops and restaurants. Each band of percussionists were followed by a troupe of dancers, a gaggle of tourists and local denizens of the city.
There was one group of drummers that consisted entirely of women, the youngest couldn't have been more than twelve, and they struck their drums with a force that belied their diminutive stature.
That night, as we walked the through the narrow streets, people sitting at outdoor restaurants, we stumbled upon a club where we heard a band warming up. I looked up and from the second floor window I heard a trumpet cutting over top of a salsa band.
We went inside. Surprisingly, they were playing jazz standards but with a salsa feel. It wasn't what I had expected. I had come to Brazil and naturally I wanted to experience authentic Brazilian music. But this was an environment where I could possibly sit in, at least. The place wasn't full. After a few songs, I walked up to the band stand and gestured to them, like I was playing a sax. My primitive communication worked. The trumpeter motioned for me to get my horn out.
I walked back to the bench, took my horn out of the case and walked up to the bandstand. The trumpet
player was friendly and graciously invited me to join him on the stage, next to the conga player. He was the only horn player, jamming with the usual timbalist, keyboardist, bassist and conga player.
We played Blue Bossa, Summertime and then they went into some more adventurous, actual Salsa repertoire that I suspect were just standards for them but songs that I had never heard before. I took a couple of solos and tried to catch on to the exotic melodies and background riffs that the trumpeter played. The band sounded great and as the night went on the place filled up and the club was soon full of dancers.
There is no dance sexier than Salsa and the men and women moved over the dance floor as though possessed by the syncopated rhythms pulsing through the air. I played a couple of songs, then went to sit next to my girlfriend. There were a lot of single men on the prowl.
After a few songs, the trumpet player waved at me, motioning for me to come back to the stage. He wore dreadlocks and was the only black musician among them. After a couple more songs the keyboardist thanked me in Spanish over the mic and continued singing over a trance inducing montuno. I took my cue to exit the bandstand. I didn't want to wear out my welcome. I learned that lesson a long time ago: always leave them wanting more, not the other way around.
I weaved my way through the crowd, went back to the bench along the wall, sat down and reached for my sax case, stored beneath the bench on the floor. I unlatched the two metal clasps and opened the case and lay my sax inside, on the floor at my feet. The place was dark and packed now, people were dancing, and I tried to disassemble my neck and mouthpiece quickly before someone's dancing feet stepped on my horn.
The sax sat on the black cushion of the case and I put the neck in an little soft cloth bag and slid this into the bell of the horn. As I was about to close the case, a man bent over and said something to me.
He looked to be in his thirties and his eyes were bulging. He looked very intense. He was speaking Portuguese, pointing vigorously at the case, and looking down at the floor surrounding it.
"No falla Portuguese," I said. "English?"
He kept asking me something, as if I hadn't spoke, pointing his fingers at the sax, looking around at the floor.
"Cay," he said. At least, thats what it sounded like.
Maybe he was talking about my case, I wondered.
I thought he might be a sax player and he was trying to ask me about my horn. This was normal. Put a couple of sax players together and invariably they'll be discussing gear in a matter of minutes: types of horns, mouthpieces (mostly) and reeds.
"Yanagisawa," I said, but he didn't seem to understand.
He kept pointing at the sax, a little more frantically now. I started to get a little anxious. I couldn't understand the man and he seemed to become a little more frantic as the seconds went by. He kept pointing at the horn. Maybe he had me mixed up with someone else. I have been at gigs where someone comes up to me and thinks, or acts like, I have their sax and that they want it back.
I instinctively grabbed my horn out of the case. This horn had been stolen a few months before and, miraculously, I got it back. So, I was keen to prevent that from happening again. I clutched the bell and held the sax close to my chest.
"Cay," he kept saying. It sounded like 'case.'
As I held the horn close, the man said "Cay" again and reached down to my case.
There was something small on the black fur of the inner liner. Though hard to see, it was white and contrasted against the black case. It was a small bag. He grabbed it.
"Thank you! Thank you! Obrigado! Obrigado! He said. He quickly stuck the white bag into his pocket,
thanked me profusely, clasping his hands together, bowing, and then disappeared into the mob of dancing bodies. I was left wondering what had just happened.
Only as I was descending the stairs of the club, the music still blasting from the bandstand, the strident voice of the trumpet dueling with the clave rhythm as it locked in the groove, did I realize what had made the man so frantic.
It was one of two things: He had dropped a bag of coke into my case while I was taking my horn apart and, not noticing because of the veil of darkness, I had unknowingly placed my sax on top.
Or, it had been stored my case by someone while it sat unattended, as I was playing on stage.
Either way, I believe that I had a bag of coke in my case. Most alarming was that I could have easily went to the airport a few days after, not knowing that I was carrying a bag of cocaine my sax case. I hadn't planned to play anymore while there and so I probably wouldn't have opened my sax case anymore.
At airports I never check my horn and naturally I would have brought it on the plane as a 'carry on.' I can see it now. I'm going through security and they ask me very routinely to open my case, as sometimes happens. They see the bag. And I say, very legitimately though with confusion, that I don't know who's that is. That I don't know how that got there.
"Right," says the airport security officer. "You're a jazz musician. You've got drugs in your case and you don't know how it got there. Huh-huh. Right. Sir, we're going to need you to step aside and come this way."
Good thing my coke head friend found his stash. Otherwise 'my Night in Bahia' would have to described as 'My Arrest and Detainment in Bahia.' I might still be there now.
Musicians: always check your cases after your gigs. You never know what kinds of pesky entities may be lurking there in those dark zipped up pockets, among your extra picks, valve oil, reeds and cords.
Being under the influence of something can cause you to lose valuable things. And, as was the case with the woman and her keys, or Cecily the credit card woman, it's nice when a good Samaritan comes along and
helps you out. In my Brazilian episode, the frantic man had lost his cherished valuables, however briefly. Though in this case, he turned out to be my Good Samaritan.
If I ever have the good fortune to visit Salvador again, and see him at the club, I'll be sure to thank him. I may even buy him a drink.
A Night of Jazz at the "Theatah"
February 2, 2014 at 12:06pm
I bring these examples to mind to help illustrate the frustration I experienced while watching, and attempting to listen to, a group of incredible musicians last night at a storied Washington, DC theatre. The Spring Quartet, featuring saxophonist Joe Lovano, drummer Jack Dejohnette, bassist Esperanza Spalding, and pianist Leo Genovese, each a draw in their own right, brought out a large and zealous Saturday night crowd.
I'll say upfront that I'm not a fan of listening to this kind of music in a concerthall. The room can be too big, producing too much reverb, and usually lacks the inherent intimacy of a small venue. Most importantly, it’s usually difficult to hear the instruments properly. I may be a curmudgeon, but when I go out to hear music, I actually want to hear it, and as clearly as possible. So when I walked into the room, I was pleasantly surprised.
The medium sized, gold gilded hall, adorned with crimson red curtains, gave me the feeling that I was in a grand, old world, artistically sympathetic setting and I had high hopes for an acoustically satisfying experience. It was more intimate than I expected, and had none of the cold, uptight formality often associated with such places. Nearly every seat in the two-tiered auditorium was taken. And I was not far from the vacant stage. A grand piano, bass and drum set, waiting to come to life in the hands of their masters. After a brief announcement, the musicians walked out on stage to an eruption of applause, the distinguished Dejohnette, followed by Lovano carrying his tenor, with Spalding following and Genovese behind. Alas, my hopes were quickly dashed as the opening piece got underway.
Saxophonist Joe Lovano has unique sound. His tone is mysterious to me. It's a big, wide-open sound. Dark, airy at times, with a bit of sand in his timbre. I know his voice. But his signature, distinct sound was not captured and presented at this show. A clip-on mic was perched on the bell of his silver tenor the entire night, and understandably so, as it allowed him to move freely as he felt the music, walk around on stage, and conduct his accomplices unfettered as he played. Sadly, the mic wasn't 'hot' or loud enough. Perhaps his sound is too spread for such a rig. Why, I asked myself, was his mic not adjusted? I wanted to go up to the soundman and tell him to turn Joe 's mic up, but I was wedged in my seat, mid-aisle. Besides, it's my experience that sound men (and women) can be a touchy, prickly lot. No one wants to be told how to do their job.
Thankfully, when Lovano picked up one of his various, smaller woodwinds, he used a different stage mic and the sound was remarkably better. So while I didn't get to enjoy his tenor as I had hoped, I did he hear his work on flute, curved soprano and another woodwind which I had seen him with previously at a small club. Incidentally, after asking him about the strange instrument that night, he told me he had procured it on one of his travels in Europe. Its name escapes me, but I gathered that it was an antiquated clarinet-like instrument, with more of a nasal, while darker, soprano 'saxesque' tone. These various colors were used to great effect during the varied repertoire of their program.
I could hear the piano and the drums fairly well most of the night, though the sound did seem to improve overall mid way through the performance. It was as if the person at the soundboard went out for a smoke and came back in the middle of the show to man the board.
Bass is often difficult to amplify in these settings. Too easily, the notes get muddy or 'boomy', the lower frequencies lost, to the audience at least. I wanted to hear Spalding better. Her playing evinced her remarkable technique and artful accompaniment, as well as her voice as a soloist and composer. A highlight of the evening was when she sang a melody which she had penned especially for the group, doubled by Lovano's soprano, accompanying herself with her bass.
Another highlight was when a disruptive patron, most likely drunk, left (or was escorted from) the performance after repeated outbursts. Why it took so long, nearly half the show, to get the ushers to act remains a mystery to me. In jazz, some call and response is normal. Musicians can be energized by an audience and often times the audience 'brings' or summons the music out of the musicians. This is a magical phenomenon, which I have witnessed on stage, as well as in the audience. But her perpetual flurries of 'yeah' and 'get it!' eventually became a distraction from the music that she, perhaps, was trying to support.
Why bother mentioning these things? I'm not a reviewer. I'm a music lover. And lamentably, I could complain about many other evenings out and vividly describe the frustrations of not being able to hear properly the music I have paid good money to hear. At tickets averaging $50, regarding music that is often difficult and esoteric, I think audiences deserve better.
A few thoughts:
When you go to a play, the director is mentioned. It goes without saying that the play would have been different had there been a different director. At the helm of an orchestra you see a particular conductor. A symphonic work sounds different, is interpreted differently, by a different conductor. The analogy is not perfect, but useful. I think we should start mentioning the principal tech/sound person on the program. They may not be directing or conducting, but they play a crucial role in the music-making process and they can make, or break, a performance. They are important, and should get credit (or blame). Musicians need them as a medium to assist in getting their music -their art- across to their audiences.
Naturally, a live performance may never compete with the pristine audiophile quality of excellently recorded music. But, in our high tech age, with all of its marvels and wonders, isn't it time to update our antiquated notions of what constitutes “going to hear music”? If this is where artists, who have spent countless hours and years honing their craft, share their gifts, shouldn't we have spaces that are commensurate with their talents, which can adequately showcase their abilities and gifts?
There is no shortage of distractions these days and people have a smorgasbord of options to choose from when considering how to spend a Saturday night. Why even go out to hear music when, with an adequate sound system and Wi-Fi, you can watch performances and listen to music, for free, via YouTube? Listening venues are competing with so many other vehicles for music listening these days. The next time someone exhorts me to go out and support live music, I'm going to ask them about the quality of the live music and the venue in which it is presented.
Let's remember that an auditorium, (from the Latin meaning “pertaining to hearing") is a place to go hear a performance. I remember going to ancient Roman amphitheaters in Jordan, Turkey, Greece and Syria. These spaces were designed for optimal listening, for masses of people, without electronics, using the eternal laws of acoustics. We’ve come a long way, thousands of years later. But we can do better.
When I was growing up, the One Step Down, just outside of Georgetown, was an important club in the D.C. jazz scene. Many famous artists performed there. I caught the tail end of it, first visiting the club in the late nineties. Twins Lounge -- the old Twins on Colorado Avenue -- was also popular, before it moved to U Street. I met many musicians there, especially on Sunday nights when they hosted a jam session. Those sessions gave some of the younger players an opportunity to meet, play with and learn from the older players, many of whom had seen or performed with some of the icons of jazz. Unfortunately, many of them have passed and so those opportunities just don't exist anymore. That said, there are many places to play around town and there seem to be more opening all the time. Gio Russonello, of CapitalBop, has done a fantastic job promoting venues and getting the word out about the city's jazz scene to a new audience of listeners. There are so many great players here in the Washington, D.C. metro area.
What did you want to accomplish with your residency at the Caverns?
I have spent much of my musical life working as a sideman. I consider myself to be very lucky and fortunate that people have called me to contribute to their projects. These experiences have taught me how to work in a supporting capacity, as an accompanist as well as a featured soloist. I have learned to be flexible, to be sort of a chameleon, and play in the style of the particular gig that I'm hired for, as much as I'm able. The challenge with this though is that, artistically, one can lose the direction and focus that's needed to carve out an individual identity. When you're busy working constantly, fitting into other musicians' projects, it's easy to lose focus regarding your personal voice and direction. So, I'm now trying to get in touch with that more, through composing and assembling my bands. I have always composed, but rarely perform my work in public. The recent stint at Twins, and now at Bohemian Caverns as the Artist-in-Residence, has enabled me to perform some original music and act as bandleader for a change. I hope to do this more and hope to record soon, in order to document this music.
You started out as an alto player, but now play a number of woodwinds. What drove you to develop these new skills?
In jazz, many saxophone players start on alto and switch to tenor. When I played alto exclusively, I went through phases of wanting to sound like David Sanborn, Cannonball Adderley, Gary Bartz or Kenny Garrett. And playing tenor, I got into Dexter Gorden, 'Trane and Joe Henderson. We all imitate in order to learn. But when I started playing the tenor saxophone, I never stopped playing the alto. I think of them as different voices. Some people call me for gigs and say, "bring your tenor." Others say, "play alto on this one." In order to work, I play all of them. I love them all but on my gigs, I tend to bring soprano, alto and tenor. Sonny Stitt was and is a huge inspiration, since he handled alto, tenor and baritone so masterfully. But I have been focusing on the tenor for quite some time now. And working with Siné Qua Non lately, I've been playing soprano and alto saxophones, as well as flute and alto flute.
What are your overall thoughts on the D.C. jazz scene? Who are some of the musicians you admire most?
At the risk of leaving out great players, I'm reluctant to name specific people. There is no shortage of great musicians in the DC metropolitan area as well as Baltimore. I have had the honor to work with some of the older players who have since passed, like Lawrence Wheatley and Ellsworth Gibson, as well as people who are still on the scene like Butch Warren. I've watched younger artists like Elijah Balbed grow over the years. Friend and bass clarinetist/composer Todd Marcus comes to mind, since he has chosen the arduous but rewarding path of working nearly exclusively on bass clarinet, a feat in and of itself, as well as really making a name for himself as a composer and bandleader. I recently started working with Michael Bowie on his exciting project called Siné Qua Non, which features Mark Prince, Victor Provost, and Sam Turner. The band performs Michael's original arrangements, which integrate jazz, classical, and world music, using a unique instrumentation consisting of flutes, soprano and alto sax, steel pan, upright and electric bass, drums and percussion.
What do you hope the audiences walked away with after seeing your performances this month?
I think that, regardless of form, artists are trying to express something, to say something. The difference is simply the medium. My canvas just happens to be music and my tools happen to be the saxophone and flute. While more abstract, music is in some ways the most “primitive” of all the art forms in that it has the unique ability to transcend language, culture and ethnicity. It is has the power to evoke human emotion in a visceral, unparalleled way. Many of my compositions have a back story regarding their inception and I'm hoping audiences come away with a glimpse of what I'm attempting to say. I am attempting now to be more communicative with audiences. Many of us perform but fail to communicate with listeners, often focusing on the music. Some see that as a kind of pandering. I don't. I admire musicians like Cannonball Adderley, for whom speaking to audiences and explaining things was not anathema to being a great artist. We have to create our own audiences now, and that means that we have to connect with them. Having said that, the music ultimately has to speak for itself. As someone famously put it, music picks up where words fail.