Monday, January 18, 2010

Amateur on a pro stage

I've had plenty of luck, I’m just not talented. I'm suited to finding and offering items online at moneyblows books and music. I've often helped the store by playing music gigs, but the pay has gotten so minimal that my music-playing has joined the culture of "we play but don't look down on us because we have other livelihoods."

When I moved to New England at the age of 54, it was a revelation to me that music playing is divided between pros and amateurs. The point was driven home last night by the leader of the group I played with, at the Press Room in Portsmouth, NH.

There seemed to be a ritual modesty in place. The leader started out the evening with a lecture to the audience that we are a group who will play for weddings, but we mostly play for fun. When I think of playing for fun, I think Albert Ayler must have been having fun. Coltrane must have been having fun. Sun Ra must have had fun. But playing Route 66 or Girl from Ipanema for fun? Where I come from, that was for money.

I'm taken back to when playing for fun was also full of promise. There was one time when my audience actually included Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. T-Bone Burnett could tell you more about this. We actually had notice a week in advance it was going to happen. Every Friday and Saturday we played at the New Bluebird Night Club on Horne Street in Fort Worth. This would have been in 1975 or 76, when the Rolling Thunder Revue came through to play the Tarrant County Convention Center. Part of the Rolling Thunder Revue was J. Henry Burnett, a Fort Worth producer and performer who had just finished producing a live album at this location with Robert Ealey and the Five Careless Lovers. When I joined the band, it made more than five, so our lead guitarist, Little Junior One Hand, renamed the band Robert Ealey and the Drifting Heartbreaks. With no specific number we could also add Johnny Reno to make two saxes and others as needed.

The weekend before this happened, T-Bone Burnett sent word. That began a week of hell for me, wondering how I might contribute to making this a good diversion for T-Bone's illustrious friends. I could barely play the sax enough to stay on the Robert Ealey gig, and look who was coming to see it? The day they were supposed to come, I must have started drinking beer early, for I was plastered by the time the gig began at about 10 p.m. Surely enough after the Rolling Thunder Revue got off their Tarrant County Convention Center show, a limo with Bob and Joni somehow found its way down to Horne Street, in the Como section of Fort Worth, and the New Bluebird Night Club. They pulled up in front on the corner of Horne and Wellesley and came in while we were playing “Ill Take You There.” You could spot each of them, Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, by their hats.

I wished for the ghost of Willie Lee Johnson to take over my sax. He was a local guy who had played with Ray Charles for awhile and was being seen sporadically around Como and the Trinity River Bottoms in the mid-1970s. He came to the Bluebird once while I was playing. I let him borrow my tenor and during his solo he threw the sax up in the air with one hand and caught it with the other. I thought, if I lose my sax to Willie Lee Johnson, there are more expensive lessons out there in life. Because that cat could wail. He didn't drop the horn but there was a second when I thought he might. After his solo he basically passed out and a few weeks later we heard he passed for good.

The Bluebird had a motto "Everybody's Somebody at the Bluebird." Nobody was pros or amateurs. I've tried to maintain that illusion about music playing, but reality doesn't bear it out. I hosted a jazz jam for many years. As time went by the students sounded more like students and the pros were astounding. Folks like B.J. Crosby or Marchel Ivery were a regular occurrence. Over time, with fewer pros out there on live gigs, the music I've played has been taken over by students and teachers. Many teachers are also pros. Last night in Portsmouth, we announced ourselves as amateurs, "truth in packaging." None of us teach or depend on venues for our groceries. And it wasn't Willie Lee Johnson who came to mind in my sax playing. I visualized a local guy, a well known sax player, who triggers excitement around these parts by playing a lot of notes. He's a pro. I thought of him and pleasing the audience the way he does.

So, I played a lot of notes. Even amateurs can play a lot of notes!!!