One of the unspoken rules of gigging is helping your fellow musicians when they receive unwanted advances from listeners. If someone comes up to the stage with a song request, there are ready made phrases to thwart them. Normally, you say something like, “The next song we’re going to play has some of the same notes in it as the one you want.” If someone comes up to the stage with a more Romantic type inquiry, the musicians code requires that you assess the situation and help your fellow musicians discourage the groupie when necessary. In 1999, in honor of the new millennium, we broke the rules.
It was a New Year’s Eve gig. Baker had booked a small combo to play for a community party in Masaryktown, Florida. The band was to be Baker on trumpet, sax, piano, bass, and drums. Baker didn’t have a bass player for the gig, so I suggested we use my good friend, the J-Dog. (See another adventure with the J-Dog here. Check out the J-Dog’s music here.) The directions were cryptic: Drive thirty miles beyond the city on a two-lane road until you see a flashing yellow light. Turn left.
J-Dog and I arrived almost simultaneously and started to unload gear. The Masaryktown Recreation Center was a one-story edifice that primarily consisted of a social hall with a kitchen. As I went through the front door, I noticed a flyer that read, “Next Week: Joltin’ Joe and the Bavarians! Annual Big Polka Night!” I turned around and incredulously asked J-Dog, “What kind of place is this?” The fake wood paneling that covered every square inch of wall answered my question. In addition to the usual “book” that Baker used for gigs, I noticed several extra scores with the word “Polka” lurking somewhere conspicuously in the title.
“Baker, are you really making us play polkas tonight?” I asked. “It’s New Year’s Eve!”
“They asked for polkas. We’re playing some polkas.” He replied coolly.
I immediately launched into my polka lecture. “My mom used to play polka’s on the accordion when we were little. You know the one thing I always loved about my mother’s playing? She never smiled when she played. Myron Florin always smiled when he played on Lawrence Welk, and my mom never did. I always thought that God had a special place in hell reserved for people who looked like they enjoyed playing that instrument. You know, I’ve raised my children with two rules. Number 1: I’ll support you in whatever you want to do as long as you don’t go into politics. Number 2: Never play the accordion and the banjo together because it’s a secret formula for conjuring up the devil.”
“Kurt, just play the polkas.” Baker replied while rolling his eyes.
And so we played polkas. As the crowd gathered to dance, Baker started a polka and made it progressively more exciting by continually pushing the tempo. His strategy worked well until the tempo reached a fervor that outstripped the median age of the dancers. The youngest people at the party were in their late fifties, and many looked to be considerably older. Eventually, the tempo got fast enough to knock and an old man down. The polka stopped while we waited to make sure that the man on the floor did not require medical attention. As I considered my own responsibility in the possible hospitalization of an audience member, I imagined the conversation with the doctor.
“Well, we were dancing to a polka, and the band just kept playing faster and faster. I tried to keep up, and the next thing I knew, I was on my back on the floor with pains in my chest.”
There should be some sort of Fibonacci series or Pascalian triangle trick that would allow musicians to calculate safe tempos for dancing depending on the average age of the audience. Alas, most mathematicians are poor dancers and unconcerned with such matters. When the man was safely removed from the dance floor, we began a beguine. It was around this time that a woman approached the bandstand between tunes.
She appeared to be in her late fifties. Her hair looked like it was probably ten years older than she was. It was the blond color that comes from the most expensive bottles of dye that can be bought at a Masaryktown pharmacy. There was clearly an admiration for one of the Protestant Evangelical schools of hair styling. At first glance, it appeared to be the Southern Baptist school, but, as she got closer, the vertical gymnastics and frosted highlights belied a clear influence from the Pentecostal Avant Garde. Her make-up seemed to strike a playful balance between Gauguin’s bold use of color and Pollock’s thick textured abstractions. Someone had obviously accidentally spilled a box of sequins on her dress before the party, and she had neglected to remove them.
As she approached J-Dog, and I began to jockey for position. Each of us wanted to be the first to regurgitate one of the standard lines for song requests. The woman surprised us all, went straight toward Baker, pointed her finger at him and said in an inebriated drawl, “I’m having a shlow dansh wif you before thish night is over.” We were temporarily stunned when her request turned out to be of a non-musical nature. Baker made some excuse about not being able to dance while he was playing the trumpet, and we continued playing the set.
The breaks between sets are times for trading insults and telling stories. I also take time to meet the people playing the job if I’ve never worked with them. There was an older drummer on the gig in Masaryktown. He had been playing for so long that he had gigging stories for all situations. We began by discussing the poor man that Baker had knocked down with his polka tempo. The drummer began talking about a gig when he fell of the edge of a stage. Baker countered with a story of playing a gig where someone had an actual heart attack on the dance floor. The band leader on the gig immediately called “Sentimental Journey” as the paramedics were carting the man away on the gurney. I met the saxophonist whose name was Kip. Kip was blond haired, rather heavy set, and just seemed to like to play music. Capturing the dialogue of a set break is a little tricky when you are playing with a pick up band. It goes something like this:
Kurt: Hey, how many bassists does it take to change a light bulb?
J-Dog: How many?
Kip: Oh, I know this one.
Kurt: None. The piano player can do it with his left hand.
Baker: What do you want to play in the next set?
Kurt: I’d like to play some Monk.
Drummer: Me, too.
Kip: Do you know “Straight no chaser” in F?
Baker: Sure. What else do you want to play?
J-Dog: How about, “Baker no chase-her’ in A flat?”
Baker: Ha, ha.
Kurt: Do we have to play another polka?
Baker: Yes. We’re putting at least one polka in each set.
Kip: There was a polka I used to play…What was the name…Oh yeah! It’s called the “I’m having a slow dance with you before this night is over polka.” Do you know that one Baker?
Baker: Ha, ha, ha. Now listen guys, I’m not going to dance with that lady.
Kurt: Look at you! You’re an old man, and the ladies are still all about you.
J-Dog: She was a scary one though. When she asked, I thought of saying the “We don’t know that one” line, but I was too tongue-tied by her appearance.
Baker: Guys, I’m not going to dance with her.
We went back inside and played two more sets. The food was pretty good. Being Bavarian type food, it was many different shades of brown. One of the most important features of a good gig is the food. Sometimes you take certain jobs just for the cuisine that will be served. You also avoid certain jobs if you know they won’t let you eat. My general practice is to hide about five large ziplock bags in my case for carrying home food to the family. We ate our fill and played through “Auld lang syne” at midnight. We were supposedly going to finish at 12:30am. The woman had not been seen for two hours. Finally, at 12:20 or so, she emerged from the herd of polka dancers and sauntered up to the bandstand. It was apparent from her jaunty gait that she had continued sipping the sauce throughout the evening. We were all waiting in eager anticipation when she surprised us again. She bypassed the band, went to the edge of the stage and started unhooking some of the helium balloons. “I jush wanna get some balloonsh to take home wish me,” she mumbled. She had completely forgotten about her original proposition. I’m not sure if it was the Y2K scare or a run of the mill “wild hair,” but as she was walking away, Kip and I simultaneously decided to break the musicians code. There was a fantastic manifestation of the collective unconsciousness as two voices spoke in unison, “You didn’t get your slow dance yet!” There followed a grand pause. Baker turned around to give the two of us a scowl. The wheels in her mind, being thoroughly lubricated with vodka, began to crank. “Oh yeah,” she said. “I’m shupposed to have a shlow dansh wish you.”
“Guess you better pick a song, Baker.” J-Dog said.
“Crazy,” said Baker. “One chorus!”
What Baker was saying to us (in the specialized vocabulary of musicians) was “Play the Willie Nelson standard ‘Crazy’”. “One chorus” is a term whose etymology lies in the old tin-pan alley songs. There was always a verse that preceded the song itself. For many songs, jazz musicians simply skipped the verse and played the chorus. When you are on a gig in modern times, to play “one chorus” means to play the tune through one time. This is not the normal way a pick-up band would play a song. The normal format is to play the “head” or “chorus.” Immediately following the completion of “one chorus,” musicians then take turns soloing by improvising over the chord changes. After the improvising is finished, you play the “head” or “chorus” again. That night, the meaning was clear: Play “Crazy” by Willie Nelson through one time, don’t take any solos, and get me off of the dance floor as soon as possible. Baker, however, had made one fatal error. He had already given us our paychecks on the last break.
We played through one chorus of “Crazy.” When we came to the end, I turned to Kip and said, “Take a ride, Kip.” Kip improvised through one time, and when we reached the end again, I turned and said, “Go around again.” J-Dog began to laugh. The drummer began to laugh. Baker began making ugly faces at us each time he spun the woman’s back to the bandstand. When Kip wanted to laugh, he had to wait till we began the fourth full time through the chorus. Before he started chuckling too hard, he maintained his composure long enough to turn to me and say, “Go ahead, Kurt.” As I began my solo, Baker had already been dancing with the woman for 3 minutes. By the time it was Kip’s turn to say, “Go around again, Kurt.” Baker had lost his patience. We had already played the tune six times and the “head” was nowhere in sight. Baker’s ugly faces had turned into vehement physical gestures. He would spin the woman’s back to us, raise his hand to his throat and make the universal cut gesture. When we finally played the “head”, we made sure to play the “turn around” at the end four or five times to extend the ending of the song. “Crazy. One chorus” had become a 7 minute dance.
As we were packing up our gear, the banter started again.
Baker: You guys are real funny.
Kurt: It’s the least we could do to you for making us play all those polkas.
Kip: Did you get her number, Baker?
Baker: No. I didn’t get her number.
J-Dog: Hey, Kurt. You know what next week is?
Kurt: What’s that?
J-Dog: Annual Big Polka Night with Joltin’ Joe and the Bavarians.
Kurt: Yeah. There’s a sign on the door.
J-Dog: Maybe we can show up and see Baker dancing with his girlfriend again.
Baker: Next time, I’m waiting until after the gig to pay you guys.
Labels: gigging stories, jason mendelsohn, kurt knecht