And another tour ends. The caravan of cats moves on. And so many presenters move on to next shows, and people move on to next dates, and cats move on to next gigs. And Jonathan Kelly and I are no longer joking or playing chess or Facebooking or anything but working on notes day and night and day and night….And Frank, Boss Bragg and I prepare to ride into the midnight from Lincoln, Nebraska to New York City…20 hrs after the last gig of the tour. Whew!
All of the experiences of the past month hit us. A year crammed into three and a half intense weeks. The cats ad hoc assemble in Old Chicago, a restaurant across from the Lincoln Holiday Inn. (We usually end tours with some type of drink or fellowship but nothing was planned tonight). We sit under TV screens which broadcast final highlights of the Yankees' drubbing of the Twins, eating, drinking, breezily enjoying each other’s company without the oppressive presence of an impending deadline, and looking at old recordings of bad shit collected by Ernie Gregory and David Robinson in the various cities we have passed through. Sarah Vaughan with Count Basie, A.K. Salim, Benny Goodman Live, and so on…..
"Man, you remember that recording I got in Japan of all the outtakes of Sarah singing Stardust from this record? And you asked me why would I do that? Look at Jeter get every ounce of this ball. Pow!" That's Rob. He's coming up on his 20th year of being our soundman and lightman and resident hard, hard lover of the swing. Joe sits on the corner stool and responds to our questions about Salim with, "What was his original name?"
Curious patrons watch us inspect and discuss these recordings and notice the age ranges and physiologies of the men. They recognize the unforced intimacy that only comes from some type of well traveled group or team.
As folks from the concert come in and greet us, the room begins to buzz with the genial glow of informal significance. "They're a band you say?", "Yeah! They just played the hell out of some music. There's the drummer. Man you were working tonight. I play percussion. Damn! That was sweet. Let's get this picture.", "My mother taught elementary school and she took me to jazz concerts. I never GOT it until tonight. The way you all played with and for each other and us made me understand the jazz experience. Take a picture with my friend please. He is a musician." A young woman of twenty something. We enjoy talking with everyone and letting the dust of the tour settle.
Ted and I talk about beer (I never have liked it because my uncle drank a lot and damn near killed my grandmother doing it) and he summarizes the tour. "That was fun. It gets better and better as the years pass." That means a lot. He is not given to gratuitous enthusiasm. Ted is perpetually youthful (I think it’s because he avoids sugar). A few hours ago he was leading the University's Jazz band in a master class.
He is great with college kids because he gives them candid and quality information in a straightforward manner…then encourages them to be who they are. And he loves and can play all kinds of music with all types of musicians.
Ernie is telling people who we are and where we're from. Soon he will come to me, "Squazz, come get this picture with my man and his old lady, they from Seattle and dig the music." Billy Banks, our original road manager-now production manager in the House of Swing, once said if Ernie was as interested in doing his job as much as he was in collecting records…he wouldn't be Ernie. But Ernie loves the music and brings a down-home feeling and originality of character that can never be duplicated. He listens to the gig EVERY night and snaps pictures of us at various inopportune angles. These we see the next days with a blow by blow, "This was the King's (Ryan Kisor) expression when Marcus was playing all that horn on ‘Free for All’."
We played the Lied Center tonight. It was the inaugural concert of their 20th season. I could swear we played here about 20 years ago. I have the honor of playing with these great musicians and meeting parents and girlfriends and boyfriends and husbands and wives and supporters and critics and sponsors and old friends alike. All are present tonight in Lincoln, Nebraska, and though sleep was in very short supply on this tour, it was as it always is…the profoundest of pleasures.
To continue to live out a boyhood dream which proved to be far less (as a dream) than the reality which becomes even sweeter as a memory, makes me want to be better. That people get dressed up or not dressed up; travel from their homes, jobs, and dorms; spend their hard-earned money on tickets and come together for two and a half hours to find solace and enjoyment in the jazz music we play early in the Twenty-first century still gets to me even after 35 years of gigs. To play with a swinging rhythm section and be surrounded by cats who want to and can play is something I cherish at every gig. To have dedicated fans for years and the respect of the people that present your group; to be able to look at Victor, Marcus or Ali or Ryan after all these years and still feel that love and respect that comes with sharing the experience of playing all the various and difficult musics we have played under all types of tenuous circumstances and not have to be about any bullshit because every night the music makes you strive for more even if only through listening. I love to watch Walter Blanding listen to other cats play. He is more enthusiastic about what we play than we are.
It is 5:30 in the morning. Boss Bragg, Frank and I are crossing the border of Iowa and Illinois. We just pass Moscow, Iowa, about 200 miles from Chicago. The faintest hint of light breaks the sky and illuminates a light fog or it could be the lights of another city in the distance. We travel on in silence and pass the world’s largest truck stop, Iowa 80. Packed with trucks that resemble the gathering of wildlife around the one watering hole for miles on the Serengeti, this Iowa morning the sky is amorphous pre-blue gray with slight splash of orange that makes you feel something is about to happen . As we pass the top of the mighty Mississippi into Illinois, I reflect on some highlights of the tour:
1. The playing of the Monterey New Generation High School All-Stars.
2. The Turlock audience came to swing.
3. Kareem graced our gig in LA. So did the great acoustics guru Sam Berkow.
4. The hospitality of the Swalleys in Santa Barbara.
5. The softball game that was won by Victor's team over Carlos'…highlighted by the impartial pitching of boss Andre Bragg who once, as an outfielder, couldn't decide whether to put his beer down or catch a fly ball. This indecision resulted in a home run that is still discussed. We keep him away from the outfield.
6. Seeing Dave Brubeck, Inaki and Jasone, Carlo Pagnotta, John Patitucci, Gerald Wilson, Marcus Gilmore, Vijay Iyer and Joe Lovano in Monterey…and Clint Eastwood who always supports this great festival and jazz .
7. Talking to the Arts community in Sacramento at the behest of Mayor Kevin Johnson. (It felt like coming home.)
8. Ted's father playing with us in Thousand Oaks on ‘Ceora’ (Ted's arrangement).
9. The beautiful band of high school kids who came backstage in San Diego, all brimming with excitement talking about entering Essentially Ellington (our high school festival and competition).
10. The acoustics of the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa. Russell Johnson (he was the lead acoustician on the House of Swing and has passed away) would have loved the way his masterpiece of a hall sounded.
11. Katrina's pecan pie in Santa Fe.
12. Sherman Irby on ‘Blues Walk’ with our rhythm section maintaining a super slow tempo in Costa Mesa.
13. The second show in San Diego.
14. Both shows in Monterey.
15. The trombone section all over 6’3’ and swinging. The way our trombones loved the trombones of the Monterey young all-stars, some of whom we saw individually at other gigs later in the tour.
16. All the beautiful youngsters and their families I had the chance to hear and meet after almost every gig.
17. John Clayton, master bassist, composer and arranger, co-leader of a great band with Jeff Hamilton, one of the true gentleman of our time, came to our gig in LA…helped me carry my things to the car one hour after the gig ended…waited for me to talk to the remaining students (another thirty minutes)…stood in the loading dock with me 'til well after midnight (another 45 minutes)…agreed to look at my scores and gave me an impromptu lesson and sage advice on how to best orchestrate different passages. He showed so much concern and interest and love, I get full now thinking about me and him leaning into the car to use the light while Frank and David Robinson observed it all with curious smiles and no hint of impatience after they had worked all day and faced an hour drive.
It’s impossible to express the depth of my gratitude for all these things and many more.
Now we have put more than 9,000 miles on our vehicle. The cats have arrived home safely. We are still on the road in Pennsylvania, shrouded in darkness. It is 7:30pm. It looks like Boss Bragg won't have to buy me a too expensive meal from a bet he lost on the Dallas Cowboys vs. our NY Giants in Monterey which seems like two months ago. We begin to reflect on what we saw: the golden plains of Saskatchewan giving way to the sharp hewn Canadian Rockies. The majesty of the great American northwest with its crystal clear skies, Douglas firs, Redwoods and Sequoias. The peaks and valleys of California down through the wine country and past Cannery Row framed by the expansive Pacific. Many tangerine sunrises and sunsets sometimes through the lens of morning fog and the twilight shimmer of so many car lights and street lights and neon lights.
The down-home soul of the Worker Bee Cafe in Carpinteria, California - a true American mom and pop, breakfast spot featuring the cooking of a tough retired Marine chef known as Sergeant Grill with his sweet as honey wife waiting the tables. The windy fingers of a hurricane coming up from the Baja as we crossed the desert into Arizona. The craggy, rocky terrain sculpted with rusty mesas, canyons and plateaus that have the patience of old folks and tumbleweed, stingy cacti and the occasional dust devil kicking up to be dispersed and reformed later somewhere else. The indigenous American territory with its spiritual peacefulness, super dry air, elevated altitude and contemporary problems in need of continued attention.
Yes, we have traveled this country for many years and…Damn! Frank just got a ticket.