Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Hippy Dippy Bebop Progressive Jazz Junk

Being a professional musician for more years than I like to count, this definition came rolling out of my mouth about 40 years ago. The reason? Very simple. I had hired a goofball musician to play alto sax and clarinet in my quartet. So many people had said what a great musician he was and their opinion was wrong, wrong, wrong. I can remember spending the better part of four hours one night after the gig trying to explain to this hard head that a commercial job did not consist of playing anything you god damn well please. It did no good. He argued up one side and down the other about why what he was doing was the way to do it. If you could play eighty thousand notes instead of just eight, that was better in his book.

He was worse than a drummer I worked with years later. That dude is a really talented musician. He owns a drum shop and gives drum lessons. He knows every phrase, every "lick" as musicians call it, every trick of every drummer and he plays them ALL for every tune. It's a constant drum solo going on regardless of what is being played. By the time I got involved with him, I knew better. Towards the end of the Mardi Gras Ball season, I went to the orchestra leader and told him I was quitting because of the drummer. When the leader told me it wouldn't be necessary as the drummer had already told him that he wouldn't be returning for the next season, I told the leader I would stay on. The fact that I quit the band after the last ball is immaterial. I quit because the idiot leader refused to pay us on time and I was tired of that kind of treatment. He had more money than he knew what to do with and used this tactic to hold control over his musicians. The excuse was that the people who hired him hadn't paid him yet, as if that was our problem. What a bum! Live and learn.

Back to the sax player: I didn't have the experience to realize I should have fired the deadbeat immediately because he did not want to do what you have to do as a commercially performing musician. You have to play what the guy who is paying your salary wants to hear. And I'm not talking about the guy who owns the club. I'm talking about the guy who comes into the club with his date and planks down his hard earned cash to buy a drink or dinner or pay for a cover charge or whatever. If he wants to hear "Come back to Jesus Cha-Cha" you'd better play it if you know it or tell the customer that the next time he comes in you'll play it for him.
They WILL come back to see if you've done what you've said you were going to do. If you really want to impress them, you start playing it when they walk in the door and you have a fan for life.

Anyone who thinks the life of a performing musician is all sweetness and light doesn't have a clue as to what goes on behind the curtain on the bandstand. You really have to love it beyond words to stick to it. That's why when these youngsters come up to me and gush all over me about how great I play and how that's what they want to do, without exception I tell them "Don't even consider it. Stay out of show business. It's too damn hard!" My philosophy being that if that is enough to keep them out, then they don't have what it takes.
My Dad tried to convince me for years to quit playing every night and go to teaching full time. I kept telling him that I probably would when I had had enough. Unfortunately, in 1985, I made the mistake in getting really angry thinking I'd had enough of not getting paid what I though I was worth.

So I went to teaching full time. I'd always had students but very seldom more than a dozen and I didn't mind it. I didn't think twice about going to do it full time. My Dad did nothing else for 40 years and it literally killed him when he had to stop. I did it full time for twenty years and it almost killed me with a heart attack last July. I had no idea what was going on until the cardiologist came to see me the day before I was being released from the hospital. He is a very well educated man and a very good cardiologist and he took very good care of me in New Orleans. He told me that he wanted me to do this, that and the other to which I said ok. Then he asked me what I thought was a very stupid question: "What are you going to do after you get home?" I told him that when I got to feeling better I was going back to work. He replied: "Oh? Doing what?" and I said :Doctor, you know that I teach piano. I'll be going back to teaching." His response was: "Are you out of your mind? How the hell do you think you got here?" I was dumfounded and had no reply. He next said "Mr. Owens, teaching is one of the most stressful occupations you can have!" It took me about thirty seconds to respond: "Well, guess what Doctor. You're talking to the ex-piano teacher!" I quit at that moment on the basis of his expertise. Over the next couple of days, I gradually came to the realization of just how much I despised the damn job! Out of almost 50 students I had about five that were doing well. The others were driving me nuts - enough to put me in the hospital! I resolved to go back to performing, my very first and only love as soon as I was well enough. Then came Hurricane Katrina. More on this later.

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