Go Ahead-Shoot The Piano Player(s).


hen (founder and leader) Kurt Kasson was preparing to leave Sitting Ducks, the search for his replacement begat the question 'replace with what?'

A combination of factors such as the band's direction toward urban swing music, the limited pool of musicians in the area and the need to quickly fill the position led us to consider a piano player to whom we'd recently been introduced. Let's call him Rick, which is not his real name. There's nothing particularly libelous to follow, but it's just too embarrassing to use the poor bastard's real name.

Rick was a competent player, about on par with the rest of the band. He was 'new age' years before the words were uncomfortably coupled. He radiated a gentle persona and talked a mean peace & love. But he seemed a little too gentle, and was sometimes pretty damn weird. He spoke of his private fear of waking up having in his sleep forgotten how to play piano. He would interrupt a set onstage to announce to the crowd "This song is really great!" And so on.

You had the feeling that beneath the gentle persona lurked—at least you thought maybe—the potential for a volcanic explosion. When we'd had our fill of his eccentric manner (and additionally formed the opinion his playing was frequently tiresome noodling), we decided to quietly seek his replacement.

It happened right away. We found another piano player who came highly recommended, a brilliant player. Not only was his playing leagues more advanced than Rick's, it was leagues beyond us all. He needed a musical outlet, liked what we were trying to do and consented to join the band. Let's call him Sam (not his real name either).

We began rehearsing with Sam, and realized it wasn't going to be long before we could begin gigging with him; a couple weeks at the outside. We decided to break the news to Rick, the sooner the better.

Rick took the news just fine. In fact, the feeling was mutual. He was growing weary of our act and could sense the growing friction. He was gracious and requested only that he be allowed to play the gigs remaining on his calendar, an informal professional standard. We cheerfully agreed.

If we had kept our word this story would be over. But no.

I don't remember the circumstances. Perhaps there was a special gig we needed Sam to play. Maybe we were excited about the great music he was bringing the group. Maybe we were too impatient to wait as long as we'd promised, about a month. Whatever, Sam consented to begin immediately and we decided to give Rick the shaft, er, the word. We made the decision at a band meeting. Acting from pure professional immaturity, it didn't feel like a group consciously voting to do wrong.

The music business is nothing if not flexible. It's not unusual to make personnel changes on short notice. A typical solution is to pay off the person on the losing end. Even a small payoff is better than a cold steel goodbye, and the person might be able to fill the lost dates with other gigs. Sadly, there wasn't any money for Rick.

Someone had to play the heavy and deliver the news. Who would do the dirty work? Why, me, Mr. Junior Manager, of course.

Rick was one of several piano players playing with Big Nick, so we were sharing the stage under different circumstances. In yet another lame-brained decision, we decided I would give Rick the news on the gig, a UVA fraternity Christmas party with the Big Nick Quartet, this coming Saturday.

A Christmas party! WHAT could we have been thinking? There we were, halls decked, lovely decorated tree, the young fraternity brothers and their dates all dressed-up. The house even smelled like it had been cleaned.

We played a couple sets and took a break. The party was pretty quiet, things were calm. I asked Rick if we could talk, and gave him the news. Springing such volatile news in a gig's delicate atmosphere was just asking for trouble... He was a little stunned, but seemed to take things well enough. We parted company. A few minutes passed. Then, suddenly, Rick snapped and the halls weren't the only things decked. Before I knew what was happening Rick wrestled me to the floor and was on top of me, huffing and puffing, hissing some not-very Yuletide language between his clenched teeth. He had me in a headlock. I was wriggling, we were rolling back and forth on the floor.

All this in the main foyer, surrounded by guests, next to the Christmas tree.

The bass player grabbed Rick, pulled him off and whisked him outside. Big Nick was unfazed (perhaps he'd seen stranger things touring Europe with Dizzy Gillespie in 1948), the fraternity brothers hardly seemed to notice. If they were having a good time watching the Musicians Wrestling League, they were keeping it to themselves.

Rick did not return; he was too upset. So reported the bass player who spent a half hour trying to calm him down. As unprofessional as Rick's behavior was, springing such volatile news in a gig's delicate atmosphere was just asking for trouble; an act of sheer naive stupidity.

We finished the gig as a trio and got paid in full. (Having personally spent three years in a U.Va. fraternity, my guess is the brothers found the whole thing amusing.)

So ended Sitting Ducks' relationship with piano player number one. Enter piano player number two, Sam. Though Sam's tenure featured no violent explosions, we would come to know him as an eccentric, unpredictable, hilarious person.

He had a penchant for harmless practical jokes. At an early rehearsal he introduced us to a classic middle piece (via realaudio or .wav file 114k) of Billy Strayhorn's Take the 'A' Train by claiming it to be his own idea, and 'wouldn't it go just great right _here_ in this song?' Fortunately we all agreed ("Yes, Sam. It is great!") which only slightly ameliorated our embarassment upon later hearing the same section on a vintage 1930's Duke Ellington Orchestra recording (via realaudio or .wav file 146k).

One of my favorite 'Sam stories' occured several years after having left Charlottesville. I was playing in town and was called to the bar for a phone call. It was Sam, wanting to know if he could be on the guest list. I said sure; we had a nice chat, catching up on the last few years. Only when I happened to glance over my shoulder did I catch a glimpse of Sam, at the payphone, about ten feet away.

Sam's eccentric tendencies continued to emerge as the months progressed. He would occasionally indulge himself too heavily and insist on playing solo piano through our breaks, bantering back and forth with the crowd, all part of the show. This went a bit too far one evening, when Sam had gone a lot too far with Champagne. He was playing and bantering, and stopped to talk to the crowd a little more, um, in depth.

Sam:  Say—how many of you out there have taken LSD?

Crowd:  (Silence)

Sam:  OK then. How many of you have seen the White Light?

Crowd:  (Silence)

Sam:  ZZZzzz...

Sam and I spoke at length about the music business. He was taking the time to educate me. He was disillusioned, but never negative or discouraging. He had a way of introducing a point without actually following through and making it, leaving that to you. I remember a conversation in which, couched as a casual comment he painted a bleak landscape of the world inhabited by countless professional musicians. His apparently pessimistic comment wasn't. Rather, he was hinting that the musical life can be a tough one:

You know, I'll bet there are an UNLIMITED number of gigs out there, in places just like this, that pay, oh, 250, 300, maybe 350 dollars. And I'll bet those jobs will always be there, paying that same money. A musician who wanted to could work those gigs forever...

This was obvious even to me. I acknowledged the truth of his comment and didn't think much of it. It was too early in my career to bother with anything so serious. It's real weight came into focus after years of exposure; the slow realization that Sam's assertion was unwaveringly true year after year.

It is as true today, eighteen years later. Every night in tens of thousands of musty-smelling clubs, bands load in their gear, set up and play, and wind up the evening with a (you guessed it) big show-biz finish. The money is consistently bad due to the fact that playing music is known to be its own reward.

A full-time musician's life isn't so narrowly defined of course, it is actually quite flexible. Professional players make their living many ways, with a wide range of outcomes. A tiny percentage reap the seemingly-obvious riches of playing big-time concert tours, which in truth can be deceivingly small, and as short-lived as a single tour. The great majority of professionals round out their careers by teaching and combining their low-paying "fun" projects with higher-paying work, weddings and such.

The combined artistic and commercial applications allow a savvy musician to make a decent, even a good living. People are surprised to learn their version of the American Dream is sometimes decidedly mainstream, a home, kids, a comfortable retirement.

Or, as with other artists, it might be disconnected from the mainstream, purely dedicated to the music, enduring the difficulties so as to strictly focus, over the course of a lifetime, on perfecting one's craft.

Of course, many musicians (including this one) work during the day as means of tempering the rigors of the musical life with the benefits of a 'day gig.' For some that's a viable alternative, for others, it's not.

Whatever works. Certainly, like everybody, musicians are just struggling to make the right choices, find their own right combination, their own balance of life and art. Whatever works.

Ultimately, lifelong musicians seem to suffer from poor memory. They can forget the surly club owners, the long road trips, time spent away from family. They can forget the meager pay, the hard labor, the crooked agents, the drunks, the exhaustion and the clothes that smell like smoke so bad they have to hang outside after the gig. They can forget the 'big show-biz finish.'

Duke Ellington was known, when asked "What kind of music do you play?", to respond "There's only two kinds of music: the good kind and the bad kind. We play the good kind."

Musicians remember what Duke said, because that is what musicians live for. It is their curse and their gift.

NEXT ...Stormy Weather

Introduction | Kurt's Mardi Gras Parade | Frankly, 'Poe's'... | Big Nick | Go Ahead. Shoot The Piano Player(s). | "Stormy Weather" | The Drive From Baltimore | The Hat

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© 1998 by Brian S. Alpert. All rights reserved.