It’s June and the festival season kicks into overdrive with events from coast to coast, and groups of musicians doing the festival circuit. For the most part, they arrive, play the concert and move on, without many opportunities to hear other musicians and hang out. That’s life on the road. Another phenomenon, the jazz party is, from a social point of view, somewhat different: for three or four days a group of musicians have the chance of spending time together and socializing.
Last month I was in Midland/Odessa, Texas, for their 46th annual jazz party: a three-day event featuring a lot of the usual suspects, including, among others, Harry Allen, John Allred, Jake Hanna, Ken Peplowski, Bucky Pizzarelli, Allan and Warren Vache, and relatively new additions such as bassist Nicki Parrott and pianist Rossano Sportiello. Over the course of the weekend I was reminded of how much pleasure is derived from the social aspect of these get-togethers. The party circuit is made up of a relatively small band of modern day minstrels who travel huge distances to make their music. For example, Warren, Rossano and I saw each other three times over a period of three weeks in May, but to do so we each travelled over 10,000 miles!
Regular readers have, in the past, read about some of the trials and tribulations of my travels – but believe me, I’m not alone. We all have horror stories. Last month, Bucky Pizzarelli arrived in Norwich, England, and his guitar didn’t. On another occasion Ken Peplowski’s luggage went on a world tour without him. But by and large, when we get together the conversation is frequently punctuated by loud laughter as someone recalls an incident which at the time must have been frustrating, or worse, but which, with the passage of time takes on an element of humour and becomes yet another anecdote to join the legion of “how about the time” reminiscences.
One of the great story tellers in jazz is drummer Jake Hanna. He has an endless flow of jokes, stories and one-liners. On our last get-together he told one about Al Thompson, a saxophone player whose baseball hero was Ted Williams. They were in a bar called Junior’s and Al was sitting at the bar watching the baseball game. Ted Williams was having a bad day and at one point when he was at bat, Al climbed on top of his bar stool and stood with his face in front of the screen and said, “Ted. It’s Al Thompson – give us one and keep these guys quiet!” He sat down on his stool and Ted Williams proceeded to hit a home run, wherupon Al got back up on the stool, looked at Williams on the screen and said, “Thanks Ted,” and sat down again.
On another occasion, an out of work musician, who had not had a gig in weeks, came into the bar and Thompson said to the bartender, “Give this man a gig and put it on my tab.”
It is a small, select group of travelling musicians in this fraternity – which allows membership only to those who have “paid their dues” on the road and have suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous travel, unscrupulous promoters, hazards of weather and sometimes the well-intentioned fan who says, “I saw you 15 years ago in Munich – remember?”
The pioneers who went before us and lived through the bad old days of poor lodgings, bad food and precarious travel have mostly passed on, but remain with us in spirit every time a group of us gets together at the next jazz party along the way.
Midland/Odessa may not be ranked among the great cities like New York, London or Paris, but for three days we enjoyed the warmth and hospitality of gracious and generous friends and once more we were able to sit around with kindred spirits, and trade stories that will live on as long as jazz musicians meet along the way.
I wouldn’t trade these memories for anything.
Meanwhile, there will be a feast of jazz coming your way over the next few weeks and I hope you will take advantage of the occasion and get out to enjoy at least some of it. Just as importantly, don’t be among those part-time enthusiasts who then disappear into the woodwork, never to be seen again until the next festival season comes along. Enjoying live music should be part of your ongoing activity – a year-round diet and not merely an annual blow-out.
Long live live jazz.