25 June 2011

Tune in to CPR.ORG to listen to me make a fool of myself!

This is an excerpt from a full essay that will be featured on the show Telling Stories on Colorado Public Radio this weekend.  In the Denver area, tune in to 90.1FM; you can also listen ANYWHERE! at cpr.org--choose the news channel, not the classical channel.  The show airs Sunday, June 26 at 2pm and Monday, June 27 at 9pm, MDT.

Drowning on a Rooftop: My Short-lived Career in Jazz


When I was the new flutist in town, I was lucky enough to befriend a seasoned flutist in the area who had more work than she could handle, and she soon began sending people my way when she was unavailable.  She wasn’t sending me the good stuff, though-- I was fielding calls for outdoor weddings, free library concerts, and small-town museum exhibits.   In the summer, the wedding calls were particularly prolific.  I do not love outdoor weddings, but I was a hungry musician fresh out of graduate school and eager to take any job I could get, so whenever the phone rang, I said yes.

At times that was probably a mistake.  Having just completed a degree at a prestigious music school, I thought I was ready for anything that came my way; I thought I’d played it all.  I was foolishly over-confident.  I could change the tiniest detail in my orchestra solo when the conductor requested it because he was telling me EVERY DETAIL he wanted me to play.  I could change my interpretation of a concerto on a dime in lessons because I had been trained to recreate whatever sounds someone else told me to make.  [Bring in a copy of me playing Devienne w/ UW orch.] I have since learned that success as a student in a coddled environment is not exactly the same as surviving as a gigger, when one must be able to play something completely foreign without any coaching--that is not how we are trained at the university.   I learned my lesson that summer on the rooftop of the most expensive hotel in town; it was at the wedding for the daughter of a local news anchor.

I was substituting for my friend, and it was her regular trio who had been contracted to do this gig.  The pianist and cellist were old friends, and the trio had a set book of tunes they played which comprised classics from the big-band era and Frank Sinatra's songbook: “Chicago”, “De-Lovely”, that sort of thing. [Play jazz clip here--S‘Wonderful.] So, this was a jazz gig.  Let me explain. The world is divided into two kinds of flute players: those who are classically trained, and those who play jazz.  I do not know how to play jazz.  I like jazz--I like to play it on my stereo when friends come over for dinner, and I like how cool I think it makes me look when people see my CDs laying around.  I have been guilty of losing track of myself while cooking to my Totally 80s compilation, only to make a mad dash for the Chet Baker and Herbie Mann CDs at the sound of the doorbell (it also helps to have a couple others laying around casually--I like the experimental stuff that looks impressive but sounds awful--just put it on a side table underneath the stereo remote.)  So I can listen to jazz, but as a performer, I learned music strictly by reading it and following the directions on the page, not by reading a skeletal outline of the tune and filling in the rest on-the-spot.    And I had never played off of jazz charts, which are not only missing a crucial number of notes, but also tend to be scribbled in a way that makes it look like the arranger must have been writing with his toes.  I'm not making excuses--I was inexperienced.  No amount of cleanliness in those scores could have saved me.  I had no idea what I was doing.

As soon as I arrived and discovered that the music on my stand was beyond my training, I looked beseechingly around the room for my colleagues, whom I hoped would be understanding and get me through it. I‘ll be honest, I was in an absolute panic, and having just come from school, I still had fresh memories of  striving to be note-perfect and please everyone for my well-deserved pat on the head.  But when I saw jazz charts on the stand, I knew I would not be getting a gold star for this performance.  As humiliating as the thought was, I was completely prepared to relinquish any sense of shame for whatever sad, patronizing help they could throw my way.  After all, I reasoned to myself, they wouldn’t want to crash and burn in public, even if it was clearly my fault.  The audience wasn’t going to say “well, that flutist is obviously clueless, but the other two have got some jazz chops.”  Most likely, the audience would just say, “they suck.”

Well, that was my rationale, but unfortunately, the cellist and pianist were not on board with my game plan.  The cellist seemed to approach that afternoon’s musical soiree as a kind of duel, like that cheery ditty, “Dueling Banjos”, only one of the banjos (me) just falls on her face.  When I first spotted him, he was already at the bar looking grim as he ordered his first drink (vodka martini), and commenced playing the game he would maintain throughout the gig: don’t look at the flute player.  Don’t speak to the flute player.  Play as if the flute player is not there.  Playing jazz is really a combination of having the tunes memorized (I did not), having been properly trained to improvise in the style (I was not), and LOOKING AT EACH OTHER during performances to more smoothly take turns playing the solos (which I did not want, but if I had to solo, he could at least tell me when to do it).  So this “pretending I was invisible” schtick was just altogether wrong for the occasion.  It was about  like trying to run a relay race while refusing to acknowledge the next runner in line--you’re not supposed to just throw the baton on the ground and go have a Gatorade, you’re supposed to hand over the baton, then you can have your Gatorade.

And speaking of Gatorade, did I mention there was an open bar for the musicians, as well?  It was part of our pay, and initially it was also a pretty big reason why I decided to take the gig.  But here’s the problem: I hadn’t eaten much that day, and the bartender was generous with the alcohol.  My gin and tonic was gin with a splash of tonic.  Don’t ask me why I decided to cash in on that part of my pay before I even saw the music, but I assumed I could do it.  If it had been Pachelbel’s Canon, I totally could have done it.  I really shouldn’t have tried with Cole Porter.  I wasn’t exactly drunk, but the buzz I had going did not help boost the old confidence level as I tried to figure what the heck I was suppose to be doing.   As I surveyed the slightly blurry landscape of discerning audience members on that rooftop, I started to realize just how screwed I probably was.

Meanwhile, the pianist, a caricature of an aging debutante, was hugging and kissing every well-dressed couple over sixty years of age.  She seemed to be more of a small-time society lady than she was a serious musician.  But she was chatty, kind, and had pretty low standards, so that was somewhat comforting.  She was not, however, the mothering type, and she just assumed I’d pick up on things.  She also had a constant refresher going on her cosmo, so that might have been part of the reason she wasn’t always picking up on my not-so-subtle signals.

She was so wrapped up in her friends, and the cellist was so furiously sucking down his drink while diligently avoiding eye contact, that we had no opportunity to talk strategy before we had to start playing.  What tunes would we play?  What was the "high-sign" to stop?  Where was a tuning pitch?  How do you read his music?  I was the only one who didn’t know anything, and they sort of left me in the dust.   So as we began, I kept looking blankly--nay, pleadingly--at the pianist just before starting a tune so she could tell me which one it was.  I would then madly tear through the songbook until I found it, while the cellist glared and sighed at me and the pianist nervously giggled.  No one would have mistaken me for a pro.

I was generally playing the melody and should have been the one to improvise some solos over the more basic piano part, but it was such a struggle.  If it was a tune I recognized, I would just try to copy my Sarah Vaughn or Billie Holiday CDs as well as my memory would allow, and then play a couple of major scales up and down until the other two stopped.  [Insert clip of me fumbling over Theresa’s vamp on Take 5.]  Sometimes I had no clue what the song was and would just stare at the pianist to communicate that I would not be doing a solo, no thank you.  She was kind enough to jump in with her well-worn solos at those times, but only if I caught her eye.  A few times I just dropped out and stared at the music while they went on with their sparse accompaniment parts for several bars before the pianist jumped in.  A couple of years later I heard one of those tunes, I think, at a friend’s house (he was also trying to look cool while serving dinner).  Hearing the melody with the words made me realize just how badly I had butchered that song: I was stopping in all the wrong places because I was so flustered (“you make my…[stare wildly at pianist]…heart…smi-….le”.  At the time, the cellist got so frustrated that he shouted, “Ah, GOD!” during one of my blank moments between what should have been syllables of the same word.  He said it rather loudly.  During the performance...

THERE'S MORE WHERE THAT CAME FROM!  Listen to Telling Stories  at cpr.org Sunday, June 26 at 2pm and Monday or June 27 at 9pm, MDT.