by Christopher Bacas
I left a Texas college somewhere between my Sophomore and Junior years. My body and saxophone continued to attend for another year and half. Degree requirements unfulfilled, I eventually packed and left with some South Carolina buddies, padding my stereo and lps with tangled knots of dirty laundry. High on speed, we drove sleepless; taking a stealthy moonlight swim in a motel pool en route. After dumping stuff at my parents' house, we rolled on to New York City, then in its' early 80's menacing, funky glory. Greatness poured out of musicians everywhere, as Steve Wonder says “Jus' like I pitchered it”. I was only visiting, though. It was all too scary.
Back home in Pennsylvania, I practiced for the big leagues. A new local eatery, with a Vonnegut-inspired name, featured fine local musicians. I went by to sit in. A trumpet player, mostly legit guy,played as well; having fun after his lawyer day-gig. He noticed the shaggy tenor player blasting away with schoolboy enthusiasm. After talking down our city (as if I didn't know it was backwards), he encouraged me to join the Musician's Union and take advantage of their bookings. They could swear me in at the next meeting.
The Union office sat between a hat shop and barber on the town's western-running main drag.
Its' interior, one large room with beat-up office furniture and framed band photos. Our local hung tough as gigs, dues, and membership declined. Its' crown jewel, a community band, once led by Music Man-monikered Elwood Sprigle, remained strong. I introduced myself to the secretary, who smiled sweetly when told I attended the city high school. As the folding chairs around me filled, I barely looked up. The men, my father's age or older, ignored me. Roberts' Rules brought the meeting to order. After sad, monotone reporting on finances and the many bars and clubs using non-Union bands, the floor went to the business agent.
He warmed up quickly in local patois:
“I gut sump'n ta say. Yeh. Youse mentioned about ta local bands. Naw, I don't unnerstan haw eese kids play 'at God-awful crap. Not a one of 'em knows a decent song. N' so dam loud! I'm sick an tard o having ta tell 'em ta keep it dawn on th' job. Donny Pritchard's kid plays some git-are, naw, he's pretty good, but ah tell ya, the bunch of 'em aren't worth a pot ya cuht piss in. It's gettin' ta whirr if someone'd call me n' ask whirr 'ey kin git a fiddle n' a flute fur sahrdee night, I don know whut I kin tell 'em. I don't know whirr ta get a fiddle n' a flute on sahrdee night. I JUST DONT KNOW.”
A few chins bobbed when he finished. The cleaning fluid and dust that permeated the air briefly parted and a putrid zephyr sailed by our nostrils. I'd heard grownup soliloquies. This one fell short of Eugene O'Neill. While not directed at me, its' incoherence and brandied intonation made me uneasy. His vague references and casual disgust mirrored my worst fever dream: I begged a gig and one of these men hired me. After days of cramming obscure tunes to impress, I'd show up stupidly early, dressed wrong, and stumble through a set; playing harmony when they expected melody and missing easy musical cues. On the bandstand, the leader would explode. Geologic layers of insecurity, every sweaty self-doubt, roaring down gig mountain; sweeping away all my hopes, gathering their rotten timber into a swelling cataclysm that buried me a million times over.
The meeting disintegrated into babble. I shifted my legs and caught the secretary's eyes.
“Guys, this young fella is a new member.”
“What's yer name?”
“Whatta ya play?”
“Whirr'd ya go ta school”
“Ya from York?”
The last, more incredulous than interrogative. My family's insistence on living in the city, a place many white folks believed corrupt and dangerous, was suspect; my 12 years years in its' public schools, foolhardy. With firm handshakes, each man encouraged me, adding grave caveats about increasingly scarce work. When I asked about getting sworn in, they shrugged. The business agent, suddenly paternal, assured me they never swore in new members, only officers. I handed out business cards. More than one guy asked if I could read. 33 years later I have yet to work with or even see any of those men again.
A few years after the meeting, one of the officers, delectably named, Creston Ottemiller, contracted me on a couple state fair shows with Engelbert Humperdinck. His Musical Director and rhythm section, all young LA cats, rehearsed us in the Union offices. The LA guys, rumpled and unshaven after a red-eye flight, snickered and rolled their eyes as they set up. For some reason, the MD started the minor-sixth chords in whole steps intro to Summertime. I joined in, playing Gershwin's counter lines and ending circle of fifths tag. Later, he asked if lived nearby. I said I did. He told me he came from a small town, too.
That night, a fall freeze descended. Up the road, a bank sign flashed 40 degrees Fahrenheit. My flute “A” hovered around 430 hz. Onstage, 10 stands of strings and the MD in a tailored tux. In the brass section, the trumpet player who first suggested I join up. We commiserated about the cold, my first Union booking and the exquisite cake a fan club delivered to the star's dressing room. The club's president adamant it was for Engelbert alone. We played an overture that collapsed all his hits into a skein of melodies connected by dizzying violin scales and ending with a fierce tremolo. The star made his entrance to a volley of women's underwear and decorated love letters. All night, horn players tried gamely to tune to the pitch of the strings and piano. The headliner sang billows of water vapor into the stage lights' razor glare.His trio snuck in fun and filigree. After the show, star and band sped to their limos. Their back line rolled into an idling box truck. The locals, unbuttoned shirts revealing thermal underwear, took the gilded cake, huddled under the grandstand, cut slices and ate them.