by Christopher Bacas
Catering hall loading docks smell of cleaning fluids, grease and rotting food. They rise from the shores of milky lakes continuously replenished by mop buckets. There's a dumpster nearby, mouth drooling effluents and green frame askew. Up concrete steps, through swinging doors, across a slippery red tile floor, PISO MOJADO! sign tossed aside, a stale hall leads to the kitchen; vast rain forest of garlic and meat odors suspended in a Hobart's steam cloud.
Public side of the building is hushed activity. Sidewinder vacuums exhaust stale air. Tuxedoed staff deal place settings from sprung stacks on casters. Musicians arrive solo, duo or trio. Bulky gear packed tight and wheeled in. Cases and bags pile as they set up. The PA forms a protective front; subwoofers root below suspended mains. The keyboards, light rack, sound board and mic stands mark the perimeter. Then, to the bathrooms, changing into work clothes: white ruffled shirt and bow tie or black on black or Joseph's Inflatable Vest of Many Colors; best worn with bedazzled cummerbund.
Every band has a leader. They might not even play anything, just make sure the musicians do what's expected. There might be two leaders: one for the music and one for the client and venue. No matter their number, division of labor or size of the cocktail-hour shrimp, sidemen will suspend treasured ideals for a (somewhat) steady paycheck.
The first leader I worked for out of college, ended each wedding singing "Embraceable You".
Charlie wasn't really a singer and I took over his drums; my brushes and high-hat barely in time. Glass of Scotch and lit cigarette in one hand, mic resting in the cleft of his chin, he burbled through lyrics, pitch approximate, lips exploding the p's on "come to poppa, come to poppa-do", while the exhausted couple danced oblivious. Later in the week, he'd call me and hold forth, a tic-like grunt following each emphasis.
On winning like winning over bored youth not with current hits, but Glenn Miller:
"Those kids LOVED it! (humph) They danced their BUTTS off" (humph)
After running his Rolodex for gigs:
"Clear your calendar. We've got SO MANY JOBS! (humph). You'll be busy ALL summer.(humph) "
On a much hipper peer:
"Poor Al! He plays all these TWENTY-DOLLAR JOBS! " (humph)
These calls, to convince me of his prowess as an agent. He promised to assemble a band: young, physically attractive and always stylistically correct. I'd be his first call. A glorious history preceded me. A Groundhog-Day Joshua, Charlle nightly led conquerers to topple Jericho's (the caterer's not the city's) walls. On his right, a heldentenor, the horn man whose Yakety-Sax odysseys drove Jazz before him to a pitiless end. Though I never measured up to those squawking standards, Charlie kept faith I would eventually abandon my financially unsound style.
No working bass player would commit to our irregular schedule, so the chair went to a bar-band veteran. His working repertoire so hard-wired, even the simplest new tune fled his fingers immediately. Each gig, he stared at the same crumpled chord sheets of "Autumn Leaves" or "Embraceable" and went fishing. Alcohol made him diffident and eventually cruel. By the end of a job, he'd fart, wheel the neck of his Fender around and chortle at me.
In pursuit of the perfect front man, Charlie brought in a guy singer; hired for his resemblance to a genius comedian and actor. The guy made side money posing for photos in faux celebrity petting-zoos or at kids' parties. Living behind the mask of a brilliant, famous man, he projected both an easy charm and a pathetic need for attention. He couldn't tell a knock-knock joke without notes and wisely dummied up when folks engaged him. As singer, his limitations were broad. Made continuously hoarse straining for notes outside his limited range, Jolly Ranchers bulged his pockets. He once joined a line dance during the chorus of a song, promptly and irrevocably losing both lyrics and form. Every gig had to include his showstopper: a histrionic "Edelweiss".
I had pretensions to artistry and my bandmates frustrated and sometimes disgusted me. Even after a couple beers and a Hennessy, nothing improved. Near the end of a doubleheader, buzzed and sweaty in my thrift-store tux, I thought about options. I had a car, paid for with gig money and didn't want to go back to washing pots in a hospital kitchen. My drinking stopped that day.
I'm always grateful to Charlie for his generosity; not monetary, but musical. His peers were steeped in the very repertoire I aspired to learn. Sometimes, he hired me to play with them. Sitting with two of Charlie's doyens, a singer who wore a New York pedigree like a sandwich-board and a local piano player, irascible and encyclopedic, I went to school.
"I sue-ah Miles at the the Vangaaad. Poo-all Chambuzz played just this much ahead of the beat. (thumb and forefinger barely touching)"
"Philly Joe played so foo-ah behind the beat. (Arms wide) "
" Red Gah-lind comped right ooh-on the beat. (Fingers tensile. Elbows levering)"
"Tah-getha they swung so haad. No one could play like that. No one! (dismissive backhand)"
The singer got up and headed to the bathroom. The piano player waited five beats and dug in, voice squawky, white eyebrows twitching.
"That shit doesn't make sense. Drummer Behind! Bass Player Ahead! I heard those guys, too. They played TOGETHER. They were great musicians. They listened to each other. Just listen, try to play in time and swing. (dismissive backhand)"
Pace their disagreements and like all Charlie's pals, both were patient and encouraging with me; gifts I consistently withheld from myself. With Charlie, I got to see what it was like to play commercial music, with a band, for people who wrote big checks. That work, its networks withered and rituals debased,no longer low-hanging fruit. It never occurred to me that wearing a properly fitted tux, looking happy, playing clear melodies and hamming it up when called on, was a real job; my job. Charlie didn't made an issue of my sad and sullen gray faces nor my swashbuckling playing. I wouldn't have understood, anyway. He got rich soaking clients and keeping labor costs down. Those margins were pretty good in his day. Where ever he is, I hope there's plenty of good scotch and it's still free.