The World According to Keitho

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Posts Tagged ‘jazz club’

Night at the office

Posted by keithosaunders on January 30, 2016

Being a musician is a strange career.  Often times the easiest part of our job is the playing. Most of us have been practicing our instrument – honing our craft – every day of our life since the time we were kids.  (in my case since I was 8) We have logged more hours in pursuit of our quixotic profession than any doctor or lawyer.  By the time we go to work in the evening the execution should be like turning the ignition key in a car.  Sure, there are nights where our playing is less than inspired and we may clam a few notes or forget a some chords, but for the most part we play at an consistently high level.

From where I sit the difficult part of our job is maintaining our concentration amidst what are often less than ideal performing conditions.  What we do requires a heightened sense of listening which can be challenging under the best of circumstances, but daunting in a room full of screaming bar patrons.

I often play this gig at a crowded dive bar in the Haight Ashbury section of San Francisco – Club Deluxe.  For the most part I love this place.  It is integral to the Bay Area jazz scene, providing a space for musicians in a city that is practically bereft of jazz clubs. The vibe at Deluxe is usually good and although people are often noisy there is enough positive energy (and free beer!) to make for a fun night.

Last night, however, was rough.  The place was unusually busy for a Thursday and it was packed with inebriated 20-something tech people.  Sitting directly across from the band was a trio of loud, drunken dudes.  It’s one thing to deal with the white noise of a jam packed bar — it becomes a background din and you can deal with it.  But when you have people in close proximity screaming at each other at the top of their lungs, not only is it jarring but it becomes like nails on a chalkboard.

Three hours into the gig the frat boy alchys were still there and louder than ever.  As we were beginning our final set our bassist could take it no longer and he asked them to move.  One of the dullards said something snide and our bass player, giving his best dead-eyed Clint Eastwood stare, said, “Get the fuck out.” At that point I stood up and flanked the bass player.  I don’t know what the hell I was thinking  – I’ve never been in a bar fight and I’m pretty sure I would get my ass kicked – but I was ready to go to war with these louts.  Somehow the sax player was able to de-escalate the situation and the drunks ended up leaving.  But the whole thing left a sour taste in everybody’s mouth.

The good thing about the music business?  Tomorrow is another gig.




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Posted by keithosaunders on December 1, 2011

When you’re a musician you’re always balancing your ego with your talent.  You’re thinking about the music — how can I make it sound as good as possible, how best to interact with the rhythm section, and, as a pianist and accompanist, how can I best compliment the soloist. 

Yet you crave validation and acceptance from the audience, as well as your peers.  It’s natural to do so, I suppose, but there are times when this need can play havoc with your head.

The other day I had finished the first set of my Sunday gig when one of the audience members introduced himself as a fellow pianist.  He complimented me, but only tepidly, and years of being in the jazz trenches had me realizing that he was sizing me up — taking my measure. 

He asked who I had played with when I had lived in New York.  I could have dropped some names — notable people who I had come into contact with during my 26 years there — but I preferred to mention those with whom I had played the most steadily — great players in their own right, yet not as widely known to people outside of the New York area.

I could tell he was unimpressed and he proceeded to give me a little of his background.  Somehow this morphed into a didactic lecture on the jazz schools that were Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and the Betty Carter group.  (not that they were real schools, just that playing with these masters was like being in school) 

He was going on and on, and suddenly I realized that this guy was talking down to me.  and he began to irk me.  Of course I knew about Art Blakey and Betty Carter — any jazz novice, let alone a veteran, would know this.  I began to lose patience with him and rather than have a blowup I decided to remove myself from the situation, excused myself, and went over to talk to another pianist.

I realized that I had walked into a trap.  This guy may have been a west coast musician, but he had the vibing acumen of a seasoned New Yorker.  

The punchline is that he sat in and brought down the house with a great solo on a blues.  I felt it was gimmicky, yet I couldn’t deny that he had talent.  Let’s face it, he cut me.   

I have to give it up to this guy, though.  It’s possible he woke me out of a stupor, because the next set, and the next night, I played with renewed intensity and fire.  I’ll be ready for this guy the next time I see him, if only to avoid talking to him.

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Smalls one last time

Posted by keithosaunders on July 13, 2010

My time in New York City can now be measured in weeks.  Although we do not have a definite departure date it is safe to assume that we are under  four weeks away from leaving.  We have yet to rent our apartment which, of course, is a source of great stress.  We are planning trading in our Subaru and leasing a bigger vehicle for the cross-country trip.  There will be four humans and one dog and we would like to minimize the sardine effect as much as possible.  Our oldest boy will not be travelling with us.  Instead he will fly out with a friend and spend some time in San Francisco at his friend’s aunt’s house.   

I first played at the jazz club Small’s with the HardBop Quintet shortly after it opened in 1993.  I remember going down to west 10th st to talk with the owner, Mitch Borden.  When I  met Mitch he was sitting outside on a chair playing violin.  He invited me downstairs to play for him and I remember we played together, though I can’t remember what we played.

The first time we played at Smalls there were just a few people in the audience but Mitch hired us back for the next month and we soon became part of the rotation, playing several times a year.  Gradually the business built up until it became unusual for the club not to be crowded.

In the early days Smalls had no bar and the chairs were arranged haphazardly throughout the basement club.  There were various couches and comfy chairs placed in nooks and crannys for people to plop down in.  For a small venue it was amazing how many such corners it had.  There were even secret alcoves and storage areas that actually served as crash pads — makeshift apartments — for down out musicians.  There was a heavy steel door in the back — it looked like an entrance to a supermarket freezer — which opened into one such storage area that served as a practice room.  It actually contained an upright piano. 

By 1995 Small’s had caught on and was crowded most every night — packed with college students, serious young musicians, and jazz fans.  It became a nurturing ground for young musicians, as well as a home base to some of the older masters, such as Jimmy Lovelace, Frank Hewitt, and Harry Whitaker.

There were times when the musicians, audience, and even the club itself could have an attitude.  Almost always, however, you could hear a pin drop during the sets.  This set it apart from many smaller jazz spots in which conversation was not discouraged.  

Smalls was a serious place in the best sense of the word.  You had young lions desperate to be heard, but with the passion to hang out night after night until five or six in the morning, learning, absorbing, and living jazz.  Not one of them was less than 100 percent committed to the music. 

In 2007, after Small’s had been closed for  a couple of years, the pianist Spike Wilner, and his partner, Lee Kostrinsky, bought Small’s and reopened it.  They remodeled it and added a full bar complete with tap beer.  They hired a much more diverse group of musicians — Mitch was partial to straight ahead bebop — but the standard of playing remains as  high as ever.  In my opinion it is, hands down, the best club in New York City.

 All of this is a long preamble to saying that I have played my final weekend at Smalls as a New York City musician.  If I play there again it will be as a Californian on tour, or on a visit.  I worked with the Richie Vitale Quintet, a group I have had the pleasure of playing with for almost ten years.  We had a great gig and the audiences were generous and appreciative.  It was fitting that towards the end of the final set of the weekend Richie called That’s All.  I thought it would be the last tune of the night but he ended with a medium tempo I Got Rhythm.  I wanted to scream “No!  You’re ruining the poetry!”  Instead I held my tongue. 

It’s going to take a lifetime to find a club in which I feel as home at, and as connected to.  I may never find one.

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