The World According to Keitho

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Posts Tagged ‘Joe Lovano’

The art of the jam session

Posted by keithosaunders on October 4, 2010

Zapple asked: I always wondered how the jam sessions worked. Did you just ask them to sit in?

While there is no pat answer there is a certain routine to most jam sessions.  For those of you who don’t know, the a jam session is an informal gathering of musicians who do not necessarily know each other.  You never know who you will play with and how the music will sound — it’s part of its charm, frustration, and excitement.  I have played with some incredible musicians just by happening to be on the bandstand at the right time — Roy Hargrove Jr., Joe Lovano, Jeff Tain Watts, and Esperanza Spaulding are a few who come immediately to mind. 

On the other hand, I have played with some real nut cases in my day.  There have been singers who don’t know their keys and can’t stay on pitch anyhow, sax players who play ten minute solos before stopping in the middle of the chorus, and anal trumpet players who shout out instructions on when, where, and how to play during their solos.  Just as in daily life, you meet all kinds of people.

I found that what works best for me is to go in with an open mind and a sense of humor.  I’m not looking to have the deepest musical experience, but I am delighted when things click.  More often than not I have a good time at jam sessions.  The beauty of it is, unlike a gig, you can leave whenever you want.  

You have to realize that jam sessions are like networking sessions for musicians.  It’s where we go to meet people and to showcase our abilities.  In this sense there is a certain pressure to perform.  In my younger days I was more nervous about playing good at sessions.  These days I’m more philosophical — I”ve done a lifetime of work practicing at home and playing at gigs.  If things don’t click instantaneously it’s not my fault.  In fact, usually it’s not anybody’s fault.   

The thing about music is that it’s impossible to quantify what combinations of people will or will not work.  You can put five great musicians together and the results can be less than spectacular.  The chemistry might not be right — maybe the drummer and bass player don’t agree on the time, which could make the soloist uncomfortable.  You never know what you’re going to get.

Jam sessions are really a horn player’s game.  They saunter into the club with their horn, take it out of the case, and sit in.  After they’ve had their fill they put the horn back in the case and leave.  They’re like musical Lotharios.  They have their way with the rhythm section and leave. 

If you’re a pianist, bassist, or drummer, jam sessions are a different story.  You can end up waiting a long time before getting called up to play.  For me this is the hardest part of going to jam sessions, for the longer I wait to play, the more I drink and the worse I’ll sound.  As I said before, you never know who you’re going to play with.  I could wait 45 minutes to play and end up with a mediocre drummer, or a bass player made surely by a parade of endless horn solos.  It’s a crapshoot to say the least.

For the most part, however, jam sessions work.  They work because in the end you have a group of like-minded people.  These are folks who comprise an increasingly miniscule portion of the population — jazz lovers.  So I say to you:  Let’s celebrate our musical differences and let the chips fall where they may!

…and at last, the answer to zapple’s question:  There’s usually a sign-up list.


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Remembering Fred Lite, the sickest f**kin’ drummer!

Posted by keithosaunders on July 23, 2010

T – 18 days.

Through the years there have been some great gigs and some terrible gigs.  Some of the notable ones were documented about three months ago here.  I’ve decided to write about a few of ones that have made the Keitho hall of fame and hall of shame.

I’ll  being with a Hall of Fame entry.

In my early years in New York I used to work often with a drummer named Fred Lite.  Fred was one of a kind — he was Danny Devito meets Elvin Jones.  He was opinionated, prone to exaggeration, had a self-depreciating sense of humor, and was whip-smart.  In fact he was a kind of renaissance man.  He tuned and rebuilt pianos.   He was a great card player — he used to go to Atlantic City regularly to play blackjack.  He even wrote a book on card counting.  He was also a first-rate drummer.   Sure, he didn’t have the cleanest chops in the world, but he had an incredible feeling and it was very easy for me to connect with him.  I’ve played with drummers who have had much more technique, but there were few that I enjoyed more than Fred.

Fred’s band consisted of Ralph Lalama on tenor sax, John Ray, on bass, and Jerry Sokolov on trumpet.  We used to play every Thursday night at a dive bar in Chelsea called Pats.  The place smelled like a toilet and it housed a neon blue Young Chang upright piano which is, to this day, one of the worst pianos I have ever played.  They used to set the P.A. speaker on top of the piano next to my left ear.  I am sure that I have lost a portion of my hearing thanks to that gig. 

Wait a minute…this gig may belong in the hall of shame! 

For some reason (could it have been the copious amounts of cocaine available at this establishment?) Pats became an in spot on Thursday nights.  Many great musicians came by and sat in.  Joe Lovano would sometimes come by and play, sometimes even sitting in on drums!  I remember the pianist Renee Rosnes sitting in many times.  A lot of guys from the [then]Mel Lewis band would stop by, as well as our peers — guys like Pat O’Leary, Larry Ham, Pete Malinverni, and Rudy Petschauer — all great musicians who went on to become mainstays on the New York scene. 

Everyone was so wired in this band that it was hard to get through any given gig without at least two of the members screaming at each other.  Even I was somewhat of a live wire.  I was prone to borderline psychotic outbursts and was given the nickname F.C., short for Firecracker.   

Fred was, and is, the greatest Mets fan I have ever known.  Bar none.  He lived and died with them.  During the offseason he would call me up every day and the first thing out of his mouth would be, “Did they make any trades yet?”  If you told him about a trade he would forever credit you with the Mets acquiring  that payer.  It was as if Fred made you a defacto GM.  In this way I got him Tim Teufel and Howard Johnson. 

Back in the fall of 1988, when the Mets were playing the Dodgers in the National League playoffs, we were finishing up a tour in the midwest.  I had brought along my portable 4″ screen battery operated TV in case we had any gigs that coincided with game time.  At a concert in Youngstown, Ohio Ralph would go backstage during the piano and bass solos to watch the game and signal Fred with his fingers what the score was.   To this day I do not fully trust a bandleader who doesn’t like sports.   

The band made many tours.  We often would leave after our Thursday gig, all drunk and disheveled, and drive from 23rd st and 6th avenue in Manhattan, to Toledo Ohio, arriving the following day in the middle of the afternoon.  Once Fred missed the Toledo exit and we had to drive another 20 miles to the next exit to turn around.  

As it happened Fred eventually became disenchanted with the music scene.  The band never got the break it deserved and it had become a money pit for Fred.  He didn’t have the temperament to go on playing joints and he had financial pressure, having to support a wife and two young children.  It goes without saying that music is a tough business to be in.  Especially when you have to be a leader, which in our case means booking agent, manager, as well as performer.  

Sometime around 1991 Fred quit the drums and went back to school.  After receiving his undergrad degree he was accepted into Hofstra law school.  He completed his classes and passed the bar on his first attempt.  It’s remarkable to say the least.  Not only was Fred a great drummer, but he was able to change careers in midstream, practically without missing a beat.  Today Fred is a succesful civil rights lawyer.  If you open up the NY Daily News you are likely to read about a case that Fred is involved in.  I can’t think of two more demanding careers.  Fred, that sick bastard, could do both.

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Business, pleasure, or both?

Posted by keithosaunders on April 9, 2010

The music business is a strange one.  Leaving out Broadway shows and symphony orchestras, most of our gigs are freelance affairs which are most often one time engagements done without contracts.  On any given night there is nothing standing in the way of a club owner paying the band other than his conscience.  Yes, there we have small claims court, but this is a lot of trouble and expense to go through to collect one night’s pay.  Even if the court rules in favour of the musician, collecting the money is no easy feat.

So we take our lumps while developing an admittedly unscientific, but surprisingly accurate risk/reward analysis before accepting a gig.   The more you improve as a musician and the more gigs you play, the better  situations you find yourself in and you can minimize the amount of drama.  You pick your fights and you realize, that like parking tickets, the occasional shortage of money is inevitable.

Then there are the grey areas worthy of Talmudic study.  Because we tend to get along personally, as well as musically, there can be a blurring between business and friendship.  For example, say a club owner decides to short the band 50% because of a low turnout.  The leader wants to go with it so that he can get a return engagement.  You, as a sideman have agreed to a certain price and think that the leader should hold out for the full amount.  Arguing is almost always futile and leads to bad blood.  I believe that at this point the sideman has only one recourse and that is to not accept the next gig, in effect quitting the band.  You have to weigh your principles against the future earnings that will almost certainly be lost. 

There are so many factors.  How much do these gigs pay?  How often are they?  How close are you with the band and how much enjoyment do you get playing the gigs?  Sometimes quitting is the right thing to do. Sometimes it’s better to suck it up and take one for the team. 

I have quit gigs and felt terrible, and at other times I have  felt that I did the right thing.   I once had a steady Thursday night with a jazz quintet at a dive bar.  The piano was horrible beyond belief.  To this day it remains one of the worst pianos I have ever played.  I’ll never forget — it was a Young Chang that was finished with a gumball-blue lacquer.  It was perennially out of tune and had an action that was so heavy it required chops of steel.  There were, however, some positives to the gig.  The joint became a kind of Thursday hangout and great musicians used to stop by and sit in with the band.  Joe Lovano, (sometimes playing drums!) would play, and  Ralph Lalama, one of the best saxophonists in the world, was in the band. 

It wasn’t the worst spot in the world to be for a young pianist who had only lived in New York a few years.  After two years of battling with the piano I couldn’t stand  it any longer.  For a while I was lugging a keyboard and amp to the gig  — up and down subway steps — and that was even worse.  So I quit.  Looking back I think I should have stuck with it because the pluses outweighed the minuses. 

On the other side of the coin I used to work with what we East Coast call a “club date” band.  This is a euphemism for wedding band.  The leader kept us very busy with gigs, but he constantly lowballed us, paying as much as 30% too little.  True, the gigs paid 3 times as much as jazz gigs, but they were way under scale for these kind of affairs.  In that situation you can be assured that somebody is making money.  The fact that the leader was making hundreds more than me, yet refused to pay me a small percentage more than what I was making led me to quit that gig.  Even though I lost out on a large quantity of work I felt better about myself —  not the least because I was no longer degrading myself musically —  and I would eventually end up in better situations.      

Sometimes I look at salaried people and I am envious.  They are free of the barter system that we musicians are entrenched in.  This feeling usually lasts until the next gig.  By the middle of the first tune I’m thinking “Now what was I mad about?”

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