This is your big debut
It’s like a dream come true.
—-“Peg.” Steely Dan.
More than a few cycles of the moon ago, I yearned to play onstage in a rock or blues band. Like most professions, the hard part is breaking in. But in performing, making that transition from looking at the guy up there to being the guy up there is greater than the actual space between the floor and the stage.
But I was fairly well determined to do it. Not to become famous, meet “chicks” or get rich. (Desirable as those may seem.) No, it was really because it just seemed like a damned fun thing to do and I just loved music.
At the time, I was studying guitar at a now-defunct (but fondly remembered) student center on Boylston Street in Boston called Guitar Workshop. There I met a guy named Jack…something who was a few years older than me and playing in a band. I tried to weasel my way into his group but that didn’t work. So I eventually started my own with my friend Bill.
But that’s not what this story is about. I wasn’t to actually meet Bill for a couple of years. What this story is about is how I got to experience my first-ever sense of being on stage. (Well, as an adult anyway. Prior to that had been in fourth grade, in our class production of a musical called “By The Sea.” Our high point was performing for a bunch of nuns in a retirement home.)
I had by now been playing guitar for about three or four years and I could play blues competently if no threat to Eric Clapton. And while my love of jazz was great, my approach to soloing over pretty much any song, no matter how complex, was to play some variation of the “Johnny B. Goode” solo over it.
Now back to that guy Jack I mentioned. What he (where is he now, one wonders) had told me was that he knew of a local music center run by a Boston-based woodwind player named John Payne. In addition to other credits, Payne’s main claim to fame was that he had recorded with Van Morrison. (“Strange guy,” he told us.) Not on just any old album but in fact on the classic Astral Weeks.
Payne had met Van the Man when the latter moved to Cambridge in the late ’60’s. They used to jam around town and when it came time to record Astral Weeks, Payne went to the studio with him. But for reasons that are unclear (at least to me), while there is flute on other songs, Payne is only credited on soprano sax on “Slim Slow Slider.”
So anyway, I worked up my courage and decided to check this situation out. I didn’t take guitar lessons at Payne’s center but just joined a rag-tag ensemble (drums, piano, horn section) of fellow amateurs and we started to work up a set. We used to get together on Sunday nights regularly and more intensely as our gig approached.
Payne was not our ensemble leader but it was instead some dude whose name is lost in the sands of time. I remember, though, that he was somewhat of a jazz purist and would frown if I actually veered off into playing anything that smelt faintly of rock and roll. (He admitted that he liked “Get Off Of My Cloud,” and his sly smile told us he might have gotten laid in the back seat of a Pontiac to it or something.)
So where were we going to play you wonder? Well, Monday nights in clubs around Boston/Cambridge are notoriously slow. So Payne had a deal with the now-defunct Oxford Ale House in Harvard Square. He had different ensembles going and every Monday he’d bring in a different one to play their sets.
And of course, we were all encouraged to bring our friends and they’d bring friends. All of these people, of course, drank, mostly just to endure the sets. (My sister and late brother-in-law came. There was a cassette tape of our set around for a while. It’s gone. It was a fairly shitty recording anyway, mostly punctuated by my brother-in-law going “whoo-hoo” every now and again.)
So how does this all come together? Where’s this all going? And how does it relate to Tres Songs? Well, quite simply we had a three-song set. And so I am going to today feature those three songs as we originally heard them, which, BTW, are all great tunes.
First up. a number by saxophonist Oliver Nelson from his fine 1961 album, The Blues and the Abstract Truth. (Great title or what?) I had never heard the song “Stolen Moments” before. And if I am indebted to the John Payne center for nothing else than my first stage exposure and this song, it was all worth it.
Now one of my favorite jazz numbers of all time, on this tune my job was to just to comp chords. No solo. I didn’t really give a shit. I had never even played with a horn section (two saxes, trumpet, maybe slide trombone) prior to all this. It was a moment, you know?
Our ensemble leader wasn’t crazy about the next song we wanted to do. (First choice was his.) He felt, I guess, that it had become too much of a cliché, perhaps was too easy. We didn’t care. We dug it and hell, nothing was really easy for us to play. But it was fun.
Here’s Sonny Rollins and “St. Thomas.”
“Well You Needn’t” is a Thelonious Monk song that the pianist recorded in the Forties. Another nice one that is tailor-made for a horn section.
Quick story on this one. One time we were practicing this song and the ensemble leader wasn’t there. On a whim I said, What if we slow this down in the middle, I crank up the amp a little bit and play a blues solo? I mean a straight blues solo more like Buddy Guy (if only) than a jazzy one. Everybody said, yeah sure, fuck it, go for it.
And so, to our leader’s great surprise, when the time came, we did that. (We had rehearsed it a few times.) I don’t recall that the solo was any big deal. But the crowd loved it. And he loved it. Not the solo per se – the fact that we took the initiative to do something he didn’t expect.
The moral of that story is, I think, self-evident but I’ll spell it out anyway: If you’re ever called upon to play “Well You Needn’t” and your ensemble leader is kind of a dick, throw in a blues solo, see what happens. You’re welcome.
How did we go over? Big rounds of applause of course from a crowd that consisted mostly of friends and relatives. It’s like the story of the dog that could stand on his hind legs and walk around the room. Everybody was astonished not that he could do it well, but that he could do it at all.
Well, there it is kids. Mission accomplished, I left the ensemble, literally never played jazz again (till recently), played in a couple of blues/rock and rockabilly bands for a few years and decided ultimately that the peripatetic life of a musician wasn’t for me.
Among other reasons (talent, luck, breaks) I didn’t go into music was that while I had desire, it wasn’t an intense enough desire. John Payne used to also hold classes on the business of music. One time he said, “To make a living in the arts, you have to really, really want it.” I wanted it. But not nearly badly enough to live that lifestyle.
Playing music, for me, started out very much as a hobby. There was a brief flirtation with the idea of going professional. Now I play for my own enjoyment and I find it incredibly satisfying. Occasionally I look back and think, hmm, what if?
But I’m content with it and have never really looked back. And I don’t know that my son will turn professional. But he’s gone further than we ever did, having toured in Europe and played a festival in Belgium. I think my band might have made it as far as New Hampshire, the next state over. We scrambled for years just to work our way from Monday nights to the more lucrative Saturday nights.
Oh, and, that dude in the picture at the top of the post? John Payne. Haven’t seen him in years and I guarantee he wouldn’t remember me or recognize me on the street. I was just one student of many. This picture is from his center’s site which thrives to this very day. Thanks, John.
Coda: The last band I was in became more of an R ‘n B-based dance band with a female lead singer. The last time I played on stage was on my wedding night where they allowed me to sit in. I played ZZ Top’s “La Grange.” I wasn’t to play again live for some years after that. It was a one-time deal. But that’s a whole other story….