Barbara, my roadie in California!
Here's a Youtube clip
where I'm playing the
Rhapsody in Blue in
my Gershwin show.
Playing in the piano bars of Europe
Glen Rose plays jazz piano, guitar, ukulele and has written many beginning jazz method books and videos for all these instruments. He has principly made his living from his piano playing over the past 45 years.
He began his music career fresh out of high school in the Hollywood motion picture music studios. He worked as a music copyist along side his father at 20th Century Fox Motion Picture Studios preparing the music for the movie recording sessions. (A copyist writes all the orchestra parts by hand with pen and ink) This work put him in working contact with the likes of John Williams, Lalo Schriffrin, Quincy Jones, Sammy Nestico, Billy May and many other film composers of that era. In the 1970s, Glen Rose was a music professor at Cabrillo College in Santa Cruz and musical director for local theater productions. For eight years, he toured as a pianist/ entertainer, playing throughout Western Europe. in the 1980’s, he started producing commercial music and composed over 100 on-air jingles in the central California area. Beginning in the 90’s, he toured the U.S. for seventeen years with his piano novelty stage show. He was the author of a popular music notation textbook that was widely used in universities before computer software superseded that study. The book was endorsed by film composer and Boston Pops conductor, John Williams.
That's the promo hype above, here''s the real story....
Every musician and actors promotional material and publicity must read like they are nothing but successful and have had a life filled with nothing but fabulous successes and accomplishments. Everything you read in the short promo paragraph above is true indeed. I've had a life of 100% music since I was ten years old raised by a violinist father who made his living as a sought after music copyist in the Hollywood film industry. I was never famous but my bio makes it sound like I might have been. There is so much to tell to fill in the gaps in that above bio. I always enjoy telling stories about my life in music. The good times and the difficult ones. So bring your chair in a little closer and I'll tell you a few of them.....
Europe, In the trenches... There I was, playing month-to month contracts in piano bars, six nights a week, four or five hours a night, singing and playing with great energy. Every month a new city in Europe. This went on for some seven years. It was the best of times for a young man of thirty eight years. It felt like I had stepped into a dream. How did this happen? All through my 20's and 30's I played more gigs and clubs than I could possibly remember. A blur of bands of every size, shape and style. There was another blur of playing weddings and social events in my array of tuxedos bought second hand from Selix Tuxedo Rentals. Wedding Tuxedo work, piling into cars or vans with other players driving miles of freeway, loading and unloading equipment. Play the gig or sometimes two and three gigs in a day. Lots of laughs, bragging, complaining about the money and the agents. But at the root there was always a feeling of satisfaction with the hard work and realization that my musical skills just kept growing and getting better all the time. Life was always about becoming. Becoming better and more accomplished than I was before.
I'd always had this vague dream about playing music in the south of France. For the life of me I can't think of how that dream got started. Just a romantic notation probably picked from reading novels and watching movies, I really don't know. But like a swallow returning to Capistrano, I felt like a beacon was calling me and it was always in the back of my mind. Just before my thirty-sixth birthday I found myself strangely in a free position. I had shut down my long running jingle production business. I had broken up with my girlfriend at the time and was sharing a house with a drummer buddy of mine, Jimmy Fox, who was playing with the Doobie Brothers. I realized that the door was open and I could slip out before the next waves of ambition and relationships caught me and would entangle me in new swirls of commitment in California. I announced to my friends and musical cohorts that was heading off for adventure in Europe.
I bought a one-way ticket to Amsterdam and sold everything I owned. Before I left I packed a box with a couple of tuxedos and some fake books and asked my dad to send it to me when I found work. An incredible set of adventures and mis-adventures occurred after I landed in Europe. When I landed in Amsterdam I managed to buy a used little Simca delivery van from a Kiwi, New Zealander holding a sign offering it for sale in front of the American Express office. It had all of his camping gear in it including a mattress and was just big enough to lie down and sleep in. I gave him $200 and headed south to the Mediterranean. Adventure was heading into high gear. I picked up hitchhikers along the way to keep me company. I became fast friends with a trio of young French hitch hikers heading back to their home in Aix-en-Provence and they invited me to be their guest. They didn't speak but a few words of English and I spoke no French so we got along marvelously. We all enjoyed drinking, getting high and making merriment so language was no problem. We were all mutually charmed with each other. My principle friend in the trio was Laurent. I ended up staying at his family home with his parents and his talented young jazz pianist brother, Pascal, who was sure that the fates had delivered me into the house in order to further his education in jazz. It was a simple turn of good luck for all of us.
Laurent and Pascal decided to help me find work playing piano in Aix-en-Provence. Off we went one evening and Viola, a coffee house with an upright piano appeared. A short spontaneous audition of jazz standards and I was hired to play the next night. I didn't have much in the way of good clothes but I threw something together and called my dad to ask him to send the box with the tuxedos and fake books. There were very few patrons there when I played the next night but it didn't matter. I was full of exuberance and excitement. Laurent and Pascal were there to boost my morale and of course I wanted to impress them as best I could. But a new twist of fate was waiting for me that evening. Cupid had snuck into the club and arranged for two attractive French girls to have coffee there while I played. Young and beautiful, twenty four year old, Barbara Baldit and I clicked and were both very excited about meeting each other. Some how this gig led to a second gig in Marseilles. Maybe it was the owner of the music bar who recommended me for it. I can't remember how it came about really but I was hired for it. I invited Barbara and her friend Isabelle to come. When the date came I was full of anticipation hoping they would show.
At the gig I alternated sets with a talented jazz guitarist playing with a trio. Again it was an upright piano on a stage. I felt more than a little out of place because he was really into some serious jazz and I was offering light fare. But I soon discovered that the French were into variety. I wasn't supposed to be a heavy jazz guy. They just wanted to hear what I could do best. It took me quite a while to get comfortable with that concept. Anyway, the room was pretty full with patrons there to hear the French guitarist. I was the add on. A young American jazz pianist added a little intrigue I guess. This was not a glamorous place. More like a large lunch dining room with a stage for entertainment. I showed up in my tuxedo and turned out to be way over dressed. It was a casual, jazz gig. Lights up, no one dressed up but me. Barbara and Isabelle didn't disappoint me. They showed up.
During my set break at the gig I wanted to run and check out a chi-chi piano bar someone told me about named Piano Bar La Duke, near the harbor just a few blocks away. Barbara and Isabelle tagged along. I was alternating sets with the guitarist so we slipped when the trio started playing their set.
I was on my best behavior and wanting very much to impress Barbara. We only had an hour to go check out the piano bar while the band is on, so we scurried over. We entered into a very sophisticated scene. A dimly lit piano bar, stage lit with a comedian on stage backed by an organist. The comedian must have been popular because the place was packed. Nice cocktail tables, elegant leather booths and everyone dressed nicely for a night out. I fit right in with my nicely pressed tuxedo and Barbara asked me if I want to audition. That sounded a little far fetched but of course I would want to play if someone asked me to. She goes and has a quick conversation with the manager. He comes and introduces himself in halting English. I let him know in equally bad French ,”Je’ suis un Americaine jazz pianists de California.” (I am an American jazz pianist from California) He says he would like to hear me and asks if I will play something for him. Now I’m excited. He goes and whispers to the comedienne and it is announced that a visiting American pianist will play something for them. Ah, if nothing else I will be able to impress Barbara and it might help me win her affections. I sit down at the very nice grand piano next to the stage that is in the spotlight. The audience is squeezed right in with me on all sides. The organist introduces himself as Phillipe from Madagascar and asks me what I will play because he will play with me. I wasn’t too keen on that idea because I would ave felt more secure playing alone but what could I do? I was on the spot, “Ok, Autumn Leaves.” One of my easy tunes to jam on. In these sort of situations with a captive audience and under pressure I find that extra adrenalin kick in and somehow usually manage to give my best. I counted off the tune and played so well that I could hardly believe it myself. I got into a great swing groove and Phillipe turned out to be a great accompanist giving me mostly a jazz bass line, played with his foot pedals. My performance was met with thunderous applause and the comedienne made some wise cracks about me in French and wanted me off of his stage quickly.
What I didn’t know at the time was that Autumn Leaves is a big favorite with French audiences. It is originally a French tune written in the mid 1950’s and was immensely popular with the title, Les Fuilles Des Mortes. (The Dead Leaves.) Later Johnny Mercer wrote English lyrics to it and it became and American favorite as well. The manager then asked me if I would like to play a few nights a week there regularly. Magic! My dream of playing in the south of France was catching me with great speed! Me and my entourage of two beautiful French girls were all very excited. We hurried back to the less glamorous venue and I finished my last set up there. I managed to get a little attention at that venue but it really didn’t suit me. I lost interest in it completely and was only dreaming about my new gig at the tres chic, Le Duke Piano Bar.
I guess I succeeded in impressing Barbara because by the nights end she invited me back to her home in Martigues just a 40 minute drive west on the coast. Isabelle was very protective or Barbara and wasn’t too happy about her inviting me back on just our second meeting. I promised I would be a gentleman and she hesitantly agreed. And a gentleman I was. I think I slept in the guest room that first night. My guardian angels were really working overtime in this whole situation. Barbara had this very nice family home to herself for the summer because her mother and step dad were in Norway for his work and left her in charge of the house. Our romance quickly took off and I parked my little Simca van in her driveway and moved in without really even talking about it. It just unfolded naturally. It was also lucky for me that Barbara had a nice spinet piano in her parents house. Great for practice and of course romantic evenings when the spirits were right. Barbara also had a small flat of her own in Aix-En-Provence that we enjoyed together.
A skinny pianist dressed in a tuxedo going out to play another wedding
Jingle recording in Los Angeles with Tom Fox, (middle) Jimi's brother.
He was a valuable part of the recording and vocal arranging. (1981)
Barbara at her family home in Martigues, France. (1987)
Watch the above Youtube clip of my Irving Berlin show
Study, study study.....
28 years old
Our Metro Bop, pop-rock Band - 1985
Irving Berlin Show...
There's No Business Like Show Business...!
Here's a Youtube clip
of a song from the
Cole Porter show
The home recording studio on Doyle Street
Larry Scale on guitar (1984)
Barbara in the south of France with her Duex Chevaux and the magic guitar
Barbara New's Eve gig.
Los Gatos, California, 1988
After an eventful year in the south of France and a lot of musical growth, I headed back to California. I regaled all my friends with my travel tales and my resume now boasted of my success in Europe and gave me a lot of moxy and sparkle for picking up work back in Silicon Valley and the Monterey bay area. I was plenty impressed with myself and I guess that impressed people wherever I went. I could now even sing a few songs in French and Spanish, this helped give me that continental touch, or at least I thought it did and convinced my local audiences I had something different to offer. Barbara flew in to spend a month with me in Santa Cruz and bring some continuity to our international relationship.
I picked up a few steady nights and one of my favorites was at the Il Nido in Los Gatos. It was a small, upstairs club with a regular clientele. I took over the job from another entertainer who moved on and the customers were happy to see a new face. This job was the source of a lot of fun and musical discoveries. I got into wearing hats to match various songs. It was all a gag and the idea grew into more and more hats and matching fun repertoire. I had a Carmen Miranda hat for my latin medley featuring Brazil and Tico-Tico. The patrons would look forward to the song because a line dance had somehow become a high light of the evening with everyone holding onto each others hips in a line and dancing around the club for as long as I continued the medley. I could keep it going for 10 minutes sometimes and it created a lot of merriment. I also developed a tongue in cheek cowboy medley featuring cowboy hats and a cap pistol. Then there was the elaborate Indian-feathered head dress when I sang the novelty song, Little Egypt. The idea of the hats also found it’s way into my piano stage show many years later.
After half a year of playing my new venues I grew restless and needed to get out of town. I took a few days off and headed up the Mendocino coast in my station wagon. I woke up my first morning there in my sleeping bag in the back seat of my car and went into town for a morning cup of coffee at the local Mendocino Hotel. I took my coffee over to their spinet piano and was playing a few easy listening standards, just enjoying exploring the piano when a sweet voice in back of me whispered in my ear, “would you come and play the piano at my hotel?” Ah, I recognized the sound of opportunity and magic! And magic it was. I quit my jobs in the Monterey Bay and becomes the house pianist at the Hill House Hotel for the summer. The hotel was known nationally because it was used as a location for the TV show, Murder She Wrote featuring Angela Lansbury. The hotel attracted mostly out of town guests looking for a quiet getaway from the San Francisco scene. It was a more sedate and sophisticated atmosphere and it was just what I was looking for. I needed a break from my energetic gig for a while. They provided me with a cottage over the cliffs a few miles out of town but if I felt lonely I could also stay in one of the hotel rooms. I had picked up a new girlfriend, Judy, at the Il Nido gig and she would come up and spend weekends with me at the cottage.
That gig went on for some months when Judy and I decided to go to Hawaii for a getaway as winter was approaching. Judy packed up all of her things and wanted to stay there and start a new life with me and her 16 year old daughter. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do but it seemed like a good adventure. Unfortunately the change and sudden exposure to her daughter resulted in break up for us. It wasn’t the worst break up, we both realized it wasn’t going to work out.
Rather than head home I decided to go over to Kona, the big island. I hopped on a plane with no particular plan. I just wanted to have a look around. I had a small pack and my guitar on my back and started hitch hiking on the road around the island. My first ride was from a bass player who spotted me with the guitar and decided to pick up a fellow musician. That was Koko, who played stand-up bass and was in integral part of the jazz scene on the island. He invited me to stay in his house and took me to all his gigs to introduce me to the other players. It was an enchanted couple of weeks. I did one spontaneous audition at the prestigious, Mauna Lani Hotel and they offered me a contract. It sounded like that magic bell of opportunity ringing again but the cravat was that they didn’t need a singing pianist. They just wanted my piano talents for one of their luxurious dining rooms. I love playing the piano but I really needed to sing as well to keep myself entertained and to also connect with the patrons in a way that I can’t do while just playing. The whole Kona scene was pretty enticing and there was an interesting collection of jazz players but I decided to return to being the house pianist at Mendocino until the next thing came along.
Back in California I would play my gig at the Hill House and then frequently visit my music pals in Santa Cruz on my days off which was just a few hours drive south. I began putting a lot of energy into tracking down a contract in Scandinavia. This was in 1987 before the internet age. My first angle of investigation began with travel agencies. I started enquiring about big luxury hotels, collecting names and addresses. Telephoning was pretty much out of the question. It was still prohibitively expensive in the late 80’s and connections were bad and unreliable. One could easily spend $3 a minute on a call to Europe while being put on hold. The popular method in that era was the post. Good old mail. I made lists of the luxury hotels I found through the travel agencies, got out my type writer and started writing letters to the managers. Responses came back slowly if at all but that was to be expected. If I sent out 20 letters I might get a few responses. I next learned that it was not the manager of the hotel that hired entertainment but the food and beverage manager so I at least had something narrowed down. My break came when a couple of the letters back gave me a name of some agents who they depended on to find their piano entertainers. It was a long, slow process but I eventually got the names of agencies in both Norway and Sweden and discovered that they were both pretty much dedicated to piano bar entertainment, there were piano bars everywhere in towns large and small and they favored American and English singing pianists. We were considered an exotic import I guess. They loved American pop music from Elvis, Dylan right on up to Elton John and Billy Joel. Unfortunately jazz and Sinatra were not popular but I was OK with going in that direction. My main goal was to get behind a piano keys in Europe somewhere that paid decently and feel like I was moving forward in my life of music.
Most of the the pianists were delivered with contacts to the hotels in Sweden and Norway via agencies in their own countries. This I discovered translated into two agents taking a piece out of the pay check. I heard about it from a lot of players. Through my own home made stumbling about and personal inquires I managed to luck into communicating with only the agents in Scandinavia thusly eliminating the middlemen in the USA. The also helped in communications. If you have two agents then all communication goes from the management to the local agent to the foreign agent and then finally back to me. That can lead to some frustrations. I was glad to have just one agent.
I sent off demo tapes, promo material with photos and song lists to agents in Stockholm and Oslo and negations resulted in six months of contracts beginning in the spring of 1988. My ego and sense or purpose and conquest were soaring pretty high. I geared up and got prepared, practicing a lot as usual and looking forward to new musical horizons. Instead of booking right to Sweden I thought I would take a little trip around to SE Asia first as I had some months to kill.
I fell in love in a way I had never known before. I fell in love with a place, not a person. I had heard about Samui island from a traveler in Santa Cruz and decided I had to go have a look. At this time in 1987 Samui was yet to become popular. It was a natural, unspoiled island with just enough tourist services to make it easy to be there. It’s neighboring island, Ko Phangan, was very rough, wild and natural with almost no tourist services at all. It twas an island paradise. I felt like I had discovered a new world on these two islands. I found escape, peace and nature and the other travelers I met there were generally great company. We shared a common bond of discovery in a far away place that wasn’t easy to get to. There was no airport. You had to take a long boat ride to get to it. Now the islands have become very popular with an airport and one has to search hard for quiet places which are disappearing fast.
I always travel with my classical guitar so I had plenty to do with studying the guitar itself and working up new material that I knew I would need to expand my repertoire when I got to my new jobs in Sweden. I’ve always been able to learn songs with the guitar, get my singing keys sorted out, study chord progressions and lyrics and then later transfer everything to the piano. If I didn’t want to draw attention to myself with my singing and practicing I would go off on to a quiet beach or find a place alone in the jungle and work on songs. I could also sit endlessly in my hammock on my front porch practicing or singing quietly through repertoire while watching the waves gently lick the shore of the island. When I felt like joining the crowd or serenading I would have a lot of fun playing Beatle songs and such that everyone could enjoy singing along with while eating fresh coconuts.
I discovered early on that traveling with a guitar on ones back invites attention. Everyone want to hear a song, talk about guitar or give it a try themselves. It’s quite a social vehicle, much like taking a walk with a cute dog. Sometimes I welcomed the attention and sometimes not. That’s why if I wanted to practice I had to go find a spot where no one would hear me and I could concentrate. Also practicing isn’t fun to listen to. We practice our weaknesses which means we have to slow things down into slow motion until we get them correct in our brain synapses and muscle memory and then slowly increase speed with lots of repetition to focus on various details of passages. This isn’t entertaining or enjoyable for the listener. If I think someone is within earshot I find myself trying to keep things more coherent so as not to be annoying and this isn’t good for practice. But when I wanted to get social I would play a little louder from my front porch hammock and welcome people stopping by.
I spent several months in Thailand that first trip there and most of the time I was on Samui and Phangan. This was to become a trend. To this day I still spend a lot of time in SE Asia. Much of it is on the few, quiet beaches left on Phangan island.
Samui was so remote and at that time in the late 80’s communications were quite different. There were no cell phones, laptops or iPads. All letters were sent from the single island post office. If someone wanted to write to you they would send a letter to General Delivery with your name on it and you would pick it up at the post office which was quite a process itself. There was always a long line of people looking for General Delivery letters and you had to wait your turn. Often the letters would all just be in a big bin and you had to sort thru them yourself to find out if something had come for you.
People always ask me if I work as an entertainer in Thailand because I go so much. The first years I went I certainly had that in mind. I did a lot of searching around and played some auditions but the money was so small comparatively that it wasn’t worth while. At that time I would make somewhere between $90 and $135 playing a 4-5 hour night in Europe or the states but it wasn’t even close to the same in Thailand I found out. I remember one beautiful 5-star hotel on Phuket island (Thailand) where I did an audition. I told the Food and Beverage Manager I would work for as low as $75 a night. He was very polite and respectful telling me he understood I was very talented and his patrons would enjoy me but he then walked me out to the lobby and showed me a poster with seven young and smiling Philippine’s on it. They were the band featured in the hotel bar. He said he paid the band $50 a night to perform and even though I was very good there was no way he could rationalize giving one person $75 when he could have an entire band for $50! That explained everything. Everywhere I went in SE Asia I saw this confirmed. The Philippine entertainers were and still are very happy to work for $7 or $10 a day. It’s far more than they could make at home. I heard some that were good and some were not so good but they all showed up on time, dressed nice and had wonderful smiles and social skills. I also later learned that the Thai musicians work for wages only slightly higher. I didn’t really need to work in SE Asia anyway. I viewed it as my own private artistic retreat through the years. A place where I can shut the world out and concentrate on developing my musical skills quietly on the beaches. Through the years I would take all my music, recordings and composer biographical material I needed to study for my upcoming piano stage shows. I would practice everything on the guitar knowing I would need to fit it to piano arrangements later. This was very valuable work time and enjoyable too. It’s not easy as an adult in the western world to find four or eight hours in a day to selfishly study music. Thailand provided the nurturing artistic escape I needed and still does to this day. Plus I love Thai food!
I remember my first months on Ko Samui I stood in that long line to use the one long distance telephone on the island and called home. My dad informed me that the Hyatt Hotel in Libreville, Gabon (Africa) had received an inquiry from me about piano bar work and wanted me to come as soon as possible. During my search for work in Sweden I also sent out letters to various hotels around the world. I didn’t get much response and pretty much forgot about them so this was a surprise. I was torn because I was having such an amazing adventure of a lifetime on Samui but realized the opportunity I would be missing career wise if I turned down the work. As I have done many times in my life I opted for the world of play instead of work. I often have wondered what new directions in international work possibilities could have manifested out of that turned-down offer. The road not taken! It still haunts me at times.
My arrival in Sweden 1988
I arrived at the Göteborg airport for my first season of work in Scandinavia. I got my suitcases from baggage and headed outside to look for a taxi. I was astonished at what greeted my eyes. There was a patch of grass along side of the airport arrivals about 4 feet wide and 100 feet long. There was a row of beautiful swedish women sun bathing topless on that grass strip! What a delight for a young bachelors eyes. I was soon to discover that any patch of grass in Sweden is fair game for topless sunbathing. They don’t have the same hang up about bare breasts in Europe and especially in Scandinavia. They worship the sun because they have such terribly long and dark winters. They take every chance they can to enjoy it.
Every month I was to be in a new city. I had one agent in Sweden for three months work and another agent in Norway for three contracts there. The way it worked was any foreign entertainer was allowed to work for three months without paying taxes, which were very high, like half the paycheck. If you stayed one day in the country over three months you paid. If you left in time you escaped tax. It was the same for both countries. Also any money earned outside the United States was tax free if one stayed off US soil for eleven months of the year. There were several years where I was absent for eleven months so I was able to escape all taxes. This made my typical $130 a day look better. My take home pay was better than most other US players because I didn’t work through a US agent, only the one foreign agency. Also all accommodation and meals were provided for in the contracts so I could bank the $130 and pretty much use my tip money for daily expenses. My tips were typical at $20-30 a night but some entertainers could make much more. The market was gender biased toward women. Most of the spots had women entertainers in Scandinavia and they could often count on $100 or more in tips a night. This because it was men doing the tipping, usually traveling businessmen staying in the hotels. They would tip more generously to women players who would dress very nicely, smile and look beautiful at the piano.
The women entertainers got the more sophisticated venues where I would have been happier playing jazz and standards. But I rarely got any of those contracts. I was always asking my agents to book me in those spots but I was told that they were for the women. The men were expected to play the hot spots and create some action, not with smooth standards but with rock piano. If we could make the room jump with Jerry Lee Lewis or Elvis tunes then all the better. I could do that and was prepared for it but I longed to play and sing jazz standards. There were many times where I would begin the night to an empty room and watch the patrons slowly come in during the first hour. It was then that I could stretch out and explore jazz arrangements and sing Sinatra and Mel Torme numbers. But there were many times when I would be playing in that first hour imagining that people were enjoying what they were hearing when someone would come up in the midst of my playing and ask, “ Hey man, when are you going to start playing!” It would take the wind out of my sails, a little like throwing water on my face but if they put a 20 Swedish Kroner bill in the tip jar ($5) then I would brighten up and roll right into some Elton John or Billy Joel.
I was on my own most of the time and a bachelor so I met a lot of wonderful Swedish and Norwegian women. One advantage of playing alone is you get all the attention. You don’t have to get jealous of your band mates talking to the girl you have your eye on. Many times girls would come up and sit on the piano bench with me if they wanted to sing a song or just get a little closer to the music. It made for a lot of fun. I also made a lot of friends with couples or guys who would invite me to get together and show me around the town. I wasn’t lonely often. The disadvantage of playing alone is that when things are slow and no one seems to be listening or you get bored, you have no one to bounce off of to keep your spirits up. Or when you feel like you are playing badly and not going over with the audience. Then it’s dreadfully with lonely and sinking feelings. One bad or boring hour-long set can feel horribly, painfully long.
In my first year I had a contract in Gavle above Sweden. While working there I met Liselott Ivarson a striking young law student who was going to begin a job as a judge. The Swedish judicial system is quite different than ours. They have a panel of judges to hear trials who have studied law. Much different than our system of uneducated citizens forming a jury to make decisions at trials.
Liselott and I met on one of my days off when I took a short excursion to Uppsala, the renown Swedish college town. We met at a coffee shop and hit it off. She followed me to Gavle and my hotel gigs in Norway that came after. We quickly became a couple. A little too quickly as it turned out. We were pretty much on a drinking binge enjoying a lot of partying and gaiety but it soon turned sour. But not before I somehow found myself standing in a church getting married to her after just three months of meeting. These are the kind of stupid things that only other people do but I found myself being one of those other people. I wanted to wiggle out of the marriage and run but felt trapped somehow. I was alone without any friends to consult with and I was staying with her family (trapped!) the week before the wedding while they were excitedly making plans for the dreaded event . I just didn’t seem know how to free myself. I was essentially lost control of my own life. After the traumatic nuptials we went on a travel to California and Thailand together fighting all the way. When we got back to Sweden we both had to go to work and after a couple of months being alone again I told her I wanted out of the marriage. It only lasted nine months and it was six months too long for me. I was happy to be free of the psychic grip she seemed to have on me.
Drinking is an occupational hazard for piano bar pianists. There were just too many reasons to have a drink. It was nice to have drink to start the night off in order to loosen up and get in the mood to play. But I had to be careful to pace myself because I had four and a half to five hours of playing to do so I didn’t want to wear out too soon. A coffee with Bailys Creme or whiskey was a safe bet. If I felt like I was bombing and not going over with the audience it was a good reason to drink the feelings away. Or if someone sent a drink over it was too hard to just let it sit there on the piano beckoning me. Then there were the times I was having a lot of fun with the people sitting around the bar and they are all drinking and having a good time. I would be a big part of that instant party and would be included in the rounds. Then of course there was always the celebration at the end of a good evening. It all added up to there were only two times that I would drink. when I was happy or when I was sad! Playing in a piano bar is one of the few jobs in the world where the boss will come up to say hi and ask you if you would like a drink. How often does your boss do that in the middle of your workday?
It’s lucky for me that I was never a true alcoholic. I have always done all my drinking in the night time hours, usually as a reward for a hard days work. I was never a day drinker. A lot of the players I met on the road had a battle with it. They could drink seriously all day long and into the night. The temptations and free drinks were too much to stand up against.
There were a few places I played where the bar tenders were very aware of the problem. They would ask me what dummy drink I would like when someone wanted to buy me a drink. When someone sent a drink my way I would get a glass of plain orange juice and the patron would assume it was a screwdriver. The bar would spit the money with me at the end of the night for those drinks. That seemed sensible to me but I remember I worked one place and suggested it to the bar and they got angry, admonishing me that they never cheat their customers! I tried to explain it was a tradition at a lot of bars I played and it was their idea not mine. No use , I was in the dog house for the suggestion.
There were so many times that I wished the patrons would give me a $5 tip instead of buying me a drink. I would try to suggest it in jest or say I would have a drink at the end of the night with the tip they leave but generally it was no good. They wanted to have a drink with me now and that was that. I took me a long time to learn that I could politely refuse it.
All the piano jobs I had in Europe had real piano bar set ups. Bar stools around a grand piano so people could get close to enjoy the music or to sing along when they wanted. I really enjoyed that kind of arrangement. If even one person was sitting at the piano it helped energize me. I cold ask them what they wanted to hear, try various songs on them or just enjoy them taping their fingers on the piano or even just smiling. If no one was at the piano I could feel ignored and start to feel insecure. I couldn’t feel them if they weren’t at the piano and often could barely see them in the dark sitting at far away tables. So even just one friendly body at the piano could make the entire night a better experience.
Sometimes a jazz or classical fan would come and sit at the piano bar alone. Then I was in heaven playing their requests for Gershwin, Cole Porter or even something classical. I didn’t care about the far customers in the distance and if they looked they could see I was playing to the person sitting at the piano. It made it OK to play the music I wanted to play if someone was asking for it instead of it being my idea.
Most all of the piano bars I played had special plexiglass tops on them that replaced the wood grand piano top. The plexiglass had a broad lip on it so if drinks spilled (and they did!) the spill would not go into the piano or onto the floor. I used to watch piano my bar sitters pass out from too much drink and fall in all directions. They could fall sideways into someone, hopefully a friend, but not always. They sometimes passed out face forward right into their drink or onto the piano top. It made a big mess and looked really painful. But the one that really scared me was the backwards fall. Right straight backwards and onto the floor. I never saw any serious injuries but it really worried me terribly.
The Scandinavians really let it out on the weekends. My contracts were six days a week so I got to understand the cycle. During the week it was slow and there was little heavy drinking. But come Friday night it was a loud, raucous, non stop party. I didn’t have the sedate, out of town businessmen like the women had at their classy venues. I had the locals who were looking for loud entertainment and drinking was a big part of their fun. The Swedes have a reputation for being subdued, introspective and not expressing their emotions. But I am here to testify that come the weekend that reputation was not in force anymore. They let it all hangout and would become as boisterous as the Greeks or turn into love bugs with endless vows of friendship and hugs.
After the gigs on the weekend it could be a macabre scene outside. The midnight sun had things lit up at 1am and all that juiced up, drunken energy was spilled out onto the streets. It sometimes resembled a war scene to me. People were falling down and their friends were trying to hold them up and drag them along, trying not to fall down themselves. Everyone trying to grab one of the many taxis coming and going that were used to the ritual of taking their drunken fares home. There were always some guys trying to fist fight taking wild swings in the air that didn’t connect well, if at all. The women could be screaming or laughing wildly. It was really quite a sight. My night would be over and I would watch from a safe distance calmly and enjoy the wild scene. The Scandinavians have a zero drinking and driving policy, even back then, so many groups coming to the club would have one designated driver assigned. I could always spot the sober driver at the various tables. They told me that they all took turns every weekend being the driver. No one was foolish enough to drive home drunk. The penalties were too severe. The taxis did a brisk business on the weekends.
I was always amazed also when I would be in the town during the weekdays and see the same people who were so wild and loose in the bar on the weekend now at their jobs in their suits behaving so properly and quiet. I really grew to love those northern folks.
I was playing a the small town of Linköping in October, 1989 when I woke up one fine morning and glanced at the Swedish newspaper at the front desk. All I could read were the words Santa Cruz, California on the headlines and a photo of the terrible earthquake that happened in my home town. I heard so many hair raising stories when I got home from my friends in the quake. I was fortunate to have been away.
In Sweden I got quite friendly with my agent there when I went to Stockholm and got a chance to meet her in person. One day she said she had some tapes to listen to of other new American artists looking for contracts and asked me if I would like to join her to review them. (cassette tapes, this was before the digital era!) I was keen on this because I wanted to get some insight into her selection process. We heard a few artists and they were all descent enough and we saw their resumes of places played and experience. Everything looked similar to my submissions. But in the end she told me that the photos were what she really relied on the most for her decision. This really floored me! All of that time working on and worrying about making a strong demo recording and it all came down to the photos. I guess mine were descent enough.
Oh, I had some great times in Sweden and Norway. I worked there for five seasons with six month of contracts most years. I always got out before winter became serious and those long endless days became long endless, freezing nights. I would usually escape before November started. I might drift around Europe a little visiting friends or I might head for Thailand for the winter. I was usually so tired of hearing myself that I didn’t want to sing or play one note for many weeks. I was like a sponge too full of music. I needed time to dry out and refresh. Get back in touch with my true musical spirit, not the one who played like a wind up toy for anyone who would put a tip in the jar. I would have to play the most requested songs so many times that I really started to not like them anymore, or at least my way of playing them. That short list of most requested songs that the Swedes and Norwegians wanted to hear several times a night were:
House of the Rising Sun Hotel California What a Wonderful World (Louis Armstrong)
You Look Wonderful Tonight Lady in Red
Your Song (Elton John)
Piano Man (Billie Joel)
It was a strange list for a pianist to play. None of them sit well for a piano arrangement. They are all guitar songs except for Wonderful World and they all must be sung. (they told me they all learned What a Wonderful World as children in school) So it was all about playing simple chords and trying to sing them well. The clubs and their patrons wanted a piano bar not a guitar entertainer and they didn’t care about such details. I was in it for all the benefits and took the good with the bad. I was happy to be working hard at my craft and getting paid for my efforts. Being a professional as it were. But my biggest payoff was the adventures and experiences. Plus I love meeting new people and learning about their lives in a world far away from the one I grew up in.
I found the rhythm of a one month contract. It seems that the first week I was the hero arriving to freshen up things from the last stale entertainer they grew tired of. In the second week friends and foes started to sort themselves out. If the bartender and I didn’t hit it off I was in trouble or if the one of the managers girlfriends showed and interest in me I was in trouble. My allies showed up and wanted to hear their favorite tunes and some of these new friends invited me to do things during the days. About the third week these two factions gained speed and certain uncomfortableness' start setting in, maybe even some arguments wight he management. Calls to the agent. The last week I became the stale entertainer that they grew tired of. They were looking forward to my replacement and I was looking forward to my next assignment. I grew to believe that two week contracts would be better for everyone but the agents disagreed. More work for them I suppose.
While I was playing in Sweden when someone was at the bar and told me about a piano bar club they had been at in the south or Spain in the harbor area near Marbella. The gave me the name and address of the club and I wrote a letter off to them asking if they could use my services. I got a fairly quick response asking me to come down as soon as I was free from my current assignment in Sweden. That was just a few weeks away. I struck it lucky and I was thrilled to go try a new venue in the Mediterranean.
Puerto Banus. Spain
Puerto Banus was a relatively new harbor area built to be the Spanish version of the the St. Tropez harbor in France. A place where the big yachts could come and anchor. A place where the rich could park their big boats and play. The town seemed to be entirely comprised of northern Europeans on vacation or having second homes there. A actual Spaniard was hard to find. It was primarily English, Scandinavians and Germans.
The entertainment scene was quite unusual. There was a long strip of night clubs that I was on and they all mostly favored lively, singing piano bars. No hotel entertainment, these were straight ahead, night club bars. My venue was called the Playbach Piano Bar. I think there must have been eight or ten on either side of the walking street which was off the main beachside avenue. All of the clubs featured two entertainers who would alternate sets through the night. Half hour on, half hour off. Now this was unique and it made for a much different rhythm than I was used to. It took a lot of pressure off. It also created a lot of friendly competition and was a great way to pick up new ideas and songs watching other entertainers to their thing. I could check out the other entertainers, mostly guys, in-between my sets. I learned a lot during my time there and met a lot of talented and interesting piano bar players. I befriended one guy working at another club, Mick, who used to be Tom Jones’ pianist. He regaled me with amazing tales of his music world and we had some good times together. I visited him in London sometime after that. the English entertainers are quite different from the Yanks. I learned a a lot from him and he taught me some English drinking songs that became a regular, fun part of my repertoire.
I shared my venue with another talented English entertainer who was quite low key but very precise and confident. He had an effective formula he operated on and I watch and learned. I got thrown off my game there because all the piano bars on the strip insisted that we work with a keyboard synthesizer in addition to the piano. It sat on top of the piano and you had to split your hands up, one on up top and one down on the piano keys. They wanted mostly the bass accompaniment and drum machine from the keyboard synth but there were countless other possibilities it afforded as well. I didn’t have much prior experience with this so I went to work on it, rising to the challenge. I could go practice in the club during the day and work out new things and arrangements. They provided the keyboard in my club so that was very fortunate. The guy I traded sets with was quite kind as well and gave me a lot of tips on how to use it. I suffered from a lot of insecurity on that job but the challenge taught me a lot. On the other hand a lot of the other players admired my piano abilities. They were almost all good singers and entertainers, mostly chord players who had their routines down very well with their keyboard programs. I could actually play the piano and they were in envy of that. But if I got on the stage right after the guy before me had the room lit up and dancing with his keyboard, bass and drums arrangements, the room would fall flat. The contrast from the full accompaniment sound to the lonely piano, no matter how well played, would be too dramatic against me. I learned that I had to slowly transition the sound, use the synth and keep the sound up and then when the time was right try to do for them what I do best, play the heck out of the piano!
Something else very unusual about the Puerto Banus scene was that it started so late in the night. when I got there i was informed that entertainment began at 11:00pm and went thru 4:00am. I was in disbelief. There was no way that could work. I sincerely refused to believe what they were telling me. my first nights there I arrived to set up, shortly before 11:00pm, to a totally deserted and quiet night club. I privately scoffed at the idea that people would crawl out of their beds and pajamas and go out drinking and dancing at this hour, impossible. Shortly after 11:00 a few patrons straggled in. Then a few more. Then more and more and more! I was flabbergasted and also energized. I had to wake up. Thank god for the 1/2 our on and off set rotation. It gave me time to regroup and think about what i would do next. It was really an “in the spotlight” gig. There was no way to lie low and try to play background nor to stop and chat with the patrons around the bar. They expected entertainment. it was an upscale, chi-chi night club. Well heeled, well dressed, adult clientele. By midnight the room was packed and the party was just beginning. At 4:00am they had to kick them out the door. No one was ready to leave. It was completely bizarre to me.
Sleep was another thing that had to be organized. What pattern was i supped to adopt? It was always near 5:00am by the time I crewed into bed in my apartment about the shops that was provided. just about the time that shop owners were noisily raising their business doors and the tracy trucks were emptying the trash. Thank goodness I brought my ear plugs. I was sleep deprived a lot but I was also still a young man of 39 and resilient. As I recall I cut down on my evening pattern drinking here. There were just too many demands on me and I had to work hard to keep up. There was just no time.
An interesting story from Banus that remains with me. A nice middle aged, English couple came into the club a few days running and they invited me to come on board their yacht in the harbor. They were looking to hire a pianist who could travel with them and play for them on their grand piano on board. I had to see this! next day I came around at the arranged time and they gave me a tour of their floating home. It was breath taking. The grand piano was in a very large living room. I don’t know how to describe the size of boats but I will try to give you some idea. There were eight, what I think are referred to as, state rooms. Each room was like a master bedroom with it’s own normal sized bathroom and some had private jacuzzis. No squeezing around things, there was plenty of room. Queen sized bed, lots of wood cabinets like in a very nice home. It really was beyond my comprehension and I felt out of my depth. I knew nothing about life at sea except for that one-month contract experience playing on the cruise ship ten years earlier. I remembered my sea sickness problem there too. There was no real way I could imagine accepting their offer. We never got down to discussing money so I don’t know what that would have been. We had a pleasant visit and I told them I would think it over. Later at the club I told them didn’t think it was right for me. It was an experience I will never forget. A glimpse into a completely different world. By the way, it’s fun to mention that this was just one of their yachts. They had a twin to this one that they rented out!
Next season in Sweden
I remember going to play a month in the town of Sundsvall in 1991. It was about my third year in Sweden. I arrived at night from Stockholm and was pulling my suitcases from the train station alone along the quiet streets on a fair night looking for my new venue. I said something to myself that I will never forget and have said many times since. Here comes a new adventure. There will be good times and there will be bad times. There will be successes and there will be disappointments and I will accept the all. I guess I felt seasoned by all my experiences up till then and decided to start accepting things more instead of fighting against them and expecting perfection. What I didn’t know was that I was going to fall in love with a beautiful young Swedish girl and begin one of the big affairs of my life.
Jennie. How did I meet Jennie Janssen? How I met her paints a picture in itself about how my life as an entertainer was in the north. My venue where we met was at the old venerable Knaust Hotel in Sundsvall, which wasn’t really a hotel anymore, It was just a restaurant piano bar at that point. They had a beautiful old black and well kept grand piano and an apartment for me up the hill a ways that I could call my own for the month. My first week there I hit it off pretty well and I was catching the eye of a pretty young girl who I had some building flirtations with. I even went looking for her at her work place during the day. I was hoping to see her at my piano again when another pretty girl showed up a the beginning of the night and said she was her sister. That was Jennie. She asked me if I could play any Chopin for her. That request made me sit up straight. A young Swedish girl telling me she loved Chopin at my piano bar? Now that was a first. We hit it off right away. It was early in the evening so I could play some of my Chopin repertoire for a while and get away with it. Jennie and I stayed tuned in the whole night and she invited me to her apartment after the gig. We became inseparable and she moved into my apartment in the coming days. She was there for a few days with me when I got a knock on my door. I never had any visitors so I was surprised. It was a woman asking if Jennie was there. I didn’t know what was going on and was perplexed. She introduced herself as Jennies mother. I nearly lost my footing. She had heard she was there and wanted to come around and meet me to make sure I was a descent guy. She spoke with Jennie for few minutes, made a quick approval and said goodbye. I was to become friends with Jennies mom, Christina and her husband, as time went by. I even moved in with them for a time. I was quite a bit older than Jennie (and her sister!) but that didn’t matter to the family. I was forty-two at the time but I still looked and felt like I was in my twenties. I hadn’t a grey hair in my head and I still hadn’t learned how to act like an adult. (I’ve barely accomplished that now actually but at least my hair totally grey an I finally look more or less like an adult) I was completely accepted by them.
Jennie followed me to my next gigs in Sweden and then winter came so we took off for Thailand and Bali together. It was a delightful lovers holiday. We rounded it off with a trip to California. My friends and family were all delighted with her and life was going along swimmingly. I taught her how to drive my stick shift VW van and we traveled up to Oregon house hunting. The loose plan was we would return to Sweden in the winter and I would get my normal six months worth of contracts for the downpayment we would need then we would come back. It was just a loose plan but it gave us a sense of direction. Then we got a surprise. We discovered that she had become pregnant while we were in Bali and we needed to get back to Sweden in the middle of winter and prepare to have the baby. Life was suddenly going in an unexpected direction but we held on and tried to navigate and plan the best we could to steer ourselves back to Sundsvall but I was dealt a serious set back.
I had unknowingly had angered my agent in Norway by refusing to do an extra gig for her before we left for the winter. This would have been an unplanned add-on, not a part of my contract agreements for the season. She wanted me to add the extra month in December for a hotel venue she was having a hard time filling. I only had two months of contracts that season in Norway so I could have done a third as far as taxes were concerned. But I already had purchased our tickets for Thailand and would lose $2000 to stay and play her $3500 contract if I gave up the tickets. Also was the fact that I was very fed up with hearing myself play. I seriously needed a break. I told her this and she said OK but actually she was quite angry and decided to go on a personal vendetta to keep me from working in Scandinavia in the future. She becomes hell bent on black balling me and I was clueless.
I would call her from the states, as I usually did, to ask her when my contacts would be ready to sign and when to expect them in the post. But she kept putting me off and delaying sending them. I was really desperate to get them sighed so I could get the money for the down payment on a house we had looked at in Bend, Oregon. Then things were getting a little to down-to-the-wire and time was running out, she dropped a bomb on me. She told me that she couldn’t find anyone interested in hiring me because my playing wasn’t good enough anymore. She was outright lying. I was quite popular at most of the venues I played. She came up with one very low paying contract she said she could put me on in Bergen, Norway. To make matters much worse she convinced my Swedish agent to follow suit with her. They were friends and I found out she more or less had control over the Swedish agent. Also Sweden was hit with a recession and all the clubs were pulling back on their entertainment to try and keep their businesses going so things weren’t looking good there either. I really had the rug pulled out from under me. The house fell through, my girlfriend was pregnant and I was out of money. To top it off Swedish winter was roaring in but we were on our way there.
Actually I had to admit that I was pretty fed up with solo rock piano gigs after four years of them. It just wasn’t my thing and the fascination had worn off. However it was a good source of income so I was willing to go on and treat playing as a job. One that I didn’t particularly like but would do for the money. It was a hard pill to swallow getting the vindictive boot from the Norwegian agent but it actually forced me to move forward. Into what I did not know but if I had continued on it would have been quite bad for my musical spirit and growth.
I applied and got my Swedish residency and moved in with Jennies folks. They had a guest cabin their back yard that became ours. We would have to trudge through four feet of snow to get to the house. That added a feeling of gloom to our growing despair. Plus I forget to mention that I don’t like snow. I never got along with it. Things were not looking up. Our spirits were getting low. Now the breaking point was next to come. As if things couldn’t get worse, we lost the baby. But actually, in retrospect, maybe this was a good thing considering the circumstances. We were both not in a good place in life to bring a child into it with us.
I had been looking for work in other parts of Europe during all of this, calling agents and writing letters and finally came up with a two month contract in Dundalk, Ireland. It was for five nights, three hours a night. It didn’t pay much but it gave me a lot of free time which I enjoyed very much. Jennie came and joined me for some weeks after she recovered from losing the baby. and we made plans to travel in southern Europe when my contract finished
I’ll never forget the first night on the job in Ireland. The boss had taken me out the night before when I arrived and introduced me to his favorite Irish Whiskey at a couple of local pubs. On the next might when I began the job many of the patrons wanted to welcome me by buying me a shot of their own favorite Irish Whiskies! There were over a dozen shots lined up on the piano waiting for me. I think they were having fun with me because I would be blind drunk if I were to have drank them all. On a set break I got a tray from the bar and told people that I was going to take them to my room to drink them later. Most of them got tossed down the drain but the whiskey was indeed smooth that I tasted.
In the daytime I could take the bicycle someone loaned me and go exploring or wander the streets of the little town of Dundalk. One day I was in town walking and was in the cross walk when a gentleman I recognized from the bar, but never spoke to, grabbed my hand to shake it vigorously. He said he came night after night to watch me play and admired me so much. He said I was living the kind of life he wished and dreamed that he could have, traveling all over the world free as a bird playing music for people. He said he had a family to take care of and couldn’t go anywhere. I was genuinely touched. He was so sincere. I can still picture him today and from time to time relate the story to people. He was so quiet in the bar at night, never speaking to anyone, just enjoying and dreaming.
Sometimes I would set out on a pub crawl in the late afternoon on my bicycle if I didn’t have to work that night. Exploring new little local pubs that seems to be set about a mile from each other along the highway north. They all had their own local brew to enjoy. I just wished I could have been capable of drinking more so I could taste them all! One day I decided to set out and see if I could make the first large town across the border in Northern Ireland, have a short visit and get back before dark. No pub crawl on this expedition, it was a fairly long ride for me as I’m only a casual biker. Maybe 25-30 miles or so. I was shocked for what greeted me at the border. Cement barricades, bullet holes at the border station and soldiers with machine guns and bullet proof vests. Very tense security. That put me on alert.
I arrived at the town square where it was only pedestrians, no cars, just about 5:00pm just as work let out. The square was suddenly jammed with people bustling going home to work. I went to a local pub for a wee refreshment before I headed back where I could watch people from the window. The all seemed to be walking briskly and dispersed very quickly to the point where there was absolutely no one left on the streets or square anymore. Almost as if they suddenly vanished. I asked the bar tender about it and he said that folks didn’t linger. It was too dangerous with all the religious tension and killings going on. Shocked I was. So much for hanging out and meeting the locals. I felt like I better get out of there too while I still had enough daylight. I heard a lot about the conflict from the people at the pub and they even gave me some reading material. There really was some terrible years in the north of Ireland for people on both sides of the conflict.
The restaurant bar where I played was very sedate compared to the Scandinavia scene. I could play some standards and easy listening rock tunes. It was a good fit for me. I even did a local radio interview. Made me feel like a visiting star. I got invited to peoples homes for dinner and made friends with some of the regular patrons. The famous Irish hospitality lived up to it’s reputation. I got on a bus one weekend and looked for other work around Ireland doing some auditions, hoping to parley my job into more work. I made it all the way to Galway Bay and Cork by bus, staying in small, local hotels. There were some nice piano bars but didn’t have any luck. Jennie flew in and joined me in my final weeks and socialized with my new friends in the lounge who were happy to have a Swedish girl in their midst and show her their famous hospitality as well. When the job was finished we continued on our plan to go south and try to escape the rest of winter. We spent a couple of nights exploring Dublin then flew out. I’ll always carry fond memories of my short time in Ireland.
We landed in Amsterdam and made our way down to Rotterdam by train where we were invited by my talented, American, entertainer friend, Karen Georgio to come stay in her apartment and keep her company while she finished out her miserable piano bar contract there. Karen and I had become friends in Göteborg where we were both playing jobs. She already knew Jennie and practically pleaded for us to come spend a couple of weeks with her. She felt alone and trapped in a terrible six hour a night contract for small pay in a Turkish restaurant in Rotterdam. She worked through an US agent and had poor communication about her troubles on the job.
We found a small Renault van for sale in Rotterdam at a price we could afford and got it ready for a long camping trip. We took off for Korfu, Greece, hoping the weather would be OK for a long stay. But we began by crossing Germany into eastern Europe. Taking our time car camping and staying small hotels going through Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary then on down to Italy and Greece.
We picked up a couple from Canada along the way and we all squeezed into the little van somehow. We joined forces for a while in our adventure. I had my guitar with me and was happy to raise the spirits wherever we went. It created a lot of magic for us as we traveled down through eastern Europe, meeting lots of folks in the local bars as we traveled. One night we had a whole local soccer team in Czechoslovakia singing Beatle songs with us and raising cheering glass of Czech Budweiser beer which is not the same as the American brew. It’s a tasty Czech original. There’s actually a dispute that still exists as too who owns the trademark name.
We all four decided to see if there was anyway to cross into Ukrainian, Russia and get a stamp in our passports since we were so close to their border. We waited in the line to enter the country but were refused. We tried to nonchalantly see if we could out our toes across the border so we could just say we were there but the soldiers raised their rifles when we got to close. We got back in the van and gave that idea up. After some days we dropped our Canadian companions off and headed to down through Switzerland and Italy. We put our van on the ferry and headed to Greece.
Korfu wasn’t as warm as we had hoped. It was low season in the middle of winter and we rented a little tourist cottage quite reasonably. Jennie met some other Swedes staying there and picked up a job as a waitress to help bring in a little money for us. After some weeks we gave it up and headed back north visiting some friends of mine near Stuttgart along the way. Jennie needed to start university classes in Sundsvall and I headed back to California again, promising her I’d return. I needed to figure out what I was doing and where I was going to work next.
The rough patch….
This was a rough period for me. I was really fed up with playing piano contracts in Scandinavia. The fun had disappeared. The long hours, six nights a week playing rock piano turned into work. Just work, not musical enjoyment, adventure or challenge anymore. The gig in Ireland was better but I didn’t have any luck parleying it into more contracts there. I was feeling at an all-time low and my enthusiasm showed it. I couldn’t seem to come up with much back home in California either. I rented room from my guitar player friend, Dave Virello in Santa Cruz and tried to sort out where I was in my life. For the first time ever I considered taking work outside of music. Everyone else did it why couldn’t I? But I had never had any job outside of the music industry since I was 17 years old and worked in the neighborhood bowling alley. The thought was terrifying. Really, what could I do? I’d never really thought about it before.
It’s a funny thing but I’ve often been asked by people, “When did you decide to just play music for a living? Or, “Was it difficult to quit your job and become a full-time musician?” Or they would say something like, “Oh, it must be wonderful to make you living playing music for people.” All of this assumes that I made a choice of course and it’s a natural assumption. But the truth is that I never really made a choice. When I was in my early 20’s I made a choice between devoting myself more to music and let go of my dream of being a professional bowler but that was more of a dream than reality. I was born into music and once I began working in the studios with my dad and playing gigs, it was all I ever knew. Maybe it was because I was doing the same work as my father. He raised the family with his work in the music industry and it was just a matter of course that I would do the same. My work had become far more varied than his but it still existed all in the world of music. Dad had only played professionally for a few years before he got the opportunity to become a music copyist, writing out composers works for orchestra recordings. He didn’t want the insecurity that playing musicians faced. He wanted to be a family man with a stable income. A professional copyist income really wasn’t all that stable but far more reliable than playing.
For me, I had plenty of energy for chasing music jobs. It was all an exciting challenge. I could both play and be a music copyist. I had a diverse life in music. I studied arranging and picked up odd assignments with those skills. I did a few years in musical theater with small productions in theater playing or leading small groups in the pit. I’ve always had a few private piano students going and enjoyed teaching. People would hear me out on gigs and ask for lessons. I was a jingle writer/producer for a number of years, recording in studios. Taught music in college, I played more wedding and corporate gigs than I could possibly ever remember, I did transcribing for songwriters, played in the orchestra, taught in college, played improvisations with dance classes, accompanied singers for rehearsal and performance. Played in Rock bands, salsa bands, jazz bands, cocktail pianist, etc. I was a jack-of-all music trades. It was an exciting life and I had plenty of energy for it. I only knew how to make money by doing something in music and there were always so many avenues available to me.
I never thought seriously, if at all, about doing something other than music. It was never a choice as people assumed it was. I never studied it or had to make any applications or had to get any music degrees. I was brought into it through nepotism in the Hollywood studios and just evolved, improving and exploring my career opportunities from that beginning. The studio work with my dad was my security blanket and my major source of income until I was 30. I was fearless about the rest of my musical endeavors. I guess because I knew that studio work would always exist for me. But the more mature I became I realized that to be only a copyist, like dad, was not my path.
When I moved back to L.A., when I was thirty, I started doing copying more, following more orchestra sessions at 20th Century Fox with my dad and elsewhere around Hollywood and L.A. I felt like diving in and giving it a good try to see if I should get back into it more. I rented a room in the West L.A. area with my girlfriend Patty O., who moved down from Sacramento to be with me, so that I would be closer to Fox Studios where most my work was with my dad.
But at the same time I was out playing auditions and hanging out with my L.A. jazz player pals around the Venice area. I had just returned from my sea-contract playing with the dixieland band on a cruise ship and the taste of touring with music excited me, but I wanted to play on dry land where I wouldn’t get sea sick! When I was “pushing the pen”, as we copyists called it, in the studios it was not exciting. It was unexciting to the point of boredom actually. I enjoyed going to the recording sessions to hear what I worked on being played (and held my breath that there weren’t any big mistakes in my handwriting). I continually marveled at the players ability to sight read perfectly all difficult passages I had notated. Simply amazing. I was older now and could have informative discussions with the composers and orchestrators. My pay check was good and there were royalty payments, but there was no musical satisfaction in it for me. I wanted to chase my own musical ambitions. Win or lose I needed to follow my own dreams not work on someone else’s. I had too many bottled up inside of me waiting for me to rub the genies bottle and see them materialize. Test myself and learn.
Everything had always been in front of me at this point. A new music project waiting. A new opportunity buzzing. But here I was nearly forty-five and I felt at a dead end for the first time in my musical life. When people would ask me about the choice I made to make my life in music, I would try to tell them in a philosophical way that I never had a choice. I am driven to do what I do. It’s not a decision. I can not quit. I have jokingly said that artists are compulsive neurotics. We can’t stop what we do.
Beside all the career opportunities I had there was the biggest force of all…I was constantly driven to improve, to compose, to practice, to discover. The life of an artist can also often be a life of torment. One must become better. One must chase the dream, try to catch the shadow. It’s like some invisible task master is there driving you to create and produce and you can’t hide from the force. Many times I have said I will stop playing for a while, take a break, not take any new projects but it just doesn’t work that way. If I’m not working on something I will play music to relax. Music is both my hobby and my work. When I play and practice my imagination gets fueled and beautiful new ideas take hold of me or unfinished ideas revisit me. I see mountains that must be climbed and mastered.
Also there need to constantly seek approval from ones peers and audience. That is really a relentless and unobtainable objective. It’s like trying to hold onto a large fish. It just won’t stay in your possession for very long! All of these compulsive needs that must be serviced and actualized add up to the perfect example of the term, “starving artist.” When an artists is possessed with a project everything else get in the way. He doesn’t care about eating, being socially correct, being on time, making money for the rent or being viewed as responsible. All we usually care about is the giant artistic task at hand that must be soothed and brought into fruition above and before all else while the vision is sharp in the mind. If you get distracted it may all too easily lose it’s sharpness and detail and fade into oblivion. It’s painful and very difficult to regain the original inspiration. This is often the reason for many broken relationships (and I have a litany of them!) Woman can easily feel second best. They feel like they can’t compete with an artists obsessions. In many ways they are right. An artist is usually married to his art first and his wife second. There is no escape from his love of art but maybe it’s easier to escape from a wife.
A work of art is like a birth. A true example of manifestation. Dreams brought into physical form. Materialization of thought. An artist in productive mode is often feeling more pain than joy. The pain of birth. But when things flow and the artists sees and feels the dream taking form then the joy sets in. Laughter that sounds like madness to the observer. A maniacal joy might bursts out. I refer to all this from the male perspective but it of course works the other way around when it is a female artist.
When I meet a young person studying music and dreaming of the romantic life of being a musician I often offer them the advice to get schooling in something that will be a good solid career and keep their passion for music as a sideline, an avocation. Enjoy playing gigs and parties on the side. To make a career solely as a playing musician is a decision to be thought about carefully. It’s a lot of fun when one is young, playing in bands, being popular and such but for most young musicians the fun comes to an end when the bills and relationships get serious. Add kids to the equation and a life in music really can seem like the wrong road to be on. There are notable exceptions to this of course like in my case where my father was a musician and my mother was a stage mother, pushing me to live the dreams she never actualized. Also there are rare talents. The truly gifted. They offer society something special and we want to nurture their talent to bring us the joy of hearing their special gifts. Also the superb musical talents that have been groomed by their parents with endless serious studies since they were very young. They might be our wonderful orchestra players who will be sought after and earn a good living income because of their incredible expertise. But for the person with average talent which is most of us, including myself, it’s a difficult road to travel.
I never had children so that contributed to my self centered life in music as well. If I had had children I might have made different decisions early on when there was still time to do something else career wise. My high school sweetheart got pregnant but miscarried at three months. Had we had the baby I am pretty sure I would have remained in Los Angeles and taken over my father’s position in the 20th Century Fox music department, as he hoped I would.
I’ve diverted from my story to talk about the life of a dedicated artist and the life of a musician in general to help demonstrate the dimensions of this kind of life and what it meant to me to consider changing careers in my mid 40’s. I’m not the most talented writer and I don’t know if I’ve said it as well as someone else might but I think if you hear other artists describe their passion for their art and how they survive as an artist I think you might hear some similar things. So to change occupations, leave the life of music and think of giving something else a try was an earth shaking thought. I had one musician friend at that time who went into real estate and another who went to work in book keeping because that was his college training. I talked to them but it only scared me more. It really terrified me to seriously contemplate doing something outside of my field.
I was back in California and feeling quite lost trying to imagine what would come next in my life. I wasn’t coming up with piano work easily at home as I had in the past, perhaps because of my insecurities. I had very little nest egg money in my savings account and that scared me as well. This was really the lowest point in my musical career that I went through. I had lost enthusiasm and optimism. I also lost confidence with my relationship with Jennie so far away in Sweden, Nothing was making sense to me. I was sick of the Swedish piano bar work and I was facing the black ball there and in Norway anyway because of the vindictive agent. I couldn’t imagine how I could make life work for Jennie and I if I were to return. I have often looked back at that period and eventually came to realize that the problem was that I couldn’t imagine what I could do. Imagine is the key word. It was all about my fertile imagination that had always carried me through and created new possibilities. My imagination was frozen and I was lost for inspiration and new directions. Leading the unencumbered, debt free, childless life that I have, I have always been free to follow my imagination and whims. New possibilities and ideas were always popping up. It has led me to strongly believe in the power of the imagination. But at this point all I could imagine was that I was stuck with no options.
During this lost period I did manage to pick up a couple of steady nights at the elegant conference center/retreat, Chaminade, in the Santa Cruz foothills. They had very sparse clientele in their elegant bar except for when the conferences would take a break, so I had plenty of time to play and sing standards to my hearts content, invite jazz singers up to join me and relax on the job. it paid the bills at least and got me down the road.
After existing in this lull for several months I decided to shake things up a bit. I bought a used VW van and drive across the states to Florida. I brought my tuxedos and sports coats with me and figured I’d look for work along the way thinking that surely I could find at least something in Key West if I should make it that far. I’d never been but heard there was a lot of entertainment there. So I took off on an adventure with no real goal in site and hoped for the best.
I made it across the country steadily with few stops, sleeping in my newly acquired VW camper van until I got the the Florida panhandle and I broke down by the side of the road. I was near Tallahassee at that point so that’s where I got towed to. I stayed at a county campground while the motor was being repaired. While staying there I met local fellow named Larry who lived near by who was in the park looking for some lost glasses from his earlier visit with his daughter. We hit it off and he invited me to stay at his sprawling house that was in the process of renovation. I had a comfortable stay at Larry’s house. We paled around Tallahassee like a couple of bachelors and I had a nice few days.
When the van was repaired I took off and headed for Orlando. I had met a musical couple at the end of my last work in Norway, Joe and Janet, and they had invited me to come visit if I were ever in Orlando so I looked them up. He was a talented blues and boogie pianist. She played bass and sang in the duo when I met them. They mostly worked on the short pleasure cruises around Oslo and the North Sea but we met when we were both playing in the same town in Norway. She was now a stay at home mom and Joe had a steady at a theme park in Orlando doing a boogie-woogie piano specialty act. I had some relaxing and uneventful days as their guest then continued on to Key West.
I arrived in Key West and found my way to the end of the road at a local park at a beach where a lot of other campers were parked. It literally seemed like the end of the road. The only place one could go further would be into the ocean toward Cuba. I spent a few weeks there I made some fast friends with other campers who had traveled there from various parts of the country. I would go into Key West town during the day to look around and see if I could scout out any places where I might find piano work then come back in the evening and make my campers dinner in my van.
I ran across one venue in town called La-Ti-Da that had a nice grand piano and looked like it had an elegant piano bar scene. It was closed during the day but I found the manager in and inquired about playing there. Turns out they were in need of a pianist since they recently had lost their previous one. I did a short audition and got hired right away. I was delighted to have come up with something and we agreed I would start the next night. I had a thought that this was probably a gay bar but I really wasn’t sure. I had little experience in the gay scene so I asked the manager about it. She said it was a “mixed” crowd. I took that to mean a mix of gays and straights and felt fairly comfortable with that. Well, on my first night I found out what she meant by mixed. It was half gay men and half transvestites! I was definitely out of my comfort zone. I had men coming on to me and gazing in my eyes, wanting to get to know me. I’m not homophobic but it was difficult for me not to get rattled. I didn’t last but about a week and a half. I gave my notice, chalking it up to experience.
During this time I was writing letters and making phone contact to agents back in Europe but I was aiming at Switzerland this time. I thought if I could find work in Switzerland it might be different and I could give it another go. I had some luck with the Kathleen Obschlager Agency in Zurich, and got offered a month in the south of Germany in a little town called Waldshut-Tiengen. The agent could only promise me the one month but said she would look around for more contracts when I got there. We made a commitment over the phone and I set off toward Richmond, Virginia from where I would fly out. I made plans to visit a girlfriend who lived there and she agreed to take care of my van while I was away. It took a couple of weeks to get to Richmond and organize myself and my ticket to go.
Back to Europe
Up, up and away I went for a new adventure. I flew into Marseilles and had a nice week visiting Barbara to get my European bearings back and get over jet lag. It was a nice reunion at her home in Martigues. She bolstered my spirits, got me together and helped me organize myself for my trip to the charming little German border town of Waldshut-Tiengen where I began at the Casa Blanca Piano Bar.
Waldshut-Tiengen lies at the edge of the southern Black Forest, right on the Rhine river, along which runs the German-Swiss border. Its very near the Swiss border city of Schaufhausen. It’s one of those charming, picturesque, ancient, little German towns that you want to capture in your camera. It only had some 20,000 residents but a hot spot piano bar and was quite a popular in the little town and attracted folks from the surrounding areas also. It was the dream project of a young German couple who lived there.
This scene was similar to what I had been doing in Sweden,…rock piano. Playing classic rock songs written for electric guitar bands and the piano player was there to make them sound good on a piano. It always seemed a bit strange to me that they didn’t hire a rock band or at least a guitarist instead of a pianist. Somehow they had the image of a grand piano with people sitting around it confused somehow with all the guitar and rock classics. They really went wild if the piano player gave them some Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck berry or Little Richard imitations. That means tearing it up with a lot of pounding on the piano with fast i6th notes ringing in the right hand and wild glissandos over a driving left hand boogie line and don’t forget to scream a lot, make faces and drip sweat all over the keys. If you could make your fingers bleed from reckless glissandos all the better. This was just my sort of thing…..when I was in my 20’s but at 45 most guys can’t sustain that kind of wild-man energy for very long. It’s similar to why football teams prefer to have guys in their 20’s rather than in their 40’s. I still looked young and I could still get plenty drunk and wind it up but the penalties were getting rougher, i.e., the hangovers and recovery time. Also in this club everyone couldn’t seem to stop telling me how incredible the guy was who came before me. The implication was clear that I wasn’t measuring up.
It was a piano bar only and not a hotel. They provided me with a room a few blocks away that was roomy, clean and comfortable. Should have been real nice and would have been had it not been for the mother and toddler upstairs who was just learning how to walk. I would get to sleep most nights somewhere past 2:00am and the baby would wake up at dawn and the stomping above me would begin mercilessly. It was a nightmare. Even with my earplugs the babies stomping little feet pounded right into my head. I wasn’t getting much sleep. I tried communicating my problem through the bar owners but it somehow only was one more way I wasn’t as good as the last entertainer who never had a complaint and played like a god.
Nothing got any better. The job started on a downhill slide and just kept going that way. I did make friends with one very nice young Swiss Italian couple who took me out sometimes and invited me on an all day outing sight seeing in the swiss alps in their sports car. Their positive vibes really helped my sagging confidence.
Then one evening a small god send came my way. A jazz fan named Deiter and his wife Rosemary. This was an older German alcoholic couple who lived in Zurich. It was my good luck that they just happened to stop in and hear the American pianist they read about on their way home from somewhere. Dieter loved American jazz and when he showed up the night had just begun and he was the only patron on the piano stools. When he understood I played jazz standards he was vary happy. I ran thru about an hour of singing and playing standards to my new friend and fan. His wife Rosemary, only wanted to drink by herself in the corner while we wallowed together in jazz piano happiness at the piano.
Dieter I were to become best of friends and he was my lifeline to sanity during my year in Switzerland. He had a real soft spot for Americans and regaled me with many stories about his childhood at the end of World War Two the Americans arrived in Germany. He would invite me to his apartment in Zurich on my day off or I would stop over during the day. We would drink beer together while he played cuts for me from his enormous vinyl record collection of his jazz favorites and he had plenty of them. when he understood the parameters of my jazz education he would turn me onto things I didn’t know about. Jazz was his passion and he had a broad depth of knowledge about Singers, horn players and pianists. We really bonded over the music. He introduced me to his favorite American novelist, Louis Lamour who I had never heard of at the time. Simple, fun cowboy tales. He had a book shelf full of Louis Lamour. I would spend the night on his couch and fall asleep reading.
His wife don’t join us much. She would make dinner and leave us and our jazz passions to our ourselves. Dieter was in his early 60’s and had a few more years left before retirement. He was a dedicated alcoholic with a sweet, congenial personality. he confided in me that he had a lot of terrible drunken arguments with Rosemary. He liked to study and play piano in a modest way on his digital keyboard but the walls of the apartment were so thin that the neighbor would bang on the wall complaining. Not because of his playing. He played under headphones. It was the light sound the keyboard keys made when he pressed them down. No music could be heard outside of his personal headphones, just the clicking sound of the silent keys pressing down and it bothered the neighbors.
He couldn’t wait to retire and return to his true home in a small village in eastern Germany. He appreciated the escape of my company as much as I enjoyed his. When I got to my jobs in the Zurich area he would come in often at the beginning of the night to request standards before all the high volume piano energy demands began.
I remember when I left Zurich at the end of my long year there. Dieter went with me to the train station to see me off. It was a sad good bye. We stayed in touch my post for quite a few years after. I was happy to hear he lived long enough to retire and return home to enjoy the quiet life he dreamed about for so long.
My agent, Kathleen made good on her promise of more work and it turned out to be an eventful year of contracts in and around the Zurich area after I finished up the one month in Germany. She told the owner of a Hotel in Zurich, Herr Meier, to stop in to the Waldshut gig and hear me. I poured it on entertaining him and he told me he wanted me at his hotel piano bar starting as soon as I finished my German contract. I applied for my Swiss entertainers permit and said good riddance to Waldshut-Tiengen, hoping for better things ahead.
Mr. Meiers, Central Plaza Hotel is next to the train station in the center of Zurich. It’s also just steps away from Neiderdorff Strasse, the famous old and colorful walking street where all the tourists and visitors go. The hotel had not one but two piano bars in it that were located in different bars in the sprawling hotel. I got a couple of months contract there and befriended the entertainers working the other end of the hotel. it was nice to have some instant music friends with whom I could commiserate with and share tales and tribulations together. We were housed in a separate building with all of the other hotel employees. It was unglamorous accommodation but adequate. The barely acceptable accommodation gave all of us employees something to complain about together. The upside of this was it bonded us all with our common gripes.
This was the first time in all of my piano contracts in Europe that I wasn’t treated with a notable amount of prestige and given guest status as a visiting American entertainer. I rolled with it but it made me feel pretty un-special. I got a lot of the usual admiration and respect from the patrons but the management treated me like the cooks, waiters and foreign maintenance and house keeping employees. Not good for my ego but the positive side was connecting with the other employees. I learned that the hotel presented itself as a "training college" for waiter, cooks, check-in staff and all positions in the hotel industry. The employees had to pay to work there and it was expensive training. The sales pitch was that the “trainees" were getting international training at a 5-star European hotel that would give them a resume that would enable them to work at fine hotels around the world and earn good money. Hmmm…I was never so sure about this. It sure served the hotel well. Instead of paying employees they got paid by them. Plus they could order them around like slaves. Pretty good racquet is what I was always thinking to myself.
There were other pianists working around town that I could go see and meet when I had time. Some Swiss, some Eastern European, some American and English. There was a more diverse collection than in Scandinavia. It’s always interesting to hear another players repertoire and swap road stories with them.
Neiderdorf Strasse was an especially interesting street to hang out on, meet people and see the other entertainers. There was one club that was a cabaret/theater that had a fair sized stage with all sorts of talent from the eastern block. Some extraordinary acts. Dancers of every kind, singers, contortionists, jugglers, etc. It was a very expensive to hang out but I befriended a playboy prince from Ethiopia who insisted on taking me out after work to drink and carouse with him. He was picking up the tab so I tagged along and enjoyed seeing some places I would normally go into. I couldn’t keep up with his drinking but it was fascinating to follow in his wake. He bought an expensive bottle of champagne in every club we went to and threw huge tips at the waiters and bar tenders so they all catered to them. Was he really a prince? I didn’t know but he kept telling me all about his royal family that was waiting to return to power and about how beautiful Ethiopia was. I just kept thinking about what an impoverished country it was and here was this supposed royal throwing money away lavishly on his entertainment wherever he went. One night we were out and he thought some guy at the bar was disrespecting him. He was getting ready to break a beer bottle and attack him with it. I somehow managed to talk him out of it and get us out of there. After that I curbed my enthusiasm for hanging out with him.
I found a lot of the clientele at the luxurious Central Hotel quite enigmatic. I met a lot of customers at the bar on my breaks. We would have friendly conversations and enjoying meeting each other. A lot of them flew in on private jets and seemed secretive about their lives. Several times when I would ask what someone did for work they wouldn't answer. They’d switch conversation in another direction. It was quite peculiar to me. I met some of the pilots of the private jets as well but they wouldn’t say much about their elite passengers. There were a lot of things out of my understanding about big foreign money and Switzerland.
Kathleen kept coming up with a new contract for me while I was in the middle of each job. It was quite different than the work in the north where contracts were usually all lined and signed up many months in advance. The tax situation for foreigner entertainers was similar but it was allowed to be in country for twelve months instead of three and escape taxes.
In Ireland I never knew the rules. The country club owner handled everything and there was nothing for me to do. My work in Spain and France was ‘Under the table.” No work permits because it saved them money. They paid strictly in cash. On my Spanish job the owners always had advance warning if the police were coming in to check on things. They would whisk me off the piano and pretend they were playing the piano themselves. All the customers knew what was going on and played along. It was quite amusing.
In my year there I had contracts around the Zurich area, Gstaad and Basel. Being there a year meant that I went through the winter in Switzerland. Usually I left Europe when winter arrived but I was determined to stick it out and build up a little money in my savings account. I was really looking at it like work instead of adventure and this wasn’t a healthy attitude for me, but there I was. It seemed better then being back in California and floundering.
The Cowboy routine...
During my year in Switzerland I was often feeling alienated, bored and sometimes fighting a tinge of depression. During a two month contract I had at a hotel in Thawil, a little town, right on Lake Zurich, I quite by accident started creating a cowboy routine to entertain myself and break up the boredom. I was getting terribly bored and a bit depressed because it seemed like no one was listening to me in this quiet hotel lounge. I was lucky if there were ever fifteen patrons in the bar. It was often less than ten and most of them were regulars, easy going alcoholics.
The Swiss like American cowboy and county music very much so I was already adding cowboy tunes into my repertoire. Fun, colorful cowboy tunes like Mamas Don’t Let You Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys, Ghost Riders, The Gambler, Folsom Prison, El Paso, that sort of thing. I was really getting into some exaggerated cowboy drawl and started talking like a cowboy. No one seemed to be listening or cared so I just kept developing it to entertain myself. I was cracking myself up sometimes, getting real spoofy and goofy because no one was paying attention to me. Without realizing what I was doing I was developing a creative cowboy routine that would serve me well for many years and was useful in my stage shows that were still yet a few years away. I started talking between the numbers and pretending I was telling tales in a cowboy, TV show. I acted like I had a six-shooter pistol shooting Indians and such and whinnying like a horse, making galloping horse sounds. I was really getting into it night after night and still hardly anyone ever noticed. When someone did notice they seemed to be entertained so I figured I could just keep developing the bit. I even got myself a cowboy hat. I always ended up the routine with the Roy Rodgers classic Happy Trails as the last song. I would make my imaginary horse sounds and ride rode off into my imaginary sunset pretending I was shouting from a distance, “Happy trails partners, see you around the bend!”
So the act was born out of my boredom and it helped me get my creative juices flowing. Through my years of solo playing I learned that it was important to keep myself entertained as much as possible. The life of a solo musician can be deathly boring at times. Trying to create enthusiasm to get a disinterested bunch of patrons interested often doesn’t work and alienation can set in. The musical spirit can disappear and I’d have to keep myself from yawning and falling asleep at the keys. If you can entertain yourself or tap into some creativity you can get your personal electricity sparking. Playing jazz standards is very good for this sometimes. You can explore new pathways improvising, transpose songs or work up new arrangements on the spot. Sometimes you can just tune out the audience if they are tuning you out and everything can feel just fine. but if you are on a rock piano gig trying to whip a dead horse to life with set arrangements it can kill you as well as the horse.
I remember some wisdom I got from an older professional sax player when I was in my early 20’s. He was in a blues band I was playing in. He said that often improvisation was born out of boredom. After you learned to play a riff and used it over and over you get bored with it and want to play it a little differently. Viola! The seeds of improvisation and expansion born out of boredom.
Adding the guitar…
Also during the boring Lake Zurich gig I decided to start playing the guitar, interspersing it with my piano playing. This was a big move for me. I had never used the guitar along with my solo piano gig and was always insecure about doing so. I played all the time for fun of course, had done some busking on the streets of Europe, played in bands when I was young but never played it solo on one of my jobs. I was uncertain about the sound being right. Afraid there might be too great a disparity between volume of the amplified nylon string guitar and the acoustic piano. I would have to figure out how to position myself and how to move the mic. As long as I sat behind the piano I felt safe and confidant. I was in control of my situation but using the guitar took me out of my safe zone. I was still at this time afraid to stand up and sing with the guitar in this setting. Afraid to stand up at the piano and say something even in the way of an introduction. I felt safe sitting. The catalytic force to get me up and talking was my incredible boredom.
I was ignored so much on that job that hardly noticed that I was now playing the guitar. Truth is I was hoping they wouldn’t notice at first. Not until I got the sound figured out and felt comfortable. That didn’t take long to happen and I started getting into it and exploring the new possibilities it brought. I started playing all of my cowboy songs and doing my developing cowpoke routine with it. I started learning new songs and converting some I played on the piano over to the guitar that fit much better, especially country songs. I started studying country songs that the Swiss told me they liked and incorporating them into my repertoire. Garth Brooks, Eddie Rabbit and similar. It wasn’t my natural interest but it interested me to learn something new so I went for it and they sounded best on the guitar. Actually as I mentioned before, most of the rock repertoire I played at my gigs was guitar music anyway so it was a pretty open playing field for accompanying myself with it. I quickly became comfortable with playing on both instruments and it made me more versatile. I particularly always enjoyed singing and playing bossa novas on the nylon guitar, ala Brazillian style. This was a pleasing sound for my audiences as well and I started using the drum machine with the bossas too, bringing even more diversity to my sound. The insistent gentle bossa nova rhythms of the drum machine could also help spark up my musical energy to get me feeling groovy and in the mood to play.
Sometime shortly after the Lake Zurich job I got a contact for a hotel in Gstaad, the renown skiing town. Well, actually at the time I had never heard of Gstaad and knew nothing about it’s popularity with skiers internationally. I was about to get an education. In the evenings everyone staying at the hotel would return from another glorious day of skiing feeling healthy and excited about their day on the slopes and sharing stories with each other. They would ask me about my day in the snow and I always disappointed them when they realized I wasn’t a skier. I wasn’t in with the in-crowd. I was the strange musician guy who didn’t ski. I came to realize that I might be the only non skier at the hotel, heck, probably in the entire town! Once again I felt out of place in Switzerland. But they seemed to enjoy my playing and singing enough and I had my trusty guitar worked into the act as well which they let me know they enjoyed. I even got an offer from another visiting hotel owner to work in his hotel not too far away. That bolstered my spirits. I went and visited him at his lovely place but the job didn’t materialize. No problem. It’s always nice to get the offer anyway.
I had a one hotel job in downtown Zurich that was more of a lobby job. They were happy to have me just playing piano and not singing. It was really a background muzak gig. Talk about boring! it was hard for me to keep my eyes open sometimes. I discovered years ago that if I only play solo piano and don’t sing, I am good for about one 45 minute set, then the boredom sets in on me. I slowly wilt like a flower begging for water. I’ve never been the greatest singer but I can hold a tune and “sell it” as they say. Singing is my way of connecting with my audience. I can look in their eyes and smile and see them smiling back. Just feeling the vibration of my own voice in my chest and ears connects me with my musical spirits. Very enlivening for me. So this job was like death to me. On this lobby gig there weren’t even any people in visible eye sight. I was playing to a huge lobby with empty couches and people walking to their rooms or checking in with their suitcases. Aarrrrggh! I wanted to scream sometimes and just kept watch the clock, hoping it would move faster.
One time a business man came into the lobby and was sitting a few couches away. After a while he moved closer. Aha, someone to play for! Looked promising. I’m playing and he pulls out his phone and makes a call then looks at me with a finger to his lips shushing me and motioning for me to lower my volume. That floored me! The gall of him to move close to me and then schuss me admonishingly to play more quietly when he had the entire lobby full of couches to sit at while he made his call. When I get together with other piano entertainers we all have a good time laughing and sharing our war stories good and bad. That one always gets a laugh from my compatriots.
Truthfully I would rather not play than play a lobby gig. It’s that boring to me. I would be happier washing the dishes in the kitchen. When I first began playing solo gigs it was a different story. It was a great way to just play quietly in the corner of a cocktail or in a hotel lobby and work through all my growing repertoire. I didn’t want people to focus on me until I had more confidence. I recommend it for my students or any pianists just starting to play cocktail music or in public settings of any kind. Very safe place to begin and mistakes aren’t hardly notice, if at all.
In another category of lobby work, I have met a lot of pianists who prefer it. They don’t want to in the spotlight or the center of attention. They just want to play and be left alone even if they are marvelously talented. We all have our comfort zones and preferences. I would occasionally run across some Eastern European pianists playing in hotel lobbies all over Europe that were incredibly superb jazz and or classical talents. I could sit and listen to them endlessly, marveling at their skills. A lot of them preferred lobbies so they could just enjoy playing and not have to deal with the general public. But some of them wished they did have the spotlight but couldn’t get it. I learned from talking with them that they had no other work possibilities available to them except for playing in lobbies or restaurants in the background. This was because either they didn’t sing and also sadly because even if they could sing they were from Eastern Europe and most venues preferred English or Americans entertaining their patrons. Also the Eastern Europeans got paid much less.
The contracts in Switzerland demanded the piano be played exactly fifty minutes an hour every night with exactly a ten minute break every hour. Herr Meir at the Central Hotel in Zurich was infamous for standing next to the grand piano looking at his watch. Pianist were expected to begin at precisely the instant his Swiss watch hit 8PM. Not five seconds before or five seconds after. One pianist was even fired on the spot for arriving a few minutes late. Fortunately he never pulled this routine of his on me. I would get there a little early but the bar managers warned me not to begin before 8:pm exactly.
Ten minute breaks were strictly enforced also. This was mildly irritating and wasn't conducive to sinking into the musical spirit. All the players I met working in Switzerland grumbled about it. The attitude of the Swiss management was that entertainers were like wind up toys. Push a button and the music starts, push a button and it stops. It created a problem for us players when break time came as well because we were forced to stop even if the room was on a roll. By that I mean, when everyone was enjoying the music and I was too. It’s like the musical spirit takes over the room. It’s a place that we all hope to find during the course of the evening. We strive for it but it can’t be manufactured falsely, it just has to happen all on it’s own.
When I would sit at the piano to begin my set I would hope to feel like playing. I would hope to want to sing and have people enjoy my playing and react to it. It becomes very personal when you are a soloist, alone with your audience. You really feel the room and the people in it. You can sometimes feel a palpable stillness. What you play will effect the mood and spirit of the room.
When you feel like no one is listening you try to hook them and somehow get them interested. You see the hands tapping on the table, someone might be mouthing the words silently to themselves that you are singing or they might be sitting with someone talking but reacting to the music at the same time.
If the room feels cold you try to warm it up, get it moving with your music. You try various songs to see if you can connect to the music and get yourself and your audience in the mood. You try various things to hook together with them. This doesn’t happen with an on and off switch like the Swiss seem to think. It could happen sometimes that somewhere near the end of a fifty minute set things would start to just get going. People might be livening up and really enjoying themselves which would make me want to just keep playing and feed the good feelings everyone was sharing. These are the moments we live for as entertainers. Our work becomes play. Why stop? This is what I am here for, to make music so everyone is having a good time. But the bar manager in a Swiss club would often walk over to the piano and point to his watch or lean over and tell me to stop. It showed a great insensitivity to the situation around them. They would pull the plug on the energy and kill the nice feeling in the room. ``
Or if it was closing time at 1:00am and everyone in the room was having a marvelous time, enjoying the music and laughing the manager would put the lights up full and start telling people it’s time to go, turning chairs up on table tops so they could sweep the floors. It was fairly universal in all the clubs I played there and I would hear other entertainers talk about it too. It was uniquely Swiss and it didn’t happen in other countries. The natural thing to do is to keep playing until the energy winds down or you become exhausted. You then take a break and return. The bartenders are also happy to keep the energy high because they sell more liquor at those times. It was a very strange cultural trait with the Swiss. This sort of attitude existed in other interactions I had in Switzerland as well and made my time there less enjoyable than other countries I worked in.
Contrasting this attitude with the French for instance it was the exact opposite. If there were no patrons in the room or the bar manager would see that a few people were in business discussions he would tell me to relax and wait. Wait until people were ready to hear music or until someone came. No need to play to an empty room or bother someone’s business talk. If the vibes were rolling in the room and the music was lighting everyone up the manager might show up with a drink for me, smile and start singing along with me and his patrons. Who cares if it’s past 1:00 in the morning? We are having fun and let’s not stop when we are all feeling so good! The feeling was that we were all having a nice time together, being with old or new friends. Don’t stop this rare, comfortable moment we have found. Then when things finally settled down he might invite me to join him and some patrons at a quiet table for a night cap to savor the end of a nice evening made together.
In France if I was walking near the club where I worked with my girlfriend, and the owner saw me, he might stop for conversation and invite us in for a drink. He sometimes would say to come around in the afternoon to meet some friends and enjoy lunch. In Switzerland there were strict hours for feeding the musicians and the feeling that the management didn’t encourage fraternizing with employees. Everyone is different and perhaps this suits some people but for me I much preferred the French attitude. The Irish were quite similar as well.
These examples are polar opposites of course. I would say the work I had in Sweden, Norway, Germany, England and Spain were somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. The Swiss and Norwegians had a way of being formal and conservative but also quite aware of the human spirit. They had rules for sure but the feeling was always that they were open to new things and aware that the rules might not fit everyone. Especially perhaps a visiting entertainer from another country. They always wanted to make sure I and their patrons was happy with things. They also knew that having a good time was often more important than rules.
Returning to the states after the year of Swiss gigs.
After trying to make the best my year working in Switzerland I wasn’t in a very good place with my musical career. All in all it just wasn’t a good experience. I felt little joy of life or music from the Swiss. Maybe it was them or maybe it was just me. I could never sort it out. I proved to myself that I could persist and carry on like a soldier at the piano bars but did I really want to continue? I felt like I was playing professionally, but robotically. Smiling and playing songs I was tired of playing or just plain didn’t like. Was this where I was supposed to be musically? Is this where it all had led up to? Where was my musical inspiration and joy of music?
The fates were about to deal me some unforeseen surprises, bad and good which led me in a new direction.
The burning van
When I returned from to the states in 1993 I flew in to Washington DC and headed back to Richmond, Virginia to retrieve my home on wheels, VW van from my friend Celeste. The old van had been parked for a year and hadn’t had any maintenance. I threw in my two suitcases and my guitar in the back and started driving west out of town, toward the long ride ahead of me to California.
I had only driven a few miles when I saw smoke in my rear view mirror. My engine was on fire! I freaked out and pulled over in front of a gas station and jumped out as I saw the van quickly getting engulfed in flames. I was stuck in a dramatic feeling of approach avoidance. My suitcases and guitar were in there with everything I needed but I was terrified the van would explode. The gas station called the fire department the minute they saw a burning van in their driveway and one of the employees came running out with a fire extinguisher and dove under the vans rear engine as close as he could trying to put it out. I was even more terrified now that there would be an explosion and kill this guy trying to help. The fire engines sirens were approaching and I was moving back and running in circles trying in a state of panic. The fire truck arrived within five minutes from the start of the fire. I was hysterical, shouting about my suitcases and guitar in the van. One of the firemen quickly to an ax to my vans sliding door and tossed the bags out on the sidewalk. They then doused the van with water and foam. They left just about as quickly as they had come and I was dazed and confused. I was looking at a smoldering and useless skeleton of a van sitting in front of me with a tow truck waiting to haul it away to a junk yard.
This was not just a car fire. It was kind of a house fire. Just about all of my earthly possessions were inside. I got inside and saw that everything that wasn’t destroyed by the fire was destroyed be the smoke and foam. The saddest thing to me of all was my five melted bowling balls. I was still an avid bowler and looked forward to continuing my professional aspirations. All of my suits, shoes and clothes for working were burned or singed. All personal possessions destroyed. I was really in shock. Fortunately the firemen rescued the two suitcases and guitar so I had at least my immediate necessities and a couple of working suits. But I was a mess.
The tow truck driver hoisted the van up on his flatbed. He said maybe I should get in and take one last look around before he took it away to the junk yard. I got up and looked around one last time for anything salvageable. There was nothing. I backed up out of the van and thought I was on level ground but in fact was 3 feet off of it. I fell backward off the flatbed and injured a leg pretty badly. A torn and bruised muscle left me reeling in pain. Now as memento to my drama I was limping badly also.
I friend of mine’s mother lived in Richmond who I had been in touch with and visited before I left for Switzerland. I took a cab to her house and knocked on her door. Bonnie was a nurse and saw I needed not only medical help but care and attention also. She gave me pain pills and showed me to the guest room where I slept for a couple of days and sulked about my situation. Bonnie was really a godsend if there ever was one. I don’t know what I would have done without her. She helped me get back on my feet and talked to me like a therapist. She even drove me to the scene of the accident so I could see it and help process and get over the trauma.
I called my talented saxophonist friend, Dale Mills back in the Santa Cruz Mountains, who is one of my oldest and best friends. He offered to let me move in for a while till I got things sorted out. Dale had recently lost his only child, a handsome young man, to tragic events. He was living alone in his family home that he took over a couple of years before when his parents passed on. He was in a terrible place of his own and didn’t really want company in his dark life. We were very close friends though and he saw I was in a mess. He welcomed me into his space. I spent a couple of months there in his quiet mountain home, trying to figure out life with him.
I decided not to buy a car and just get around like I had been doing in Switzerland for the previous year - with buses and a bicycle. This is very unusual for American life. Everyone has at least one car and is barely aware of bus transportation. I thought it would help me slow down and see that my life was in transition. Not try to get a car and act like everything was normal. Life wasn’t normal and I wanted dwell in that realization and try to find what my next steps should be. Dale was infatuated with the new computer fad and the internet. I wasn’t but I decided to follow his momentum. I got a new Apple Mac, a very primitive machine by todays standards, and started trying to understand. I didn’t. It was daunting and frustrating to me. Common sense problem solving didn’t seem to apply in this new fangled contraption called the personal computer. I felt like I was going against the grain and swimming upstream trying to learn, and I still do today. I use computers for a lot of my creative work and business needs but I’ve had to accept that I’m just not much of a techie. I faced this in my mid thirties as well when I built a recording studio in my home. I got a lot of instruction but was never happy with my engineering abilities. I accepted the fact that my forte is as a creative musician and it’s best for me to hire skilled technicians for any kind of engineering or computer work that’s difficult for me to understand. I spend far too much time trying to problem solve technical things and in the doing can lose my creative inspiration for the project at hand.
The piano stage shows
It was during this floundering period, at forty-four years old, that I found a way to reinvent myself from piano bar musician to stage entertainer. I got the idea in a sudden inspiration to write and perform a piano stage act that would feature the music of Cole Porter and involve historical story telling, jokes, guitar, ukulele, tap dancing and of course, singing and playing piano.
I would spend the next seventeen years building my piano stage shows and the business around them. At the high point I was touring nationally, booked with a theatrical agency in New York. It was a long journey getting to that point. It required a lot of hard work and faith in myself but I felt that with each step along the way I was evolving and getting closer to my artistic goals and vision. It was all many labors of love. I was finally playing the music I enjoyed and I seemed to have unlimited energy to keep developing new material for the shows and booking them anywhere that people would have me for any price. I discovered many talents I never knew I possessed and It was like one big one big happy, creative, musical and theatrical playground for me for many years.
The whole idea came to me in a sudden flash as I was driving from Santa Cruz to Portland, Oregon along interstate highway-5 in California. I always have enjoyed long distance travel on the open highways. I find it relaxing and it gives me a lot of time to sort out thoughts and think things over. I’ll often talk out loud to myself to keep my thoughts straight. It was somewhere near Red Bluff, California as I was thinking about my playing and what I should do that the idea hit me like a blinding flash. I saw my future laid out before me in a way I had never experienced before. It was a true “Eureka!” moment. The ideas for my shows and how I would book them were rolling into my brain in such clarity and so fast that I pulled off at the first off ramp I could find, went into a restaurant with some scratch paper and started furiously writing everything down in a series of outlines. I was afraid if I didn’t write fast that I would lose some of my brainstorm ideas. It would be a grand show presented in tuxedo-tails and top hat and only on a real piano, preferable a grand. It would have:
1. Piano / singing / story-telling
3. Ukulele (I would have to buy one)
4. Banjo (I would have to buy one)
5. Tap dancing (buy tap shoes and take lessons)
6. Get various vintage hats to go with various songs.
7. Get a portable light tree and spotlight (gobos)
8. Portable stage background to create a stage look
9. Record backing tracks for tap routines and singing
10. Make quality promotional material. Posters, flyers and programs for the theme shows.
It would be a one-man variety show. My first show was to be based on Cole Porter but I would be creating a new show every year based around the lives of other famous songwriters from the Golden Age of American pop music. The Gershwin’s, Irving Berlin, Hammerstein, Johnny Mercer, Jimmy Van Heusen, Jerome Kern, Rodgers and Hart, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and on and on.
I figured that I could find an immediate market for my little shows in luxury retirement homes around the western states. It was necessary to take the show on the road because there are only a few luxury retirement homes in any given area and you can’t play the same show twice for an audience. I would have to book into various cities and keep moving. I was quite comfortable this lifestyle already after nine years of it, so it was a natural move for me. I also realized that once I had played one retirement venue that I could return the next year and bring a new show to them.
The seeds for this brainstorm vision of mine was born out of some jobs I had played for an organization in the Santa Cruz area called Young at Heart. They are a non-profit whose mission is to provide quality entertainment in nursing homes in the San Francisco Bay area. A friend of mine was the leader of the organization and he asked me to play some of the gigs. The pay was good at $125 for a one-hour spot and he organized it so the players could do two in a day. The music had to be standards from the 1920’s - 40’s so it sounded right up my alley.
I didn’t know anything about nursing homes or assisted care facilities at the time but I was soon to get a fast education. These places are for the very elderly and they are usually nearing the end of their life cycle and in very weak or bed-ridden condition. I only played a few dozen of the gigs but it was very hard on me. The people there really appreciated hearing music from their youth, their kind of music, not modern electric pop. I would get to talking to some of them and my heart would really open up when I was singing and I found myself crying or fighting back tears much of the time. I would be packing up my gear drying my tears, get in the car and take off, wondering why I was so wiped out emotionally. These weren’t my friends or relatives but I was unable to shut my emotions off and toughen up enough to get thru the gigs in one piece. Here I was crying for people I only just met and would never see again. I liked the money and it seemed like it should be easy work but it wasn’t. I had to drop out.
Amongst the nursing home jobs there were a few actual retirement home gigs as well. As mentioned, I didn’t know anything about “old folks homes” before this and didn’t understand that there was a big difference between nursing facilities and retirement homes. In the retirement homes the folks are still quite active and vibrant. They are living in nice condo or apartment complexes with other seniors and still enjoying life very much. Most of them are still driving, shopping, planning vacations and enjoying life. They are at the younger end of the senior spectrum for the most part. The nursing homes have older residents quite advanced in age who are barely mobile, if at all. They need a lot of help with everything in their daily lives.
The retirement home residents were able to give me feedback when I was performing and I really need that. Just seeing people respond by smiling or swaying to the music while I’m playing means a lot to me. It’s a kind of energy transmitted my way that gives me fuel during my playing. And of course the applause always means a lot and is a meter of how things are going. The folks in the nursing homes bless their hearts, but they weren’t capable of clapping their hands or even smiling. You knew how much they appreciated having someone play for them but they were incapable of giving any response or feedback. I think I am a bit unusual and overly sensitive this way. There are many excellent performers playing in nursing homes for Young at Heart and when talking to them I found out they don’t share my need for feedback nor my over-sensitivities. This is probably a good thing.
When I had my Eureka moment I sorted out the work I had been doing for the Young at Heart organization and realized the difference between nursing and the retirement homes I had played for them. I also realized that I could be very happy playing on stages in retirement homes for the vibrant seniors. All I had to do was locate and start getting in touch with them for bookings.
Another valuable lesson learned from my short association with Sean Seaman, the musician who ran Young at Heart, was that he insisted that the entertainers he hired couldn’t just sit down and play music at the gigs. They had to talk to the assembled folks and tell them something about the music or the songwriters that wrote the tunes. Make a verbal connection with them. Make it sort of a show. This was new to me but I was up for the challenge. My whole musical life I only played songs on stage and maybe made a few comments in the microphone. I was a typical nightclub performer. I’m an avid biography reader and especially about show biz personalities, composers, films makers, actors and songwriters. Researching about where songs came from, who wrote them and why, was a hobby of mine, so it seemed like a good opportunity to fuse my hobby with my performing. I already had a head start because I was a big Cole Porter fan and had done a lot of reading about him through the years. I’d even did some arrangements once for a college production of Cole’s famous show, Anything Goes. I was a big fan.
I took another big step into becoming a stage performer by setting up a separate mic in front of the piano where I would get up and talk to the audience. No guitar in my hands, just talk. I enjoyed it immensely and wondered why it had taken me so long to do so. Doing this reminded me of another challenge a gentleman gave me when I was working in Ireland some years before. We were chatting after the gig at his table and he shared with me that he was a big piano-bar fan. He said he had never seen a player get up out of his seat at the piano, stand up and talk to the audience about what was going to be played or about anything at all. He said it would make such a difference to the people listening to have someone talk to them a little between songs instead of just hearing one tune after another. He challenged me to do that and I said I could but truthfully the thought of it scared me. I, like most all other club musicians, I only felt comfortable having an instrument in my hands. Take it away from me and I felt naked and afraid. Lead singers in bands don’t have this hang up. They never had an instrument to hide behind, but all of us players feel protected somehow holding our instruments. I finally found a way to make it happen because Sean Seman insisted on it. I’ve thanked Mr. Seman many a time for the seeds and concept from which my theater shows grew and I’ll say it once more here for the record.
So there I was on this long drive up the Highway, ruminating on the nursing home gigs that I could no longer continue with and piecing things together in my thoughts. There were so many new things I liked about the work, the music of that era was what I enjoyed playing most, making a bit of a presentation and show was interesting and exciting to me, the people that came to hear the music sat and listened as opposed to having drinks and shouting above my playing, and for a one hour gig I could make the same money I was used to getting playing four or five hours in the piano bars in Europe. It was early evening or afternoon performances. No smokers or alcohol. Being able to put my hobby researching composers and songs to use entertaining people was also very exciting to me. All of these things I enjoyed and were big new elements much different than my previous life of playing music in clubs.
I was running all this through my head wondering how I could make it work somehow when the blinding flash hit me. I was going to play for luxury retirement homes and take the idea of talking to the audience to a much higher level. Write jokes, learn to tap dance, start booking contracts. I saw it all in my Eureka moment and my future for the next seventeen years was laid out for me waiting to step into it.
My concept what nursing homes and retirement residences were was still pretty fuzzy and limited but I was headed in the right direction. What I was to learn as I grew in the entertaining for seniors business was the many different tiers of luxury retirement living that existed. Things progressed along pretty quickly in the next few years and I found myself playing in many super-sophisticated retirement milieus on wonderful stages with Steinway pianos. From there I catapulted onto national theater stages touring the states with a well-respected theatrical agency. But I’m getting ahead of myself. There’s still so much to tell about the beginning years.
I can imagine that some of you reading this must think I was little naive about my vision and how excited I was about putting a show together. Anyone involved in live theater or putting together shows already knew about all the things that I was excited about. The truth was that I was indeed naive and excited. Nothing wrong with that. I felt like the proverbial Christopher Columbus discovering a whole new world. My naivety and excitement were charging me forward. I have learned in life that discovering things on ones own can be better sometimes than going to school or being an apprentice. There are times when discovering or learning something on your own can be quite thrilling and satisfying.
I got back in the car and kept hatching the ideas and jotting them down as I continued my drive to Portland. Now here I was with this great vision. I was bursting to get started. I knew I could put the show together what I was most concerned about were the bookings. So how was I to get started? The phone book, the trusty old phone book, just like when I was searching for agents and gigs at piano bars in Europe so many years before. This might be hard to believe but in 1994 there was hardly any businesses yet using the Internet. It was in it’s infancy stage and was pretty useless for tracking down retirement places. The phone book was it. The good old Yellow Pages. Every business was listed. I wanted to get started right now.. When I got up around Eugene, Oregon I pulled over and found a phone booth with a phone book in it. (That’s right a phone booth, just like the ones Superman used to change clothes in) I looked for retirement homes and sure enough there were some listed for Eugene. I went for the big ads. I figured any business that could afford a big ad in the Yellow Pages must have some kind of a descent budget for music. This was going to be my first experience “cold calling” a business. Little did I know that it would become a big part of my life for the next decade and a half. I didn’t even know what a cold call was at the time. I only knew I was excited about my new show and wanted to book it somewhere. I knew that any bookings I got wouldn’t happen right away so I would have plenty of time to practice, research and develop my Cole Porter show.
I called a few places not knowing what my reception would be. I asked for the person who hired the music for their residents and hoped for the best. I found out quickly that the person in charge of entertainment is called the Activity Director. That was an important piece of information.
I had a pretty good quick introduction about myself that I figured might get their curiosity up and keep them on the phone. My standard line when I was looking for work was that I had been playing piano bars in Europe for the past eight years and was now back in the states and looking for engagements. I was a little impressed with myself and I’ve found out that it can be infectious sometimes if I was lucky. I ran over it a little in my mind, dropped some coins in the pay phone and started dialing.
I called three or four numbers and actually spoke with two activity directors. I wasn’t sure how much to ask for. How much money did they spend on entertainment? I was shooting in the dark. Young at Heart in Santa Cruz got funded independently from grants so that wasn’t much of a gauge. I decided to ask for $125 and hold my breath. One place told me that it was way out of their budget. They only paid $75 if someone was really good. But the next place I called told me that it was more than they spend for normal entertainment but they might be able to afford $125 for a special event and that my show sounded interesting to them. She told me to call back later to set a date. Wow! I was excited. Someone was actually interested. This might really work. I also got some immediate information about how much money the retirement homes had to work with to pay their entertainers. It was my first step on a long journey.
My Portland office
The reason I was headed to Portland was that I was checking it out to see if it might be a place for me to move to and live. I had old post high school sweetheart Kim, and her husband, lived there and were helpful in finding me a room to rent in the city.
Winter was just setting in as I moved into my large room in a spacious old house belonging to a single woman and her young daughter. Snow and freezing winds kept me indoors a lot but I barely got to know them in my short stay there. I was so focused on my new vision that I spent most of my time in my room making phone calls. My room was really my office. I installed my own phone and went to the library a lot to make photocopies of the Yellow Pages listings for retirement homes. Not just in Portland but for everywhere on the west coast.
This is where I got my real baptism into cold calling. I didn’t have any promotional to send in advance. All I had was my enthusiasm and belief that I could provide a fascinating hour of entertainment for their residents. I made up some pretty primitive promotional material about myself and the show sent it out if an Activity Director showed any interest. I learned quickly that they booked a few months in advance at the earliest so I was trying to book things in Portland for the following spring. I started filling in some dates on the calendar. Sometimes and activity director would book me straight away from the first phone call. Now that was very validating and gave me a lot of juice to keep charging forward. Once I got something on the calendar I could tell the next one that so-in-so retirement resident in town had me booked and that I was trying to add more dates for my upcoming spring tour. I wasn’t too hung up on how much I would get paid. I just wanted to get my show rolling and up in front of a live audience and start evolving it. I started book dates around the Portland area anywhere from $150 to $50 dollars. I made up a simple, one page contract with big print and sent it out when the date was made.
I would make so many calls that my ear and hands would get tired from holding the phone. I could spend the whole day at it. If I got one booking I felt like it was a successful day. If I got two I was floating on air. Sometimes they showed some interest and said to send some promotional material. This made me feel good too and was also a partial success.
I wasn’t limiting myself to Portland. I got phone books from every town big and small in Oregon, Washington and California. I got a map and stated imagining how I could create a tour of engagements that made sense. It ended up being something like this:
10 days in Portland for 6 show
6 days in Seattle for 3 shows
3 days in Bellingham for 2 shows
2 day back in Seattle for one show
8 days back to Portland for 4 shows
7 days in Eugene for 4 shows
It was a very ambitious tour I was setting up for very little money but I didn’t care. What else was I going to do? Go back to playing piano bars in Europe or elsewhere? I felt like this was my positive future. I was so excited about it that the whole world felt like a lovely place to be. When I added up the total for my shows it felt like worthwhile money. I just had to work out where to stay. Even cheap motels were $40-50 a night so I had to get creative. Wherever I had friends or musical acquaintances I hoped to get a few nights on a couch. If nothing presented itself I would stay in a motel. Motel 6 was the best of the low budget motels so if I was feeling flush, I would take a room with them. They were to become my most consistent home. I was used to living out of my suitcase so it all made good sense to me.
Winter in Portland was getting serious and very cold. I was starting to get cold feet about living there. I had never lived anywhere where it was this cold. The weather was causing me to think a lot about giving up my housing quest there and getting back where the weather suited my clothes.
It also caused me to start picking up Florida and Arizona phone books in my trips to the library.I’d never really been in Arizona except for passing through but I heard it would be warm there during the winter. From what I was experiencing with the cold weather in Portland, Arizona started to sound like the place for me to be. I started dialing.
The first thing I noticed about all the Yellow Page ads I photo copied at the library was that there were so many pages devoted to independent retirement residence and so many full or half page ads. To me this meant there might be a high percentage of places with good budgets for music. Many of the ads were also for huge, sprawling mobile home parks for seniors. It looked as though I had stumbled into the proverbial land of milk and honey.
This was all new information for me. As mentioned, I had never had any association with senior living life styles. I was only forty-five years old and had no older, retired friends. I never heard about it from my own two sets of parents. They were very youth oriented themselves and I don’t think they were aware of retirement residences at all. They actually were all in denial to the fact that they were now old themselves. Only my necessity and desire to book my shows raised me awareness on retirement living options
The Phoenix area was huge and I didn’t understand the lay of the land at all. Scottsdale, Sun City, Mesa, Tempe, they were all just names to me. I got a map and saw how spread out the suburban sprawl was. I would be doing a lot of driving. It would be important to book different areas during the same weeks to not waste gas and time commuting too much.
I started calling and talking with activity directors. Introducing myself and letting them know I was new and naive in the retirement entertainment business. I have found over the years that when you let people know that you don’t understand things that many of them will be eager to help you get oriented and going in the right direction. This as opposed to trying to faking it and act like you are the old pro and already have things all figured out. There is a place for both postures but in this case I was looking for friends. I got lucky by meeting two wonderfully helpful activity directors who helped me break into the area. Jan Svendsen in Sun City and Jo Smith in Scottsdale. Both long time career Activity Directors. They became my angels for a time, introducing me to other activity directors and giving advice on pricing and what would be expected. I think they were impressed enough with my experience in entertaining so they believed in me and were happy to see a new face in the area.
I learned over my years there that there was a familiar core of entertainers that played in the Phoenix retirement venues. Most lived in the area and some came from out of town for the winter season just as thousands of part time residents did also. I was soon to be made aware of the term “Snowbirds”. It references the people who go south for the winter to escape from their harsh winters at home in the northern lands. Hundreds of thousands of Snowbird swarm to Phoenix for the winter. Most of them maintain part time apartments or mobile homes that sit empty in the hot season. They are at the very young end of the senior citizen population. But they were all old enough to love the music from the 1920’s through 40’s so they were right in my target audience.
I booked only about a dozen shows that first December season of 1994. It was the beginning of winter work for me in Arizona that would last for seventeen years. I got my Snowbird wings and started building bridges.
An important thing that came to my attention was that the budgets in a lot of venues were much higher than the places I was getting in touch with on the west coast. This was to change later but I first came upon the ultra, super luxurious retirement residences in Phoenix. They had sophisticated residents paying a high price for their luxury lifestyle and they expected their activity directors to provide them with top-notch entertainment. They often have committees of residents who look and hear entertainer’s promotional material and vote on which they would like to see. Keep in mind that no one was using the Internet for entertainment resumes in 1994. Everyone was making printed material and mailing it the old fashioned way. If something got lost in the mail you had to send it again.
There is an erroneous belief amongst musicians and amateur musicians that getting a booking in a retirement venue is easy because “they are easy and don’t know the difference between good and bad music.” Ha! That is a mistake in judgment indeed but I hear it from musicians all the time. It’s quite the opposite. Activity directors are inundated with musicians contacting them and are a very discerning bunch. They learn quickly and instinctively who is good, who is not and who can fit into the senior world correctly. The residents let them know if they like the presentation or not. In nursing homes, assisted living and Alzheimer’s facilities it is the opposite. The activity directors are very happy to have nearly anyone come in and play for folks. But the budgets correspond accordingly. There’s very little remuneration for playing. Sometimes there is a zero budget and they hope someone will come and play for free. Fortunately someone usually does.
I was making my bookings for the upcoming year while I was staying in Portland and the winter was really wearing me down. Snow and ice and a frozen social life as a result. I was mostly indoors dialing the old-fashioned dial phone till my fingers got sore everyday. An old friend of mine from California and told me she was looking for someone to help her drive her car to Florida where she would spend the winter with her aging mother. (living in a retirement condo!) She would pay for expenses and cost of my flight back to San Jose, she just wanted company and help with the driving on the long drive east. It sounded good to me and I jumped at it. I would have plenty of time to fly back to California, practice and get ready for Arizona. All-in-all it was an uneventful trip east. I enjoyed the ride and it gave me the needed momentum to give up Portland after being there just six weeks. I drove down to Santa Cruz to meet up with my old friend Suganda and off we went.
Starting in Arizona........
My first Snowbird season in Arizona was full of discoveries about the business and the area. I paid close attention to the various strata of retirement venues and the different kinds of activity directors. Arizona and Florida are the Mecca locations for the Snowbirds of the nation. It was a great place for my show and my love of music from the older era. As the years went by I often considered Florida but it was too far away. I could easily drive to Arizona with my car full of my show necessities. Amplifiers, guitars, gig bags, lighting, etc. If I flew to the east coast I couldn’t bring much with me that I needed.
Santa Cruz was my base and I had lots of friend’s couches and spare dens to sleep in for short visits. Wherever I stayed there was a piano so I could practice and work on my material. My brothers lived in the Los Angeles suburbs and I had to pass through on my way to Phoenix. So I had places to stay on the way. My budget was pretty small for motels so I had to wing it as best I could in Phoenix. I had some old friends living there from my old theater days in Santa Cruz. Michael Burkett, a film critic in Phoenix, was on the top of the list. He was a comedian, actor and brilliant writer also. He was happy to know I would be in town. (or so he said!) He and his wife put me up for quite a few days on the couch and we got back to work on a musical we had worked on and put on the shelf fifteen years earlier. The Melody of Frankenstein. It was a fun project to fill my spare time and we managed to finish it and make some demo recordings of the songs. His sister-in-laws daughter was a professional stage dancer and started giving me tap dance lessons so I cold work on that detail of my new ambitious show. She was the first in a string of tap teachers I hired for a few years who all had to work with my two left feet and help me create something presentable and not too embarrassing. I was determined. I had a dream and my own lack of dance talented wasn’t going to deter me.
I was quite familiar with college campus music departments since I had taught on one and visited quite a few when I was promoting my college text many years back. At that time I think the Arizona State University at Tempe was still using my little book actually. I went and introduced myself at the music department and got permission to use the piano practice rooms. After I did a show something I would know what needed work or what I wanted to add or change. I could use the practice pianos at University to work on things.
The more I played my shows the more I believed in my direction. I was finally playing the music I was interested in and wanted keep exploring and digging into the music known as the “Golden Era of American” music. As was so called the music that was popular from the early part of the 20th century up till the mid 1950s. This music is also referred to as the “Great American Songbook.” It was generally written by song writing teams, composer and lyricist. The music from this era is rich in melody and harmonies. It was music written to be played on a piano and was also well suited to jazz exploration.
I had such a great passion for the music and also for the history of the era. Every new show I developed gave me the opportunity to study the featured composer and research what were his most popular songs. Also I wanted to know why each song was written and was always on the search for biographies about the songwriters or Broadway actors in hopes of finding material for my presentations. I was always searching for information about the shows the songs were written for, who sang them fist on stage or who made them popular on the radio and when. I would try to find out what the inspiration was for each song if I could. Then I could roll that into my stage script and share it with my audiences. My shows were loaded with trivia. Not only about the songs and songwriters but also about the era.
Most of the popular song’s in that era were written for Broadway shows. The rest were written by design by Tin Pan Alley tune-smiths hoping to come up with a popular song for financial gain. I was presenting the music of the most popular songwriters of the era so that meant most all of the songs I was studying were written for Broadway shows or movie productions. Irving Berlin was an exception because he wrote for many shows but was also writing songs for the sake of coming up with a hit and he succeeded in both direction prolifically.
I never believed I was much of a singer and that was a healthy attitude because I wasn’t. I was an average singing talent but I learned how to sell a song in performance. My small shows were giving me a lot of valuable experience that I would later need for the big stage. I learned step by step what worked and what didn’t. What musical bits were effective, what jokes worked and what songs worked well with audiences. If I liked a song or felt like it had to be in the show but wasn’t putting it over well I would work and rework it until I found an arrangement that worked. I was good at transposing so I could move the song to various keys to find one best suited for my voice and presentation. I would rewrite the melody in tough spots and find a way to fake the high passages so as not to embarrass myself trying to hit high notes I was incapable of. I would study other singers with short vocal ranges and learn how they would finesse difficult passages in songs to deliver them well.
Stage tricks are often about convincing the audience you are a little more talented than you really are. One of my greatest stage tricks was in learning how to smile. It took me a long time to learn how to smile on stage. I’m not a naturally smiley person so it wasn’t easy for me to accomplish. I would study the stage greats and most of them really knew the power of a stage smile. I would look at my live performance tapes and see myself being way to serious. Well, that can work if you happen to be a marvelously talented singer or performer but if you’re not then you are setting yourself up for an ego fall all the time. When you smile, the world smiles with you. When your audience smiles back at you then you catch it and smile even bigger back at them. Stage magic in action.
I learned that the best thing to do when I hit a clam or made a mistake was to smile at the audience. I would make it a really big smile. When I started out with stage performing, I would get very self conscious if I made a mistake on stage and feel terribly embarrassed for a moment. It was a horrible feeling. Later I learned to act like it just doesn’t matter and I really don’t care. The audience only wants to see you happy, feeling confident and enjoying yourself. They go with your smile and your confidence, not your mistake. An audience has a very short memory and they want to be entertained, not criticize. If you can keep them happy and entertained then you can do nearly anything on stage. Bad notes and mistakes don’t mean a thing at the end of the day. If the audience leaves the theater smiling then everyone had a successful day.
On the road in the RV
In my second year with the shows I was back in Arizona for a few months in the winter, paying on a different stage every day and or night, around the greater Phoenix and Tucson areas. I was living in motels alone, a bachelor entertainer. One evening after one show in Sun City I met the attractive daughter of one of the residents there. She was an artist around my age. We hit it off and made a date for coffee. We discovered we had a lot in common over the next days and romance led us into a wonderful relationship
Marianne Oakason was recently widowed and was staying as a house guest in San Francisco with friends who lived in a high rise apartment in the center of the cities Union Square district. She came out to Phoenix sometimes to see her elderly mother in her retirement home were we met. She had recently dissolved her house in Las Vegas after her husband died and was searching for her next chapters in life. San Francisco is only an hours drive from Santa Cruz, where I would stay when I wasn’t on the road so it was an easy development for us to get together.
In the midst of our honeymoon period of getting to know each other we decided to buy an RV (Recreational Vehicle). Neither one of us had any prior experience with one but it seemed like an exciting idea. Neither one of us had an actual home or apartment so this would become our romantic home on wheels taking us around the west coast where I would perform at my venues.
We bought a new twenty-nine foot (nine meters) RV from a lot in Eugene, Oregon. We were ecstatic. We were in love and had a new home together! Neither one of us had money but she had good credit thanks to her former marriage. We signed on the dotted line and drove off down the road. The RV cost around $40,000 but we only making $325 a month payments. We didn’t realize it at the time but we had signed onto a lifetime of low monthly payments. We were too giddy to think straight. We just knew we now had a beautiful new home on wheels and life ahead of us was looking very nice for both of us. It was very dreamy to be in this new tidy space with all new furnishings. There was a living room, bedroom, bathroom and even an extra bed overhead of the driving area. It was the first home I ever had that had all new furniture.
We went to Las Vegas to pick up her artists brushes and materials and hit the road. I had a digital electric piano that I used for practice and could set up in the little living room. Everything was looking good.
Our first jolt of harsh reality came when we parked somewhere along the side of the road to spend the night. We were clueless to the fact that there were restrictions on where one can park a large RV. People don’t like to see a big rig like that on their streets. If you park on a quiet dark road the police will come and tell you to move along to an “RV campsite.” RV campsite! What was that? We really were clueless and had a rude awakening. RV campsites, as they are called, are parking lots with a little grass around a BBQ pit. There’s an office, and maybe recreational building of some sort and they require a $25-$40 parking per night fee. We were shocked. We had been banking on the fact that we only had to pay our $325 a month mortgage and gas costs and could sleep anywhere. We really couldn’t afford a nightly fee on top of our mortgage. We had to be crafty and creative. We stayed in front of friend’s houses when we weren’t on the road for my shows. We could often park overnight at some of me venues parking lots. We also sorted out cheaper state campgrounds or RV parks to stay at but there weren’t very many. We also discovered that we were pretty much the youngest RV couple anywhere we went. Most people are retired and drifting around the country leisurely or taking their big rigs out for a short vacation. We didn’t fit in with the RV crowd at all.
Marianne became a stage hostess at my shows. She bought a lovely and fun, girls stage tuxedo and would hand out programs and talk with the customers. She enjoyed my shows, and was a great emotional support for my never-ending musical aspirations. I was living on a shoestring at that time and couldn’t ever afford good promotional photos. Marianne set up a photo shoot in San Francisco and a good graphic designer to put together a professional promo brochure that I could send out when trying to get bookings. She also liked to cook as well and our home on wheels had a lovely two-burner stove and oven so there was always a nice dinner to look forward to at the end of the day when the shows were over.
The Irving Berlin Show
As my shows and I developed so did my booking abilities. I was still my own booking agent. I would spend long days on the phone calling to activity directors trying to book my show. Cell phones weren’t commonly available in the mid 1990’s so this meant that I did all my calling from motel rooms or from wherever we parked the RV. Phone booths were often my office.
Getting a good price for the shows was always desirable but really the bottom line was just to get a booking. My feeling was that if I couldn’t get $300 for a show I would rather play that day for $30 then not perform. I enjoyed playing the show and felt like I learned something every time I got on stage. I was also very happy not to be playing in night clubs anymore. I quickly got spoiled playing to quiet, sit down audiences in a one hour, give-it-your-all performance instead of four hours of competing with people talking over the TV and the bartenders conversations and blender noise.
While I was living in the RV with Marianne I developed my second production, The Irving Berlin show. I knew just about nothing regarding America’s most prolific hit songwriter. My good friend Sean Seman put the bug in my ear about him so I started to do a little research. The great show composer Jerome Kern said it best about Irving. When he was asked about Irvin’s contribution to American popular music he replied that “Irving Berlin is American popular music.” I’m not sure about how it stands today with all the big names in popular music but the fact was and possibly still is that Berlin wrote more popular songs than any one else, ever. Studying Irving Berlin was like digging into a never-ending treasure chest of popular American songs. He also had fascinating, rags-to-riches life story that made for a crowd-pleasing show, telling his story on stage woven in with his most famous songs.
The reality of living in the small space of an RV slowly but surely set in upon us. The romantic dream of our wonderful home on wheels faded into a cramped living space and a toilet tank that had to be dealt with at proper RV dump station locations. We started to get worn down and on each other’s nerves. If we were relaxing and vacationing like all the other RV people on the road that we met, it would have been an ideal existence. But I had a show to do and was always at work practicing or booking. Navigating the big vehicle around in cities was also nerve racking. We found ourselves fighting over little things and criticizing each other.
I recall one night where it really peaked. We were coming back from a weekend of shows somewhere above Seattle and a big fight ensued. We were struggling in traffic in the fading light of sunset arguing about where we should stay and how far we should go and who’s fault everything was. All of our old grievances came flying out of our mouths at each other. We pulled over in traffic and called it quits! We were both fed up, disgusted and furious with each other.
This is the point at the end of a fight where one or the other storms out the door slamming it as they leave. But the reality was that if one of us walked out the door we would be on the side of the road with highway traffic hurtling by and we didn’t even know where we actually were! The RV was big enough that one of us could go in the back bedroom and close the door and the other sleep above the driving area in the cab-over bed and that’s exactly what we did. We both stormed off in opposite directions in a huff.
After about an hour the angry energy dissipated and we both felt defeated and drained. We quietly got back into the drivers area and proceeded “somewhere” to call it a night and sleep off the negative energy and fight. In the morning we were civil to each other again but it tool a while for any real smiles to return.
One more piano bar in Switzerland
I got the idea that a trip to Switzerland might be a good remedy for us so I got a hold of an agent I had worked with there in the past and booked a month back at the Central Hotel in Zurich. I thought that if Marianne were with me I could keep my chin up and enjoy playing for a short time. Also it would bring in enough money to pay our way. I would take her to visit some of my old friends in Germany and Norway and we would have a nice getaway.
At this time we had sub-leased a mountain duplex in the Santa Cruz Mountains in order to get out of the RV for a while. My regular exercise at that time was jogging. I would often hit the trails around the house and enjoy my workouts. But I started to feel some very unusual body symptoms during my jogs, some pressure on my chest. Also I noticed it whenever I would climb stairs. It got to the point where I nearly couldn’t climb stairs hardly at all. I felt like someone was pushing against me. I thought perhaps I was turning into a nut case or suffering from sort of panic attacks. or some sort of allergy. I was really lost for an answer. I tried to push thru my symptoms thinking that it was all in my head and I just needed to relax. I finally decided to visit the local clinic and ask a doctor about it. Lucky for me the doctor I drew at the clinic was listening to me very well and she said she just wanted to check my heart out to make sure that wasn’t the problem. I was only 47, thin and in pretty good shape so I never suspected a heart problem.
We made a date with a cardiologist for a stress test but I really didn’t understanding what the test was for or what she suspected. I was just going along for “some sort of test.” That’s how I looked at it.
The cardio-stress test quickly revealed that I had a severely blocked artery in my heart. I had to abort the test and the doctor gave me some nitro glycerin to open my arteries. This was a free clinic I had gone to and the doctors didn’t have time for explanations. I went into a tail-spin and my emotions became very dramatic. I thought this was a death sentence.
I had to get educated about the problem on my own. I found out that I wasn’t dying; I just needed a very common Angioplasty procedure where the arteries are widened to allow the blood to flow. Still I was very stressed and freaked out. If that astute doctor hadn’t been listening carefully to my descriptions of my strange body symptoms I would have certainly had a heart attack imminently. Se could have easily dismissed the thought, seeing me looking like a vibrant, health and skinny 47 year old. I could have easily been just another story about a jogger found lying dead on a mountain path of a sudden heart attack.
During this time Marianne and I continued to have struggles in our relationship and also didn’t help anything . We decided to follow through on the European plans. When I healed up we were up and away to Switzerland.
The Swiss trouble
My Swiss agent Kathleen, had set up the contract back at my old venue the Central Hotel. I was always somewhat popular there. That is to say there were never any problems and the owner himself, Mr. Meyer, was a fan of mine so that always is a good thing. He liked to wear my cowboy hat that I used for my country songs. My agent was always good at coming up with contracts and she was supposed to find me a few others after the Central job.
Personally, I wasn’t very excited about playing piano bar again but it was going to be a short tour and give Marianne and I a chance to be in Europe. I had been working on learning the Rhapsody in Blue for my yet unplanned Gershwin show and I liked to wow the patrons at the bar with portions of it whenever I could. Everything seemed OK and it was the same-old, same-old routine.
One evening my agent Kathleen came by the apartment that came with the job and we were laughing it up, having pleasant conversation. She was telling me all was well, the hotel was happy, with my usual playing, etc. We weren’t close friends but had a good working relationship and I had been to her house before and such. She said I looked well and I told her how good I felt since I had an angioplasty done in California just the month before. She was surprised and we talked about it a little bit. I explained how the procedure puts one back to normal, good health and such. It was just a nice chatty conversation.
The next day I got a call from her telling me the hotel was going to cancel me contract and let me go. Why?! Where was this coming from when I had just been told all was well and the hotel staff was quite happy with my performance? Kathleen told me that she shared with the manager my story about my heart procedure with the Mr. Meyer, manager and he was very upset and worried that I might have a heart attack while working for his hotel and that it could create trouble for him. I was flabbergasted. When I went to work that night and was wrapping up the assistant manager, who was always a very nice guy, came up to me somberly and said that I was fired because I wasn’t playing well and the customers weren’t happy with me. I could tell he was being forced to say that to me. He even apologized but he couldn’t admit that he had been ordered by big boss to tell me that was the reason I was being fired, not because of any health concerns. It legally created a safe way for them to let me go to say that I was doing a lousy job.
I tried to see Mr. Meyer himself but he had made himself unavailable and the word was around the hotel that no one was to talk to me. I felt like I was in a bad movie and got angry. I was black balled unfairly but what could I do? C’est la vie, this is the uncertain life of an entertainer and I had to accept it.
We were now in a very bad position financially because the work was going to pay for all of our expenses. We decided to try and wear a happy face and continue on to visit some of my friends near Stuttgart, Germany and then to Bergen, Norway to go see my old singer friend Thomas Seim who invited us for a visit. I told Thomas about my predicament and asked him if he could find me any work around Bergen because he was in touch with all the piano venues in the city. He came up with a couple of things and it gave us some hope but they were just fill-in, one-night spots and didn’t lead to anything steady.
Our idea of a nice getaway trip to Europe ended up being a lot of stress for us and our fighting, disagreements and worry about money continued while we traveled. We decided to call it quits after 2 and ½ half years together. We put the RV and all of it’s dreams up for sale. We took quite a loss on it and had to continue making payments even after we sold it. Marianne went back to Arizona to stay with her brother in Sedona and I returned to Santa Cruz.
Once back in Santa Cruz I needed to find housing for myself, I was good friends with the ex-girlfriend of my old roomie and drummer pal, Jimi Fox. Cindy was practically living with us at the house when we were roommates so we had developed a kind of family feeling together. We maintained a close friendship after they broke up. She knew that her neighbor was looking to rent out a room in her townhouse apartment and got us together. It seemed a little cramped renting a room in an apartment but I was in a jam and the price was right. Cindy, her new husband and kids were just next door so it helped make it feel comfortable. The owner of the house was an older French woman who lived alone and we got along quite well. It was nice to be around a touch of Europe and have an opportunity to say a few things in French sometimes. She let me put a baby grand piano in her garage and I started giving piano lessons and playing rehearsals for jazz singing students.
I had been the road for quite a while it felt like time to stay in one place for a while so I went hunting for a place of my own. After a few months I found a nice two-story duplex that would work for my students and rehearsal activities.
This was now my fourth year with the shows I was 47 years old and this was the first time I rented an actual domicile in more than twelve years. I quickly acquired another, larger grand piano so I now had two grand pianos for my small living room and went into high gear teaching piano students and working with jazz vocalists in order to pay the rent.
Jazz vocal workshops
I started leading jazz vocal workshops in the house. I called them piano bar workshops because I would have six or so vocalists around the grand piano passing the mic around while they would sing their songs that we had been rehearsing during the week in private sessions. We would work up keys and tempos, make practice tapes and then they would gather together around the piano once a week with the other singers I worked with to practice their new material. About every other month we would all go to a night club and preform with a jazz rhythm section. It was a dress up night and a lot of excitement and fun. I was also accompanying at the local Community College (where I used to teach), playing for the jazz singers class. I have always enjoyed jazz vocal accompaniment so it was all quite enjoyable work for me and it was helping to pay the bills. I had a home recording studio upstairs and I was also picking up some recording assignments for singers and occasional radio jingle work from my old clients who discovered that I was back in town.
Besides all of this activity I was carrying on full force with my booking duties for my shows. I would sit at my desk about six to ten hours a day on the telephone with me computer preparing promo material to go out in the mail and doing follow-up calls to all the luxury retirement venues all over the west coast. I would be filling out blocks of weeks with bookings for the upcoming road tour. I would be going out on the road for six or ten weeks to play all the booking I had set up for a road tour. I would do a couple of these tours a year and also a lot of ten days tours closer to home.
At this time I had two shows to present, Cole Porter and Irving Berlin. I got the idea to add a guest singer in the shows. Another brainstorm. I started looking for talented female vocalists that lived in the cities I would be playing. I figured that the audiences would appreciate seeing a female on stage and also might enjoy getting swept off their feet by a wonderful voice that also happened to be from their hometown. It was a good formula and added a new dimension to the shows. When I found a gifted singer I could quickly rehearse with her for keys and tempos and pay her to appear or a few songs in the show. I carried the whole sow myself already. All she would have to do is make and entrance a couple of times and add something to the show with her captivating voice.
Linda Weeks Dathe
During all of this intensely invigorating artistic energy in the Santa Cruz house I was dating a young Russian girl who was an exciting but difficult counterpoint to all the creative flow. It was one of those fiery, flamboyant relationships filled with laughter, celebrations, fighting and tears.
I had started a musical friendship with an attractive jazz singer of modest talent but great musicianship named Linda Weeks Dathe. She was a recent divorce and some five years older than me. She was a square and conservative but at her core a very hip music chick as a result of growing up with her professional musician father in the Los Angeles area. Her dad, Keith weeks, was a gifted musical and piano talent, as I was to discover. He played gigs all over LA in addition to heading up the music department at Cal Poly University. Between my relationship with her and him I was to discover many valuable things about my own musicianship and my musical image of myself. Linda was to become one of the greatest influences on my musical life in such a subtle but powerful way. It was as if she held the keys to my understanding my musical self. The self that made up my very musical ego.
Linda and I got to know each other as a result of the jazz singing classes at Cabrillo College where I was the accompanist. She started coming over to the house to work on her vocal arrangments or just to enjoy singing with me. Soon we and started hanging out together and sharing our mutual interests in jazz and show tunes. She wasn’t a musician or jazz vocalist per say but had an innate musical talent and ear that were frankly quite humbling to me. She possessed natural ability to hear harmonies that I envied very much. I spent a lifetime studying and studying but she had the ears to naturally hear and create harmonies that I could not. As we got to be better friends he also started correcting me when I was rehearsing songs and might hit flat note or not sing a melody correctly. I’m not a naturally gifted singer but put things over mostly with stylizing and personality. There were many times that we would have friendly fights about how the melody goes to a tune, or should I say I was singing it one way and she would tell me it was wrong. I don’t think I ever won any of those arguments.
Linda had a very natural ability to hear music and true pitch that I didn’t. I am a highly trained and skilled pianist with much natural and developed dexterity but I don’t have a very “good ear,” as they say. It’s a pit fall with a lot of pianists. We don’t have to tune our pianos and can’t bend a note like a string or horn player can. If the piano is out of tune we will generally still play and practice on it. This isn’t good training for developing a good ear. A horn player hears when a note is out can naturally bend it up or down with their embouchure technique. Similarly string players can come up or down with their fingers on a string to get the notes right in pitch. Pianists are stuck with what they have and worse still is we can’t tune out pianos ourselves. Tuning is a separate skill and quite precise. Call the tuner! Blame it on the tuner! Blame it on the piano! It can be a frustrating experience playing on an out of tune piano but we at times must. Actually most piano bar and club pianos don’t stay in tune very long so I just got used to playing on them no matter what. If a note was really out I could do my best to avoid it as much as possible and just get thru the night. I could also transpose in order to avoid a note if it would help. If a white note was badly out of tune then I would try to play in Db or as much as possible or play things up or down an octave to avoid the offensive note.
I recall one night showing up to my piano bar gig and there was a terrible, irritating vibration that would make your skin crawl if I played in the middle section of the piano. I was pretty sure a patron had dropped a coin into the grand piano by accident and somehow it ended up on the sounding board. I started taking the lid off the piano to track it down and the owner got angry with me telling me that I was too much of a perfectionist and to just ignore it because starting time was soon. There was no way I could play with that terribly irritating sound so it was either find it or quit the job. It took a while to find it but it was an American quarter (coin) that had wedged itself in a place that was very hard to track down. If a piano is out of tune I can deal with it but not when there was a sound as horrible as that to deal with.
I see myself as an ordinary person with some naturally abilities at the piano but nothing like a genius or even some great talent. In my evaluation of myself at this age (mid-60’s) I can finally admit that I made my way thru a career as a professional pianist with abilities that weren’t too far above average. I am a good example in a way of that old adage, “genius is the result of 90% perspiration and 10% inspiration.”
A genius I am not but highly skilled and developed I am. I think my best natural talent is my soft, sensitive touch and agility at the piano. This developed fluidness allows me to react intuitively at the keys and is well suited to jazz improvisation where I am always in search of spontaneous new ideas whether playing alone or with other players. I have trained and trained and then trained some more on order to gain my skill and abilities. When I was a young man I could not accept my modest self-evaluation that I have now. I was sure that a Chopin lay inside of me and all I needed was more training to let him out.
The hard work and perspiration of practice has always been enjoyable to me. I enjoy practicing as much as performing. The most effective practice occurs when one shuts out all other thoughts and becomes one pointed and concentrated on the task at hand. A one purpose of focus sets in and all other thoughts are excluded from the mind. Practicing is working on ones weaknesses, not ones strengths. Once you have isolated the weakness and set about to conquer it and become determined to turn it into a strength then development happens. when it is discovered where the finger muscles and muscle memory has to be improved it can require a great deal of repetition of the hand movements. The isolated hand movement has to be brought down to an extreme slow motion that is still in a musical rhythm pattern even though it is extremely slow. From this very slow movement speed is only gradually allowed in as the muscles and coordination set in properly. This can require repeating a hand movement or passage hundreds and hundreds of times until the muscle confidence is obtained. For me this is akin to meditation. It’s like meditating on a mantra but it’s an active, physical movement combined with the mantra. It’s a pure concentration and the mind becomes very clear. Clear of the clutter of constant mental activity and worry of the normal state of mind. Everything gets shut out.
I think this is the same sort of state of mind that advanced tennis players or any athlete or chess player experiences when they become sharply focused on their goal and opponents possible moves. There’s a joy that comes with such sharp concentration. I can sit for hours at the piano practicing and developing and feel like I’m involved in a task that’s worthwhile in life. Any discomforts in the body disappear and all worries and concerns vanish. I become completely involved in the moment and purpose of my being and feel lighter than air. I really can feel a joy and purpose in life if I get involved in a good practice session and this often permeates to the rest of my daily activities and helps create a feeling of well being.
What I have attempted to describe is when practice goes well but of course it often does not go well. The worry and concerns of ones brain cannot get shut out, worthwhile concentration never sets in and little progress is made. But even at that, it’s still nice to sit and try and keep one’s goals in mind with the forced effort. Sometimes it’s best to give up and tell yourself to come back later when your mind will be more able to let go so you can get into the practice effectively.
It might sound funny but my relationship with Linda helped me arrive at the valuable revelation, that I was not a genius of some sort, as I had deluded myself into believing when I was a young man. She was able to see what I was working on all the time and what I was trying to accomplish and give me a great deal of objectivity. Somewhere around the age of fifty I started to get my feet on the ground and really see musical myself. Maybe it was just a part of the natural process of maturing that we all find in our own time and our own way. Letting go of the illusions of youth. Seeing ones self and one’s place in the world thru more mature eyes. Maybe this was just my time to come out of my own fog but Linda was very mixed into it for me because of her own musical talents and experiences of being with professional musician father. She helped me see my musical myself and discover what my strengths really were and to let go of illusions that weren’t helpful to me at that stage in my career. It helped set me free in many ways.
When I met Linda I wasn’t particular attracted to her. I was quite embroiled in my relationship with Lillian Surkova, my Russian flame. While spending so much time with Linda talking about and sharing our common interests in music, she became a close friend in other ways as well. When my relationship with Lillian ended a little time went by Linda and I began a romantic relationship that surprised both of us.
She became a helper in many of my musical activities. I could test my ideas on her about things I was developing or wanted to develop in the shows. She was always interested in my research about the composers and the material I was reading and searching for. Great creative discussions were always being hatched between us.
She also got quite involved and helpful in my growing jazz singers workshops that were centered in my house. They were growing in popularity and a lot of amateur jazz singers were showing up and making appointments for private sessions. There were always recording projects for them and I had a business making vocal charts for them as well. This meant making lead sheets in their keys and helping them create their own personal singer’s books that they could take with them to their bands and other accompanists on gigs. I was always good at drawing up nice professional lead sheets as a result of my many years as a music copyist when I was younger. Musicians were always happy to see my charts in front of them on the stand.
Linda helped organize a lot of the activity with the singers in the house and would work with them herself at times. The house was always buzzing with musical projects and musicians coming over for rehearsals or just dropping in. It was like a creative hot spot. A lot of the singers became friends so the social energy was always bubbling. Parties to go to, dinners, gigs, and lots of excitement. Linda wasn’t much of a social hostess for dinners or parties, actually she hated cooking for guests. But she loved getting involved in musical projects and helping the singers any way she could.
The Cole Porter Show singers.
Working with so many vocalists gave me the idea to add two female vocalist friends of mine from Santa Cruz into the show and on the road with me to Arizona for an upcoming tour. Linda (Roxanne) Bryer and Tam weren’t trained voices but both had a terrific stage presence and personalities. Their voices could present well if we worked the arrangements the right way. They were both talented amateurs and we had great chemistry together. It was great fun for me to have someone to rehearse and build the shows with. Before this it was always just me and sometimes adding an appearance of a singer. It wasn’t the same as having others to work and develop the stage bits with. It also helped in the bookings too to offer three people on stage instead of just me. We went to the local costume shops to look for flashy stage dresses to buy and take on the road with us. That added to our fun. There was one very flashy, sequined dress we found that fit Tam and it was a real stand out. She could just wear that dress on stage and not sing and the audience would have been happy. It became known among us as, “The Dress”. The girls planning and talking about the costumes and costume changes was a big education for me about how much attention to detail women give to their clothes. For me it’s always just a tuxedo and away I go. There wasn’t much money to going to them for all their effort but they were all into it for the enjoyment and artistic challenge.
Linda knew both Tam and Roxanne and she was generally around for rehearsals and helping us with creative ideas and also with harmonies. Neither of the girls were good with harmonizing so Linda was able to help us all with creating harmony lines. I would generally be singing the fundamental melody notes and the girls would add harmonies in some of the arrangements. This required a lot of rehearsing and it was nice to have Linda around because she could easily hear what or who was off and correct us or find a new way that would work for all of our limited vocal ranges. Linda got to know all of the material very well and we all four became quite close with our growing friendships. Roxanne was a former lover of mine but we were never a real couple, just casual lovers in the modern world. There were no jealousies or frictions and they could even make jokes about it all.
Linda wasn’t an entertainer herself. Her only real singing experience was as a part of the famed, Roger Wagner Chorale, when she was in college some thirty years before. Unlike all the singers that I was working with in the house, she had no performing aspirations. She was happy being a support for the singers but didn’t want to get on stage herself. She would sing alone or with me at the local jazz singer showcases but had no further aspirations.
On the road to Arizona with the larger show
Tam, Roxanne and I had rehearsed our show and felt near ready. We tested it out at some small retirements in the area. I always liked running my show at small retirement places first because they served as dress rehearsals. Our real debut was for two shows at the Capitola Theater in Santa Cruz for a ticket buying, theater audience. The show was modestly successful and now we were ready for our Arizona tour.
The four of us piled into my little Toyota Camry and headed for Tucson, where our first shows were booked at some Sun City auditorium stages for ticket events. These were some of the top of the heap senior auditorium venues on the west coast. The small car was packed with gear and costumes as well as the four of us. Everyone was in good spirits and girl’s excitement was as much a fuel for the trip as the gasoline was. We were all practicing the songs and harmonies while we were driving along, really felling like a traveling theater troop. Before this I had been doing the shows by myself and always traveling alone, so I really enjoyed this added enthusiasm. Merrily we went down the road. It’s too much of a trip for one day so we booked into a cheap Motel 6 halfway.
The shows went off well and we enjoyed our selves in our time off. Making merriment and discussing what worked well and what didn’t.
I don’t use music on stage so I had a head full of songs and keys that I had to remember. The girls were quite nervous at times because there were times that I started a song in the key I was used to singing it in for myself and then had to recover and change keys quickly. If I saw them glaring at me on stage it generally woke me up that I was in the wrong key. I did mess up keys a couple of times forcing them to sing out of their range so I was always reminded of it and accepted my just admonishments from them.
After a hand full of shows Tam had to fly home for something she had on her schedule previously. We all knew about it and the plan was for her to rejoin us in a few days time to do a few more shows. On her way home she got very nervous on the plane because it had some landing gear problems. She was very shaken up and called to tell us she was so nervous that she was terrified at the idea of flying back. She dropped out of the show. What to do? She had too many numbers and it would have required a very big effort to change everything for just Roxanne and I. We looked at Linda and said she had to take over Tam’s spot. She was very hesitant and afraid to get in front of a real theater audience. Fortunately Tam didn’t take her costumes with her. Linda tried on “The Dress” and it fit her perfectly. We took it to be an omen and it cinched the decision. Linda took over Tam’s spot and was now in the show. There was no problem with her knowing the material and harmonies. She was there for most of our rehearsals and possessed an iron clad musical memory. Her biggest apprehension was getting on a theater stage. We rehearsed as much as we could and she went over Tam’s lines. She had great chemistry with Roxanne so there were no problems there wither. Still she was all jitters and nerves up until the moment she walked out on stage. She had great natural poise and stage presence. We were back in business.
The Gershwin Show
During all the Cole Porter show rehearsals with Roxanne and Tam, I was also developing material and song arrangements for my new Gershwin Show. I needed a new show theme to book into venues where I had already presented the Cole Porter and Berlin shows so I was booking some of the upcoming Arizona dates with the new Gershwin show. A nice showstopper in the show was my performance of the Rhapsody in Blue. I had started working on it while I was still with Marianne living the big RV. As much as I dislike digital piano’s it was all I could carry in the RV we were living and touring in. I would get onto a real piano at every chance I got and rehearse and rehearse it until I got solid with it. I also would bore my friends and acquaintances performing it for them so as to get it in front of ears to test myself. It was the first big classical piece I had worked up since I was a teenager so it was a terrific challenge. I had created an arrangement myself, drawing from the original piano reduction. The Rhapsody actually is practically set up to be played at various lengths. Here’s what composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein, who loved the piece, wrote about it in 1955:
“…..The Rhapsody in Blue is not a composition at all. It's a string of separate paragraphs stuck together. The themes are terrific, inspired, God-given. I don't think there has been such an inspired melodist on this earth since Tchaikovsky. But if you want to speak of a composer, that's another matter. Your Rhapsody in Blue is not a real composition in the sense that whatever happens in it must seem inevitable. You can cut parts of it without affecting the whole. You can remove any of these stuck-together sections and the piece still goes on as bravely as before. It can be a five-minute piece or a twelve-minute piece. And in fact, all these things are being done to it every day. And it's still the Rhapsody in Blue.”...composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein
I had created a seven and a half minute arrangement of the piece. I felt like that was enough for my fast moving Gershwin show. One of our bookings in Tucson was for the Gershwin show right in the midst of our Cole Porter tour. Roxanne, Linda and I started going over numbers for it just a few days before the show. Their involvement in the presentation wasn’t as involving as the Cole Porter program so it wasn’t so tough for them. The onus was on me because I had to shift my whole mental set for the show in addition to having the Rhapsody ready to perform. All I would ever take with me on stage for any of my shows was a two-page set list that had the song order, keys and minimal cues on it for my dialogue. I would set it flat on the right side of the grand piano where I could see it when I looked out at my audience. I didn’t like to read anything when I performed. No music and no notes. I always felt liked it robs the stage of magic. To look at music or notes on stage would throw me back into the analytical side of my brain waves and jar me out of my creative, artistic side. If I got a key wrong, forgot something or got out of order then I would just improvise my way forward. This was much preferable to me than referring to something written to keep on track.
That show came off very well and especially the Rhapsody. I must say that I surprised myself at how well I did with the change of program. I think I was so worried about it that I became more concentrated in my efforts to make it happen. I never displayed my apprehensions to Linda and Roxanne. I didn’t want them feeding my fears. I needed to appear in control for all our sakes. Also I was inspired by the take. The money was good on the show, $2500 as compared to our other shows for between $100 and $1500 or less. It was actually the largest contract amount I had obtained up to that point. It made me even more determined to keep myself together and make it a success.
I recall a valuable business lesson I learned after that show. The booker was swept off her feet and wanted to sign a contract right then and there and put a date on her calendar for next year. I told her I didn’t know my schedule yet for the following year and needed to take a look at it all when I returned home and get back to her in a month or so. Well, when I called her back about six weeks later she had lost her enthusiasm completely and told me she wasn’t sure yet how things were going to line up for her season. I was devastated! I let a repeat of my highest priced contract slip out of my hands. I called and wrote to her repeatedly but she had lost interest and her responses were lack luster. I never got back for another date while she was still at her position. I finally did set up another contract with her successor a few years later but it was for $700. The magic had disappeared. My spirits were down and my presentation wasn’t my best. The lesson I learned was to never pass up an opportunity to get on the calendar and sign the contract. Once you are on their season budget and calendar then the date can be changed. There mind is already made up on what they want it just becomes a matter or adjusting the date. It was a bitter, theater business lesson.
My new theater partner
From that point on Linda was frequently my stage partner. In the following years I put together many other shows and Linda was generally a part of them. I enjoyed performing solo also so I would often go out alone as well. She might even go along with me but would let me go it alone because she knew how much I enjoyed it. Both ways had their benefits. If I am performing alone I feel lighter and more agile. I can be free to improvise and push the show to any speed I want. Cut or add material spontaneously, whatever. I could always feel my connection with the audience better if I was working alone.
One the other hand, having a partner on stage would take pressure off me a lot of the time. I knew how much audiences loved her. Sometimes I felt like I could coast a little knowing eyes would be on her and not me. I can underscore that about eyes being on her because she looked absolutely stunning on stage. She’s tall anyway so in her high heels and stage dresses she was captivating presence. She has a lovely ingénue smile and shyness that draws people in. I like to compare her to Doris Day in that way. She didn’t have the voice that Doris Day had but she had excellent pitch and a great musical sense that always charmed her audiences. I can’t tell you how many times men would come up after shows and ask me if I was married to her. She would melt their hearts. Eventfully Linda joined my show and took over Tam’s spot when she dropped out. Linda became my personal muse for many years she helped me discover many creative pathways in both my music and my music business.
Headed for the big stage. . .
I first heard about Community Concerts Association when I was doing my music tours in the RV with Marianne. She knew a couple in Las Vegas who came to see my show when I self produced it in two local community theaters there. They became fans and had some connection with a national theatrical agency called Community Concerts Association. They explained how the agency worked and were eager to see me get connected with them. Community Concerts had about 60-70 artists in their roster when I was with them. They were one of the oldest and most respected theatrical booking agencies in the United States, providing talent to mostly small town USA but also to some large city venues as well.
They were based in New York and had a large offering of musical talent that they would book into theaters across the states, Las Vegas included. Most of the venues were in smaller towns and cities that had performance theaters but no steady access to good talent. If the local theaters joined in and became a member of the association, the New York agency would provide them with high quality acts to choose from to fill their coming seasons entertainment.
My new goal was to become a Community Concerts artist. My show and bookings were growing. I had been playing some actual theater venues (mostly self-produced shows) and I felt like my Irving Berlin Show would be a good fit with the agency. I only had to convince them of that! I began wooing them with letters, phone calls and promo material. At this time in the late 1990’s the Internet was of little use to performing artists. The idea of a web site was new and it was slow to catch on, especially with the theater world. They were still reliant on printed promo material, professional artists photos and tape recordings for their artist selection process. I had learned that local theater presenters often make their decisions based upon professional looking photos and promotional material. Demo recordings actually seemed to be less important unless they were really bad! Also at this time videotapes were clumsy. Clumsy to pack and mail and clumsy for the receiver who had to play them on the old VHS players that might not read the tape well or have some technical difficulty. Now of course, it’s a different world with YouTube and elaborate web sites that play excellent video. Back then it was all hard copy materials with glossy photos, brochures, resumes and cassette tapes. Getting professional, color promotional and posters designed and printed was completely out of my financial reach.
I remember often seeing beautiful, professional looking, large color flyers and posters around on various shop windows or community billboards around town advertising musicians and performers like myself for their upcoming events. I marveled at how they could afford such posters. I had been to visit graphic designers and printer’s shops and was quoted prices that were impossible for me to even dream of paying. But I would find myself looking at these color posters everywhere I went that were on shop windows. They announced upcoming performances at small venues and I wondered how the musicians could spend a thousand dollars or more to have such beautiful posters made for a small concert on a weekend that would be lucky to bring in a couple of hundred dollars at most. The answer was demoralizing and frustrating. Many artists had sponsor money behind them. “Angels” as they are so called in the theater world. People who believed in artists and would invest or donate money to help further their projects and performances. I had no such angels. I had friends who believed in me but none that had the extra cash around to make thousand dollar color posters for me to help my career. This was quite frustrating. I began to realize that I needed beautiful, expensive looking promotional material of my own if I expected to compete with other stage performers for good venues.
But I discovered I had an ace up my sleeve that I hadn’t noticed before. I had become quite at ease and familiar around Bangkok in my frequent trips there on my way to the islands. I started looking around and discovered that graphic designers Bangkok were about a 1/10th the cost of American shops. So during my travels to Thailand I began seeking out shops and find people who could design promo material for me. It was actually quite a challenge to find them and took a lot of crafty, tenacious determination. I didn’t speak Thai much past a limited tourist vocabulary so it was no easy task finding graphic artists. There were no “phone book Yellow Pages” or central source to track them down and even if there were they would have been in Thai.
I discovered that a good and affordable source of graphic designers were the ubiquitous photo touch-up shops who would mostly do improvement to wedding photos using Photoshop (the popular computer program). One could bring in a photo and the price was about $1 to $3 to have it touched up and printed. I would bring in hand-drawn sketches and ideas to these shops and try to explain what I wanted done. They often enjoyed doing something different than touching up photos all day and were happy to work on something different. We didn’t need much English because I could just point to things and shake my head yes or no. A typical shop would have 10 or 15 of these people working at their computers cranking out photo after photo all day long. The improved photos would then get printed out on photo paper for the satisfied customer. Usually there was such a flurry of activity in these shops that I would get lost in the crowd and the shop bosses wouldn’t really even tune into what their worker was working on with me. These guys were typically working six days a week, ten hours a day for about $125 a month and would often sleep in the shops. At closing time sleep mats would go on the floor and the shops would turn into dormitories.
I would try various shops and workers until I found ones who could do what I needed. I would sit quietly with them at their computer station for an hour or so and work on my color posters, brochures and CD covers. I would come back day after day until the jobs got completed. I would always secretly slip a few dollars into their hands when I left. They were delighted to make the extra money and happy to see me the next day. The shop would usually only charge me the cost of printing the days work out on photographic paper so it was quite cheap for me, to say the least. The boss wouldn’t approve of my giving tips to the workers so I did it discreetly. I was excited to see my new glossy promo material getting created and I was happy to put a few dollars extra into their hands for the work they were doing for me. That few dollars was near an extra days wage for them.
Another challenge came in finding an off-set print shop in Bangkok who could print the posters I was having designed. Unlike the wedding photo touch-up shops that were easy to spot just by walking around town, printer shops were not visible and not in the shopping districts. They were more likely to be down alleyways or outside of town. They were also not easy to identify because their small signs were of course written in Thai, not English. It took a lot of searching over various trips to Bangkok to eventually locate one who I could communicate with and that I felt did high quality work that would suit my needs. They were only a fraction of the cost of their American counterparts but still, in order to make it affordable I had to gang-up my work in such a way so that it would fit on large sheets of glossy, high quality paper. The individual posters, flyers and CD covers could then be cut out of the large sheets. They wouldn’t do a job on their offset presses for anything under a run of a thousand. To make it cost effective I had to be clever to get it all organized maximally on their large sheets that could later be cut smaller for all of my different sized designs.
Searching for and working graphic designers gave me a way to meet people easily because I had a purpose and had to explain what I was after as best as was possible in spite of the language barriers. I met a lot of nice people and made some Thai friends along the way. Later this was to be especially true in Phnom Penh, Cambodia when I started writing my first jazz method book. It was a very long ongoing project and I spent a lot of time working closely with graphic artists. Friendships developed out of the work and we would do a lot of socializing on their off hours.
It all took a lot of time and several trips to Bangkok but eventually I had beautiful promo material that would compete in the market place. My first completed run consisted of a thousand copies each of several large color posters and flyers advertising my various shows. When it all got packaged up it weighed a lot and it wasn’t easy bringing it back to the states. I had to pay overweight baggage on a flight to get it all back.
I guess having beautiful posters helps to create an impression of success. When someone sees a well-designed, glossy color poster next to a small black and white one they easily imagine that the artist the better-looking poster is more worth seeing. Maybe it is a sign of reaching a certain level of success when an artist has somehow managed to have such nice images for advertising. The nice posters don’t make the artist any better but they do help get people to the show. I believed in myself and my shows very much. My belief was that all I had to do was get them in the door and they would have a good time. The trick was being able to get people to come to my shows and I believed these color posters would help do that. They also helped my confidence when I was pitching myself to theater bookers and activity directors. It especially helped when I sent my promotional pack to the Community Concerts agency.
Signed and ready to go! (almost)
All of my relentless, optimistic determination to become a Community Concerts artist finally paid off. After several years of knocking on their door they finally decided that I would fit well into their stable of artist offerings. Maybe all the effort of getting my new promo material together helped me.
I was an unusual act. I was a solo stage entertainer doing what was similar to an old vaudeville act. They had lots of other solo artists but they were all classical pianists. I was unique and they felt they could sell me. Most of their performers were in groups. There were duos trios and large performing ensembles of every kind and combination. Ethnic music, choral music, comedy troupes, dance-acts, big-bands, opera and etc. We solo performers were needed mostly because we were cheaper than paying for larger acts. When local theaters put together their upcoming seasons they had a set budget to work with based on the number of ticket sales they expected or pre-paid season ticket holders. They might present six or eight acts in their upcoming theater season and would spend most of their budget on the larger acts. If they had $2000 left over they could offer one more solo act in their season. That’s where I fit and I was delighted. At $2000 a performance I didn’t need a calculator to tell me life was about to change for me. I would be crisscrossing the states playing theaters in mostly small cities everywhere Community Concerts would booked me.
But I wasn’t an automatic shoe-in like I thought I would be. The agency didn’t decide and book the acts for all the theater associations across America. All of the agencies acts had to play short showcases for the local theater presenters so they could see who we were and chose who they wanted to offer to their theater patrons in their cities and towns. So I had more hoops to jump thru before I was officially in. All of the Agencies artists had to show up in three different cities and play fifteen-minute showcases for the presenters. Linda came with me for moral support and boy did I need it. These first auditions were set up nice performance centers in St. Paul-Minnesota, Ann Arbor-Michigan and Allentown- Pennsylvania. I was a bundle of nerves realizing I had to audition for seasoned theater bookers. I had convinced the agency I was what they needed, now I had to prove it to the folks who would be deciding what artists to spend their money on. Also the agency wasn’t covering any of the travel cost so I had to fly myself to all of these locations at my own expense and hope for the best.
Linda had been doing most of my shows with me in my bookings on the west coast but it was decided early on that I was selling myself as a solo act. It was what I had been striving for and she supported me all the way and accompanied me to all of the auditions to keep my spirits up and my confidence from going on vacation. I indeed was a nervous wreck. I hate auditioning, especially formal auditions and this was about as formal as they get. All of us artists had fifteen minutes to get on stage and show our stuff to theaters full of discerning people there to choose what they thought would be good entertainers to present to their folks back home.
I recall the first audition in Allentown, Pennsylvania. I was feeling quite insecure but I wasn’t the only one. Back stage many of the other artists were as nervous as I was. We were all practicing before the audience was seated, pianists taking turns at the various pianos to warm up, vocalists and other instrumentalists practicing, there was a tremendous nervous electricity in the air. Many of the acts had been thru this all before in previous years, felt more relaxed and knew what to expect. They only made me more nervous because of their smug and secure attitudes. They were known by many of the presenters and knew they were popular in many cities. Those of us who were first timers were the real nervous ones. It was really a make-it or break-it situation. What if they didn’t like my act or what if I had one of my bad performances? There was only fifteen minutes and I had to be on my game.
Usually it takes me about fifteen or twenty minutes on stage with my audience to get comfortable with myself and my audience and really “be there” with them. The opening minutes are generally a little rocky until I find my momentum and get in the groove. It can take that long to feel how the audience is reacting. Do they like my jokes? Am I “in voice?” Is the sound system OK?, The lighting?, the piano position? Adjusting the mics and piano bench a little this way or that. Am I in good form or out of sync with everything? These are the things that all get decided internally for me in the first fifteen minutes on stage. It’s all a part of the warming-up process and takes that long for me to settle in, get into my own skin and feel my momentum. It also takes the audience about that long to settle into their seats and quit being fidgety. They need some time to forget the conversations they were just having with their partners and forget about the things that were troubling them before they entered the theater. They are checking me out for the first time and need time to decide if they are with me or against me. They want to get lost and escape into some good entertainment they can believe in. It takes a little time and I didn’t have any to spare!
All of this made my anxiety high because the fifteen minutes I usually need to warm up wasn’t going to be there. I would be giving a cold performance but pretending to be on. That’s show biz and what actors all have to go through and a big part of my show was acting. I’m not a Prima-Donna pianist or vocalist. I am quite skilled in many directions but my show was a one-man variety show. The strength of my show was in being a Jack-of–all-trades musician-performer and creating the illusion that I was a master of many talents. My vocals could be weak and my tap routine and guitar playing a little off, but when tied in with all the variety and jokes it all wound-up into a ball of good, fun entertainment.
For most of us there it also meant our income for the upcoming year was on the line. If we did good and the presenters booked us the bottom line was money in our pockets. Most of us were paying our own expenses to be there, flights, hotels and everything. This added to the tension as well. Some of the smug and secure entertainers had sponsors who were paying their expenses so they were sitting pretty and had a lot of room to relax, but that wasn’t my position. I was hoping to get my break and leave the world of starving musician behind me.
All I really recalled of my fifteen minute performance was the mic not working when I introduced myself and the sound tech scrambling to fix it. Actually that turned out to be a good thing maybe because it made me instantly get light, on my feet, and try to make the audience laugh at it. It brought me more into the moment. The rest was a blur after that. The fifteen minutes seemed like three and I was scurried off stage to medium applause. I felt like a lover all dressed up who never got a chance to kiss my date or even introduce myself properly. Fortunately for me Linda was in the house out front and was later able to tell me what I did, what worked and didn’t. At intermission I want out and tried to meet the presenters and get into some small talk. I wasn’t really sure about what and who they were or even where they came from. I had so very little information about the whole process so I wanted to talk with them and get their perspective about their side of things.
What I learned was that most of them came in groups of two to four people from their hometown’s theater association. They were on the committee’s that selected the entertainment for their season and most of them weren’t professionals at all. They were normal folks who enjoyed theater and got involved with their selection committees. They were the lucky ones who got an all expenses paid vacation out of their town to come and have a look at all of Community Concerts stable of entertainers for the upcoming season. There were some professional bookers there but most were just volunteers for their local theater. They were there at the auditions to take a look, take notes and brochures and return home to give their impressions to the rest of their committee. I didn’t know any of this when I went into my audition but after talking with them, it made my next two audition stops somewhat easier on my nerves. As it turned out after all three of the audition events I was a moderate success. Between my offering of good entertainment and my low price tag, I got a season’s worth of bookings across the states and I was delighted. Dancing on air might be a better way to describe how I felt. I was officially entering a new level of entertainment venues. Real theaters across the states presenting in three-hundred to fifteen-hundred seat venues to mostly packed out houses. Also, I was about to make more money than I’d ever made doing anything.
The agency had a lot of artists and a lot of venues so they had an office devoted to scheduling. They consulted with us then would put together tours that made sense so that we didn’t play the east coast one night and the west coast the next. They lined up all the venues so they were in the same regions and asked us how much time, if any we needed between stops. This was wonderful. It meant someone was doing my booking. All I had to do was wait for them to deliver my schedule. Things were looking up.
My own confidence in myself as a performer has always been a slippery fish. It can come and go as easily as the wind. The creation of my shows really gave me the opportunity to have a closer look at what gave me the confidence to get up in front of so many people and perform. When I am alone with myself and my own thoughts, I easily lose all confidence in myself. I can tear my performances to pieces and only recall bad things about my playing and singing. If I look at a video recording I can feel completely demoralized and nearly convince myself that I have no business being on stage. But when I was full of such doubts, I would force myself to remember the emotions people would share with me after my shows. I would come out to the lobby after my shows and people would line up to shake my hand and meet me, thanking me with heartfelt emotions for the wonderful show. Sometimes there would be tears in their eyes. They didn’t have to do that, they could easily shrink away, ignore me and leave the theater without saying anything. But many of them would feel compelled to find me, look in my eyes and tell me what a wonderful time they had and how much they appreciated my talents. This would happen all the time and it was always in awe of it. How could this be happening when I didn’t believe in myself that way? I had to remember their voices, not mine. So whenever I would find myself alone in my thoughts in “tear-down mode”, ripping myself apart I would force myself to focus on the memories of people looking in my eyes to tell me thank you. It helped me believe in myself and give me the strength to stop criticizing myself and have confidence that what I was doing was OK. Maybe I didn’t believe I was any good but if they did. I could go forward if I kept their voices in my head. They believed in me and that was good enough.
On the road . . .
Kansas, Nebraska, Seattle, Pennsylvania, Texas, San Diego, Detroit, South Carolina, across the states on the road!
More often than not I would be on the road alone. A one-man show in a strange town, all alone with no one to talk to. But I’m pretty good at entertaining myself and have also always been lucky to meet people and make friends quickly. I always meet more people when I’m alone than if I have a traveling companion or girl friend. If I don’t make quick friends then I will be alone with the weight of my own thoughts and I might explode! So I have to talk with people and find some friendly commonality with them. But I must confess that arriving at the theater parking lot in the afternoon before a show for a sound and lighting set-up and seeing just one other car in the big, empty parking lot besides my old Toyota sedan could be a very lonely feeling. That one other car would usually be the sound and lighting tech who lived in the town and his passion and/or expertise was being a good theater tech. Sometimes I got the feeling that some of these guys actually lived in the theater, kind of like the theater-troll who no one ever really saw but was always there somewhere in the shadows fixing and fumbling with wires and lights trying to reach some satisfaction with his craft. My first hope was that I was going to get along with this person because he was going to be very important to my comfort on stage. Also he might become the only friend I had in town so I was predisposed to a welcoming attitude of one in search of a new friend. They too needed to be open and friendly. They understood the nature of the situation and had to meet and set up new acts every constantly at their theater. More often than not, things went well.
Occasionally I’d meet someone with a big ego who would try to boss me around and give me instructions on how to do everything. They would want things to their satisfaction and not mine. Then I was in trouble and would have to assert my self and insist on being in control. It would be a stereotypically ego clash that I would have to live thru. But this was rare, usually we were there to work together and get a good show ready to go for an eager audience. In the larger theaters there could be several techs for lighting and sound, a stage manager with assistants, curtain puller, stage hands and maybe even the theater managers would be there to welcome me. Then it would be instant family and feelings of doing something great together. But mostly I had a lot of “alone” experiences, especially back stage after everything was set up and we were waiting for the audience to arrive.
Generally things got set up in the afternoon and there was a few hours to kill before the doors opened at the theater. I could either drive back to the motel and try to get a little rest or I could remain at the theater till the doors opened. An empty theater can be oh so cold and lonely. It can seem cavernous in it’s big and dark silence. Back stage is also extremely lonely if one is alone. There’s generally one or a few rooms for the performers depending on the size of the theater. It feels very isolated and cold. Generally I would opt for going to the motel but sometimes there wasn’t enough time if the set-up took too long and it was better just to remain there. Either way I would have to be back stage for quite a alone getting ready and psyched-up as the audience was arriving. It didn’t take me very long to get my tuxedo on and straighten up. I could only go over my notes and lines so much and I could find myself quickly feeling very alone and isolated in the emptiness of the back stage rooms. Because of this I would frequently arrive at the theater maybe twenty minutes before the curtain went up. The theater manager could be very nervous about it but it was better for my state of mind to not be in that lonely, icy backstage feeling for too long.
After the shows and my bows were over I would disappear into the wings excitedly with the audience clapping and, wham! There I was all-alone in the cold darkness by myself backstage. I learned that I needed to get out of there fast. If I didn’t I could easily fall in to an instant “postpartum” depression feeling of emptiness. I would hurry out the back stage door and make my way outside around the building back around to the lobby in the front of the house so that people could find me if they wanted to. I would talk with them and shake their hands, enjoy laughing and saying goodbye. I felt happy and secure with smiling people sharing my excited feelings and coming down from the high of the show. It also gave me a gauge of how my show went to when I mingled and talk with them.
I would often get a lesson on how subjective perceptions are.
I might come off the stage after the final bow thinking I had just given a lousy show and then I’d go in the lobby and people would be waiting for me to tell me how good it was! The scary thing was when the opposite occurred. I might have been feeling terrific about my performance and I would get lack-luster comments from people and they didn’t seem impressed at all! When I used to play in clubs this happened frequently as well. I could be playing with a band and we knew we could all agree that we were having a bad night and then someone would come up and tell us how great we sounded and they were enjoying us so much. Or the opposite, where we would all be congratulating ourselves on our great playing and someone might comment that we weren’t playing very well and ask what was wrong! Perceptions can be so subjective. It applies to all art forms.
People often have asked me if I get nervous performing on a big stage. In my case the answer is definitely yes. But that nervousness has always felt like a beautiful drug to me. It’s my fuel. Adrenaline! A self-made organic drug the body creates for fight or flight situations. Standing in the wings of the theater watching the MC introduce me, I can get a terrific nervous energy spiriting thru me. I know I am about to walk out in front of several hundred people and I could easily make a fool of myself. But something inside of me won’t let that happen. I’ve never understood it but I would feel like I would leave introverted, “little Glen Rose” in the wings of the theater and some larger than life, extroverted personality would enter my body and we would go together out onto the stage to have a fabulous time playing with all the people. When the show was on, which it normally was, I would actually feel like I was floating on the stage instead of walking. It’s the best high and best drug I’ve ever felt. I think a lot of other entertainers probably say something similar.
I am at my core an introverted, nerdish personality. A like socializing but I am most comfortable when I am alone doing projects or doing something by myself. My stage personality is something special. Somehow an extroverted version of myself appears when I‘m performing but disappears when the excitements over. In normal social situations my tendency is to hang back and let other people talk, but on stage I enjoy being the center of attention. I have heard and read bios of some famous entertainers who say something quite similar.
I recall one show I did back east in Pennsylvania where I was terribly sick with bronchitis. Coughing up mucus violently, extremely weak, my voice cracking and nearly gone. No low or high notes, my vocal range had shrunk to less than an octave. I felt like I should cancel the show as I was getting on the plane in California but I forced myself to go. It was a packed, thousand-seat house. I didn’t want to disappoint them and I needed the $2000! I was so sure I was going to give a dismal performance and apologize to the audience as I limped thru the show. I pumped myself full of cough medicine and cold pills but it wasn’t helping anything. I stood in the wings trying to suppress my coughing and heard the MC bring me on. As I approached the piano to the sound of the applause I left my body. The adrenaline kicked in and I didn’t utter a substantial cough for the next 90 minutes. I was buoyant and in descent voice. A good time was had by all. When it was all over, I floated off the stage to wonderful applause and all my symptoms immediately came back. I was so weak that I could barely drive back to the motel. I’ve recounted that story many times and it still makes me wonder about the nature of the minds control over the body. How little we really know about that.
Trouble up ahead…
Everything was moving along nicely for about a year or so with my new found big stage career when a murmur of trouble began rumbling in the Community Concerts company. They started falling behind on their checks to me for my performances. I would call and get the old “the checks in the mail” story. Then this led to checks bouncing and apologies. I began to get worried.
Community Concerts had a large stable of artists but we really had no communications or connections between us. We were all individual artists who never crossed paths except for at the audition showcases. I set about tracking down and contacting my fellow performers. One by one I heard the same story from each of them. Late checks and bouncing checks. Actually through my efforts, unrealized by me at the time, we all started talking to each other about our dilemma. We were all in the same boat and had no central person or lawyer to help us stand up to the management. In short, we were being screwed and didn’t know what to do. Most of us depended on our flow of checks to keep us out on the road and paying our bills at home.
Everyone was reluctant to accept the fact that the company was not paying us. They were also lying to the theaters, telling them that the artists were being paid. We started talking to the theater managers and organizations. They contacted the agency and were told that we were all essentially lying and that our checks were all in the mail. It escalated into rising anger. We couldn’t continue to play unless we got paid. Our contracts explicitly stated that we were never to discuss money with the theaters. If we did so we would be in violation of the contract and could face legal action from the agency. We all decided thorough a frenzy of phone calls to each other that we had to all start talking to the theaters directly and all at the same time so as to stand together. The theater organizations were in utter denial and suspected us of nefarious actions. They called the agency and were lied to and told not to believe us. The theaters across the country started contacting each other and it all fell into place. Community Concerts had started investing the theater proceeds into various activities hoping to gamble with the money and make fast profits for themselves and they lost. Lost our money!
The theaters all started paying us directly and the agencies activities quickly got exposed. They closed shop and fled New York into hiding. “They”, the agency, was in fact only two people, the Trawicks. They were a mother and son team who bought the venerated and long standing Community Concerts theater booking agency just a couple of years before I joined it.
Most of the artists joined together in a class action suit against Trawick Community Concerts with a law firm in New York where the action had to be filed. The artists all paid for law firm with their own money. The Trawicks hired lawyers for many thousands of dollars to fight against the class action suit and against all the individual law suits the artists filed. They tried to paint us as conniving and lying musicians in violation of our contracts trying to take advantage of them. They chose to spend their money on their lawyers instead of using that same money to pay us. It was disgusting. In the end they filed bankruptcy and fled into hiding. No one got paid but the lawyers. Judgments were passed in favor of the artists but those judgments turned to dust in the bankruptcy. Fortunately for me I didn’t join the class action suit. I could see where this was heading and that no one would get paid. I decided not to thro good money after bad.
The New York Times and NPR radio got in touch with me and did interviews for their stories. Somehow I was looked at as the organizer who brought it all to the forefront and exposed the Trawicks. I was actually one of the smallest, least paid artists in the agencies listings but I was possibly the one who needed the money the most so I had strong motivation! I saw the Trawicks through same filter as other small time agents I had been taken advantage of in the past. They were just playing with larger figures. I wasn’t about to let them slip away. But in the end they did slip away and we were all left stranded with bad checks for our performances.
This situation was eating me alive with all the energy it took. I was a total wreck emotionally. My dreams and nerves were shattered. I was back on my own, without an agent again. After about a year of this battle and the loss I decided I had to let go of it as best I could and do whatever I could to forget about it and connect with something positive in life again. I decided to head for my paradise in Thailand and get lost in my music and the lovely tropical nature of Phangan Island. I dove into it with passion and saw it as a health prescription for my troubles. I decided to spend as much time as I possibly could there and only come back to the states for as many months as I needed to perform my shows and produce some income. I started spending over six months a year there.
In 2009 I found myself living in the north of Brazil for time. I had met a charming, Brazilian school-teacher while I was visiting friends in Vancouver, Canada. Linda was traveling with me but our relationship had changed. We were no longer living together but we were still the best of friends and still performing together.
Our Canadian friends, who knew some of the Brazilian community there, invited us to a Brazil party. This is where I met Guida, who had been living in Vancouver a while and had just broken up with her boyfriend. It was a fun house party and I was at the piano much of the evening helping to create merriment. I know a lot of the popular Americanized Brazilian tunes so that helped endear me to the Brazilians. It helped me catch Guida’s eye also. We went out a couple of times while I was there and an affair began. I had to return to California for shows but flew back up as soon as I could, this time to stay with Guida. She was making plans to return to her home in Olinda, Brazil after more than a year away. Our affair was intensifying and plans started to hatch for me to go live with her in Olinda.
Guida flew home and I packed my bags filled with expectations of discovering and living in a new beach paradise life. The only thing I knew about Brazil was that I liked the music. I especially loved playing and singing bosa novas on my classical guitar. I had visions of my new love affair leading me to a new life of enchantment in South America but after I arrived I began to see that the only thing I could really love in Brazil was Guida. Our affair was in the full bloom of romance but I quickly discovered how dangerous life was there. It was very risky to go out alone anywhere at any time of day or night. The favelas, the slum towns where the impoverished lead lives of desperation, are everywhere. Theft and violence are a routine part of life in Brazil. Olinda is a UNESCO world-cultural heritage town and popular with domestic and international tourists. Police would roam the streets in groups of three wearing bullet proof vests. I met a policeman friend of Guida’s family once and asked him why the police always were in groups of three wearing the bullet protective vests. His simple answer explained everything. “Because we are not stupid.” Police get attacked as much as the normal citizens do.
Olinda is on a beautiful beach but it is devoid of people. It was only a few blocks from where we were living but Guida and her family continually warned me to not go because of the danger. She and her family warned me that I could be attacked if I dared relax in the sand. I really couldn’t accept or believe that and I insisted on going one day while Guida was out job hunting. I walked out onto the beautiful deserted beach and saw a few shadowy figures lurking in small beach out croppings and behind trees.. I started to feel fear as I walked out there all by myself. The busy street with vendors was only a hundred meters away yet no one was on the lovely beach. My bold adventure lasted about twenty minutes. I walked faster and faster and until I was back in the relative safety of the businesses on the street. Guida of course said, I told you so. I never tried that again. When we wanted to enjoy the beach we had to get in the car and drive about thirty miles up the coast to where people felt safe and could relax normally.
Once when we were shopping for something outside a group of small boys, maybe six or seven years old were kicking a soccer ball around on the sidewalk. They looked so cute and when the ball came my way I playfully kicked it back to them. Guida grabbed me and told me never to play with small boys. They frequently have knives and can be just as dangerous as their big brothers.
As is often the case with me I fell into some gigs. One of Guida’s distant cousins was a working night-club pianist in the area and was looking for someone to sit-in for him when he found better paying casual and wedding jobs. His regular gig was at an upscale restaurant in the large, neighboring, city of Receife about a half hours drive from Olinda. I played a few nights there playing with his trio in his absence.
I was a little intimidated to be playing with Brazilian musicians but it turned out were quite like the sort of players I was used to playing with in the states. They loved to swing and knew all the popular American jazz standards. Someone in the audience requested some bossa novas and now I was definitely shy to sing those. I know them all but in English. I was afraid of making a fool of myself but the band assured me it was all right. My fears were immediately put to rest. A nice burst of applause greeted me after my first bossa nova. They said they found it enchanting to hear their beloved classical bossa nova’s sung in English. They were used to hearing them only in in Brazilian. Singing in English made me a hit! What a delightful and unexpected surprise that was.
The gig would end around 10:00PM and Guida would drive us there in her car. Coming home I was confused as to why no one was stopping for the stop signs and traffic lights in the city. Guida told me that no one stopped because they would be attacked. If a car stopped for any reason there was a chance gunmen would appear to rob you or hi-jack your car.
All this danger was almost to incredible for me to believe but when the news came on at night Guida would show me the stories of local attacks on people. All of her friends had stories of being robbed and sometimes violently. Guida herself told a story of being confronted by a young man with a knife on a small dark street. When the robber got closer it turned out to be one of her former teenage students. He was shocked and embarrassed and fortunately ran away when she admonished him. After about two months I decided I couldn’t live my life always having to look over my shoulder and being afraid to walk alone on the streets. Guida and I departed friends. Our affair was still in bloom when it ended.
Music is really woven into the fabric of normal Brazilian life. Samba percussion schools are everywhere and compete with each other. The sounds of exotic Brazilian rhythms can be heard on the streets or coming from the drumming schools. Everyone trains and prepares for the big Carnival season in winter where all the Samba schools vie for honors. Every town and city in the country closes down at Carnival season to enjoy the big party.
In Olinda every Thursday night was Seranade night. A slow procession of people would follow a band marching slowly on the slopping, cobblestone streets and playing lovely Brazilian melodies led by a violinist. Everyone would come outside to enjoy the procession and follow along if they wanted. People would join in singing the familiar folk songs and buy drinks from the neighbors and vendors that watched the romantic parade of revelers glide by.
From what I have heard from other travelers and ex-pats, the extreme northern part of the country and the extreme south, which has been inhabited by Europeans for many decades, are safe places to reside. If I ever return it will be to explore those regions.
There are so many colorful tales to tell about my life in music but l me go back to the beginning………
In the beginning…The early years in my 20’s
It all began when I discovered the piano at the age of ten. I fell in love with Chopin and classical music in general. I was a shy, introverted kid and the piano provided me with escape and romantic dreams. It also gave me plenty of chances to show off and get some attention. Lots of recitals and performing at school assemblies. I loved the spotlight. I was pretty self motivated right from the start. I enjoyed getting my fingers disciplined and under my control. Scales and arpeggios were my mountains to conquer.
Fast forward to my late teenage years where I started playing electric keyboards in garage bands, dreaming about being stars with my similarly bent musical pals. At some point I got fascinated with the guitar. I think I was 20 or 21. I started messing around with my band mates guitars after our rehearsals and couldn't put them down. I'd play till my fingers ached, fall asleep with guitar in my sore hands from playing too much and then start again in the morning. Eventually I played piano and my keyboards less and less until I finally abandoned the keys entirely. Blues bands, rock bands, learning riffs and practicing scales. Like every other typical 20 year old I was swept into the pop music craze of the late 60's and 70's. The Beatles, Stones, The Doors, the whole hippie thing. Hair down to my waste, smoking devil weed and trying to be somebody. Hoping I was convincing someone was more like it. I was playing some gigs in the Hollywood and Topanga Canyon area but mostly we were playing in garages and living rooms dreaming of great things to come.
I was leading a double life. In the days I would go to 20th Century Fox studios with my dad and work on all the musical scores for the recording sessions. There I had to play it straight, try to be the good kid being groomed to take over my fathers position of first call music copyist at Fox. At night and on the weekends I was a typical wild kid doing all the things the other kids were doing in the late 60's. Discovering girls, love-ins, drinking too much, parties and just being foolish in general. Music was a vehicle to have fun and be popular. I always had a fairly serious focus on my music. Wanting to constantly improve my skills on both piano and guitar. But it was becoming obvious that my cronies were were increasingly doing more drinking and soft drugs and just going nowhere. I gravitated toward hanging out with the Hollywood hippies, doing meditation and yoga. I started to get turned on and tuned in. I knew I had to leave LA and the life of alienation it promised and hook onto a more aware crowd. I packed up my Volkswagon van and my dog and I headed north to be closer to the beckoning hippie mecca of San Francisco. But the big city was too much of the same big city vibe I was escaping from in LA.
I drifted around for some months and finally discovered Santa Cruz and the juice I was looking for. A very mellow artistic community that was drawing in a lot talented counter culture types, artists, writers, musicians and young people who were searching for more meaning in life than the status quo. I found my flock. It was here that I discovered jazz in my early 20's and things started to take shape. I was still playing mostly guitar when I first got to Santa Cruz in the early 70's, enjoying playing in bands, meeting people, going to parties and hanging out having deep meaningful discussions with the college crowd.
I was turning on one day at the beach with a close sax player pal of mine and he dropped an Errol Garner cassette in my player as I was digging my feet into the sand. Bam! The lights went on! I was hearing jazz for the first time really in a way that I could understand it. From that moment on I couldn't learn it fast enough. I'd been wasting time in rock bands and I had a lot of catching up to do. I pretty much put my guitars on the shelf and went back to piano for jazz. I went into high gear searching for books and teachers who could show me how to play and focus my energies in the right place so I could teach myself jazz piano.
I started taking classes at Cabrillo College in Santa Cruz and got into the big band. A big band is a lousy place for a piano player who wants to shine but it was a terrific place to connect with all the other eager young jazz students. We all helped each other grow, trading ideas and knowledge, putting together instant jam sessions at any and everybody’s house.
I want to mention that I was fortunate at this time because pianos were everywhere. In clubs, restaurants, peoples houses, it was common to have a piano around. This has all sadly changed today. A real piano has become a rare bird. It's become replaced in present day society by a plastic portable imitation of the instrument: the electric keyboard. It's a very uninspiring concoction of plastic and digital imitations of vibrating strings, nothing like a real piano that has charisma, real strings and beckons one to sit down and make music. So I was lucky in this respect. I think it's harder for kids today because the digital keyboard doesn't attract and compel one to play one like a real instrument does.
There were quite a few of us young jazz aspirants around Santa Cruz at that time in the mid 1970's. Sax, guitar, trombone, trumpet, bass, drums, we were always practicing as duos, trios and quartets, mixing up the guys. We would create gigs with whoever was available anywhere there was a piano and play for whatever we could get. Sometimes it was only dinner and drinks. We didn't care, we only wanted to get in front of an audience of any size and play. A big help to my jazz and musical was when I got a chair in a very cool jazz band that was playing seven days a week in an outdoor cafe in downtown Santa Cruz. The band was called Warmth and led by a very talented jazz player much older than most of us named Don McCaslin. Don was a very hip jazz spirit and welcomed all of us eager jazz students into his band at one time or another. (Don's son is the renown jazz sax player, Donny McCaslin) He was a jazz mentor to many of us young players. He gave us information, encouragement and tips we needed to play the tunes right and never criticized us. it was a place to apply all the studying we were all doing in front of an audience of diners and drinkers who were enjoying the outdoor cafe.
That was the early jazz side of my development but at this same time I got involved in musical theater. When I first landed in Santa Cruz in my old hippie van I was scrambling around for housing and met a couple of college girls who needed a room mate. We all got to be great friends and one of the girls was an acting student involved in a lot of local theater around town. She said one of her productions was looking for a drummer who could be onstage for one of her shows. As it so happened I had a drum set I had been carrying around in my van along with my guitars and had set it up in the house to practice along with everything else I was doing. I volunteered for the job. I wasn’t much of a drummer but the part wasn’t very demanding, just a few drum rolls and cymbal crashes here and there and one spoken line. This was my entrance into the world of theater. It quickly became known that I was a pianist of some skill and everyone wanted to enlist my services for various productions that were going on. I became smitten with the theater life and started reading up and listening to theater scores. Cole Porter instantly became my favorite.
I worked on a few shows where they needed a pit orchestra but could only afford me. I would get the score and make my own piano arrangements of the music. I did Cabaret, Roar of the Grease Paint, Oliver, Anything Goes etc. lots of shows. Sometimes I would enlist a few other players and write my own reduced arrangements for a very small pit band.
It was great fun and a terrific social life with all the aspiring actors and actresses around town. There was always a party to beginning or closing of a show and a lot of get-togethers with the cast and crew at any given time to commiserate on the current shows. One of the shows I did was a benefit to keep a venerable, vintage theater in Santa Cruz that was facing bad financial times. I assembled my first orchestra for the show from all the musicians I was playing and studying with around town. During rehearsals I met a lovely young actress and dancer, Wicklund. We became romantically involved and she pulled me into her theater circle. I moved in with her bringing my old upright piano along with me. She was terrifically supportive of all my musical efforts and helped me learn lots of show tunes and get more educated about musical theater in general.
I remember I got my very first musicians “fake book” I procured when I was with Betty. I had to drive up to San Francisco to get it at a certain music store there that was selling them discreetly under the table to avoid publisher’s penalties. It all felt like a secret initiation into the world of professional music. I remember handing my $20 to a certain clerk that I was told to ask for and he went into the back room and came out with the fake book in a paper bag in it and motioned for me not to say anything. Just take the bag quickly and leave! It was all terribly exciting. I had been directed up there by my very first jazz teacher, Verne Bennett. He was a quintessential cocktail pianist who taught me a lot of professional piano techniques that cocktail pianists lean on. He showed me how to convert a lot of my classical training into cocktail technique.
Betty and I would pour over the fake book that had hundreds of songs and she would sing the theater songs and I would stumble through them, improving as I went. I really hardly knew any theater tunes but had heard them in various places and wanted to know more about them and also the songwriters who wrote them. It became my hobby to understand who the composers were and where these wonderful songs came from. It was planting the seeds for my own theater show that would become my creative playground 25 years later. Betty was an important part of my formative years in music and theater. We still remain friends to this day so many years later. She would come to any gig I had and be front row center cheering me on and helping my confidence. I also took my first trip out of the north American continent with her. We went to Jamaica for a lover’s holiday. This was back in 1975 before reggae music became the theme of Jamaican culture. The most often song played by all the street performers for tourists at that time was “Marianne”, the Harry Bellefonte hit. Reggae music was still a few years away.
I remember my very first solo cocktail piano gig that my teacher Verne Bennett set me up with because he was double booked. I was so incredibly nervous. He arranged for a gal friend of his to show up with her washboard and gut bucket and keep rhythm for me. It was corny but I was so relieved to have a friendly person next to the piano. There were very few people there and I was reading the tunes out of my fake book, nervous as a chicken waiting to have it’s head cut off. She helped me get thru the jitters and act like I knew what I was doing.
Verne taught me one of the most important professional requirements that any solo performer learns. No matter what happens, no matter what mistakes you make, just do not break rhythm. Keep playing through the mistake and do not break tempo. Bad notes, extra beats and bars are not as vital as keeping the rhythm constant and flowing one you’ve established it. If you do this it’s a good bet that most people listening won’t even realize you made a mistake. Later I learned to add the other important ingredient; keep smiling! Act as if it doesn’t matter and you could care less that you made a mistake. It puts the audience at ease and yourself as well as you move to the next seconds of reality and go on with the music.
I was still leading my double life as a music copyist at 20th Century Fox in Los Angeles. My dad continued to line me up to help him with the big music preparation gigs for the recording sessions. For me it merely amounted to an easy six hour commute from Santa Cruz to LA. I would go down for a week and then drive back up and dive back into the vibrant playing scene in the north. Oh, the energy of youth!
I started getting seriously back into classical piano at this time too in my mid 20's. I was never much of a sight reader so I embarked on a serious path to build that skill. I would wake up before dawn every morning and start sight reading through all the Beethoven piano sonatas and other literature. I got turned onto a method by which one builds up their sight reading skills by reading at a slow motion tempo accurately and precisely. If you stumble, you set the metronome slower until you find the place where tempo is kept steady and no mistakes or stumbles are made. The trick is to also read "ahead" of yourself. As you are playing you continually look at the next bar or two ahead. I even managed to get myself the piano chair in the Santa Cruz symphony for two seasons. This sounds terrific on my resume. Anyone reading it assumes that I was the Prima Dona playing piano concertos. If I wanted to impress someone I would lay it out there in my resume or conversation and leave that impression floating. It was a fact that I indisputably played with the symphony. However my role was not as a Prima Dona. The orchestra was playing modern American composers in those seasons and I was playing easy, sporadic, piano parts written into the scores. This is a great example of how entertainers stretch the truth in their resumes hoping to get better gigs and of course to create a more favorable public image of themselves for general power and prestige.
At this time one of what I call, the great turning points of my life, fell into my lap. I got offered a job on the faculty of the Cabrillo College music department. I've had about a half dozen of such turning points in my musical life and I always marvel at how they came to be. It seems that they arrive out of the blue sometimes. While you are busy, sweating and struggling to reach the next rung in your development a great opportunity comes sweeping in that is often unexpected and propels you into a new exciting region. I want to list these pivotal moments in my career here and then I'll arrive at the story of each as I get to them in my mini-bio.
The turning points in my musical career have thus far been:
1. My nepotistic beginnings at 2oth Century Fox's music department (12 years)
2. Teaching music on the faculty of Cabrillo College (5 semesters)
3. Writing my first textbook as the result of my teaching which led to greater things to come
4. Musical theater director in small community productions in Santa Cruz (3 years)
5. Jingle writer and producer (6 years)
6. Piano entertainer in Europe . Beginning in France (7 years of piano bars, 6-nights a week)
7. The inception of my piano stage show (17 years on the road across the USA)
8. Being coerced by my musical muse to convert my jazz guitar book into a ukulele version
9. Youtube and the adaption of my books and videos into e-books delivery via internet thusly eliminating the need for a publisher and distributor.
Returning to my reminiscing on the teaching job at Cabrillo College. It was really unexpected because I didn't have a musical degree and I had no plan or design to be a music teacher in an institution.I loved teaching privately but that's a different thing. The job offer literally was out of the blue. I was playing in the big band at the college and was taking music classes but I had no forward plan for college graduation. Actually the music classes were a piece of cake for me. Harmony, piano and etcetera were just like falling off a log for me because of my professional work at the studios. I even challenged a bunch of beginning harmony and piano classes at the college just to get the credits fast without having to sit thru a semester to get them. Also I was really just trying to be a hot shot, get noticed and get attention by doing that. Well, I guess I was successful because the head of the music department, Lile Cruise, got interested in me and discovered I had a professional life in the studios going on in L.A.. He offered to get me a part time teaching credential of I would teach music notation (calligraphy) at the college, linking to the arranging classes where the students were in great need of knowledge about how to write their parts out so the bands could play them. Now this type of part time credential really isn't such an unusual thing for community college teaching. Real estate people, nurses and lots of professional get them. But for my this was a giant opportunity to shine and go in a new direction. It gave me another valuable chip to put on my resume and resulted in opening a lot of doors for me in my musical endeavors.
Developing my jazz and improvisational abilities were still my main driving focus while everything else was going on and I continued to practice at least two or three hours most days. But it was common to sit for five or eight hours sometimes, lost in focused practice. I was determined. But I want to add that I have always felt that I was a good example of that old adage, "talent is 90% perspiration and 10% inspiration." In this reference I am referring to my natural born talent to improvise and play jazz. I didn't have as much as the other kids on the playing field. I started too late. Sure I was a whiz kid at classical at ten years old but it offered little help in my jazz playing. It gave me a fluid set of agility skills but they weren't necessarily directly transferrable to my jazz playing. It actually made my playing a little square.
The real problem I had is that I wasn't exposed to jazz at an early age. My dad was definitely a square musician. The music on our record player was two great Chopin piano albums by Rubenstein and Brailowsky. This was a terrific influence on my classical development but it was also too limited in what I should have been exposed to as a young classical player. Where was the Bach and Mozart? It's extremely important for young ears to hear what their parents want them to play. Kids pick it up naturally if they hear it. My dad was pretty clueless but he did the best he knew how. Fortunately he also played one Oscar Peterson album a lot. That stuff crept into my ears but I didn't have any direction on what it was or how to do it myself. Back to the square thing. There is nothing wrong with being a square musician if that is what one is aiming for. "Square" doesn't mean bad. It is just a different genre. But I wanted to be hip, swing and play the "real" jazz that I was listening to with my jazz comrades. I was off to a late start. I always had the worry and suspicion that I was many steps behind the kids who had it in them since they were young but I believed that I could catch up if I just tried hard enough. Those young players in my midst who had the early exposure and improvisation training or natural ability for it as children were way ahead of the pack. Their parents and influences had jazz on all the time and they felt completely natural with it. For me it was always like trying to catch a fish that I became aware of just a little too late. But it kept me in the dedication to practice. I was determined.
I had other musical things getting my attention as well at this time in my life. I got interested in the local theatre scene due to the college girls I was sharing a house with. I got pulled into playing piano and being musical director for lots of local Santa Cruz productions. This was a lot of creative challenge and fun for me. I loved the theatre atmosphere, enthusiasm and camaraderie of the actors and support crew. Everybody all in, all the way for the productions. the after show parties and just hanging out with the actors. I grew a lot musically, I would re-orchestrate the orchestra scores to make them for small ensembles because that's all we usually had. I did some larger scale arrangements for the college productions also that were a great opportunity to grow.
I took one of my jobs to a well known arranger, Albert Harris, I met at 20th Century Fox and he gave me a lot of professional pointers that I was able to actualize with the pit orchestras in my local productions. Very exciting stuff for me. This training proved to be a great advantage when I became a jingle composer/orchestrator a few years later.
When I got offered the teaching job at Cabrillo College a lot of things changed. I got real focused on the college in a different way. Instead of taking classes I was now teaching and it short circuited my college education. It didn't have to but I lost my enthusiasm for it. My idea was to go onto a university and start taking some classes that would really challenge me. I was imagining Juilliard and such. I enrolled at the University of Santa Cruz but dropped out once I started teaching. I saw that I could easily expand my part time credential into full time on a much faster track. I started imagining that I would be a career college teacher. But as it turned out I got an education in what it was like to be on the faculty of a music department. I felt like it would stunt my growth if I stayed on. I also didn't enjoy the classroom environment so much. I realized that the class was always held down to the speed of the slowest students. I saw that most of the students really didn't have a direction in music and weren't really sure why they were there even. I lasted nearly 3 years then gave notice. I didn't like the idea that I had to sign a contract for the upcoming semester that was still a half year away! This made me feel trapped. I wanted to be free to take any gigs that came my way and to travel without limits. I lost that freedom if I kept signing contracts for upcoming semesters.
I did manage to write my first text book while in this period, A Music Notation Primer. This also led to a lot of doors opening for me. As it turned out there was a need for a notation book in the universities and the little book found it's way into classrooms all around the states. Most notation books were heavy, boring stuff. I wanted to write a friendly book on this boring subject and found a great reception for it. I would often travel up and down the west coast camping with my girlfriend, Patti Fox, who edited the book for me, by the way. We would always carry copies with us and stop into universities as we traveled. I enjoyed visiting the music departments and meeting the heads of the departments wherever we were. I got invited to lecture in professors classes a few times and I would usually get the booked picked up by the music departments for their arranging/composing classes. It was great fun to feel like a visiting author. There was always a reason to celebrate one more successful placement of the little book. Great fun. After a few years of promoting the book I got approached by Music Sales Corporation, one of the biggest publishers of music and sheet music in the world. They wanted to buy the publishing and distribution rights. I was very excited about their offer and I was tired of promoting it myself. They gave me an advance and I thought I was on the road to regular royalty checks for the rest of my life. It turned out that the advance was the last money I ever saw from them. For reasons unknown they lost interest in my book and shelved it. My contract said they owned the book now and I couldn't get the rights back. I was pretty unhappy about that but had to let it go. The book died because of their handling. I finally got the rights back some twenty years later when my lawyer, piano student found a clause in the contract that showed they failed to deliver as promised.
Happy was I, but it was short lived. I soon had to face the reality that the computer software had taken over the trade. All the college teachers were telling their students to use notation programs to do their writing and copying of their projects. No one was interested in music calligraphy anymore. Writing by hand fell out of fashion. The friendly little book is still around but it's become pretty esoteric.
The Jingle business years 1979 -1985
In 1979, I was essentially and delightfully floundering in Venice, California, living there with my pianist friend Phil Aaron and his wife Jeanie, in their house. I had just had my 30th birthday and there was plenty of time to flounder and chase dreams down cul-de-sacs. I was figuring on hanging out in L.A. till I came up with my next adventure and was out auditioning for bands, hoping to find some road work as a side man. I just had the itch to travel. I had pretty much made the move away from Santa Cruz, both geographically and in my head, but a very unexpected opportunity came that sent me packing and heading back to my life in Santa Cruz.
My old theater director friend, Ben Trevor, gave me a call from out of the blue. I hadn’t spoken with him in over a year. We had worked in a number of theater productions in local theater in Santa Cruz--he as director and me as musical director. I figured he was going to ask me to come and help him with a new show, but he surprised me by asking if I could write jingles, music for radio and TV commercials. I had never done it but was wiling to give it a try.
Ben had taken a position as creative director for an advertising agency and was making TV commercials. He wanted custom music and he thought of me because of our past work together. I told him I was interested, but had never done that sort of thing. I said I would compose some thirty-second fictitious music commercials, go in the studio with some various small band configurations, and present him and his company with a demo. I was pretty excited about the opportunity and started writing, packing my bags and calling the musicians I would need back in in Santa Cruz.
I think I got Ben a demo within two weeks that consisted of a half dozen fake radio jingles. I knew a lot of musicians and singers in the area and they were happy to record for free in promise for getting the real work when it came. This was all small time stuff for the Monterey Bay and Silicon Valley area. It was small money, but we were all excited about recording and getting radio-air play, even if it was just for local commercials.
The demo and enthusiasm behind it were a big hit with Ben and the agency and I was "in like Flynn." It turned out that I would be writing and producing jingles for the next five-and-a-half years. I began with Ben’s agency and then spread out with my developing demo reel to other agencies in the area. Ben’s agency folded about a year after I started working with them but I had more than enough things on the air by that time to catch work with other agencies. I started my own jingle production company. “Jingles of America.” Now that was a pretentious name, if I ever heard one, but I was thinking big! Local today, national tomorrow! I was brimming with youthful, optimistic enthusiasm.
I soon pretty much had the Monterey Bay sewn up for jingle work. I guess I was in the right place at the right time. There really was no one else in the area producing any jingles as a set business. The local radio stations would put together spots for their customers' radio ads and, if they needed custom music, would send the job out of the area to a national jingle production company. This was rather expensive. I offered a more affordable price and was in the area, offering a more personal business.
I became known as the jingle writer. The local entertainment magazine even interviewed me for an article in their weekly. I was feeling quite successful with my new career and everyone was soon humming my catchy melodies around town --whether they liked them or not!
The idea with a jingle is to write a short, catchy melody that will stick in people’s minds and remind them of the product. In my case most of the products were car dealers, shopping centers, furniture stores, restaurants and such. People remembered the melodies but sometimes they told me they wish they could get them out of their heads. Going around humming the melody to a pizza parlor jingle isn’t the same as humming a beautiful love song. But I was proud of my work and didn’t let the inanity of the lyrics bother me.
In my less than six years of jingle writing I had more than a hundred jingles on the air. I was proud of that and my mounting catalogue assured me of continued contracts. I wasn’t making a killing but it was paying the bills. Most all of the work was in my local area but I stretched beyond it a number of times and even actually got a couple of national spots. Those were “buy-outs.” That means no royalties were to be paid, just one simple fee. That was a bad business deal for me, but I was eager to get the national air-play.
In my efforts to expand out of my area, I discovered that other jingle writers and companies had their areas sewn up tight just, like I had mine. Attempting to break into national spots was met with one brick wall after another. The competition was good and so was the talent. National jingles meant royalties, continual payments that could go on for months or even years with the right luck. Everyone wanted those passive pay checks, so it was a tough to find a way in.
Actually I didn’t realize how nice the national market would be until I had already been writing jingles for about four years. I was happy to be a big fish in a little pond but what I didn’t see coming was that I would burn out on writing short spots with small, local budgets. To sustain my interest I would have needed to increase the size of my paycheck and my productions. I had lost a lot of my ambition to fight for the national market by the time I came to that realization, however. I had myself stuck with small clients where $1500 was the high end of the budgets, but often it was half of that. This figure had to pay for the studios, musicians and singers. Whatever was left over went into my pocket. It was always a budget struggle. If possible, I would gang up two, three or more jingles and do them all on the same recording date. This helped keep more of the money in my pockets, but it was always a struggle.
One of the most enjoyable parts of the business for me was arranging the orchestra parts. This was long before digital recording software and digitally synthesized instruments. Everything was written by hand and recorded in real time by players in the studios. I enjoyed timing my spots out to 59.5 seconds and writing arrangements for small ensembles. I often would use say eight musicians and write parts for sixteen. I would have them record twice so as to make it sound like I had a larger group than it was. There was a lot of creative challenge and I enjoyed it. For so many years I had been writing out the instruments parts at 20th Century Fox, working with the great composers but now I had my own chance to compose and make my own creations. It was always exciting to get into the studio and hear the results of my creative efforts. I wasn’t a great orchestra arranger but I worked very hard at it and everything always came out pretty good. I felt modestly successful with my results.
This was the early 1980’s, before the digital era and all the recording was done on tape--two-inch tape on the big Altec recording machines that were as big as washing machines in those days. They were the industry standard. Editing was done on small chopping blocks with razor blades. If you wanted to cut out a half-second of music you had to locate it on the tape, mark it with a white grease pencil and cut it out of the tape reel very carefully. If you chopped in the wrong place, you would have to tape it back together and keep searching for the right place. If you got things too messed up or jumbled, you ran the risk of ruining the recording tape and you would have to bring the musicians back in and re-record.
In the first years I was happy to work in local Santa Cruz studios, but I eventually wanted bigger and better ones. I started recording in the San Francisco area and even Los Angeles on one big project. This ate up larger amounts of my budgets but I was looking for artistic satisfaction and was willing to pay for it.
I eventually decided to set up a home recording studio. I was living with my talented drummer pal Jimi Fox. He was out touring on the road a lot with the Doobie Brothers. We wrote a lot of music together in the house, just for our own creative explorations and satisfaction. A lot of musicians were always hanging out and playing with us. The house was a hot bed of creativity. It was the real quintessential musicians bachelor pad--piano, keyboards, guitars, drums and instrument cases strewn about in the house We had plenty of time to be creative, but never time to clean the house.
Jimi started a local band at that time with myself and four other friends, so we were all hanging out and rehearsing there as well. This was a pop-rock group called Metro-Bop, with Jimi doing the lead vocals in front of the band. We played in the local rock clubs and even went out for a road trip once. This was such an up-spirited, creative time for all of us. We all felt like we were going somewhere with our endless creative energies.
Jimi played on a lot of my commercial spots and was all for having a studio in the house. I got a one-inch Otari recording machine and started acquiring the necessary microphones and outboard processing gear that was needed for reverb, delay, compression and such. I figured I could save money in the long run by having my own studio and also work on creative projects of my own and Jimi’s as well. Our house was definitely a hot spot of creativity for a couple of years--lots of musicians and singers recording any and everything.
Here's a Youtube clip of Linda
Jimi recording in the Doyle Street house with jingle singers Janet Kirker and Mary (1984)
Up until this time in my music career I had mostly been playing with bands. Bands of any kind, size and shape and and in all styles. There were lots of rock bands, wedding bands, jazz combos and even a popular salsa band for a while. Playing solo, cocktail style piano required a different set of skills. I was listening to and studying a lot of the great pianists solo albums. Pianists like Bill Evans, Erroll Garner, Oscar Peterson, George Shearing and such. I wanted to understand how they could get a full sound and be creative and improvising at the same time. It’s one thing to memorize arrangements but that can get stale pretty fast. What keeps my interest up as a solo pianist is to always be searching spontaneously for new pathways and arrangements of jazz standards repertoire. Playing songs in various styles, tempos and changing keys is always stimulating and personally challenging.
I started acquiring the skills and concepts for playing solo piano and how to build interesting and full arrangements spontaneously. I was building a repertoire of standards that I could depend on as a core base of material that I could use on solo gigs. I had a few booking agent friends in town and I asked them to start finding me solo piano gigs that weren’t too demanding. I was just trying to get on my feet as a solo pianist and I didn’t need the pressure of putting on a show with it, at least not yet. I just wanted to get out and try my new solo chops in public. Background gigs were the safest. In the 80’s there were still a lot of acoustic pianos around, grand pianos in hotels and restaurants. People often wanted a cocktail pianist playing at these affairs in the background, just to add a touch of sophistication to their gatherings and parties. This was often before a band came on. Having the piano tinkling in the background was always good for social mixers while people were talking and getting their evening warmed up. This was a perfect way to get on my feet, so to speak, until I got my confidence up. I would play a job and discover what I had down and what needed work and then go home and work on my weaknesses, challenging myself to make it better on the next job.
Another thing to mention about becoming a solo cocktail pianist is that classical music always serves as perfect models for solo playing. The masters composed wonderful and marvelous piano arrangements that are there for all of us to study and learn what techniques they use. My development went along like this for a few years while I was still doing my jingle producing. It was extra work and a good challenge. I was starting to pick up a couple of nights a week doing these jobs and eventually started booking myself into restaurants and wanting people to hear me. As my confidence grew I eventually wanted to “play out,” not just be in the background. I wanted to get dressed up and show off a little.
There were so many restaurants with grand pianos in them everywhere up until the mid 1990’s. It’s always been a sadness to me that they started disappearing, one by one, as the years progressed. Pianos started becoming a lost part of the music culture in America. The elegant, sophisticated music era was disappearing. Electric and digital keyboards were taking over. But at that time, when I was developing, there were still plenty of pianos in restaurants and managers were looking for pianists to play them.
My confidence as a solo pianist kept growing with practice and with my gigs. I was at the same time slowly losing interest in my jingle production company and was developing my next creative phase. It led to my growing dream of going to Europe, traveling around and finding work as a pianist. I started seeing solo piano as my passport to Europe. In my dream I imagined floating around Europe and paying my way by playing piano. It was just another dream that was about to come true.
At Le Jardin piano bar/restaurant in Bandol France, on the Riviera (1987)
Mars recording studios (Aptos California 1983)
with some of the usual jingle recording crew
Barbara became my emissary into the jazz venues around the Aix and Marseilles area. She went with me to translate and arrange the auditions. We stayed in little pensions all around Marseilles and the Cote d'zur (Riviera) area. My tuxedo finally arrived in the mail at Laurent's house. Every pianist choses their own public persona and image and mine was to portray some sort of pseudo elegance in my tuxedos. Barbara understood French chic very well and did her best to outfit me in affordable stylish clothes as best she could. She like to be present when I played as much as possible and was my protective angel. She taught me some useful French phrases and vocabulary but mostly I got along with people with good vibes,smiles and song. The French seemed charmed by my halting attempts to speak when I was performing and the songs I would sing to them in English.
The La Duke gig was in Marseilles and a bit of a commute but I was so excited and didn’t mind in the least. But the glamour faded quickly on the gig. The lounge was very nice and sophisticated but the large crowd wasn’t there when I returned to start my three-nights-a-week contract. It became obvious that it was only packed because of the popular comedienne. I was lucky to have four or five tables to play for. After a few weeks I was cut back to two nights a week and I was losing enthusiasm for it and they for I as well.
Then one evening I’m there playing to a near empty house when the manager introduces me to a young silver haired gentleman named Sylvan. I was informed that I would now work for him at his tres chic Le Jardin restaurant, piano bar in Bandol. This is a quaint little seaside town at the start of the French Rivera. I didn’t quite know how to respond and felt a little out of control but it quickly became apparent that this was a hot opportunity. I couldn’t wait to tell Barbara. She was excited too of course and said she would go there as much as possible to be with me. It was only an hour from Marseilles and they also provided a room in a local hotel so Barbara could come and stay with me when she could get away, which was often.
This gig was a winner for me. I played on a white Yamaha grand piano on a tiled floor. The tables were on a few different levels right in front of me. It was a real dinner theater set up. The money wasn't much but the respect and glamour made up for it. It was really some of the most enjoyable work I ever had. There was no looking at watches and hourly set requirements. I could play jazz standards in a very relaxed environment. If there were few or no patrons the owners would tell me to relax and enjoy a glass of wine until people came in.
It was an ultra sophisticated setting catering to a well heeled clientele on the Riveria. I had stools around the piano that people would sometimes sit at and sometimes not. They did a good business and there was always an audience to play for. This was my first experience playing a dinner setting where the customers were expected to spend the entire evening. There was no concept of “turning over tables” to get more customers in and out. People came to spend the evening eating several courses of dinner and desserts and to be entertained by the pianist who was there four nights a week, me. Every night the young Paris-trained chef would come out of the kitchen to receive applause from his guests. I had never seen anything like it. The food was indeed divine. Barbara was always welcome to join me for complimentary dinners too. They liked having her around because she could interpret for us. She really became my manager and protector in the French world. It was a very romantic time. When she would stay with me we would go out exploring around small villages, having a picnic the countryside or just walking around the charming little town of Bandol. Accommodation was in a local half star hotel and the thin walls provided entertainment for us hearing other couples merriment or drunken fighting. But the shabby little hotel didn’t dampen our spirits. We were both happy for own reasons and happy together. When Barbara wasn’t with me I would sometimes just sleep in the tiny Simca camper. My bachelor home on wheels.
I had a surprising experience one evening at Le Jardin while playing the very popular tune known as “My Way”, the big Sinatra hit. This was never one of my favorite tunes but it was always on the most requested list where ever I worked so it got played a lot. The reason I never cared for the tune was because of the unromantic lyrics, especially the,”I chewed it up and spit it out” line. I just never enjoyed singing it. One night I am playing and a young group of actresses and musicians were around me at the piano bar and requested the song. They didn’t speak any English so our communication was limited, but fun. I started into the song and soon a few of them started crying and they all became quite sad and emotional. I was perplexed. What was it in the song that made them react so sadly? When I related the song to Barbara a few days later she explained it to me. The song was written by Claude François, a famous French songwriter, and it was a big hit in France long before it became known in the states. The song is entitled Comme d’habitude and is a very touching tale of a couple living together for a long time and slowly growing apart. (translated to English that means “as usual”) The Americanization of the song apparently happened when Paul Anka was in France and heard the song and wrote English lyrics for it with his pal Frank Sinatra in mind to sing it. Anka’s lyrics tell a completely different story of course, about a mans journey through life and doing it his own way, not following the crowd. These lyrics have nothing in common with the French original that touched the group around my piano so much that night. They didn’t understand English but supposed that I was singing an English translation of the French lyrics that touched their emotions so deeply.
I also chanced upon and interesting discovery while I was entertaining there. The grand piano was on that tiled floor and I wore a pair of dress shoes that would click as I walked across it. I often tap my foot while I play and the sound would create a steady tempo almost as if I had a drummer playing along with me. Sometimes I would clown it up and act like I was tap dancing. It was a good gag. I stored this experience away and a many years later started taking tap lessons and developed a routine that I worked into my piano stage show that was an hot crowd pleaser.
There was always an ongoing difficulty for me in France however and that was my not speaking French. I never spoke French before was always studying, getting Barbara to help me and making word lists but in my short year there I never became fluent. I was good with simple conversation but was always searching for words. This didn’t go over well with the French. They have little patience for foreigners “ruining” their language. They enjoyed me when I was performing but during the day they could be quite rude and often just refuse to talk with me even when I was shopping or asking for directions. Sometimes I felt desperate and would go out alone and hope to run into some English speaking tourists just so I could relax and have some conversation in English with someone, anyone! In the several months that I was playing in the south of France I would sometimes hear rumours about lucrative piano bar contracts in Scandinavia. Plus I heard they were happy to speak English. Barbara had visited her mom there and confirmed it. I made a mental note to investigate the rumours and carried on with my romance with the piano bars in the South of France and with my angel, Barbara.
Eventually my glamour faded at Le Jardin and I grew restless for travel. I took off for an open ended to England and promised Barbara I would return. I did some auditions and a couple of pick up gigs in Bristol and London but nothing developed. I'm forgetting to mention that my trusty guitar was always with me throughout my entire time in Europe and led to many magical evenings of spontaneous sing alongs and merriment. It was a terrific way to meet people and make friends wherever I went. At one point I stayed for a couple of weeks in a dorm room I rented because I had met some beguiling German living on campus at a university in Loughborough near Nottingham. I became their private minstrel. A couple of months passed and I returned to Barbara in Martigues and we continued on where we left off. I slowed down on the gigs but not on our good times and adventures. Her parents came home and I was welcome in the family home. We often took off on some traveling adventures around the south of France. Staying with her cousins and aunts here and there or camping. My ever present guitar provided music wherever we went. We had a very romantic adventure to the north of Spain and Barcelona in my little Simca. The guitar was a like a magic wand, opening the doors and hearts of the Spaniards to us.
Thank you Johnny and Sammy! Both nice gentlemen and extremely talented.
It was my honor to work on their musical scores as a copyist.
Dad and I at 20th Century Fox Studios, writing out the orchestra movie orchestra recordings. I'm in my mid 20's (Circa 1974)
The home studio was challenging and creatively satisfying but, after recording a lot of projects, I came to the realization that I just didn’t have the knack or necessary ears and skills to be a recording engineer. I found out that the art of recording was a skill in and of itself and that being a musician didn’t automatically make one good as a recording engineer. I didn’t have a knack or proper understanding of the electrical gear. Trying to learn how to operate everything was always distracting me from my creative music energies.
Actually it was around this time that I also discovered I had quite a hearing loss that I was unaware of and I wasn’t hearing things that other people were. I went to an audiologist and got tested. I found out I had a great deal of loss in high frequencies. One of my engineering friends, Fane Opperman, who had a studio where we did a lot of the jingles, advised me to keep it to myself so as not to alarm the financiers of my jingle jobs, so I kept it between us and my ear doctor. He looked at the results of my hearing test and did his best to compensate for my hearing loss by raising the high end on the playback monitors. This helped to some extent, but I had to always lean on Fane to ask him if things were sounding like they should on the high end.
In my own home recording studio, I eventually gave up on recording. It was more than just my hearing loss that prevented me from being an effective sound engineer. I just didn’t have the technical knowledge or the knack. I was often frustrated by the many things I didn’t easily understand.
I always enjoyed the jingle composing and it was a continual challenge to come up with new melodies that didn’t all sound alike. I would always be on the lookout for a new voice. A new voice could keep the spots fresh sounding. If I was out in a club and heard a nice voice I would ask them to come record a demo for me. It was a good way to meet a lot of talented singers and keep the musical juices flowing.
Eventually I hit the wall with my jingle writing. I started losing interest and things were beginning to sound a little too alike to me. I asked a few other songwriters I knew to co-write with me. That kept me going for a while, but I was definitely losing interest.
Slowly but surely, my interest and fascination with jingle production and recording faded. I decided to give it up and concentrate on my natural musical strength, playing piano--acoustic piano, not keyboards. I had been spending a lot time practicing my solo cocktail piano playing and was starting to idly dream more and often about developing my solo chops and looking for work as a cocktail pianist.
La Duke piano bar, Marseilles
Barbara and I planning, plotting and celebrating my gigs
Ernie Rosecrans, copyist and his son, Glen Rosecrans (that's me!) about 1978.