I’m back in New York after three weeks on the road with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. One thing I have been thinking about is a facet of touring that usually gets very little attention, reflection, or even respect - drivers. On the course of a three-week trip, between the busses that take us from one city to the next, to the vans that shuttle us back and forth between hotel and venue, we may encounter as many as fifty or sixty drivers. Fifty or sixty human beings we don’t know anything about, and usually completely forget about after we leave whatever town we’re in.
During this trip I spent a little more effort to get to know some our drivers, and I’m glad I did. Now, most of the van drivers (usually three of them in every city - it’s in our rider to have three vans) are usually senior citizens volunteering. This is especially true if we are playing for an arts organization. They love to chat. They ask all the questions we get tired of hearing. But on this trip I found that if you can get past that initial small talk, there is potential for some interesting conversation. One man loved telling jokes. I told some back. He loved them, laughed heartily - “That’s a good one. Yeah, that’s a good one,” and I know he has probably already told his new jokes to at least a dozen people. Sometimes, and usually when it is a university, the drivers are students. And when it is a particularly cute coed, suddenly a few guys in the band become interested in small talk.
One day, in Tucson, Arizona, the van driver was a woman probably in her late 60s named Sally, and being in my new frame of mind I, we got to talking and I discovered that her daughter manages the office of the one of the biggest movie producers in the world. I just happen to be writing a screenplay...
Now, bus drivers - that’s different story. I’m talking about the big Greyhound-style coaches. Try talking to them and you might get “stay behind the white line.” It’s not that they’re not interesting people - they often are - but this is what they do for a living, and they tend to be a little more apathetic, if not jaded. However, the bus driver we had in Atlanta who got us to the airport went out of his way to secure and safely store my iPhone that I left on my seat in a groggy, early-morning trance.
We had one very stressful ride from Sonoma to Stockton on a two-lane highway, where the driver kept trying to pass a tractor-trailer. About once a minute he would pull into the oncoming traffic, seeing what his chances were to get around this oversized slug in front of us. And every time there would be a car heading right for us. This had even our own ex-military tour manager Boss Murphy yelling “no,” getting the driver to pull back in the right lane. Sugar Rob, our sound man, actually moved to the back of the bus, a place I have never seen him sit before. On top of all this, the emergency exit in the ceiling kept popping open - “Fwap!” - air loudly rushing into the bus for a few seconds before it would close again, leaving us with ear-popping silence. It was like a big mouth opening and yelling in reaction to the driver’s irresponsible choices.
I mentioned this experience later that day to the our van driver and he asked if we had come route 12, and I said yeah, and he said “oh, blood alley. There are more head-on collisions on the road then you can imagine.” Nice.
The other drivers are the ones that we see every day, year after year. They’re more like family. I’m talking about our very own Charles, Bragg, EG, and Frank. Now Frank is none-other than Frank Stewart the world-class photographer, and BBQ man of the highest order. He has been touring with Wynton for longer than I have been in the band. He is to Wynton what Harry Carney was to Duke. The man Wynton knows better than anyone. He could write a book - well, he has, several about photography - but I mean a different kind of book.
These guys are all great - always possessing a positive attitude, even when they are getting ready to hit the road in San Francisco with New York being the next stop. The only complaint I have with any of them is that during a day off, playing softball, Bragg refused to set his beer down and as a result let a line-drive whiz by him in center field.
Our last day on tour, the van driver listed in the book to take a few of us to the airport was named Funny Singh. I’m not making this up. As we waited for him to arrive we kept making jokes like “a Funny Singh happened on the way to the airport.” (While not particularly brilliant humor, I’m sure the joke-telling van driver would have loved it). But mainly we were just killing time, as he was a little late. When he did arrive, I asked him if he was Funny. He said “No, I’m not. I’m Sunny.” Apparently his name was wrong on the daily. Sunny is almost Funny, but not quite.