I am writing this on a flight from San Francisco, heading home to New York, reflecting on the tightly packed tour that took my quartet from Southern California to Vancouver and back down to Northern California. It was an exhausting but exhilarating eleven days of concerts, club appearances and educational events.
As leader, tour manager, booking agent and van driver, my job never stopped. It seems like whenever there was potential for some down time, it was stolen away by radio interviews, confirming hotel reservations, or double-checking that the rented or borrowed bass would be at the venue in time for sound check. But this is nothing new: this is the life of a bandleader. And for all this hard work I wouldn’t trade it for the world. The payoff is too great. Getting a chance to lose yourself in the creative process of improvisation on the bandstand with such musicians such as Ron Horton, Paul Sikivie and Ulysses Owens makes it more than worth the 5:30 AM leaves, the ten hour drives, the border hassles, the excess baggage fees.
The tour started with a concert at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. When Winnie Swalley booked this for us I was more than pleased. I love museums, and great art. But when I received the confirmation e-mail my heart skipped a beat: the Museum had billed the concert as a presentation of “Portrait in Seven Shades,” a work I composed for the 15-piece Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, not a piano-less quartet. My reaction: a reply - “yes, we are looking forward to it” then an immediate action - spending about twenty hours figuring out how to pare down the movements to work for this small ensemble.
After rehearsing the adapted music with the quartet just before leaving for tour, I was a little less apprehensive but still not entirely sure we could pull it off. The time signature of “Dali” is a surreal 13/8, and was presenting a challenge to the rhythm section, who had never played it before. “Monet,” which featured lush, impressionistic orchestrations, sounded bare to me, although refreshingly open at the same time. I had to omit entire sections of “Chagall,” but I actually liked the truncated version.
One thing I feel is important on a tour is to do some kind of education. It is a way of giving back, and connecting with young players; inspiring them and being inspired in the process. With Winnie and Arthur Swalley’s connection to the community, I know we could pull something off, but it still presented a challenge to coordinate. With the help of Patsy Hicks at the Museum, Jim Mooy at the SB City College, Kathleen Dagg Weger, Tina Villadolid and I am sure many others with whom I did not have direct contact, it turned out to be a very nice two-day event.
I also want to thank a few people who helped out to finance the education: Kristen and Kevin at Rico Reeds, longtime friend John Oppedisano, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, and my father DIck Nash. Without their contributions I would not have been able to pay the members of my band for their time and expertise.
The first educational stop was masterclasses at the College, with visiting high school students as well. This was very efficiently wedged in between our sound check at the Museum, which ended at 3:00, and the concert which began t 5:30.
After a half hour open rehearsal with my quartet, demonstrating to the students how a band goes about learning new music, we broke off into separate rooms and did masterclasses for an hour. There was quite a range of levels among the students. In my class there were players who weren’t quite sure what E minor was, but also some who could navigate well through some chord structures. But the one thing they all seemed to feel comfortable was playing on a blues. Ah, nothing like the blues...
The next day we did a couple classes at La Cuesta High School for continuing education. These are kids mostly those who have dropped out of regular high school, or have run into some trouble along the way. The guys in the band talked to them quite openly and intimately about how they experience passion, and discovered themselves, through music. We stressed the importance of discovering what it is we enjoy doing best. Then we played a couple tunes for them, with Paul jamming on an electric bass borrowed at the last minute.
Some of the students were a bit shy and withdrawn, and others talkative and expressive. Either way they were attentive and curious, and it warmed our souls a bit to see the affect of our verbal and musical expressions.
Here a few comments submitted later to the teacher by some of the students:
“It was an inspirational and interesting event that I have never participated in. Keep up the great work and I’m sure you guys will keep seeing success just as your words will help us reach success.”
“It was a free flow energy and I can see the body language almost as if they were talking through instruments.”
“I really enjoyed the music. I also enjoyed playing with them. I also like the elements they used, the way they communicated without really communicating.”
“I love the chemistry between you guys and the beat of the music.”
“The thing I found really interesting was the chemistry between each instrument’s sounds. Also the way that by one person starting everyone else knows what to play.”
The culmination of the two days’ education came that evening with a jam session that featured on trumpet Winnie and Arthur’s son, Harry Swalley, a senior in high school, and his group of very dedicated and capable musician friends. The evening served a couple. One of the purposes of the evening was o create an opportunity for students and professionals to play together. We were joined by Les Rose, an ex-session player in LA, who now teaches music in Santa Barbara; Kevin Garren, who not only represents Rico Reeds, but is a great saxophonist who plays regularly with the Gordon Goodwin Big Phat Band; Jim Mooy and Tony Ybarra from the College. Also making an appearance were a couple of French Gypsies - a violinist and clarinetist - who happen to be driving by and heard the music. They parked their car and within minutes were wailing on Duke Ellington’s Caravan. And killing, I might add! After, I got a chance to talk with the clarinetist it turned out he happen to be in Mexico City a couple years ago and heard the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in concert. I love these synchronicities!
Performing the pared-down “Portrait in Seven Shades” to the sold out auditorium at the Museum went much better than I expected. Images of paintings from the Museum’s permanent collection were projected behind the band as we performed the movements, which were inspired by Monet, Dali, Matisse, Picasso, Van Gogh, Chagall, and Pollock. The music came together much better than I expected, mainly due to the musicians’ diligence in learning it, and their flexibility and creativity in adapting it to the small ensemble, and just, well playing their asses off!
My intention was to just do our best to get through the music for this one concert, but instead I realized we had added a lot to our repertoire for the rest of the tour.
With our first two days under our belt, we said goodbye to everyone in Santa Barbara, and headed south to Los Angeles, my hometown. These next two days would prove to be quite a trip, with unexpected reunions, and unplanned musical experiences.
Stay tuned for PART II...