When I decided to go back to school and get some degrees almost exactly 20 years ago, I did it in part because I was feeling burnt out being a professional musician. The constant travel, the reversed hours of work and sleep, and the economic uncertainty were really grinding me down. I didn't know exactly where a university education would take me, but I was in the mood for radical change and was just starting to dip a toe into teaching and discovering, to my surprise, that I really liked it. I had it in the back of my mind that I'd like to teach at the post-secondary level, although I had no idea how one might go about that. I kind of blundered into the job at Tulane, and in retrospect I can see that I was very naive about the realities of that environment.
For the time being, I'm back to working full time as a mercinary, in-it-for-the-dough jobbing musician, something I haven't really done in maybe 15 years. There's been a lot of changes in "the business" since then, almost none of them for the better; the money has gotten smaller (the money has been getting smaller for 40 years) and recordings are no longer a viable source of income, beyond tip money. The up side though, is that New Orleans, unlike other cities I've lived in, is a "music town," and there are a lot of gigs, even if they don't pay all that well. And in working consistantly as a sideman for the first time in 15 years, I'm getting the benefits of being forced to learn a lot of new music quickly.
When I first started playing jazz seriously (about 1992) leaders weren't exactly breaking down the door to hire me, so I decided I'd have to create my own playing opportunities. To that end I formed my own bands, hustled my own gigs as a leader, and wrote a fair bit of original music. I recorded some CDs as a leader, and played some festivals and got my name out there and some other good stuff, but in the process I deprived myself of the benefits of placing myself in the service of musical choices other than my own. I also took myself out of the 'side-player" pool of musicians people think of when they're putting together a project. In other words, I was thought of as a leader, a guy who gives you a gig, not one you give one to.
People who see you playing original modern jazz on big festival stages have a tendency to think that's what life is for you all year round, but the fact is that the working musician must be a part of the vast, churning mass of variegated musical work of all kinds to survive. Being "on the scene" is key, so that you are top of mind when various leaders are looking to fill out ensembles for convention work, private parties, wine tastings, political ballyhoos, art gallery openings, picnics, second-lines etc. I've made it a point to try to spend at least three nights a week sitting in on other people's gigs, and asking other horn players who have gigs to consider adding me to their sub list. My good buddy (and ace drummer) Geoff Clapp has been very helpful in pointing me to opportunities in this regard, including a gig he's been working two nights a week at the Maison Bourbon with trumpeter Jamil Sharif.
The Maison Bourbon is one of the last places (Fritzel's a couple of blocks down is another) on Bourbon Street to still feature traditional jazz, seven nights a week. They offer two bands per night (one that plays from 3:30p.m. to 8:15p.m., and a second that plays from 8:30 to to 1:15a.m.) for a total of 14 possible gigs, so understandably it's advantageous for me to be on the sub list there. I played my first (and several subsequent) gigs there with Jamil. Jamil is a very, very good trumpet player (in addition to playing and recording as a leader, he turns up as a sideman on albums by Dr. John, Chuck Carbo, and others) who can play in pretty much any style. Technically a very disciplined player, aggressive style, very out front, and like his predecessor at the Maison, the late Wallace Davenport, he's decided at some point that the way to work consistantly in New Orleans is to specialize in traditional jazz for the tourist trade. In fact, many of his band are players he inherited from Davenport.
The first thing I noticed on the gig was that "stomping off" a tune is not just a nod to tradition; on Bourbon Street it's a necessity, because the loud racket from other clubs makes hearing a spoken count difficult, and in any case if you're a trumpet player you need the horn up to play a pickup into bar one of most trad jazz tunes. If I remember correctly the first tune Jamil called was "Undecided," which I may or may not have played on some job years ago. But it set the pattern for the night, which was one of rubbing my nose in the fact that trad jazz repertoire is not my strong suit, I'd say out of every five tunes, two were ones I knew, two were ones I'd heard somewhere and could fake, and one was something I'd never heard before and had to scramble to pick up on the fly. On these gigs, "sorry I don't know that one" is not an option, and often not even a key is mentioned. It's just "stomp...stomp...stomp.stomp,stomp,stomp"
and bang, you're in.
There were a few bright spots and comfort zones for me, like Chris Kenner's "Sick and Tired,' an old R&B chestnut I'd played a million times back in the day, and standards like "Satin Doll" and "In A Mellow Tone." There were also uptempo fingerbenders I'd never attempted before, like "Fidgety Feet," that were a real strain, and I was glad Jamil seemed inclined to be patient with me. I'm making it a point, when tunes like that get called, to write them down and then learn them the next day using youtube or some other online resource, so I won't get caught offbase as often.
I'd given my card to the 'afternoon' band leader, a trumpet player named Dwayne Burns, and he wound up calling me a few days ago. Dwayne's gig seemed less intense and aggressive than Jamil's (in the afternoon things are slower at the club) and he called a lot more stuff within my comfort zone, blues shuffles and standards like "The Way You Look Tonight." Dwayne's singing bears a strong resemblance to Fats Waller's, so we did "Honeysuckle Rose" and "Ain't Misbehavin," and other tunes I know very well. In this sense the gig was easier on the nerves; I felt more relaxed and had more fun, but I also maybe didn't get pushed and learn as much as with Jamil.
In a way, this particular club reminds me of the first gigs I played in strip clubs. They're labor intensive (five 45 minute sets) and in the service of commerce more than art. But I'm learning a lot, getting my name and face out there, and making a little money, so it's all good.