Waking to the light of the television in my hotel room, I can’t remember where I am momentarily, the glow of the idiot box growing and fading as the pixels instantly reorganize themselves over and over again on this early morning, a continuous reminder that an enthusiastic someone wants my money. Hotel rooms are a norm for me in my job, but not now, thanks to sequestration. I feel the atrophy of my “hit-and-run” road chops. The weakness is embarrassing, like returning to Church after a long hiatus, touching the holy water and anticipating a sizzling burn as the blessed liquid makes contact with my shamed forehead, a single drop cleansing away the evil world existing beyond the doors of the sanctuary. Who am I, again?
Rising, I reflect on the past 3 days of my world. Music explored with some of the same daily characters, and also with some I haven’t seen in several months. Military and civilian musicians colliding on a mutual stage . As I trudge over to the thermostat on the wall opposite of my bed, I think about the hundreds of times I’ve done this in the past. The cold room didn’t feel this cold when I was younger, nor did the knees pop this loud, either. What is happening to me? Oh, the road…I’m not immune to early rising by any stretch. After all, I still have young children who still refuse to get up with the light, kids who still have the bogeyman invading their innocent dreams from time to time – nights and early mornings disrupted on a regular basis. No, it’s not out of the ordinary. But what is unusual is the amount of wear put upon an aging body and mind as I try to do the things I used to do with ease. Stress used to roll off me like water off a duck…I think these feathers aren’t capable of retaining their reflective properties as well as they used to. Wearing out…worn down…at least by the end of this long weekend.
Currently, I’m 30,000 feet above the Earth, on my way to the last performance of this final April weekend. This musical trek began this past Thursday afternoon in Washington, DC, as I had the privilege to rehearse and perform with the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra (SJMO), a group of which I’ve beed proud to be a member for the past decade. I’ve learned so much from my time there, playing the music of some of the legends of jazz, historical scores reappearing for concerts time and again. John Clayton guest conducted the local performance, a tribute to the great John Levy. The legendary David Baker recently decided to turn the baton over to Charlie Young, the ensemble’s long time lead alto player. Walking into the Warner Theater of the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History, I quickly felt the warmth of John’s welcoming and well-known smile. I also brought my 3-year-old daughter with me in an effort to spend as much time with her as possible – It was about to get very busy, after all, and my free time would soon dwindle to nothing! Immediately, she switched on her shy girl adorability, refusing to meet eyes or return smiles. Strangers, and musical ones! Oh, no! Embracing John, I felt like I couldn’t start rehearsing quick enough. Anyone who knows him knows that music and beauty just ooze from every pore of his body. He is a rare man who has an uncanny knack of pulling the music out of every single person with whom he works, sometimes from depths that have not been visited yet or recently. That, to me, is an amazing quality, a rare one! I adore him!
After two emergency potty breaks and a few needy moments from my daughter, Lauren finally fell asleep on my lap while we were playing. I did my best to balance my daughter with one hand and my horn with the other in an effort to just keep her peaceful, and myself in the musical game. After 2 1/2 hours, we concluded the work we needed to accomplish, packed up and headed home. My daughter, of course, vivaciously came to her senses on the metro train while traveling away from that “boring place where Momma works”, and I had my hands full for the rest of the evening.
Friday began with a normal Jazz Ambassadors rehearsal in the morning. I still felt stoked from the previous afternoon’s musical good time, and I did my best to ride that wave of musical contentment as we conducted final preparations for three upcoming performances. Following rehearsal, I ran home for a quick lunch, changed into my gig blacks, and traveled via metro back to DC for the rehearsal and concert that would ensue with the SJMO. Again, I was greeted by John’s infectious smile, this time at the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History‘s Baird Auditorium. The band ran through the evening’s material, then broke for dinner, regrouping just after 7pm for our 7:30pm downbeat. A good time was had by all as the music came to life in front of our audience and through a live webcast. A hiccup occurred at one point as the sound failed to reproduce for a video being shown of the career of John Levy. But John Clayton improvised as a quiet emcee, interjecting identifications of the faces appearing before the eyes of those present. Despite this, the SJMO was well received once again, the wonderful John Clayton taking much of the credit for his role. Time to go home and get those few hours of rest before the next alarm sounded, pointing me in another direction: BWI Airport.
Arriving home, I transferred horns into different cases for light traveling and hit the sack, too tired to deal with packing a bag at 11:30pm. I set my alarm a little earlier than normal, and crashed onto my bed, my eyes open long enough to see the light go out on the other side of the room. The alarm clock could not have been more rude as it alerted me that Saturday morning had arrived. Complaining, I turned it off and drug myself to the shower. I dressed, threw a few things in my bag to include what I’d need today in Harrisburg, said goodbye to my son, and headed off into the cool, bright morning. Upon arrival, I joined the line of people going through security. I was pleasantly waved around to the pre-screening area after showing my military ID to the officer conducting the check. I was luxuriously allowed to remain in my shoes and coat as I passed through the scanner, pleasantly chit chatting with the security officers as I went. Ahhh…a hassle averted! I joined the other members of the SJMO at the gate, our destination: La Crosse, WI and Viterbo University.
Just before 1pm local time, we were in the lobby of our hotel when we were informed that our rooms were not yet ready. So an executive decision was made to just go straight to the concert hall in order to rehearse for the evening’s show. Although given the music ahead of time, we had not played much of it yet as this group. So a full rehearsal would be in order. Halfway through the rehearsal, my eyes were heavier than I could’ve imagined just hours earlier. After all, I’d napped a bit here and there on the planes. But my God, I was beat! Where did that come from? I used to be able to pull all nighters when I was in college, could do hit and runs for weeks on end when on tour with Diva, too! What was different about this? I’m nearly 44 now! That’s the difference. No, I’m not “old” by any stretch or definition, but certainly I’m much older than I used to be when touring at this level of “go, go, go”, and I certainly was feeling it. We rehearsed straight through with no break, everyone wanting to knock it out in order to get back to the hotel for that little bit of precious down time and rejuvenation. By 4:30-ish, we’d finished. We returned to the hotel, checked into our rooms, and had time to ourselves for a little less than two hours. I went to the neighboring grocery store for some breakfast to cook in the morning, and the cheese curds I’d promised to a colleague back home! Falling into my hotel bed, I was actually too tired to sleep (What?!), and afraid I’d miss the return transportation to the venue. So I mindlessly stared at the television, watching the minutes tick off on the clock next to my bed. And…time to go! Oh Lord, where would the energy come from for this one?
Charlie Young masterfully led and emceed the band through a wonderful concert of Duke Ellington’s music. His own talents were obvious throughout, but were featured on “Blood Count”, a mournful and haunting ballad written by Billy Strayhorn. Charlie is the most amazing alto saxophonist I’ve ever met or heard, and I’m so honored to share a stage with him whenever the opportunity presents itself. After a standing ovation and a “Take the A Train” encore, the concert was over. I think I speak for everyone when I say that while we did our jobs well, we were absolutely wiped out! A handful of us had a 7:00am flight on Sunday morning, but we still managed to unwind for a little while back on the hotel veranda. One of the best parts about any gig is the hang, and this was no exception as we laughed, ate and swapped stories until just after midnight, a much needed unwind! There is so much to learn, and I always feel like these hangs offer an opportunity to just sit and be quiet, listening to the veterans talk and recreate their war stories. Beautiful!
And my story takes me back to now, on a plane. Descending into Harrisburg, I will travel to my next musical adventure: a Jazz Ambassadors performance in Camp Hill, PA. Time to change hats and uniforms! My best peeps in the world await me, both in my personal and professional lives, and I can’t wait to dig deep into this tired body and mind for the inspiration and physical endurance to entertain the wonderful audience who will make the effort to come hear us perform today. Then, after a nearly two-hour ride home, I will hug my dogs and cats, change into sweatpants, and collapse on the couch with my family, and just rest and laugh until it’s time to retire. In the words of Donald Fagen, perhaps tonight, I’ll “sleep the sleep of the Gods”, a long series of work completed, lives touched, music recreated, and full of the satisfaction that comes when you’ve given it your all. My all is a little harder to muster up in these here 40s, but I’m refreshed knowing that I can do it still, although, yes – those knees sound just a little more like popping corn going up and down the steps. It’s all part of the plan, and I know I’m right on track!