Back in the good old days when there was still an actual music business, all musicians worked New Year’s Eve. I mean everybody, except for the elite guys who didn’t want to, or have to. It didn’t even matter if you were any good or not; demand was high enough that you had some kind of a gig that night even if you weren’t ready, if only to provide a semi-warm body on a bandstand somewhere. These ‘general business’ gigs paid at least double-scale for that night, so in the ‘70s you could walk away with $250 as a sideman – later $400 or $500 – which was pretty good money in those days. It usually meant a considerable amount of abject bandstand suffering and put you right in touch with your inner musical prostitute. But the payoff kept the wolf from the door during the always lean month of January, when musicians’ date-books resembled blizzards. You know, all white pages, no gigs written down.
It was not unusual back then to have a NYE gig booked as early as the summer, and once you were booked, it was locked in, iron-clad. You had to give the leader a virtual guarantee signed in blood that you would be there come hell or high water, failing death – and maybe not even then. The last thing you wanted was to be double-booked on NYE, you would never find a sub. It was a kind of gig Russian roulette – did you take the sure thing that came along early, or hold out for a better offer that might come along later? These were the questions that kept working musicians awake nights back then – along with cocaine, of course.
Many years later as 2000 approached, the overblown exercise of Y2K – remember that? – pretty much killed the NYE gig as we knew it. Everyone was determined to put on the party to end all parties and the going rate for sidemen was $1000 that year. The only trouble was, what with all the fear, hype and paranoia attached to the Armageddon of Y2K (as in “Armageddon outta here”), hardly anybody went out. It was the damp squib to end all damp squibs. Like that old wheeze about “What if they held a war and nobody came?” So NYE gigs have become rarer and rarer since then.
My first NYE gig was on December 31, 1974 and wasn’t exactly a professional affair. My Aunt Marie threw a party at her house and hired a little jazz quartet – John MacLeod on trumpet, Greg Stone on guitar, Chris Edge on drums and me – that we’d started in high school. She paid us $25 apiece, which was all she could afford. And to tell the truth, we inadvertently got back at her for lowballing us by offering a higher quotient of hard-core jazz tunes – played pretty badly, I might add – than is customary for this type of party. We didn’t know any pop tunes, our idea of a commercial dance tune was “Maiden Voyage”, because it had a ‘straight-eights’ feel. Or “The Sidewinder”, because it had a kind of hip, bebop-boogaloo beat. Our idea of a straight waltz was “Someday My Prince Will Come”, played á la Miles Davis. In fact, we had just finished playing that when my grandfather, a retired symphonic percussionist, asked if we could play a waltz. He wasn’t being a wise guy or trying to give us a hard time or anything, he was serious. That had us snickering up our sleeves, but the joke was on us – he meant a real waltz, one that you could actually dance to. The most “inside” things we played were some bossa novas, like “Wave” or “How Insensitive”. It wasn’t malicious or snobby on our part, we just didn’t know any better.
My first professional (i.e. union) NYE gig was a year later – progress! – at a hotel which no longer exists, The Walker House. In fact, it closed its doors the very next year and was demolished after being a fixture on the corner of Front and York streets since 1873. It housed an Old World dining room with the appropriately fancy-schmancy Viennese name of “The Franz Josef Room”, which is where I played that fateful night. Can’t you just see the candelabras and bewigged waiters goose-stepping around in frock coats with trays and clicking their heels – “Ja wohl, ze weiner schnitzel iss ready!”
Here’s what The Walker House looked like, not long before being demolished:
I say “that fateful night” for a couple of reasons. First of all, I recall the date very clearly because it was the night the Montreal Canadiens hosted the Russian National hockey team at The Forum in what is now considered one of the greatest hockey games ever played. It ended in a bitterly fought 3-3 tie, with blood and guts and national pride all over the ice. I remember my dad drove me to drop off my bass and amp at the hotel in the afternoon because he didn’t want to miss any of the game that night. It was all I could do to tear myself away from it after the first period to take the subway to the gig, dressed in my new black “imitation tux” jobbing suit, complete with a clip-on velvet bow-tie that looked like a gigantic black butterfly. I borrowed a pair of my dad’s best Dack’s dress shoes and my grandfather chipped in to the ensemble by giving me a slightly used navy-blue wool top-coat with a snazzy silk lining. So I was at least dressed for the part, which was important in those days. To underscore just how green I was, on the way to the gig I noticed my suit jacket still had the big “Jack Fraser” price-tag on the inside which I feverishly wrestled off, all in a sweat. Jesus, that was a close one, I thought..
It was also fateful as a rite of passage in that, at nineteen, I’d worked a few jobs mostly with guys basically my own age, but this gig would be with guys who were much older than me and who I didn’t know. All of this on “the big night” which carried the extra pressures that went along with the double-scale. You didn’t really sweat it too much on gigs with your peers, they were more forgiving and just as inexperienced and liable to make mistakes. And you were socially comfortable with them, they were interested in what you were interested in: namely learning how to play and get better while trying to hide any callowness by pretending to be as hip as possible.
I didn’t really know what to expect from these unknown older guys that night, except that I had a vague (but entirely justified) sense that I wasn’t really ready, that I didn’t know a whole lot so I was maybe in for some uncomfortable surprises. So I was in a pretty sweaty, schizoid state as I went to the gig. On the one hand, in my young mind I knew that it was just a one-nighter, we’d be playing pretty forgettable music and it would be over soon enough. But at the same time, I couldn’t really look down on it – and didn’t – because I had that dread of abject failure. I said a silent, uneasy prayer that I might get through the gig unscathed and without embarrassing myself too much. Or, worse still, being fired altogether and sent home.
Looking back, like most young people I was then firmly in the present and had most of my musical future stretching out before me, provided I didn’t screw up too much. Yet I was aware even then that I was stepping into the past, into the lore and code of untold NYE gigs of yesteryear, into an adult world of much older people who liked to socialize and dance to styles of music and songs that were rooted in a time well before mine. And that was the main anxiety: what ancient tunes would be called and would I know enough of them to get by? Would I botch up the waltz medley? Or get the cha-cha rhythms all wrong or maybe look like a complete ass fumbling through the key changes on a simple polka? It was a kind of gig Catch-22 – there was no way to prepare for any of the pitfalls of a faking-tunes dance gig like this except to get a few jobs under your belt and lay a few eggs. But at the same time, if you made too many goofs, word might get out and you might not be hired again. Aye, there’s the rub. But that’s what experience is, making mistakes and learning from them: nothing more, nothing less. My considerable body of musical knowledge is basically a vast inventory of corrected errors, rounded out by a lot of listening, practicing and going back to the drawing board once again.
It’s not as if I was sitting around woodshedding to polka and rhumba records, or studying the Guy Lombardo fakebook. Are you kidding? No self-respecting young bassist in his right mind would do that, even if it were possible. No, I was busy trying to get through “Giant Steps”, learning the bass pattern of “Un Poco Loco” and memorizing the chord changes to “Django”, along with a million other things. I hoped that ear-training and the work I’d put in on Monk tunes and rhythm changes would help steer me through the mysteries of the jobbing repertoire. Such as, is “Besame Mucho” A-B-A, or A-A-B-A? And, just what the hell happens on the last eight of “Tea For Two”, anyway?
So, that’s where my mind was at, approaching that night. Between these feverish thoughts and the fact that the gig was forty (!) years ago, my memory of it is pretty dim. I don’t remember how I even got the call, but the leader was a piano player named (I think) Tom, who sounded nice enough over the phone. I arrived and met him and the rest of the guys, all of them well into their sixties. In my nineteen-year-old eyes this was ancient to the point of near-death, but they weren’t all that much older than I am now. Tom was tall, thin, mild-mannered, had a bad toupee and, now that I think of it, he was probably as nervous as I was, but I didn’t notice it at the time. He told me to set up near his left hand and to keep things mostly two-beat, like the band on the Titanic.* He’d brought along a bunch of battered old fake books which we could both read out of, much to my relief.
There was a guy who played alto sax and clarinet and all I can remember about him was that he had that old, big-band lead alto sound – what I call “bedroom alto” – kind of like Gus Bivona or Toots Mondello, only not quite that good. The drummer was solid and had the look of a guy who knew his way around a whiskey bottle. His old kit had a cowbell mounted on the bass drum and temple blocks, if you can believe it. I’d never seem them before except in old photographs, and haven’t since. The guy I remember best is the trumpet player, because he had a very distinctive appearance. not unlike the actor Robert Webber. Piercing blue eyes, a ruddy face, with silver-grey hair in a severe brush-cut you could have landed a plane on. He looked kind of scary like a bad cop or a career soldier, but turned out to be the funniest, most outgoing of the guys. I remember he said to me, “Lemme see your union card, kid!” and I gulped and whipped it out, not realizing he was just messing with me for being so young. He was good, used a lot of cup mute.
Mostly we played pretty square, discreet music for dancing, as you’d expect in such a Teutonic setting. Basically, it was an anachronistic hangover from the sixties, mixed in with the more genteel vestiges of The Third Reich. We played a few polkas, a lot of waltzes (including some real Viennese ones), and a lot of generic Latin – rhumbas, mambos and cha-chas. The ballads came in medleys, and every once in a while when it seemed safe, we’d cut loose with a “hot” number – some muffled-down Dixieland or some mild jamming on old tunes like “Margie” or “Up A Lazy River”. Nothing bad happened and nobody looked askance or yelled at me; I seemed to be doing okay and started to relax, which made everything better. The guys expressed some surprise that I seemed so comfortable on the Dixie tunes and I explained I played some of that when I first started on bass in high school. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – starting out playing Dixieland has stood me in good stead through the years.
One thing I do remember well is that we played “Begin the Beguine” and I was astonished that one song could go on that long, like forever. It was many years later that I came across Alec Wilder’s great line about it in his fabulous book AMERICAN POPULAR SONG, which I’ll quote loosely here – “About halfway through its 128 bars, the listener wishes the title would change to “End the Beguine – Please”. I also remember hearing some hoary old musician gags and lines that night for the first time, including, “Guys, next year, grey suits and black hair, okay?” I ended up having some fun and feeling more or less accepted. At the end of the gig I felt relieved and on my way, like I knew a lot more than I had when the evening started, which is the general idea.
But here’s the really weird thing about that gig: I never saw any of those guys ever again. Not once, not even in passing. Looking back, they were probably part-timers and weekend-warriors, not all that established on the Toronto scene despite their age. But having passed the initiation into what I thought was their world, I assumed I’d work with them or see them sometime soon, at least occasionally. It’s like they vanished into thin air, just like the Walker House itself. Now I can’t remember their names or even their faces, I think of them as the “ghosts of NYE gigs past”. They’re all long gone now, but I wish I’d bumped into one or two of them over the years, if only so we could have had a few laughs remembering that Franz Josef Room gig. About how young and nervous I was, how my over-polished dress shoes were way too big and that hideous bow-tie, looking like a vampire bat had died while trying to bite me in the neck. And about how much fun we had playing the odd “jazz” tune after a medley of deadly.
In the years between then and 2000, I worked many gigs on “amateur night”, as we musicians sometimes call NYE. Some of them were pretty forgettable, some quite memorable. At least once, if not twice, I played NYE at Bourbon St. with Jimmy Witherspoon – talk about ringing in the New Year with the blues. I worked many times there with Zoot Sims, but never on NYE. It’s too bad, Zoot was a guy who knew all about making musical whoopee. John Sumner and I once played a NYE concert in Ottawa at the National Arts Centre with singer Denzil Sinclair and, as you’d expect from him, everything about it was first-class – the music, the venue, the accommodations and the money.
Some very memorable extra-musical things have happened over the years on NYE jobs, like the year I was working with Mark Eisenman and his crappy old Chevette was stolen – he left it running outside a variety store while he ran in to buy a pack of gum. Oops, he rode with me that night. Or the year my sister decided to get married on NYE, against the advice of many, including me. I had a gig booked with Sumner, Eisenman and Bonnie Brett that night, and my sister wanted Mark and Bonnie to perform a couple of songs at the ceremony and play the first dance. So somehow, we all raced from our gig in North Toronto to the wedding venue on King St. and then rushed back to finish our gig. I still don’t know how we managed it – we’d never make it now, we don’t have the energy.
Perhaps my favourite NYE memory comes from a gig I did at the Top of the Senator with a wonderful band led by John Alcorn singing, with Perry White on tenor saxophone, Richard Whiteman on piano, Daniel Barnes on drums and me on bass. We had a few nights after Christmas to hone a fine program of standards and on the big night my oldest friend Robert Allair booked a table for him, his wife Susan and his mother Alice, who, along with Terry Sheard remains my favourite old person ever.
Alice was from a tiny, remote fishing village in Newfoundland and I’ve known her from the time Bob and I first became friends in junior high school, back when we were sort of self-styled, wanna-be young hippies. I didn’t really get to know her well until many years later when Bob and I renewed our friendship as adults and Alice was well into her seventies and widowed. After many years as a full-time mother and housewife, Alice had retired to a very small town, later emerging in Toronto as a kind of septuagenerian hipster. She was up for anything – fine dining, theater, jazz, travel, all enabled by a taste for the internet, a great sense of humour and a sensible fondness for the occasional drink. Or three. To put it plainly, she was very good and lively company with a down-to-earth maritime wit.
So, this particular NYE – I’m guessing 2002 or 2003 – Bob, Susan and Alice had a table right in front of the bandstand at The Senator and had a great time eating, drinking, and enjoying the music. I remember Bob taking turns dancing with each of the ladies, and that Alice knew each one of the old songs we played, right down to every word. Many of them brought back memories she had of going out dancing and dating as a young lady, first in Montreal and later in Toronto. This really made the evening for me, I love it when the music I’m playing resonates with people on such a personal level. The impact of this was brought home by Alice’s palpable vivacity – she had the very white hair and wrinkled care-worn skin of an old person, but her alert and piercing blue eyes sparkled with life.
Alice was a dedicated smoker like me, so on a break I offered to take her up to the club’s third floor cigar bar, which in those more civilized, less regimented days was open to smokers. She gratefully accepted and we worked our way up the stairs to the room of sinners. These included a number of the band’s friends, among them Ronnie Burkett, the incomparable master of marionette theater. I’ve known Ronnie for many years and he’s one of the few people I know who I consider to be a true genius, wickedly funny both on and off the stage. I introduced Alice around; she was by far the oldest person there, which didn’t bother her in the least. She took out a cigarette and before I could light it for her, Ronnie did the honours – he loves older people. Typically unfazed, Alice got to talking and laughing with this hip crowd and before long her cigarette went out. She said, “Oh damn, my cigarette’s gone out.” Without skipping a beat, Ronnie whipped out his lighter again and said, “I hate to say this to a lady, Alice, but this time suck a little harder!”. There was a brief, pregnant pause and then we all roared, including Alice, who laughed to beat the band. She was still choking with laughter when I led her back downstairs…….,”Oh, that Ronnie, what a card – I haven’t had so much fun since I was in my twenties!” Looking back, I could have quite happily died right then and there. God rest her, Alice passed a couple of years ago and is sorely missed.
I haven’t worked New Year’s much in recent years and that’s just fine with me. If I never hear another noisemaker or see a goofy party-hat, it’ll be too soon. My idea of a perfect NYE gig wouldn’t be a paying job at all, but a big jam session gathering in some joint with a piano and a bunch of musicians where everybody plays a few tunes, whenever and whatever we feel like. Mostly though, we hang out and tell jokes and stories, the endless funny lore of gigs and characters and wild scenes from our collective past, which never seem to get boring.
Anyway, on to a favourite NYE gig joke. Back in the old days described earlier, some poor schnook was asked to organize a party for his company at very short notice and there had to be a live band. So he called the musician’s union and got a few phone numbers, but soon discovered he was out of luck – everybody was already booked and the pickings were pretty slim to none. Finally, after tearing his hair out for two weeks, on December 27 he got hold of an accordion player who was free and who said he had a couple of friends who played sax/clarinet and drums who could do the gig too. So the guy booked this trio, overjoyed and relieved, but also a little dubious – if these guys were free at his late date, how good could they be?
He kept his fingers crossed till the night of the party and felt a little better when the band arrived well in time to set up, looking a little old and worn around the edges but decently enough dressed and with working equipment and everything. They might be okay after all and basically, they were. Nothing special or exciting, a few clangers here and some unintended atonality there, the odd 5/4 bar and flubbed ending. But at least they played tunes people knew and could dance to, did their best to answer requests, didn’t get hammered or try to pick up any of the lady guests or take overly long breaks. And they hit “Auld Lang Syne” right on the button at midnight, following it with a rousing medley of “More”,”Spanish Eyes” and “Moon Over Miami”. These guys were basic pros and people-pleasers, no doubt about it.
So when the gig ended at 1:00 the organizer guy went to pay the band and asked if they would consider booking the same gig in the same place as far ahead as next New Year’s, at a modest raise. The leader said, “Sure thing, but can we stash our instruments in the coat-check closet till then?”
While we’re at it, another favourite joke on the subject concerns a pianist who wakes up on the morning of NYE deathly ill with the flu. He tries to get out of bed and keels right over, realizing he’s way too sick to make his gig that night. So he has to make the dreaded phone call to break the bad news to the leader, who freaks out and starts calling every piano player he knows in a panic, followed by a few he doesn’t know, followed by friends of theirs who maybe owned pianos – they’re all working. Finally about 6:00 he gets hold of a pianist and asks him if he’s free that night. The guy says “Let me check” – I love that part – and answers with the good news that he’s free. Relieved, but still ever used to being in charge, our fearless leader starts grilling the guy about his “credentials”, like he can afford to be picky at that point. He asks the guy if he has a black suit and bow-tie – yep. The gig’s out of town, so does he have a car? Yep again. Then he said they’d be doing a fair amount of faking that night, so how many tunes did he know? The pianist answered that he knew three – “O, Canada”, “Moon River” and “I Remember Clifford.”
(Part of the fun of telling that joke is making up the unlikely combination of the three tunes. Anything goes, as long as the first one is semi-official, the second one really common and the third impossibly hard or obscure. So, “God Bless America”, “Satin Doll” and “Ruby, My Dear” would be good, along with many other troikas.)
That joke reminds me of a funny line I once witnessed when Rob McConnell was giving a clinic to a large group of high school-aged music students. Usually the funny lines came from Rob, which is why I went out of my way to listen in on his workshops, they were always highly entertaining and informative. But in this instance, Rob was the straight-man and the punch line came from one of the kids. Rob was talking about the fundamental importance of learning tunes and at random picked a trombonist out of the crowd. “You”, he asked in a challenging tone, “How many tunes do you know?” “Twelve” answered the kid with some confidence. “Wow, not bad” said Rob, pleasantly surprised. “Which ones?” With no hesitation and a straight face, the kid answered, “‘C Jam Blues‘ in all twelve keys!” Rob doubled over, howling till there were tears coming out of his eyes. When he’d recovered he pointed to the kid and said, “You pass.“ What I wouldn’t give to see him laugh like that just one more time.
* The bandleader didn’t actually mention the Titanic band that night, it’s a joke that I heard much later. For those who don’t know it, it’s a classic, well worth repeating. The band that played in the main dining room of the Titanic was regarded as part of the crew and governed by the same strict rules, chief among them being that in case of an emergency on board, they were to continue playing no matter what, to maintain calm and decorum. Essentially, if things got really bad, they were expected to go down with the ship. And musically speaking, the bassist and drummer were told to play everything in a polite, society two-beat without exception, absolutely no “going into four”. (Actually, being that it was 1912, I don’t think playing in four had even been invented yet, but never mind.) So, the ship hits the iceberg (so to speak) and panic ensued, mild at first, quickly rising to pandemonium. As tables and dishes started crashing around and passengers began screaming and trampling one another, the idiot bandleader kept waving his hands around in the air in front of the band like nothing had happened, hissing “Keep on playing, anybody who leaves the stand is fired!”. Meanwhile the bassist and drummer were locked in a mild death-grip of two-beat. Dancing nightly, Bob’s your uncle. The water started coming up to the level of the bandstand, then over it and the ship began listing to one side, but still the band played on. Finally, with the water up to their knees and the ship at a thirty-degree angle, the bass player leaned over to the drummer with a defiant gleam in his eye and said, “Fuck this – let’s go into four!!”
Metaphorically speaking, here’s to all of us going into four as often as possible – as far as I’m concerned, that’s basically what life is all about.
Snappy Blue Gear
© 2015 – 2016, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.