Cliques Interruptus

It’s tax time and I’ve been absorbed by the process of going through my piles of receipts and credit card and bank statements to try to keep what Aunt Ir(i)s will agree is rightfully mine. And because my wife and I file jointly, but have different business paradigms, the task is typically fraught with angst over which receipts belong to whom. If she comes to one of my gigs and eats dinner, does that count as a business expense (this year)? If we drive to a party attended only by musicians and we sit in, can we write off the mileage (this year)? Does my New Year’s gig count this year or last year? It’s good for me to know that our accountant has a sense of humor about it (although I don’t understand why he refers to my income as mouse nuts, since mice don’t grow on trees like cashews or almonds). The process has interrupted my discourse on “cliques” and improvised music somewhat. Of course, the tallying of one’s income over the last year can suggest a membership in one of the many economically-based cliques that exist.

Sometimes I long for the days when I was a mail room clerk and gofer for an investment banker. I earned a decent wage and didn’t have to worry about preparing taxes, beyond submitting my W-2, even though it meant long hours absolutely disassociated with music. Just file papers, run errands, and sort mail for people making huge amounts of money. I even got to print up my own music paper on the backs of discarded financial reports. (I still have about two reams of it, although I use music notation software these days.)

On a not totally unrelated note, I received a phone call last week from someone (who will be named at a later date) writing a book on the life and music of Cal Tjader, a musician whom I used to work for back in the early 1970s. Cal was the first person who I spent long times on the road with. The band was regular—Dick Berk played drums, Michael Smith played congas (Cal played timbales as well as vibraphone), and either Frank Strazzeri or Lonnie Hewitt played piano.

I was 19 when I started with Cal and almost 21 when I left. It was a great way to “learn the ropes” of the road, playing creative music with seasoned veterans for an iconoclastic bandleader. He was a genius who found his calling in Afro-Cuban jazz and created a small-group format for the music centered around the vibraphone, which he played very differently than Milt Jackson or Red Norvo. His approach to the instrument was both polyrhythmic and lyrical, but the music he wrote was geared for “hot” improvisation. “Cubano Chant,” “Wachi Watta,” and “Leyte” are all standards in the Latin jazz scene. Many Latin jazz legends came up through his ranks: Willie Bobo, Armando Peraza, Mongo Santamaria, Pete Risso, and Pancho Sanchez all look at playing with Cal as one of their most important musical experiences. There are other musicians who spent their early careers in Cal’s band: Michael Wolf, Clare Fischer, and Vince Guaraldi are some. In a sense, Cal “discovered” them and gave them exposure to the “big time.” One of the things that I got from him, besides a great grounding in the basics of Latin bass playing, was a sense of the futility of war. He was a medic in the Navy who was also part of the landing force at the battle of Leyte during WWII. I will never forget the stories he told me, which you can read in the book when it comes out.

Another great thing about Cal was that he had a strong business head. Everything I did for him was on the books, and I could collect unemployment when we weren’t working. The only other music-related jobs I can think of that do that are orchestras, schools, and Broadway shows. (There are probably others and I hope that readers will let us know through their comments to this blog.) This introduces an important aspect of musical cliques: socio-economic ones based on employer status and income. Unfortunately, I’ll have to take this up again next week, after I finish shelling my mouse nuts.

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