‘Tis the Season!

I know that anyone reading this will agree that music is an integral part of human existence. (I’m sure that it’s an integral part of their existence; at least I can verify that it is of mine.) It’s no wonder that we hear it almost everywhere: in supermarkets, doctor’s offices, restaurants, and just about anywhere large groups of strangers regularly gather. Music can be a very effective social lubricant that can have a calming effect on unsettling situations, which is probably why music is such a welcome feature at parties. When you throw a wedding, reunion, or office party: hire a caterer and a band!

The six week period between Thanksgiving and the New Year is a concentrated time for parties and a time that musicians tend to get busy playing them. Improvising musicians, especially jazz musicians (who are used to playing a broad variety of genres), will wear an assortment of musical hats and play all kinds of music at these usually unstructured gatherings. Two weeks ago I wrote about playing for one while I was in San Francisco. It was a party thrown by someone who plays music “for fun” and collects guitars. Many of the guests shared his passion for music and spent a lot of the time listening to the trio, so the most important thing for us to do was to play the best we could. Fortunately, we were in good form that night.

Unfortunately, that was a rarity. The standard end-of-the-year party is attended by people who have got, or are anticipating the arrival of, their end-of-year bonuses and want to party a little harder than usual. As the coarser forms of social lubricants are dispensed and imbibed, inhibitions and standards of decorum drop and playing music that everyone finds satisfactory can be, to use a single word, challenging. This might be why so many musicians prefer not to take this kind of work unless they get paid well for it and why those that do are often associated with what is attributed to be the world’s oldest profession. Because I cut my musical teeth playing for parties (my father would take me along to play on his weekend-warrior affairs for the Nick Jordan orchestras in San Francisco), I’m usually up to the challenge. I dust off the fakebooks, spend a little more time studying YouTube, and hope my black suit passes for a tux. (I knew one musician, a drummer, who used a magic marker to make a t-shirt, jeans, and sandals pass as formal attire!) Horas, carols, disco (and maybe a Messiah or two) become a part of my musical household during the holiday season, enough variety to make the saltiest Pete jolly!

This year I’ve been blessed to be in good company. Besides the party mentioned previously, I played a wonderful Chanukah party with vocalist Judi Silvano, drummer Bob Meyer, guitarist Mark Sganga, and an angelic choir consisting of Leah Grammatica, Francesca Maese (a.k.a., Mrs. Harris), and Jody Sandhaus. It was for the Actor’s Home in Englewood, New Jersey, a beautiful facility for performing artists who are going through end-of-life issues. We were playing for our peers and our betters, many of whom had a direct influence on our professional lives. Besides being a moving experience, it was fun. Silvano and Meyer brought a rare sensibility to “The Dreidel Song” that set the mood.

The rest of the parties I’m doing this year are with four fantastic musicians who I work with regularly during the year. I’ll plug them now so that if readers might not be familiar with them they can resolve to become so in the upcoming year. I won’t mention venues, but they might on their websites: Cynthia Hilts, Vicki Burns, Alan Eicher, and Saul Rubin. Sadly, these probably won’t be like the two parties mentioned above. I anticipate smiling at the sottish requests for “Black Magic Woman” and “Hold It Against Me” to a guitar, voice, and bass trio. I’m sure it will happen (particularly on New Year’s Eve), but, hey, ‘tis the season!

I’ve heard that there is a possibility that the year 2013, like the proverbial tree in the woods, isn’t going to happen. If that’s the case, we should all get busy listening to and playing music in 2012. We should encourage those we play music for to play music also. I don’t mean karaoke, or even the sing-along. Real music-making, with the “whole-nine”: rehearsing and practicing. The act of making music does something to people I find very fine and counters the situation a fantastic musician, Jonathan Segal, who I’ve played parties for in the past, described in his book, The Disharmonic Adventures of David Stein. The scene is the Metropolitan Museum of Art; a pianist is returning from his 15-minute dinner break to resume playing solo after witnessing a street performer being run over by a taxi cab on Fifth Avenue:

What kind of person leaves a scene of carnage and goes off to entertain the wealthy? How could David reconcile these two worlds in the space of minutes? … He could truly feel the pain of the mime’s death, and yet he could compartmentalize the feeling … from the place where he bathed in the glitter of his musical performing life.

Arriving in the museum’s Medieval Room, he sees the knights on horseback that have been there his entire life…. A wealthy blond matron in a gown disturbs his reverie.

“Would you bring me some white wine.” … It is not a question.

“I am not the waiter, Madame. I am only the lowly pianist.”

“I’m so sorry! Please forgive me.”

“Of course, it’s perfectly natural. After all, I am in uniform.”

As people mill and mingle at this museum fundraiser, the effects of his playing vary. For some, it’s an ambiance that says that they have arrived … for others it is the thrill of New York at its most glamorous…. For some it is the remembrance by song, of precious memories. But there are some out there, with a drink in their hand and a sudden glow in their eyes, for whom it is passion….

The knights clamber off their steeds and gather round the piano. David plays “Rule Britannia” and the knights laugh heartily. They have mugs of ale in their armored hands. They pry open their helmet visors and pour the ale into the emptiness within…. David plays Beatles songs for them. Then the James Bond theme. They sing lustily along to the score from Camelot. …Now they raise their mugs and bellow a British soccer song, to the tune of “My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean.”

Oh pour me a big glass of cider
Oh pour me a big glass of stout
Oh pour me a big glass of ale
And then watch me puke it all out!

As the song finishes, a pompous, overweight museum staffer comes over to the piano and speaks to the knights.

“Would you please get back on your horses? This is a cocktail party, not a fraternity beer bash! There are some very important people here who don’t need to hear this crap!”

There is silence. The knights stand still like the statues they are. They don’t answer.

“Well?” barks the red-faced staffer.

He is answered by a “whoosh” and a “kathonk” as his chest is pierced by an arrow….The knight with the crossbow shakes his fist triumphantly and they all give each other clanging high-fives. David plays “God Save The Queen” and “We Are The Champions.” …After this merry carousing, the knights return to their horses. David plays a slow blues.

And to all, a good night—Happy Holidays!

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