This page will include reminiscences about some of the favorite rehearsals or gigs I've played over the years (for good or bad reasons). Tales appear roughly in chronological order.

This page remains under construction. Of course, there are many tales I can't tell!



And the Livin’ is Easy

A Real Education

Crown Royal

You’ve Gotta’ Taste It First

As If

They Could March Themselves

God’s Alarm Clock

Showing His Roots

Cattle Call

First Lady

Getting Frisky

Stuff It


My Loudest Mistake

Elephants I-VI

Driving Music

Short Set

No Peeking



And the Livin’ is Easy

Summertime in my native New Orleans during high school years meant going to Loyola Summer Music camp, where I seemed to learn tons every day—and met great people on the faculty and as my classmates. Depending on the year, the jazz band included Wynton Marsalis, Branford Marsalis, Donald Harrison, or Terence Blanchard. Not a bad bunch with which to try to figure out what swings.

Not that everything swung hard. I have an old cassette recording of Wynton and I playing on “Do the Hustle”—and another one of Branford soloing on my first jazz composition (that I’d penned over endless measures of D Dorian minor). But there was plenty to learn.


A Real Education

As a college sophomore jazz major in New Orleans, I thought I’d learned a bit about how to play in a big band. So I was pleased to get a call to play trombone with the René Louapre Orchestra, as it was the number-one society jazz band in town, playing dozens of Mardi Gras balls each season. You could make a serious percentage of your career income for the year between January and February if you were “in” with the right contractors.

The band carried one regular trombonist and hired more as needed. I showed up for the 7 p.m. rehearsal at the Municipal Auditorium and met the guys, all of whom seemed to be Italian. (This was not unusual in New Orleans, where more Italians resided than in Sicily.) Three were brothers: two saxophonists and the trombonist, who was an older, slower-moving gentleman. He limped a bit and politely complained a little bit about his friend, “Arthur-itis,” who had taken up residency in his right elbow, his slide-arm.

He had a bit of an aroma of Vicks’ Vapo-Rub that actually stemmed from his lips more than his elbow (as some brass players commonly relied on various over-the-counter creams and salves to allay the stiffness of their embouchures’ playing night after night of musical engagements). When he warmed up, he played meek, little sounds that bore little tone.

Short story: it was clear to me that this guy’s chops weren’t going to last the gig. In fact, he himself might not last the gig. And I was going to have to carry the workload late into the night, as we were booked for rehearsal, ball, and supper dance.

I followed “Bubby” into the band’s setup and sat down for the rehearsal. The tuxedoed leader, silver-haired René Louapre himself, wielded an oversized baton, with which he conducted, ending tunes with a three-circled cut-off. Most of the tunes were on yellowed paper, clearly far older than I was; and some were tiny, marching-lyre-sized pieces of music taped onto a full-sized piece of paper for anchoring. They were rather hard to see and read—and each got about 17 seconds of rehearsal from René. Obviously the regulars in the band already knew the music from last night or last season or 15 years ago; so what was the need to rehearse? Rehearsal was thus over in under five minutes, after which the band members all rose to leave, relax, and enjoy the rest of their paid rehearsal time.

At 8 p.m. we began the evening’s welcoming music, playing show tunes for the tux-and-gown crowd. It was good sight-reading; and the band swung well, with soloists who sounded as terrific as any I’d known. Since I had a good “pedal” low range on my tenor trombone, I’d take various passages down an octave so as to simulate a three-bone section with a bass trombonist; and the guys gave me approving looks, appreciating the choices I was making.

By 8:30 or so, the tableaux began: a formal play, acted out by members of the evening’s Mardi Gras “krewe,” for the pleasure of the king, queen, maids, and other members. René had already met with the head of the krewe and established the sequence of musical cues; so we followed him through without error.

This was to be followed by the “grand promenade” of the royal court around the auditorium floor. It began about 8:45p and would be the first non-stop music of the evening: and it was to be loud and triumphant. The “March from Aida” was the typical accompaniment to this regal parade, and we were to repeat it until the court was done strolling.

Suddenly, this society band turned orchestra. The brass ratcheted everything up in volume; the sound broadened; and lead players were taking the peak moments of the music up an extra octave.

After about a dozen reps, I was sagging. Bubby, who would take his high Eb’s and F’s up an octave at every repeat, tapped me on the knee and said, “Sit out for a bit.” Gratefully, I inhaled air and attempted to get my pulse down for 30 seconds before rejoining the music. But soon my pitch-range was shrinking and my breathing hurting.

About 20 minutes later, René cut the band off. Bubby was smelling like a (Vapo-Rubbed) rose; but I was hurting. We had a 10-minute break, and he complimented me on my work thus far. Apparently, some of the previous extras had hurt more than I. Or he was being too kind.

We resumed with a dance set, and I had regained my footing, finally able to feel my face again. Bubby was sailing through written and improvised solos: it was clear he was a phenomenal traditional New Orleans Dixieland player as well as being able to summon the smooth spirit of a Tommy Dorsey.

We were playing our last dance set, around 11:30 p.m., when I noticed that some guy was reaching under my moving trombone slide, closing my music folder, collapsing my bandstand, and walking off with them—and everyone else’s. The band never stopped playing: they probably knew 50-100 arrangements by memory, anyway.

I leaned over to Bubby and asked him what was going on. “Oh, they’re going over to set up the band for the supper dance so that we can get started on time over there.” And he resumed playing Smoke Rings, or whatever other tune’s arrangement I was supposed to fit into like a glove. It was tricky playing orchestrated solis with the band without seeing the written solis—trying not to “step in the holes” of the rests—but it was a great lesson.

Sure enough, when the set ended at midnight, we got into our cars and headed to the nearby hotel—where the bandstands and music were all set to go. And by 12:30a, we were playing dinner music for the “Queen’s Supper Dance,” a ritual that followed many of the old-line Mardi Gras krewe’s balls.

And it was “continuous music.” That literally meant that we had been contracted to play non-stop for a couple of hours, then take a half-hour break, and then play a last set.

Mind you, post-Aida and dance set, I was not in the best shape to begin what could have been a totally separate dance-band gig; but this did not phase Bubby or any other of the regulars. We swang away, and Bubby would tap my leg now and then for me to lay out for a minute. More rarely, he’d take a minute himself.

Around 2 a.m. we’d get our break and gather in a back room, where the band was treated to some refreshment. The holy grail of options was the Fairmont Hotel’s turtle soup (with a dash of sherry), which definitely hit the spot after, oh, seven hours of work.

And then we’d cap our last set, finally packing up about 3:30 a.m. I expressed my admiration to Bubby as well as I could without fawning; and he said he enjoyed playing with me and was looking forward to our next gig together—which was the next night.

So 7 p.m. the next night we reprised the entire scenario with a different krewe: rehearsal, welcoming music, tableaux (with different music), promenade (still Aida), dance sets, faking arrangements without the written music, and continuous supper dance. And so it went for much of the rest of the season, with variation. I got to the point when I would lament that some krewe was not having a supper dance, as the paycheck for a eight-hour work-night (with a premium for some continuous music) was a serious chunk of change—especially for a college student who still went to school six days a week (and played in its ensembles all day).

Some nights, of course, I’d be with some other band in some informal setting; or I’d have no gig at all. But I had quickly learned how to mentally and physically address the stamina and creative issues these pros already knew well.

Back at school, one of my teachers asked me how the Louapre gigs were going. “Terrific,” I replied. “And this one guy, Bubby—one helluva’ trombonist.”

“Yeah,” my teacher replied. “You know he barely plays the horn ten months out of the year. Picks up the instrument out of mothballs as Mardi Gras season approaches.”

I couldn’t believe that this grandfatherly man, who could play any trombonist I knew under the table when it came to endurance and musicality, was a part-timer. “What does he do for a living?” I asked.

“He’s an electrician.”

And so began my friendship with New Orleans trombonist Angelo "Bubby" Castigliola. As I’d stated when I once dedicated an ITA Journal article on trombone technique to him, Bubby was a gracious professional who always took the time to teach the next generation of players and was himself a continual, loving student of the trombone. One of the most remarkable trombonists I have ever heard, he outplayed his colleagues with a kindness everyone could admire.

By the way, a few years into my seasonal work with the RLO, the guys in the band confessed that they’d thought I was Italian, too. A name like “Antonio García” can traverse many continents!

There were a few women in the enlarged band, playing violins and flutes, all the better to set the musical mood of the formal “tableaux” about to ensue on the ballroom floor. But there were no women in the brass or sax section. It was the culture at the time in older society bands.

After I’d graduated college, I was called to line up an additional trombonist for an RLO ball. I told the contractor that every guy I knew was working (which was true) and that the best player for the job was a woman I’d gigged with a month earlier. He shrugged his shoulders and said, “Just fill the chair.”

So that evening, the first woman to ever occupy a brass chair in the René Louapre Orchestra arrived, to the obvious amazement of most of the band. She played her butt off and was welcomed back ever after.


Crown Royal

One of my formative gigs was subbing on trombone with Luther Kent and Trickbag. Luther was a gravelly-voiced singer with tremendous resonance who had sung a while with Blood, Sweat, and Tears. His band book had originally been big band-sized, mostly written by his bassist, the late Charlie Brent. As the economy dictated, the band shrunk in size; and by the time I was subbing, it was a one-bone, one-sax, one-trumpet plus rhythm gig.

My friend, the late Brian O’Neill, had fingered me as a sub because I had a decent grasp of transpositions. By the time the band had shrunk to three-horn size, the trombone folder included a litany of parts written for flute, alto sax, bari sax, trumpet, and tenor and bass trombones—maybe more. And it was my job to make sure the audience heard the music right.

My horn-mates were usually tenor saxophonist Eric Traub (formerly of Maynard Ferguson’s band) and trumpeter Tony Klatka (formerly of Woody Herman’s); and they were both kind to me. Tony, in particular, who was very laid-back, would give me a sideways glance as he raised his horn if the phrase we were about to play was going to have to be shaped a bit differently than written. It was his “follow my lead” look and worked every time.

Whatever transposing chops I’d had before that gig, they were far better afterwards. That book put me through the paces. And as with several gigs around town, I’d bring my tenor and bass trombones so as to make the music sound its best.

Luther and I never socialized, but he knew me as that kid on the end who was okay. So he’d launch into whatever tune he had up, maybe Stormy Weather; and at the end of his vocal chorus he’d shout: “How about a bone solo!” And whatever key we were in, whatever I did or didn’t know about the song, it was definitely my solo to uphold in the spirit of the music.

Luther would down a shot of Crown Royal as I played, and then toss it over towards the bar. I figured as long as he didn’t toss it at me, I was doing OK.


You’ve Gotta’ Taste It First

Growing up in New Orleans, I’d heard a good deal of traditional New Orleans jazz. And though it was okay to hear, I wasn’t wild about playing it—particularly as I had begun my study of “serious” jazz as a college student. I’d played a few Dixieland gigs with a few people and considered it rather painful to play physically and with little artistic reward.

Then I got a call to sub on a gig with some old guys at a downtown hotel. I can’t recall all their names; but I do recall that the guitarist/vocalist had played with Louis Armstrong at one point of his career: Frank Federico.

And this guy had it. Everything he played or sang worked. Even just his quarter-note accompaniment sounded heaven-sent. It was all rock solid: joyful, swinging, creative.

I’d brought a couple of fake books along in my bag, but there were no music stands or books on the stage. Plus, I found out, they’d call tunes I’d never heard of. Most were based on old march forms incorporated by ragtime on into early jazz. They could’ve fit on a marching band lyre as a Sousa march: melody, melody, bridge, melody, interlude to new key, new form and melody, sudden change back to the old melody and form, and TROMBONE SOLO BREAK!

These guys were pros: they’d forgotten more tunes than I’d ever learn in my life. They’d warn me of what to watch out for in a given tune, as best they could; and then they’d turn me loose to figure it out. Along the way, I learned how to weave in and out of what they were doing so well—and how useless my bebop training was. I was now learning jazz history in reverse: quite a realization for a New Orleanian who had grown up around the music itself.

And so I learned that if you’re going to pass judgment on a style of music, you should make sure you’ve heard the best of it before dismissing it. Since that time, whether I am playing classical, rock, pop, jazz, or anything else, I ask myself to be sure I am examining and attempting to express the heart of the style.


As If

As my sight-reading skills improved, it was common to be contracted for performances without rehearsals: show up and play. Sometimes the shows—for say, Gladys Knight and the Pips, or for the Spinners—might literally be “talked down” in the men’s room: the musical director would talk us through the book and point out various spots to be especially careful for.

A more unusual spin on this occurred one night when a number of us were contracted by Tony Klatka, if memory serves, to back Tex Beneke for a gig in Alabama. More precisely, we were to be Tex’s band. It was in the contract that if anyone attending asked us, we were traveling with Tex, on the road, night after night—even though he traveled only with his manager and vocalist.

Most no-rehearsal gigs were fairly rambunctious events: a dance, a stadium-filled raucous concert, or similar event ripe with distraction. But when we walked onto the concert hall stage, we discovered we would be playing a two-hour, sit-down, red-curtained, velvet-seated concert for a couple of thousand folks staring at us intently: no dancing or other distractions.

Happily, the music had been scored by Larry Elgart, who wrote visibly beautiful manuscripts that were sight-readable. He also, I knew, had a particular affection for writing great, distinctive bass trombone parts—my chair for the night. So I had no excuse not to play them well, and I had a great time.

Tex milked the crowd with his stage presence and indeed told them that we were all on the road with him. The band did play outstandingly, and I enjoyed the ruse as well as the music.


They Could March Themselves

After my first grad year at Eastman, I came home to New Orleans broke and in need of work. I gave myself a couple of weeks to assess my potential for picking up frequent music gigs before possibly considering whether to get a day job for the summer.

I was home just a couple of days when I visited my undergrad alma mater, Loyola, to say hi to my former teachers there. The director of bands, Dr. Joe Hebert, asked me what my plans were; so I told him my financial concerns.

“How’d you like a job playing trombone six days a week, seven hours a day, union scale?” He was referring musicians to fill out the official band for the 1984 World’s Fair, right there in New Orleans. It pays not to burn bridges with your former teachers!

Before long I was in a band with 30 or 40 other musicians. We were to wear white pants and short-sleeved shirts for most of the day (reasonable for a town with 98 degrees, 98 percent humidity), splitting up into a half-dozen street combos to play Dixieland to entertain folks waiting in line to get into attractions. A smaller percentage of the time we’d play in combos of contemporary jazz on stages scattered the length of the Fair. And several times a day we’d don blue coats and play festive music as a marching band during the official parade schedule. The deal was that we’d wash our own white clothes and that the Fair would dry-clean the jackets every week.

It was a great gig. I learned more about how to play hard and not hurt my chops than I had since my days with René Louapre. There were wonderful musicians in the band (including several college buddies, among them Victor Goines). We challenged ourselves to come up with new tunes, arrangements, and even locales in which to play. One day our combo played in a single car of the largest Ferris wheel in North America. We’d split into pairs and jump on the ski lifts that paralleled the river and play while enjoying great views of the city below.

And other gigs sprang from that one. I played a series of jazz combo performances at The Fair under the direction of pianist James Drew, who was a monster jazz pianist. Sometimes saxophonist Rick Margitza, who had followed me at Loyola by a few years, was on the gig as well.

James was also a contemporary classical composer who had taught at Yale, and so I also began playing some of his music at the New Orleans Contemporary Arts Center. It was brilliantly written—and unwritten—a lot of improvisation afforded to the players from the intricate scores, and great fun to play. I recall we performed some of his works live over local public radio.

But all good things must end; and after three months of fine music and great pay, it was time to go back to Rochester, NY to complete my study there. There was really only one nasty thing about the gig: those blue uniform coats had never been dry-cleaned by the World’s Fair! It was difficult to explain that reality to a sub on the rare occasion you had to miss work.

Most of the other members of the band were continuing on through the planned six-month run of the Fair, though there began almost daily rumors of early disbanding of the group and closure of the Fair due to financial problems. On the last day of the Fair, a couple of band buddies called me in New York from a phone they’d found in an abandoned Fair office in New Orleans. They had completed their last parade; and those uniform coats had never been cleaned. Not in six months of heat, humidity, and rain! Now that’s funky.


God’s Alarm Clock

OK, this one’s about a rehearsal, not a gig, but....

When I was at Eastman, I was frequently tired enough to warrant using seven alarms, all spread around the room at different times. Sometimes one or two would be enough; but other times, well, that’s what happens when you have to be awake for 40-70 hours at a time writing music.

Once, after completing a 50-hour stint on a chart, I set my seven alarms and went to bed for the six hours I had available to rest. I had to then be up for my first sectional with the Eastman Jazz Ensemble trombone section as bass trombonist. (I had been playing tenor with the band all year, but bass trombonist Jim Martin had defected to the Buddy Rich band the previous week. So I was the new guy on the bottom, with a concert, a tour, and a recording session all within the following two weeks—plus my own graduate recital on tenor trombone as originally planned.)

I slept through all seven alarms.

I didn’t hear a single one of them. It was the only time in my entire two years at Eastman that I failed to get up.

But I woke up, about a half-hour later than I’d planned, when God sent me his own personal alarm in the form of the world’s worst charley horse. It was unbelievably painful! I looked at the clock, realized that I’d missed the bus from the residence hall to the school, and that I’d have to trudge—rather, limp—pretty quickly in the snow over to the sectional, since I had the key to open up the practice room.

But it just goes to show you that if you face reality and deal with it often enough on your own, someone else might cut you a little slack and help you out when you fail.


Showing His Roots

I had the pleasure of playing 24 gigs with pianist George Shearing. The opening tune was Moten Swing, during which he’d lightly tickle the ivories until the band in the dark exploded with a musical punch at the bridge of the tune. (The musicians would place bets as to which audience member’s drink we’d see spill in reaction to the surprise.)

The first 23 shows went as planned. But on the 24th show, the lead trumpeter chipped the punch-note a bit: nothing embarrassing, but enough for George and the band to notice. Shearing responded by playing the rest of the tune not as George Shearing but as Thelonious Monk—one of his deepest influences. We were amused, shocked, enthralled, and stunned by his transformation: the precise nuance, the extreme departure from the expected, his glee in being mischievously inspired by the momentary dissonance of the trumpet.

I doubt many in the audience noticed the trumpet-squib, much less the profound depth Shearing displayed in letting his bebop roots show clearly that evening. Our lead trumpeter had surreptitiously recorded the show, as he did most closing nights. But he refused to give me a dub of that marvelous rendition of Moten Swing, as he was concerned that if it got around, the chipped note might damage his reputation.


Cattle Call

I also played some 50 shows with The Mills Brothers, an act that truly has its spot in legend from its “band without a horn” debut many decades ago: the brothers were extraordinary in their ability to mimic horns with their voices.

The book “played itself,” as we liked to say: they didn’t even travel with a musical director. Our band’s pianist handled the cut-offs for the band; everything else was in tempo. But it had to swing hard because The Mills Brothers thrived on swing.

The charts sometimes had long stretches of rests, after which the band was to hit a loud note or two, then rest carefully for a long stretch, then hit on again. So maintaining concentration was a necessity—and sometimes difficult, as the run got into show #15 or so.

The regulars in the house band had a successful system to combat taking rest-counting for granted. As the “hit” would approach, various bandmembers would strongly stomp their feet on the carpeted stage floor in some random, arrhythmic timing approaching the note. The closer to the note you could stomp your foot without throwing off the perfect timing of your own musical delivery of the note, the more revered you were by your peers.

So a couple of measures out from the “hit,” you’d hear a stomp or two from someone playing it safe, then rapidly a few more, until in the two seconds nearest the note you heard what sounded like a herd of cattle coming down the stage, all leading up to a perfect, ensemble “BOP!” It did keep us focused, if laughing under our breaths; and apparently no one off-stage could hear the cattle coming.


First Lady

What can I say about the privilege of performing over 50 shows with Ella Fitzgerald? I’ve certainly said that doing so and being paid for it was the closest I’ve ever come to stealing. It was an unbelievable thrill and education every night, heightened by the musicianship of the brilliant pianist Paul Smith, the ever-swinging bassist Keter Betts, and the incredible drummers Mickey Roker and Bobby Durham—each very kind people as well as amazing musicians.

Even circa 1980, Ella could transform her voice in any way she wished. She could sing as a woman more of her age, if it told the story of the song well. Or she could sound like a 30 year-old. Or, on “Tisket,” she could sound age six. She improvised stunningly over any tune she chose and could deliver The Great American Songbook as no other. Ella was indeed “The First Lady of Song.”


Getting Frisky

I’ve had the pleasure of performing for several Presidents, among other dignitaries. In fact, the only time I’ve ever left my horn at the site of a gig overnight was when required to do so the night in advance of a performance for a President—so that the bomb-sniffing dogs could check out the band’s gear before we formally set up the morning of the event.

In those days, getting security clearance meant receiving a few unusual phone calls at home from the Secret Service prior to the gig, answering questions about your background and providing them data. But nothing compares to getting frisked on the gig by a G-Man who’s wearing major weapons clearly visible under his well-tailored suit. At that point, I am fully cooperative!


Stuff It

In a rehearsal with a singing artist of 1940s-‘50s fame, the trombone section had a passage in cup mutes. Even though I’d long before drilled a hole in the end of my bass trombone cup so as to get more muted notes out in the low range than most, this passage defied reality. Performing it was like having a major head cold. So I asked the music director if I could ditch the cup and play the passage burying my bell in the music stand instead.

The headliner had heard my question. “Keep the mute in: it looks better!” he barked. And so I did, unpleasantly, for 24 shows. And rarely do I insert a cup mute in my bass trombone today without thinking of him.



Another rehearsal tale...

On one occasion I subbed for my bass trombone teacher at a New Orleans Opera orchestra rehearsal. I did my best but played a wrong note that prompted me to let out a fairly loud “UUUNNGHH”!

The wrong note had been buried in the surrounding music. But my groan, a bad habit of mine for some time, was perfectly timed to fall in the orchestra’s grand pause. As if stung by a bee, it seemed as though everyone in the orchestra stopped and looked my way.

The orchestra director didn’t speak English. He didn’t need to. His eyes told me everything I needed to know. And thus I was cured of my groaning-reflex for the foreseeable future.


My Loudest Mistake

I'm occasionally asked what the biggest musical mistake was that I'd ever made in a performance. I can't really pick one out (either because there are too many to admit or because my mind as a survival skill has successfully blocked the memory of them). So I reply with a tale of my LOUDEST mistake—of which I am absolutely sure, without any doubt whatsoever.

I had enjoyed many runs playing Broadway shows as they toured through New Orleans: "Singing in the Rain," "The Tap Dance Kid," "Annie".... And one of my favorites was "Stop the World, I Want to Get Off." It was a revival of the musical of the same name from decades earlier, starring the original male lead, who had also co-written the songs: Anthony Newley.

Now, I don't know how many Anthony Newley fans there are still out there. He had always struck me as rather odd, rather extreme on TV, when I'd see him on The Tonight Show or in a movie (say, the original "Dr. Doolittle" movie) when I was a child.

But then I got the opportunity to play bass trombone for 24 shows of his nightclub act—for which he received 24 standing ovations. During it, I quickly realized that he had seemed larger than life on television because he was a clown—in the best theatrical sense. His mannerisms were in the extreme so as to communicate best from the stage to his audience; and TV simply didn't capture him well (though movies did better). He could transform a scene for his club audience with a mere gesture, and they appreciated him greatly.

As did I. And I had come upon a movie that he'd done, the original "Sweet November" (with the ever-quirky Sandy Dennis) that seemed a perfect match for him and had become one of my most favorite movies.

So when the call came to play "Stop the World," I was delighted. It was a several-week run, and I was again on bass trombone, with lots of juicy parts to play. And the female lead in the show had previously been in a recurring role as a Klingon on "Star Trek: The Next Generation"; so my delight was increased again!

One particularly dramatic bass-bone part came during a series of fermatas (held-out notes) under some especially dramatic stage dialogue. There were three successive moments where an actor on stage would call out a phrase. The timpani would hit a drum roll after each of the three phrases. I was to sit quietly for the first two timpani rolls but enter with a very loud, sustained, low "pedal" bass trombone note simultaneous with the third timpani roll. The orchestra director wanted me to "take paint off the wall" with the edge and volume of my note; and it was my pleasure to do so. I performed it meticulously, show after show, in exactly the right place.

Except for this one time.

This one time, for some lapse of focus, I entered not on the third drum roll but on the second one—and as always, VERY LOUDLY! And that was a problem, since the actor on stage needed me to be quiet a millesecond later so that he could announce to the audience the third phrase that I had been supposed to wait for, the one that was supposed to be my cue to enter.

My just aborting my loud and low note—suddenly dropping out—was not an option in my mind. It would sound to everyone in the theatre like the loudest, most awkward, most thoughtless error ever committed from an orchestra pit on Planet Earth (of which I was already fairly sure was the case). No, I needed to cover my tracks better than that.

So in a split-second, I decided to change the note from the usual sustained-loud-sonic-blast to a sforzando piano—a note that starts loud and accented but immediately drops to a sustained whisper. Mind you, no one else in the pit was playing at this moment but me (because no one was supposed to be playing at all!)

I held this long note quietly as the actor (by then no doubt in shock) uttered his third and final line, after which I gave my note the most massive CRESCENDO I could deliver, swelling with a musical rage into the moment when the percussionist hit his third, properly timed timpani roll, during which I heaved a breath and attacked the low note again loudly as the composer had originally planned.

I'm not sure of the details following that moment. I was pleased at my "Plan B" but certainly irritated about stepping into such a big sonic hole. I do know that not one orchestra member—not even the orchestra director—ever said a word to me about it. My guess was that they'd figured I'd done the best I could under the circumstances after having made the loudest musical error of my life!


Elephants I-VI

During one run that I played with Ringling Brothers' and Barnum and Bailey's Circus, the opening sequence of music was a suite of music titled Elephants I-VI. It was continuous playing for twenty minutes at full speed and often full volume. The lead trombonist sat in the middle seat, between the second trombonist on his right and me, the bass trombonist, on his left.

During those twenty minutes the lead trombonist, who had memorized the page-turn locales of his section-mates, would turn our pages for us as we played continuously. We only paused for the split-second it occasionally took to empty our water keys. In all my career, that’s the only gig I’ve ever played in which the music was so continuous that I didn’t even have time to turn my own pages for the first twenty minutes.

At the conclusion of that suite, a cue of pre-recorded music would take over for about five minutes, during which the band members could doff their tux jackets and regain their equilibrium. Though we were in the air-conditioned Superdome in New Orleans, by that point my glasses were fogged up; and all our shirts were dripping wet. But I had certainly learned how to breathe efficiently!

On another run with the circus I played tenor trombone, and that is where I learned the necessity of alternate positions. Playing a “gallop” in basic trombone slide-positions is pointless!


Driving Music

I was playing with Louie Bellson’s big band for a rehearsal and performance for a festival and had arrived at the site in plenty of time. But apparently the music books for the band, shipped by mail from the previous town, had not arrived at all.

So Louie, his contractor, and I hit the road in my car for an hour’s drive each way to Northern Illinois University, where I was teaching full-time. Louie had donated a good number of his charts to us at NIU over the years; so it made sense to go there, pick out some music, and drive back to the festival.

By the time we returned, rehearsal time was over; so the band sight-read the charts, played others from memory, and offered the festival crowd a great performance.

The next day I got a call from Louie: despite the festival-site’s manager’s firm protests the previous day that the music had never arrived, Louie found the entire shipment after the gig right there at the festival, where it had been the entire day of our performance.

But the band had swung hard, and Louie and I had enjoyed a nice drive together.


Short Set

Often when I am contracted to adjudicate and/or workshop a jazz festival that includes young and inexperienced jazz bands, the host of the festival will caution me to be sure to be kind and supportive to these more fragile ensembles—as some clinicians are occasionally nasty to them. “No problem,” I say. “I’m happy to assist them in any way I can. They’ll have a great time; I guarantee it.” But if the host doesn’t believe me, I’ll often share this story.

Jim Warrick founded a superb jazz festival at New Trier High School in Winnetka, Illinois. It’s entirely for second jazz bands or bands from small schools: no flagship ensembles. And it’s non-competitive. There are a number of rooms running simultaneously, and I’ve adjudicated there many times. He knew that he could place me in the concert hall with the most experienced groups or in the cafeteria with the least experienced: I’m happy to work with anyone who wants to learn something about jazz.

So one day Jim calls me and asks me if I’d be willing to phone a particular director who’s very nervous about bringing his band to Jim’s festival. Could I calm the director’s nerves in advance? No problem: I dial up the director.

He’s going on at some length about how little time his band has to rehearse, and that they’ve been together for only a month, and that they barely have a jazz music library. And I reassure him: “I’m there for you and your students. No matter what your group can and can’t play, we’ll learn and have a great time.” And he agrees to bring his band to the festival.

On festival day, all’s rolling well; and his band is next up. As the students take their seats, I do my usual ritual of pre-taping into the cassette recorder some welcoming greetings: “Hi, I’m Antonio García from so-and-so university; and I’m looking forward to hearing you and working with you today...” And I hear the band warming up with a blues scale.... “...if I can be of further assistance after this workshop, please do not hesitate to call me at the following number....” And I place the cassette recorder down and look up.

And I realize that everyone is looking at me: the band, the parents, the other attendees in the audience. Everyone is looking at me. The room is silent. The band and its director are unmoving. And then it hits me.

That was their performance. The blues scale. One time, up and then down. It didn’t last as long as my opening remarks on the recorder! And they were now ready for my workshop with them.

I blinked, recovered my balance, and went up to work with them. And we had a great time. They probably never knew I had been caught off-guard by the shortest jazz band performance I had ever heard in my life.

So when I say—“No matter what your group can and can’t play, we’ll learn and have a great time’—that’s exactly what I mean.


No Peeking

Phil Collins doesn’t read music. A TV special once followed his process of learning tunes for the big band—normally a very written-out experience. He’d hire others to play the charts, record a scratch track, listen, memorize, experiment, and grow. Then he’d bring in his own rhythm players and play the music with them, jotting a few comments on paper. And then he’d bring the big band in.

By the time the entire band rehearsed with him in Switzerland in 1998, he was playing the entire two-hour set of music off of a few pages of scratch paper. And that feat was not new for him: he’d played longer intricate sets with no notation when he was with Genesis or his pop band. But remembering all the right big-band setups and kicks is a memory task worthy of his big-band drumming idol, Buddy Rich.

The lead trumpeter in the band, Dan Fornero, is a terrific player and another nice guy as well. During the entire two-continent tour, I never saw him look at the music while playing. I’m not saying he didn’t ever look—but I definitely never spotted him doing it. Lead trumpet and drums are arguably the two most precarious chairs in a big band, and this set of music was very challenging. I never heard either of them step in any “holes.” As a matter of fact. I recall making a mental note about six days into our rehearsals that summer” “Finally heard Dan chip a note....” I’m not sure I heard another one after that.

For some reminiscences about the tour of the Phil Collins Big Band, visit the web pages I've set up for you to explore!

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