Traveling with the Big Band

Pam’s Pictorama Post: As Pictorama readers and other online followers already know, I am currently on the road, although wrapping up my week’s sojourn with the Jazz at Lincoln Center band on their Holiday Big Band tour. Since it is hard for me to do any other kind of post on the road you all have been treated (or subjected) to a clutch of personal posts over the last few weeks.

It is Saturday afternoon, the second week of December beginning as I start this, I posted The Other Pam Butler a few hours ago. I cannot seem to find a position comfortable enough to nap in in my seat (some of the guys have perfected sleeping on these bus seats, but it is a skill acquired with time clearly) so it is as good a time as any to take stock. As someone pointed out yesterday, this job wasn’t even a twinkle in my eye a year ago as I went through my year-end rituals in fundraising, checking in with folks, gathering up last minute contributions at the Metropolitan Museum. I think I would have laughed (hard) if someone had told me I’d be on this bus with 18 or so guys, jazz musicians and road staff, crawling through North Carolina in a snow storm for 9 hours on our way to a gig in Chapel Hill. (The photo above is from our breakfast stop at Cracker Barrel, clearly a group favorite and after eating those biscuits I know why. The institutional precise consistency of these shop ‘n restaurants is a bit dizzying to experience, but clearly a stop of great comfort for road warriors through the greater American south and east.)

The band is moved with incredible efficiency. Time is truly money when you are feeding and lodging almost two dozen people and the team at Jazz is a very well oiled machine. The military precision of the early morning departures reminds me of my travel days through Europe with the Met – I guess the experienced moving of large groups is always done the same way, but it seems ironic to me that busing a jazz band across the American South as economically as possible is ultimately similar to toting well-heeled tourists through the cultural highlights of Europe on a luxury tour, but it is. Predawn departures on buses to airplanes, or to be driven to destinations and fed with hotel breakfasts of weird eggs, fruit and coffee. (The coffee was better than it mostly was in Europe and the South has those biscuits going for it too, not to mention the fact that we could drink the water.) The rest stops, complete with machines chock-a-block full of junk food are distinctly American, however I admit to being glad to see them, and I admit to eating food on this trip that I have not eaten since college. Unlike the Met trips however, the destinations are not luxury hotels and ships, nor cultural highlights, but business hotels of unromantic economy and maximum efficiency, located just off highways. Since I was most happy to see a bed and fall into it for four or five hours of sleep at a go, these hotels with their breakfast buffets and endless cups of coffee were always quite welcome.

atlanta snow

Predawn view out my hotel window in Atlanta, a view of the pool.

 

The band members are deeply experienced travelers and on this trip they have already been on the road for a week when I join them. (I had a prelude in Arkansas on other business.) They know how best to arrange themselves within the limitations of the bus seats to sleep a bit and as a rule no one is late for the various departures. It is generally quiet, although a soft spoken phone call or conversation drifts over the group occasionally. The travel is executed uncomplainingly by the band, and there is a real genius to the calculus of the number and length of stops to be made along the longer passages – such as this nine hours from Atlanta to Chapel Hill. Ray Murphy who manages the logistics has an gift for this – whether it is just years of experience or an innate talent I do not know. Somehow he keeps it all moving as painlessly as possible.

On most days late afternoon is the witching hour for the instruments, equipment, suits and shoes to be loaded in and taken to the venue, followed by sound check which can also function as a rehearsal. Then it is likely there is a Q&A with a school or other group who were invited to sound check, lead by one of the band members – a role which switches daily. Family style dinner is up after, usually around 5:30 or 6:00, and served in a backstage area catered by the venue. In this way we experience a range of food from a memorable homemade apple pie to an unremarkable attempt at tofu.

Schedule allowing, Wynton or another member might squeeze teaching a master class at a university in during the day, or the whole group might show up at a school as they did for an elementary school in Palm Beach. Usually there is some time to kill between dinner and concert and I use this time to call Kim at home. Concerts on the road seem to start between 7:00-7:30 and run for about 90 minutes with a brief intermission. After backstage meet and greet (or grip and grin as someone called it) and the reloading of the equipment it is usually close to 11:00 before we are back on the bus and at the hotel. By now our early dinner is a distant memory and we wrestle with the calculus of sleep against locating a late night snack. Sometimes there is drinking and eating at a hotel bar, or someone figures out rides to a Waffle House spotted on the way, but mostly exhaustion and the early morning start means bed calls.

Wynton in Palm Beach

Wynton and band at an elementary school in Florida.

 

Several nights of these nights our schedule necessitated that Wynton and I hop in a car after the show and drive to the next location getting in around 3AM so we could have early meetings. That leads to some really bad late night eating of pure junk food. Our driver, Dregg (not sure how he spells this) is an old hand at this kind of driving and we relax into his capable hands although sleep mostly eludes us. A long conversation which ranges from the role of human sacrifice in ancient Greece to childhood memories snakes through those drives and, in part, probably helps keep Dregg from drifting off as well.

As I finish this post up, it is one week later and I am happily perched back at our computer at home. It is a snowy gray morning here so the scenery is strikingly similar to the one I saw out the bus last week. My seat on the bus, it seemed an unspoken assignment, was a rotating shotgun one in front, for the random person who comes and goes I assume, similar to where I sat in Shanghai. I continue to mull over what I learned on this trip in terms of what it means to fundraise for this very special ensemble and maybe I will have more to say about that later. For now though, whether they realize it or not, I have in heart and mind adopted each and every one of the members of the band. They are my guys and I am their unstinting cheerleader.

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2 thoughts on “Traveling with the Big Band

  1. Pingback: Merry Christmas from Deitch Studio! | Pam's Pictorama

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