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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Shanghai Pam and the Toy Store Adventure

Pam’s Pictorama Toy Travel Post: With apologies to Pictorama readers for the lack of a Saturday post yesterday while I made my way back from China, today’s post while it does cover toys, is a bit of a rambling travelogue. Fair warning to those who are looking for shorter fare.

Travel has been an increasingly frequent part of my work life and promises to be more so in the new gig at Jazz at Lincoln Center. A mere two months into the job and I find myself in the Shanghai Podung airport with a company laptop and a tummy full of mediocre pizza drafting this post. This after a fast and furious four plus days in Shanghai with Wynton Marsalis and the 15 member Jazz at Lincoln Center band and assorted other colleagues who keep things running on the road. Everyone has been unfailingly lovely to me since my arrival at JALC, more than ever while in China this week, but there’s no two ways around the learning curve of being about 11 weeks into a new and in many ways very different job. I was smacked with that reality repeatedly on this trip, and frankly I missed Kim and the kitties.

So when I realized that I had a rare afternoon off between rehearsal and evening concert on Wednesday, instead of sensibly finding a tailor and having a new winter coat made like my colleagues, I decided to take off in search of a store that sells antique toys in another part of town. Before leaving NY I had (of course) Googled antique toy store Shanghai and an article from a few years ago appeared. (I did something similar last fall when visiting Lyon for the Met, as told in my earlier post found here called Pepper Felix and Mickey Souris.) Out of the three described, one shop appeared to be my style. I mapped it online and while it wasn’t around the corner, it didn’t really appear to be substantially further than anywhere else I had gone in this sprawling city, although albeit in a different direction and distance can be tricky on Google maps in a foreign city. Although it seemed difficult, somehow seeing antique toys seemed like the shot in the arm I needed to bring me around to myself so off I went.

Meanwhile, please know that for me at least Shanghai rapidly dissolved into never-ending challenges of transportation, communication and culture. The Shanghai cab is where these elements combined into a triple threat. Whether it is a disinclination to deal with tourists and our self-evident communication issues, or if perhaps they are equally abusive to their own folks I am unsure, but since it didn’t take me long to figure out that the many cabs with their green lights happily lit could be (should be) picking me up. Meanwhile, if one had a Chinese-speaking companion with a phone app who could call a car you might find that your destination was too short to be desirable and they would also refuse you. It was frustrating to say the least.

After such a phone rejection, a colleague from Asia suggested an assertive approach which I adopted – essentially chasing cabs down and hopping in. Now here I do feel I need to apologize because I may have done real damage to the reputation of Americans in Asia single-handedly on this trip putting this into action. Ugly American to the extreme.

Before I continue with my story please allow me to supply two other key elements of my visit to Shanghai, everyday it was well into the 90’s and so sultry I could barely stand to wash my hair knowing that despite blow drying it would remain a damp frizz for the remainder of the day. (Natives repeatedly remarked on how the weather really wasn’t bad for this time of the year – a warning to self for scheduling future travel.) Next, please understand that traffic in this city can compete with some of the worst traffic I have ever seen – on a par with Los Angeles and London, and even topping midtown NYC during the worst of the Trump protesting and closures. Because of this the population, which is considerable as this is after all China, has turned to a fascinating array of two wheeled vehicles, pedaled and motored. (There is a subway, but no one seemed to encourage tourists to take it. Hmmm.)

On the streets, the variation on the Vespa and moped were topped in numbers only by the bright yellow free bicycles which are merely picked up, used and left as needed. (While I love this idea, I did wonder what happens if you ride somewhere and come out to find the bike taken by another needy citizen and no one else has left one?) And in this age of cell phones it was not at all unusual to find someone riding one of the above, on the sidewalk, while looking at their phone. Some even did all of this AND had headphones on – so they couldn’t be bothered by the screeching of pedestrians or fellow riders I assume. This means that, in addition to essentially running into the street in an attempt to force my way into a cab, I had to avoid being mowed down by a two-wheeled vehicle at the same time.

bikes

Bike rack in Shanghai

 

As I am a resourceful, and admittedly somewhat competitive, New York woman traveling on business which required my presence in numerous parts of this sprawling city, I developed the following method. After scoping out a location carefully for a) reasonable egress for me into the street b) no obvious impediments for legally picking me up (such as a yellow curb or metal fencing and c) in the best of all worlds no bike lane which could mean the end of me or the cyclist as I dashed into traffic. The last one was the hardest and not an option I could always hold out for. I would also try to find a street that was very busy, but not verging on highway-ness.

Once an acceptable location was selected I would watch for a lit cab. I would stand, in fine NY style, just below the curb in the street and try to make eye contact with the oncoming cabs with their jolly green lights as I would at home. When this failed, as it virtually always seemed to, I would begin to eye cabs I could just take on. Obviously the easiest prey were those cabs where someone was getting out, but I was almost never that lucky. Instead I would find one forced to slow or stop by traffic and jump in before the driver knew what to do. Sure enough, getting rid of me was more work than most were willing to commit. I would produce a slip of paper with the address printed out in Chinese characters. This was usually met with some form of muttering and/or cursing but generally they got down to business after that.

The day in question was the first I was applying this methodology. After spending a good twenty minutes trying to get a cab the regular way I literally took off running after one at a light and threw myself in. Success! That morning I had asked the concierge to translate the address of the toy store onto one of the hotel’s cards in case the opportunity arose. I now handed the card to the cab driver and off we went.

My destination turned out to be a somewhat anonymous looking block with an assortment of generic looking stores. The description of the store lead me to believe that it wasn’t going to be all that obvious so I wasn’t surprised. I paid the man and hopped out into the hot, humid day. It was broiling, and my straw hat and sunglasses provided scant coverage, as did the sunscreen I had applied earlier. I walked an alleyway to a mews with some private homes. A woman was picking up a pile of trash by her house, a man in an undershirt looked at me inquiringly. Then this pretty little kitty came out to welcome me. He didn’t come all the way over for pets, but we enjoyed a few words and I felt like he was a good sign.

Chinese cat

Shanghai kitty

 

I left the mews and followed the street down aways. The store was said to be across from a popular coffee house according to the article and I saw a coffee shop ahead, about a block away. I headed over, but no toy store and the numbers were wrong. At this point I remembered that the map had indicated that the design and fashion school was located here. I was on what was evidently the urban campus for this school, scattered among design buildings and studios. Then I also remembered that there had been an indication of a building K in the address. I traced the numbers and typed where is building K into my iphone and asked google to translate for a guard. He enjoyed my ingenuity, but just waved in a general direction, useless.

This time I crossed the street and went down and along an old building with a number of early advertising signs on the side; this seemed promising. I entered a covered entry and found myself in a cool dark café, decorated with antique toys! It was lovely, and cool and dark. I quietly took these photos and was shown to a table. At this point I had neither time nor desire for food but I ordered a (warm) beer and happily drank it down. I typed into Google translator – are the toys for sale? Even though I knew the answer, no. I drank and paid for my beer and wandered back out. Frustrated and knowing that with the time it would take to both get a cab and get back to my hotel in traffic I would have to head back shortly.

cafe 1

Toy cafe

 

cafe 3

Display room behind glass at toy cafe

 

cafe2

Second room of toy display at cafe – and nope, toys are not for sale!

 

As I left the building I got a bit more daring. This had been the coffee shop mentioned in the article I was quite sure, not the newer one across the street which I had spied originally. So the toy store was either gone, or I was just missing it. Then I walked into a dark, fairly modern looking building and yes! To my right there was a doorway into a massive space. I had found the toy store at last!

An elderly man sat, drinking tea and talking to some comrades in the middle of the store. He got up to see what I was about. I gestured around me and fluttered my hand on my heart – I am in love with your store! He smiled broadly and gestured to me to have at it and chattered at me. We were sorry not to be able to converse – I can tell he had stories he was itching to tell!

store 1

Toy store at last!

 

toy store 2

Mysterious automaton at toy store.

 

As is the case with such places, much of what he was selling I either owned, was too large to contemplate acquiring or was not necessarily of interest to me, but most of all it felt wonderful to be among all these wonderful old toys! I found a case which contained a wind-up mouse band like mine, and its cousin the Dog Patch wind up band. This was my mother’s favorite toy growing up and I have long been in the market for one for her. This one was actually a fair price, but more than I had in cash at that moment and the idea of either obtaining more cash or trying to negotiate a sale otherwise was beyond me. (Most Chinese establishments are prohibited from taking either American credit cards and it is hard, if not actually illegal, for regular citizens to change American dollars into Chinese RMB.) Therefore, I settled instead on this nice Steiff penguin puppet which caught my eye early on. A pleasant negotiation which took place on dueling cell phones took place. There was a break in the middle so he could show me a giant music machine in action!

The puppet was lovingly photographed by him as a record of the sale and then wrapped up for me. I felt good about having found my way and the nice café, the cat and the store had restored me in some essentially way. Now, I girded myself for my trip back to my hotel.

penguin puppet

Penguin puppet mugshot!

 

I went back to the place where the cab had left me earlier. It was by a Holiday Inn, but not one where cabs seemed to congregate or stop. I employed my earlier technique and found myself in a cab a mere few minutes later. However, this cabby was not pleased. He was even less pleased when I handed him the hotel card and asked me to take him there. Now, in all fairness, it may have been confusion about what I was asking him to do, or maybe he really didn’t want to go there. All I can say is he and I more less started a shouting match in our own languages. Clearly he wanted me out of the cab and so I left.

I found the doorman to the hotel and he spoke English. I explained I had been in a cab and he wouldn’t take me when I showed the address. Meanwhile, much to my surprise the cabby was there. A three-way conversation ensued and the cabby and I returned to the car, however I never understood the source of his displeasure.

Off we went, cabby continued to curse and shout. Soon we were in a rush hour traffic jam to end all traffic jams. We drove and drove and I began to worry about making it back to the hotel in time. Then I began to worry about whether or not I was going to the right Marriott hotel (there are several in the this sprawling city) – and then, more or less on cue, it began to rain in a deluge. You-can’t-see-out-the-window rain of biblical proportions. The cabby’s cursing and yelling is now like something out of a cartoon just as the area is finally starting to look familiar. He can’t find the street though and there’s no way I am getting out and walking in this rain! I gesture around the block as if I know what I am talking about. Finally, at long last, my hotel. I paid him with exact change and ran from the car while he yelled at the doorman who wanted him to take another fare!

And that, Pictorama readers, was my toy adventure in Shanghai!