GIG STORIES: Out-of-body jazz

“TURN IT DOWN!” is the phrase every musician dreads. It’s expected at a wedding. When you hear it at a nightclub, something is horribly wrong. Something went horribly wrong this night at Cody’sā€“ a ninth-floor fern bar in Houston that was once the place to hang for pop jazz and the singles scene. Our quintet was about one month into this dream booking which guaranteed each of us $500 for 5 nights per week “forever, or into the foreseeable future.” The foreseeable future would meet with the foreboding present on this forsaken evening.

Our leader, a local jazz keyboard legend, was an adventuristic fellow. Here he was on stage, only a few days after major reconstructive knee surgery. His hip-to-toes cast made it difficult for him to find a comfortable position on the drum throne that he straddled, located at ground zero amidst his impressive keyboard arsenal. Whatever painkiller he was relying on had apparently been administered in doses appropriate for a mature bull elephant, and the sensitivity of his hearing was in question.

As the evening progressed, so did the volume emanating from our electric jazz ensemble. Between our leader’s powerful stereo keyboard rig, the guitarist’s acre of amplifiers, and the bassist’s leaning tower of boomdom, we were easily pulling more wattage than allowed by code for the nine-floor building. The meltdown came during the middle of the second set after we had driven a large portion of the sparse population from the room. The percussionist and myself, both un-amplified, had lost all hope of competing with this typhoon of tuneage, and a sarcastic posture toward our work was beginning to settle in. The song Invitation was called ā€“ a la Jaco Pastorious, the great electric bassist whose recording of the song is legendary for its speed and intensity. Our version would attempt to make up in quantity what it lacked in quality. The tune got faster and faster, louder and louder. There were so many notes being played that I imagined there was a shortage at clubs up and down Westheimer Blvd with other bands having to mime their musical numbers. At any moment, the Justice Department would order an anti-trust investigation.

Our leader seemed possessed, slamming his electric keyboards with both hands as the metal grates on his speaker cabinets rattled wildly from the impact of 120-plus decibels of sound. The bartender was screaming something at us and shaking what appeared to be a deformed hand sporting a single finger. It was like a musical version of D-Day on Omaha Beach. I couldn’t take it anymore. So, I just stopped playing.

Usually, when drums drop out there is a noticeable hole in the music. Not so tonight. There was no discernible change in the volume or sound at all. I sat, amused for a moment. Then I attempted to attract everyone else’s attention by dropping drum bombs here and there ā€“ slamming this cymbal or whacking that tom without any regard for the rhythm of the tune. I did get our leader’s attention. He turned his head my way and yelled, “YEAAAAA BABY!!!” and continued on without dropping a decibel. I was floored. Apparently, sarcasm was ineffective in the twilight zone.

The next day, we were fired from dreamland. Our offense? Management said the drums were too loud.

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