The View from the Sacbut Section

Musings of C. Clark Gayton, Jr.

Archive for May 26th, 2009

A Musician’s Guide – Part II – Getting the Gig

Posted by C. Clark Gayton, Jr. on May 26, 2009

Making the Leap

So you’ve mapped out your future, considered alternatives and have visualized your success. So where’s the BIG BREAK??? 

I’m on a schedule – when will I get my break?

There is a good chance, or the likely chance that you will not get a “gig” soon as you decide you want to make music your profession. 

“WHAT?!?!”  you say. “I’ve read two installments of this #@*$ blog and you can’t tell me when my break will happen?”

Sorry, dude.  I was told it takes about two years to get anything going in New York. Yeah, right.  The truth is, it’s different for everyone, and your ability on your chosen instrument may not be the reason you don’t take over the music scene. There are so many factors as to why some guys find work and some guys don’t. 

Who are your friends? What kind of music do you play? Are you hard to get along with? Are you “good looking”? Do you not care about your appearance? Do you have alternate sources of income? The list goes on. You may be one of the folks who has to weed through a few things before gigs pick up, which may work to your advantage in the end.

What do you do in the meantime? Well, first you have to find a place to live, which means you have to pay rent! (See Beer does not equal rent)

After practicing for years, or even graduating from a great music school doesn’t guarantee you a job. Approach the job search from a positive perspective – it is the best way to move through this period.

I actually lived in a practice room upon first arriving in New York. I worked a day gig and did sessions at night. I also played in the subways and parks for change. As depressing it sounds, I was able to meet some fantastic musicians and picked up some invaluable information along the way.

In the subway, the 2 guys I played with knew ALL the standards. I met Patience Higgins, James Zollar, Morris Edwards, Wink Flythe, and a host of others playing in the subway, and they didn’t wait to ask you if you knew the tune or not. They would call “But Not For Me”, and if you were lucky, they would ask you if knew the tune after it was over!  James Zollar and Patience Higgens wound up playing with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, under the direction of Mercer Ellington. They later got me a chair in the band.

You can imagine what this does for your ears, not to mention your chops! We would play for hours down there, at least until we had enough to get something to eat.

While playing in my practice/bed room one night, a member of the great Haitian band, “Skah Shah” heard me through the door. He knocked, I answered. He asked me if I wanted to do a tour of Canada! That was my first trip out of the country. I was VERY happy!

My first job in New York

My first job in New York was as a usher at Radio City Music Hall. I worked 8 hours a day, 6 days a week – which meant I didn’t have much time to practice – but went out every night after work to go to jam sessions in Brooklyn and Manhattan. I was living in Queens at the time, so I went to the sessions at Village Door and Carmichael’s in Hollis.

I tried to keep up musically by singing as many tunes as I could remember in the elevator at Radio City – thinking about the chord changes and how I could tie in key transitions, but really knowing the melody was the thing I concentrated on. 

Anyway, that went on for several months, and I was wondering if I should have come to New York in the first place if I wasn’t getting anywhere professionally. I collected a few musician’s phone numbers at the clubs I sat in at night, but nothing really came of it outside of a few Cumbia gigs and some trips to Montreal with Skah Shah. The experience I gained from playing in these bands was invaluable. The rhythms and different melodic approaches really inspired me! But, the money was not enough to make a living. 

Then, one day, out of nowhere, I got a call from the one and only Charles Tolliver! The trumpet great of “Jazz Messenger’s” fame! He also co-founded an innovative Jazz Label called  “Strata East”.

He said he got my name from Frank Lacy, whom I’d met at the Val Hal in Brooklyn. 

Charles asked me if I wanted to do the show Porgy & Bess,in Berlin, Germany with Charles, James Zollar and Dizzy Reece.  It was scheduled for three months and I’d be staying in Berlin the entire time! Nice cake, too.  I almost screamed, I mean, yelled loudly, …  I couldn’t wait to get on that plane-  Only problem was, the flight to the gig was leaving in two days, and I had no passport, and I just lost my mouthpiece on the subway earlier that day.

I pulled it together though. I borrowed a mouthpiece from Hasaan Hakim (A former Jimmy Lunceford trombonist), and waited in line at the Passport Agency the entire next day. Got my passport on a Wednesday and was on a plane for Europe the next day.

So What’s the “Success Formula?” The “Secret Sauce?” The Thing that will make it alright …

IMHO, whether or not you become a professional musician can be made up of the following attributes:

  • Genetics
  • Environment and (most importantly)
  • Will (make it a point to see/re-see the movie “Gattaca”)

The combination of these things can instill in the true musician not only the desire to create music, but make it an imperative to pursue its most accurate creative expression in a composition.

While this is useful as a general rule, these are core attributes. It doesn’t give your music life. YOU have to give it life, meaning. And in order to do that you have to have lived a life! What do you have to say? Who have you met? How have you failed? What have you given up? What have you lost? Some folks are just artists, and that’s ok. They have to know that they don’t have to beat out everyone, win contests or make a stack of money to be of value. They are unique, and there is a place for them. The story is the goal. Everyone benefits if they choose to listen.  

In my opinion, music needs a story and personal aspiration to add meaning to the experience of living.

Some advice

I learned humility from these experiences – counting pennies at the end of the day will do that. The point is not to say that this is what needs to be done in order to get something going. What I am saying is to ask yourself what are YOU are willing to do in order to get something going? Being too proud to do what’s necessary will surely take you down the wrong roads. Short cuts can be like that. How willing are you to get lost taking the short cut?

Another point is this – you NEVER know who you’re playing with or for, so treat everyone with respect and be ready for the call. You never know who’ll be listening in the stairwell!

Footnote

Thinking of Skah Shah had me reminiscing about my time with Steel Pulse. Following is an excerpt from an interview I did several years ago with Andy Brouwer about that experience:

Q: Can you fill me in on your association with Steel Pulse?

I met Kevin Batchelor in 1981 at the Berklee School (sic) of Music in Boston. We hit it off immediately and worked together frequently in Boston. When I moved to New York in 1987, of course we linked up, and found ourselves in the studio scene in New York. The first session we did together in New York was on the Def Jam label, for producer Ron Miller. I don’t recall the artist right now, but it was in 1988. Alvin Flythe put the horn session together. By the time I got to New York, Kevin and Jerry Johnson were already working together on scores of recordings and live dates.

I started working with the Skatalites after I left Lionel Hampton in 1989. Tommy McCook called me, and said I was referred to him by E. J. Allen, a trumpet player in NYC. It was during this time that Kevin put me on a record date that was being produced by Sidney Mills. It was with the group “Unity 2”, a funky reggae project that was way ahead of it’s (sic) time, I think. Sid asked me to do a record date with “Israel Vibrations” This must have been in late ’89 or early ’90, and it was on this date that I met Jerry Johnson for the first time. We had a great blend together immediately, and it was the first of hundreds, if not thousands of recordings that we did together as a horn section.

After the Israel Vibrations date, Sid asked us if we were interested in going on the road with Steel Pulse. We all thought it was a great opportunity, and agreed to do the job. Our first gig was at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles.  I hadn’t met the guys in the band, but we did the show without a rehearsal (we did rehearse as a section) and without an introduction. They liked it, and put us on board.

Q: Did you tour with the band as well as appear live on the Rastafari Centennial album?

I did tour with the band for a while. It was right after the “Victims” album was released in early 1991. Alphonso Martin was still in the group at that time. We did the States, Europe, the Caribbean, and Japan. The Centennial album was recorded [Jan 1992] around the end of my stint with the band.

Q: With your classical/orchestral background, how did you get involved in reggae? Was your involvement with Pulse your first exposure to reggae?

I had been exposed to reggae when I worked with a west coast World Beat band called The Ryth-o-matics. We opened for groups such as Madness, Fishbone, and the Bosstones. This must have been in 1985 and ’86. I was just trying to make a living in the Bay Area and took any job I was able, or not able to do. I played Meringue, salsa, classical, jazz, and produced recordings. Anything to make a buck.

Q: What’s been your association with Kevin Batchelor and Jerry Johnson [the other horn section members on the Centennial album] over the years?

Like I’d mentioned before, we have made many recordings as a section after I left Steel Pulse. Derrick Bourne started a very good band called Crisis in the early 90’s. This band was pretty much the only reggae playing live in NYC on a regular basis. We played at a spot called the New Music Cafe, which is now called Shine. We have remained very close over the years, and still get together regularly at my gig at the SoHo club Void, coincidentally three blocks away from the old New Music Cafe.

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