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By Sandy Asirvatham | Posted 11/13/2002

Becoming a professional jazz musician means accepting that 99 percent of the time you're nothing more than the hired help. Unless you are so extremely lucky and/or well-connected and/or talented that you're anointed a rising star by the record industry, the fact is, if you actually want to make a living playing your instrument, any ambitions or pretensions you have toward creating Great Art for wildly appreciative audiences must be politely hidden most of the time.

This lesson becomes abundantly clear the first time you do a gig at a restaurant or catering facility, like the job I had at downtown's Center Club this past April, playing background music for some fund-raising shindig. It was my first outing as a bandleader, head of the so-called Sandy Asirvatham Trio. To nonmusicians, a name like that might sound as if it belongs to a well-established threesome who's played together for years, but in this case it simply meant me on keyboard plus whichever fellow Towson University music students I could scrounge up to play drums and bass. The money was decent--$100 a person for about an hour of playing--and we'd also be fed, so it was easy to get my friends Steve McGrath and Brad King to take the job.

An hour before downbeat, we showed up and hauled our equipment up the service elevator through the kitchen. The Center Club employees who greeted us were instantly friendly and familiar with us. I felt like a visiting servant at Gosford Park, seamlessly integrated into the workings of the manor house by the efficient in-house staff.

We set up on a platform near a big plate-glass window overlooking the Inner Harbor, and when the guests started arriving, I called "Body and Soul" as a medium swinger and we began to play. Moments later, the event planner who'd hired us--a former rock singer herself--approached the bandstand, smiling brightly. "You know, if you guys want to, you can just play the same song over and over." She nodded conspiratorially toward the dozens of folks crowding the bar and the shrimp boat. "They won't know."

If I'd heard such a thing at age 17 or even 25, I'd have been offended and saddened. To think: All that practice; all that time spent drilling the right way to hold, touch, carry, hit, or blow air through your instrument; all those listening hours allowing yourself to be moved and transformed by the music of great players; all your own halting and frustrating attempts to emulate those gorgeous sounds; all your interior struggles with perfectionism and flagging self-confidence. But when it comes down to it, nobody's really listening to you anyway. Unless, of course, you make some kind of egregious mistake--knock over the ride cymbal midsong or crack on a high note or play a big, loud, dissonant chord all by yourself, two beats after everyone else stopped playing. Then the audience's ears perk up. But as long as you're smoothly, quietly swinging away somewhere behind the potted palms, everybody's happy.

And by the way, don't be surprised if waiters sneak up behind you while you're playing to flirt, offer you a drink, or ask you, right in the middle of your kickin' solo on "Recordame" or "Autumn Leaves," whether you want the crab cake or the prime rib for dinner (which you'll be served in the staff kitchen after the guests have eaten). They've done this stuff so long that they're on autopilot, and assume you must also be. Don't your fingers work independently of your brain? Isn't it all just fun and easy? Isn't that why they call it "playing" music instead of "working" music?

Unlike my musician friends who began their careers as teenagers, I was already well into my 30s before I started playing music in public for money. I'd already lost a good deal of youthful idealism and learned how much compromise life demands of you, even if you're a strong-willed person. So these days, I find myself more amused than insulted when I do these gigs and most, if not all, of the people aren't paying attention. I'm happy to have what we all call "paid practice time." These musically irrelevant jobs are the ones that foot the bill for the badly paid dates at clubs or coffeehouses, the gigs in which you'll be extremely grateful to have four or five people in the audience who aren't talking, eating, getting drunk, or checking their cell-phone messages while you play, but are actually there to just sit still and focus on your music.

Of course, it's nice to be pleasantly surprised by evidence of listener appreciation, once in a while. A few weeks ago, I led a quartet for my first wedding gig, playing and singing old swing tunes for a couple in their 60s who'd come together after their first spouses had died. The band swung like crazy that day, and the guests were having a great time--dancing, singing along, clapping for solos as well as at the end of tunes. During a ballad, I glanced up at the newly married couple, swaying giddily in each other's arms. I'll admit, I'm a sucker for romance, and the sight made me tear up a bit. OK, it wasn't Great Art we made that day with the so-called Sandy Asirvatham Quartet. But it was something else worthwhile.

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