(For Auld Lang Syne)
Jan 2, 2017
Found myself at Starbucks with Em yesterday afternoon, warming my hands around a small Dark Roast, and my ears around her delightful ersatz British accent as we advanced a few pages deeper into the Half-Blood Prince.
Though the establishment’s jazz soundtrack was narratively incongruent to the scenes Em read to life … temporally speaking, it was completely in sync.
I paused Em’s recitation to Shazam the interpreters of In a Sentimental Mood, which had momentarily thieved my attention (Duke and ‘Trane, um, for the record).
The familiar melody caught my ear. Used to play it — also as an instrumental, though admittedly more ersatz than even Em’s accent — when Dad and I shared the stage as part of Sammy Bill’s band. All those nights playing Sam’s big book has left me a lot of musical bread crumbs that lead me back to those good times.
New Year’s Eve, in particular, was always special. It was the best gigging night of the year. “The only night you make a little money,” Dad would say. From the time I was 14 ‘til I was almost 30, I never saw a single ball drop on New Year’s Eve. For many of those years, Karry didn’t either, though, admittedly, she had exponentially less fun listening to me play music than I had playing it.
On New Year’s Eve, there was a sense of expectation that started in the early afternoon when I’d start getting ready, packing my drums in their cases, carrying them outside and setting them on the wall in our front yard, donning my tux. Around 5:30 or so Mac would swing by and we’d load my drums in his van, always in the same order and placement, and climb aboard. My Dad and the older guys would spend the better parts of those rides to the gigs telling stories and reminiscing about all the musicians they played with in high school, in the Army, in other combos and big bands. They’d laugh remembering the characters. Speak in reverent tones about the Players (capitol ‘P’). Lament the passing of colleagues with whom they once shared a stage. Since I was anywhere between 20 and 40-plus years younger than most of the guys in the band, I said very little on those long rides. Was more than content soaking up every word.
When we’d arrive at whatever hall we were playing at, we’d unload Mac’s and Sam’s vans. I deemed it my honor to try and haul as much as I could up and down the steps to spare the legs of the older guys. Once everything was hauled in, everyone wordlessly knew their roles in the un-packing and set-up … the speakers, the books, the sound board, etc. Dad helped set up the music stands and their accompanying lights before I’d hear the clasps on his trumpet case spring open (one of my favorite-est sounds of all time). After tuning and warming up to his satisfaction, he’d fetch us both a can of Pepsi, always placing mine on the riser next to my bass drum.
I never played for more appreciative audiences than the older crowds who came to hear the Great American Songbook, whether we were at Linden Hall near Perryopolis, the Palisades in McKeesport, or the Palace Inn in Monroeville. I can still summon at will the inimitable sound — the shuffle-y swoosh — of a dance floor full of fox-trotters tracing ballroom circles back to their youth, our humble renditions their sonic roadmap.
Owing to everyone’s good mood, the playing seemed more relaxed on New Year’s Eve. As we’d near midnight, the sense of expectation in whatever hall we were playing grew more palpable. Sam would do an unscientific countdown close to midnight and we’d break into Auld Lang Syne. One of my most vivid memories is when we’d finish, and I’d stand up from my drums to exchange hand shakes and Happy New Years with the rest of the guys. To be a teenager shaking hands with my Dad and his peers atop a bandstand on New Year’s Eve signified my membership in a larger, sacred fraternity.
After Auld Lang Syne came the best part of the evening for me. Before the applause and cheering for the New Year died down, Sam would pick out and count off a couple of our better jump tunes, the ones that swung just a little harder. Maybe Woodchopper’s Ball or Two O’Clock Jump (Dad had solos on both). Sometimes, when the spirit moved, he’d pay respects to his idol, Harry James, with a note-for-note rendition of James’ famous trumpet intro over the piano solo in our arrangement of Two O’Clock.
New Year’s Eve was also one of the rare nights where we might also get fed. Though it was sometimes nothing fancier than hot dogs and sauerkraut, it made us feel part of the celebration in addition to supplying the evening’s entertainment.
When the actual two o-clock came (which came a lot earlier to my younger self than my present remembering self) and we’d close the night, as we always did, with “C’est Si Bon,” and then Sam’s theme, “I Still Get a Thrill,” part of me always (always) wished we could play some more. Dad often said that playing music made time stand still. I remain grateful that he passed that gene on to his son.
While we were tearing down (incidentally, you can tell the professional grade of a band by the speed and efficiency with which they tear down), Sam would come around and pay us. I still remember how giddy I felt my first New Year’s Eve when Sam put $75 in my 14-year-old hands. Over the years, we’d sometimes break triple digits, which, when considering we were a 10-piece orchestra, was nothing to sneeze at back in a day. Truth is, Dad and I would have played for free.
Even after I quit Sam’s band and Dad continued on … and even after the grind of the travel finally forced him, in his early 80’s, to give up playing out, I’d always call Dad on New Year’s Eve, and we’d spend a few minutes recalling those days when we shared stages, and what great times we had. We didn’t have to be in the same room to hear the smiles on each other’s faces.
This was our first New Year’s Eve since Dad’s passing. I consider it fitting that New Year’s Eve marks the last of “The Firsts.” Can’t believe it’ll already be a year January 29.
I find myself In a Sentimental Mood.
Thinking about those good times the past couple days has been like taking a last van ride to one of those old gigs, where I find myself the one reminiscing about all the guys I played with. Laughing at the characters. Reverently remembering the Players (capital “P”). Lamenting those who’ve passed.
So here’s to Dad. And to Diz. Roger. Joe and Joe. Shifty. Pete. John. Wally. Jess. And all those who piled into vans on New Year’s Eves to make time stand still for themselves, and to give the people a reason to come out and dance.
For Auld Lang Syne.