© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
You have to be very brave to earn a living as a Jazz musician as the late pianist Eddie Higgins explains in the following piece which appeared in the February 1985 Jazzletter edited by Gene Lees.
The business itself is intimidating and so are some of the monster musicians you come up against from time-to-time who make you wish you had turned to selling used cars or women’s shoes to earn a living.
Some monster musicians remain aloof, but others reach out and become inspiring teachers.
Such was the case when Eddie Higgins had an encounter one night with the magnificent Oscar Peterson at the London House in Chicago, IL.
"Or Opposite Oscar Peterson?
by Eddie Higgins
During one of the many times in the late 1950s and '60s I worked opposite Oscar Peterson at the London House in Chicago (fourteen times in twelve years, 'to be exact), he and Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen were having a particularly hot night. Even when one or another of them wasn't "on", the trio was awesome — in my opinion the greatest piano trio in the history of jazz. And on this occasion, they were all on, and the total effect was just devastating.
After they had finished their third encore to a five-minute standing, whistling, screaming, stomping ovation and left the bandstand, it was my unenviable task to follow them with my trio. I was proud of Richard Evans and Marshall Thompson, and we had developed a good reputation of our own among the various groups with whom we shared the bandstand in those halcyon days. But there wasn't anyone who could have followed Oscar Peterson that night. I mean, there was, I swear, smoke and steam coming out of the piano when the set ended.
Well, I did what I was being paid to do, but with that sinking feeling you get when you're down two sets to love, the score in the third set is two-five, and you're looking across the net at John McEnroe.
After a lackluster set of forty minutes, which seemed like three hours, we left the stand to polite applause, and I started to look for a hole to climb into. Oscar had been sitting with friends in Booth 16 — remember? — and as I attempted to sneak past him into the bar, he reached out and grabbed my arm.
"I want to talk to you," he said in a grim tone of voice.
I followed him out into the lobby of the building, which of course was deserted at that time of night. He backed me up against the wall and started poking a forefinger into my chest. It still hurts when I think about it.
"What the hell was that set all about?" he said.
I started a feeble justification but he cut me off. "Bullshit! If you couldn't play, you wouldn't be here. If I ever hear you play another dumb-ass set like that, I'm going to come up there personally and break your arm! You not only embarrassed Richard and Marshall, you embarrassed me in front of my friends, just when I had been telling them how proud I am of you, and how great you play.
"I know we're having a good night, but there are plenty of nights when you guys put the heat on us, and if you don't believe me, ask Ray and Ed. We walk in the door, and you're smoking up there, and we look at each other and say, ‘Oh oh, no coasting on the first set tonight!' So just remember one thing, Mr. Higgins, when you go up there to play, don't compare yourself to me or anyone else. You play your music your way, and play it the best you have in you, every set, every night. That's called professionalism." And he turned and walked back into the club without a further word.
I've never forgotten that night for two reasons. It was excellent advice from someone I admired and respected tremendously. And it showed that he cared about me deeply.
I'm still making a living playing the piano, and, believe it or not, playing jazz for the most part. It's more of a struggle now, after thirty-five years, than it was at the beginning, but I attribute that to two factors mostly.
One, I insist on living where I want to — Miami in the winter and Cape Cod in the summer — instead of where I should live in order to further my career, New York City. Two, the thirty-year dominance of rock, country, disco, Top Forty, and other forms of musical primitivism (I don't care who does it; it's still musical primitivism) has just about dried up the venues for the kind of music I play, with the exception of a few remaining holdouts in the big cities. For example, in all of South Florida, with a population of close to seven million people, there are three jazz clubs at present — two in Miami and one in Fort Lauderdale. So I've had to start traveling a little: traditional jazz festivals, at which I dust of my Dixieland repertoire and my stride and boogie-woogie chops; Chicago, which is still a place I can work just about any time I want; and infrequent trips abroad. I try to fill in the gaps with "casuals" (L.A. jargon), "the outside" (Miami jargon), "jobbing" (Chicago jargon), "general business" (Boston jargon), and whatever they call it in New York.
It's a tough way to make a living, but as Med Flory said in that same issue of the Jazzletter with your piece on Oscar, you're never completely happy doing anything else. So you just do it.
Drop a line if you have the time, and if you don't, I understand completely. Your friend always,