Friday, January 29, 2021

Road Song - by Chris Bacas

 © Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Chris Bacas is a saxophonist, flutist and writer living in Brooklyn, NY. He is featured on more than 60 recordings, including 3 as leader/co-leader. He's a longtime member of Stefan Bauer's Bauer's Voyage and MJ12. In the 1980's he toured and recorded with Buddy Rich, Artie Shaw and Tommy Dorsey (Buddy Morrow). 

This post is his maiden voyage on the blog and we sincerely hope that it will be the first of many visits as a guest writer.

His “Road Song” piece is one of the best behind-the-scenes portrayals of the reality of going on the road with a big band that I’ve ever read.

© -  Chris Bacas, copyright protected; all rights reserved, used with the author’s permission.

“I took a road gig the spring of 1986, I was 25 and coming off a year of one-nighters.  The band leader was a legend; a supreme virtuoso who wrote his own ticket in the business. Though his genius was indisputable, he was known to musicians for his deliriously profane tirades. Many colleagues and friends played hissy cassettes of my new bosses' best tantrums for me as preparation. I joined the band in New York along with 5 new recruits. We met at Carroll studios, hosts of big bands for more than 50 years.

Minus the leader, we rehearsed a new suite, arranged by a long time collaborator. The composed sections amounted to more than 10 minutes. The theme came from a 1950's Hollywood film, transformed into Dixieland, waltz, blazing uptempo swing, and a soaring ballad. Making witty references to previous set pieces and opening into a dramatic solo and all out ending. Its arranger, hovering, tracked our fitful progress, while the leader sat silently in a captain's chair, sunglasses and scowl. A numbing and exhilarating full day of rehearsal showed my new colleagues' skills and the weariness of road life. After the music portion, the boss addressed us directly-laying out his rules( on the bandstand, I own you) and peccadillos (no beer bottles, no slamming the bus door, no onions). The next morning, we drove to Jilly's in Dayton for my first gig. At a brief rehearsal, arranger in tow, the leader unceremoniously reduced the new chart to theme, extended solo and final chord. The next night, its author on his way home, the piece failed to make our set list and was never mentioned again.

The grind began immediately. The boss favored hit-and-runs, making miles by night, our driving formula-one fast and roads clear. The schedule provided a means of control; our work and travel blurred together, diurnal cycles sputtered and reversed. All available energy gets focused on the bandstand. I evolved a way of dealing with the brutal, nocturnal life. If we left early, I rose a few hours before, started a meal on my hot plate, exercised, showered, carefully packed my food and boarded fresh, eating my breakfast and napping as the day wore on. Night drives threatened to turn me into a vampire, but I slept when I could. On arrival, I scoured the yellow pages for shopping options and my overhead resembled a pantry. None of this endeared me to my band mates. They were pleasant to me and though we had friends in common, I remained on the periphery.  I also didn't share their enthusiasm for all-night revelry.

My section leader, a year or two older than me and a grizzled veteran of this outfit, showed great concern for my acclimation and coached me paternally. Able to translate the leader's shouts and growls, we depended on him for our spontaneously chosen program. To me, He relayed dire warnings from the leader about my progress. Occasionally, while we steamed through a piece, his hand darted to my page, pointing out nothing I could discern. When pleased, he encouraged me with openhanded slaps on my thigh. My chair, recently vacated by a long-time and beloved player, had seen a quick succession of occupants, none lasting much more than the requisite two-weeks. The biggest change in personnel, though, was the bass chair; a tough position musically and personally as interaction with the boss was uninterrupted and often harrowing. All the new guys saw job security hanging on the thinnest of threads. After all, we knew by heart the same sibilant bootleg rantings.

When we set up for a week-long run at the shabbily magnificent Fairmont in New Orleans, I began to see how far from my mates I was. We accompanied a female singer, iconic for her improvisational talent, beauty, and unrepentant opiate use. In the bar after a set, eyeing us up, she radiated robust sexuality at nearly 70 years. Unable to digest the combination of advanced age and female lust, the cats crept to the exit and headed upstairs for fellowship. All around me, madness swirled. The band's pianist, its most brilliant and charismatic player, was a heroin addict. Each of us, at close quarters, had to confront our boredom, insecurity and yearnings through the prism of his syringes. Our hero carried a fishing tackle box packed with potent drugs of every type and received "packages" at our lodgings. Surrounded by books, music, yoga, and my hot plate, I was nourished in all ways. The opportunity to ingratiate myself with them, reached me too late. Peripherally aware that my colleagues gathered around the tackle box after work,  I kept my head down and asked no questions. Our leader, a child star schooled in vaudeville and deified in the swing era, was laissez-faire on substances or behavior of any kind. As long as you walked on stage ready, willing and able to play, your personal life was your business. Addiction is not easy to hide when the bus travels two thousand miles per week. The one-nighters continued....

After an extraordinary night with Tony Bennett before a huge crowd at Blossom Music Center near Akron, we slept a few hours, flew to Texas and met our bus to play a giant new shopping mall in Amarillo. Under-publicized and culturally out of place, we attracted a small, politely curious afternoon audience, a bizarre and all too common juxtaposition for road bands. Luckily, our volatile leader was either sated or distracted. Chastened, we headed to LA for Memorial Day Weekend. The stark vistas of West Texas enervated us and by Albuquerque, we were starving and restless. Our star tenor man begged for a chicken stop and tried to gather a minion to bolster his case. We parked at a dim truck park with fast food joints beside I-40 and I watched the piano man head to a phone booth. While we lugged our takeout bags to the curb ("no fuckin' onions on my bus!" our leader commanded), the piano man climbed into the passenger side of a dark boat-like car. I lost track of him until we climbed back on the bus and drove off. In His seat across the aisle from me, he looked like a church choir director from the Midwest. He was quite rotund, with a fleshy face and side parted brown hair. Add large thick glasses, a chortling voice, and he was the least-likely junkie I'd ever known. He fixed in the back seat. The lead trumpet had to move across from me so the bathroom and back seat were available for cooking, shooting and nodding out. It was a multi-step process, usually repeated. We gave him plenty of space for privacy and thoroughness. The leader smugly offered a trifecta of VHS porn and the bus TV came to life with "Inside Seka". I watched, became bored, read, watched again and finally tried to sleep. The lead trumpet man, missing his triple wide back seat, found it Impossible to get comfortable. We all suggested he move back. He jerked his thumb toward the huge belly and flopped legs visible by the bathroom door. "He won't get up." I surfed my way through a sea of legs and glanced at the beached body. He lay peacefully asleep with thick folds of flesh bulging under his chin. I used the stinking, sloshing head and returned to my seat for fitful sleep.

As we roared past Flagstaff, it was clear something was wrong. The road manager, a grim but supremely intelligent man with a rich bass voice, went to inspect the back seat and its occupant. He walked front as legs and bodies rearranged. "He's dead" he said, followed by a string of rueful curses. My colleagues took turns peeking to confirm the diagnosis. The band leader stayed front. A stationary panic set in mixing grief, disbelief, judgement, fear, guilt and strangely, relief. At dawn, we pulled off in Kingman, AZ. It took three strapping orderlies to carry him. As they struggled to lift the body over our seats, His pants sagged under his butt crack and in the desert light, his face was darker than I remembered it. We spread out in stiff ER seats; a weary disheveled Eastern clan of road warriors. Tears fell as each recalled a personal epiphany with the departed predicting this day. Our leader had rare moments of gravitas talking with the staff until they asked him to fill out forms and needed his birth name, then he assumed his usual hauteur. The pay phone received a steady diet of quarters.  A young intern addressed us, gravely acknowledging the tragedy of losing such a gifted young man. The doctor assured us that his heart had stopped, likely because breathing was restricted and likely that due to excess fat around his throat (those thick folds I noticed!). They would perform an autopsy as required by state law.

Within an hour, we watched the parking lot fill with police cars, like those time-lapse shots where objects multiply exponentially and comically. The officers asked us all to step outside. Now, cold fear ran alongside our fatigue and sullen grief. The cops were deferential. The silence around us in the parking lot was crushing.  One told us in his best no nonsense voice: "just take your shit, and you know what I mean by shit, off the bus. We're looking for what killed your friend"

We filed through the door; all muffled voices and grunted syllables above the zipping and repacking. I didn't have any contraband to take, but went along reverently as if observing a rite,  sharing the anxiety of my mates in silence. After the last of us stepped off, the police went onboard. Through tinted windows and desert glare, we caught glimpses of action. Some of us narrated the search and joked about what they would find amid the musty suits, expensive horns and CD jewel cases.

I wasn't privy to negotiations with the police. I did learn that a lump of "black tar" heroin, known for potencies near 75%, fell from the departed's pants' pocket. We left Kingman, our course and circumstances legally and materially unchanged, except for the empty seat across from me. We rolled west in mental fog. I don't remember speaking to anyone on that leg of the trip. In a stage whisper, my section leader reported the sought after syringe was floating in the head. Darkness overtook the bus. We reached our hotel late at night, I fell into bed and watched TV.  My roommate, a precocious young trumpet player, plucked from his junior year at a prestigious conservatory, swore off drugs of any kind and rolled over to sleep for most the next day.

While the band paid the toll of the previous days, our somber road manager worked overtime to find an LA pianist for a Lake Tahoe run beginning in two days. The manager took note of my shopping, stretching and food prep. In the morning, When I arrived in the lobby, He introduced me to the pianist, hoping that my sunny lifestyle would keep the macabre events of the weekend from scaring off the new cat.

We hit it off immediately, helped by his friend , a second-generation jazz musician with a manic sense of humor. We ate well, listened to charanga music (my first time!), hung out with his wonderful family and enjoyed LA sunshine. Memorial Day, we headed to Tahoe, driving the night shift. The boss looked haunted and I heard him say he hadn't slept. That made 4 days  by my count. We arrived at sunrise, navigating switchbacks to see the lake swathed in mists and mountains flashing spring. Our lodgings were condos with kitchens and 4-6 individual bedrooms. At Harrah's casino, we shared a bill with Don Rickles, the premier "insult comedian". The Vegas with a western shirt vibe of Tahoe felt incongruous after the grim reaper, Hollywood and an arboreal night drive.

That night, a championship team after a devastating defeat, we were shaky. The boss began to roar. He fixed on the bass man. The bass parts were a dozen or more pages, duct taped together into long-jointed prostheses. Calling a tune and immediately counting off, the boss prevented him setting his pages. He then excoriated him with cascades of guttural curses. An up-tempo moved from sprint to accelerating free fall, our fingers falling behind and the bass playing machine gun chromatic loops. The set was all out war. Soon, The boss screamed and pointed offstage "Get out! Never darken my bandstand again!" The bass man unplugged and headed for the exit. After a few more tunes sans bass,  we finished with our usual closer, temporarily relieved by its long solo. There were no announcements.  The boss bolted for his dressing room raging. Stunned, We walked off and stood backstage. The boss emerged, red-faced, towel draped over his neck and bellowed "the man's gone, he's gone! You can't bring him back. You understand? Get over it!" The door slammed shut. Our funereal manager appeared and summoned the section leaders. Outside, expecting the worst, we waited. My section leader emerged and stepped toward me.  "He fired you. You just weren't  cutting the parts.  I'm sorry, man." He was conciliatory, but firm.

The taped rantings rehearsed this moment for me. The boss never directly dismissed me, though. I wasn't immortalized by a fusillade of abuse for future generations' edification. In total, four of the new hires were fired. I heard the term "cleaning house" used knowingly by the veterans. Self-pity and petty defiance followed for the rest of us. The next day, I hiked a ski trail into the woods. With sneakers, a cotton t-shirt, cut offs and no water or food, I was courting disaster. In that moment, the mountains brought me more peace than I had a right to. After walking around the summit, I headed back to the top of the steepest descent. I saw a pale skinned young hiker there, the first to cross my solitary path. We began to talk.  He was preternaturally serene and spoke expansively.  We surveyed the scree and fierce brush that funneled down the long trail. I admitted my fears of falling and cuts. He advised me to run full tilt, no holding back. With a lithe approach and small cry, he attacked the hill; arms windmilling and legs churning. I waited and joined uneasily. From the first steps, I was lashed by brush, pain knifing my calves. I watched him plunge ahead, accelerating and disappearing into the woods. Pain dogged me. I slowed to pick my way around the worst of the hillside. When I reached a level spot, he was waiting, magically, not even a scratch on his bare legs and amused at the blood splattering mine. He offered his place to clean up and have something to eat. In his Spartan apartment, I applied first aid and he brought snacks. When his girlfriend returned, greeting me with feline grace and little surprise, he followed her to the kitchen to confess taking that morning the hit of acid they'd been saving. Seeing their domestic situation and explanation for his unaffected poise on the mountain, I excused myself and returned to my real life in the condo.

On arrival, A colleague spilled the story: for weeks,  my section leader had been lobbying the long time occupant of my chair, asking him to return, using European festivals and a record date as incentives. He'd also been telling the boss I was failing in the section and getting lost. Now those mysterious hand gestures made sense, as did the constant second-hand warnings. The old timer agreed to return just after we left a corpse in Arizona. The timing was perfect. In Tahoe, exhausted and plagued by guilt, the boss agreed to the plan. Now my self-pity turned to anger.  The only viable plan was to approach the leader and ask for my job back.

In the meantime, I had gigs to play before my time was up. The manager, in rescue mode, found a substitute bass player in the wilds of Nevada. The guy was a refugee from LA, working little gigs and driving a vegetable truck to pay bills. He played upright bass and was double our age. Before the set, bass man was ecstatic to play and glad-handed us like a political candidate, disarming our Eastern cynicism. The boss, cleansed by his own Olympian anger, was jocular. On stage, the warmth of the big bass made the music feel more earthy and swinging. When the boss called a tune and went into his count off, the bass man, still wrestling his five-foot fossil of a part onto the stand shouted "Hey, give me a chance to get the music up, man!" while continuing to right his part. We sat stunned, waiting for the explosion. The boss turned, smiling. Drumming his fingers on the floor tom, he looked toward us "These fuckin' union cats" he shrugged. The set felt more fun than ever, now that some of us had nothing to lose. After the closer, the boss, drenched and spent, walked off with us. The bass man threw his arm around the boss' neck, pulled him close and gushed into his ear . "We did great, didn't we, old man?" The leader grimaced and walked on stoically.

The Tahoe run ended with new piano and bass players-young guys ready for the road. When the bus arrived to load up, I steeled myself and walked on alone to meet the boss. He sat relaxed in his mobile living room replete with entertainment center, food and drink, and shoe box full of joints. I asked only to know why I had been fired. He cut me off. There was something "going on around here", he told me. "It's my fucking band. I make the decisions. Nobody else. You understand that? Nobody!" I agreed. "The job is yours as long as you want it, kid". I thanked him, fifty pounds lighter. 

One step remained. Backstage at the theater we played that night, my section leader approached me smiling tightly. "I guess he changed his mind. Looks like..." I cut him off. "Don't ever say anything about my playing again. Don't say hello to me and don't fucking touch me again. If you ever say anything to me about the music, I'll punch you in the fucking face. I'll fucking kill you. Got it?" He said nothing. No apology. Nothing. We spoke occasionally after that, always cordially.

I played six more months with the band, including the boss' last gig. The boss passed less than a year after the piano man; his brutal wit often tempered by waves of adulation and surer knowledge of mortality.  His absolute mastery was and remains a divine visitation, truly "a god paring his nails". To see that magic every night was an incalculable privilege. At the time, I didn't know how I could deserve it. I did learn what it meant to earn it.”


  1. A sensational read-A sensational person.
    Thank you Chris.

    1. Thanks for reading, Mike. You're sensational yourself.

  2. Great story and great writing!

    1. Thanks ever so much. There's more from the band bus. Watch this space.

  3. Chris swung and put it in the upper deck....again.

    1. I ain't no Hall of Famer, but I get my shots from time to time. Thanks much, Darryl.


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