Monday, February 8, 2021

"From A with Love" 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). 

“Road Song" was his maiden voyage piece on the blog and he now follows with more about living on the road as a Jazz musician.

It takes a tremendous amount of hard-work, diligence and discipline to perform at the level of the musicians that Chris describes in this narrative.

It’s a shame that some musicians don’t carry over these qualities into their professional and personal lives.

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

“The first time I saw A was summer of 1984, amid a thicket of horn players, his new band, backstage at Ravinia. He had stopped playing 30 years before and recently agreed to lead a group playing his music. His quitting, the crowning success of many failed attempts, was a petulant, though honest act, ending a long struggle with celebrity and the infantilizing music business. One of the true masters of his instrument and a complete musician, A confided to a much younger colleague he'd "been a slave to the instrument" and wanted to do other things. Now, in a festive atmosphere under bright sun, a guitarist and saxophonist played "Sweet Sue" for him, the guitar accompanying intricately. Wearing a blazer and turtleneck, A listened, then barked,  "it's a simple song, don't make it so goddam complicated!" 

The players stopped. A continued his audience with the band. They were used to blunt assessments. For his re-entry, A rehearsed the band and now acted as MC. He'd selected one stellar Soloist to play dozens of his recorded solos, a role akin to touring "Henry IV" as a one-man show, with the Bard as director and stage manager. Later, on stage, A showed flashes of the erudition which separated him from swing era colleagues. My current boss, Z, who worked for the then-ascendant A, listened respectfully, finally offering: 

"He was always a brilliant man...and a fucking pompous ass!"

The band was a crack outfit: Boston cats, a mix of generations and built around the Soloist's  long-running small group. That core group, the strong playing, choice arrangements from A's huge library and the excitement of presenting this music with the man who created it, made an inspiring set. A professorial air hovered, but this wasn't a ghost band. A didn't continue long as Maestro,though. With no patience for nostalgia-heads, slick promoters or fawning radio personalities, he left the road and let Soloist run the store. 

Five years later, came the opportunity to join A's band. Going on the road was a big adjustment. I'd done another 350 one-nighters, stopped partying, and lived in an ashram for 4 months; in roughly that order. A hot plate and plenty of rice and beans fit in my suitcase. Also packed, were worries that with my early rising, daily yoga, and room-cooked meals, I wouldn't fit in. 

I joined the band in the Midwest. The night before, the departing tenor man, in a fit, ran off with his book of a few hundred parts. He holed up in a hotel room demanding his full pay immediately in exchange for the music. No one had ever kidnapped a big band book before. Nor had anyone ever ransomed one. I wasn't going to be too weird for this crew. 

I sat next to Soloist with the rescued library. Born and raised in the same Massachusetts factory town as my parents, his accent channeled any of my uncles. Playing reams of written-out solos, he stayed clockwork consistent. Improvising, cascades of ideas flowed from his notoriously difficult horn. After thousands of GB gigs, he didn't get bugged by second-class accommodations and led with a light hand. From the first night, I felt good on stage. Volume was moderate, something I appreciated. Looking around, I had history with two section mates. The baritone player, a gentle giant, was younger brother of a college buddy. The lead alto man, six years older than me, was a big shot when I arrived at music school. I even took a lesson with him. 

The pianist, drummer and my two section mates came off cruise ships. Under their professional veneer, some barbed wire showed. Lead Alto combined Texas charm with casual self-destruction. The piano man and drummer chafed at the smallest request Soloist made, the legacy of control-freak MDs on their ships. Bari guy was their heart, soul and conscience, even mothering Lead Alto, twelve years his senior. Together, they were a crew. 

The bus had a college dorm feeling. Most guys were studying music or chess or reading something worthwhile. Our driver was boyish, with a slight build. He rarely looked at a map and seemed to know every street in any town we went to; the side benefit of half-a-million miles road time. Senior travel groups were a specialty. Rolling into Kansas City, Driver grabbed the mic and in alto-ish, nasal voice, began tour group schpiel:

"Kansas City has more boulevards than Paris.."

From the back:

"Oh jeeez!"

"..and more fountains than Rome."

" can't we just GET there?"

" This is the Masonic Temple. It..."


"...has 32 columns and over one-hundred and fourteen thousand..."


"...square feet of floor space. It was constructed between..."

He was unflappable, as well.

 Driver always wore a uniform: light green button-down shirt, blue slacks and a company windbreaker. Once, I saw him without the windbreaker, arranging his shirt around a padded aluminum back brace. Its oversize tentacles already embossed in his pale skin. He wore the device daily, averaging 4-5 hours behind the wheel. I never heard him complain about pain of any kind; truly an iron man.  


On this band, room ghosting resembled a trapeze act. The manager tried to rein it in, but as he chose higher-priced lodgings, mutiny often hung in the air. The band practicing ethic also produced tension. Folks competed for private spaces and available hours at every hotel and venue. It was common to arrive at the gig and find a guy in a dank boiler room well into his third hour of work. The champion of this was Guitar. Most editions of A's original bands had piano only. Soloist brought Guitar into the fold. With little to do on stage, Guitar practiced incessantly throughout the gig. Directly behind me, with volume all the way down, he churned through Paganini, Weiniawski, and Bach. Often, as we cut off the last chord, I heard incredible sweeping figurations pouring from his unamplified strings. If I turned to look at him, he maintained a tight half-smile, never moving head nor hands.

We practiced together. Reading transcribed horn solos in their instrument keys, he transposed everything to C at sight and turned pages without missing a note. Guitar's father, a masterful saxophonist and seminal arranger, passed a few years earlier. He inherited and played his father's vintage saxophones while developing a passion for trumpet. Before the gig, he'd dig in somewhere and do hours of Caruso and Arban with a practice mute.

Guitar was obsessed with his bowels. Heavy long-term powder use rendered them less than efficient. That condition combined with other neuroses. On a morning leave, Guitar announced his current status. If he hadn't gone,he might agitate for an "ax stop", to the detriment of our travel plan. Standing by the driver, he navigated to an available loo, intensely arguing the merits of each possibility with the Road Manager. The driver kept a professional cool, though his timetable was compromised by the back and forth. Guitar might walk the aisle and poll us on recent toilet history. Guys goaded him endlessly with their bathroom successes. This enraged him. I either demurred or offered a detailed exegesis. Neither approach placated him. When we made a stop, it could be a long one. Guitar had to perform. Pressure wasn't conducive to the act itself, of course. The band could stay on the bus and continue their morning routine or roam the facility, on peristalsis time. Resenting the delay and indignity, Road Manager finally went to the stall door and banged. Guitar asked for more time. Manager started to count. Whether or not the stall door swung open after countdown, for timely departure, Road Manager needed to corral stragglers and get them onboard. The whole process was complicated and stressful, with an overlay of farce. As bad as it seemed, they assured me it used to be much worse. 

No matter the outcome, Guitar rarely retired after an ax stop. With a battery-powered amp and headphones, he'd run through stacks of music; clamping books to a bungee cord stretched across seat-backs. That workout lasted until we arrived at our destination. Alternatively, chess kept a subset of guys occupied, including him. Supernaturally bright and fierce competitor, he was hard on himself, as are most musicians. He'd canvas for opponents and if there weren't any, pouting commenced, often followed by self-flagellation. He once threatened to smash his eponymous instrument. Still, no one agreed to a game. Standing in the aisle, guitar high overhead, looking front and back, he gauged our response, which ran amused to horrified. A few yells of encouragement brought a fractal smile.  After repeated practice swings, he brought it down, dinging the box on a seat shoulder. Drama over, we returned to our routines, ashamed for watching him damage a beautiful instrument. He inspected the damage, agonizing over the tiny dent. Soloist asked him:

"Whajya do 'at foah?" 


We weren't out too long before a brief break and another personnel change. After a pre-dawn departure,  I arrived at a crappy Midwestern airport and staggered toward baggage claim. A man paced back and forth between carousels, long black hair hanging over the collar of a wide-open trench coat. Head down, he puffed aggressively on a cigarette. It was Doc, a saxophone player from college days. I hadn't seen him in 7 years. He was now the other tenor and my roomie. The manager thought, as schoolmates, we'd be a good match. 

Well trained in the requisite skills,  Doc had no problem with his book. As a roommate, he slept long and hard, really hard. I asked if he could smoke outside and he agreed. I tried not to wake him with my 5am yoga and bubbling saucepans.  The hot plate got constant use with the winter squash, kombu (seaweed), carrots and burdock stored in my overhead. Lentils came out particularly tasty. 

In the bathroom, early morning, soaking, waiting for my oatmeal, I heard the phone ring. Fully expecting Doc to pick it up, ten, twenty, then thirty rings passed. Annoyed, I rushed out with a towel on and snatched up the receiver. The preset wake up call was silent. I hung up. Standing over roomie, his face a mask, I got a hot flash of fear. No one sleeps with a ringing phone six inches away. He was dead. I started to prod him, gingerly, at first, awkwardly holding my towel, still dripping water. Soon, I was shoving the rubbery body. His face never moved. Then, a mythical princess, he slowly opened his eyes. I felt tears welling up. 

"Didn't you hear the phone?"


"That's crazy, man, it rang so many times. I was worried, I thought you were dead"

"I was tired" 

I pushed my anguish down. 

"You take something?"


"You got high?"


His voice was dreamy.

"That's fuckin' weird, man. Seriously, take care of yourself. I was scared "

"Sorry.... sorry, sorry" 

"Fucked up, man"

"Sorry, sorry, I'm sorry"

He was a junkie, deep in it, too. Three years before, different bus, different band, a colleague OD'ed. Eventually, I pleaded with my roomie to stop, to seek help. Larded with some spiritual hoo-ha, I told Doc I wanted him to live. No tears, though. He reacted with tittering denials and digressions. I was making organic stews while he was snorting heroin to get straight. His scene became obvious. Other cats asked me a lot of questions. I referred them to him. That felt really weird, too. Doc stuck it out in the band and even took a cruise with us, bringing his Mom as plus-one. She died not too long after. He'd take a while to hit bottom and finally choose life. It would take more years for my compulsive behaviors to surface. I wouldn't have any better response than Doc, despite my earlier wise counsel. 


Doc's replacement hailed from the Twin Cities. He personified "Minnesota nice", quiet, courteous and bland. His skin was really pale, too. He'd done a stint in a brokerage, but managing other folks' money didn't pay off. An excellent musician and a doting father with his absent kids, he joined a bunch of hometown pals on the gig. I don't remember much friction with him as roomies. Lead Alto infuriated him, though. Our section leader followed the dictum "never play anything the same way, once". He phrased differently every night: long, short, scooped, head-on, ricky-tic, swung like mad; interpretation while you wait.  He owned up, so I didn't resent it; but following him was like catching fish with bare hands. Soloist offered guidance to the saxophones on a few specific passages; his own preferences and A's. Otherwise, he gave Lead plenty of musical freedom. Whitey grumbled about music, but their conflict was cultural: two diametrically opposed humans.   


Whitey's lean face glowed pink with cobalt eyes. His mouth opened asymmetrically; upper lip forming an elongated fish hook while the jaw chomped out words. Lead had a pudgy face, deeply tanned and often unshaven. On long drives, he got stir-crazy. He'd been on ships and hated confinement. Now, two seats behind Whitey, Lead lit up. Whitey folded his paperback onto the seat and turned around, mouth working.

"What are ya doin? Doncha know smoking marijuana is illegal? I got kids and a family. I don't wanna go ta jail!"

"No fuckin' cop's gonna stop us. Fuck off!"

Lead hunched forward in his seat and inhaled deeply, a hissing sound followed by a lip smack. 

Whitey raced to the front and confronted the manager; asking if he was prepared for the legal ramifications of arrest. The manger suggested Whitey sit up front. Lead and crew guffawed. He stood up, wiggled his hips violently and bent to the window, blowing clouds of smoke at the cars below. 

"Arrest me! Arrest me! Arrest me! Lookit! No one can even see us up here, you fuckin idiot!" 

Whitey steamed back toward Lead; his face a keloid of rage. 

" STOP IT! How do you know? Someone could see it and report us. I could be held culpable!"

Lead hesitated. He had a Master's music.

"Culpable? What the fuck is that?

Lead looked around the bus for affirmation.

"Culpable? What the fuck does that mean, pussyass motherfucker?" 

"Culpable. Cull-pah-bull. You don't know what that means?" 

Spray flew out of his gobbing mouth onto Lead's shirt.

"You're spitting now?"

Lead pushed out his chest. Whitey shoved it, a 9 year-old's move, delivered spastically, head down and knees scissoring. Bari man moved quickly on his buddy. Simultaneously, Road Manager grabbed Whitey. Lead sat down heavily. Whitey rocked side to side, shading plum, comically trying to free himself. Manager subdued and turned him around, walking him in the front. I looked at Bari man. 

"Someone didn't have enough sleep last night" he said and grinned sweetly, patting Lead's shoulder. 

 After gigs, Lead wore his work clothes to wherever they hung out. The next day, the suit slept on the bus all day. The smoky, smudged jacket around a still-damp shirt. Lead worked the outfit this way, many nights running. No laundry service ever had a go at it. Eventually, even without body heat, it spewed noxious vapors. His boys were horrified. They went out together. What woman would sit with them? The piano player approached me. In my overhead, I carried a pump bottle of orange oil, potent and pure citrus, used as a freshener and diluted for cleaning.  Piano thought it could "freshen" the suit. We got keys from the driver, opened the bus and approached the offending body. Piano man spread the lapels apart and I sprayed the inner and outer armpits of the jacket, then the jacket sleeves, then the back, then the front. Smelling the suit gingerly, piano man asked for more. I sprayed the shirt. We giggled throughout. I'd gotten the undiluted oil on my hands and was shocked that it severely irritated skin. Of course, the label contained a warning. Though it was too late to remove the caustic liquid. That night, he put on the suit. Burning with guilt, I watched carefully for signs of discomfort. Lead did his job just fine. He maintained his usual trippy persona and had a dozen or more cigarettes and a couple scotches, too. The suit consumed its daily allowance of perspiration, tar and ash. I watched Piano man talk to him on the break. Making eye contact, I touched my finger to my nose. He nodded, eyes gleaming. In the end, all we saved Lead was a dry cleaning bill. 


Now, wholesale changes in the rhythm section. The drummer couldn't continue his adversarial run with Soloist.  He'd latched on to the "Jazz Odyssey" line from "Spinal Tap". Every solo or cadenza got tagged an "odyssey." Relentless cynicism ate up whatever joys might come from the gig. Getting trashed nightly didn't help either.  

Jack, our new drummer, made waves even before he arrived. The son of a Big Band bass player, bandleader and musical comedian, he'd been on and off band buses for years. Combining his father's Yiddish-Keit with multi-faceted musicianship, he'd be a kick to have around. On board, he took to the pulpit, a hipster preacher, delivering the word in a purring baritone that growled for emphasis: 

"Yeah, baby, you blew your ASS off tonite. DIG, I'm having some charts sent out, (Guitar's dad) wrote them for MY dad's band. You ever hear them? SWINGING, baby, SWING-IN! There's a BIG tenor solo in one of them, MAN. I know you're gonna sound GREAT on that" 

A thick Fed-Ex envelope waited on the next hotel counter. Jack lobbied for a solo feature (deserved) and liberally shared his opinions on our repertoire and tempos. Soloist took all this with humor and generosity. He'd been around extraordinary musicians and their egos for 40 years. A big man, Jack used food to escape. After a heavy night, he did penance on the bus with tall jars of supermarket fruit salad. Holding a dripping peach half, his lonely guy punch line echoed the aisle: "I'm gonna get a body shampoo at the spa!"

The Bass player, Bud, arrived from New York. He didn't smile or introduce himself to anyone. Showing little affect, he stood flat-footed and played. Despite his serious stance, he didn't do much "bass" stuff. The places where quarter-notes were supposed to shine, he consistently broke it up. When asked about this, his grim reply, "I don't do big band bullshit", left us flummoxed. Without preamble, Bud held forth on Detroit bass players (Watkins, Chambers, Carter), be-bop, the sorry state of contemporary jazz and Buddhism. Intrigued, I followed up. Under the influence of some of the greatest living musicians, he'd adopted Nichiren Shoshu practice. On long drives, beads in hand, he repaired to the stinky head and chanted. No one knew what to make of this. I dug the fact that he smoked heavily; both cigarettes and weed. Most spiritually attuned folk I knew kept it clean or at least minimized those vices. 

Road etiquette made Bud and Jack roomies; each in a foxhole, warily eyeing the other. Jack, a secular Jew with deep skepticism of idolatry and dogma, thought chanting bizarre. With Bud mumbling in the bathroom, Jack ordered in, watched old movies and ordered in again. When Jack asked me about chanting, I translated as best I could. He allowed the power of repetition for focus and calm. The constant smoking irritated his lungs and seemed like hypocrisy. Commandeering the toilet offended his sense of equality and privacy. Bud saw his roomie as failed: fat, spiritually dead and, most egregiously, heir to a legacy of bandstand high-jinks that desecrated the first noble truth of be-bop. Theirs was not a match made in heaven. 

The tour continued west; eating up miles with hit-and-runs and 12 hour day drives. A trombonist on anti-depressants, our reigning champion, slept the entirety of a sun-up to sundown ramble in a medicated coma. With Whitey, my roomie, we rolled into San Jose for a month at the Fairmont hotel. The accommodations were plush and a long stay meant side trips to San Francisco and other Northern California destinations. My hotplate was in heavy rotation, I hoped to save money in case my girlfriend made a trip west. We'd need to stay in a motel, as there weren't enough comp rooms. Our hotel venue, a dark mahogany lounge with tiny shaded lamps on each table, stayed mostly empty from opening night onward, despite a favorable review from the hometown Mercury News. Contracted for two sets, we got used to playing one. Then, on an ordinary night, just before going on, we learned A was there. 

The next seventy-five minutes were a blur. Soloist had 5 years under A's eyes and ears, as did other warriors. They knew what to expect, I did not. The set was ok and A swiftly arrived backstage. He wore a blazer, open collar shirt and corduroys. In the vertical clutter of stacked chairs and banquet tables, we froze. A didn't hesitate. 

"Bass player, what the HELL are you doing up there? You're fired! Go home"

"The tempo on__________is too fast. Listen to the record for chrissakes. You play it every 

goddam night. No excuse for that"

He wheeled on the leader.

"Concerto! Those aren't MY notes. What the fuck are you playing? You have it memorized? Look at the goddam part!"

Soloist tried to answer. A cut him off.

"I'll talk to you later" 

A started to walk around. He punched me lightly on the arm.

"Sound good, kid"

The benediction. 

Not so intimate talks with Soloist and Manager followed. It was very awkward. I admired our leader. Why did A need to humiliate him in front of us? Bud shrugged off the firing. 

"Old fuckin' asshole. He never had any REAL cats in his band, anyway. Fuck him. Like he's doing ME a favor!" 

Attired like a dentist, A's visit was a tooth extraction: painful, done in one sitting and assuredly rare. Long-term, it wouldn't matter. Short-term, we had a new bass player the next night. T came from Boston; a short guy with a real edge. He was conscientious and serious. He'd hear you out, maybe smile, but when his eyes went dead, your time was up. Being Irish may have had something to do with it. From the first, T and Jack didn't agree on things, particularly tempos. One set or two a night didn't cause either much pain, but that would change. 

 The Fairmont promised van service to and from the gig. I'd checked into a motel half a mile away. A South Indian family ran the place, their rooms directly below ours. The smell of masalas and cooking permeated every molecule of air. Virtuosic string music, keening vocalese and explosive sound-effects, the soundtrack of Bollywood spectaculars, blasted through the floor day and night. Their front door open, I saw why. They parked elderly Bapu, certainly half-deaf, bolt upright on the couch, facing a huge projection TV. Mom did the cleaning, pre-teen daughter in tow. With a piercing voice, she shouted from a hundred yards away at the tiny child. 

"Briiiing the bucket!"

Her intonation falling down and elongated on the first word, then quickly upward on the last. 

I stayed up late, then, despite the cinematic battlefield, slept past noon. It would have been perfect to get the room made up, but mom was going off duty.  

"Oh, no no no no no" she trilled, handing me a pile of towels.

The floor mat outside the shower stall was a sheet of paper with local advertisers printed on its border. Add water and it dissolved into gummy crud that spackled your feet. We learned to quickly swipe extra towels for the floor from her cart, while she berated her daughter in a guest room. 

The van came via Fairmont's Concierge, a bright and vivacious woman who was sweet on Road Manager. Our driver had a regal air and a disarming smile. A short East-African in a brocaded uniform, he used accelerator and brake pedals like blender settings. The boxy van turned wide and poorly. Navigating into our lot from his high seat, he once buckled the door of a parked car. Seeing it unattended, he slammed into reverse and began to maneuver away. We tried to intervene, but he grimaced and punched the gas. At the hotel, I reported him to the concierge. She laughed and told me our driver came from displaced royalty. He'd never worked for anyone. The idea of direct accountability for his actions was new. A different driver started that night. I never found out what happened to our prince. 


The month ended anticlimactically. We'd done shitty business for the hotel and, due to some nastiness caused by the remnants of our ship crew, hadn't endeared ourselves to staff. Heading inland, the rhythm section came unmoored. Bass and drums baited each other; refusing to listen and digging in hard. Their beat was a floor covered in marbles: balance gone, you ducked low and grabbed anything to stay upright. On a tiny stage in Salt Lake City, the set closed with A's original theme; a bizarre dirge with tribal drums, cantorial clarinet and peppery brass commentary. When we cutoff the last note, the curtain had closed. I heard angry words behind me, then turned to see T down his bass and walk straight into the trap set, fists raised. Jack hastily de-throned himself and threw his arms forward. Cymbals and drums toppled. Manager waded in and got between them. 

T's lip quivered as he paced the stage between rounds. Jack motor-mouthed himself to the dressing room, leaving his gear in a heap. This wasn't going to be resolved anytime soon. A divine intervention followed. T caught a bad cold; pneumonia, really. He couldn't sleep at night and the bus became a torture chamber. He writhed, shivering and hacking, voice a sandpaper squawk, refusing any help. Soloist suggested T check-in to a hospital for a few days. Guitar could play T's instrument. In Boston, Guitar often gigged on bass. He sounded great and it was a simple way to make money. Those gigs destroyed his hands, so Guitar didn't relish playing bass in a big band, but he'd do it to help out. Sitting behind the driver, unshaven, eyes sunken, T hated the idea. 


He croaked from his diesel deathbed. 

"You're not gonna take my gig!"

"I don't WANT your gig. I don't like playing bass. Take a couple days off, man"

Soloist added, 

 "chrissakes, T, let him play!" 

"No fuckin' way. He wants to steal my gig!"

In a reversal, Guitar was frustrated by someone else's paranoia.  

Next stop: Valentine's Day at Ft Leonard-wood, Kansas. A swing-band in the NCO club on the Western World's date night. There was no stage in the cavernous room. I couldn't see past the first rank of tables, but it was packed with a restless, hostile crowd. After twenty minutes, the din completely swallowed our band. Soloist knew we were fucked. He deployed a secret weapon. P, one of our trumpeters, did a sterling Louis Armstrong; singing and playing with mastery and infectious joy. He walked to the mic and started "Hello Dolly". Pops' sound opened every heart.  The threat didn't retreat as much as it recalibrated. They were still angry, but not at us. The end of the night came without incident. Twenty years after his death, the spiritual father of our music protected us. Blessedly, that night, T made a doctor visit, then rested in the hotel. He might have collapsed in the menacing, smoky club.  

As the bus rolled north, then east, I caught some version of T's plague. My usual strategy, to fast when ill, crushed me. Driving across the continental divide, deep in fever, February winds slamming the bus, was a hallucination. After a bizarre concert in Cheyenne, where a cowpoke fan and bruised, scabby companion chatted amiably with us, we made it to Chicago. Starving and weak, I needed high-quality, easily digestible food to break the fast. Too cheap to get a cab, I mapped a route to a nearby health-food store, bundled up and headed out. Woozy from unseasonable temperatures, the sidewalks rose in violent waves against my feet. After buying a few bottles of amazake, a pablum-like fermented rice drink, I squatted on the sidewalk outside the store and took gulps, steadying my pulsing legs against a standpipe. A couple days of food and rest restored me.Youth helped, too.  

T had gone and his replacement, an erudite guy, couldn't have been more different. The rhythm section jelled and work became play again. I needed to move on soon. Meeting the band had a familiar chug. I travelled to the hollowed-out New England city where Soloist lived. On the other side of town, along a street cut through a swamp, sat my grandparents' house; its smell of baking pies, dogs and musty basements, holy in my blood. Gramma made me anything I wanted for breakfast. She'd grill salmon steak, steam kale and have oatmeal bubbling. At the table, Bill, my Grandfather, (mock) complained:

"Gee-sus Kuh-rist, Madelyn. You make him anything he wants. You'd think I was nothin'."

"Oh Billy, he's only here a couple days a year. We never got to see him or his brother much. You know that."

"I LIVE here, you know" 

"Don't listen to him, Christo-fa. He's a bad, mean old man. Don't think anything of it."

Bill rattled his Boston Globe

"Anything he wants....Anything. Gee-sus kuh-rist" 

I'd visit family, sleep over, then drive with my Grandfather to Soloist's place to wait for the bus. Bill liked Country Squire station wagons; his lawnmowers in back, windows always down to vent choking oil/gas fumes. We waited together until the bus pulled up, said our goodbyes and I hefted my stuff on board. Setup guys put band fronts and music in the bays. Soloist brought his luggage out last and we rolled. About ten blocks away, the bus slowed and stopped. Soloist's mistress got out of her car, loaded her stuff in, greeted us and settled in with him for the ride. Variations on this repeated throughout my tenure. Soloist leaning into a pay phone, casually and immaculately dressed, crooning into the receiver:

"I love you, Baby. I miss you so much..." 

I wondered who he was talking to. 

Once, a beautiful woman in his generation cozied up to him after a gig. The next day, someone poked him about the woman. 

"No, guys. Nothing happened they-ah. Really"

"You're kidding?"

"No. Nothing"

"What? Come on!"

"Guys, I wouldn't cheat on my mistress" 

He meant it, too.  


Bari man died in his early thirties. His loss devastated a family of accomplished musicians and sobered many more. Lead Alto worked for and received a Ph.D. in music. Guitar's neurotic brilliance shines on. Whitey died young, leaving the family he loved. Bud, Jack and T went back to work. I do gigs occasionally with guys from the first edition of the band; staying busy, their stories remain unwritten. Soloist passed, making way for the next instrumentalist nervy enough to take the gig. 

I wouldn't meet A again, nor witness his withering impatience with mortals. He lived long, prospered, battled his biographers, authorized and otherwise. In the end, he left great work in multiple disciplines. The Divine Mother, Kali, shows up in Hindu temple art as a beautiful young woman with a beguiling smile and necklace of skulls. She marshals all the pitiless, cataclysmic forces of Mother Earth. A's powers, magnificent and malignant, still bless and devour each of us.”