Levity seems more elusive these days, so I’m going to reach way back into my past as a musician for some humor. I just had a fleeting thought of a scene that sticks in my memory.
Bay area locals may remember “Big Al’s Gashouse” in
Palo Alto, not to be confused
with the strip joint in San Francisco. In fact, a few of you were in the audience
when I was onstage blowing the last of my brains out through my trumpet. I
could sure use some of those wasted brain cells today.
I remember arriving for my first performance with the five or six man Dixieland band that played onstage four nights a week at Big Al’s. I only knew one man in the group and had no idea what we would be playing for the four hours we were scheduled to entertain the rowdy crowd.
When I pulled into the parking lot I saw the marquee outside that read, “Tonight! - Ralph Higgins - Straight from
Paris.” That was intimidating, since I had never
played with this band before. And I had
never even been to Paris.
When a musician is hired for a job like this, he is expected to be able to play and improvise anything that pops up. There is no written music. Rehearsals don’t exist. Someone picks a tune, a key, a tempo, and off you go. It might be anyone in the group. Or in the audience. That’s just how it works.
We played on a small stage and kicked off the first number as the curtains opened. Between sets, we would sit behind the closed curtains, rest our “chops,” and have a few laughs. The drummer and trombone player would kill about a gallon of the devil’s brew over the course of the 4 hour performance. I don’t remember what we were paid for the gig, but I’ll bet they had very little money left after the cost of their liquor.
I could always tell which set we were in by the drummer. The first set was fine. Tempos were steady and his fills were good. During the second set I would notice variations in tempo and his hair would be hanging over his forehead. By the third hour the drummer was missing beats and tempos were erratic. I’d check his hair, which by now was almost covering his face and flopping around like the hair on a rabid rocker. His hair was my hourglass. I knew how close we were to closing time by looking at the drummer.
At some point during the fourth and final set of the night, we’d hear a thundering crash as our beloved drummer lost his balance and fell off the drum stool, knocking cymbals and drums all over the stage. The audience loved it and some probably sat through the night just waiting for this anticipated and predictable finale.
Almost a half century later I can still hear the crash of those cymbals and the amazing scene of bouncing drums, flying drumsticks, and flailing legs as our drummer disappeared off the back of the stage.
That was a typical night at Big Al’s, but it doesn’t compare to the night the trombone player passed out in the middle of a solo and fell off the stage landing on the first row of tables. He got a standing ovation.