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The Glamorous Life Of A Jazz Musician

THE PHONE RINGS on Monday afternoon. The bandleader I often work with, Jonathan Stout, is in trouble. His small group has a weekend job in Houston and the tenor sax player has just canceled. Will I do him a big favor and take the gig? I need to fly out on Friday. I cancel a family dinner and a recording session to say yes.

Jonathan calls back. The festival people in Houston are handling the travel and hotel arrangements and will send a flight schedule. On Wednesday morning I discover I have a 6 a.m. flight from Los Angeles to Phoenix, a 90 minute layover, and a two-and-a-half hour flight into Houston. That means I must leave my house at 3 o’clock in the morning and, if I’m lucky, will get an hour or two of sleep.

Then I come down with the flu. Fever, chills, aches, nausea. It lasts until early Friday morning.

I drag myself to the airport and the TSA Nazi seizes my toothpaste. I am so thankful; I never realized that, for the past month, I had been brushing my teeth with a bomb. I am semi-comatose as I wait to board the plane, find myself in a center seat between a couple of big guys on a full flight, manage to stay awake at the Phoenix airport until we board a rickety old jet for the flight into Houston, and then lose consciousness for the next couple of hours.

Nobody has provided transportation between the airport and the hotel so I find a shuttle for the “bargain” price of $25.00 one way. When I arrive at the hotel, the clerk refuses to check me in because the musicians’ rooms are in somebody else’s name. She does give me some toothpaste.

But remember the four word law: Ain’t no free lunch. The hotel gets more than even. Dinner for one (frozen fish and a small green salad, no dessert, and nothing to drink but tap water) costs nearly $50.00. They get away with that because the nearest mini-mart or any other place where you could buy food is beyond walking distance and, of course, we have no transportation. Did I mention there is no compensation at all for meals or any other incidental expense?

The gig itself is really rather pleasant. The musicians are excellent and the crowd is young and appreciative and appears to enjoy the music. We play two nights but the second night we start very late and work straight through the change to Daylight Time so we lose an hour. By the time we get to sleep it is 4:45 a.m. and checkout is at noon sharp.

Everybody has an evening flight out of Houston and all flights are oversold. A rather pretty friend of the bandleader drives us to a place downtown for brunch and after that it is every man for himself for the hour long trip to the airport. Somebody has provided me with a shuttle ride because mine is the earliest flight out and I arrive on time. But, because the airline has oversold the flight and the plane is old and small, there is insufficient room for carry-on luggage. We must check our bags. I remove my clarinet and hope my suitcase will arrive at Los Angeles when I do.

And then the passengers enjoy a flight from hell. Folks, if you have a choice, avoid flying on U.S. Airways. They cram as many seats as possible into their planes. You have no leg room; the distance from the front of your seat to the rear of the seat in front of you is about eleven inches. Even someone with no leg beyond the knee would feel cramped. Hip room is similarly limited. I am in a row with two big guys; it is very uncomfortable for all of us. Nobody can even doze let alone sleep.

I arrive home Monday morning sometime after midnight. I have caught a cold in Houston.

Things certainly were different in the 1980s when Cadillac limousines used to pick us up from the airport and whisk us to premium rooms in deluxe hotels, when our meals at top restaurants were part of the travel arrangements, when our flight schedules were humane, and when the paranoid airport Gestapo was still a quarter-century in the future. I have learned my lesson about what out-of-town gigs to accept. And perhaps you have gained new insight into the glamorous life of the itinerant jazz musician.

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