Sounds Great! Could You Turn It Down?


Or more accurately, of course we can turn it down.  But why do you want us to?  We’re barely above a conversational level now.

Why do people hire professional musicians and then put asinine restrictions on their ability to perform their job well?  I don’t get it.  You’re paying top dollar for this.  Don’t you want it to reach beyond twenty feet?

Maybe I’m missing something, but I don’t think this happens often in other professions.  When you book a flight to Scranton, do you pull the pilot aside as you’re boarding and whisper, “You know, I’m afraid of heights.  Can we just taxi there down the tollway?”

When you hire a caterer for your daughter’s wedding, do you tell them:  “Plan whatever menu you want; just make sure the only ingredient you use is celery”?

I didn’t think so.

Weddings are a big challenge anyway, since it’s usually an all-ages crowd.  You have three or four generations to entertain.  Of course, most professional musicians have a broad enough repertoire that they can pull this off, but the balancing act can be tricky.

It’s made trickier still when the father of the bride, who loves Lynyrd Skynyrd and won’t pay the band until he hears “Sweet Home Alabama”, is seated at the far side of the banquet room, visible only by binoculars.  Meanwhile, seated seven inches from the bandstand are Aunt Gertie and Uncle Leo, who only want to hear “Bei Mir Bistu Shein” at a volume of <negative 3>.

Restaurants are not much easier.  There used to be a place here in the warehouse district that was a long, narrow room that booked duos and trios for the dinner crowd.  They even had a piano onsite.  And what better place to locate that piano, and by extension the rest of the band, than directly next to the cocktail servers’ bar station?

If you have any sense, you’re probably saying “anywhere but there”.  So of course, that’s where they put it–smack dab in the middle of the bottleneck.  After all, what other spot had the dual disadvantages of being both the highest traffic point in the restaurant AND the only spot necessary for the servers to communicate drink orders to the bartenders.

Needless to say, the musicians were asked to play at a volume level somewhere between ‘inaudible’ and ‘subliminal’.  The TV screen floating over the bar was louder, and it was muted.

I was playing there once in a duo with the legendary James Polk.  No sooner had we played the first two bars of our first number (a ballad, as I recall), than the manager had flown to James’ shoulder and hissed fiercely in his ear, “SOFTER!  It’s too loud!!!”

James looked at me, smiling broadly like the professional he is, and said,  “They don’t want live music in here.”  He was right.  As loud as we were projecting across the drunken conversations and clanking silverware, we might as well have been a silent movie.  But it was “too loud!!!”

Another spot that shall remain nameless–oh what the h*ll, they’re closed now anyway.  Chez Fred had a long reputation for hosting jazz trios at dinner, even booking the great bassist Gene Ramey on a regular basis after he returned to Texas to live back in the mid-70’s.  And it was a fun place to play, as I did on numerous later occasions.  But as staff and management changed over the years, so too did the ambience.  And of course, the clientele is different every night.

There is a story about Chez Fred and the great saxophonist Tomas Ramirez, which may or may not be true.  But it’s a good story, so if it’s not true, it deserves to be.

For those who know, Tomas is a tremendously gifted player with a resume as long as your arm, including Jerry Jeff Walker, Christopher Cross, Beto y los Fairlanes, Steam Heat, and many more.  Great player, great career.

As the story goes, Tomas was at Chez Fred on the bandstand, warming up his horn before the gig.  Suddenly a flustered manager appeared and said to him, “Could you play quieter?  The people at Table Six are having a hard time conversing.”

“Sure,” said Tomas.  He began to subtone.  This is about as soft as a saxophone can physically be played, softer than my fingers on the computer keyboard at this moment, softer than you saying the word “subtone” to yourself.

But evidently not soft enough.  Instantly, Mr. Fluster reappeared.  “Still too loud!” he whispered urgently.

Tomas took the horn from his mouth, began taking it apart and putting it back in the case.  He shouldered the case and walked to the door.  Before he left, he turned to the manager and asked, “Is this quiet enough?”

Thank you, Tomas.  My sentiments exactly.


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