In Praise of Z
One of the best things about this profession is the opportunity to work with people who are great at what they do. There have been scores of them, and I learn from every single one. Quite often, it’s somebody from the rhythm section, because they have the greatest need to ‘roll with it’ and make the gig work for the audience, whether the leader or the vocalist or the <shudder> leader/vocalist is up to the task or not. If you only knew how often that skill is called upon.
But this one isn’t about the rhythm section guys, it’s about a trombonist–Randy Zimmerman, aka “Z”. He is not the flashiest of players–plenty of other bone players play louder and faster, not always to great effect. Sometime it’s “WOW” and sometimes it’s showboating.
But what Z plays, and what he does on the gig, is always skillful and appropriate to the situation at hand. And in twenty years, I’ve yet to see him stymied by the circumstances of a gig.
Yesterday we played a one-off gig at a local middle school that was doing an enrichment program for the kids that was dedicated to early jazz, dance, and WWI history. OK, more like a ‘three-off’, since we were contracted for three 30-minute identical services, one for each grade level of 6th, 7th, and 8th-graders.
I was the bandleader and musical director, and there would be three numbers with dancers I had never met. No rehearsal.
I love this kind of stuff, as most bandleaders do, but it’s a little scary at the same time because you don’t really know what you’re getting into, in terms of the dancers. So my strategy for that situation involves lots of planning: stack the deck early with appropriate songs that I know we can pull off, let the dancers set their own tempos, and make introductory notes for each number that I’m introducing, although I’m unlikely to look at them in the actual show. They’re just there in case I run out of things to say, which as anyone who knows me can attest, is never.
The most important part of all is to hire the best people available for that part I can control, which is the band. So I hired Jake Langley on banjo, Michael Stevens on bass, Kevin Scott on drums, Jimmy Shortell on trumpet, and Z on trombone. With this crew in my corner, I could do no wrong.
As an added bonus, Randy’s son Zeke (who performs under the stage name ZZ Tap) got the call for the tap-dance number. I have seen this young man tap before, and I knew that would be great. I was confident that the absence of a rehearsal would mean nothing for that portion of the show.
So, we get there and set up. Zeke is already there and greets me at the door. Everything is falling into place. And then about twenty minutes before the first downbeat, Acia Grey walks in. With five tap-dancers in tow. And walks up to me and asks, “Who’s doing sound? I need to plug this in.”
For those of you who are new to Austin, Acia is the co-founder and Artistic Director for Tapestry Dance Company, and she has been making history with this ground-breaking group for 25 years. I am a long-time admirer, plus I have a soft spot for short, driven, intense women. Come to think of it, I married one, but that’s another story.
Anyway, I look at Acia…and Acia looks at me, holding my soprano, wearing my suspenders, seated behind my AJW front…and we both had an “ummmm” moment for a beat, until we both realized we were the victims of a miscommunication as to who, what, and when was slated to occur on this particular day and time. In short, neither of us had a clue that the other was to be there.
But only for that instant. As Kurt Vonnegut’s guru-figure Bokonon says in the novel Cat’s Cradle, “Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God.” Which in this case translates to “roll with it”.
A brief shorthand ensues. Acia: “Fascinatin’ Rhythm?” Me: “Sweet Georgia Brown–still 32 bars.” Acia: “AABA?” Me: “ABAB.” Acia: “That’ll work.” Me: “Intro? Tags?” Acia: “Four bars at the top, no tags.” Me: “Ending?” Acia: “Shave and a haircut.” Me: “How many choruses?” Acia: “Four.”
Great. We’re set. Let ‘er rip.
Acia: “Oh, one other thing. Third chorus is stop time, with breaks.”
At this point, the show is just about to start and five people are talking around us, crowding the bandstand with their last-minute transmissions. I think she is telling me the last two bars of every eight is where the stop time occurs. So that’s what I tell the band, and off we go.
Sweet Georgia Brown is the third number, and I hand off the mic to Acia to introduce it. Meanwhile, I’m silently planning. (OK, four choruses. I play the head in on the first one, then I’ll pass it off to Shortell, then to Z for the stop-time chorus, then back to me for the 4th time and nail the ending.) I know that if anyone on the stand can be trusted to remember not to blow over the dancer’s breaks, it’s Z. After all, one of those breaks will belong to his son.
And off we go. It’s ragged, but we make it through.
After the 1st service concludes, Acia zeroes in on me. “What happened to the introduction?”
I honestly don’t remember at that point, two numbers ago. I thought I played it? Maybe not.
“No, they had to dump some steps to catch back up. Also, the third chorus breaks were wrong.”
“I thought you said 6/2, 6/2, 6/2, 6/2.”
“No, it’s 6/2, 6/2, 6–” Acia stops, thinks, five people are talking at once again in the ten precious minutes between seatings as the 6th graders leave and the 7th graders take their place. Have I mentioned all this is taking place in a gymnasium? Not a particularly conducive spot for conversation.
“…and then 2/2, 2/2,” Acia concludes.
“OK, got it.” I lean over to Z, who is ready for me. “What you said is not what they did.”
“I know, I just got the story. So it’s supposed to be 6/2, 6/2, 6/2, and then 2/2, 2/2.”
“Right.” And I scurry over to tell the rhythm section before the next downbeat.
Show #2, and we’re off again. As we’re playing Sweet Georgia Brown, I realize how thankful I am to have Z on this gig. He’s nailing every break just as we discussed.
Next break and Acia’s back. “Well, that was almost right.” I’m beginning to see how this diminutive dynamo has conquered her world. Damn perfectionist.
“What? I thought it was 6/2, 6/2, 6/2, 2/2, 2/2? Right?” Please be right.
“No, I said 6/2, 6/2, and then 2/2, 2/2, 2/2, 2/2.”
Oy. “Third time’s the charm, right?”
And it was. We finally nailed it for the 8th-graders. And they sat mesmerized for the other numbers as well, which I took as a sign that we were doing our job well. It looked something like this:
That is, if you can learn to dance from a series of still pictures.
Anyway, the point is: I’m grateful to have Z on any gig he can make. I haven’t even touched on his ability to entertain the younger kids with his arranging skills, which he has turned into a sort of vaudeville review during this Count Basie season. Or how he did impromptu raps for them close to twenty years ago, when the show was not so choreographed and he could corral the mic for a few minutes.
Those stories will have to wait for another time. But for now: VIVA Z!!