Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Next to a White Room With No Curtains...

I don't know how the Seishin Flying Eggheads (funky fanfare...with one out-of-tune trumpet) managed to get so lucky this year. It seems like we're suddenly getting inundated with requests to perform. It's not that I'm complaining; it's always good to be appreciated, and the kids can definitely use the experience and the exposure. Also, considering what I talked about in the last post, I'm thankful that I actually have things to do.

During the four-month period leading up to Summer Vacation we had only two performances, the first thrice-annual Saturday Afternoon Concert of the year and the Rokko District High School Music Event in June. Both of those performances were short; we only played three tunes plus an encore. Considering how shaky we were sounding with all the power players recently lost to graduation, that was probably for the best. Now we don't have it quite so lucky. During the next three months we have four major performances. By "major" I mean at least a half-hour program. Only one of those is a school event, specifically the annual soryosai (創陵祭 - Foundation Festival) at ye olde academy. The other three are away missions to which we were invited.

The first, and perhaps most unlikely, of these events is today. I have to admit I had my doubts about this whole thing when we were first invited. The fact that a lot of the dealing took place via Mr. Ogawa and the Eggheads' student "top cat" while I was in Australia kind of made me feel a bit iffy about it. Apparently the Kashima City Chamber of Commerce decided to hold a little music festival in front of Kashima Jingu Station, the main train station in the city. They had already booked a couple of local jazz trios and an acoustic guitar duo to play. Somewhere along the line someone suggested us. After all, not only is Seishin Gakuen quite near the station, but we have the only jazz big band in town. (Besides, a jazz big band is a lot more mobile and a bit friendlier to outdoor performances than our symphony orchestra!)


The Kashima City Chamber of Commerce, which is near both the station and Kashima Shrine.


Kashima Jingu Station

I said I would do it, but I have to admit I had my doubts. Kashima Jingu Station may be the most important station in the area, but it's still neither big nor busy. Moreover, I didn't recall seeing any place there that was particularly suitable for performing. I had all kinds of nightmares of us going there to find a lot of confusion and no audience. The people in charge seemed pretty serious about it, though. They put quite an impressive ad for the event, featuring a picture of the Seishin Flying Eggheads from last March's big regular concert, in both Kashima's monthly newsletter and the Ibaraki Shimbun, a regional newspaper (insert) that comes out once a week. The two representatives that came and met with me two weeks before the event also seemed to have things well in hand. They told me they'd provide transportation and assured me they'd at least have electricity, chairs, and a mike available (something I'd worried about). That helped me relax a bit.

I wish I could say the same thing about the Eggheads themselves. We immediately ran into trouble. Actually, our current drummer, bassist, and two keyboardists are all very talented and doing an excellent job. The winds, however, have a few holes. Those were made even worse by the fact that all the 10th graders were scheduled to be away at "summer camp" (actually a free-for-all in Tokyo) on the day of the event, which eliminated our lead trombone player. That wasn't quite so bad; the 2nd trombonist is actually a better player, and she could fill in quite nicely. However, the camp also eliminated our new back-up 2nd alto sax player, and our regular 2nd alto was to be away on a family trip. That was a gap that wasn't easily filled. Up till summer I filled the missing 2nd tenor sax slot myself (till I gritted my teeth and put a 7th grade beginner in the position...once she was able to carry a tune), so my playing 2nd alto probably wouldn't be such a big deal. However, some of the tunes definitely needed directing. Moreover, the 2nd alto player had a lot of solos, and I didn't want to take those myself. That left me with the option of directing while holding my alto sax and then jumping into the 2nd alto chair when I was needed there. On top of that, there was some really weak solo playing coming from both our lead tenor sax player (who suffers from a chronic lack of confidence) and most of the trumpet section. Add to that the fact that I had four 7th graders (including the 2nd tenor) and one 8th grade beginner in the ranks due to a desperate personnel shortage. Needless to say, during the sadly few rehearsals things were looking pretty grim.

Cut to today, August 26th, the day of the event itself.

The Chamber of Commerce people told me they'd provide transportation, which is a good thing because both of the school vans are reserved. Even so, I have a bad feeling about it, so when I arrive at the school at around 1:30 p.m. the first thing I do is double-check the van bookings. Lo and behold, one of the reservations has been canceled. Another teacher has already scooped it up, but her reservation is scheduled to end well before our 3:00 p.m. departure. Just for good measure, I immediately jot down my name. Then I head up to see how the kids are doing.

The Eggheads' top cat told me a couple of days ago that she was worried about everyone being too tired to perform, so we decided to have no rehearsals today and to have all our gear packed up and ready to go by lunchtime. I go up to the auditorium to find most of the members practicing on their own...loudly...and none of the gear ready to go. I am a bit irritated, but the top cat is nowhere in sight. Apparently she hasn't come back from her summer seminar class yet. I tell the kids to pack up their stuff and get ready to go immediately. (Naturally, "immediately" translates as "in slow motion with lots of screwing around in between".) When the Chamber of Commerce people show up at about 2:45 the kids are still lugging stuff down the stairs to the rear entrance.

It turns out that my having grabbed the school van was a very good thing. The Chamber of Commerce people have brought only one vehicle, an 8-seat minivan with little extra cargo space. This is for 22 students plus myself and all our gear. I tell the kids to load the heavy stuff in the school van and put themselves in the CoC van. It winds up being very slow going. The Seishin Gakuen music club has got to be the slowest-moving outfit in the Rokko district if not all of Ibaraki Prefecture (if not...whatever...). The problem is that they are so damned fastidious. In my own school daze days we always just tossed everything into the van, truck, or bus and went. If there was a spare corner somewhere we'd stuff something in it. We almost always managed to pull off any move in one go. Not the Seishin crew. They lay each item in the van carefully, making sure it's arranged so that nothing bumps into anything else, and there's no way in hell they'll stack things on top of each other! I mean, I can understand that our instruments are generally more expensive and of higher quality than what most schools use (another legacy of Mr. Ogawa), but when our departure time starts running way late, and the kids are standing there fussing over how to arrange the tom-toms and congas in the back of the van, I start to get irritated. I finally start stacking things up anyway, eliciting a chorus of gasps and complaints, and tell the kids to shut up and get in the van.

Our performance is scheduled to begin at 3:30. By the time we get everyone and everything there it is already almost 3:40. That's when they inform me that they've forgotten the bass drum kick-pedal. It's a damned good thing that the trip to the school and back takes less than five minutes. Even so, the "stage crew" is having some kind of trouble getting our digital piano rigged up through their sound system and balanced. In the end, they give up and use the amp they said I wouldn't need but I insisted on bringing anyway. (My intuition is really saving my neck today, innit?) Downbeat is at about 3:50, twenty minutes behind schedule.

In the picture of the station I've posted up above you can see a roofed bus/taxi loading area on the left side. That's where they set up the "stage" facing into the open plaza in the middle. (Just outside the picture on the left side is a small Chamber of Commerce booth, which is what they use as "home base" and the source of our electricity.) In this space they had set up a few event booths plus a number of chairs for guests. Amazingly enough, not only are all the chairs filled, but there is quite a standing crowd gathered! That in itself really helps get us pumped up!

We start our program with a couple of nice, safe "same old, same olds": Santana's "Oye Como Va" and Glenn Miller's "Tuxedo Junction". We've already performed those tunes dozens of times over the years, and there are no surprises...except for our plucky baritone sax player taking over the 2nd alto player's solo in "Tuxedo Junction"! We follow with a new addition to our repertoire, Glenn Miller's "Pennsylvania 6-5000". The still-growing crowd claps when I name the tune before starting it. It's a fun, upbeat number, but I'm worried. There are solos in it by our lead tenor and by far the weakest of our "senior" trumpet players. The tenor player struggles, but at least she doesn't stop. The trumpet player, however, by some miracle, pulls her solo off both strongly and confidently. (What...did someone hypnotize her or replace her with a clone?!?) We follow with another new one, a simple, beginner's version of Mancini's "Moon River" that I have spiced up a little bit. It's not as tight as it probably could be, but it still sounds good. There's also some very nice solo work (improvs around the written melody) done by our lead alto and trumpet players.

Not only is the crowd still growing, but bus and taxi drivers are starting to come around to check us out. There is also more than one journalist snapping away.

Picking the pace up again, we perform the shuffle-swing version of "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown" that we've already done this year. We manage to pull it off without the dragging and rushing that plagued us the last time we did it. The crowd is happy. The kids look happy. The 7th graders don't look quite so intimidated. So far so good.

We follow with another new piece, an interesting bossa nova arrangement of the classic "Lullabye of Birdland". Our lead alto player, who is top cat of the Eggheads this year and by far our strongest jazz player at present, takes the 2nd alto solo and does some pretty impressive improv. Unfortunately, the trumpet player who also has solo work there folds under the pressure and, while she was strong in rehearsal, comes across a bit weak this time. The drum & percussion breaks are hot. We follow that with a regular favorite of the Eggheads, the original Weather Report version of "Birdland". In this piece I get a serious workout jumping between the directing position and the 2nd alto chair. The piece is charged up, energetic, and goes very well with one unfortunate exception. Our bassist this year, Ms. ST, is really quite good, and she had that funky Jaco Pastorius thumb-slap solo break in the middle down better than any bass player in the Flying Eggheads' history EVAR. Unfortunately, today she used a different acoustic bass from before, a much less user-friendly one, on the swing tunes, and her right thumb and forefinger now sport large, bloody blisters. When that solo break comes, she grimaces in agony, leans into her History/Fender Jazz bass (her own...and I love that thing!), and gives it a damned good shot. It's funky, it's dirty, but it's too quiet, a bit out of control, and she's not happy about it. It's too bad. Otherwise it's a good show.

We close the thing with this year's regular encore (and apparently this year's theme for the Flying Eggheads), a rock tune called "Over The Edge". It's a short, fun tune that the kids love (and play any chance they get, with or without me), and it always goes well. It's interesting that none of the three solos are the same as before. The weak trumpet player takes the first...and does a great job again. (What's going on??!? No, damn it, DON'T TELL ME!!!) Our 8th grade bass trombonist, who has never played a solo in her life, takes the second and gives a fair accounting. As before, I take the third solo, the only indulgence I allow myself, but this time I'm on alto instead of tenor, and I keep my solo a bit reserved so I don't upstage the others too much (read "because I haven't played this thing for months, and I don't want to push my technique too much"). We're done. The crowd is cheering. The kids are pumped up and happy, especially the new members. Okay, I guess I can now officially say that the Seishin Flying Eggheads' 2006-2007 season has truly begun.

Now it's time for one of the trios to play, and they borrow our digital piano (and use it very well, I might add). As we're breaking our gear down and getting ready to roll (and receiving all kinds of nifty presents from the various booths) I'm suddenly approached by none other than Mr. Yamazaki, longtime professional jazz drummer and founder of the Kashima Seaside Jazz Festival, which will be held for the third time this year. Of course the Seishin Flying Eggheads will be there. I mentioned that there were four major performances scheduled in three months. This event was the first. The KSJF will be the last.

"Excellent performance," crows Mr. Yamazaki, "as always! Truly excellent! You really had the crowd going!"

"Thank you," I reply, bowing modestly. "I have to admit I was worried, but I'm pretty happy."

"Oh, yes!" Mr. Yamazaki goes on. "I can't wait to see you guys at the Seaside Jazz Festival!" Then he frowns. "There's just one problem..."

My sheepish grin vanishes. "What...?"

"'Moon River'," he replies. "Your performance of it sounded soooo good, and since the theme of this year's festival is 'Jazz & Cinema'..."

"Er, th-that's why we're doing that piece," I retort anxiously. "That's why I ordered it!"

Mr. Yamazaki nods and bites his lip. "That's what I thought. Unfortunately, right after you guys are on, we're going to have something really special, a professional jazz chorus! Guess what their main piece is..."

I don't think I need to guess.

"Please," he says regretfully, "don't play 'Moon River'. Just stick with Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman. That's what you're best at."

I only nod in reply, and he bows and excuses himself. Actually, I will delete "Moon River" from the program (arrrrggggghhhh), but I have no intention whatsoever of sticking with Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman...again. Maybe it's time to do some arranging...

But that's something for another day. Right now it's time to go home.

9 Comments:

  • phew! what a fun day! my adrenaline would have been pumping in major overdrive, as i'm sure yours was. good job and i hope that all the upcoming events are even better.

    what's the matter w/ the one kid that has the chronic low self-confidence? do his parents support him and what he's doing?

    i love Moon River. such a beautiful piece.

    By Blogger tooners, at 6:01 PM  

  • what's the matter w/ the one kid that has the chronic low self-confidence?

    None of us really know. She's not stupid at all, but she has always been very exciteable, kind of flakey, and tends to fall apart at the least provocation. She's actually in my homeroom now, and her mother personally thanked me for having boosted her confidence some. (In other words, I freaked her out by praising her sax playing.)

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 12:27 AM  

  • Chaos just under the surface and the remarkable improvisation of jazz! How wonderful and funny. Glenn Miller and a kid's jazz band in 2006 - how remarkable. And Moon River. That always reminds me of swimming at a beach in Tonga, topless I think. One crazy tropical night!
    What about Summertime? Do you play that?
    W.

    By Blogger Peceli and Wendy's Blog, at 6:04 AM  

  • MM, wow! I enjoyed that and of course CONGRATULATIONS! you did it again.

    Would I be crazy to suggest doing a recording of your major concerts/gigs/whatever you may call it for the heck of it? Who knows you could do a compilation and market it. Huh? I'm serious.

    Congrats too for the other events. Great job!

    By Blogger Happysurfer, at 3:19 PM  

  • Maybe the girl needs someone to take her under their wing. It's nice that she's in your home room and even better that you freaked her out by telling her that the sax playing was good. I'm hoping this year will be a good one for her and that her confidence level will continue to grow. She'll definitely be on my mind.

    By Blogger tooners, at 5:03 PM  

  • wah, looks like it was a operational nightmare, so many things to do, so many co-ordination.

    All in the name of love. I hope

    By Blogger Robin, at 5:58 PM  

  • Symphony Orchestra? Right next to the train station?!?

    It seemed that it went quite well.

    Wow … I can now hear Mancini's "Moon River"… I bet it sounded amazing. I can’t believe that you have to take it off of your program. This is just not fair.

    You know Moody, you remind me my high school music teacher. He was the only one to really encourage his students to further their talents and get over their shyness by setting up events where we’d go to other schools and perform live. I loved it… It was hectic of course, but luckily, our instruments were not as high end as your schools. In fact, the students themselves owned most of the expensive instruments. I remember having to drag my keyboard to rehearsals, and I remember other students having to bring tablas and Kanouns. Only instruments that the school provided was accordions, xylophones, drum kit, and occasionally an electric guitar (with a cheesy amp). Having a symphony orchestra was just an unattainable dream.

    It’s quite impossible to have such festivals here in Bahrain, and even more unachievable to get students interested enough in music to carry out such events. The religious society here considers music as a sin. So do let your mind run wild with things that go on here in schools and how mean students can be. You get the religious parents who raise their children on stupid thoughts like music will take you to hell, and if you pick an instrument, then you’re the devil in disguise... (yes, crazy stuff!)

    Your students will forever remember you Moody for building their confidence and encouraging them to stand in front of a crowd. I think what you’re doing is very noble. After so many years of graduation, I still keep in touch with my music teacher. I also occasionally visit him when I travel to Egypt, where he’s originally from.

    By Blogger Alfanan, at 7:05 PM  

  • Wendy
    Doing jazz in a Japanese school is interesting because it is the antithesis of the totally disciplined appraoch to music they're otherwise raised on.

    I won't ask for details about Tonga, though it sounds nice and free, like jazz is supposed to be!

    We haven't tried "Summertime" yet.

    Happysurfer
    We do video most of our performances and put them on DVD. The best, of course, are our big, annual concerts every March together with the concert band and symphony orchestra. We do package those and make them available.

    Tooners
    Flakey, exciteable girls are not uncommon in school bands, but quite often they have really defensive if not combative attitudes (classic inferiority complex). This girl freaks out easily, but she has a mild-mannered, easy-going personality that makes her easy to work with...if she doesn't buckle up and retreat. I'm doing my best.

    Robin
    Absolutely, Robin. All in the name of love.

    Alfanan
    They wanted the symphony orchestra at first, but Mr. Ogawa shot that down immediately. Violins don't like the outdoors very much, especially when it's sunny and hot. Besides, our orchestra is much too big to fit in that bus/taxi shelter!

    Thanks for your wonderful comments.

    I have to admit I have often wondered how Islamic culture in general views music, and I find what you say surprising in some ways and not in others. I know that, in Afghanistan, the Taliban shut it down right quick, and I know the Salafi are none too keen about it, either. Still, I was always confused by their reasoning. Nowhere does the Q'uran (or the Haddiths, for that matter) say that music is bad or a sin. All it says is that, when the Prophet heard musicians playing (loudly) while he was walking down the street, he covered his ears so he wouldn't be distracted by their merriment. How conservative Muslims see that as a reason to ban music is beyond me. That almost seems to be presumptuously second-guessing God's will by adding meanings that aren't there.

    Actually, the Shia Muslims seem to like music a LOT...but not if it's too "handsome" (to quote an Iranian friend of mine). Go figure...

    I did some web surfing to see if I could find any information or pictures of this event, especially a picture of the Seishin Flying Eggheads. One thing I stumbled upon was an apparent blog entry from a former student of mine (I don't know who) who said she'd really enjoyed being in the Eggheads and wondered how I was doing. I guess I must be doing some good after all.

    It definitely sounds like your teacher did some good!

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 10:44 PM  

  • Wish I could have been there to hear it. Reminds me of my high school days (back when wooly mammoths still roamed the earth).

    When & where is the seaside jazz festival?

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 12:18 PM  

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