A is for Always

by Christopher Bacas

RaviniaThe first time I saw A was backstage at Ravinia, summer of 1984, holding court, in blazer and turtleneck, amid a thicket of horn players; his new band. He came out of retirement to front a group playing his music. One of the true masters of his instrument and a complete musician, A stopped playing nearly 30 years before. That quitting both a petulant and supremely honest action; ending a long personal struggle with celebrity and the corrupt music business. He also told a much younger musician that he had been "a slave to the instrument" and wanted to do other things. In bright sun and a festival atmosphere, a guitarist and saxophonist played "Sweet Sue" for him, the guitar accompanying intricately. After listening a bit, A barked:
"it's a simple song, don't make it so goddamned complicated!"
The players stopped. A continued his audience with sidemen. They were used to blunt assessments. For his re-entry, A rehearsed the band and now acted as MC. He'd selected one stellar Soloist to play dozens of his recorded solos and hire the all sidemen. Later, on stage, A showed flashes of the erudition which separated him from his swing era colleagues. My current boss, Z, one of those contemporaries, listened respectfully, finally offering:

"He was always a brilliant man…and a fucking pompous ass!"

The band was a crack outfit: Boston cats, a mix of generations and built around the Soloist's long-running small group. That core group, the strong soloing, a program of choice arrangements from A's huge library and the excitement of presenting this music with the man who created it, made an inspiring set. A professorial air hung around it, but this wasn't a ghost band. A didn't continue long as Maestro,though. With no patience for nostalgia-heads, slick promoters or fawning radio personalities, he left the road and let Soloist run the store.

Five years later, came the opportunity to join A's band. Going on the road was a big adjustment. I'd done another 350 one-nighters, stopped partying, and lived in an ashram for 4 months; in roughly that order. A hot plate and plenty of rice and beans fit in my suitcase. Also packed, were worries that with my early rising, daily yoga, and room-cooked meals, I wouldn't fit in.

I joined the band in the Midwest. The night before, the departing tenor man, in a fit, ran off with his book of a few hundred parts. He holed up in a hotel room demanding his full pay immediately in exchange for the music. No one had ever kidnapped a big band book before. Nor had anyone ever ransomed one. I wasn't going to be too weird for this outfit.

I sat next to Soloist with the rescued library. Born and raised in the same Massachusetts factory town as my parents, his accent channeled any of my uncles. Playing reams of written-out solos, he stayed clockwork consistent. Improvising, cascades of ideas flowed from his notoriously difficult horn. After thousands of GB gigs, he didn't get phased by second-class accommodations and led with a light hand. From the first night, I felt good on stage. Volume was moderate, something I appreciated. Looking around, I had history with two section mates. The baritone player, a gentle giant, was younger brother of a college buddy. The lead alto man was a big shot when I arrived at music school. Six or seven years older than me, I took a lesson from him early on. When reminded, he denied it. With added details, he had to agree it probably did happen.

The pianist, drummer and my two section mates came off cruise ships. Under their professional veneer, some barbed wire showed through. Lead Alto combined Texas charm with casual self-destruction. The piano man and drummer chafed at the smallest request Soloist made; the legacy of control-freak MDs on their ships. Bari guy was their heart, soul and conscience, even mothering Lead Alto, twelve years his senior. Together, they were a crew.

The bus had a college dorm feeling. Most guys were studying music or chess or reading something worthwhile. Our driver was boyish, with a slight build. He rarely looked at a map and seemed to know every street in any town we went to; the side benefit of half-a-million miles in road time. Senior travel groups were a specialty. Rolling into Kansas City, Driver grabbed the mic and in alto-ish, nasal voice, began tour group spiel:

"Kansas City has more boulevards than Paris.."

From the back:

"Oh jeeez!"

"..and more fountains than Rome."

" can't we just GET there?"

" This is the Masonic Temple. It…" Kansas_City_Masonic_Temple._9th_and_Harrison


"…has 32 columns and over one-hundred and fourteen thousand…"


"…square feet of floor space. It was constructed between…"

He was unflappable, as well.

Driver always wore a uniform: light green button-down shirt, blue slacks and a company windbreaker. Once, I saw him without the windbreaker, arranging his shirt around a padded aluminum back brace. The oversize tentacles already embossed in his pale skin. He wore the device daily, averaging 4-5 hours behind the wheel. I never heard him complain about pain of any kind; truly an iron man.

On this band, room ghosting resembled a trapeze act. The manager tried to rein it in, but as he chose higher-priced lodgings, mutiny often hung in the air. The band practicing ethic also produced tension. Folks competed for private spaces and available hours at every hotel and venue. It was common to arrive at the gig and find a guy in a dank boiler room well into his third hour of work. The champion of this was Guitar. Most editions of A's original bands had piano only. Soloist brought Guitar into the fold. With little to do on stage, Guitar practiced incessantly throughout the gig. Directly behind me, with volume all way the down, he churned through Paganini, Weiniawski, and ImageBach. Often, as we cut off the last chord, I heard incredible sweeping figurations pouring from his unamplified strings. If I turned to look at him, he maintained a tight half-smile, never moving head nor hands.

We practiced together. Reading transcribed horn solos in their instrument keys, he transposed everything to C at sight and turned pages without missing a note. Guitar's father, a masterful saxophonist and seminal arranger, passed a few years earlier. He inherited and played his father's vintage saxophones while developing an obsession with trumpet. Before the gig, he'd dig in somewhere and do hours of Caruso and Arban with a practice mute.

Guitar was obsessed with his bowels. Heavy long-term powder use rendered them less than efficient. That condition combined with other neuroses. On a morning leave, Guitar announced his current status. If he hadn't gone,he might agitate for an "ax stop", to the detriment of our travel plan. Standing by the driver, he navigated to an available loo, intensely arguing the merits of each possibility with Road Manager. The driver kept a professional cool, though his timetable was compromised by the back and forth. Guitar might walk the aisle and poll us on recent toilet history. Guys goaded him endlessly with their bathroom successes. This enraged him. I either demurred or offered a detailed exegesis. Neither approach placated him. When we made a stop, it could be a long one. Guitar had to perform. Pressure wasn't conducive to the act itself, of course. The band could stay on the bus and continue their morning routine or roam the facility, on peristalsis time. Resenting the delay and indignity, Road Manager finally went to the stall door and banged. Guitar asked for more time. Manager started to count. Whether or not the stall door swung open after countdown, for timely departure, Road Manager needed to corral stragglers and get them on board. The whole process was complicated and stressful, with an overlay of farce. As bad as it seemed, they assured me it used to be much worse.

No matter the outcome, Guitar rarely retired after an ax stop. With battery-powered amp and headphones, he'd run through stacks of music; clamping books to a bungee cord stretched across seat-backs. That workout lasted until we arrived at our destination. Alternatively, chess kept a subset of guys occupied, including him. Supernaturally bright and fierce competitor, he was hard on himself, as are most musicians. He'd canvas for opponents and if there weren't any, pouting commenced. The pout sometimes turned into self-flagellation. He once threatened to smash his eponymous instrument. Still, no one agreed to a game. Standing in the aisle, guitar high overhead, looking front and back, he gauged our response; which ran amused to horrified. A few yells of encouragement brought a fractal smile. After repeated practice swings, he brought it down, dinging his ax on the seat shoulder. The show over, we returned to our routines, ashamed for watching him damage a beautiful instrument. He inspected the damage, agonizing over the tiny dent. Soloist asked him:

"Whajya do 'at foah?"