Saturday, May 09, 2009

Music Man

A number of the folks I work with are musically inclined. Some are weekend players, continuing a love and a hobby they started long ago. They play with friends, occasionally surfacing with a band at a bar or a party. Others are seriously talented, studied it in college, and eventually headed into related areas of the business. After their day job ends, they head out to write, mix and perform, many of them working regularly and steadily with other talented players. And then there's Jeff.

He too has a day job, working as a tech on various projects. Sometimes I see him sorting out a sound system or, as we were doing together late one Monday afternoon, taping down some cables so people didn't trip. Occasionally I'll see him walk in with a black instrument case over his shoulder. But while it's not uncommon to see someone dragging along a guitar, not many walk around shouldering a trombone. And so as we crawled around making the stage acceptable for OSHA, I asked him about it.

Indeed, he leads a dual life as a sound technician and a professional musician. The son of 2 music teachers, they encouraged him to play away, but to have a backup plan. So he went to school and majored not just in performing, but also in audio technology. He tried to juggle both sides professionally when he graduated, doing pickup work in each. At first more opportunities came in the recording field, so he took them. But while he enjoyed playing with all the toys in the studio, every time he engineered a session he became more convinced that he wanted to be on the other side of the mic.

Still, a job is a job. So when he was offered a position as a technician with CNBC, he accepted. It was the early shift... 6A to 2P... and wore him down, especially when he got a gig playing at night. But he was getting paid to do both things he loved, so he hung in there. “It's about perseverance," said Jeff, “to do the things you want to do, as well as to be willing to give up other things you can't."

Then a call came for him to go on the road with vibraphone great Lionel Hampton. He had to make a decision. As Jeff put it, “if CNBC had offered me the chance to take a leave of absence, I might have, and then I would have had to go back. Thankfully, I had to quit. And it was the best thing for me."

That shifted his emphasis squarely to the other side of equation. Sure, he still had the engineering skills to fall back on. And since so much of gigging is at night, he could get work during the day in studios. But as his network and reputation grew, he spent more time playing.

A steady stream of studio dates and backup jobs lead to him being called for his first major Broadway show, “Sunset Boulevard." His contacts and talents there put him in good stead with the Great White Way, and led to more. Since that time he has played in a succession of pits, from, “Sweet Charity" to “Fosse," from “Titanic" to “Thoroughly Modern Millie," from “The Drowsy Chaperone" to the current hot revival of “West Side Story."

He also gets tapped for concerts and events. He loves jazz, and played with great Dizzy Gillespie, as well as the Village Vanguard Jazz Orchestra and composer Maria Schneider. He's performed at Radio City with Diana Ross, and at Carnegie Hall with Sting. He confesses, however, that while playing music with these superstars is fine, those gigs brings out the tourist in him: “it's amazing to be in the middle of those kinds of spectacles, and just watch what's going on around you."

He has one big regret. Back when he started on Broadway, it was opening weekend for the show. While musicians are allowed contractually to substitute themselves out 50% of the time every quarter, they can't do so in the beginning of a run. So when a call came in to play a concert, as hard as it was, he felt he had to say no. The gig he passed up? Frank Sinatra. “It haunts me," Jeff sighed. “Now I would have pushed it, but back then, it seemed like a bad idea."

While Old Blue Eyes didn't call again, thankfully many others have. Like all freelancers, Jeff's life depends on waiting for the phone to ring. But with his talent and reputation solid in two worlds, it can ring twice as often. And that means that whether it's setting up a microphone or playing into it, he's one guy who can vamp in two different keys.


Marc Wollin of Bedford learned saxophone because all the others kids went to play trumpet. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.