Honestly, you just never know when opportunity is going to knock at the door. All you can do is be ready whenever it happens.

I spent a great couple of days in Boulder, Colorado, with the mighty Mike Dunn and his low brass studio at the University of Colorado. It’s always a great hang with Mike, and he didn’t disappoint. I got to spend quite a bit of time with the CU studio, and we talked about military band life and lots of freelancing. Versatility is the name of the game in today’s market, and I had plenty of war stories to share about some of the goofier gigs that I have in the archives. I gave a very similar class a few months ago down at the University of North Carolina-Pembroke. Dr. Joanna Hersey got me started on this particular track, and being ready to freelance in any situation is a topic about which I’ve become increasingly passionate. I’ve learned that students are even more receptive than I to the idea that there’s more to life on tuba than just classical music. Mike even set me up with crashing Brad Goode’s jazz jam at La Vida Strings with Eric Trujillo. We raised a few eyebrows. I really need to learn “Manteca” before trying that again.LaVida

After working with the students at UNC-P and CU, I’ve come to the conclusion that the ideal masterclass format is in the professor’s dining room, with the professor making food for everyone. Dunn knows how to work a grill, and nobody goes hungry. Joanna makes these amazing red velvet cupcakes, and those by themselves virtually guarantee perfect attendance. Honestly, it’s no surprise that when there’s food involved, the tuba players come running. The extra bonus is how easy the dialogue comes when everyone is relaxed and eating. I really enjoy that vibe.

The big stunner at CU was Dunn taking a phone call in his studio while I was working with one of his students. He hung up, and announced, “Aaron Tindall will be at the airport in half an hour.” Dr. Aaron Tindall teaches the studio at Ithaca College in New York. I might see him once a year if he can come down to DC for the Army Band workshop. Seriously, what are the chances that he’d have a gig with the Colorado Symphony the same week I was in Boulder??? Sure enough, a few hours later, there’s Dr. T. strolling into Dunn’s studio. You can’t make this stuff up.

I played a recital that afternoon, jazz standards and some New Orleans favorites. The focus of the performance was that there was no rehearsal. I met and shook hands with Jeff Jenkins, jazz piano faculty at CU, a few minutes before we started playing.  Afterward, I found myself getting an invitation to present and perform at the 2015 Northeast Regional Tuba-Euphonium Conference being hosted at Ithaca College. It happened that fast. I got back on the plane the next day thinking, “What just happened???”

Always be ready. Always have your A-game with you. Always be on. You never know who’s going to hear you play, and you may not know they’re even coming until they’re knocking at the door.

Chasing the wired life

I’m a geek. Always on the computer, always checking the phone. I spend way too much time on both. Everywhere you look, the musicians are wired up. It’s what it takes to get the job done, right? What a weird way to do business.

“Oh yeah, you’ve gotta have a website! People need to be able to find you online.” That used to be the big thing. You didn’t need to build the next Amazon, but you needed something, just something, so that when someone threw your name in a search engine, they found you online and could get in touch with you. I was down with that. I put together a basic website a few years ago, mostly pictures, a bio, and a couple of other pages. Nothing fancy.

Then I was trying to figure out how to make me the leading “Tom Holtz” on the web. Turns out I can’t even be the leading Tom Holtz in suburban Maryland on the web. The real-life version of Sam Neill’s character in “Jurassic Park” is Dr. Tom Holtz, a paleontologist at the University of Maryland, who has written dozens of books and has the unstoppable street cred of being a real dinosaur expert. No amount of loading keywords or SEO was going to help. Heck, if you searched on “Tom Holtz tuba,” I was lucky to be at number 3 or 4 on the results page. Fabulous.

Now look where we are. The scene is totally messing with me.

There are currently two e-mail addresses feeding regularly into my Inbox, two phone numbers getting text messages, a separate set of messages being kept and exchanged on Facebook, voicemail on the mobile phone and on the home phone… Seriously, I can’t keep track of it all. Details get lost, or are hidden in plain sight, and I’m left swinging in the breeze because I can’t remember which form of communication I’m supposed to search to find that bit of information I need to book or play a gig. Did that guy leave a message at home, and I called him on the cell, or did he leave a message on my cell? The email with the dress for tomorrow’s gig, I can’t find it on my phone… maybe that was a Facebook message, or no, he texted me last week. No, that was details for the sound check next week. Better email that to myself so I remember to put it in the calendar when I get a chance.

Yeah, I’m going to pass on Twitter. I can’t handle what I’ve got already.

I never intended to use Facebook to book gigs. I don’t even use Facebook for anything other than my own casual amusement, and the occasional reconnecting with old friends. All of a sudden, it’s the main line of communication for a few people I work for in DC and Baltimore. I think I was the last one on the text message train, and I learned some cats take a week to answer an e-mail, yet they’ll respond to a text at 2am without delay. I still don’t have a texting plan on my phone bill, but now I have to use them. Then there’s this website, which is much more fun as a blog than a big photo album. There are nights I would love to just sit and write, but by the time I’m done sorting through emails, texts, Facebook posts, messages… I’m ready to unplug and play the horn.

This is the dirty little secret of your expanding digital presence: This takes time and work. You need to answer all the e-mail. I’m not good at that. I’ve not only lost e-mails, but I’ve lost track of e-mail addresses that I had told people I would check… and it’s cost me business. Some folks who text everything assume I check my phone  every time a text arrives. If I don’t respond right away, as they always do, they might read something into that. I think twice about everything I share on Facebook. I didn’t use to, but now that people who hire are on there and checking it out, I’d be a moron not to stop, think, and be cautious. Every time I post something on this blog, I guarantee there will be more than one draft, and I’m going to type more than 140 characters.

And I still hit e-mail and Facebook a few times a day, and I try to keep the phone in sight or in a pocket as often as I can. I apologize when I use it around others, although most everyone pulls the phone out now and again around others anyway. It’s become part of the way our business is done.

I got six new e-mails while I finished these last three paragraphs.


Off Bass Brass recording session

OBB at Bias
Off Bass Brass recording at Bias Studios, Alexandria, VA.

I can’t believe it’s been four years since we recorded “Knock Yourself Out.” It sure didn’t seem like it had been that long ago when I joined the boys for another round this past weekend. It’s been a long time coming, and it was nice to finally see this project come to fruition.

Ryan McGeorge has shouldered the lion’s share of the arranging again, and we’ve finally recorded several of Ryan’s charts that we’ve performed live in recent years. Ryan also wrote some original material, and there’s some new music from Roland Szentpali and Alan Baylock in there as well. It’s a pretty wide program, and it should have a little something for everyone. There’s a lot of groove on this album.

There’s a lot of really high notes on this album, too. Mark Jenkins and John Cradler got quite the workout this weekend. They were more than up to the task, and it was a pleasure to park my butt next to these clowns and make some music again. It does my heart good to run with the big dogs once in a while.

Once again, the Off Bass Brass rhythm section joined forces to save the quartet from ourselves in the studio. One of the high points on the first night of recording came from Mark and Ryan fiddling with the metronome app, trying to find a tempo, after our drummer, Mike Metzger, had already been laying it down. Our producer suggested from the booth, “Ah, let’s have Mike count this off.”

Mark dumped his phone on his stand.  “Yes, please.”

I take great pride in being one of three representatives of Sun Devil Nation in the studio. Fellow ASU alumni Eric Sabo and AnnaMaria Mottola were with us on bass and piano, and they’re awesome. These sessions were hard work for the rhythm section. Mike even had a wedding gig after Saturday’s session that went into the wee hours, and he came back Sunday morning on Daylight Savings Time to drag us through one more chart. They put together so much stuff in rehearsals, and were incredibly patient with us in the studio.

AnnaMaria knocked our socks off when she fired up the Leslie on the vintage Hammond C3 sitting in the main room at Bias Studios. I can’t wait to hear what that track sounds like when the mixes begin. Even more wonderful was her playing on “Pure Imagination” by Leslie Bricusse. Ryan wrote a killer take on this song, just tuba quartet and piano. I’m stunned by how much music pours out of that woman. Someday, when I grow up, my dream is to pick up the horn and be money in the bank like AnnaMaria Mottola.

Steve Milner engineered the sessions, and Pete Folliard produced us with another huge bucket of patience. Now comes the waiting, while Steve and Pete set up the first edits. Man, I hate this part. I’ve heard bits and pieces of really good stuff, but I remember all too well lots of unusable crap that came out of my horn. Okay, guys, now you need to make us not suck. I’d love to be cavalier about recording, and I try to be efficient on the session and not get too picky, but I’m not fooling anyone. They know I’d love to go back and do a hundred takes to get everything perfect, but that’s not really what it’s about, is it?

And so we wait. It’s been four years, what’s a few more weeks, right?

From left to right: Steve Milner, engineer; John Cradler, tuba; Tom Holtz, tuba; AnnaMaria Mottola, piano; Eric Sabo, bass; Mike Metzger, drums; Ryan McGeorge, euphonium; Mark Jenkins, euphonium; Pete Folliard, producer.

New CD Releases

coverAll right, music lovers, I’ve got a few new goodies to share with you. The first is a new CD from euphonium force-of-nature David Bandman. Dave is a former member of the United States Air Force Band in Washington, D.C. He is a phenomenal jazz artist, and a superb recording engineer. Over the course of the last year, Dave has been working on his latest project, “Mendez”, named after the legendary trumpet virtuoso.  This isn’t just a rehash of some of the classic solos that Rafael Mendez made famous over the years. Dave composed an entire album of original music inspired by the style and technical wizardry that has captivated audiences for decades.

From the outset, Dave wanted to create a recording that was a complete tour de force. This album is the perfect showcase for Dave’s incredible musicianship and unique skill set. All of the selections are scored for a solo euphonium accompanied by a seven-piece brass ensemble with drum set. I first learned of the project many months ago after a recording session of brass quintet music, when Dave stopped me from packing up my horn, and asked me to read down some tuba parts for him. They were some of the trickiest tuba parts I had played in a long, long time, and they were nothing compared to the insanity in the solo parts. I loved being a part of this project, especially once I found out that I’d already recorded all the hardest stuff first.

80You might have guessed that the latest album from D.C. saxophonist Seth Kibel was aimed at a younger audience. It’ll have to be a very young audience, given the title of the album. Seth has faced many challenges of a (ahem) vertical nature during his lifetime. It speaks volumes about the man that he would choose the title “Jazz For People Who Are Shorter Than Me” because people who fit that description are rarely old enough to be gainfully employed. It’s a risk Seth is willing to take, especially when it affords him the chance to have his art design directed by his awesome kids.

Seth recently received the Washington Area Music Association award for Jazz Instrumentalist 2013, the sixth time he’s received this award. Seth plays all over the region, and is one of the most dynamic and energetic performers you will ever meet. He usually performs in a quartet setting, and gets to work with the best bass players D.C. has to offer. I know full well how many great bassists there are in the D.C. area, so I take great pride in having been invited to be a part of this album. The music is a mix of traditional children’s songs, New Orleans jazz, and Seth’s own original compositions.

“Mendez” is now available on iTunes, and from David Bandman’s website. You can even get a little taste of the goodness up front. “Jazz For People Who Are Shorter Than I Am” is available from  CDBaby, and from Seth Kibel’s website.  Obviously, I’m really excited about both of these releases.

Now it’s time to roll up the sleeves and get the tuba quartet into the studio…

Creole Gumbo Jazz Band Turns 5

The Creole Gumbo Jazz Band – Jim Ritter, cornet; Ben Redwine, clarinet; Rick Rowe, banjo; Tom Holtz, tuba

We celebrated the 5th anniversary of our first gig at The Westlawn Inn. It pains me to think that, at one point, Jim was thinking of hanging up the cornet for good! I’m glad he came to his senses before he did anything foolish. This has become a really fun and really good little band.

It all started when Jim Ritter bought a place down in Chesapeake Beach, MD, for a getaway house for he and his wife, Betty. They were spending all their weekends out on the western shore, and coming up to this great little restaurant up in North Beach. They became regular customers of the Westlawn Inn, and soon got to know the owner, Lee Travers.

One weekend, they sat at a table in the corner, where there are pictures on the wall of a 1960’s rock band. Hanging with the pictures are a few 45 RPM singles all framed very nicely. Jim asked Lee who those guys were, and as it turns out, that’s Lee’s band from back in the day.

Well, Jim and Lee got to talking about music, and musicians, and bands, and playing, and so on and so forth. Wouldn’t you know it, the two of them talked themselves into a semi-serious semi-regular jazz gig at the Westlawn Inn. Lee committed to hiring a four-piece group, all acoustic, for evening dinner audiences. That’s no small commitment, especially when you’re an independent restaurant owner in a small town in southern Maryland. Jim pulled me on board as the one Buck Creek Jazz Band veteran left in town. I had never met Ben Redwine before, but I’d played with Rick Rowe plenty of times, and it’s always good when Rick is on the gig.

I was really impressed with the Westlawn Inn the first time I walked in. This is a place as nice as any in Annapolis or DC, and the food is amazing. The chef is for real, the entire Travers family works hard every day and night making it the best restaurant it can be, and it really lends itself well to live music. I realized that Lee had built the restaurant to fund his music habit when we set up that first night, five years ago. There’s a box with a dozen microphone inputs hardwired into the wall where the band sets up, routed to a mixing board near the host’s stand at the door. He brings his rock and roll buddies in, and they blow the doors off the place.

It was fun the first night, and it’s only gotten better over the years. We’ve accumulated a nice little following when we play there, and we have a pretty good reputation among the locals. They know they can have dinner and still have a conversation even though there’s a band right there in their faces playing live. Since Jim was used to my concert tuba, because that’s what I could fit on the plane for all the Buck Creek appearances, this is the one jazz gig where I don’t take the helicon. Besides, Lee runs a classy operation, and he’s been taking care of us loyally for five years. The least I can do for the guy is bring the shiny tuba.

Go visit The Westlawn Inn or Like them here.

Photos from Bertha’s

Bertha's, Fells Point, Baltimore. January, 2014
Bertha’s, Fells Point, Baltimore. January, 2014

One of our good neighbors at Bertha’s, Raj, came over to shoot some photos last Wednesday. Got some great shots. He took a bazillion, so I was hoping there would be some winners in the bunch.

It’s hard to shoot at Bertha’s. There’s not a lot of room to move around, and the band is taking up pretty much all the room there is while we’re playing. We aren’t exactly standing still, either. We’re a pretty loose outfit, milling around all over the place in there. We have to remind ourselves not to block the doorway or keep customers from getting to the booze in a timely manner. When you’re a photographer, trying to move in close with your face in a camera, you get smacked on the head a few times. Sorry about the back of your skull, Raj.

Then there’s the lighting. Well, the lack thereof. It’s already dark in there, as a dive should be. Then there’s the Christmas lights from 2011. They are not a photographer’s friend. They’re the old LED lights, and they buzz along at 60Hz. I know this because when I’m playing a low A, usually around 55Hz (and I’m usually sharp,) those lights start bobbing and weaving in my field of view. I wonder what kind of dope would give me the most similar effect?

Nonetheless, Raj took a bunch of good pictures. Our drummer has a million-dollar smile! Check them out.

A Night At The Landing

The Jim Cullum Jazz Band
The Jim Cullum Jazz Band

The Marine Dixieland Band had been dormant for a few years when I arrived in D.C.  The Marine Band’s principal saxophone, Ron Hockett, decided to put some pieces together and restart the group. We played several concerts, a few White House jobs, and a national tour with the Marine Band before Ron retired from active duty. Ron is one of the finest jazz clarinet players I’ve ever known, and he’s known around the world. It came as no surprise to us, then, that almost as soon as he retired, the Jim Cullum band snatched him up to join their regular lineup at The Landing in San Antonio.

It would be years before the band traveled to San Antonio for a Texas Music Educators’ Association convention, giving Ron’s many friends in the Marine Band a chance to hear him in action again. He came to hear the Marine Band perform, invited us all down to The Landing, and told me to bring a horn. I’m very lucky there was an enormous music conference going on, because I had to borrow a tuba from a vendor on the exhibit floor to go sit in!

Jim, Ron, and the rookie
Jim, Ron, and the rookie

The guys couldn’t have been nicer, and Jim Cullum set me up with some solos on really nice songs. I sat right next to Ron and listened to him hit it out of the park  on every tune. He doesn’t play wrong notes. They all belong right where they are. It’s almost not fair having that kind of player next to you. Totally worth it, though. I haven’t heard anyone who plays like Ron, and he gave me a wonderful chance to be a showoff in front of a lot of people. Cullum and the band got a kick out of the gangly nerd who could solo over changes on tuba.

I got a kick out of some of the newer Marine Band members there at The Landing that night. The Marine Dixieland Band had gone dormant again after Ron and a few other members had retired. The Marine Band had since added several new musicians, many of whom had come from conservatories and serious classical music programs. For a few of them, a tuba player who could improvise jazz might as well have been an alien coming out of a spaceship with a ray gun. They were cracking me up that night. Good times.

Adventures In Bass Bone

Back to my roots
Back to my roots

I began my life in band on the trombone. I got my Bundy student trombone in 6th grade, the same trombone that my youngest son, J.J., is starting on at his elementary school thirty years later.  I took lessons from Bob Kuhns, the band director. I would walk up to the middle school from our house, and we would play our etudes, our scales, and the duets out of the Rubank Advanced Method with the blue cover. When I switched to tuba in the 7th grade, I thought it was for good, and never looked back. How wrong I was.

The one ensemble the Marine Band never fielded on a regular basis was a full Glen Miller-style big band. It wasn’t until about halfway through my career that there was an attempt to put one together. This came as a complete surprise to our two bass trombonists. Neither was really comfortable playing jazz, so they were both plotting to take leave on the week of the big band concert so they wouldn’t get stuck playing the book. I volunteered to dust off the trombone slide-position chart, and go hang out with the jazz band.

I had played a little bass bone during my summer with the Disney College Band back in the 1980s, but that had been a long time ago. I had to laugh when I was offered the choice of a single-trigger horn or a double-trigger horn. I barely knew what to do with one trigger, two would have been utterly useless. I forged ahead for all I was worth, and yeah, I did all right. The slide was generally in the ballpark for most of the gig. I had the trusty F tuba with me for a few things, and I worked hard on my low C. With a one-trigger bass bone, the slide is all the way out to the end of the sleeves to get to low C, and it’s a little risky for an amateur. Once you’re there, though, you can ramp up the the air, and get that sound of bacon sizzling. Oh, yes I did. Come on, be honest. You would do the same.

It was a good enough concert that we did another one the next summer. We all thought it was just a nice diversion, at least, that’s what we thought until John Williams came to town. There’s a lot more to John Williams than just Star Wars and Harry Potter…

It's a helicon. It's like a tuba. Okay, it's a tuba.