New Guy

When I joined the Bayfield Brass, sometime around 1998, it was about as easy a transition as I could make. I was joining a group that was made up of guys who were all my age, all military band members, all great players, and all irreverent and slightly cynical brassholes who enjoyed a good laugh at their own expense as much as at the expense of the guy next to them. The Bayfield Brass had started out years before as the civilian alter ego of the U. S. Naval Academy Band Brass Quintet, based in Annapolis, Maryland. By the time they asked me to fill in, Rhoades (trombone) had moved on to the U. S. Navy Commodores at the Washington Navy Yard, which was just down the street from Marine Barracks, Washington, DC, home of the U. S. Marine Band, where Dan (trumpet) had just joined me as a member of “The President’s Own.” Jim was principal trumpet in the Naval Academy band, and Tony (horn) was the only music librarian in the greater DC area who could bench press 325 for reps.

There were a couple of gigs coming up, so they called a rehearsal and asked me to come read through a chunk of their jazz book. A certain percentage of DC’s immensely talented tuba population is, apparently, somewhat swing-impaired. It turned out to be a plus that when I got lost reading a walking bass part, I could just fake my way along the chord changes until I got to a double-bar with a rehearsal letter over it. Those years of playing jazz gigs all paid off in a few long rehearsals in Dan’s basement.

I didn’t feel like the New Guy for too long. I made a point of learning the charts cold as soon as possible, and wound up memorizing most of them. I busted my backside to make sure the group didn’t miss a beat. Nothing fancy, just lay it down and stay in the pocket.

It was a lot harder to get to that point with the Buck Creek Jazz Band. I was joining a group of guys who were older than I was, and had been playing jazz for a whole lot longer. That band had been playing together for 25 years, they took their jazz seriously, and they knew a lot of tunes. They didn’t play any standard dixieland stuff, either. They used the Buck Creek book, old obscure songs that nobody else knew about or played. They kept it to themselves, too. Never playing the same-old-same-old really helped develop their fan base.

I played like a New Guy for a long, long time. Even when we played ten songs per set, eight to ten sets per festival, I felt like I was sight-reading the whole thing, even after six months. Learning that book was a process, and it didn’t come easily.

Then there was the swing style. Buck Creek’s tuba player, John Wood, was a bass player. However, when the original  Buck Creek lineup got together, he went out and got himself a tuba for the band. Unlike the rest of the tuba players in town, he went ahead and played 4-beat walking bass lines like he always played, instead of the traditional 2-beat dixieland that most of the DC bandleaders demanded from their tuba players.

This was very different for me, because all of the bandleaders who hired me around town would give me an earful if I started walking bass lines on a gig. It wasn’t exactly a surprise that my time needed work. Thankfully, I had the experience of being in the Marine Band tuba section, and being aggressive at holding a tempo and staying in front of the beat at all times.

The toughest part, though, was what I couldn’t learn or fix. Jim (cornet and bandleader) called me in January of 2004, and broke the news that John Wood had passed away, suddenly and unexpectedly. The band had literally just returned from a cruise, they’d had a wonderful time, they were going to get together in a few weeks for a trio of gigs in DC… and just like that, they lost their dear friend.

John had been the rock in the back row for 25 years, knew all those songs, even sang on a few of them. He was the calm voice when there were disagreements. He was the traffic cop for the rhythm section through all the arrangements. His passing left a huge hole. When people said that Buck Creek just wasn’t the same without John, they weren’t speaking poorly of me. (Although I was pretty sketchy those first few festivals.) They missed John, and still do. I never got a chance to meet him. I wish I had.

Needless to say, I felt like the New Guy for a bit. Well, the band took me in like family. Frank (trombone) set up all those charts for me, and got me to stop trying to play like John all the time. Jerry (banjo) and Bill (piano) taught me all the ins and outs of the chord changes I was learning, including all the Buck Creek tricks that weren’t on the page. When my first cruise came along, I was able to take my wife, Becky, on a trip we never would have had the chance to take otherwise. A week on a cruise ship in Alaska, and all I had to do was play some great jazz with Buck Creek. Not a bad way to do business. John Skillman (clarinet) and Diana took care of Becky and I, and so did Jim and Betty Ritter, and so did a bunch of Buck Creek fans… come to think of it, I don’t recall paying for drinks very often.

That was a great band. Traveling was tough, but I miss the festivals. I still play with Jim in the Creole Gumbo Jazz Band, I still have a big stack of CD’s, some great friendships and some great memories. I’ve learned to prepare like crazy, but just be myself. And, to this day, I still use John Wood’s bass patterns on the chorus of “Dans les Rue d’Antibes.”