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Opportunity

It could happen to you. Seriously.

It happened to me at Bertha’s. I’m up in Baltimore with Big Bertha’s Rhythm Kings, and we’re just knocking down the trad jazz like always. We’re used to people drifting in and hanging out near the door, just to listen for a bit. One night, it’s this guy, he looks way cooler than the usual standers-by, and he’s got a guitar case and an amp with him. Clearly, he was coming from a gig, and decided to catch a few songs. We get to the break, and he wants to talk to me. There’s a first time for everything, and it just blew my mind when he said it.

“Dude. I gotta get you to come play in my band.”

First off, he’s younger than me. I’m not exactly radiating hipness anyway, and what little I’ve got is severely dampened by the 90-year-old tuba wrapped around me. The Corroded Sash of Dorkdom, +1 armor, -1 dexterity, -6 charisma. Next, he’s got a guitar and an amp. When he says “band” he’s not talking about Sousa or Jelly Roll Morton. Finally, he thinks the tuba with a mic shoved down the bell is a great idea. I’m basically babbling in response.

He starts telling me about this Romanian gypsy band he leads, Balti Mare, and how he’s always wanted a tuba player to play bass lines. His inspiration is Fanfare Ciocarlia, who I had to search on the internet when I got home. I found out that, even though it’s a fabulous play on the name of the city,  “Balti Mare” in Romanian translates into “large puddles.” Well, what the hell, my horn makes large puddles almost as often as I do, so I’m a perfect fit. I also found out that Fanfare Ciocarlia is amazing, and I was hooked.

Armani had my contact info immediately. I didn’t actually get to play with Balti Mare for several months, and it was pretty scary that first time out. That’s part of the job, though, and I’ve had a lot to learn along the way. I’m not used to club gigs at 1am, but I’ll get there. I’m just really glad that I didn’t sound like crap that night at Bertha’s. You never, ever know who all is listening to you play. Bring your A-game every time.

Connections

I owe Leigh Pilzer.

Leigh is a saxophonist and arranger here in Washington, DC. She’s scary good. I met Leigh at the University of Maryland. I was playing in the University Jazz Ensemble led by Chris Vadala. Leigh was Chris’ T.A., playing lead alto, and arranging charts right and left. This was in addition to all her playing around DC and NY, and everywhere in between.

The arranging was part of her course load for her degree, so she was actively searching out projects. Out of the blue one day, after rehearsal, she looks at me and says, “I need to write a feature for you.” Jaw, meet floor. You see, I had been angling for years to get a spot at the U. S. Army Band Tuba-Euphonium Conference as a soloist. Not with the band or orchestra, mind you, but with the Army Blues, the smoking-hot jazz band at Ft. Myer. Everybody in town could play concertos better than I could, but they weren’t exactly lining up to get with the Blues.

I was so excited that she wanted to write something, I couldn’t pick a song for her to set up. I sat on it for days. Seriously, pick one song? I couldn’t do it. I let her pick, and she chose “Pennies From Heaven.” Great song. I am the luckiest tuba player on Earth.

She wrote a killer chart, I played it with the UMJE, it’s a winner. I asked her if she had any other features that would work for tuba. Why, yes, she wrote herself a bari sax feature on “Cry Me A River.” All of a sudden, I’m burning down the internet, finding other charts to adapt for tuba and big band.

I was fortunate enough to appear as a soloist with the Army Blues twice, and also work on stage with the Army Blues Swamp Romp, a NOLA-style band put together by Army Band members Graham Breedlove and Harry Watters. These were some of the coolest jobs I ever played in uniform. Any time you get to work with your colleagues in the other service bands, it’s a wonderful experience. For a classically trained tuba player, to go hang with the Army Blues… it’s an unparalleled opportunity.  Leigh put me on the track to do this, and gave me a huge head start in the process.

Now, just so you know how crucial all of your connections are in the music business, here’s how Leigh Pilzer came through for me again, in a big, big way. I heard this story from the other members of the Bayfield Brass Quintet, with whom I have played tuba for 15 years.

Way back when, after Bayfield’s previous tuba player had left the group, they were looking for someone who was comfortable with their jazz and pops books, most of which had been arranged by the trombonist, Rhoades Whitehill. Rhoades was the lead trombonist for the Navy Commodores, another of the premier military jazz bands, and his quintet charts are awesome. In search of their new regular tuba player, the group had lined up a series of subs for a series of gigs.

After one gig that didn’t go particularly well, the guys got together for beers afterward to talk things through. They brought some friends, and called up some other friends, just to come hang out, and they eventually got around to talking about finding other tuba players.

One of the trumpet players, Dan Orban, had just joined the Marine Band a few months earlier. He offered to the rest of the quintet that there was this guy, in the Marine Band, who he’d heard was playing Dixieland gigs around town. He threw my name out, but none of the military band guys there really knew who I was.

Well, Rhoades had called his buddy Chris to come have a beer, because Chris lived close to the bar they had chosen. Chris came out and brought his wife, Leigh. That’s right, Leigh. That Leigh. There’s a table full of military band guys sitting around talking about tuba players, and the person with the least to add to that discussion is the one civilian there, the lady who plays  jazz saxophone.

My name gets mentioned, and Leigh speaks up. “Tom Holtz? I know Tom Holtz. He swings his ass off.”

I owe you, Leigh.

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.”

“The Picture”

If I have to pick just one picture of me playing the horn to represent me for the rest of my days, this is it. This is it whether I like it or not, because everyone I know would call me out for not choosing it. This picture has been everywhere and back. From my perspective, it seems like about one-third of all musicians who have any kind of electronic device have this picture on it. I knew the moment that I saw it that it was an epic success.

The funeral ceremony to which we were tasked wasn’t the least bit unusual other than the fact that it was snowing. It was a perfectly average ceremony. The weather was just right, though, for these conditions. The snow fell through warmer air so it was wet and heavy, but landed in colder air so it stuck to the metal horns instead of just melting off. We collected snow as we marched along the route and collected more as we stood in formation.

When we were finally released and marched back to our buses, Cameron and I just shook our heads at how we looked. I begged for anyone to produce a phone with a camera so we could preserve this. Matt Summers put down his euphonium and pulled out his phone. Rather than take a picture of us with buses, people, and civilization in the background, he moved us around so we had nothing but white, Arctic desolation behind us. I tried to keep a neutral gaze toward the camera, while Cameron put on the bitter-old-man face. The tattered music he’s holding still slays me to this day. A thousand funerals, and he doesn’t trust himself to have three minutes of music memorized.

It was hard as hell to get those horns off. The snow was not only on the tubas, but on our sleeves and shoulders. It was twice the weight we were used to, and we were cold and aching. We forgot all about that once we saw the picture. Matt was e-mailing that thing around as soon as we were on the bus. It was the wallpaper on the computer monitor in the lounge for, I don’t know, six years or something. It’s been referred to as “The Marine Band’s Iwo Jima Memorial.”

That funeral ceremony was totally ordinary, but this picture looks like the story should start with, “Oh my God, that job was so bad…” In fact, I can’t remember anything about that funeral, but this picture reminds me of countless other moments in the Marine Band, and never fails to spark a story about one of them. It really is worth a thousand words.