This was the band that I heard musicians in DC talking about, but I never got to actually hear the band. By the time I arrived in town, many of the members of the Buck Creek Jazz Band had moved to their homes across the U.S., and only got together at the big jazz festivals, which were usually out on the west coast. I only knew about them through a few borrowed recordings and what I heard from other guys on gigs. I knew they were really good, their arrangements were tight, and they had a huge book of obscure stuff from the ’20s and ’30s that nobody else had.
I first played with Buck Creek at a local event hosted by the Potomac River Jazz Club. The tuba player, John Wood, got stuck in Fresno, CA due to the airlines being shut down during the days after 9/11. I sight-read a slew of tunes I had never even heard of before, and was hanging on for dear life. It was the first time I ever worked with their drummer, Johnny Roulet, and holy smokes, could that guy lay it down.
I joined Buck Creek in 2004 after John Wood passed away, and I had to learn a whole slew of tunes in one big hurry. It took me that entire first year to grow into the core songs that Buck Creek played, and we barely scratched the surface of that book. I also had to get used to a new style of playing. John Wood had been a bass player, and he played four-beat walking bass all the time, unlike all the bandleaders in DC who wanted tuba players to stick to two-beat bass. I was playing a lot harder than I was used to, and it was a serious workout. That last set on Sunday, after three days of pounding… Oy vey.
What I wasn’t prepared for, in any way, were the fans of the band. Yes, the Buck Creek Jazz Band had fans, and lots of them. They had a loyal fan base out on the west coast, two thousand miles from the Springfield Hilton where the band cut it’s teeth and developed it’s style and it’s repertoire. All of a sudden, I wasn’t just responsible for playing tuba, I was responsible for getting out there between sets, talking to people who wanted to meet me, learning names, listening to stories, telling people about me, my family, the Marine Band, the Marine Band some more because people were really interested in that… You tend to miss some meal time, some nap time, some quiet time, because there’s chatting and socializing to be done. That’s part of the gig, a really important part where you have to give of your self. Sure, I would yap with people when I’m playing at a restaurant or a bar, but I’d never really been personally invested on that scale before.
That’s what “social networking” used to mean. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, all this stuff is easy compared to getting out there in a crowd, and earning fans that you keep forever.
There was this one elderly gentleman who could tell I was reeling on the bandstand from all the new songs and reeling off the bandstand from all the new faces. He saw me at a souvenir stand at whatever festival we were playing. He told me, “You need one of these,” pointing at a button, with a smirk on his face. I laughed out loud, and promptly bought it.
It read, “HELLO! I DONT REMEMBER YOUR NAME, EITHER.”
The real privilege of the festivals and cruises is hearing all these other great bands and musicians, and occasionally getting to play with them. The jam sessions, whether organized or impromptu, were some of the most rewarding music I’ve ever been lucky enough to play. I’ll always be grateful for the years traveling with Buck Creek for allowing me to meet so many great players. There’s some really crazy talent out there. The thing is, if you’re at a classical event, you’re not going to just bust out the horns and jam unless you’ve got a duffel bag full of folders and music stands with you. At a jazz festival, you just pull out your axes and play. When that happens, and people stop to listen because it’s good and they enjoy it, few things in life feel finer.