|The abbreviation of Northwest Airlines always makes me laugh.....|
I think everyone would agree that the experience of traveling by airplane has gotten more stressful in recent years. I don't mean the actual act of "flying"; it's still a statistical fact that flying is safer, and there are fewer accidents and hijackings than in previous decades (I'm fairly certain, but I don't have good internet access in this hotel, so I don't have the exact statistics). I mean things like the hassle and delay of the security line, especially since 9-11. Fuel prices are driving up ticket costs; booking at the last minute will cost you an arm and a leg. Seats seem to be getting smaller by the minute. Cost cutting takes away on board meals, blankets, pillows, movies, not to mention flight attendants' salaries, which makes them increasingly unfriendly.
I guess I'm starting to sound like Andy Rooney on 60 minutes.
But ask a musician and I think you'll find that especially for musicians, it's gotten to the point where I believe the airline industry is killing the ability for jazz musicians to tour. First of all, jazz music has featured the upright bass for much of the music's history. Many years ago, you could afford another plane ticket for a double bass, and you would strap it into a seat belt and offer it a cocktail. Ha! But later, when the seats started shrinking, then you could get a flight case and pay wildly varying overweight charges, or oversize charges, or both, depending on the mood of whomever was working at the check-in counter.( I heard a story regarding Mulgrew Miller's trio, traveling in Germany; the lady at check-in claimed that the charge for a double bass would be 100 Deutsche Marks. "Can you please check with your supervisor? Because that sounds very expensive," insisted Miller. When the lady returned, she confessed,"Yes, I made a mistake. It will cost you 400 Deutsche Marks!" So much for a second opinion…) Now it's virtually impossible to bring a bass. Many airlines just refuse to allow them. So most bass players end up playing rented basses of wildly varying condition.
You would think that the alternative was to bring an electric bass. Not so fast! Airlines are becoming increasingly jerky about how much you can bring with you into the cabin. Many airlines are strict about the size and weight. So unless you have a flight case for your electric, you might have a problem, as in checking the bass in a soft case at the last minute and risk damaging the instrument. And if you check it, it could be lost! This brings up the problem with other instruments. Sure, saxophone players and trumpet players could check their horn in padded flight cases in the cargo hold, but then what if they don't come out at the next city? (Which is all too common.) Then you need to borrow a horn anyway for the gig. Are horn players going to have to start asking for their instruments as part of the rented backline? Can you imagine Sonny Rollins having to play a different tenor saxophone on every concert of a tour?
Again, it seems like the official rules are according to the whim of the attendants, or even the security people. I was on a tour with trumpeter Ingrid Jensen years ago when one of the security men insisted that she would not be allowed to bring her trumpet , in the soft case, on board. "It will be damaged if I check it!" she exclaimed. The guy was a real ass about (which was surprising, since after all, it was in Canada!) , so she had to go back to the counter. However, the lady at the counter gave her a bag tag that approved it for the cabin, which was a relief, but quite an emotional roller coaster. It just seemed as though she was being treated like a criminal for bringing her instrument. It's struggle enough to book road gigs in the first place; is the simple act of traveling with your instrument to a gig have to become a consent humiliation?
I remember a few years after 9-11, I was in the U.K., traveling with bassist Buster Williams. Alto and soprano saxophonist Steve Wilson was in the band. He was nervous about bringing his horns through London Heathrow Airport, because they had been saying "one carry-on item only". But he had a printout from the airport website saying that musical instruments were allowed. Sure enough, we get to the security and this wanker is saying " Only one carry on, sir!" Wilson was shaking with anger as he pulled out the printout. "This is what a printed from YOUR website, saying we are allowed musical instruments." The guy insisted that we had to go all the way back through the airport and check the alto AND soprano, in soft cases, assuredly damaging them ( I was carrying the soprano, so as to make it as if we each had one instrument.) After a tense 10 minutes of arguing and asking to see a supervisor, it ended up fine; the supervisor agreed that the printed policy was indeed correct.
My question is, why should a great musician like Steve Wilson have to go through that humiliation? Did that wanker at security hate music? Did he have the common sense to figure out that we aren't traveling in the same way as people who are going to see their Aunt Sue in Chicago, or heading off to Gran Canaria to party all weekend: this is our livelihood, and our instruments, which we need to make music, are fragile enough to neccessitate bringing on board. It's frustrating as well, because they will ask you to check your instrument; meanwhile, you'll see somebody wheeling a huge suitcase on board that probably has a bunch of sweaters and hair gel inside.
Finally, the cost of overseas tickets is making it increasingly harder for American jazz musicians to work. We've already established that there isn't a ton of touring in the U.S.A., due to the fact that Americans are too busy worshiping Lady Gaga and Toby Keith. Our bread and butter for years has been Europe. I hear this more and more now that "we would love to bring you over to play, but we just cannot afford the plane tickets." So now European festivals and clubs are more and more ignoring American players. I've disputed the idea in the past that Europe is the new home of jazz, which is author Stuart Nicholson's view (in his book, Is Jazz Dead Or has It Moved To A New Address?). However, if we can't work in the U.S., and we can't afford tickets to Europe, then I see a problem. It used to be that promoters didn't want American musicians to LIVE in Europe, because they would become local, and therefore, less exotic. Do we HAVE to live in Europe just to make ANY gig at all?
So there's my rant for the day. I'm sure you might have an airline torturing a musician horror story to share. (Many of you heard about trumpeter Valerie Ponamarov having his arm broken by security in Paris after they hassled him about his trumpet, for example.) And yes, I am a fan of comedian Louis C.K., who, on the other end of the spectrum, talks about how we whine about what are ultimately minor inconveniences associated with air travel. ( " I had to wait 40 minutes on the runway!" " Oh MY GOD, 40 minutes? You should SUE them!" ) Be that as it may, I think my points are valid. Does the airline industry have it in for musicians, especially jazz musicians? Think about that while you listen to the in flight radio program on your next flight…..