Wednesday, July 30, 2014


It's interesting how we get wrapped up in our own problems so much that we completely lose perspective on the truth. Many of us are living a dream life, and yet we spend tons of energy whining about problems which are so insignificant. It's not wrong to want more than you have, and it's not wrong to have ambitions and aspirations. However, lack of awareness of how good we have it prevents us from enjoying our brief time on earth, and it's also kind of insulting to those out there who wished they had our problems instead of theirs.

First of all, just in terms of basic lifestyle, I'm better off than I was 5 years ago. I have a steady job, and a pretty nice house. I have HEALTH INSURANCE! WHICH INCLUDES DENTAL! I live in a safe neighborhood, and the weather here is pretty mild compared to the East Coast. I have a loving family; my son is really thriving, as long as he gets his dinosaurs and Godzilla toys. We have access to all types of food and digital entertainment at the drop of a hat(well, we usually have to go somewhere for food. Delivery service in Portland isn't like New York). I'm not rich by any means, but where I live now kind of beats the tiny apartments in which I lived in New York in the 90's, not to mention the tiny row house in Columbia, Maryland, where I grew up.

My father's ancestors were Irish. If I was born 100 years earlier(1869), I'd probably be living in a tenement in New York, probably in the Five Points neighborhood. I'd likely be working on the docks, or in a sweatshop, or who knows, maybe I'd be in a gang. If I was born 50 years earlier, I might have joined the Army and fought in World War II. If I had been born 20 years earlier, I might have been sent to Vietnam. One thing I'll say about looking at recent history is that thank heaven that I didn't have to go to war. I hope my son never has to go to war.

Sure, I would love to have more gigs and I would love to see jazz musicians get better opportunities. I would love to be more recognized than I currently am for my artistic work. However, we jazz musicians need to put it all in perspective. Let's face it, even though conventional wisdom is saying our generation has it worse than previous generations, we have it pretty darn good.

My summer resolution is to stop whining so much about what's missing. I need to acknowledge what's great about my life. It doesn't mean I'll lose my ambition, or that I will stop thinking of ways to move forward. It just means that I will retain some balance in my view. There are people in other parts of the world suffering tremendously; they wished they had my problems. Think about them the next time you complain about how long the line is at Por Que No, or complain about something trivial. We don't even know how lucky we are.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Catching My Breath

Joe Manis and Nicole Glover at the Cathedral Park Jazz Festival
Hey everyone. Last week was incredible; we had our third successful "The Shed" PSU Summer Jazz Camp( partnering with the Portland Jazz Composer's Ensemble) featuring special guests Alex Norris and David Ephross, as well as Portlanders Darrell Grant, David Valdez, Javier Nero, Jason Palmer, Dan Balmer, and Ryan Meagher. It was a intense, full week of masterclasses, rehearsals, and jam sessions; 9 in the morning until almost 8 pm every night. I enjoyed hearing the students as well as the faculty, and we got some great positive feedback. Admittedly, there's no pleasing everyone, and a few folks had complaints, but this is to be expected; this is only our third year, and we are still learning. Nevertheless, it was by and large a positive experience and I look forward to next year's "The Shed."

It would have made sense to plan a weekend vacation in the Bahamas, but alas, I had 5 gigs scheduled for the weekend; three on Saturday and two on Sunday. Saturday started with playing keyboard on a 4 hour wedding gig with bassist Cary Miga's group; then I hightailed it over to St. Johns to play drums with Kerry Politzer, Jon Lakey, and Nicole Glover. I was supposed to play organ after that with Joe Manis, but there was an issue with the pay, so we decided to cancel. The gigs were part of the Cathedral Park Jazz Festival; it was supposed to be a sort of after hours series. I believe that the issue was that the cover charge would pay the band, but when the venue tried to collect a cover charge at the door, no one would enter the bar!  More on that in a minute.

Sunday, I got to play twice in a row on the big stage at Cathedral Park. It was really crowded and the weather was beautiful. First, I played piano with the Jeff Baker group featuring David Valdez, Thomas Barber, Jason Palmer, and Andrea Niemiec. After that, I sat behind the drums for a great set with my band Theoretical Planets featuring Nicole Glover, Joe Manis, and Jon Lakey. It's always great to play for a big crowd in a great outdoor venue. I was pretty much running on fumes after such a long week, but I left the festival satisfied and looking forward to a quiet week of relaxation.

Again, it's always great to play music, and the Cathedral Park Jazz Festival is a great institution which I hope will continue to exist. But there were two issues which I think are worth discussing constructively. One is the idea that musicians are supposed to be paid.  In the case of the Saturday night  gig, where no one would pay 10 dollars to hear music,  I don't blame the venue( which is merely a neighborhood bar) and I certainly have nothing but kudos for the organizers of the festival ( Mary Sue Tobin, Farnell Newton and Arthur Marx, respectively) who did a lot of work to keep the Cathedral Park Festival alive. I have been told that Portland has always been a town which has trouble getting folks to pay any sort of cover charge for music. I am constantly reminding people that in New York City, you basically cannot do anything without paying at least 20 dollars. Portland, you need to accept the fact that musicians need to get paid! When you watch how much money Portlanders spend on artisanal chili dogs and then people say a 10 dollar cover charge is too much, I get a little depressed, to say the least.

Another issue was the sound during the main stage concerts. I've had years of experience playing on stages with sound people of all types. It seemed to me, on Sunday, as though the atmosphere with getting the sound, as well as people on and off the stage and so forth, was a little tense. I tried to get what I needed in the monitors, and then I just put my earplugs in and tried to get through it. I did see that David Valdez was trying to get the mixing guy's attention during the set, and I could see from where I was sitting that the mixing guy was either not hearing David, or purposely ignoring him, which is really unprofessional, no matter how you slice it.

Sound people and musicians have to work to together respectfully; we know this! Musicians cannot be rude to sound people, and sound people need to respect us as well. It's a two way street, for sure. I know for myself, in the 20 years I've been traveling internationally, I always try to be as polite as possible to the sound guys, but sometimes things like quick stage changeovers can make the atmosphere tense.(Sometimes the language barrier can make it even more challenging!) I don't know what David Valdez did to make the sound guy think that he was being disrespected. Asking for certain specific sound things in the monitor or in the house, while possibly time consuming and annoying, is not disrespectful in and of itself. However, tit for tat on the part of the engineer in this case is just juvenile. I hope there will be a different, more cooperative and less egotistical sound company next time.

I'm reminded of the first tour I did with Cassandra Wilson in 1999. Our first performance was at the Ocean Blue Jazz Festival in Japan. I remember that there were probably 20 or 30 stagehands during the sound check. They were all sprinting back and forth across the stage, making sure every musician had what they needed to hear in the monitor, making sure musicians had water, towels, or whatever they needed for optimal performance. The next week, we were in Torino, Italy. I remember  for that sound check, there were 20 or 30 stagehands, all standing around smoking cigarettes..........

Sunday, July 6, 2014

True Stories

I remember my first trip to Japan with vocalist Vanessa Rubin. We stayed in Tokyo and drove outward to the suburbs for our concerts. Our driver wore a large black eyepatch. After a few days, I asked the promoter, "Can this dude drive with an eyepatch?"

 "Yes, of course, he is an excellent driver."

"Well….what happened to his eye?"

"…..Car accident."

I was invited to bring my band to a festival in Europe. Working out the details for this trip almost gave me a nervous breakdown. Among many other issues was the issue of bringing an upright bass. Most airlines do not accept basses anymore. I tried to explain this to the festival organizers.

" We cannot bring a bass, the airline will not accept the bass, so you will have to provide one."

"No, I'm sorry, we cannot provide a bass, so you will have to bring one."

" Uh, the airline will not let us bring one, so you will have to provide a bass!"

" I'm sorry, it's impossible. You can just bring one."

After much frustration, we ended up getting a friend of the bass player to drive a very long distance and let us use a bass. The kicker was that when we arrived at the venue, there was, in the dining hall, featured as part of the decor, a perfectly playable upright bass, just sitting next to the buffet.

I've performed in Russia a number of times. I've been fortunate to be featured as a band leader. It was interesting to know that at one venue in a small town, my name in Cyrillic was written as " Johnny McCloggin." I guess all Irish names sound alike to Russians.

I've been fortunate to fly business class to Japan a number of times. One time, before the flight took off, I decided to take a look at the First Class cabin. As I sauntered up to the entrance, a stewardess sternly said, "May I help you?" I guess I didn't look like First Class material! I said I just wanted to look. She smiled and agreed to let me bask in the glow of How The Other Half Flies. As I retreated back to my seat, the stewardess called out, "Better luck next time!"

I played  a week at Catalina's in Hollywood with Ravi Coltrane in 2001. One evening, I went to the club early to practice a bit. I noticed there was a table with a young man and an small, older woman sitting behind me. The woman turned out to be Zelda Rubenstein, an actress most known for her appearance in "Poltergeist." I sat down and talked to her for about 2 hours before the show started. After the energetic  first set, I went over to her table and sat down to talk to her, curious about her opinion of the music. "Wow, " she whispered, " that was really terrible……."

During my classical trumpet studies at Peabody Conservatory, I gave a recital at a church in Baltimore. I played a piece by baroque composer Henry Purcell. The edition of this piece had two versions in the same booklet-one for Bb trumpet (in the key of concert Bb) and one for D trumpet( in the key of D). I lifted my Schilke D trumpet to my lips and began to play the beginning of the piece. All of a sudden, I felt as though I was playing a work by Charles Ives. We stopped, and my accompanist whispered , "George , what is going on!" She was looking at the version for Bb trumpet! We sorted it out and finished the piece. I have to admit, the opening wasn't what what Purcell had intended, but it did sound kind of cool, in a bi-tonal sort of way.

I have a fond memory of a gig I did at Small's in the 90's. We were performing one of my tunes, and odd meter work entitled, "Spellbound." At the time, trumpeter Tommy Turrentine was living in a space right behind the piano. In the middle of the tune, Turrentine came out, looked around, and proclaimed, " I don't know what this is, but it ain't jazz!"