Tonight I’m playing sousaphone with the Blackbird Society Orchestra up in Bethlehem at the Bookstore, an authentic speakeasy. The Blackbird Society Orchestra is a traditional 20’s jazz band that I’ve been playing in for the past year and a half. It’s really fun to play that style music, and it gives me an excuse to get better at the sousaphone. At this point, I usually get 3-5 gigs a month with the group, and it’s becoming more and more steady. I’ve even gotten a few jobs from some of the other players in the band who need my services. This is all interesting to me, because before I started playing with them, I was hardly playing tuba at all for a few years.
The story of how I got to play with them is an interesting one. I was browsing Facebook one day and came across a photo of my friend Adam wearing a tux and holding his trimpet in a picture of the Blackbird Society Orchestra. Lamentably, they were using upright bass instead of tuba, so I jokingly commented, “where’s the tuba?” I also made a comment about Bix Biederbecke, whose music I played in college (if you don’t know who Bix is, start here and never stop). Later that day, I saw the band leader had responded to my comment and asked if I wanted to play tuba with them, and thus was born the first paying gig ever acquired via facebook photo comment. It turns out he thought I knew much more of the material than I actually did. At the first show I played, before every song he would ask, “do you know this one,” and after every song except one, I would say, “no.” Fortunately there were charts for all the songs, and I did well enough to be asked back and learn the material along the way. So it seems that this great opportunity has its roots in a chance encounter on Facebook.
However, that’s not the end of the story. Or rather, not the beginning of the story. See, I had only become friends with Adam 3 months earlier after taking what I considered at the time to be a questionable gig. A friend of mine had asked if I would fill in for his trombone player on tuba in his experimental jazz group at a showcase of experimental music in Brooklyn. He happened to catch me at a moment when I was feeling more adventurous about taking jobs, and even though I knew money probably wouldn’t materialize, I opted to give it a try. As is often the case with questionable allotments of my time, there were several moments of regret for having committed to it.
The players were fantastic. Adam was the trumpet player in the band, and when we drove up from Philadelphia to Brooklyn, we opted to drive together. The show was fun, though I had a moment of disgust with the management. As is often the case in NYC shows like this, the players were playing mostly for tips. I saw the manager of the venue pass the tip bucket around, take a few bills and put them her pocket, and then give the rest to the performer that was playing. I had no idea if that was just the way it was done in that establishment, or if there was something going on that I wasn’t aware of, but that’s just not done where I usually play. It also indicated that I probably would barely be making gas money back to Philadelphia. The whole thing seemed like a bad idea, and I was kicking myself for getting involved.
Turns out, though, that there were several good things that came from it. First, I met an avante-garde percussionist from Georgia named Caleb who put on an amazing show. We got to talking about our mutual classical backgrounds, and had a great conversation over avocado sandwiches. We still keep in touch, and I’d love to get him a show up in Philadelphia when I find the right venue. I also got to know Adam as we drove back to Philly at 2am, which is great since he’s such a cornerstone of the brass community in Philadelphia (besides being a great guy). And of course, that led to playing with the Blackbird Society Orchestra and its offshoot groups. Recently, I had an opportunity to play with Adam’s Balkan band, the West Philadelphia Orchestra, which I had been dying to play with for years now. I can trace so much of it back to that one questionable gig.
I suppose one could argue that the moral of the story is to take every opportunity possible, as it opens more opportunities for you in the future. After all, the cliche is true that you miss 100% of the shots that you don’t take. However, I’ve had plenty of opportunities that not only led nowhere, but sapped a great deal of my energy and dignity in the process. Sometimes, you have to listen to your instincts and turn the job down. The answer to the question of why I’m playing more in the past year or so than in the previous ten lies somewhere between wisdom and serendipity. Wisdom to recognize the ways that people and opportunities may connect meaningfully; serendipity that allows me to be in the right place at the right time. Finally, nothing gets done without the energy to capitalize on that wisdom and serendipity.
Hmm, I don’t know if that’s really a happy ending; more like an ambiguous one. So I’ll leave you with the latest picture of the Blackbird Society Orchestra, and you can see an important addition they’ve made since my last comment.