November 12, 2008

Oh, the musical memories ...

It was a terrific moment.

I had made the AYJB, the American Youth Jazz Band. The name is sort of a misnomer, actually. The band didn’t encompass youth from across America, but from the tri-state region: Delaware, southeastern PA and southern NJ. Still, I considered it quite an accomplishment. I didn’t make it playing my primary instrument, the tenor sax, having to settle – if “settle” is the correct term – for playing the baritone sax. This fact lessened my glee somewhat. I was, after all, a mere 155 lbs. back in the spring of 1982 (which at my current height of 6’3”, which I was back then too, means I was one lanky MFer!). The baritone sax is quite a large instrument. It’s heavy to carry around. I’d have to lug that around Europe along with my suitcase. That wasn’t gonna be a lot of fun.

Oh, did I mention the AYJB was going to tour Europe for three weeks? Yep. That’s what the AYJB had done for several years now. Led by band director supreme Hal Schiff (may he rest in peace), the band’s needs and tour was largely financed by an elderly woman (may she also rest in peace) from suburban Chester Co., PA who maintained the AYJB as her big philanthropist cause. The objective of the band was to spread [American] goodwill through music, in particular jazz (hence the band’s name) which many Europeans absolutely love – as I was about to find out.

Our first stop was Belgium, at a beach resort on the North Sea. OK, understand that I was only 17 at the time. This means in Belgium it was LEGAL to buy and drink beer. Uh-oh. Upon getting settled in at our hotel, a few bandmates and I promptly hit the pub. And Belgian brew is some of the finest in the world, natch. The people, though, weren’t all that friendly in Belgium.

Our concert that evening (at the same resort) started off rather “blah;” that is, people seemed disinterested. This was quite disconcerting for us youngin' jazz musicians. We certainly hoped this wasn’t going to be the case for the whole three weeks! Then, about a half hour into our set, we broke out the Big Band Era tunes – songs like “Cherokee” and “In the Mood” – and WHOA! All of a sudden the people came out of the woodwork to cut the rug! All us band-folk glanced around at each other is amazement … and our dispositions became quite gleeful just like that. Director Schiff told us after the show how hugely popular Big Band tunes were in the Old Continent. Now we knew.

Our next stop was Cologne, Germany. The people here were less friendly than in Belgium. We played our concert in the middle of the afternoon in the large town square, and there was hardly an audience. In addition, quite a few “burnouts” – drugged-out teen types – helped themselves to sitting on the stage with us, talking at normal loudness, completely oblivious to the fact that we were PLAYING music. The worst part came a bit later when we ended up being the targets for some teens (who weren’t on the stage) throwing coins at us! WTF?? I was glad to end that concert, needless to say.

If I already didn’t have a bad enough taste in my mouth for Germans, I REALLY did later that afternoon. Our main singer – an early 30-something black woman with a voice that’d give Anita Baker a run for her money – asked me to accompany her to do some shopping. The stares and gawks from the Germans were almost too much to bear. As badly as this affected me (hey, again I was only 17) I can only imagine how the singer felt. But she hid her misgivings very well, as did I, as best we could. It was shocking, really. Even though it was the early 80s, back in the States nothing like this would have come even close to happening, at least around where I lived.

Thankfully, Germany only took up two total days of our journey.

The bulk of our trip was covered in Holland, or, if you prefer, The Netherlands. Wow – what a change!! Unlike Belgium and Germany, the Dutch were EXTREMELY friendly and outgoing, and seemed to really dig Americans. At our first stop, a fellow sax player and a trumpet player stayed with me at a newlywed couple’s house. They agreed to house us because they were huge jazz lovers! I’ll never forget the husband’s first gesture (amazingly, he spoke little English unlike his wife … amazingly because every other Dutch person I know speaks it perfectly) was to offer my two bandmates and I a beer. “Sure,” we three said. He then opened up a WOOD CABINET and handed us three bottles of Grolsch. Yep – room temperature beer, folks!

And hey – what is the deal with water pressure in Europe?? It was a constant problem everywhere we went. Do Europeans have something against water pressure? This couple’s house in Holland was the worst by far. Taking an adequate shower was virtually impossible. That “Seinfeld” episode comes to mind when I think back to this house. Our hair looked quite similar to Jerry’s and co.’s …

The Dutch LOVE jazz. They love it. At least all the folks we encountered did. Band director Schiff took two days to teach jazz techniques at a local school while we were there. A local jazz band followed one of our performances while in one small town. It was “comical,” for lack of a better term, listening to the Dutch jazz band. The reason? Their technique was excellent, but they didn’t … “feel” the music. Their improvisation skills were virtually nil. If they weren’t reading the music they seemed “lost.” This was one of the reasons director Schiff was teaching those classes – to improve the concept of improvisation among Dutch jazz musicians.

At another town, my two roomies and I stayed at a house which had two grade school-age kids. One kid was a military fighter jet aficionado (he really knew his stuff) and he and I chatted for hours about various air force planes, past and present. The humorous part about staying at this house? When the mother of this abode washed our clothes, she dried them … by using a single light bulb. I s*** you not. She laid out our various garb on hangers, and dangling down right in the middle of ‘em all was a 100 watt light bulb. Needless to say, even after two days our clothes were still damp. My butt itched something fierce when I wore those jeans the next day!

Did I mention how awesome the Dutch were? In another town they gave us the equivalent of the key to the town. In yet another they gave a parade in our honor.

Then we went to Amsterdam…

I don’t think, in retrospect, that taking a group of mostly 17 year olds to one of the most … “progressive” cities in the world was a particularly good idea. The sightseeing was terrific – the canal cruise, the bridges, the cuisine, the Heineken brewery(!) – but then there were things like a Heineken vending machine in our hotel lobby, and a thing called the Red Light District which attracted the attention of numerous male members of our band (just to look, not touch, by the way!).

Our last stop was Luxembourg. The highlight here, if it could be called such, was visiting the American WW II Military Cemetery. General George Patton is buried here, and his grave is absolutely no different from that of any other soldier. The only thing that stands out about Patton’s gravestone is that it is set apart just a bit from the rest of the graveyard. The feeling of walking among the thousands of graves was … overwhelming. If you’ve seen the beginning of “Saving Private Ryan,” you might understand what I’m talking about. After a short while, I started welling up with tears. When I saw the first grave of a soldier from Delaware, I lost it. And I wasn’t the only one. Everyone in the band, upon reentering the bus to leave, had wet eyes.

Unfortunately, it was at this last stop of Luxembourg that I encountered the only real instance of anti-Americanism of the whole trip. Our last night in Europe, me and a couple bandmates hit a bar not far from our hotel. At first no one came to serve us. When one of our number flagged down a server, his attitude was shitty. He then came back to “inform” us that our beers were going to cost an inordinate number of francs, much more than what was noted in the menu. When we inquired why, we were told it was because “we were not regulars.” When we asked what that meant, he mentioned some term – a term we later found out was derogatory for “American.”

I’ll never forget that summer. It remains the only time I’ve been to Europe, though I hope to journey back sometime in the future, hopefully to Spain, France and England this time. I soon realized how fortunate I was to have gone on that trip as it proved to be AYJB’s last; our elderly philanthropist died later that year, and director Schiff began suffering from the beginnings of Alzheimer’s disease.

The alumni of the AYJB had actually played numerous concerts in Costa Rica the years prior to my membership in the group. Unfortunately, based on the events noted above, this, too, had ceased. But a Costa Rican gent who had traveled back with Hal Schiff in late ’81 had stayed and practiced with my AYJB for about a month before we had traveled to Europe. In what has to be one of the “WTF??”-type small world stories, when I went to study in Costa Rica in 1986, I actually ran into this guy – he was playing his sax with his own band at a local nightclub! He had begged me to pick up his sax and play a couple tunes with his band, but I was totally rusty and didn’t want to embarrass myself.

Alas, I sorta wish I had kept up with playing my sax. In high school I once won “Best Woodwind Soloist” at the Newark Jazz festival, and I played in a college band called “Why Not?” at UD, as well as a small stint in a UD jazz combo. Alas, other interests have taken prominence over the years, including a thing called “marriage” shortly after college.

And so it sits – a Selmer Mark VI tenor saxophone, in its case, in my basement, gathering dust.

Posted by Hube at November 12, 2008 02:13 PM | TrackBack

Comments  (We reserve the right to edit and/or delete any comments. If your comment is blocked or won't post, e-mail us and we'll post it for you.)

This is one of those times I regret going to a private schools - opportunities like this weren't made available to us. It sounded like a wonderful opportunity.

Those 2 big band songs you mentioned are both on my regular iPod playlist, by the way. Great taste.

Posted by: Bronwen at November 12, 2008 03:34 PM

Enjoyed this post, Hube. Surprised, though, that in the 80's you felt as you did about the stares given in Cologne. I got the impression you felt it was that you and your friend were of different races and yet even in the 60's I never found that to be so in Germany. Then again, perhaps it was more commonly seen and accepted where there were more military bases (US). Hope you get to make your trips in the near future. If you haven't been to Italy you might want to sneak that onto your list; Spain is terrific...wonderful people and I HOPE that when you said England you meant UK...not leaving out Bonnie Scotland! ;) At the risk of getting in trouble, the Scots are a lot more hospitable than the English...especially when it comes to music. True dat!

Posted by: Nancy Cleveland at November 12, 2008 04:56 PM

That's precisely the impression I got, Nance. Was I wrong? Could it have been merely b/c we were ... American? But how could they tell, really? (We weren't speaking very loudly among ourselves.) Is Cologne near a US base at all?

The cathedral in Cologne is stupendous. We were told that US troops were ordered not to touch it during the assault on the city during WW II. But you can still see char marks and pits all over its surface.

Posted by: Hube at November 12, 2008 05:08 PM

Obviously I can't say for sure, Hube, but the one thing I thought of as I read your post was the fact that you were American. Trust me, "we" can tell Amercians without hearing them talk ("we" being Euros...) or at least Scots can! There's a "look", even a walk. Believe this...even going into a cinema in Scotland we could spot (excuse me) 'yanks' because two, five or ten could all go together but they put one seat between each them. In orientation lectures when military arrive for a tour in a foreign country it's known as "the bubble". "We" (this we is us Americans, now) like our 3' of space. At least that's what we were told! If you had longish hair it could even have been that...I lived back home in the early '80's and the trend was short hair for males (unless punk). But I do believe there is an army base in or near Cologne. I honestly think it might have simply been you were spotted as being an American b/c, honestly, mixed races seen together was much more accepted in UK/Europe (even more so in Europe) and long before here.

Posted by: Nancy Cleveland at November 12, 2008 05:40 PM

Interesting, Nance. Thanks for the info. Perhaps my perception of that event has indeed been erroneous all these years.

Posted by: Hube at November 12, 2008 05:52 PM

I'll second Nancy's hypothesis. Europeans know how to pick out Americans pretty easily. As she said, we walk differently. My German friend told me another dead giveaway is that we wear sneakers.

Posted by: Paul Smith at November 12, 2008 09:14 PM