Quaint ramblings and occasional reflections of a journeying Aussie musician...

16 April 2007

Hidden London: The Black Gardenia

....on the homeward journey from faraway teaching, Instead of alighting at the usual Kings Cross I decided to take the Vic line one stop further to Euston and walk back up. My new little acquisition, the iPod, had me in a total vibe with the Kurt Rosenwinkel album Heartcore, and as I floated up the gentle slope and back into the purple dusk of the Crescent, I really felt like I was heading All The Way to Rajistan....
....a little later, standing in the curry section of the local Sainsburys, deciding how lazy I really was going to be on an evening at home, listening to albums, writing some tunes, the mobile rings and it's Zimon, owner of the Black Gardeina, a little place I've been playing at recently. It's 8pm, and I should have picked what was about to happen...
"Mike, it's Zimon."
"Orright mate."
"Orright....er, listen, Mike are you gigging tonight?"
A chuckle - I couldn't help it...
"No, what's up?"
"How would you like to do a gig with Jake, with Jake's band?"
"Yeah sure! What is it?"
"Well, it's weirdo soundtrack blues he'll explain it when you get here. Listen, just forget everything you've ever learnt about music and, well, take it from there really."
"Sure, no worries. What time?"
"Well, when you get here I guess..."
"Er, sure....see you later then."
"Cheers Mike, see you later on."
Wikkid! I get to try out my new organ module. The Nord Electro is really changing my life....after two years of doing hotel gigs on real pianos, I'm getting less enamoured with the idea of playing a piano sound on a keyboard. I'd rather play a really good electromechanical instrument synthesis, which is where this little magical red box comes in. Plug it into the MIDI slot on your keyboard and you're away, virtual organ synthesis, and it sounded like a gig where you could do whatever the hell you liked!
So I took a bolognese home and inhaled it and then jumped a black cab with all the gear (including tux and hat) and zoomed into town.
The Black Gardenia, at 93 Dean Street Soho, is not your average club. Staff are all in vintage 40s swing rockabilly gear, and there's always some Fats Waller record on in the background. The cab pulls up out front and I greet one of the waitresses on the footpath, tending to some sort of Chinese garden-looking ornament.
Zimon and Ronnie are there at the top of the stairs - Zimon, the owner of the place, is like a tall lanky Chet Baker, smooth talker, tangental...Ronnie's in fine form - pork pie hat, pencil mo, gold chains, black and yellow hawaiian shirt (?), tattooed arms and chest - and some of the nicest guys you've ever met.
I limp in with the gear and meet Jake - gelled quiff, refrigerator size, immaculate yellow zoot suit jacket, keychain made of dice, didn't say much in the lead up. Near to where the band sets up is a mirror wall and a 9mm projector playing "Sweet Sweet Back's Bad Ass Tale" onto an old LP inner taped to the mirror. Here we go!
I'm unravelling the various cords and leads and Jake comes over and says, "I'll just call out the feels, like blues or tango, yeah?" And at once I realised that was the entire sum of musical direction I was to get for the evening. "Yeah sure, no worries!"
Denna, the barmaid, is looking gorgeous as ever I must admit....big black hair, beauty spot, cherry red lipstick and all those curves in all the right places. And I just can't muster up that flirtatious talk that I see the bodgy slick haired older drummer doing later on, with her posing in all the right ways in front of him....
Bass and trumpet arrive a while later, dressed entirely vintage, for the part, nice guys, equally mystified as to what we're to play.....more time passes....'Fever' strikes out from the desk and one of the more gorgeous women floating around earlier starts the strip show for the evening.....it just gets better!
So finally it's time to play and yes it's as random as hell. I suddenly become the musical director - one of those things where as long as bass and organ agree on a chord then it's stay on the groove while Jake vibes over the top.....this is one of those gigs where there are absolutely no musical concerns whatsoever, so it's performance time! And I'm on ripping organ and loving it, churning out all those slides and trills and blues licks that everyone loves and the place is packed and people are dancing....
This is it! These are the gigs I've been craving, after two years of playing stale pianos for fat city boys and their trophy wives talking about their chateau in St Moritz while drinking 15 quid champagne cocktails....it's down and dirty and people are in funny costumes and there are girls gyrating and this is the place I should be, that I want to be....."with those of my kind / Libations, sensations, that stagger the mind..."
Speaking of which, I managed to scam about a bottles worth of house red out of the bar across the course of the evening, but there's no qualms over that - I've done some other last minute work for these people recently and I think they might respect that.
So it comes pay time finally and Jake hands me the notes and they look a little short. I'm pretty sure I got shonked last weekend and so the money nerve is still feeling a little raw and without catching myself I say, "Oh, I thought it was 50, it's always been 50," and Jake is like, "Oh, I'm only getting 30," and shows me his bills....
Ah shit, I missed it! I wasn't actually being shonked here, I had a cash employer who was actually honest and open....damn. And then later on he comes up to me with another tenner! That's how nice these people are....
I spend the rest of the evening propping up the bar with Paul, a partner in crime from recent excursions down there and the talk goes to standards and old films and the musos we love. The place closes and we decide to stagger on to Gerrys, the private club two blocks down the road through which I kinda ended up doing these gigs.
More on Gerrys later....closer to Shaftsbury Avenue, it's an old thespian hangout.....been down there with B, a sax playing friend of mine, and say hello to all the regulars, but it's thinning out there as well....eventually realising how incredibly drunk I was, I take my leave and find the last place open in Chinatown. I think it was that Szechuan Beef with all that hangover preventative chilli that saved me the next day, as I staggered back to Tottenham Court Road and caught the 29, the 'free' bus, up the old main drag and back to the flat, wading through the brown of a braindead dawn....

10 April 2007


Wed arvo, bout 6ish....

Home, washing dishes....Housemate P comes home....hello how are you fine...."I think we should take it in turns to pay the rent. Can you take care of it tomorrow?"
Our landlord comes to pick up the one cheque from us every month, meaning one of us has to write a cheque to him and collect three cheques from the other housemates. For our entire time this has been Phil's job but for some reason he doesn't want to do it anymore, and it doesn't seem open to discussion for some inexplicable reason. For our entire time here I have taken care of three (i.e most) of the bills and J does a lot more cleaning than she should.
"Actually P I'd appreciate it if you took care of it."
"Yeah well I think we should take turns."
"Yeah but I take care of three bills..."
"Yeah but you don't have to do it very much."
There it is, at a volume a little louder than mine, very quickly, and a final statement, one that leaves no opening to discussion. And the response from your correspondent? Silence.
Why would I step up to the plate over something so trivial? And of course before I have time to respond, in that second of deliberation, P leaves, and that old feeling of frustration and tiredness arises.
Great, I'm about to have a row with my housemate. This is SO NERVERACKING AND BORING AT THE SAME TIME, a recurring theme in my sharehousing experience, and at the risk of self-righteousness, it's never been me. I've never given any reason for anyone to give me any grief in the sharehousing situation. But then, it's not about me. It's always been someone else - everything's putting along hunky dory and then someone decides to be lazy and self-centred and the rest of us have to put up with it.
And then things started to shift. Row with housemate will turn into awkwardness will turn into eventually moving house. Yeah, moving out of here, as much as I've loved living with these guys, but times will change, and soon, and the knowledge of that.....the weather here is finally turning, finally emerging from the miserable winter and the freakish multipolar nature of the last month and the warmth is settling in, solid, somehow reliable for a time, so I opened the window, let in a little of the Camden breeze, put on a couple of Bjork albums and started tidying my room.
And I mean, tidying...digging out an old box full of rubbish, holding stuff still from my last relationship, the whole catalyst for my coming over here....digging out these old things from the past, sorting, throwing away......I must have spent at least four hours in there and made some progress....

I come back from a gig later on in the night and a cheque is left for me by P and a note....."Sorry (ever the Brit), but I think we should take turns, like I said, next time it'll be my turn."
Well, am I going to sit here and let these people walk all over me like I've always done? You know what I could do? I could take this cheque and knock on his door right now and tear it up in front of his face and call him names, but in the interests of housemate co-operation, like I've always done, I'm going to acquiesce on this occasion. I'm just going to swallow it and do it and take the cheque and be done with it.
But this won't rest. Not this time. I've put up with friends and lovers letting them walk all over me because it's easier, because I'm trying to think of their best interests over my own. And even if it is simply a voicing of opinion over something so trivial, it's an important step.

Thursday night, park up from Charlie Wrights, Hoxton, about 5 am

It was a huge night at the local Thursday hang, at least two birthday parties I was aware of, wall to wall people.....the jam started, it was free, sax bass and drums, no chords, and there was a ring of about thirty people standing solidly around the band checking it out, and apparently someone was in the middle dancing. Damn I love this place!....
So later on a hard core few of us (about 20 I guess) spill up the road to the 24 hour off licence and the local park, and there I am, the sky lightening it's blue, propping up the garbage bin talking to this girl who I've been talking to all night. There's a sense of relaxation and also of desire in her dark eyes....
"So I'm flying to New York tomorrow for three weeks."
"Wanna come?"
A moment of drunken thought....
"Yeah, sure, why not."
I couldn't believe that I said it. An almost total absence of deliberation. Things changing all right.
A smile from her.
A smile from me.
And then, a kiss! A beautiful drunken sweet kiss, right there as I'm leaning next to the garbage bin. How romantic!....

03 April 2007

Job Description

Thought some of you might get a laugh out of this....the twelve year old son of a family friend has an assignment due in a couple of days, a profile of a profession that he may want to pursue in the future, which at the moment happens to be 'musician' (crazy little feller!). I thought it might be entertaining to blog my emailed responses....I was surprised at how long it took me, as I really wanted to get it right for him. I also started wondering what I would have made of this if someone had told me all this stuff when I was twelve. I probably wouldn't have understood it really...

Questions for Michael:

Michael, as part of an assignment for school I have to look at a career that interests me. I have chosen a musician as I like music. Part of the assignment is asking some questions of someone who works in the area.

My Mum suggested that I ask you!

Did you have to go to TAFE or Uni. If so, for how long?

Yes. I studied at Australian National University in Canberra for four years, and completed a Bachelor of Music (Jazz Studies) with 1st class Honours in 2000

What age did you start playing at?

I started playing piano when I was seven years old.

Do you play in a band?

I have played in many bands over the years, but as I am a freelance musician, currently I am not a regular member of any band. At the moment though I am in the process of getting together a couple of small ensembles.

As a professional musician, is this enough to support you? (my mum suggested this one!)

Unfortunately no, although it possibly could in the future sometime (I hope!).

Have you always played the one instrument?

No. Through high school I played the tenor saxophone in a concert band, rock band and jazz ensemble and later studied it as an elective for two years at university.

What do you have to do in your job? What does your job consist of?

Being a freelance musician consists of many different facets, usually depending on what type of performances or ‘gigs’ you want to do and the style of music that you want to play. Types of gigs can vary wildly. They can be regular or one-off, and can range from a blues band in a club in a nearby city to a solo piano gig in a hotel just around the corner.
Meeting lots of people and making contacts among fellow musicians is very important as these people will hopefully hire you for their gigs and you will hire them for yours.
Freelance gigs usually fall into two groups; either you are hired by somebody or you are the bandleader and hire other people to perform with you.
When hired by somebody else to do a gig, you might be called by the bandleader, or you might be filling in for somebody else in an established band, which is usually called ‘depping’. Many different aspects of the gig need to be considered, including things like the style of music to be played, whether there will be a rehearsal, the time and location of the gig, what kind of band is playing the gig, what kind of musical equipment needs to be taken, appropriate dress, whether food and drink will be supplied, and of course the amount to be paid and method of payment, whether it is cash on the night or cheque.

The nature of many of the freelance Jazz gigs that I do is that sometimes the bandleader running the gig may not have a regular band or may require a different combination of musicians than what they’re used to playing with, which is why a long list of musical contacts is very useful. Often, because many freelance Jazz musicians know a generally similar repertoire, bands can be formed specifically for a particular gig, often with no prior rehersal. This can sometimes be a challenging situation, but also very exciting!

If YOU are the bandleader, then of course it is up to you to organize your band, keep a track of all those things involved with the gig and stay in contact with the people you have chosen for your band as well as the venue and the person who is paying you. Being a bandleader requires a lot of organization and phone calls but can often be rewarding.

Did you start playing at a young age? If so, did any of your friends play as well?

I started playing when I was in year 4, late primary school, and have been playing ever since, so yes, I suppose that was an early time to start! From what I can remember, none of my friends played piano at the time.

Do you have any tips for me?

If you stick with the music you love and work hard at playing it well, then you can’t go wrong!…

What is the best thing about playing music for a job?

Working long and hard on something that you love doing and being able to make money from it. Also, experiencing those moments where everything comes together, when you’re playing with a great band (or sometimes just by yourself) and the music sounds amazing, you’re able to make people in the audience feel something emotionally, and most importantly that you’re having fun with it.

What is the worst?

Sometimes as a freelance musician, if you are attempting to make a living solely off performing, then often you have to do gigs that you may not prefer to do, playing styles of music that you may not. But then sometimes that’s all part of the adventure…

Thanks Michael. Hope I can listen to you play one day. Luke PJ Smith