“Have we been paid?”
To a musician, this question can mean one of two things. Prior to the gig, it translates to a simple financial inquiry. If asked by a band member during the gig, however, especially if casually whispered mid tune, its connotations become exponentially more ominous. The query is a musician’s equivalent to NASA’s “Houston we have a problem,” a pilot’s “assume crash positions,” or your doctor’s “get your affairs in order.”
The question signals that an incident of some magnitude is smoldering, the catalyst of which is undoubtedly band-related. As with arterial bleeding, response time is critical, and no band leader worth his salt wastes a moment trying to figure out what Fabergé Egg may have been shattered, Persian rug splattered, or designer wedding cake or bridesmaid upended. Triggered by an instinct more primal that fight or flight, the leader will immediately focus on the single imperative of finding the host, getting paid and getting out before getting discovered. Sorting out facts, establishing plausible deniability, and penning a well-crafted letter of apology are follow-up strategies typically addressed only after the check has cleared.
Fortunately, tracing the root cause of a calamity to the band is rarely immediately obvious, a fact which leaves ample time for the level headed to ensure a fully paid egress. At the black-tie event at a mansion in Atherton, for example, a psychotic terrier leaped onto the lavishly adorned table, ran its full length, upended fine China, candles, floral arrangements and several carafes of rare Merlot before leaping into its owner’s lap at the head of the table. As the hostess swirled in the confusion of the moment, there was more than enough time to graciously accept payment, shake hands, and drive off before the smoke cleared and the circumstantial evidence placed our sax player with the dog and the laundry basket seconds before the mutt’s rampage.
Two things set apart an illustrious fund raiser back in the fall of 1985. First, and for only the second time in the band’s history, we were broadsided after the gig was officially over. We were packed up and the host had just stepped away to grab his checkbook. We were minutes from “all clear” and home free. Second, all of us witnessed the event unfold in real time, a convergence as shocking and calamitous as the sudden appearance of an iceberg one degree off the Titanic’s starboard bow.
The extravagant black-tie fund raiser was held at one of the San Francisco peninsula’s premiere golf and country clubs which, outside of its cleaning crew, was not recognized as a beacon of cultural diversity. The event itself was diverse only in that it brought together an intimate tapestry of socialites, local sports celebs, and technology pioneers at a time when the valley was still transitioning from apples to silicon. The gala included a 6-course meal preceded by a wine tasting that featured several individual bottles each worth more that it cost to hire the band for the entire evening. From hors d’oeuvres and toasts, through the silent auction, crème brulee and Turkish coffees, we sailed through the night with the ease and grace of a Jobim Bossa Nova. We played. We smiled. We swung. We provided the perfect blend of instrumental and vocal jazz that was loud enough to be heard but not so loud as to be noticed. As directed, we took our 15-minute breaks in the bowels of the kitchen with unlimited access to soft drinks and turkey sandwiches.
In the wake of the coffees and the Cognacs, we had assembled our gear in the foyer and waited for the valets to ferry cars back to the guests before we gummed up the works loading our gear. We were talking amongst ourselves to the side a gargantuan vase that held bizarrely oversized bouquets of roses sculpted from glass and steel.
And then before one of us could scream ambush, a middle-aged male guest swaggered out of the main dining hall into the foyer. He had one arm in his overcoat and was working hard to navigate his other through the open sleeve when he locked onto us. He seemed to be searching for something as he looked us over one musician at a time. He swayed as if buffeted by phantom wind gusts. Then with a smile that suggested he had unraveled a great mystery, he singled out our bass player, one of two black musicians in the band and the most formidable of any of us, standing about 6’7” with the weight and build of a seasoned athlete. The guest rifled through the pockets of his tuxedo, grabbed a set of keys, took a few steps forward and shouted, “Hey boy. Fetch my car. I gotta take a leak.” He tossed his keys to our bassist and then staggered toward the men’s room off the main hall.
As his propensity for pacifism briefly wrestled with his zero-tolerance for racism, he initially didn’t respond. We stared at him quietly as if a lit fuse had just burned its way into a stick of dynamite without so much as a puff of smoke. When he tossed the keys into the massive vase and walked toward the men’s room, the drummer asked me if we had been paid yet. It was the sax player who asked the follow up question of “do you think we can make bail?”
When I got to the men’s room, our bassist held the guy by his lapels. He had lifted him a few inches off the ground and pinned him against the marble wall of one of the stalls. The guy had raised his hands out over his face and was looking down toward the floor speaking remarkably clearly and rapidly. Anticipating a blow to the head, he was racing through a litany of apologies that covered his being a major asshole, not knowing what he was thinking, drinking too much and being ashamed of his behavior. Then, still airborne and babbling, he reached into his pocket, grabbed his wallet and started pulling out bills.
“Really. Please. Take it. I’m so sorry,” He said. “Keep it or share it with the rest of the kitchen staff.”
Antithetical to the way we sometimes ended tunes, the band had worked in perfect unison while we were in the men’s room. By the time our bassist had left and I had convinced the shaken, stewed, but otherwise unharmed suicidal idiot to take his time washing up, the guys had our cars packed, and we were ready to roll.
I met the host on my way out. He handed me a check and a generous tip. He told me we had been amazing, set the perfect mood and added that barely anyone had known we were even there. With the Darwin Award nominee recovering in the men’s room plotting a hurried exit that would steer him well clear of the kitchen crew, we were home free.