I was languishing in my Tokyo hotel room with three days off, eight weeks into a thirteen week Far East tour, too lazy to practice, and too hazy to dope out the complicated looking TV remote controller, settling instead on watching the channel I was stuck on. For the life of me, I was unable to surmise what the objective might be on the wacky game show I’d been drawn into. From what I could gather, a woman contestant was challenged to remove one article of clothing after another, each article chosen arbitrarily by a panel of 4 giggling adult men.
As the dermal coverage grew increasingly scant, in fact, shrinking to such a scandalous state that the obfuscating fingers of the blushing beauty remained modesty’s final line of defense, Joe G. my trumpet section mate (with the Liza Minnelli band) knocked on the door. I let him in and, breathless, he began excitedly detailing his scheme. We were to depart the hotel at once, leap onto the next bullet train headed for Hamamatsu, and then strut confidently into the Yamaha Musical Instrument factory, explaining to them just how important we thought we were.
As they stumble over each other, trundling out palettes stacked high with trumpets for our delectation, we narrow the aggregate down to the two finest of the bunch. After they’ve cleared away the rejects, the engineers, factory craftsmen, and executives huddle together in discreet consultation until the top exec presents the trumpets to us, as gifts, in profuse gratitude for offering our time and expertise. Along with these trumpets comes an exclusive, lifetime Yamaha endorsement contract, which naturally includes free trumpets for life.
As impetuous as Joe could be, I had to admit that his idea was not half bad. After all, we were on tour with one of the greatest entertainers to ever tread the boards. Each of us had been chosen by Liza, personally, to accompany her all around the world, and that was no small honor. Yamaha was undoubtedly on the prowl for busy, professional trumpet players in visible positions to display their horns in action all around the world. The more I mulled it over, the more I realized that we must be pretty damned good trumpet players to be where we were.
Yamaha had only lately begun manufacturing pro-quality trumpets, and had recently stepped on the gas, determined to gain higher prestige in the market, which to that point had been dominated by a small handful of stalwarts. (And there’s nothing more irritating than a handful of stalwarts.) We would, most likely, never again find ourselves in a more advantageous position to make a move.
I felt it necessary to inform Joe that dropping in on them unexpectedly would put them at a disadvantage, leaving them wholly unprepared to perform their traditionally elaborate welcoming ceremony, typically reserved for visiting dignitaries, a tradition the Japanese take great care and pride in preserving.
I proposed instead, calling them with the news of our impending appearance, giving them ample time to drill the staff on protocol, clean and press their dress whites, and apply a bit of spit and polish to their shoes. In addition, I pointed out that we, too, in all fairness, should make an effort to spruce ourselves, possibly arranging a confab with the hotel tonsorial staff for a trim and a close shave. I also suggested liberating our suits from their Samsonite tombs and dropping them at the concierge desk for reanimation. Joe ran off to prepare as I picked up the phone and firmly directed the hotel operator to get me the President of Yamaha Musical Instruments on the line, chop chop.
There was silence for a moment before someone answered with, “Hello, Yamaha International, how may I direct your call?”
“Yes, hello, may I speak with the special events manager, please?” I said crisply.
“Is this a catering company? We already have in-house food services.” she answered, politely. I laughed ironically, my tone aimed at ridiculing her assumption.
“This is hardly about something as mundane as catering.” I said, sneering at the phone, before realizing the futility in doing so.
“I’m calling on behalf of two artists scheduled to perform with Liza Minnelli at Suntory Hall in three days. They desire a visit to the factory where they will make themselves accessible to Yamaha trumpet craftsmen, with the hope that they might be matched to an instrument befitting their skill.” I said, warmly.
“Please hold. I’ll transfer you.” she said. Why she hadn’t simply hung up on me following that last bit of pompous twaddle, I’ll never know.
“Yes, this is Ken-zo. Who am I speaking with, please?” came an authoritative male voice.
“Hello, my name is Ross Konikoff and I was wondering if my colleague and I, trumpet artists on tour with Liza Minnelli, might visit your factory tomorrow and try some of your instruments.” I said, cutting right to the bone.
“Trumpet artists? Do you play them or draw them?” he asked, with more than a hint of sarcasm, slashing away at my pretense with his Samurai tongue.
“We…uh…play the trumpet in Liza’s band.” I clarified, my ears now visibly pinned back against my head.
“Oh you do, do ya? Well…what’s your ETA?” he asked, corporately.
“Our train arrives at 12:30, and a taxi should deliver us to your door at about 1:00 p.m. Is that agreeable?” I asked.
“I suppose so. I’ll arrange for someone to meet you in front of our main building at 1:00 p.m. tomorrow.” he answered.
“Domo arigato, Ken-zo San,” I said, in my perfect Kanto region dialect, impressing him beyond words. Then I closed with, “Ja mata.”
“Yeah…see ya later.” he said, impressing me with his equally flawless Brooklyn dialect.
I learned subsequently that Ken-zo turned out to be, Ken Sew, shortened from Sewinski (not him, his name) a Polish trumpet player from Flatbush, brought over to work in the Artist Relations department. At any rate, following a brief exchange with the concierge, arrangements were made to procure two railway tickets, and the grift was underway.
The next morning Joe and I met in the lobby, dressed to the nines, wearing our black suits and black shirts, hair slicked back, looking like two Italian pimps. We jumped into a taxi, quickly arriving at the station, where we found our railcar, sat back in our first class seats, and then spent the next hour luxuriating in the quiet comfort of the speeding Shinkansen.
When we arrived in Hamamatsu we taxied to the Yamaha factory where, as promised, we were greeted by a party of three impeccably attired gentlemen, bowing respectfully as we approached. Joe and I attempted to mirror their greeting, but instead, more closely resembled seven year olds, bowing at the conclusion of their grade school tonette recital.
We were led to a waiting car and driven a short distance to a small sushi restaurant for tenderizing. Immediately after being seated on floor cushions around a low table, the sake began flowing freely. I decided to forego the booze since my ability to assess the quality of a trumpet is keener when I’m not loop legged from lunch. Joe, who happens to love sushi, while I happen to not, held himself to no such restrictions.
We spent a relatively uncomfortable hour sitting on the floor, playing hide and seek with chunks of Amaebi, Hamachi, and an unusually outsized portion of Uni (Gonads of Sea Urchin). Never big on gonads, even as a child, I managed to sneak each and every nad, along with the other finny sea denizens, over to Joe, who was now consuming enormous quantities of fish at an alarming rate, downing each piece as quickly as I could slide it onto his dish.
I managed all of this while diverting the attention of our hosts by inquiring as to the names of the various musical instruments mounted on the walls. The bamboo flutes, stringed instruments, and small hand drums, provided for plenty of diversionary small talk while I watched Joe out of the corner of my eye, washing down each chunk with a hefty quaff of sake. The result of this deception was that, by day’s end, Joe had gained three pounds and sprouted a dorsal fin from his back, while I teetered on the brink of coma, having ingested nothing more all day than the splinters from a chopstick I’d gnawed on throughout the meal, in an effort to disguise the noises coming from my growling stomach.
As Joe lumbered, and I stumbled, we made it out to the car and back to the factory where we were led into a large room, lined along the walls with tables. Standing next to the 16 trumpets lined up on the tables, stood a dozen people, ten dressed like engineers, in white lab coats, one dressed like an executive, in a dark suit and tie, and his pretty, young assistant, dressed like a pretty, young, assistant.
The exec gestured toward the instruments, indicating that it was time for us to put our yen where our yaps were. Joe and I each picked up a trumpet and went to town, playing the loudest, highest, fastest, and most dazzling licks we knew. Then, moving on to the next horns, we played even louder, higher, faster, and more tastelessly than before.
By the time I had tried all 16, giving each a stratospheric workout, I felt as though Godzilla had punched me in the mouth. Unfortunately, none of the trumpets matched the high quality that American manufacturers had achieved.
Despite this unfortunate truth, Joe and I each chose one that played the closest to good, and indicated that those were our favorites. We continued playing, but more softly, allowing them a moment to discuss how to go about formally presenting us the trumpets as gifts. Finally, the exec walked over and thanked us for evaluating their trumpets and informed us that he wished to present us each with a gift. As we licked our chops and extended our arms outward in anticipation of receiving our instruments, he suddenly turned to us again and asked,
“Who you pray with?”
“Riza….I mean…Liza…Minnelli…..the singer ….actress?…Academy Award winner…” stammered Joe, nervously.
“Who she?” he asked, straight faced.
I quickly chimed in, trying to bail out poor Joe who was now left dangling in the breeze.
“Cabaret?…What gooood is sitting, alone in your rooooom?…..New York, New York, My…little town…bluuuuuuuues” I said, until finally giving up, my pathetic singing voice fading to a hoarse whisper. He stared at us with a blank look on his face for a full ten seconds before turning back to his assistant. He took two tiny boxes from her, and then walked back to us, handing each of us a box.
“On behalf of Yamaha,” he said, “we thank you for your visit and your evaluation. Please come back and visit again on your next tour.”
Flashing us a big, phony smile, he bowed cynically, (it’s hard to describe, but you’ll know one when you see one) and then walked away. His assistant led us to the front entrance where we waited uncomfortably for a car to reunite us with the train. There we stood, grasping our little white boxes in our little white hands, our imaginations running wild, pondering what might possibly be inside those boxes. Given that the pair of us had practically been given the bum’s rush, I could only surmise that inside was either a discount coupon for Tokyo Disneyland, or an exploding cigar.
We forced painful smiles as we waited, and when the car finally pulled up, pushed each other aside, fighting to be the first one in, our tails tucked between our legs. Joe slammed the door shut, we waved goodbye, and the car sped away. The moment we pulled up to the train station, we jumped out, waited for the car to disappear from sight, then tore into our little gift boxes, discovering inside, a 79 cent felt tip pen with a Yamaha logo on the side. We both let go with a string of expletives, directed at no one in particular, but with the realization that we was had.
Yamaha, having seen us coming from a mile away, and then pretending to have no idea who Liza was, or any knowledge of our impending show in Tokyo, qualified them for an Academy Award. Inscrutable? And how. They’d played us like a pair of Stradivarius violins, with infinitely more style than we had demonstrated with our bush league flimflam. In our vast ignorance, we had viewed them as a startup trumpet company, when in fact, Yamaha had been in business since 1887, successfully chewing up and spitting out opportunists like us for over 100 years. It must have been great sport for them, using Joe and me to perform the traditional Japanese Tea Ceremony, steeping the two of us in the scalding waters of humiliation.
We sat quietly on the ride back, occasionally looking down at our promotional pens, with the black Yamaha logo emblazoned against the gold background.
“If I never see another fish again, dead or alive, it’ll be too soon.” moaned Joe, holding his stomach in distress.
“And if I never see another trumpet…same thing.” I moaned, my hands shaking, having starved all day.
We’re all familiar with the phrase, “There is no free lunch.” Ironically, the lunch was the only thing that was free. I hoped we’d come away from this vain stunt with something more lasting than a mere souvenir pen, if only a reminder that pride was the first sin to destroy the calm of eternity, that pride was what cast Lucifer from heaven, and that it was pride that cost our first parents their place in Paradise. More calamitous than any of those three, however, was that pride had cost us $250 each, humiliation in Hamamatsu, a torturous ride-of-shame back to Tokyo, and, in Joe’s case, a gut-full of gonads.
Carl Jung wrote, “Through pride we are ever deceiving ourselves, but deep down below the surface of the average conscience, a still, small voice says to us, something is out of tune.” * It may be true that we had deceived ourselves, at least to a certain degree, but that “still, small voice” that said something was “out of tune,” was right on the money. It was those damned Yamaha trumpets, and all the free sushi and sake in the world won’t convince me otherwise.
“Endorse This” is an excerpt from You’ve Got to be Carefully Taut © 2016 by Ross Konikoff. Available at Kindle Books: www.amazon.com/Youve-Got-be-Carefully-Taut-ebook/dp/B01FOR48XI.
Writer/Jazzman Ross Konikoff has played trumpet for Buddy Rich and Liza Minnelli. In addition to You’ve Got to be Carefully Taut, his previous book of humorous essays, Breaking Even Every Time, is available in a Kindle edition at Amazon.com. He and his wife Deborah Grisorio live in Manhattan.
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