Tempus Fudge It

“Oh, your life must be SOOOO glamorous!!”

Any full-time musician traveling to eke out a living has undoubtedly heard this phrase hundreds of times in response to the requested description of where they’ve been and where they’re going next. Any full-time musician reading this knows the bubbling statement above is four stars to the right of Neverland.

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This month’s column illuminates the fatuousness of the well-meaning enthusiasts’ viewpoint, while sharing a story that could only have happened in the PSM (Pre Smart Phone) era. To continue the allusion I started above, I’ll include the sound emanating from the belly of the Disney version of Captain Hook’s nemesis:

Tick…tock…

In the 1990s-2000s, the highlight of every July was a trip to perform in CA at the Mammoth Lakes Jazz Jubilee. I appeared there as part of the Titan Hot Seven and Ivory&Gold®. In 2002, Anne and I were invited to perform the Wednesday night opening in the upstairs bar at Whiskey Creek as half of a quartet Flossie and Ken Coulter, the Festival Directors, concocted called “JAMS.” The other half was comprised of another husband-wife team, our good friends vocalist SherriLynn Colby-Bottel and banjo/guitarist Matt Bottel, from the Blue Street Jazz Band. The name of the quartet came from the first initials of our names (Jeff, Anne, Sherri, Matt). After this gig, we reordered the names according to age and became JAS’M. We’d briefly tried going youngest to oldest (M’SAJ) but the calls we were receiving inquired whether we offered Shiatsu or hot stone styles, so JAS’M it would be.

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Having performed at the festival during the previous several years, Anne and I knew the SOP. We’d rise at 2 am EDT, fly the 6 am from Providence RI to Washington Dulles, connect to Reno, NV and drive the just-over three hours south to Mammoth Lakes, CA, arriving mid-afternoon, on this occasion to get organized for our 8 pm start at Whiskey Creek. What could go wrong?

Tick…tock…

The short flight to IAD was fine. Our subsequent flight to Reno was cancelled with no other that day. We used our flip-phone to call Flossie, waking her at 4:30 PDT. While on the phone with her we noticed a flight to Las Vegas. Being from CT, we had no idea how far Vegas was from Reno, or Mammoth for that matter. Yes, a flight to Vegas would work. It’d mean over 5 hours drive north to Mammoth, but we’d still make it with about ninety minutes to downbeat if all went well. Hurry and rebook!

We were able to grab the final two seats to Las Vegas. Now an hour wait until boarding. Flossie—by now wide awake—advised that upon our arrival and procuring a rental car we first go to the Golden Nugget Las Vegas Hotel and Casino for a consult about how to get to Mammoth with trombonist/vocalist Jim Fitzgerald, leader of the Sorta Dixie Jazz Band, the house band for the Golden Nugget six-days-a-week since 1987 (the band lost their residency in 2005 when management tried something new; Jim would continue to perform as a soloist until his death in 2020). Since the drive would be unfamiliar territory for us, we agreed.

The flight to Vegas was right on time; our rental was ready and we were off! The Golden Nugget was a twenty minute drive in the wrong direction, but Flossie allowed she’d already woken up Jim to alert him of our arrival so we really had no choice. We weren’t worried though. A cursory glance at the paper map (remember those?) we’d received from Enterprise indicated we’d still reach Mammoth in plenty of time. After all, it was only 5 inches away…on the map…

San Diego

Tick…tock…

We arrived around noon at the Golden Nugget and Jim met us at the front door. Although we tried to make our visit a brief one, Jim insisted on treating us to the buffet lunch: “Must’n’t travel on an empty stomach,” declared this man who resembled the result of a melding between Mitch Miller and Burl Ives, happily with the voice and demeanor of the latter. A nice meal and better conversation had Jim convincing us that the best way to get to Mammoth Lakes was through Death Valley: “It’s much quicker! No traffic at all! Here, you each better take a [small] bottle of water.” Although our brain-alarm sensors were starting to ring, we thought, “Why not? Sounds fun!” Oh for a smart phone with which we’d have learned state routes 95N, 266W, 168S, and 395N would get us to our destination in a mere five hours! So, a full two-hours after we’d landed at the airport, we embarked on a journey through Death Valley National Park.

Anything you’ve read about this dry, dusty place doesn’t do it justice: it is the most desolate place on earth, where rush hour is a monthly occurrence defined as “when two ranger vehicles cross paths.” The winding road is twisty, allowing for only a 45-50 mph speed which we never actually reached, as we were dodging free-ranging cows and bulls, usually strategically situated around a hairpin curve or blind summit. We lost time with each mile.

Tick…tock…

“I really have to pee,” Anne declared, having mightily held-back the urge for a hundred miles or so.

“Can’t you stick your ass out the window?” I ill-advisedly suggested in my white-knuckled stress.

After she walloped me, we stopped. When she got back in the car, Anne looked positively shocked.

“What’s wrong? Was there a crowd disturbing your privacy?”

Wallop #2: totally deserved.

“No,” she answered shakily, “as the stream left my body, it evaporated before it hit the ground!?!”

With that encouraging news, and our bottles of water depleted, we journeyed on.

Tick…tock…

JAS’M a LOONG time ago (L to R: Anne Barnhart, Jeff Barnhart, Matt Bottel, SherriLynn Colby-Bottel) (courtesy Jeff Barnhart)

We arrived in Mammoth Lakes and pulled into the parking lot for Whiskey Creek at 7:45 pm. Luckily, back home at the beginning of this ordeal, Anne had had a premonition that things would go wrong and had packed a little sleeveless dress in her flute case, advising me to don something nicer than my usual smelly workout wear to travel that day, so two minutes after our arrival (Anne having changed in the backseat of the rental) we ran upstairs only to be confronted by a volunteer.

“Where’re your badges? No-one gets in without a badge,” she intoned.

“We’ve just arrived and we’re performing onstage in 15 minutes.” I calmly (OK…NOT so calmly) explained.

“Not without badges, you aren’t! How do I know you aren’t trying to sneak in??”

Rather than invoking the standard “Don’t you know who I think I am?” ploy, I tried to reason with her: “Please, ma’am, you’re doing a terrific job for the festival, but won’t it be awkward when the music gets off to a late start? We’ve been up since midnight your time, traveled over 3,000 miles, dodged cattle and urinated in the desert, all to start playing in this bar ON-TIME!”

She wouldn’t budge. Fortunately, she was a full head shorter than me, so I glanced over hers and saw Anne’s and my escape route.

“May I please confirm the music is to start at eight?” I asked her.

“That’s right! It starts at eight with musicians who have badges!”

“Then I suggest worrying less about badges and more about the piano and sound system currently absent from the stage behind you…We’ll need those in,” I made a show of glancing at my watch, “nine minutes!”

She clucked and bustled away, and we got onstage, I did a monologue for ten minutes, then Anne, Sherri and Matt started the show accapella without me (no piano) and it somehow worked out. Sure, I’d aged twenty-four years in twenty-four hours, but, really? Give up show-biz??

Tick…tock…

“But Jeff,” you may be asking, “you made it…what’s with the final ‘tick tock’ here?”

“Tick-tocks” have different meanings. In all but this most recent one, they represented our mad dash to fulfill an engagement even as the jaws of time were grinding closed. This final one refers more to the biological clock. By the time we’d finished the gig at 10:30pm, we were more tired than hungry (after all, we had eaten ten hours prior) but a Louis, a beloved patron of Blue Street, invited Sherri, Matt, Anne and me for a late-night meal. In the restaurant, we enjoyed drinks and food, only briefly stopping our natter and nosh when Anne’s pizza arrived and she promptly fell forward face first into it, sound asleep upon impact. What ensued thereafter will comprise Part II of this saga.

♫ ♫ ♫ ♫ ♫

“Oh, your life must be SOOOO glamorous.”

Change one letter and that statement has a purer ring of truth:

“Oh, your life must be SOOOO clamorous.”

Now you’ve got it.

Please don’t interpret this story as being a statement of dissatisfaction or polemic against the challenges facing the life of an itinerant musician. I ADORE what I do and could think of no other way to be as happy. My inspiration (and hope) this time around is that we all have the opportunity to do what we love, no matter what the obstacles, as long as time allows.

Tick…tock…

Jeff Barnhart is an internationally renowned pianist, vocalist, arranger, bandleader, recording artist, ASCAP composer, educator and entertainer. Visit him online at www.jeffbarnhart.com. Email: [email protected]

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