Thirty-three year-old guitarist/banjoist Arnt Arntzen, younger brother of reedman Evan Arntzen, has quickly established his own presence in New York. Evan was featured in this paper in April 2018, so now it’s Arnt’s turn.
As has happened with three of my recent interviews, I sent each subject a list of questions, which they turned into an autobiographical account. With minor editing, my work was done! So in Arnt’s words…
Growing up, I remember being around music all the time. My mother Georgina was a prairie girl from Regina, Saskatchewan, and was musical from an early age. My father Tom came from a large family where everyone played music; he sang and played piano. They met when my father answered an ad in the Georgia Straight (then the leading free-hippie rag in Vancouver) to go all the way to Regina to be the keyboardist in Georgina’s touring rock-and-disco cover band, called Gina Dean and Scoundrel (Scoundrel was purposefully singular). The whole band lived out of a converted school bus while they played all over the USA and Canada, in every kind of venue from big city concert halls to little hotel bars and lounges in little prairie towns.
When they married and decided to have a family, Evan came along first. At first, they attempted to keep their touring going, by bringing the family along. Evan has more memories of this time than I do; I was too young to have any recollections, still in diapers, and bald as a bowling ball, living off of mashed potatoes (baby food was expensive).
I have second-hand stories of the band rolling up to some little town in Saskatchewan that was little more than a grain silo connected to an old rail line, a church that might have doubled as a school, a gas station/general store, and an old hotel that had seen better days, with a bar/lounge where the gig was.
After set-up and soundcheck, my mother would ask the manager of the hotel if he or she had a niece or nephew who would be willing to babysit me and my brother while they played “Dancing Queen” by Abba late into the prairie night.
Sometimes, my mother simply had to use whoever was available. She tells a story about one character she had hired, who decided that it would be fine to invite 20 of her closest friends to share the whiskey she bought using the advance my mother had paid her. My brother and I were trying to sleep in one of the double-beds while this gang of local rummies partied away the night in the hotel room. They were still going strong when my mother finished her gig at one or two in the morning and angrily tossed them all out.
Despite all the challenges, my parents lived for playing music. As there was little local entertainment in those days, a little bar in a little town could attract lively audiences from miles around, seven nights a week! If the locals really loved the band and the bar was doing good business, they would hire the band for a second week, sometimes paying extra if it meant the band had to break a commitment elsewhere.
Anyway, I digress. Not long after I was born, Tom and Georgina decided that it was more practical to raise the kids in one place. My father had family in Vancouver, BC, so they decided to try settling there. They started a duo act together and worked many cafe and bar gigs around town.
After living in a variety of small apartments that were mostly dungeon-like basement suites, my mother decided that she had had her fill of being poor, and started training to become a schoolteacher. She already had a teaching certification in Saskatchewan from right out of high school, because my grandma Harmon had insisted that she have some kind of backup before she ventured into a career of music.
Georgina still had to attend full-time classes at Simon Fraser University to get her teaching ticket upgraded. Meanwhile, Tom was still busy as a freelance musician around Vancouver, leading bands as well as being a sideman in many different contexts. So he took care of us kids during the day, and Mum took over at night. This rhythm carried on once Georgina started work as a schoolteacher, and my brother and I started school ourselves. The day came (though of course I can’t remember it in particular), when my parents were at last able to buy their first home on Ferndale Street in Vancouver, just down the block from Tom’s father, my Grampa Lloyd. I can’t remember exactly how old I was, but I’m pretty sure I hadn’t started school yet, so I must have been four or five. This was still when Vancouver was considered a relatively small town, and a stand-alone house could be had on a middle-class wage.
Living down the block from Grampa Lloyd was portentous. He ended up influencing me and my brother in music heavily; while music was always around us, what with constant rehearsals for their gigs and my parents’ well-developed listening habits, Lloyd took it upon himself to give music lessons to ALL of his grandchildren, five in total, each Wednesday after school. We called it Grampa Day.
Here was the ritual:
Grandma Dita would set out ham sandwiches and chocolate milk for the grandkids as soon as we got there (we were generally ravenous). I was never allowed to have chocolate milk, because I was mildly lactose intolerant. I got orange juice instead. I was very bitter about it at the time.
We were allowed to watch TV, but Lloyd made sure that the VHS tapes of Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, and especially the Marx Brothers, were handy. We were allowed some limited regular TV as well. Old reruns of The Simpsons and especially SCTV featured prominently.
Meanwhile, one by one, we’d be called into Lloyd’s study for our music lesson. I don’t remember them being especially long, probably not more than a half hour, especially when we were young with short attention spans.
Lloyd taught clarinet to Evan, piano to cousin Allison, violin to cousin Spencer, clarinet to cousin Tristan, and guitar to me.
I do remember the very first time I sat in his study. I must have been about six or seven years old. He asked me what instrument I wanted to play…of course it was implied (and I didn’t even question it at the time), that I WAS going to play music! You got to choose your instrument, but playing was mandatory!! We never questioned Grampa.
Six-year old Arnt thought in his mind’s eye about a bright cherry-red electric guitar, in the hands of a long-haired rock ’n roll god, playing in front of a stadium of screaming fans. I must have seen it on TV somehow, despite my grandfather’s and parents efforts to try to limit the corrupting influences of popular culture. I thought that looked pretty good to me. So I said I wanted to play guitar.
He soon had me strumming “CC Rider” on a little classical acoustic guitar, a basic blues that was the very first song I ever learned, while he played clarinet lead over it. Grampa Lloyd had a deep love of jazz music from New Orleans, and so his lessons were inflected with that music, especially for the clarinet lessons, as that was his main instrument.
Lloyd played jazz music all over town as a clarinetist, was involved with founding the Hot Jazz Club venue in Vancouver where traditional jazz had a home for many years, and led his own bands as well. He did a good job of passing on his love of Jazz clarinet to Evan, who took to it like a duck to water.
I remember enjoying playing simple strumming chords on the guitar to the great old jazz and blues tunes (the simpler ones at least, and mostly in the key of C): “Careless Love,” “My Bucket’s Got a Hole In It,” “Winin’ Boy Blues.” He told us kids that “Winin’ Boy” was about a guy who went around sipping from all the half-full glasses of leftover wine after closing time in a bar. We didn’t find out the real meaning of the song until much later! For those of you reading this who don’t know, check out Jelly Roll Morton’s Library of Congress recording of that song…it’s not for dainty ears or sensitive morals. Lloyd never sang the dirtiest lyrics when we were around, of course.
After the lessons, Lloyd would invariably hang out with us grandkids. He taught us how to shoot pool, either by taking us to East Van Billiards or using a small hexagonal pool table in the basement with rubber bumpers in the middle, called Bumper Pool. He would let us make weapons out of wood in his basement shop (sword and shield for my brother, a rubber-band rifle for me), and we’d do battle out in the yard. Or we’d be left to explore his impressive collection of Pogo comics, or watch the Marx Brothers in Animal Crackers. It was a fine education.
Not long after, my parents enrolled me in additional guitar lessons at a conservatory of music in Burnaby. The teacher they gave me was an accomplished classical guitarist with a goatee and a gentle manner. He started to teach me some classical guitar from a beginner’s book.
I was an awful student; I almost never practiced. Eventually I figured out how to make the sounds that the dots on the page signified, but only by mimicking the teacher. I would look at the page while I played, pretending to read, but I had just memorized the pieces. People seemed to react more that way. I couldn’t read a note. My poor teacher would have to rehash the same old material, week after week. Little wonder I was able to memorize it!
As well as that, my parents enrolled me to sing in the Vancouver Bach Choir. I think I enjoyed it. I have one memory of being backstage of the Orpheum Theatre in Vancouver, and we were going through one last rehearsal. Then all of a sudden, everything went black, and I woke up on the floor, with the choir director and many other kids looking down at me with concern. I had forgotten to inhale in between phrases!
My parents had a deep love of music, and tried to instill it in me as much as they could. I loved listening to all sorts of CDs, cassettes, and records I found around the house. On the other hand, getting me to do anything other than read a book was hard to do. Playing music or practicing my instrument was like pulling teeth. The fact of the matter was, I was obstinately lazy, and usually wanted to be left alone to read or daydream.
As I got older and developed a little more clout, I began to quit all of the extra-curricular activities my parents had signed me up for. I quit the choir, baseball, guitar lessons, and the Air Cadets, in roughly that order. I was a bookish, un-athletic 13-year-old by the time I had quit everything and moved on to high school. My parents were probably wondering if there was anything I actually LIKED doing.
I know now that in truth, I liked music. I loved playing it and singing it. I just didn’t like getting pushed into anything (still don’t!)…and there is some rule written inside the heads of 13-year-olds that says “thou shalt never obey thy parents.” So once I began high school, I left the playing of music to my brother. I guess I was also trying to be different from the rest of my family…I was going to do my best to be completely un-musical. I listened to it all the time, but I had no interest in playing it.
High school (in Canada, elementary goes to grade 7 and then it’s straight to high school) was awkward and boring mostly, but I ended up with a decent circle of friends. I flirted with writing, but eventually decided I wanted to be a tradesman of some kind. I tried being a machinist, but was basically a flop—bad at math, and a slow worker. Again, I was fundamentally lazy.
I graduated high school despite my best efforts, and immediately got a job as a deckhand on a fishing boat. I had been reading the biography of my great Grampa Arnt, after whom I’m named. He was a sailor starting not much younger than I was! I thought it sounded adventurous, so I signed on to the first boat that would take me, the Tuna trawler Star. I was the sole deckhand—just the captain and me.
The captain was nice enough on shore and in the inland, calm waters. But once we got “outside,” into the deep and heaving seas, he turned into a pitiless tyrant with an acid tongue. Being “green,” in my first “real” job and far from home in heavy seas, desperately seasick, I was terrified to begin with, then merely miserable, as my body adapted to the constant rolling of the boat.
Each command from the captain was preceded by, interlaced with, and then closely followed by a never-ending stream of insults and invective. The fish weren’t biting, his dilapidated boat had constant mechanical issues, and after a few weeks at sea we were running low on fuel and food. He was in a foul mood, and didn’t hesitate to work out his frustration on the hapless deckhand. At last he threw in the towel and we headed back to Ucluelet, on the west coast of Vancouver Island.
While we were tying up to another boat in the harbor, I managed to get my left hand in between the hulls as I was trying to put the bumpers over the side. These boats were not exactly large, but they still weighed a few hundred tons! My left hand was a crushed and mangled, bloody mess. But, I was laughing! I laughed all the way to the hospital, because it meant my career as a fisherman was over!
I was lucky and only needed stitches. Somehow, I didn’t break any bones. After that healed up, I worked a wide variety of jobs into my mid-twenties. None of them were really as interesting as the fishing boat, so I’ll just skim through them: landscaper, housekeeping in a hotel, janitor, forklift operator, swamper, construction, and eventually deckhanding again, this time on tugboats.
I figured that if I going to break my back for a living, it might as well pay well. Tugboats had the shortest timeframe of schooling needed to get a trades ticket: only a six-week course, and the pay was higher than a lot of other entry-level jobs, at $25 an hour to start. There were even higher wages and medical benefits for lowly deckhands if you could get hired by a unionized company.
I worked on the tugs for about two years. Sometimes it was easy, and other times it was hard. It usually depended on what the weather was doing. They pay well, because it’s a dangerous job when the storms kick up and the ocean seems to open its maw up for you, in the trough of each wave. While doing barge work in unprotected waters, if you don’t time your jump from the barge back to your boat just right when everything is rocking and rolling in heavy waves, you can get your foot or leg caught between the barge and the boat. Again, they weigh many hundreds of tons, and could crush you to death if you fell in. There were many ways you could come to harm if you weren’t watching out. I had more close calls in bad storms than I care to recall here.
Eventually, I got stuck with another captain who didn’t like me and tried to make my life as difficult as possible. So eventually one day I got sick and tired of all the stress of the job combined with the stress of dealing with a crazy captain, and I walked off the job at the end of that shift. I never worked another job at sea again. I still had all my fingers, so I counted myself as coming out ahead.
After that job ended, I went back to a previous job I had, driving forklifts in a warehouse. I was about 22 years old, when my life took a complete left turn…or maybe it was more of a hard scraping to the left.
Up until then, I was a motorcycle rider. I enjoyed breaking speed limits all over the lower mainland, particularity over the stretch of Sea-to-Sky Highway between West Vancouver and Squamish. Lots of twists and turns. I like leaning so far over, you’d hear your pedals scrape the asphalt as it whizzed by a few few feet away from your head. In other words, I was a young idiot who thought he was invincible.
On the highway one day, I tried to make a lane change, but a truck that was in front of me changed lanes with me without warning, and I didn’t have enough space. I was going too fast to brake, for fear of the car just behind me rear-ending me. I had too much speed and was about to run into the rear of the truck, which happened to be a police truck.
In these split-second decisions where adrenaline takes over, everything seemed to be going in slow motion. “Better a one-vehicle accident than a collision with a police truck,” was my thought process. And so I found myself scraping my bike into the concrete median barrier. I clung with my bike upright, scraping the concrete on my left for a bit, before the bike fell down on its left side and pointed sideways, pinning my left leg under it, meanwhile still skidding and scraping to a stop.
Miraculously, everyone behind us on the freeway stopped and didn’t run me over. I woke up next to my scraped-up bike and I couldn’t feel my entire left leg. It looked like parts of it had been pan-fried, the road-rash was so bad. I distinctly remember seeing one of the exposed bones of my foot.
Later, an ambulance had taken me to the hospital and I was on a bed in a hall, waiting to go into surgery. A police officer walked up and hands me a piece of paper. “This is a ticket for an unsafe lane change,” he huffed. He had a big pot belly. “Do you have anything to say?” It turned out that he had been driving the police truck that I had narrowly avoided hitting, and had followed my ambulance to the hospital!
Now, I had learned that when a cop asks you if you have anything to say after he writes you a ticket, he’s trying to bait you into an argument…an argument that will give him an excuse to make your day even worse. I looked at the ticket, I looked at my mangled leg, and then I looked at him. “No,” I said.
In the end I was incredibly lucky: I scraped a few bones but I didn’t break any. The surgeons were able to save the toes of my left foot because I was wearing steel-toed boots from my warehouse job. The toes are a little crooked now, but they still work fine.
I was hopping along with a crutch and a cast for a few months after that. I couldn’t work, so I couldn’t pay rent, so I had to move back in with my parents. By this time my father had started being a music teacher by day, though he kept gigging at night. So I was left all alone at home with a bum leg, and nothing to do.
There was a dusty steel-string guitar in the corner of my bedroom, and out of boredom I picked it up one day, and started to teach myself how to play some basic chords. It was enough to play Johnny Cash covers, and Johnny’s voice fit well in my vocal register. I also liked how he sang about workers, the poor and the beaten down, “living on the hopeless hungry side of town.” As a working stiff whose family were mostly artists, he seemed like a kindred spirit.
So after I could walk again, I started out busking in the Granville Island public market, and on some days I made enough to think that I could actually make a living at it. I kept playing, and a few months later I was busking at the Chilliwack Jazz Festival. My grandfather Lloyd was there playing with his traditional jazz band, the Red Onion Rhythm Kings.
As I wrapped up my busking set he called me over to the side of one of the tents that were set up for the festival. He had a funny-shaped brown case with him. He said “Here, open this and have a look.” Inside was a banjo…but not just any banjo. This was a VegaVox 1, in my opinion one of the best of the 4-string banjos. It was tuned like the top 4 strings of a guitar, so I could play it right away. I tried a few chords on it, the few that I knew. “Do you like it?” He asked. “Yeah, I do!” I exclaimed. “It’s yours!” he said with a chuckle.
I set about trying to teach myself how to play that banjo. Lloyd gave me a huge book of hand-written charts that he had painstakingly made himself, of so many great jazz tunes that I still play today. I struggled with some of the theory at first, but eventually I was able to connect with the chords and rhythms, in particular the feel of playing as part of a rhythm section in a jazz band.
I remember distinctly, the first time I played banjo onstage with my grandfather, soon after I had started playing. It was a Red Onion Rhythm Kings gig at the Crescent Beach Legion Hall. I knew in theory how to play with a rhythm section in a jazz band. I had a few jazz lessons under my belt, and had done a few abortive gigs with my ill-suited Johnny Cash guitar, but this was the first time that it just all fit together for me.
That banjo was LOUD! I was able to be heard across the hall, and Grampa seemed to see that I was having more fun playing music than I ever had before. I swore that THIS was the feeling I would pursue from now on: the rhythm section cooking, the front line flying in response, and a heart full of rhythm. That’s the moment when I finally came around to the idea of playing music.
Goodbye shovels and 5 AM wake-ups! I am still grateful that I did my labor jobs, though…I can always look at a gig that’s hard and conclude that it’s still easier than decking on a tug.
After that, I enrolled at the Vancouver Community College music department, and spent 4 years getting my degree in jazz guitar. I kept gigging with groups that were led by Grampa Lloyd, my mother, my brother, and my dad. I didn’t know anyone else in school who relied on nepotism as much as I did! It was hard work, but I had a ball. I enjoyed using my brain far more than using my back and arms.
Eventually, I formed a band with Evan, calling ourselves the Brothers Arntzen. We released our first album in 2013, and did a short tour of Europe. Soon after, Evan left town, first for San Antonio and then later for New York, and I jobbed around town as a freelancer and occasional bandleader. I even moved out of my parents’ house and started living with a girlfriend, paying the rent with a combination of gigs and teaching money.
I still did lots of gigs with my mother’s vocal jazz trio the Hot Mammas, my dad’s pop/rock cover band and Blues Brothers tribute band, and of course my grandfather’s bands that he ran or were involved with. I was on Blackstick, the debut album by the band of the same name that my grandfather and brother co-led together, as a power-clarinet band doing Sidney Bechet and Johnny Dodds tunes. What a band that was! Two acoustic rhythm guitars: the great Don Ogilvie and myself, Benji Bohannon on drums, Jen Hodge on bass, and Lloyd and Evan on dueling pyrotechnic clarinets.
After a while of playing gigs in Vancouver and the Pacific Northwest, I decided to head over to live in the USA for awhile…well, if I’m honest, my girlfriend at the time and I had split up, and leaving town seemed like a good idea! I knew that I wanted to live in a town that had more jazz than Vancouver…specifically traditional jazz. The two places high on my list were New York and New Orleans.
So in the summer of 2016, I lived in New York for about a month and a half, just to test the waters. I ended up staying a bit longer than I had planned, because I kept getting work. I had no idea that a banjoist could make a living in the Big Apple. My brother had already lived there for several years and knew most of the best bandleaders. He helped me immeasurably by introducing me to people, and then straight up telling them to hire me.
I left New York and returned to Vancouver for a few gigs that I had booked. Then, I spent half of October and all of November of 2016 in New Orleans. It was a very different place. Probably the biggest difference was that I didn’t really know anyone there. And there was no older brother to recommend me. So I got almost no work at all. I managed to pay rent from busking on Royal Street every day, by stuffing wads of dollar bills in my landlord’s shoe at the foot of the stairs leading to his suite. He was an easygoing guy and a musician himself, so he didn’t mind if I paid in installments.
I did learn a lot from the experience of busking in New Orleans. In order to get a good spot, you wake up at 6 AM and bike down to the French Quarter. Once you’ve found some old milk crates lying around the back of one of the shops (to use for seating, also makes a crude tip bucket if lined with cardboard) and you’ve got a good corner claimed, you can find a way to pass the time until the rest of your band shows up at around 10 AM. Sometimes the “claimants” will go right back to sleep, other times they might practice their instruments. Sometimes they and their friends are still on a drunk from the night before, and simply keep going until they make their mid-morning sets. I usually just practiced.
It’s a simple life, but quite an enjoyable one, to play music on the street, and then immediately use most of that money to buy some beans or fried chicken and beer, and just hang out for the rest of the day with your buddies. Never making much, but never losing anything either. I couldn’t see myself there for the long term, though, so I went back to Vancouver to save some money in anticipation of my move: I had decided that it would be New York for me.
Well, I arrived in New York in the spring of 2017 and set about trying to make ends meet. I started out busking mostly, often with Shane Del Robles, a washboard player and bandleader, and his Rad Rompers. Gradually I began to get subbing work with lots of bands: Baby Soda, Emily Asher’s Garden Party, Dandy Wellington, the aforementioned Rad Rompers, Terry Waldo, David Ostwald and the Louis Armstrong Eternity Band, and eventually even Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks, after a couple of years.
The way I started with the Nighthawks was as a roadie, not a musician. I was the new “Mike.” The roadie position was named for the late great “Fat Mike” who was the original schlepper of all the music stands, risers, drums, gongs, chimes, chairs and all sorts of other ancient contraptions, many of which were actually from the ’20s. In this job I was meant to replace Joe Ostwald, David Ostwald’s son. David is a friend of Vince’s from way back, and together with Brian Nalepka they form the original “Three Musketeers of New York Tuba.”
Joe was getting a day job and couldn’t stay up late hauling gear for the band any more. The job involved showing up at Iguana on a Tuesday night around 10:45 or so, and working until around midnight if everything went smoothly, or until 12:30 or 1 AM if some catastrophe happened, like the elevator getting stuck.
I have forgotten how I had heard about the job, but perhaps Vince had asked me when I went to introduce myself and sit in with the band one night. Vince was always generous with his spotlight, even when I was completely unknown around here.
I needed all the work I could get, I knew how to schlep, and I got to be close to a band that played all the music from the ’20s and ’30s that I loved. Plus, some of the heaviest hitters in the New York traditional jazz scene played there. So I of course relished the chance to get my foot in the door and soak up all I could.
My first time subbing with the Nighthawks, it was actually because of a tragedy. A nutcase had driven a truck down the Hudson River Greenway, killing and maiming people. The authorities shut down all the bridges and tunnels leading into Manhattan from New Jersey, fearing another attack. Ken Salvo, the main banjo and guitar player, was stranded in Jersey and couldn’t make the gig, with only a couple hours before downbeat. They tried every guitarist around town, to no avail. Then they called me, since I was supposed to be there to schlep anyway.
Though it was a steep learning curve, I gradually settled into playing rhythm guitar and banjo with the Nighthawks, and began to have fun and sub more often. I had a blast! Here was a band that challenged me musically, and delivered the songs with all the verve and drive and maniacal energy that I felt in my heart, with each pull of the strings.
I kept on being “Mike” for Vince and the Nighthawks, and getting the majority of my other work being a sub banjoist and guitarist for other bands. Occasionally I’d lead a gig, usually not larger than a trio in a bar or restaurant. I hung out at all the late-night haunts as much as I could, and drank deeply of the draft of traditional jazz in New York. I made money just fast enough to immediately spend it. It was humble, but I loved every minute of it.
Eventually, after Ken Salvo had retired to Florida, Vince asked me if I wanted the guitar and banjo chair. I was flabbergasted; I hadn’t expected to get my dream of playing in a big band every week realized so quickly. That was around the late summer or fall of 2018, I think. I had only lived in New York for about a year and a half!
I also started to sub as part of a rotating cast of guitarists and banjoists with David Ostwald and his Louis Armstrong Eternity Band. They played a happy hour show each Wednesday at Birdland. One of the first things David ever said to me was in response to my banjo playing: “I heard what you were trying to do.” After my first gig playing with his band at Birdland, I asked if he had any advice or feedback for me. “You never sounded better,” he said. Now, whenever he’s introducing the band one by one and gets to me, he simply says: “Here’s a man who needs no introduction.” He greets you not with a handshake, but with a pinky-shake (same as a pinky-swear from the schoolyard). He never let any opportunity for a pun go to waste.
After a long period of not knowing what to make of his offbeat humor and backhanded compliments, I got to know David well and found him to be one of the most generous, big-hearted, and thoughtful people I’ve had the pleasure of knowing in New York. Eventually, David started hiring me to play almost every week. Working with his band, together with the Nighthawks, has been like being part of a family.
And of course, Del and the Rad Rompers kept on going during this whole time, and provided me with lots of playing opportunities across New York and beyond. Eventually I kind of got to be first call for a lot of his gigs, and together with work from Vince Giordano and Dave Ostwald, I actually started to get ahead a little. Of course, what happened next largely wiped that out.
Yes, I’m afraid I have to bring up the pandemic. When most of my work vanished in about mid-March, I worked for a short while scraping and painting my uncle’s wooden sailboat. Then I got on one of the last flights to Vancouver so I could be close to my family. I had been living in the US on a work visa, and what with the looming border restrictions, I didn’t want to be stranded on the wrong side when it expired later that spring.
My time in Canada was quiet, but I wasn’t idle. I used regular broadcasts to social media to try to keep my chops in order, and cheer others up, as well as myself. My brother and I did an online release of a new album of the Brothers Arntzen: Live at Lindy Bout. It’s available on Bandcamp through brothersarntzen.bandcamp.com.
Eventually I got restless and stir-crazy from being in the house all day, every day. I needed to get out and do something! In the local surroundings of Vancouver, the curve had been pretty well flattened by this point, late spring. But, there were still no gigs. So I started hunting for a job, and wound up stacking bottles on a conveyer belt, as part of an assembly line making hand sanitizer. It was mind-numbingly boring, but I was grateful for the work, and to finally feel useful for a change. It felt like doing one’s bit for the “war effort”; all the sanitizer we made went straight to the hospitals.
After about a month of this, I started to despair of ever playing music again. So I gave my two weeks notice, and started making preparations for the only logical thing to do when there are no gigs: record an album.
But not just any album. I had resolved to return to New York before the summer was over, but before I did that I wanted to record with someone who didn’t look like he’d be in New York anytime soon: my grandfather Lloyd Arntzen.
Lloyd had planned to come to New York to celebrate my brother’s marriage to his partner Scout in the early spring, but when the pandemic began he had to cancel for the sake of his and his wife’s health. Alas, I’m not sure when he’ll make it to New York again. I’d so love to take him around to Birdland and Iguana, meet Osti, Vince and all the Nighthawks, maybe even take him to Mona’s, if he had the energy.
Nevertheless, I had to record with him. We all needed a project to do that would get ourselves playing music again, and free of the doldrums of isolation. We got Jen Hodge to play bass with us, since she was also in Canada and at a loose end. Jen’s been playing music with Lloyd for longer than I have, and she’s like the older sister I never had.
We were going to get the great Alan Matheson to play trumpet with us, but he had to back out because of his especially precarious health. The Pandemic necessitated measures like self-isolating from all socializing outside our “pods” for two weeks before the recording date, for the sake of my elderly Grampa. I even had to drive a borrowed car into a ferry, pick up Lloyd in Victoria, and have him not leave the car until we reached the doorstep of my parents’ home in Vancouver.
So, we would be a trio. I rented and borrowed the necessary microphones and other hardware, and draped blankets all over my parents living room to make an ad-hoc recording studio. Over two and a half days, we tracked almost 20 songs. Most of them had multiple takes. Lloyd was still a dynamo at 92. If I do say so myself, the album is simple and spare, but with “everything you need and none of what you don’t,” as Evan put it. I can’t wait to share it, and my grandfather’s joy of making music that so inspired me and my brother.
By the time this interview is published, the album will have been released online onto Lloyd’s Bandcamp web page that I manage for him…I hope we made our fundraising goals! You can check it out and pick up a digital copy here: lloydarntzen.bandcamp.com/releases
There are other exciting projects on the horizon as well. My new sister-in-law Scout Opatut is in talks with Dot Time Records to produce an album, with my brother on reeds, myself on guitar and banjo, Charlie Halloran on trombone, Jon-Erik Kellso and Mike Davis on trumpets, Dalton Ridenhour on piano, Tal Ronen on bass and Catherine Russell on vocals. If it happens, recording will be around late September into early October, and fundraising for it will begin soon.
A couple days before I recorded with my Grampa, I also recorded a duo album of blues, jazz, and country with my sister in music, Jen Hodge. We got to work out some neat little arrangements and vocal harmonies. I’m looking forward to releasing it with her, possibly in the fall or winter of 2020.
And lastly, I also recorded an album of my own that same week, leading a guitar trio with Jen on bass and the great Andrew Millar on drums, who also happened to be in Canada at the time. This album also shows some promise, and will probably be released online in the winter or spring of 2021.
Looking back now, after I had been through all the other jobs that life had to offer me up till then, I came to the conclusion that music was really the only choice for me. It was easier than slinging a shovel or being a deckhand, and what’s more, sometimes you would actually meet members of the opposite sex! You never meet women when you’re working on a tugboat. Besides all that, music is fun. It just took me a while of trying every possible alternative before I was willing to realize it.
Through my second career, I’ve been grateful that I get to play music, and I’m hopeful that I’ll get to continue with it, by hook or by crook, for the rest of my days.
As the interviewer, I get the last word. Arnt was concerned that he had rambled on too long. True, this is much longer than most of my treatises, but in reality it’s Arnt’s, so other than weeding out some redundancies, I let him have his say.
Bill Hoffman is a travel writer, an avid jazz fan and a supporter of musicians keeping traditional jazz alive in performance. He is the concert booker for the Tri-State Jazz Society in greater Philadelphia. Bill lives in Lancaster, PA. He is the author of Going Dutch: A Visitors Guide to the Pennsylvania Dutch Country, Unique and Unusual Places in the Mid-Atlantic Region, and The New York Bicycle Touring Guide. Bill lives in Lancaster, PA.