Playing on the circuit in any given town is the closest a religious musician ever gets to the existential despair that flourishes the “bar scene”. You show up and have an intimate experience with people that you barely know. Of course, after you have been on the scene for a while, you start to recognize the characters. There is a young hipster that is trying too hard. There is a jaded, old “stuffed man” drinking Scotch in the corner. And it is men…at least when I was playing out a lot. Occasionally, there would be a “throat” on the gig that was female, but it was a rare event.
You get a call and a description. “It’s a fakebook gig with 4 other players.” “It’s a 7 piece. You’ll just be reading charts. 3 hrs.” After a while, you get to know some of the players…not in the sense that you know them or their lives or their families, but you get to know how they play. By getting to know how they play, you discover many things about them that you might not otherwise know.
I got a call to play a 17 piece big band gig for a wedding reception at the Bishop Planetarium in Bradenton, FL. I showed up, set up my gear in front of the drummer, and was pleasantly surprised to find myself next to Lenny Rojas. Lenny was playing lead alto in the band. I didn’t really know him, but I did know him. We had played a few 7 piece gigs together. I knew how he played solos. They were technically adept, interesting, and never out of control. Somehow, they swung a little bit harder than any other player in the band. His playing always reminded me of that passage in “Little Gidding”.
“An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together”
We set up to play the gig in a quaint little outside courtyard that had been strung with lights. For some reason, I remember that the band wasn’t facing the people. We were pointed off in a different direction. I assume it was because having that many brass instruments pointed at your new bride seems ungentlemanly and threatening. There was an enormous glass window to our right about 100 feet away. Inside the window was an aquarium with two manatees swimming around. One, presumably the male, was quite a bit larger than the other. It was all rather lovely. We were outside on a cool night under the stars playing jazz, and anytime the mood struck, we could glance over and see those gentle beasts casually swimming around in their tank.
During our second set, someone in the trombone section said, “Check it out, that old boy is asleep.” I turned to the tank to see that the larger manatee was resting gently at the bottom of the tank. He rested for about the last 20 minutes of the set. When we were coming back from break, I sat down at the keyboard and looked over at Lenny. He was staring with an unwavering gaze at the tank. His mouth was open and his face had a slightly confused expression. “What’s going on, Lenny?” I asked. The words came out slowly as if he was mumbling in his sleep, “what…is…that?…is…it…a…fin?” I turned to the tank. The manatee that had been slumbering at the bottom of the tank had begun to slowly swim to the surface. There was something odd about its appearance. It was facing away from us, but it had a strange protrusion coming from a part of its body. It suddenly turned and gave us a profile view. What had originally appeared to be a small protrusion when viewed from the back now revealed itself in full glory. It was an erection of staggering proportion. The drummer shouted “Whoa!” and almost fell off of his stool. Some crass member of the trumpet section made some comment that included the words “morning missile”. The entire band broke out in uproarious laughter. Immediately, the female manatee began swimming away in earnest. “Look at that!” someone shouted. “She’s having nothing to do with him!” The third set began, and our attention turned away from the large and amorous herbivore.
To this day, I’m not exactly sure what is so hilarious about seeing a water mammal’s erection. It was definitely and profoundly funny. I suppose it was just the perfect imagery. Jazz under the stars, people celebrating marriage, a large mammal waking up frisky, and his partner beating a hasty retreat. Little Gidding was unfolding before us.
“There are three conditions which often look alike
Yet differ completely, flourish in the same hedgerow:
Attachment to self and to things and to persons, detachment
From self and from things and from persons; and, growing between them,
Randy manatees frolicking in the jazz of a star-lit night”
Apologies to Eliot for that last bit.