(If you missed part 1, you can read it here.)
I didn’t see Pate for a few years until I received a phone call for an industrial show in Naples. “Hey Jenn,” I said. “I just booked a gig in Naples to play with Smokey Robinson.”
“Really?!!!” she gasped.
“Yeah. Who’s Smokey Robinson? I know he’s somebody.”
“You don’t know who Smokey Robinson is?!”
That is actually the beginning of many of the conversations that Jenn and I have about music. I contend that she is the worse off for not being familiar with the Beethoven Seventh or the Arvo Pärt Te Deum. She accuses me of being ignorant of the basic building blocks of American culture. This time, she was very interested in what I was doing because she wanted to go to the gig. Jennifer loves Motown. Over the next few weeks, I managed to find a recording of a Smokey Robinson. The crosswalk guard on the way to Zach’s school told me that I needed to hear “Tears of a Clown” and “I Second that Emotion.” My favorite was none of them. I didn’t like Motown because I never really understood it. My lack of understanding, however, wasn’t going to stop me from playing the gig.
We drove to the Ritz Carlton in Naples and began to unload gear. Jennifer came posing as my roadie. There was an afternoon rehearsal. I waited outside the room with a gaggle of string players that had been hired from Orlando. As I stood there, Pate came strolling around the corner carrying his gear. I was glad to see a familiar face on a gig in a strange town.
“Hey, Pate.” I said. “I haven’t played with you since the incident with the union guy.”
Smokey’s rhythm section traveled on the bus with Smokey. His music director played piano. There were a couple of guitarist, a bass player, some vocalists, and a drummer in the band. Only the music director would be attending our afternoon rehearsal. They were supplementing the band with eight string players, me on back-up keyboards, and Pate on saxophone. An “industrial gig” is when an insurance company, or financial firm, or some other conglomeration of rich white men want to be entertained at the end of their convention before heading off to a hotel room for a tryst with one of their co-workers. It has become increasingly common for companies to hire performers (that were once more well known than they are now) and pay them exorbitant sums for a brief show. While we waited for the rehearsal to begin, the string players asked if we had worked with Smokey’s music director before. When Pate and I responded negatively, they tried to prepare us. In my entire musical life, I have never experienced a more torturous and unproductive rehearsal.
He walked into the room with his ego draped around him like a large winter coat. He was truly impressed with himself, and he had an utter disdain for all of us. He set up a drum machine on a table, and the string players sat in chairs directly in front of him. Pate was off to the right, and he placed me facing the rest of the musicians immediately next to the drum machine. His ego-coat brushed up against me throughout the rehearsal. Rehearsing without a rhythm section to provide context for your part is like an unattractive person hitting on you at a party. You can tell that there is a way to handle the whole thing gracefully, but the words just don’t seem to come out right.
For non-musicians, it is like someone giving you the words “go … and … spread … out … on … a … table” with a stopwatch. After handing you a piece of paper that read, “You need to say these words at 3.5, 4.1, 4.2, 5.7, 6.0, and 6.1 seconds.” He would say, “It will all make sense later.” Next, he would proceed to yell at you for two hours about your pronunciation and timing problems. Finally, you would be brought together with another person with a corresponding list of words and times. When you put the two lists together it would say, “Let us go then, you and I/when the evening is spread out against the sky/like a patient etherized on a table.” “Aha!,” you say. “It all makes sense now. That seemed to mean something totally different when I practiced by myself for two hours.”
Rehearsing with Smokey’s music director was just like that. The first thing he said to me was, “I don’t want you to use your left hand at all. It gets too muddy with the bass player.” At the time he said that to me, I had just finished twenty years of practicing several hours a day to learn to play the piano with both hands. None of my teachers had ever emphasized the “leave out the left hand technique” or the stile senza mano sinestra as we would say in classical circles. Out of twenty years habit, I occasionally reached up and played a note with my left hand. The director had, what musicians call, “huge ears.” He could hear everything. A single note played with the left hand would result in stoppage of the rehearsal.
“How many times do I have to tell you not to play with your left hand? I’ve told you several times already! Don’t do it!” he would scream.
After being berated several times in front of the other musicians, I gave up and literally sat on my left hand to keep it from wandering up to the keys. When it came to playing some of the solo passages that he had written for me, things fell apart, the center didn’t hold, and he turned me in a widening gyre. If I missed a single sixteenth note rhythm when I sight read a passage for the first time, he would stop the rehearsal, look at me and say, “That’s a sixteenth note! Can’t you even play a sixteenth note?! Here. It goes like this.” Then, he would push me off of the keyboard and play the passage the correct way and demand that I get it right. This went on for two hours with one brief respite where he went over to yell at a violin player. By the end of the rehearsal, I was upset and had a headache. If I remembered the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle correctly, I knew that my dignity was either near my left hand’s resting spot or on Pluto.
We had a short break. Pate came up to me and said, “I’ve seen this once before. I was playing for Steve Allen one time, and he rode a piano player’s ass through an entire rehearsal in front of everyone.” We had a brief sound check. Pate and I were in the back on a raised platform on stage left. The strings were in the back on stage right. The rhythm section and backup vocals were spread across the stage in front of us. As the sound check ended, one of the tech guys approached Pate and I and asked for our full names. He wrote them down on a scrap of paper. “I wonder what that’s about?” I thought. While people ate dinner, Pate and I, along with a bass player and drummer from Orlando, played standards. Then, we took the stage and got ready to play with Smokey. Up to this point, we hadn’t seen him.
The groove started at the director’s count, and my headache vanished. Smokey took the stage and I saw his little countertenor behind swaying back and forth as he sang. He was in great voice, but the main memory I have is of his backside. I was behind him for the entire performance and only saw his face once or twice. The second song was called, and I had an epiphany. Motown strolled to the back part of the stage wearing a slinky black dress. Her hips moved with the comfortableness that pretty girls always have about themselves. I saw those voluptuous breasts that had nourished so many and the sad look she always has in her eyes. I understood for the first time. We danced together for the rest of the night. Jenn had been trying to introduce me to this sultry lady for so many years, and at that moment, I finally understood. The thing was, I had to meet her in person. The radio reports didn’t do it for me.
Pate and I had a book of charts. The rhythm section had a set list taped to the floor. When the third song came up, Pate and I both had “Being with You” up in our books. That was not the third song on the floor chart. “Being with You” starts off with a saxophone solo. I considered playing. I considered telling Pate that there was a discrepancy between our books and the set list. I chose in the end to wait and see what happened. The rhythm section started playing and Pate blared out the solo of “Being with You”. Pate was playing with all the vigor and volume of a professional soloist. Unfortunately, it was not the same song that the rest of the band was playing. The bassist immediately turned around in tandem with the rhythm guitar player and hushed Pate after two measures.
I believe it was fortunate in some senses because I learned a lot about Pate in that moment. Pate was not just a saxophone-case-throwing-witty-instrumentalist. Pate was and is a performing artist that understood the high calling of that vocation. Performing artists don’t get to make their mistakes in the privacy of the painter’s studio. When a performing artist messes up, they get their pants pulled down in front of hundreds of people. It is a high-risk job, and it is not for the weak. In the film Mr. Saturday Night, Billy Crystal tells his brother that he never had a performing career because he only had “living room balls.” That is, he only had the courage to make a mistake in front of his family. Pate has balls that drag on the ground behind him when he walks.
The song ended, and the bassist turned to Pate and said, “Now you play it.” Like everything else from the rehearsal in the afternoon, it sounded wonderful in context. In the middle of the song, Pate had his big solo of the night. The stage lights dimmed, and a bright spot came up five feet from me and illuminated Pate as he began to play. The dancing butt turned around, and I saw Smokey Robinson looking slightly older than the picture on the album that I had. He was fumbling around in his pocket for something while the spotlight was focused on Pate. Pate continued wailing away, this time on the right song. Smokey, to my astonishment, pulled the little scrap of paper out of his pocket on which the tech guy had written our names. Pate was playing so well that I started to feel some chills. As he finished his solo, the lights came up a little on Smokey. With the spotlight still relentlessly blinding Pate, Smokey knelt down and pointed at Pate. When you travel and hire musicians to supplement the band, you never know exactly what you are going to get. After hearing Pate play, Smokey’s voice rose with excitement from his kneeling position as he screamed out to the audience, “KURT KNECHT, LADIES AND GENTLEMEN!!! KURT KNECHT ON THE SAXOPHONE!!!!”
I wasn’t sure what to do. I couldn’t rightly stop the show and correct Smokey Robinson. I took the only course of action that seemed open to me at the time. As soon as “Being with You” was finished, I leaned over to Pate and said, “Pate, I promise I won’t mess up my solo. That way when you get introduced as the keyboard player, the audience will clap just as loud for you.” When the time was right, the spotlight came up on me, and I executed the solo without error. Afterward, Smokey very kindly corrected the earlier mistake and announced me as the keyboard player and Pate as the one who actually took the saxophone solo. Despite all the nasty comments from the music director, the rhythm section came up to Pate and I after the show and said, “We play with a lot of guys in a lot of cities. You two are the best we’ve played with in a long while.” My dignity made the return journey from Pluto, and I packed it up with my gear and drove home.
About a year later, I was in a thin place in the world. There is a county park not far from where I used to live, and if you walk far enough out on some of the trails, the universe begins to get slippery and smooth. On this occasion, I was about a mile and a half out in an area where a hardwood hammock and a pine flatwood were having a territorial battle. It is wonderfully lonely spot. I was quite at peace until I heard a strange sound coming from the underbrush. It seemed too large for any of the animals that I knew about in the park. The sound continued to grow in intensity. Being that far out in the woods, I couldn’t imagine anything smaller than a bear crashing through the forest. As my fear increased, I began contemplating what my life accomplishments were. I imagined a eulogy where the words, “until his life was tragically cut short by that wild beast in the Florida forest” were used. Suddenly, Pate came crashing through the bushes and trees on a bicycle. My immediate thought was to go down on one knee, point at him, and say, “KURT KNECHT LADIES AND GENTLEMEN!! KURT KNECHT ON THE BICYCLE!!” I refrained and said, “Hey Pate. What are you doing out here riding a bike around in the middle of the woods.”
“Oh,” said Pate, “I’ve gotten into biking lately.”
“I haven’t seen you since the Smokey Robinson gig.”
We made some more small talk and parted.
There is something strange about musical relationships. Pate is not someone that I would call a “close friend” exactly. That meeting in the woods was probably only the fifth or sixth time I had seen him in my life. However, I had shared intimate experiences with him through performing. There is a camaraderie that develops from going through meaningful experiences together. It is not the same sort of friendship that you develop with your work colleagues. The contact is much more limited, but the experiences are much more visceral. It is much more akin to family relations. You may only see that weird aunt once every two years, but there is something that you both share. There is a grandparent that you both love, and somehow, it makes you concerned about the same thing. Even if you don’t see them often and are not that interested in them, you are a family. That’s what Pate seems like to me. We care about life in the pit. We care about the same sultry lady.