Lessons Learned Early, Part I: “The Jimmy Crane Orchestra”

There are elements of the music business that are glamorous. You can see the world, perform in magnificent concert halls, occasionally make real money, and participate in culture at a high level. I suspect that a significant percentage of young people pursuing degrees in music performance are looking forward to a future filled with these things, and are in for a rude awakening even if the careers they embark upon prove to be successful and fulfilling. Depending on how you look at it, I was either fortunate or unfortunate enough to learn early on what other possibilities the world of music holds. Despite my tendency to be cynical, as I reminisce about some of my earliest professional playing experiences, I can only conclude that I must be optimistic to a near-pathological degree. The shady behavior, bad role models, disloyalty, disordered personalities, and broken economic infrastructure of many of the first situations I encountered have continued to be evident throughout the eighteen years since I played my first on-the-books gig, and yet I am still in music. Some of my recollections aren’t suited to this blog, since I try to keep it PG-13, but in this series, I’ll share a few relevant anecdotes, changing names to protect the guilty.

The Jimmy Crane Orchestra

This was a blues, rock, and Top 40 band based in a small city a little over an hour from Ithaca, New York, the town where I was attending college for trumpet performance. I noticed a flier on some studio bulletin boards around the music school. It said the Jimmy Crane Orchestra was looking for a new trumpet player and would be holding auditions. The auditions were to be in the back of a VFW bar in a different town more than two hours away, and I had no idea what to expect, but I booked a time slot and drove myself there to try out. The audition consisted of reading a couple of trumpet-heavy charts with the band. It was over in ten minutes, after which I left and drove the many miles back home. Within a few days, I received a call informing me that I was to be their new trumpet player. I celebrated my membership in the group for the very last time that day. Highlights of my tenure in the band (about a year, I think), included learning that the morbidly obese alcoholic bandleader made a habit of drinking as much as a bottle of Jack Daniels during most every performance before driving the equipment bus home. His friendships with local law enforcement were apparently how he avoided repeated DWI arrests. How he avoided crashing the bus, I do not know. Another member of the band couldn’t quite match the leader when it came to drinking, but he made up for his shortcomings with an addiction to prescription opioids that he had begun using legitimately to deal with the pain after a surgery on his back, but had gotten hooked on, as have so many other Americans. One of the other horn players, while a nice enough person, was seemingly incapable of playing a single solo without quoting If I Only Had A Brain. Sadly, that was usually the best part of his solos.

I witnessed professional-level redneckery from the band and its audiences while playing a regular engagement for a while at a dive bar in a different small city an hour away from Ithaca. Printing directions from mapquest.com, I would set off on a Friday evening after a busy week of school, returning home well past midnight with ringing ears, swollen chops, a growing awareness that some people look like adults but are not, and $50-minus-gas to show for it. Lousy pay was an ongoing trend with this group, and ultimately played a major role in my decision to stop playing with them. During the spring, the band was hired to play a wedding at a well-known venue in the western portion of the Finger Lakes Region. I had already played a couple of weddings at this location, and each of them paid around $200, which was not bad for the time, or the area. For some reason, the Jimmy Crane Orchestra was only paying me $100 for the same time-frame, playing demands, and travel requirement. Whether this was a result of undercutting when negotiating the rate, excessive leader pay, or something else, I have no idea. I immediately recognized it as yet another sign that something was very wrong with this whole operation. In combination with some unnecessarily rude treatment from the bandleader, the obviousness of the drug addict’s blood content while onstage, and an overall uneasy feeling, I knew I was not long for this band.

Here is another choice story that will perhaps highlight the special nature of playing with the Jimmy Crane Orchestra. I showed up to a winery forty minutes outside Ithaca for a gig that was listed on the schedule I’d been given as a jazz festival. It seemed odd that a group that played music that was decidedly not jazz would have been booked for such an event, but, on the other hand, plenty of real “jazz festivals” do this all the time (Rochester and New Orleans, I am looking at you). I went in expecting to be part of the lone non-jazz group at the jazz festival. As it turned out, I was part of the only non-metal band at the biker rally, at which chapters of numerous one percenter motorcycle clubs from around the nation were represented, drinking stupendous amounts of beer and liquor. I guess bikers aren’t into semi-dry riesling. How’s that for a jazz festival? Views from the mobile stage included a four-year-old child zipping around a lawn on a dirt bike, a large tent selling leather goods including chaps and jackets, hundreds of Harley-Davidsons, and the bemused, often bearded faces of an audience wondering why our music didn’t sound angrier. The whole thing felt about five minutes away from a massive meth deal gone wrong. I could go on, but I think you get the point.

Ultimately, I did learn some lessons while playing with this band, which I will summarize here, in no particular order:

  • Older doesn’t always equal wiser.

  • Trust your instincts about people. If they let you down when you give them second, third, and fourth chances, it’s time to cut ties.

  • White women can’t get enough of “Brown Eyed Girl.”

  • If you want an ethical bandleader, you might have to start leading a band.

  • There is a reason the musicians’ union exists.

I will be returning to this series from time to time with other stories of lessons learned early. As always, I welcome your questions and comments below. Thank you for reading!

Nikola TomicComment