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Getting Ready For Showtime – When You’re The Show

Mort Weiss By

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This time out, I'd like to delineate how it is for me when I go somewhere to appear as a guest artist. Specifically, I'm thinking about the time I headlined the Cathedral Park Jazz Festival in Portland, Oregon.

The phone rings, and it's Joe Beeler, the artistic director and producer of said festival. We had talked before about my appearing at the festival, but now Joe had a problem: Jack Sheldon and Ernestine Anderson were to appear, but a medical problem for Jack meant that he couldn't fly. Then, suddenly, Ernestine wanted more bread to carry the show. So, I get the call on a Tuesday. The event was to take place that coming weekend, and I'm to close the show that Saturday night. Joe and I had discussed transportation, hotel, $$, all the usual stuff, and we came to an agreement. I was going to get there that coming Friday, try to get a rehearsal in and do some interviews for KMHD-FM the next morning.

Now, at this point, let me stop talking about the gig and try to explain how one reacts—I should say, how I react—when one agrees to go to another city and headline a jazz concert with musicians that one has never met, with little or no rehearsal time, in front of a crowd of at least 1,000 people who are expecting a wonderful jazz experience.

Being a performance artist, when it comes to conditioning, is analogous to being a prize fighter. If you're thinking in terms of world-class musicians, and that's how I think, the mantra is: Keep your chops, always! That's not simply physical but also mental and intellectual. (Of course, in this brave new politically correct world, the 'no-pain, no-gain' phrase has been done away with—so that everyone can be a winner, with a minimum amount of effort: "Oh you tried, so you're a winner too." What pure and unadulterated bullshit.) In the performance arts, as in sports, the best of the best are those who—when really tired, and hurting, and mourning the loss of something personal in nature—feel like sitting down and quitting for the day, but instead say: Fuck 'em! I don't quit! I'm a winner! I don't lose! Come on, gravity do your fucking best—but you ain't gonna win to day. It's not an easy thing to do, but like anything else—even quitting—the more you do it, the easier it becomes.

I'd like to quote a few sentences from a recent review of my album I did with Bill Cunliffe: "The counsel from Shakespeare's Hamlet—'Be ready!'—has always served the redoubtable Weiss well. Its his obsessive-compulsive wood shedding that enables him to walk into an unfamiliar situation and simply go with the flow." The term "wood shedding," for those of you from Bakersfield, means practicing.

So, off to LAX and Alaska Airlines to Portland, Oregon. I am met at airport by a very nice volunteer from the festival, and there follows a nice ride to the hotel. I check in to a nice room, then sit down to chill and meditate for 15 minutes. I get up and take out my horn, and take out the 10 pages of scales and exercises that I always take with me when I appear and then practice softly for one hour. If anybody complains, I just tell them that tomorrow night at the festival it would cost them $25 to hear me. It's 4 p.m. and I have time for a shower and shave before dinner with some media folks whom I had never met at the Heathman Hotel a few blocks away. (Great ribeye!) Everyone—including George Fendel, the voice of jazz in that area; Mike Carlson, who does all my radio promotion; Frank Brandon, my distributor; their wives and friends—had a nice evening. (Who picked up the check? Well that's another story.) Now, I head back to my hotel, call my wife Jeanne, get my Louis L'Amour book out and am asleep by mid-night.

Up at 8 a.m., and Dr. Phil Brenes, who also had a jazz show on KMHD-FM, picks me up at 10 and drives me to a very bohemian-type restaurant in the St. Johns Park section of Portland, where the festival was to be held outdoors under their historical bridge. (Some black cat was sitting way high up on one of the girders, practicing tenor sax, though he didn't look like Sonny.) Next was a fun show hyping my appearance at the festival that night. The sign on the window said: "Talk with Mort Weiss live on KMHD, Saturday morning at 11 a.m." I thought: "Man, what a cool sign." Anyway, two people showed up. The fucking engineer kept coming up to the mic, and asking me questions in different voices. And I would answer him with cool answers but, man if you don't think that wasn't ego damaging. I soldered on, even when they dubbed in the canned applause at the end of the show. Fuck it!


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