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Mindi Abair: Game Changer

Trish Richardson By

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He continues, "Going on the road with people, some people say it builds character. Some people say it reveals character. It certainly does reveal character and Mindi was just great to be around. She comes out of the elevator in the morning looking like diamonds, which is an indication of her professionalism, her personal discipline."

How would Weinberg best describe the saxophonist? "Fun, fantastic performer, always willing to stretch herself. She is always willing to say, 'Yeah, I can do that.' Or 'I'll do that.' Or 'I'll figure out a way to do that.' That's the kind of people you want around you, in life generally, but specifically in bands. Who can do that? She's got the first hand up in the air.

"A lot of times—and I don't have any judgement of this—but the first thing is, 'Talk to my manger and what does it pay?' And that's all very important, but that just wasn't her style. She just wanted to play. It was all about the music. We could work out the other details, which obviously we did. But I could tell immediately that the focus was on the music and performing and contributing."

What was it like on the road with the beautiful blonde saxophonist? Recalls Weinberg, "We were playing small clubs, theaters, where you could see the whole audience. When Mindi came out obviously there was kind of a reaction from the gentlemen in the crowd. But then when she played the sax, forget it. Everyone in the building picked up on that. As I said, it's like three-hundred sixty degrees with Mindi Abair."

How does Abair onstage compare to Abair offstage? "Very similar," states Weinberg. "She's got an incredible personality. Generally, in my experience, you can go one of two ways. You can be completely different off stage and then come alive when you are onstage. But Mindi's up all the time and the stage is just another facet of her engaging personality. And approach to life. And she hasn't had it easy."

In fact, according to Abair in The Soul of Jazz: Stories and Inspiration from Those Who Followed the Song in Their Souls (Grayson James Press, 2011).

When I came to L.A., I immediately got a job as a waitress because no one would hire me as a musician. I would walk into jam sessions in Los Angeles and ask if I could play. They wouldn't even think I was a musician. I looked like a cheerleader at that point. I was twenty-one years old, and I'm sure I didn't look the part of what I was trying to be. It was interesting. I learned you kind of have to make your own.

And because no one would hire me, I made my own. I did everything from playing on the street to pay the rent, to booking myself as a solo saxophonist and playing in lobbies of hotels or parties. I even played with a trio, or a duo, and hired guys I wanted to play with. Whatever they wanted, that's what I had.

I played all the little dirty rocker clubs in Hollywood, and any jazz club or restaurant that would let us in. Everyone was playing for free. We moved up slowly to getting paid maybe thirty dollars to fifty dollars a night. We definitely paid our dues. We even played on the route of the L.A. Marathon (for free), just to play. We didn't say no to any moneymaking opportunity or any opportunity to get in front of people and play. You never know.

But then, as luck/talent/being-in-the-right-place-at-the-right-time would have it, Abair got her big break. According to the musician, "At one point, I was playing on the street alone in Santa Monica, and Bobby Lyle walked past me. He is a veteran jazz musician. He is incredible, and I recognized him immediately, since I was already a fan. He walked by and stood and watched me play for a while.

"I am thinking to myself, 'I've got a college education, and I am out here on the street playing, and I've got Bobby Lyle watching me. This is a little embarrassing.'

"He stayed to the end of the song, and then he walked up and said, 'You are really good. I should hire you for something.'

"And I thought, 'Well, maybe this isn't embarrassing. Maybe this is pretty cool.' He did hire me, and I played on one of his albums, Power of Touch [Atlantic/WEA, 1997], and toured with him on and off for years. We'll still do stuff together every once in a while. He was a huge part of my coming up the ranks. It all came from his walking up Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica and seeing me out there with my case out."

Weinberg adds, "Mindi played every kind of gig she could think of and putting no boundaries on what she would do. A lot of people do that, [set boundaries]. Sometimes it works for them and sometimes it doesn't. They cut themselves off from other musical experiences that would broaden them. And Mindi can do it all. And in tune, which also could sometimes be a little bit unusual. In tune. And I think that is a good description of Mindi. That she is "in tune." And not just on her instrument. She is in tune."

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