In case you haven’t heard, the Uptown Sound is getting ready to take another flying leap into the next project. We’re the narrator/protagonist and house band for Bailiwick Chicago’s production of the Tony Award-winning musical “Passing Strange”. You can read all about it here or get tickets over there, but while I had a second to breathe before we start tech week with the cast, followed by a week of dress rehearsals and previews, I was thinking about how much easier this whole endeavor was made by my ability to read music. Kevin too. Both of us have played in rock bands for 20 years, but before that we were playing in the school band.
Y’know, the marching band with the funny hats, the symphonic band with the angry guy upfront waving a stick around, or the jazz ensemble wearing v-neck sweaters hacking away at Count Basie charts. We’ve been there done that, and as lame as it might’ve seemed at the time, that’s where we picked up the basics of playing music together with other people: how to read the dots and lines on the paper, what the little Italian phrases meant, how to shut up when the director is talking so you can get the job done and get the hell out of there.
I can laugh about it now, but growing up in Northern Virginia, I had the biggest prick of a high school band teacher, a guy who was living the dream… of bullying a bunch of kids who were powerless to fight back. If you didn’t toe the line, you were kicked out, slandered as a loser while you went on with your teenage years, hanging out with your friends, doing fun stuff rather than put up with the band director’s crap.
The thing is, he got results. Our marching band was doing remarkably hip/sophisticated stuff (Holst’s “The Planets” and West Side Story were perennial favorites) and we cleaned up at all the competitions. But very few of his students continued on with music after graduation. I’m not talking about playing in professional orchestras either (although several drummers did go on to play with groups like the Pietasters and Seven Mary Three), but just playing for fun, whether it’s strumming a guitar around the campfire, singing in the church choir, or busting out the trombone for the 4th of July parade. It seemed like they only knew how to sit down, shut up, and read the music in front of them, without being able to write a song or improvise. Meanwhile, I was learning Jane’s Addiction covers after school while playing tuba in the marching band during the day, and after I got the boot for being a wise ass, I was free to join the orchestra, sing in the chorus, play in the pit for “Anything Goes” and “Cabaret”, take music theory, and learn more about how music works and how to enjoy it with other people. The band director said I’d never get anywhere with music, so I found it pretty funny that I had a dream about pissing on his grave when we were doing the Eccentric Soul Revue.
In hindsight, after all these years of playing in all kinds of bands, recording some records, putting together a touring soul revue, and now staging a Broadway musical on short notice, I have to admit that I’m glad I had solid music fundamentals drilled into me at such a young age. Without that, this would be so much more difficult. – BT
PS: come to think of it, my first paying gig was during college when a local high school needed a bass player for their production of “The Goodbye Girl”. My sight-reading skills saved my ass because all I got was three rehearsals before doing three performances.