Mort Weiss: Getting ready for showtime – when you're the show

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!

OK, time to eat. It’s about 12:30 p.m., and the ribeye has worn off. Now having a good meal before a concert is very very important: Playing a show is a very physical thing, and it gets harder to do as one ages — especially if you play a wind instrument like I do, with no microphone attachments. I want to hear a clear, pure clarinet sound until the house sound system picks it up. That’s only one generation removed from what I put into the horn, so I can’t have just eaten with food in my stomach and hit high, loud notes with a lot of air pushing on my diaphragm. I think most of you get the picture: It could get messy, just like life itself!

Now, it’s back to the hotel to lay down for an hour. Tried to sleep, but that was a no-go. Got out my horn practiced for one hour, but I never met the other cats that I was going to play with. It doesn’t worry me, though, as I’ve been in these situations countless times: This is where all those thousands of hours spent (back in the day) in jam sessions pays off. Many was the time you didn’t know the cats and the tunes, but you stayed and played and learned, just by being a part of the haps.

I knew that my set was from 8 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., and that my driver would pick me up at 6:30 p.m. So, shaved, showered, got dressed — kinda neo-hip like. (I felt a little pang of fear, then, so I killed a half pint of Jack Daniels. No, no, just kidding! I didn’t kill it, just slightly wounded it. No, no, still kidding!) Went to the mirror, tweaked my hair a little, practiced looking kinda cool and sexy — though that’s hard to do with a clarinet stuck in your mouth. I made out a list of tunes and the keys that I put in my pocket. Then it was off to the festival grounds.

I was ready to rip it up! As we pulled up to the gates and go through security, I can see the crowd: It’s packed, with what had to be over a thousand people there. KMHD is doing a simulcast and I can hear one of the bands playing through all the great speakers all over the grounds. Man, I wanted on that stage! The cats up there were the ones who’d be playing piano, bass and drums with me. I had put my trust in Joe Beeler to have gotten me the best, and he did. There was a tent, a green room of sorts, with all kind of goodies to eat and drink. I autographed 25 posters that they would sell at one of the booths. I was feeling good.

When one has been doing this sort of thing a good part of their life, one learns to read crowds within 30 seconds — clubs, concerts anywhere — and this crowd read real good. Then, there’s a voice: “Mort Weiss, you’re up next.” I move to the wings, and I start to get that feeling of the people, though it’s a hard thing to explain. Whether it’s 10, 100 or 1,000 people, they all seem to come together as one — and you feel them as one. You play to them as one, too. And like sex, even when it’s bad, it’s still pretty good.

I turned to the guys and said: “My name is Mort Weiss. How about ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’ in F?” “Cool, I’ll count it off … 1-2 1234.” Every thing went great. It was a beautiful day in Portland, Oregon … one I’ll never forget.

MORT WEISS

Mort Weiss

Mort Weiss is a bebop-oriented clarinet player with 11 albums as a leader. During his teens, Weiss studied with the L.A. Philharmonic Orchestra's Antonio Remondi, and later soloed on several TV programs with the Freddie Martin Orchestra, aka “The Band of Tomorrow.” Since a return to music in 2001, he has worked with Joey DeFrancesco, Dave Carpenter, Roy McCurdy, Luther Hughes, Bill Cunliffe and the late Sam Most. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
  • Samuel L. Chell

    A totally engaging account, putting us in the mind of the artist and allowing us to share the anticipation, the distractions, the moment-by-moment activities of consciousness prior to performance. Then, it’s the muscle memory–reflexes conditioned through many years of hard work, wood-sheddding and sacrifice–that comes into play. Finally, Hamlet makes his entrance, and makes good on his declaration just prior to the main event: “Readiness is all!”

    I’ve never read an account like this from the musician’s point of view. The analogy with athletic performance seems spot on, as is the point about the necessity of resisting nature (to “go with the flow” is to surrender to entropy). “Performance art” evokes images of Monk dancing around the piano, or Keith unleashing obscenities at a clueless audience, or Glenn Gould refusing to play because his chair is misbehaving. The “art of performance,” on the other hand, is a lot of hard work, beginning long before the event itself. Talent belongs only to those who have the stomach for it (which is why it is so rare).

  • Mike

    Wow man!! Talk about bringing the reader into the experience!! When Mort got to the part when he walked out onto the stage and called the song out to the boys… I was tensed up and ready to roll!!! This man is without a doubt a One of a kind! Well done!

  • http://www.smsjazz.com mort weiss

    QUOTE from BILL EVANS (piano) 1958

    “When you play music you discover a part of your self that you never knew existed”