by Lance Vargas
(This was originally written in Spring, 2000)
Not a day goes by that I don't thank the Lord that
I was born a talented writer instead of a talented musician. It
is not that I don't respect musicians, quite the opposite. I have
a tremendous amount of respect for them. The fact that they were
born with the ability to understand musical composition and also
turn that understanding into a song or medley awes me to the point
that even bad music is miles beyond anything that I could ever
create and thus commands my appreciation. However, the amount
of payback musicians get for the hours they have undoubtedly spent
perfecting their art-form is an injustice and the reason I wake
every morning thanking God my artistic ability was placed in a
pen and not in a microphone, horn, keyboard, string, or wind.
It seems that people take musicians for granted.
It seems easier to dismiss them than other artists. Perhaps it's
due to the fact that there are so many musicians who are trying
to make it and only a few by comparison who actually do. Whatever
the case, their task is not an enviable one. The lifestyle alone
can lead one down a dark road, even for the successful singers
and players. Late nights, barrooms, and unacknowledged excellence
are factors that could lead to worser states. Most of all, it
seems that the lack of appreciation from the unskilled and uneducated
would be the worst part. Any musician who has started playing
to a semi-crowded room and ended up playing only to each other
can respect what I'm saying.
Tonight is a fine example. My girlfriend, Romy Kaye,
is a professional jazz singer and tonight she is playing at "The
Ken Club" in Kensington. She asked me if I would be doorman for
her gigs every Tuesday night and I agreed. I can now add "doorman"
to my list of accomplishments. It is my responsibility to get
three dollars out of every person who walks through the door.
For their three dollars they get an evening of entertainment.
The theme for these Tuesday evening gigs is supposed to be "Lounge
Divas Live." The bar is set up with a wall running straight
down the middle that separates the bar side from the club side
with only a single doorway between the two. A local DJ, Wendy
O'Rourke, is supposed to spin swanky vinyl lounge tunes on the
bar side of the joint while Romy and her band belt it out on the
nightclub side. This dual diva style gig would have worked perfectly
for the girls if the owner of the bar had charged three dollars
for everyone to get in the door or charged nothing to get in the
door but paid the musicians a hundred bucks each. However, the
way it worked out, admission to the bar side was free and anyone
who wanted to listen to Romy and the band on the club side had
to pay three dollars. DJ Wendy would be paid nightly and Romy
would make money off her door. This proved to be the worst case
scenario for Romy. Most people chose to listen to the records
and drink draft beer rather than pay the three dollars to see
real musicians play.
Undaunted, Romy decided to give it a shot. The
room she is assigned to sing in is set up with red topped cocktail
rounds on which votive candles burn. Surrounding this middle area
are semi-circle padded booths. Behind the stage, a long black
curtain descends to the floor serving as a backdrop for the three
musicians who are clothed semi-formal. The guys sport ties and
coats and Romy is in full songstress garb with a long, black,
dress and strappy shoes. With the lights turned down low, this
looks like a classy joint. Up on stage, Romy, her bass player
Greg Carpenter, and her piano player Frank Chang play jazz numbers
spanning six decades. Romy has the ability to belt out blues,
but in an intimate setting such as this, she sticks to the soothing
stuff like: "My Funny Valentine," "Summertime," "All of Me," "Guess
Who I Saw Today," "The Girl from Epinema" and others.
The band sounds fantastic. Frank and Greg knows
just when to give and just when to get. The trio sounds perfect
even with the lack of significant percussion which would mean
splitting the take on the door four ways instead of three. Unmotivated
by money, Romy had a drummer for the two weeks prior to this gig
and he seemed to add to the show. It was a good thing he was doing
it for experience and not money because the extra people he brought
in was negated by his own presence. He must have gotten enough
experience out of the gig because the band is back to three musicians
The lack of drums doesn't hurt them much. It is
still the kind of evening one would like to spend with their lover.
Those who are watching the show by themselves wish they had someone
tp share it with. Romy has one of those voices. One time I brought
a friend and his girlfriend to one of her shows and he told me
the next day that they had gone home that night and engaged in
the best sex they ever had. Need I say more?
At the door, the situation isn't getting any better
in spite of the music up on stage. Tonight, the DJ didn't show
up. This turns "Lounge Divas Live" into a one-woman
affair. To make matters worse, instead of volume controlled lounge
numbers spilling over into the club from the bar; we now are at
the mercy of The Ken Club's jukebox. Apparently, some drunken
girls at the bar were feeling nostalgic that night. They filled
the jukebox with quarters and played upward of an hour's worth
of heavy metal hair bands. These are played with the girl's own
brand of screaming, intoxicated, accompaniment which can be heard
throughout the bar and rudely spills into the club. I ask the
bartender to see what he can do about turning it down and he opens
the jukebox up in a vain attempt to find the volume control. He
puts it down again with no alteration in volume noticeably achieved.
Romy tries to keep her composure by lightening the mood onstage
but competition from a jukebox is taking its toll. Halfway through
he first set, a girl walks in and starts talking on a cellular
phone. I shoo her away.
Romy doesn't get to see the worst of it. As doorman,
I have to endure the rudeness of our prospective guests. They
would walk by me as if I wasn't even the doorman, just some guy
sitting backward in his chair watching the wall instead of the
band. I finally catch them and ask for the three dollars, many
times they would think about it, look at the stage and say, "no
thanks." They wanted to see the band when it was free, but when
they found out it was gonna cost them three whole dollars they
decided it wasn't worth it? What were they gonna do with that
three dollars? Buy another beer? The coffee shop down the road
charges six dollars for amateur musician night. Six dollars is
twice as much money for a tenth of the talent.
In spite of the adversity, Romy and the band play
on. Frank is currently pursuing his Ph.D. in Mathematics, which
is probably why he excels at music as well. Romy met him at a
late night jam session a year or so ago and they had been partners
ever since. The base player, Greg Carpenter has just moved to
San Diego from Vermont and met Romy through Frank. Both these
guys are good sports about the gig even though it looks as if
the only people who are gonna show up to see them are friends
of the band and about ten or so others. They cruise through versions
of: "Round Midnight," "Foggy Day," and "All the Things You Are"
to a dwindling audience. I start charging two dollars instead
of three to hopefully draw a few more people in. I am envious
of musician's talent and their tenacity and their love of their
gift. But the treatment I could do without. Let it be said that
this is not an absolute though. Many people constantly tell Romy
and the band how wonderful everything is. The drawback to that
is the others.
It's 12:00 and I abandon my post to enjoy the last
couple of songs the band has to play. They don't know it yet,
but each of them made about six dollars tonight. This is why I
thank the Lord every morning when I wake. They deserve a hundred
dollars each. There is no other employment opportunity in the
world that requires as much experience and inborn talent as music.
Yet those who can do it well have to earn there keep in nightclubs
such as this one, getting a take of the door, making six dollars
each. Competing with jukeboxes and cellular phones. At the end
of the night, a woman who had been sitting alone all night tips
the band fifty dollars. A not so unhappy ending to what would
end up being the final night of "Lounge Divas Live"
at The Kensington Club