Photo: Jafe Campbell
We are winding up our extended stint at Paris Blues. It has been a personal milestone for me. It is not a trivial thing to have a weekly gig in NYC that pays. Even my mother is impressed. When I first started studying the guitar a few years back my teacher asked me what my goals were. I told him then that all I wanted was to have a weekly gig at some dive bar that pays. He shrugged and said "That's certainly attainable." And here we are.
I have always had a knack for tune-smithing. It took me a long time to appreciate it. I was always the guy in theater pieces who played the character that played the guitar. I often came up with original material. Once when I was 17 I won the role of Feste in 12th Night at our town's little summer theater. A town called Chelmsford Massachusetts. The play was being staged as a Western. In a single night I scored the entire piece. At our first rehearsal, as we got to the first musical interlude, the director instructed us to 'just skip over this for now." I raised my hand and voiced that I had written something already. He raised an eyebrow and asked me to me play it. We went through the entire script just like that, pausing at each song and me offering: "I got that one too." Every piece save one was kept in the show, along with a completely original tune that was done as an encore. I am sure I stepped on somebodies toes that night but nobody ever said a word to me about it.
See. To me it seemed like a trick. I could never figure out why everybody didn't do it. If only they knew how easy it was. You just make it up.
I spent most of my life trying to do what was hard for me. I wanted to accomplish something. I wanted to be master of my own fate. It wasn't until I bought The Harlem Flophouse that I learned what it was like to feel the wind behind your sails.
The theater phase of my life ended when I bought that house and for seven years most of my creative energy went into realizing that project. During that era I had two friends who were professional musicians. One of them an international opera star. Whenever he was in town they would want to come over to jam with me. I could never figure out why. I wasn't much of a musical technician. I could do a few things but nothing like them. We would sit in the spooky main hall of that Victorian townhouse and I would channel music from out of the ether. Several of the pieces the band now plays like Love Monkey and Frankie and Ronnie came from those sessions. That is what they liked. That was why they wanted to hang with me. One day I woke up and realized that I had a gift and that I should embrace it.
I have to give thanks to my yoga practice for my enlightenment. Luckily I only had to learn the lesson of accepting what is offered to me a few thousand times before I could hear it. That is why the band is called The Goddess Lakshmi. She is the Hindu goddess of abundance.
After my epiphany I decided to seriously study the guitar. That is when I met my teacher, Scott. And that is when I began to really write and record music. I stumbled onto an online music community where I was able to share and develop new works. I received a lot of encouragement and positive feedback there.
While playing solo at one of the Flophouse parties I met Jeff. He asked me if I had a band. I told him, no, "but I am interested". He said the magic words "I play the bass." We started practicing and developing work together. We began playing open mics which pretty much sucked. Typically you had to show up at 6pm to get on the list. Then you had to wait until past midnight to play one or two songs. At that point you were performing to a room full of nobody listening. That is where I learned the trick of adding a 6th or 11th chord to the end of each tune. Given the right cue people will applaud almost anything. It's kind of like feeding fish. If you don't believe me just go to any Broadway show.
Once we played at a bar called The Karma Lounge. I had no idea what kind of place it would be. We got there and I found out that they catered to Hip-Hop spitters. These vampires charged $20 bucks for every tune you played as part of some phony contest. I wanted to walk out but Jeff said. "We're here and we have our gear, just pay the man." The hall was filled with the blackest negros I had ever seen. They came on the PATH train from the vast slums of New Jersey. They had saved their dimes for their big chance in New York City. I wondered what they would make of us but unlike everywhere else we had played they were quiet and attentive, laughing in all the right places.
Then I got the idea of playing at house parties. There was free food and drink. People actually listened before they applauded. We played at a couple of different lofts in SoHo. Hollis joined the band as a gift for awhile. I had met her during an Anusara immersion. She was used to drumming for much bigger acts (she plays for Boss Hogg) but she liked what I was doing. One weekend we had a gig in The Lower East Side at Orchard Ally park. Hollis couldn't do it. She was out of town for her mothers 70th birthday. That's when we got Amos. We knew it was a fit. Shortly afterwards when Hollis quit, he officially joined as the groups percussionist. He is also an experienced composer. He has more than once lent his expertise as we shepherded a new tune out of the gate and onto the dewy pasture of live performance.
Here's the part about Paris Blues. When I first moved to Harlem eleven years ago I was immediately drawn to this venue. But every time I went in I never saw more than three people in the joint. Eventually, despite the fact that the place was dripping with ambiance, I lost interest. Then I got the idea of making a gig there. It took me several tries to work up the courage before I went into that dark and silent place. I met Sam, the dapper and elegant owner who had presided over several decades there. Sam looks like the best dressed dude in a Blaxploitation Flick. I offered to play for free. He enthusiastically accepted. But this was the deal. Once we started drawing an audience he had to pay the band. He agreed.
A few weeks later during one of the snowiest winters in NYC ever, we began playing. Soon after we started the venerable jazz musician Les Goodson began a Wednesday Night open mic. Then Atiba Kwabena started playing on Thursdays. Now a place that was sinking into the mire of Harlem's forgotten history is alive and kicking. Unlike most spots it is truly multi-racial and multi-generational. Lakshmi itself has fans as young as 3 and well into the golden years too. This is something I am very proud of.
Around about February I resurected Love, a tune I had written in Germany ages ago. Amos and I talked about how much more effective it would be as a duet. So I went to one of Les's open mics. That's how I met Kosi. That whole story is in a previous post. And with that the band was complete.
Since then there have been nights where we have played to two or three people and nights when the joint was jammed. There have even been moments when we sang to an empty bar. Everybody in the band sings, by the way. After about eight weeks the bar started to pay us and they have stood by our agreement, paying us no matter what the house is like. Now I just have to figure out what our next step is.