Posts Tagged 'Music Festival'

That’s Show Biz

The last time I performed for an audience was in my senior year at Von Steuben High School in Chicago’s Albany Park. That was 1956 and I was 17.

Me and my buddies Alan, Larry, and Russell wrote the class song. Sadly, I had little to do with it since it was clear which of my friends had a talent for composing, and it wasn’t me. I have little memory of how we did it, but it got done and we were assigned the job of presenting it to our fellow graduates.

We stole the melody from the Georgia Tech fight song…

I’m a Ramblin’ Wreck from Georgia Tech, and a hell of an engineer—
A helluva, helluva, helluva, helluva, hell of an engineer.

Here we were, four Jewish kids in a predominately Jewish neighborhood. I grew up thinking that we were in the majority and that everyone living in, or emigrating from Russia like my parents, was also Jewish. Why we picked Ramblin Wreck escapes me, but it was certainly out of character. Ha Tikvah maybe, but not the Georgia fight song.

I occasionally, 66 years later, still sing some of the lyrics we wrote…

We’re the class of pride and destiny and we’re shouting out our name

Cause we are proud of what are and put to song our fame.

And then I forget the rest and switch back to Ramblin Wreck.

That was pretty much the end of my career until I picked up the ukulele six months ago and after 66 years, was again primed for stardom. I learned enough chords to be respectable, and to be mute when appropriate. I have a small, soprano ukulele that minds its lilliputian manners and lets others grab the limelight.

In November, the Ojai Music Festival invited our ukulele group to play background music at the Holiday Home Look In. The music keeps the atmosphere lively while paying guests prowl the insides and outsides of the four private homes.

Guests come and go, are polite, quiet, and respectful. The festival docents are well trained and restrain guests from leaping into the swimming pools, raiding the hosts’ refrigerators, and stopping them from relieving themselves in the outdoor shrubbery. Our dozen ukulele players at times outnumbered the guests on the premises. We played for two hours, received kudos for our performance, and agreed we would do it again if asked.

Gina and Anna, the festival folks who make everything happen at the Look-In, asked us if we’d like to do background music for the docent appreciation party in December. Reflecting on our experience at the Look-In, we quickly fell in line and agreed to participate.

The event was at the Women’s Club located in the center of town. A building that was once threatened by destruction because of general malaise, wood rot and lack of funds, it has gained new life and is likely to be hosting events well after my own demise from rot.

I’ve been to the Club many times, mostly for musical acts that were once ubiquitous but now have decreased in frequency. I miss them, especially the one that featured the singing cowboy, Sourdough Slim. I have no idea how old Slim is since Google failed to produce the answer after an in-depth ten second search. It’s a well-kept secret that lets Slim cavort without the audience worrying about this probable septuagenarian falling over his guitar and accordion and strangling on the harmonica that hangs like a pendulum under his oversized ten-gallon hat.

Always an observer, I had never been on-stage at the Women’s Club until the ukulele showed up and allowed me to resurrect my musical career. Arriving just before show time, ten of us filed onto the stage defying the five dark narrow wooden steps, and the floor to ceiling drapes that forced an entry perilously close to the edge of things. I felt like an elderly Tom Cruise of Mission Impossible fame, avoiding a five-foot fall into the unknown abyss. In retrospect, I got some idea about how Sourdough must have felt and a new appreciation for performers.

The event was sponsored by the Festival in return for the work done by volunteer docents, florists, and others. We were asked to play for about 30 minutes, then break for a dinner that featured soup and bread, just like they fed to the political prisoner Ivan Denisovich in the book The Gulag Archipelago.

In contrast to our sublime performance at the Look-In, the Women’s Club show was more like the bar scene from the film The Blues Brother starring John Belushi of Animal House fame and Dan Aykroyd. Suffering beer bottles thrown by the boozers at Bob’s Country Bunker, the Brothers learn to accommodate to the will of the people and give them what they want. The chicken wire screen that blocked most of the bottles helped a lot.

We played for thirty minutes while the crowd got louder. I’m sure it was in part due to the age of the guests and their pervasive hearing aids. Since we were hardly able to hear ourselves, in part due to our own hearing aids, we could enjoy ourselves by skipping the finger challenging chords, yell at the audience, laugh with them, and accommodate.

Taking advantage of elderly, unpaid musicians, Anna and Gina urged us to play again following soup time and thank-yous. The wine that accompanied the soup had increased and amplified the audience chatter which gave us further license to do pretty much anything we wanted to.

Bedtime for many guests finally brought a steady exodus onto Ojai Avenue. Oblivious to the declining population, we played on and finally realized that the only people left were those who were cleaning up the place. We had shut it down with our ukuleles, gaining another show biz learning experience.

Next time I will drink the wine instead of worrying about its impact on my musical skills. I probably could even substitute the Ramblin Wreck for Jingle Bells. No one will notice.

Ojai Music Festival

Avant-garde can be both a noun and an adjective. As the latter, it means favoring or introducing experimental or unusual ideas. As any one of these ideas is untried, a certain percent of them will fall flat, fail to succeed, or in contemporary usage, be just plain ca-ca.

The Ojai Music Festival wends its way into town this weekend. It brings with it several truckloads of what can be termed avant-garde or contemporary music. A thousand people, mostly from other than Ojai, will squeeze into Libbey Bowl and sit enraptured while artists do their best to be unique and engaging. Local businesses will also be ecstatic as the town swells with well-heeled patrons of the arts.

Before the new Libbey Bowl was constructed a few years ago with its high impact, relatively uncomfortable plastic seats, concert goers sat on high impact, very uncomfortable wooden benches. A once homey feel, the old benches were fraught with the possibility of slivers in your fanny.

Before its recent facelift, you also had the option of bringing lawn chairs, sitting on the grass at the back of the Bowl and, if you were lucky, got a reasonable, though pixie-like, view of what was happening on the stage. The Bowl renovation left things as they were, minus the view.

When Ila and I arrived in Ojai eighteen years ago, we had never heard of the Festival. Our sources of information about the Festival were limited. But always ready to try something new, we bought bench seat tickets, dressed warmly and attended a Saturday night concert. Not sure where our seats began or ended, we simply allowed ourselves to be shouldered at will by our bench mates. We took it in stride, sat back and anticipated classical music. We expected Beethoven, Brahms and Bach. Shostakovich was perhaps as far out as it would get.

What we did get can best be described by my recollection of the first performer. A man, neatly dressed, entered stage left and sat at what appeared to be an expensive Steinway piano. So far so good. But not for long. He began to play…with his elbows. Or so it seemed. I’ve told this story so many times that I don’t really know if he was actually using his elbows. Perhaps he was just clever enough to finger the keys in a way that sounded like he was using his elbows.

Taking a well deserve break at half-time, we mingled with the crowd and tried to look erudite. Our friend Ralph, fresh from yelling Bravo! blocked our way and said “Wasn’t that wonderful? Wasn’t it inspiring?” Never having been mistaken for someone who could be an Ambassador to the Vatican, I said “No it wasn’t.” Ralph waved me off as someone who definitely was ill-suited to premium bench seats.

We were not to be dissuaded. Still searching for the Holy Grail, Ila and I continued to attend the Festival each June. We confessed to our low-level erudition and had demoted ourselves to the lawn area. We didn’t see much, but then no one seemed to mind if I closed my eyes and feigned being erudite; as long as I didn’t snore.

A number of years ago, one of my riders on the Help of Ojai bus was a man in his nineties. During one of our  trips together, Mike and I talked about music and I asked him if he had ever been to the Music Festival. “I haven’t been there yet but I do regularly attend concerts in Santa Barbara and Los Angeles. Maybe it’s time I tried the one at Bowl.”

About ten minutes before the opening afternoon of the 2010 performance, here came my ninety-ish bus-mate Mike. He had spotted me and carefully picked his way to us through the mass of other less erudite concert goers. He unfolded his chair, a bit of a task given his age and the built-in complexity of those medieval instruments of torture, and plunked himself down next to me. We listened to the first half of the performance without identifying a piece that would offer lasting memories. At its conclusion, Mike got up, folded his chair and said “I’ve heard quite enough.” He wandered out of the Bowl, never to be seen again.

Years ago, I had the pleasure of breakfasting with Bill Kraft. Bill was, and still is, an elderly gentleman who in his earlier days had been the lead tympanist for the Los Angeles Symphony. After sharing our mutual genealogies, I took the opportunity to tell him about my difficulty with the Festival’s avant garde music. “Bill, I don’t know what’s the matter with me. Try as I might, I cannot fathom the music, much less appreciate and like it.” Bill unhesitatingly drew himself up to his full five-foot-four height and said “You don’t have to like it. It’s okay to dislike it. You are not a lesser human being for not liking it. And studiously avoid anyone who tells you that you must develop a liking for it.”

I still buy Festival tickets every year.


Pages

Archives

Recent Comments