It was New Year’s Eve 1973. We were fairly new as a band and hadn’t gotten out of Brooklyn yet. This really sleazy mob-connected agent booked us at “The Happening Lounge” which was a mob-controlled skull orchard right on the corner of Henry Street and Hamilton Avenue in Red Hook, right outside the Battery Tunnel. We were booked as a four-piece “oldies” band for $400 gross/$350 net, and the hours were 11:30 p.m. ‘till 7 a.m.(!)
The agent told us it was a nice crowd of mostly Italian-American folks (like we were!). However, when we got there and set up, the place was a knife and gun club, and the crowd was all pimps, prostitutes and drug dealers! The crowd just kept coming and going the entire night and all the requests we got were for only hard core Latin.
We were clearly not the right band for this place. In the coat closet there was a rifle with a bayonet hanging on the wall, as well as all kinds of clubs and bats! We were scared spitless the whole night, but stuck it out.
At the end of the gig, the club owner cut our pay and only gave us $330. It was clearly not the time nor place for an argument, so we just packed up and drove home — and never worked with that agent again. Last I’d heard about him a number of years back, he’d gotten a really bad beating from the “hats.”
A few years back I participated in a New Year’s event that may have been the only time Studio 54 (in its heyday) used live music. It was a union job — strictly legit. We were told by the contractor that we’d play two tunes at midnight and that would be that. It seemed a pleasant alternative to marathon parties I’d played in the past.
We were told to wear black turtlenecks and when we began to assemble in the smallish room provided for us I kept thinking of the British urban youth gang called the Teddy Boys.
The backstage area had all the charm of an abandoned warehouse. There was very little in the way of lighting, as if to cover up the state of neglect.
We were to play on a motorized frame over a makeshift stage. We ran a tune. The frame lurched. It was like trying to play on horseback.
We were led by a young man who, though well-intentioned, had no rhythm and had never conducted before. The rehearsal went quickly because they were soon to open their doors to the patrons. We were led back downstairs to the makeshift dressing room.
The music started up. Disco. It was like a hurricane set to a beat. A beat that never varied. Non-musicians can never comprehend what torture it is to hear the same beat for a couple of hours.
Came the make-up lady. To complete the spectacle, we were told, she would gel our hair. After our hair was appropriately moussed and sculpted to her specifications she took out a container of gold metal flakes and applied it, as one would salt an egg.
Midnight approached and we were led upstairs. As we lined up to go on we could see a bit of the festivities. What might be described as a “tableau vivant” was being enacted. As the taped music pounded, a kind of Greco-Roman theme was taking place. Mercury boogying with Adonis. That sort of thing.
Midnight. The motorized frame we were standing on lurched forward. The dance music stopped and we began to play. The mad toga party froze in place and we were stared at, as passersby might pause to look at a traffic accident. I wonder if we looked as weird to them as they looked to us.
We executed the two short pieces we were assigned and then were paid and dismissed. It took me several weeks to rid myself of the gold flakes the young lady had put in my hair. That is as close as I ever got to the Beautiful People of that era, but it’s as close as I’d ever want to get.
Almost 30 years ago, my Dixieland band, the On the Lam Band, was hired to play for a parade from the Plaza Hotel, up Fifth Avenue to the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park on New Year’s Eve. Our job was simply to the lead people to the fountain for some other greater purpose which I no longer recall (something they had no doubt paid dearly for). We delivered the crowd to the fountain at approximately 11:30 p.m., at which point we were done. Since it was a cold night, and there was no reason to hang about, we headed for home via the Lexington Avenue subway (all of the band members lived in the East Village in those days).
While we were waiting for the train at the 68th Street Station, one of the band members noticed that it was almost midnight. Having our instruments so close at hand we decided that it would simply be unconstitutional not to play “Auld Lang Syne,” no matter where we were. As the midnight hour approached we removed our instruments from their cases. At that moment the train came into the station. Then, just as the doors opened, someone called out “It’s midnight!” and we broke into “Auld Lang Syne.”
Now you can just imagine the looks on the faces of those people who, by whatever chance of fate, were riding that car on the train that night.
After the standard rendition of “Auld Lang Syne” we gave them a few Dixieland classics. They were truly amazed and cheered by our music. While it was not truly a “gig” it was one of the most spontaneous and unforgettable moments of my life, New Year’s Eve or otherwise.
All I can say, is that when the rain stick comes out, you know you’re in for a long night.
My most memorable New Year’s gig was somewhere in Throgs Neck in the early 90’s where some guy dropped dead — literally — while dancing past the bandstand! It was surreal! As this guy was on the ground — pale, white, lifeless, and being worked on by some concerned patrons — others were dancing right by, sometimes pausing for a few seconds before dancing again. Being the drummer, the guys in the band jokingly teased me that I was rushing. My time is good; it’s just that his time was up!
The year: 1998. The place: La Belle Epoque restaurant. After a spontaneous Brazilian jam session a friend asked me if I wanted to play a New Year’s gig with some Brazilian musicians. I decided to give up my above-scale club date and play fun music for a change. The rehearsal proved it would indeed be fun. However we did have to back this horrible singer to start the show.
I figured it would be worth it in the end.
The restaurant staff was friendly. We survived the bossa nova set with the bad singer.
After a few Brazilian standards, the clients began to complain that we only played one style.
“Play some jazz!” someone yelled.
The players did not know any standards at all. So I said, “Let’s just play a blues.”
“What?” the leader asked. “You mean like swing?”
Suddenly the accordion player started the opening two measures of “In the Mood.”
I joined in on my hi-hat and smiled. Hope?
But something was wrong. The accordionist was staying on the first chord. I called out “Go to the 4, go to the 5!” No deviation. He stayed on those two measures for 20 minutes — no changes at all.
I thought about jumping out the window and buying a new drum set later.
We did, however, get paid and fed
Several years ago, I got called by two separate leaders of two different bands, one American and one Brazilian, for gigs on New Year’s Eve. It turned out they were both in the same room for the same party at the Hilton so I did them both. All I had to do was change shirts between sets!
When I was a young musician in the 1980’s, for about eight or nine New Year’s Eves in a row I played at the Ridgewood, New Jersey country club with my father Herbie Wasserman. Playing together was a ton of fun and without him I never would have lasted that long in the club date business. Once, driving home from the gig at about 2 a.m., Dad turned to me and said, “You know Ron, my father died 50 years ago today.” I was absolutely speechless and stunned at this pronouncement, and had no idea how to respond to this rare mention of my grandfather. He had died on a Depression-era New Year’s day long before, when my own dad was still a child. The car was mostly quiet the rest of the trip home as we both silently contemplated the meanings of fatherhood, loss, life, time and remembrance.
My most memorable New Year’s Eve gig was in 2004, when I played in the Rainbow Room. At midnight I watched the ball drop in Times Square — from above!
I was on the Queen Elizabeth II playing New Year’s Eve for about 1,200 passengers. My friend had the enviable job of being in the band room directly behind the stage on a walkie-talkie, pretending to be up on the bridge.
As midnight approached, and we continued to play to a packed dance floor, the cruise director announced, “We’re now going to speak to Gary who is on the bridge with our captain, watching the satellite Greenwich Mean Time Clock for our official countdown to 1987! Take it Gary!”
Gary started counting. But he started counting UP! “1… 2… 3… 4… 5…”
Needless to say there was confusion and suddenly three mics were alive with various people in charge quickly counting down and somehow arriving at “Happy New Year” at approximately the same time.
The passengers seemed deflated (but they also seemed drunk).
New Year’s Eve, 1999. Our band is scheduled to start at 10 p.m. We arrive at approximately 9 p.m. to get set up, as would any responsible band. But the restaurant won’t let us in until 10:30 p.m., as they don’t want to give up the tables. It’s 15 degrees and windy. We wait in our cars, freezing and carbon monoxidizing. Finally we get in and start playing by 11 p.m. It’s going well. At 11:50 p.m., the leader tells me to kick off a fast rockin’ tune at the stroke of midnight. I do so.
Almost immediately an old man with intense garlic breath starts to SCREAM into my ear in a heavy German accent: “Turn the music down!”
I was singing at the time so all I could do was to sing softer and turn down my guitar.
A few minutes later I felt hands around my throat from behind. The old man was trying to choke me! He was well on his way to accomplishing his task when I shook loose.
Being a level-headed person (even with such provocation), rather than escalate the scene, I put down my guitar and left the bandstand, after which the band took a break.
End of story. Oh yeah, I later offered him a breath mint.
Ironically it was not a jazz gig, on which I generally expect to be accosted one way or another.
My most memorable New Year’s Eve gig was about four years ago. It was a normal gig until the end. The hotel decided to do a balloon drop at midnight. They overloaded the net with balloons of various sizes (mostly large). When the balloons finished falling, we were buried up to our waists. We had to “pop” our way to our equipment. The guests had to “pop” their way out at the end of the night. During the clean-up, the hotel staff used leaf blowers to clear the lobby.
Years ago, while working as music director for a repertory theatre company out in California, the general director and sometime “conductor” decided to raise some money for the company with a New Year’s Eve offering — dinner, a concert performance of “Die Fledermaus,” and then dancing to a big band. She hired me to put together the big band. Part of the deal was that my wife and I would get dinner first, along with all the paying guests. But right before the performance was to begin, she came up to me and somewhat frantically told me I had to sit next to her at the podium and, keeping my arms below a café curtain run across the stage in front of the orchestra, conduct the operetta, since she didn’t know the score yet. The orchestra and the singers watched me as I conducted it as discreetly as possible and she waved her arms around with abandon for the sake (one guesses) of the audience. That would have been bad enough but then, during the big band segment, when it got up to almost midnight we finished a number and I announced to the crowd that we were going to count down to midnight, followed by the obligatory “Auld Lang Syne.” We started the countdown but at about “six” some woman yelled, “Hurry up!” I stopped counting and yelled back, “Lady, it’s time! I have no control over it!”
“Auld Lang Syne” started a little late because of that.
My most memorable New Year’s Eve gig? Playing Strauss waltzes in Grand Central Station for way too long, not getting out until 11:45 p.m. and spending midnight standing next to a puddle of piss waiting for the subway.
Some years ago I booked a small band for New Year’s Eve at a local country club. The bandstand was in the ballroom — no tables or chairs — but the party was in the bar down the hall. Every half hour or so one or two couples would discover us, peek in the door, and maybe even dance until the end of the tune, then return to the party. At midnight everyone stayed in the bar room to watch the ball drop on television while we played “Auld Lang Syne” to an empty room and wished each other a happy New Year. At the end of the gig, the boss came in and said he loved the band and would we be available the following year.