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Of Troubadours Today

The information contained in this article was supplied by Edward Fleishman, a pianist, band leader, and club date musician par excellence. Mr. Fleishman is also an active educator and serves as assistant principal in a New York public school.

He is the preserver and transmitter of musical cultures, yet he himself is unsung. He has provided the sole exposure to "live" music-making for countless thousands, but no literature or bibliography exists on him or his métier. He is the club date musician, an unorthodox and rugged individualist of music.

Club date musicians (hereafter called c.d.m.'s) specialize in providing dance music at affairs on a one-time basis, i.e. a 4-5 hour event. (In Florida, such jobs are called "casuals" and each region has developed its own vocabulary.) The c.d.m. has memorized a vast number of songs from the different eras and is able to perform them alone or with any random group. If a good c.d.m. finds himself in a strange place with other c.d.m.'s whom he has never before met, he can fit himself automatically into the ensemble, performing songs (in standard keys and tempos) from a commonly shared repertory.

The club date business falls into four echelons: 1) top society orchestras, 2) middle society orchestras, 3) bar mitzvah/wedding orchestra (better category), and 4) bar mitzvah/ wedding orchestra (lower category). The four levels span a widely divergent scope of ability and cost, and the main core of the business is concentrated in five cities known for their large concentrations of certain ethnic populations: New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Miami.

At the top level, musicianship is extremely sophisticated and performance is virtuosic. At the bottom, standards are virtually non-existent and one hears such disparaging descriptions as "just a kid" and "one-finger Joan." The most important single qualification is knowledge of repertoire. At the top, the c.d.m. is able to play almost anything in the popular vein written between 1900 and the present time. Naturally, this highly competent professional earns top dollar. Those with lesser abilities only qualify for smaller gigs, often paying well below union scale.

The professional structure of the club date business was greatly complicated in the fifties and sixties with the advent of a truly new approach to musical participation. Implicit in the divide between traditional and new music is the generation gap. "Contemporary" in pop terms means rock/disco, electronic instruments, and massive amplification. Ironically, according to one top-level practitioner, the most important element in today's group is the "rocker," the guitarist/vocalist who "books the customer" and who is often the weakest musician in the band. He is needed only for a specific type of music. Thus, being limited in repertory, he is hired on the basis of his "charisma," as an entertainer rather than a musician. (There are the few superb musicians who play brilliantly on either side of the gap, but they are the exception to the rule.)

Top orchestras employ full-time instrumentalists, i.e. persons whose sole or primary income source is performing. This select handful of name orchestras maintain "offices," a "first band" which gets the first call and as many additional bands using the "office's" name as may be demanded at a given time. Since all c.d.m.'s work on a free-lance basis, no one is exclusively in the employ of anyone else, and the contractor becomes an important component in maintaining both schedules and standards. These top echelon orchestras book mainly corporate dates and engagements with very wealthy families and encounter little price resistance. Although the principal demand at society dates may be for upbeat fox-trots, the younger members of the audience will require the latest in rock/disco. Thus, in order to keep up with the constantly changing fare, c.d.m.'s listen to rock radio stations for hours on end. The record is everything since one cannot get even the foggiest idea of what a tune sounds like from the printed music.

It is difficult to estimate just how many c.d.m.'s there are in the U.S. As one moves out of the large urban areas, less is required of musicians, and there are many places where music is not even considered an indispensable part of wedding festivities. One informed guess places the number of potential c.d.m.'s at 25,000 nationwide, with less than 5,000 of superior caliber. European musicians have a reputation of being better trained and having greater skill in transposition, but they can't play American dance music "swingingly," perhaps because they don't hear enough of it.

In the club date business, the mark of success is when the c.d.m. starts getting called for gigs. Before that, he has spent countless hours, sometimes as many as ten a day, in "woodshedding," practicing a song over and over again until every chord change is just right. It is a step-by-step development. Armed with a basic core of some fifty tunes, he ventures forth as a "side man" with the lowest echelon band which finds him. Sooner or later, he offers his services to an "office" in the hope of being called and having an opportunity of expanding his horizons and expertise. It is an apprenticeship of hard work and 10-15 years of weekends. The nucleus of any group consists, in addition to the rocker, of keyboard, drums, at least one reed and one brass. To achieve greater variety of sound, doubling becomes a virtual "must," and most players are proficient on several instruments. It is an accepted maxim in the trade that, if a musician does not have a full-time playing job by the time he's thirty, he will have accepted alternate day work and will restrict his playing to weekends and such special events as New Year's Eve.

Most c.d.m.'s, therefore, find permanent employment outside of music. However, the careers they choose must make only limited demands on their time and energies since playing is not only an enormously important part of their lives, but also a lucrative one. Contrary to common belief, c.d.m.'s do not have a narrowly defined and circumscribed base of operations. It is not unusual for the better rung of players to travel to far-away places as their reputation grows.

Some c.d.m.'s choose to specialize in one or more musical ethnicities. In certain cultures, music plays a dynamic and colorful role, and when there are only a few musicians who know that culture's songs and dances, their services come at a considerable premium. While it is said that there will always be enough bands to satisfy the greatest diversity of musical taste, it is also recognized that there will never be enough work to keep every musician employed.

In the general consensus, electronic gear is here to stay. That concession is not all bad in that it assures the dependable availability of easily transportable, well-tuned keyboard instruments at a time when depending on the presence of good pianos in public places is a risky business. Moreover, since the most fundamental function of the c.d.m. is to loosen people up and get them to dance, electronic wizardry seems to provide a powerful stimulus to breaking down inhibition. One musician, discussing amplification, observed that loudness is a fairly reliable social barometer: the least educated people demand the loudest music.

Most c.d.m.'s regard the preoccupations of contemporary concert composers, especially university composers, with intellectual curiosity (at best) or indifference (at worst). They note with wonder that so many choose the cerebral over the visceral dimension of music-making. But they are not intimidated by the critical pronouncements of a tiny elitist group; and they are not cowed in the least by the notion of posterity. Their own mission is pragmatic, immediate, physical: they measure their success by their efficacy in getting a diverse audience to dance.

The c.d.m. firmly believes that there is no more difficult, demanding, or potentially rewarding business than his. Within it, there is an unspoken but clearly defined pecking order, and the practitioner knows precisely where he fits into it. He cannot be satisfied merely to master a set repertoire. He must feel perfectly at ease with an amorphous literature which changes not only with each era, but with each passing day. He is constantly before the public and, owing to the highly exposed nature of his contribution, he can't make too many mistakes. In addition to his making music beautifully, he is expected to be charming and entertaining and charismatic. Moreover, he must be a first-rate business man and, at the same time, have the patience to deal with random requests, nervous brides, weepy mothers, and unruly bar mitzvah children.

But the c.d.m. will tell you that most symphonic or pit orchestra musicians don't have as much fun and, when everything goes well, there are tremendous satisfactions. His self image comes across with clarity and pride: he is a true latter-day trouvère.

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