There’s a place in heaven for wedding musicians. You just have to go through the kitchen to get there.
An old saying. (I may have made it up.)
From the late 1980s through the middle of the Great Recession—a period of approximately 20 years—I was active as a professional bandleader. One simple definition of “professional” means you get paid. Period. But in many ways, I’d been a professional bandleader since my teenage years, when our going rate was $15 each. Once I started performing at weddings and corporate events, however, I left that $15 business behind and moved into the big time.
Whether I found the niche or it found me, weddings became the primary source of our performance income.
One does not emerge fully formed into the world of event music. Connections have to be made, advertising and promotion need to be done, and you need to be constantly ready to pitch your services, with a business card magically appearing in your hand.
“Wow! You’re getting married? Congratulations!” Pause. “Do you have a band yet?”
That sort of thing. (This line of questioning replaced other questions I used to ask when I was single, such as “Are you seeing anyone?”)
Being in the music business does have its challenges, and you have to be ready for anything:
- My mother plays the violin. Can she play a song with the band?
- My fiancé wants to play trumpet while wearing his kilt.
- The band can take a break while the Chinese dragon performs.
- We’re both engineers. Do you give dance lessons?
- We’re going to Venice for our honeymoon. Can you wear Italian gondolier costumes?
All of the above (and more) have actually happened.
Those who know me as a Jewish musician and composer will quickly leap to the question, “What about Bar/Bat Mitzvahs?” and that would be legitimate. It isn’t as if I didn’t try to cultivate this field, and it isn’t as if we didn’t have the repertoire and demo recordings, which I worked really hard to produce. On my shelf, stuffed with hundreds of music books and folios, are The Jewish Fake Book and The Compleat Klezmer. At the time I was playing the tenor saxophone and I specifically purchased a soprano sax, which is similar in size and register to the clarinet, a more traditional klezmer instrument. (I was a miserable clarinet player, and this was a better solution to the klezmer problem.)
While my band did play a few dozen Bar/Bat Mitzvah receptions, I understand now that I was late to that game, which was ruled over by a few specialists in the field who knew the landscape better than I. That said, there were wonderfully ironic moments when a non-Jewish wedding couple would insist on us playing Hava Nagila at some point in their event. They’d seen Jewish friends hoisted on chairs while the guests circled them, dancing and clapping to the joyous music, and they wanted it too. Also, never underestimate the importance of the photo/video-op value of such a moment.
Looking back over two decades of weddings and other events it seems the most memorable are, sadly, the ones where something went wrong. No matter how much you try to avoid a disaster, it’s just one bride away. Or it could be the groom. Or a parent. Or a child, young or grown.
That said, the person I feared most when offering music for a wedding was the wedding planner. A good wedding planner is like a good lawyer—you’re glad you have them in your corner. But it doesn’t always work out that way—with wedding planners or lawyers.
One comes to mind. I received a call from a wedding planner who was hired by a bride-to-be who was a dentist living in Texas. The couple would be getting married at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, an upscale event site. I spent over an hour on the phone with the planner reviewing all of the major elements—timing, fees, professional attire, playlists, contracts, logistics, etc. She sent a follow-up email promising to get back to me soon, and I noticed in her message that she’d copied the bride.
A week or two later the planner called to explain that the bride would be in town and that I should come to San Francisco to meet her at a particular time in the late afternoon on Friday. My heart sunk. This was going to be a big event with a big payday for me and the band. But there was no way in hell that I was going to drive from the East Bay to San Francisco for a 20-minute meeting with a bride and then drive home in rush-hour traffic. I had no idea how many wedding band leader interviews the planner was setting up. The wedding itself was a four-hour gig, and I’d already spent an hour on the phone with her. Now I would be adding another three-plus hours with no guarantee that we’d even be hired. I tried explaining this to her on the phone. But although I could sense she was smiling, she was having none of it. If I was not willing to meet the bride in person during this short interview period, she’d look elsewhere for a band.
I was pissed. So I decided to do something that was certainly on the border of unprofessional, but frankly I didn’t give a damn. I’m an optometrist, and a dentist and an optometrist have somewhat parallel educations. So I looked at the bride more as a colleague than a stranger. I had her email address and sent her a message that could only be called a work of art. In it I tried to make the case that we were the perfect band for her wedding (she had recordings of our music), and that as a professional herself she might understand the predicament I was in. We get paid by the hour, and several hours of unpaid work with no guarantee of getting the contract was neither reasonable nor fair. I emphasized quality and efficiency—both hallmarks of a great dentist, don’t you think?
A day or two later, I received a phone call from the ever-cheerful wedding planner. “Great news, Robert! I spoke to our bride and she wants you to play for her wedding. I’m so happy!” She was also so full of it. But I understood she was doing her job as bride-shield. And yes, the wedding was great, the dentist-bride was beautiful, and the music was divine. Sparkling, even!
For a time, I worked with a delightful young drummer named Michael. Besides being great technically, he was a good-looking guy and always cheerful. During one conversation, he told me about a social group he belonged to. The reveal was that he and the other members of this network were all children of gay parents. In his case, his father had come to terms with being gay after being married for many years, and was now living happily in Seattle. Michael’s mother and father still had a good relationship, and Michael suspected that his mother knew for many years that his father was gay.
When I called to tell him about an upcoming wedding gig, Michael said he wouldn’t be able to play because his father would be in town for the weekend.
“Bring him!” I said. “I’ll bet he’ll get a tremendous kick out of seeing you play with the band!”
“You know, you’re right. I’ll ask him. I think he’d like that.”
I added, “Tell him to consider himself a member of the band.”
The day of the gig I met Michael’s father in the men’s room, where both he and his son were changing into their tuxedoes.
Michael smiled. “You told me that my dad is with the band, so he decided to wear his tux.”
“Absolutely!” I said as I began to change.
Michael’s father had a blast playing with the band—we gave him a couple of percussion instruments to play and he did a great job. The wedding went off without a hitch, and everyone, especially the groom and his numerous buddies—a fun bunch of guys—seemed to have a great time.
Later, when we were putting away our gear, I overheard Michael ask his father, “So Dad, you still think it’s true what you told me?”
His father nodded, and confirmed, “Oh yeah. No question.”
“What’s up?” I asked.
Michael glanced at his father who nodded back. Michael turned to me and said, “My dad says the groom is gay.”
In the next few moments I replayed the entire evening through this new lens. It was so obvious.
“I can see it,” I told them. They nodded. I added, “I feel so bad for the bride.” And I did.
“There’s a pretty good chance she’s aware,” Dad said. “This happens more frequently than you can imagine.”
As I drove home, it’s all I thought about. I occasionally wonder what happened to that marriage. Perhaps their children may someday join Michael’s social network.
Another memorable event took place in Oakland Chinatown. The bride and her family were Chinese and chose an event site on the second floor of a well-known Chinese restaurant. I’d eaten at this restaurant, but had no idea there was an event site/ballroom on the second floor. Although we didn’t have to go through the kitchen to get there, we did have to carry all our gear through the main restaurant dining room and up a flight of steps. (Soon after this I started paying my bass player double his fee to assume roadie responsibilities, which were no small task.)
The groom and his family were not Asian. Rather, they possessed a multi-syllable Polish name and many of them, including the groom’s parents, had flown in from Chicago.
Instead of separating the guests by which side of the family they knew, their “generation,” or gender (which I had experienced at one Orthodox Jewish event), the room was seemingly divided by ethnicity. The exception were the bride and groom, who sat together at a table for two at the front of the room.
This was a remarkable event where the band got to take a break while Chinese musicians, acrobats, and a remarkably long dragon entertained the guests.
Later, when our band started to play dance music, very few guests actually danced. I wasn’t too surprised—while some dancers will dance to anything, some audiences enjoy the music without dancing. But this group was different, and I couldn’t figure it out.
At one point I noticed the groom’s father approaching the bandstand, and I welcomed him to stand next to me at the keyboard. Long ago I’d learned to play, listen, and talk simultaneously—it’s a skill set.
“Is there any chance you guys could play a polka?” he whispered in my ear. “We have a lot of people here from Chicago.”
“Let me see what I can do.”
A polka was a no-brainer. We had the Pennsylvania Polka in our gig book and Cheryl, our vocalist, knew it well.
“Strike up the music, the band has begun…” It didn’t take long! Seconds after we started, half the room (guess which half) was up on their feet. The bride looked puzzled, but the groom was cracking up as he watched his father and mother, aunts and uncles, and the rest of the Chicago crew hit the dance floor. Knowing that our polka repertoire was limited, we played three choruses without stopping. Meanwhile, I kept an eye on the Asian contingent, wondering what they were thinking. Probably something like, “This is the family she’s marrying into?” The groom’s family had probably been thinking the same thing earlier when the dragon snaked by.
Let me tell you something: for sheer diversity, nothing beats a Chinese-Polish wedding!