The McBride Diaries (Vol.17)
Posted on 12/17/2006at 11:36 PM
Hi everyone,

Hey, listen, after working with James Brown, wouldn't you expect that I would need an extended period of time to regroup???

Actually, this blog is not about Mr. Brown, the CMB, or the 76ers about to lose Allen Iverson - it's about the FAA. Yes, the Federal Aviation Administration. On a very serious note, I must tell all of you that my disdain for flying has taken a serious turn for the worse. As many of you have known, one of the main reasons why I dislike flying so much is because of the gangsterism that goes on at major airports when musicians travel with their instruments. Under law, there are no concrete rules that allow or deny a musician to carry on or check their instruments as baggage, which of course, gives most airlines free reign at making up their OWN rules at the time of check-in. Most of the time, these situations particularly put acoustic bass players at the highest risk for "runway robbery".

An acoustic bass in any flight/travel case is almost always somewhere between 6 to 6.5 feet high, 1.5 to 2 feet deep (from the top of the bridge), 2 to 2.5 feet wide, and usually weighs in between 75 to 100 pounds, depending on if you have a 3/4 or a 7/8 size bass. Of course, to the naked eye, it looks terribly huge in its case. And because of the deeply imbedded lack of music appreciation in this country, absolutely NO ONE ever knows what it is - even after you TELL THEM! Therefore, ticket agents almost always panic. It's usually, "Oh, my God. What is THAT???" (Yeah, that's real professional, isn't it?) "Oh, that's one of those big guitars, right?", "Oh, I see you play the cello!", "Oh, yeah, that's one of those, uh, super big violins, right?" Sad. Really sad. One out of ten times, you'll find a super hip ticket agent or skycap that will say, "Ah! A bass player! Come right up, I'll take care of you." That almost NEVER, EVER happens. It's terribly frustrating how there ARE concrete rules with regards to overweight and oversize baggage (which have become MUCH tighter in recent years), but when it comes to instruments, those rules go right out the window. Funny how people traveling with golf clubs and snowboards never have these problems. I wonder if that's a cultural thing?

Usually when you check in an acoustic bass, you have to literally negociate privately with the ticket agents as to how much you will pay in excess baggage. In Europe, they can sometimes be downright unfriendly. I think maybe because of the way our country is perceived. (Gee, I wonder where that would ever come from??? Hmmmm......) Anyway, I've been charged anywhere from $50 to $5,000! Yes! I said $5,000!! Once, in 2002 while flying from Madrid to Bern, a European airline decided that they would make all of their bonuses off the CMB. Needless to say, I couldn't (and didn't) pay $5,000. The agent decided that she'd give me a break by charging me $1,500! Gee.......thanks a lot!

On top of all of this, you have to deal with smart-ass low lifes who wanna crack jokes all the time and look at you like you're the elephant man - "Hey pal, don't you wish you played the flute?", "Hey, who you got in that case?" (YO' MAMA, that's who!), "Hey you gonna bust out the axe and play us a tune?"

THIS is why I truly, truly, truly hate flying. So, what are we doing about it?

David Gage of David Gage String Repair in New York and my friend, bassist Ira Coleman, designed a half-size bass called the "Czech-Ease". The following is from David Gage's website: "The name is derived from a combination of the country where the bass is manufactured and the benefit the instrument provides bassists when traveling. It has a short body, but a standard string length. It has a custom-made David Gage adjustable bridge, but is made to be thrown in a cab or packed away for a 2 week tour. The "Czech-Ease" is a full sounding bass with an abbreviated body that makes it exponentially more portable than its full-bodied cousins without losing the true-bass sound."

The only problem is, I'm hard-headed. To me, using this instrument is the equivalent of letting the airlines win. They don't know or care enough about music and what it means to carry the message of the music all over the world to deserve to win. I'm not going to let some poorly run airline rewrite how bass players played in the 21st century. Can you imagine looking in a jazz history book in 2055 and reading how Dave Holland or Ron Carter never traveled through Europe or parts of the USA ever again because the AIRLINES WOULDN'T LET THEM CHECK THEIR BASSES??? I am NOT going to let that happen, doggone it!

I'd like to share with you two stories. One is about Valery Ponomarev, the former Art Blakey Jazz Messenger who actually had his arm broken by airport security because a dumb ticket agent wouldn't let him bring his TRUMPET onboard (saying it was too big for the overhead), and another story about the famous Orchestra of St. Lukes. (Both stories appeared in the New York Times)

A Trumpet, a Struggle, and a Musician’s Broken Arm


Published: October 10, 2006

PARIS — As international authorities strive to harmonize a myriad of rules for carry-on flight luggage, a Russian-American jazz musician is nursing a broken arm he said he suffered in a struggle with French airport police over his right to board with a prized trumpet.

The musician, Valery Ponomarev, 63, a former member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, was preparing to board an Air India flight on Sept. 9 from Paris to New York City, where he lives, when a routine airport ritual erupted into a fierce dispute over his 1961 Connstellation trumpet.

“If you’ve ever played a musical instrument, then you should know how strong the bond is between the musician and the instrument,” Mr. Ponomarev said. “You wouldn’t give your baby away to anybody, and so you wouldn’t give away your horn.”

In his case, the ties were so powerful that he simply would not let go of his trumpet case, which also contained a fluegelhorn.

But the authorities were not sympathetic and maintain that the trumpeter was uncooperative with airport and airline officials in a time of heightened security.

According to Mr. Ponomarev, when he arrived late to board an evening flight, a flustered Air India employee retrieved his trumpet from a luggage belt at a security checkpoint without explanation to place it in the plane’s hold.

Mr. Ponomarev protested vigorously, he said, because he had hand-carried the instrument on an earlier connecting flight and also had noticed that another passenger was carrying aboard a sitar. His angry complaints attracted the notice of an Air India supervisor, who summoned the police.

Four officers came running to take his trumpet case, but Mr. Ponomarev refused to give it to them, and one of them subdued him by wrenching his arm behind his back and, according to the musician, breaking it.

The airport authorities and the police confirm that the episode took place as Mr. Ponomarev was boarding the flight at Charles de Gaulle airport. But in the view of the police, the musician bears responsibility for his injury.

“The officers tried to subdue him, and you can say that he hurt himself by rebelling,” said a spokesman for the airport police.

H. Rana, the regional manager for Air India’s Paris office, said airline employees called the police because Mr. Ponomarev insisted on carrying his music case on board. She said that Air India requires the check-in of large instruments.

In Europe, carry-on luggage rules vary among airlines. Last week, the European Commission moved to standardize the rules with new regulations taking effect next spring that restrict the amount of liquids carried aboard for personal use and limit carry-on luggage size. But there may be exemptions for some cameras and musical instruments.

The rule change comes too late for Mr. Ponomarev, who said that after his arm was broken he was held in detention without treatment for six hours and was not allowed to make any calls.

Ultimately, he was taken to a hospital where one of the doctors loaned him a cellphone to contact the United States Embassy.

After surgery, Mr. Ponomarev returned on September 13 to the United States on another Air India flight. With a metal plate holding the bones of his left arm together, Mr. Ponomarev said the break had an immediate effect on his career: He was forced to cancel a musical engagement and limit his daily practice because it is too painful to hold the trumpet with a weakened arm.

By late September, though, he decided to participate in a long-scheduled jazz concert in Russia, where he was born, although he has lived in the United States since 1973. The announcer, he said, explained to the audience that Mr. Ponomarev was playing despite a struggle with the French police.

“I think the audience thought that he was joking,” Mr. Ponomarev said, but he still took the microphone to correct the announcer: “They didn’t win the battle. They broke my arm. But the horn is still with me.”

Ariane Bernard of The New York Times contributed reporting

THREATS AND RESPONSES: TRAVEL; Tighter Security Is Jeopardizing Orchestra Tours


Published: August 15, 2006

Air travel for classical musicians has never been easy.

Those husky cellos need an extra ticket. Hey, security! Watch that priceless Stradivarius. Double-reed players? They have long given up on carrying aboard those valuable knives and shaping tools used to mold the cane that transforms their breath into lyrical sounds.

And now, with new concerns about carry-on baggage in the wake of Britain's reported terrorist plot, it has gotten tougher.

Strict regulations imposed last week forced the New York-based Orchestra of St. Luke's to cancel a long-awaited tour of Britain over the weekend and sent other ensembles with imminent trips, including the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Pittsburgh Symphony and the Minnesota Orchestra, scrambling to cope with the new rules.

"I'm heartbroken," Marianne C. Lockwood, the president and executive director of the St. Luke's orchestra, said yesterday. "I don't think I've been through 72 more anguished hours in my life." The orchestra was to have left last Thursday for concerts at the Edinburgh International Festival and the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall in London, one of the major summer music festivals.

All travelers in Britain had to adapt to the ban on carry-on items, which was relaxed yesterday to allow one small carry-on. But not all travelers ply their trade with highly personal artifacts made of centuries-old wood, horsehair and precious metals that many musicians are loath to put in the hold.

Its rules are of course in flux. The United States Transportation Security Administration says on its Web site that musical instruments are generally allowed in the cabin in addition to a carry-on bag and a personal item, but it leaves size requirements and permission for the carry-on to the airlines. In addition, it promises that security personnel will handle instruments carefully.

That is of little comfort to musicians, particularly string players, who suffer constant anxiety over the threat of damage and fears that their instruments will arbitrarily not be allowed in the cabin, even though violins fit into most overhead bins.

The violin virtuoso and conductor Pinchas Zukerman said security officials had even asked him to remove the strings of his 1742 Guarneri del Gèsu. "I've had unbelievable discussions at certain airports," he said by telephone while waiting at the Atlanta airport for a flight with his wife, the cellist Amanda Forsyth. "They want to stick their hands in my instruments, and they say, 'It's my job.' "

Cellists have it the worst, Ms. Forsyth said. "We buy the seat with a cello, and they treat us like second-class criminals."

The new regulations have, for now, increased the complications.

The Bolshoi opera and ballet, which have been performing at the Royal Opera House in London, will send their orchestra's instruments back to Moscow by ferry and truck at the end of the week if the restrictions are not relaxed, said Faith Wilson, a spokeswoman for the Bolshoi's promoter at the house, Victor Hochhauser Presents. The Bolshoi orchestra's chief conductor, Alexander Vedernikov, had been quoted as saying that the musicians' contract requires them to keep their instruments with them.

"Clearly this is a very unusual situation," Ms. Wilson said. "I'm sure there are insurance issues, but I don't think anybody's ever had to cope with the security restrictions that we're up against."

The Minnesota Orchestra is due to leave on Sunday for a European tour that also includes stops in Edinburgh and at the Proms. Like many major orchestras, it packs its instruments in specially designed and padded crates.

The biggest ones, which hold harps and double basses, are six and a half feet high and four feet wide. About 20 players in the 95-member ensemble like to take their instruments or precious bows on board, but they will stow them this time around, said a spokeswoman, Gwen Pappas. The trunks are delivered straight to concert halls, so the instruments will not be immediately available for players who want to practice at their hotels.

The Philadelphia Orchestra plays the Proms in early September. Its trunks also have space for all the members' instruments, but it is working on backup plans for about a dozen musicians who are going on to other jobs or on vacation and not returning with the orchestra, said a spokeswoman, Katherine Blodgett.

Those concerts, coming later, give the orchestras time to prepare. And these are large, experienced touring groups that own the crates.

Not so the Orchestra of St. Luke's, a highly regarded ensemble that nevertheless tours infrequently and saw the trip as a boost for its image. It spent two years planning the trip and many months carefully polishing the programs, which were to have been broadcast in the United States.

The trip had special significance for the orchestra's principal conductor, Donald Runnicles, who is Scottish, and for its president, Ms. Lockwood, who was born in England.

Ms. Lockwood described three days of phone calls, fueled by takeout Chinese food, to find alternatives. The musicians had planned to carry their smaller instruments by hand.

Charter planes were too expensive: about $300,000, which would have doubled the cost of the tour. The orchestra scoured larger orchestras from Philadelphia to Boston to borrow trunks. All were in use. St. Luke's considered flying the musicians to Paris, having them take a train to London and having the instruments trucked in, but there would not have been time to make a Tuesday rehearsal.

Then someone from Edinburgh called Saturday to offer the loan of instruments.

In the end, none of the efforts mattered. British Airways canceled the flight that day at 5 p.m.

And finally, I'd like for you to see a story on the homepage of the Local 802 (NY) Musician's Union Homepage:

Folks, it's bad. It's dire. These airlines these days are so worried about terrorist activity and security, but it's the musicians who get taken advantage of. I know just the thing that would cool all this stuff out - MUSICIANS AS PEACE NEGOCIATORS. But....

we'll need to travel with our instruments!!

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