The McBride Diaries (Vol.25)
Posted on 10/23/2007at 2:30 PM
A few seconds into our first song at Carnegie Hall, “Sonnymoon For Two”, I was acutely aware that a historical event was finally unfolding – and I was a part of it. I felt very, very proud. I’ve been so fortunate to have learned from the greatest of the great, and still somehow to get a personal call from Sonny Rollins to play with him in THIS particular setting still seems unbelievable.
It all started when Sonny said that since we’d never played together before, we should get together – just the two of us. That, of course, was the gig for me! Carnegie Hall was just filler after that rehearsal, man! It was just Sonny and I playing the tunes for the gig for about three hours. We played “Sonnymoon For Two” for about 45 minutes, and never once did I even THINK about getting tired, as it was way too exciting. We then played “Some Enchanted Evening” for about 45 minutes, then we played “Mack the Knife” for about an hour and change. Sonny and I just traded fours for about 30 minutes on that. After doing some talking and hanging out, we did the same thing all over again. Hearing all those loose, snaky lines with the ORIGINAL bebop feeling just had me listening and watching in amazement. I must admit, I’ve gotten that same amazement listening and playing with James Moody, Benny Golson, Teddy Edwards, and Johnny Griffin, but THIS was like flying in the 747, dig? This was THE one!! Since this man has been written about so many times in so many publications, I want to be careful that I don’t preach to the choir, but Sonny really is a kind gentleman, so sweet and zen-like, but he without question, still has his Harlem street hipness. At anytime, he could revert back to his old Sugar Hill vibe. To confirm this, during both rehearsals, he wore a “doo-rag”, or sometimes referred to as a "stocking cap". At one point, the wonderful photographer, John Abbott showed up to take some photos. Sonny said, “Aw, man. I forgot my Nu-Nile.” Now, you got to be from the stone ‘hood to know about Nu-Nile! After I got a chuckle hearing about Nu-Nile for the first time since the 80’s, we then started to talk about all the “classic ’hood hair products” like Nu-Nile, Dax, and the immortal “Murray’s”. We talked about all the stuff my generation wore like “Sportin’ Waves”, “Snap Back”, and “Posner Light Touch.”
(I KNOW all my brothers and sisters are dying laughing right now!)
After Sonny and I rapped about “’hood hair care”, we took some photos before we played again. Along with being excited about playing the actual concert, Sonny was rightfully proud of the fact that he was producing this concert himself. No managers, no booking agents, no middle men. Just him, his personal staff and Carnegie Hall. He said, “If this concert is successful, maybe it can be a model for some of these younger jazz cats to take responsibility for their own careers.” Amen. As we started playing again, Sonny stayed tremendously loose, and he seemed to be enjoying the afternoon almost as much as I was. We finished around 4pm, as I had to get to the Blue Note for my trio gig that night with George Colligan and Billy Hart. Sonny complimented me much to my delight. I couldn’t have been happier. It seemed as if I passed the test – at least the first part. The next day, Roy Haynes would be at rehearsal.
As I arrived at rehearsal the following day, there were a battery of cameras around, and the presence of my favorite jazz journalist and DJ, Ted Panken. Sonny was again in good spirits. As always, when Roy Haynes showed up, a big, large beam of light came into the room. He’s so tremendously effervescent. He walks over towards us and greets Sonny with a big hug, then he comes to me, gives me “five”, and as usual, shouts, “Mack-BRIDE!!” Once we started playing, the sparks flew. Yeah, this was going to be historic, alright. Just like the previous day, we played “Sonnymoon For Two” for about 45 minutes. I thought that maybe I could feel Sonny thinking to himself, “Man, I forgot how good it felt to play with Roy…” Considering they hadn’t played a gig together in about…..what….48 years (!!), he HAD to have been thinking that. Seeing and feeling Sonny so loose made all the difference. In between tunes, needless to say, they started to reminisce about Harlem, Bird, Miles, etc, etc. It was fascinating. I was so honored to be there.
Believe it or not, “Nu-Nile” came up again! As we prepared to take our photos for Jazz Times Magazine, Sonny proudly exhorted, “I’m prepared today. I got my Nu-Nile on!” Roy hits the floor laughing! Roy says, “Aw, yeah, man! Nu-Nile was my main thing back in the day!” Goosing him on (as I love to do), I asked, “But what about Murray’s?” Roy says, “I would use that if I couldn’t get to my Nu-Nile!” Laughs all around. I then added, “What about Dax?” Roy says, “I didn’t mess around with Dax too tough. That was for them REAL ghetto brothers!!” I’m dying laughing as I write this. Roy Haynes is a national treasure, man. So, so funny.
As we played “Some Enchanted Evening” and “Mack The Knife”, the sparks continued to fly. There was no doubt that this gig was going to be successful – artistically and commercially. Sonny had nothing to worry about.
As I arrived at Carnegie Hall that afternoon, Sonny was already onstage soundchecking with his working band. Sonny’s staff was also running around Carnegie Hall getting everything together with the production. (tickets, catering, etc, etc.) It was a treat to watch. As Sonny said at that first rehearsal, this entire production could hopefully be a model for younger musicians. Then again, no younger musician could put together a show that would generate as much excitement as a trio gig featuring Sonny Rollins, Roy Haynes, and, well, anybody!
I go to my dressing room to relax. As I look out the window, I see a big limo pulling up at the stage door. Who is it? Who else would it be? ROY HAYNES! I just shook my head in amazement. What style and hipness. As Roy arrived, we both took the stage to soundcheck with Sonny. Shockingly, Sonny actually seemed to be a bit nervous. I think even he was surprised at the magnitude of this concert. We briefly ran through the three songs and retired to our dressing rooms. As we headed upstairs, Sonny asks me, “McBride, what happened to your man Donovan McNabb last night?” McNabb and the Eagles looked terrible against the Washington Redskins the previous night. (Jeez, even Sonny Rollins is acknowledging the futility of my favorite team. Wow!) As showtime came closer, the most bizarre and unthinkably catastrophic thing happened….
At around 7:45pm, we got word that the crowds were so large at the box office, we would probably have to hold up the start of the concert by maybe 10 minutes. “Right On!”, we all thought. We certainly knew that this concert was going to sell-out, so hearing that wasn’t that big of a surprise. However…
At showtime (8pm), we could see on the backstage monitor that the seats weren’t even half-full. “That’s strange”, I thought. We heard that there was still a huge number of people outside still waiting to get in, but why was there still a huge number of people waiting to get in at showtime? Maybe the start time of the concert was printed wrong on the tickets, perhaps?
At 8:15, we could see that the seats were filling up very slowly. “What is the deal???” Carnegie Hall, the most notorious no-nonsense union hall in America was surely not holding up this concert without good reason. And good reason it was….
Shockingly, the word was that the computer systems at the box office crashed, and no one could get their tickets from the will-call or reservations window. Apparently, a very angry mob was brewing up and down 57th street.
Was this the absolute worse thing that could possibly happen, or what? Sonny worked so hard to put this historic event together, and now THIS? Oh, my God. I felt so, so bad. How in the world could this situation be rectified? By 8:25, it was clear that the situation would NOT be rectified in a timely fashion, so the decision was made to start the concert. Sonny was very visibly flustered. And I’d heard that when Sonny gets flustered, it can really take him off his game a bit. I do think, however, Roy and I were able to help keep him loose.
We went onstage around 8:30. From the stage, the seats certainly looked fuller than they did on that backstage monitor. But because of the chaos at the box office, people were pouring in throughout this historical first set. A bit distracting, but…not really. ☺
As Sonny kicked off “Sonnymoon For Two”, Roy and I both got the sense that Sonny was still a bit uneasy. In fact, some critic even mentioned that (I wish I could remember the exact quote) “Sonny’s opening phrase of ‘Sonnymoon For Two’ was so advanced and abstract, it was apparent that he wasn’t going to wait to unleash his unparalleled rhythmic genius. He’s so far beyond any other improviser….” – or something to that extent. Well, to these ears, it sounded more like, “The great Sonny Rollins was so pissed off that Carnegie Hall screwed up his gig, that he couldn’t quite find the groove until the second or third chorus when he finally locked in with McBride and Haynes.”
(GASP! How could that little young punk say that the GREAT Sonny Rollins wasn’t locked in? How dare he? How would he know?)
There. I said it for you. ☺
What I DO know is, by that third chorus, we were rolling! Sonny had his foot deep in it, as did Roy and I. It was feeling great. I could have played that blues all night long.
After “Sonnymoon…”, we went into “Some Enchanted Evening” which was kind of a feature for Roy and I as opposed to an exclusive saxophone vehicle. But what was so hip, was the way Sonny kind of noodled with the melody while this sort of drum/bass solo was going on. I love the fact that you couldn’t really tell if it was a drum, bass, or saxophone solo. It was total group improvisation. The ending wasn’t exactly how we rehearsed it, but who cares? The vibe was awesome!
After that, I was disappointed that the last song was about to be played. Was it almost over already? Dang….
We went into “Mack The Knife”, and it was swingin’, baby. There is nothing on earth that feels better than being locked in with your bandmates. Especially when they happen to be Sonny Rollins and Roy Haynes! After a classic rippin’ Sonny solo, I took one, and then Sonny and Roy traded for what seemed like forever. It was so hip. I was watching a tennis match between Roy and Sonny. Then, we took the head out and it was over.
We took our bows, and I just couldn’t believe that it was through already. I wanted a second set! In fact, I wanted (and still wish for) a tour!!
As we walked off the stage, I tried to get a sense of what Sonny thought about the set. I mean, what he really thought. I figured I’d wait a few before I asked him anything, but he turned around a gave Roy and I “five”. That was relieving. After a few minutes passed, he summoned me to his dressing room to settle up the business. I felt so weird taking a check from Sonny Rollins. I wanted to do two things: Frame the check as opposed to cashing it, and/or pay HIM for the opportunity to play with him, such a titan. As I left him alone to prepare for the second half of the concert with his working band. I met up with my mom and stepdad backstage. My mother couldn’t have asked me a more poignant question. She looked at me and said….
I laughed as I knew exactly what she meant. She said, “You just played a concert with Sonny Rollins and Roy Haynes at Carnegie Hall. What could possibly be left?”
I don’t know, mom. I don’t know.
Would you like to hear the perfect ending of this story?
When Sonny took the stage with his regular band, he announced from the stage, “I’d like to play for you a brand new original composition of mine called, ‘Nu-Nile’”
I feel so very humbled to be a part of a legendary concert with two titans in Roy Haynes and the great Sonny Rollins. No one can ever take this great honor away from me. I know a lot of people (not musicians, so much) thought that at my kindergarten age of 35, maybe Sonny should have called someone with more “experience”, but I guess maybe I’ve learned something at my young age, because Sonny called me…and only me!
“Now what?” ☺