The Soloist

February 6, 2017

Here I am. It’s the final band concert of my high school career. I’m on the stage performing with the jazz band as the lead alto saxophonist. I look to my right and give a small nod to our lead tenor saxophone, Jerry, as he stands up for his final solo in the song “Delta City Blues.” It’s an improv solo and I have complete faith in him; he nails it. Our director, Mr. Young, cuts us off. The audience goes crazy, and I can’t help but smile at Mr. Young and Jerry. Now it’s time for the next song, a jazz standard by Charlie Parker, “Anthropology.” I’m featured in a solo. I’m nervous, yet confident.
    I feel the blazing fast count-off, “5, 6, 7, and.” There’s one bar of drum lead in, and there I go. This is the craziest solo I have ever played and this is the moment where my future is decided. A man from the New England Conservatory sits in the crowd waiting for my solo to be finished as he silently judges my epic improv; he is awestruck. I play up and down the diminished scales and minor scales I’ve worked so hard to memorize. I know the scales inside out in order to show off my very full range, from the lowest B flat to the highest notes of the altissimo range, far above what the average saxophonist can play. The solo passes by and I sit back down; the crowd erupts with cheers that are louder than the band. My family and friends watch on as the song comes to an end and we all stand up to bow.
    The next morning, I walk into school. My friends surround me as we discuss the events of last night’s band concert. Many of them say it was the most insane thing they have witnessed. They know the music was complicated because it sounded complicated. They don’t understand how some could think as fast as I did during that solo last night, but I didn’t think. When I’m up on stage, I never think. I just play with all the strength within me. That’s what got me noticed by the man in the audience from the New England Conservatory. He emailed me that day about my audition date, a live audition in Boston. It was the opportunity of a lifetime, and if I let it pass me by, I wouldn’t be able to forgive myself.
    On my audition day, although it is a very mild day, I am nervous like never before, and I can feel shivers running down my spine as I awaited being called to the audition room. I would get 10 minutes to warm up, then I’d be on. I began thinking about what would happen if I screwed this up. I would be remembered in my family as the cousin who almost made it into “that big music school on the coast.” Well, I was determined to not allow that to happen. I stood up and walked to the warm up room.
    I start with scales, on the G flat scale, I work all the way through the scales until I reached the end at the C sharp scale. I enter the audition room and greet the man who was looking very serious, but I look probably more serious myself. He told me I could start with whatever piece I liked, so I played “Anthropology” first. The solo was even better than in the final performance of my high school career. I actually got the man to crack a smile, and I felt myself smile. I knew that focus was key, so I moved on very swiftly to “Moose the Mooche,” another Charlie Parker jazz standard. This one is easier than “Anthropology” so I didn’t have too much trouble getting through it as well. When I finish, the man asked me for my information like my name and email, just to confirm. I give him the information, thank him for his time, and walk out. I feel really good about the work I put out there for him.
    About a month later, I receive an email from the school. I open it with one eye closed and the other one squinting. I don’t want to look. I do anyways.
    “We are pleased to congratulate you, Mr. Armstrong, on your acceptance to the New England Conservatory of Music.”
“WOOHOO!” I yell at the top of my lungs.
    My mother runs into my room, assuming something is wrong, in typical mother fashion. “What happened?” she asks me.
“I just got accepted to NEC! I’m going to Boston!”
A few months later, I pack up my bags, loaded with music stuff, my guitar, my saxophone, a pair of drumsticks and my headphones. I get in the car and there I am, on my way to fame.
When I got there, it is a whole different world. I am used to small towns and cornfields, and here I am in this big city, completely befudded. The sheer scale of everything is what has me truly bewildered. I’m scared too. Money is tight, I don’t have a lot of food to eat, or time to go get a job so I can pay for my food. I spend almost every minute of everyday in class, practicing, or sleeping. I need a solution to my money problems very soon, or I may not be able to pay tuition either. I do have an idea though.
Busking, street performing, I decide to give it a try. Maybe just once to see how I do. It seemed like it could work because Boston is a big enough city with people walking around to get some money from crowds that gather. The biggest questions were, the song choices, and location. The song has to be impressive to play and easy to memorize, and the location needs to be very centralized in a place that a lot of people pass by, but it can’t be in the way of where people are trying to walk.
I decide to set up near a bench. I set my saxophone case on the bench while I stand beside the bench. I decide to play the song “Take Five” by Dave Brubeck, I’ve had it memorized since my early high school days and could quickly remember it during my practice session. It’s a very memorable song, that sounds impressive, despite only using two main lines in it. I look around as I start playing and people are noticing my playing ability. My tone quality sounds like smooth butter on this particular day, probably partially because the weather is very fair. When I reach the solo of the song, I have a group of around 60 people all gathered around. I feel like a lone fish, in the center of a whole school. I continue to play and nail the solo. As I begin the song’s outtro I start to see more and more people putting money into my case. Finally, I have a little extra money to buy food and other things I want with.
For the next few weeks, I went outside to perform. I do a rotation of a few different jazz songs that were pretty easy to pick up. School still consumes a lot of my time, but I still make time to go perform. This leaves me with about 300 dollars in my bank account. Just enough to buy food and anything I may need for awhile. But as I wrap up my performance on this Thursday evening. I’m playing the song “Uptown Funk.” I am approached by a man in a suit and tie. He says,”I’m the director of a world class jazz band, and I think you’d fit right in.”
“Thank you,” I replied, ”I’d be honored to be a part of this band.” Of course I’d take this opportunity because I wouldn’t pass this type of thing up in the music world.
“Rehearsal, 7:00 A.M. sharp, in practice room 236, don’t be late,” he explains, ”I’m Dr. Heisenthal.” He walks away, and I go gather my belongings, from the bench I was performing next to. I make my way back to my dorm room and patiently await Saturday. As I’m trying to sleep that night, I begin thinking about how I want Saturday to go. Of course I want it to go well, but I don’t know what to expect to come of it. I decide it’s best for me to get a good night’s rest, even though it already approaches 2:00 A.M. I fall asleep very quickly, and sleep very soundly until my 8:00 alarm goes off for my 9:00 music theory class. I get up, shower, get dressed, and get on my way to my classes. Throughout the day, I would occasionally stare off into space while thinking about Saturday. But I pushed through this Friday, and made it back to my dorm room to rest for the remainder of the afternoon and evening.
I wake up Saturday morning at 6:15 A.M. so I get dressed pretty quickly and make it to the practice room 10 minutes early. There are a few people here already. I see a pianist, a drummer, and all the trumpets and trombones, no other saxophones. I get the stuff from my case, get my reed wet and ready to play on. One of the trombones looks at me and asks, “So you’re our saxophonist?”
I respond with,”Yeah, one of them.”
The trombonist laughs, ”I guess he didn’t tell you.”
As I’m trying to ask what he meant, Dr. Heisenthal walked through the door. Exactly 7:00. I’m looking around a bit confused, but our director begins talking. He explains that this group was designed specifically for only one saxophone. And he also explains why the last saxophonist didn’t work out. Now, I find out that there is a concert in one week. And it could make or break the rest of our music careers. It will be held at the House of Blues, in Harvard Square. There will be about a dozen music producers looking to sign one or a few of the musicians from our band. As a first year in college, I see this as an absolutely huge opportunity. I just can’t blow it. The rest of the rehearsal flies by and we get through about five saxophone feature songs.
Next Saturday arrives after a week that seemed to drag on. The amount of practicing I had to do in the last week was the most I’ve ever had to do, but I made sure I did not exhaust myself. The performance starts at 6:00 P.M. I’m prepared, I’m barely nervous. I arrive at 5:15 to get warmed up and make sure I’m ready. We walk onto the stage, and everybody has a chair except for me. I’m featured in every song so that makes sense. I look into the crowd, expecting to see my friends and family, but that is not what I see. There is upwards of 2,000 people, I know none of them, but I do know that some of them can determine my future, right here, right now. We start to play our first song and the crowd is dead quiet. I could’ve heard a pin drop in that music hall. After I finish my first solo, the crowd starts to get into the performance a little bit more. We dive further into my repertoire with 3 more pieces. All are performed very well by our extremely skilled band. By the end of set the crowd is going completely crazy. People are screaming about how good we were. There is not a single person in that hall who doesn’t have a smile on their face, including myself and the rest of the band members.
After the show, I am approached by well-dressed man who tries to inquire about my future in music. He says he’s from Concord Jazz in California. This was the record label of Ray Charles and Bing Crosby. Of course now he has my full attention. I discuss with him at length about how I would like to further my music career. He invites me to meet with him in Concord about the future. He also tells me he’ll pay for my flight and everything.
When I arrive back at my dorm room. The first thing I do is call my parents. I speak with my mother and she begins screaming into the phone with excitement.
“I’m gonna make it big mom,” I explain to her.
“I sure hope so Jim.”
In the next week, I prepare to fly to California and discuss potential record deals with Concord Jazz. When I arrive there, I am greeted by someone who asks why I’m there. I explain that I’m there to negotiate record terms with the man I spoke to a week earlier. The man at the door then remembers being told about my arrival and points me in the direction of a room down a hallway and the third door on the right. I enter the room and am greeted by the man I saw last week. He asks me to sit down and talk to him. We talk about record terms and what this means for the rest of my career. He explains that I won’t start recording until I can make permanent arrangements in California because of my attachment to the music conservatory in Boston. I tell him I plan to finish my education there and then move into Concord. He commends me and says that is a respectable decision and that he’ll pay for my tuition and cost of living while I finish my schooling. Next, he offers me $1 million after I’m done at college so I can move and so that I have money to support myself.
After I leave the building where the label is, I call my parents and ask if they want to move to California too. I also explain how my meeting with the company went, which is of course really well. My mother tells me that the next three years of schooling are still important though. And I completely agree with her. I return to Boston, with a newfound confidence because the amount of money in my bank account isn’t something I have to worry about anymore. All I have to worry about is progressing myself as a musician.

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