Perspectives of a Writer and Musician

Issues related to writing, publishing and playing jazz music: One man's muse.
by Al Stevens

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Location: Florida, United States

Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas Eve with Jeff

We're at my daughter's house in Virginia with her and her family. I brought no musical instruments or ventriloquist dummies, although if I wanted to practice ventriloquism, I can borrow one from my grandson Landon. He has almost as many as I have.

I'll report now on my Saturday evening show a week ago. It was a resort beach jazz club. As usual, many of my friends were there including members of the Florida Ventriloquist's Association. Despite the rigors of "red tide," a seaborne organism that causes severe throat distress, I had a full house. The show was well promoted.

I played a set of jazz on alto and tenor sax and fluegelhorn with the house trio. The second set was all comedy. I kept a bottle of Entertainer's Secret handy to help keep the red tide effects at bay. The show went well, but there was a disruptive table of noisy patrons near the stage.

I'll never figure out why people will pay $15 a pop to see a show and then talk loudly during the show. Other patrons were annoyed, and the disruption was screwing up my timing. Finally Dexter took over. (Dexter is my smart-assed little boy dummy.) He engaged the unruly table in a bit of dialogue that eventually got them to settle down.

Last night I watched Jeff Dunham's new DVD, Spark of Insanity, with my grandsons. It is a delightful show, and I recommend it to anyone who likes comedy and to ventriloquists in particular who want to see how this art should be practiced.

Observe something about Jeff. He owns the audience before he even comes on stage. They all know him from his past work, and they know the characters of his figures. Consequently, Jeff has what Bergen had, what very few ventriloquists have. Walter or Peanut can say just about anything and get a laugh. Mortimer Snerd could do the same thing. As long as the line is in character, the audience loves it. It's funny because Walter says it. It's outrageous because Peanut says it.

Don't ever think you can do Jeff's material. It won't work for anyone other Walter and Peanut in Jeff's hands.

So, what can you learn from Jeff's performance? Timing. Can you explain timing? It's complicated. It's a combination of how you word each line, how fast you say each line, and how much space you leave between lines. The latter two values change depending on the lines themselves and the audiences' reactions. Guess what? You can't practice timing in your living room in order to learn it. You learn it only in front of audiences. Lots of audiences. Over a long period of time. And every time you perform, you learn and, hopefully, get better. Jeff gets better every time I see him perform. The lines are often the same, but the delivery steadily improves. And part of that is the complete acceptance he has from every audience now. The other part is how hard he works to make each performance a home run.

It looks easy, doesn't it?

Friday, December 14, 2007

I had an interesting show last night. It was the final dinner meeting of a local association of retired military officers. The fellow who hired me is the youngest member of the group. He is 80. He said they were closing down because their membership was shrinking as members died off, and no one still alive was able to serve on the board. Most of the members are veterans of World War II.

He wanted music and ventriloquism in the show. I wrote some material specifically for the group mainly about my elderly man figure's Army experiences during WWII with plenty of irreverent references to officers. Also lots of old people jokes.

I played background piano during cocktail hour and began the show after dessert was served. The client had asked for about 45 minutes, and I was prepared to do an hour, but after a half hour he signaled me to cut it short. Everyone was getting tired and wanted to go home. Some of them were already nodding off. Just like a nursing home gig except in this case the inmates drive themselves home.

Audience reaction was okay, but not great. An audience of mostly octogenarians includes a lot of people who can't hear very well and the room accoustics were typical country club banquet room--the walls and ceiling absorbed most of the sound. I had my system on the edge of feedback, and they still had trouble hearing.

Setup and teardown took longer than the show. Electric piano, bench, amplifier, elevated speakers, microphones, prop table, and three ventriloquist figures. After I got set up I realized I'd forgotten to bring the figures' performance stand, the platform they sit on when I manipulate them. So I had to perform in the old way with one foot on a chair and the figure on my knee. (Thigh, actually. Why do we always say, "on my knee?" You ever try sitting on someone's knee? Kind of bumpy.) I had forgotten how awkward and tiring that posture is.

Tomorrow night is more to my liking. A jazz club with an audience of hearing people who've been drinking a lot.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Tenor Madness

I own a 50-year-old Selmer Mark VI tenor saxophone, considered the holy grail of tenor saxophones. It is highly desired by players because of its playing characteristics and by collectors for reasons that I don't understand.

But most players can't afford it nowadays. I couldn't afford it either because prices for these things have gone out of sight. Fortunately for players, there are contemporary alternatives. I also own a new gold-plated Taiwanese saxophone that plays almost as well as a vintage Selmer yet cost me a fraction of what the Selmer costs.

The same thing has happened to vintage ventriloquist dummies. I don't own one, although I have in the past. I don't own a McElroy or a Marshall. I can't afford it. But, like saxophones, modern ventriloquist dummies are as good, and in many ways better than those lovable old figures. And they are affordable, so working ventriloquists do not have to yearn and pine for an old vintage figure just to get out there and perform.

How did these saxophones and dummies become so expensive? It's a product of collector mania and the auction mentality.

Collector mania should be self-explanatory. Anyone who has ever known a stamp collector or coin collector understands it. But what is the auction mentality?

Ebay is the culprit. In an auction you pay $1 more for something than anyone else is willing to pay. And in so doing, you inadvertantly establish a new price point for that item. The next time a similar item comes up, those who lost out will bid just a little bit more. What's another fifty bucks? And the price point goes up again.

That process iterates until the price point starts to get silly. Collectors and investors watch this phenomenon and get into it. After a period of time, the item is no longer accessible to those who would use it, and its best examples are relegated to wealthy dilettantes, closets and display cases. Which affects the supply and demand ratio, which causes prices to go up even more.

There's no end in sight for vintage saxophones. But dummies? I watched as collector mania and auction mentality drove the prices of Juro Jerrys to obscene levels. Then, when all the collectors who had to have one had one, the bottom fell out. Which kind of indicates that it was a fad, a trend, a passing fancy that ran its course.

So my advice is, don't spend the big bucks for that figure you can't live without. Live without it for a while. When everyone comes to their senses, prices will drop.