I met up with the band in Louisville, at the Seelbach Hotel, the setting for Tom and Daisy Buchanan’s wedding reception in The Great Gatsby. The street’s named for hometown hero Muhammad Ali. Our next stop was a 10-hour drive into the Deep South, Meridian MS. The band rides in a charter bus but Wynton likes to get an early start and arrive a few hours before everyone else. Early meant 4:00 am. Meet downstairs, load the SUV and hit the road. I slept in my clothes to make sure I wasn’t the last one downstairs.
Raymond “Bossman” Murphy is the road manager and handles most of the driving. He has the ability to solve any problem the road may offer before it becomes a problem. The car is always stocked with whatever we need, and the travel from town to town is so smooth that I forget how many miles we’re clocking during the week. Production manager Ernie Gregory also rides with us, Ernie’s been around jazz his whole life and he has the stories to prove it.
Every morning we stop for breakfast at a Cracker Barrel. Every single morning. There are Barrels spread 20 miles apart on every highway in the South, and inside each one’s exactly the same. About 9:30 am we pull in and everyone but me has the menu memorized and orders within two seconds of sitting down. Wynton says it’s like eating at home; everything’s familiar and reliable. Although there’s a Groundhog’s Day vibe to it, eating here every morning does get to feel kinda homey after a few days.
Just before the exit for Meridian we spot a sign for Toomsuba, and get off the highway to check out a town with that name. It turns out to be about five houses, two churches, and a run-down catfish farm. Ernie says that if we drove by here after a big rain the road would be covered with dead catfish. We’re not far from the spot where three civil rights workers were murdered in the summer of 1964. A lot has changed in America since then, but traveling through the South this week I feel a not-so-subtle level of racism still looming here. We spot a number of Confederate flags, there’s even one tucked away backstage in the historic Opera House when we arrive.
We go from the vintage glamour of the Seelbach Hotel to the Comfort Inn; right off the highway, surrounded by fast food and a Sam’s Club. The staff treats the orchestra like royalty, I think that everyone who works there is hanging around the lobby during the time we’re here.
The instruments and sound equipment travel in a rental truck, there’s a crew of about four guys who load, unload, and set up the stage at each town with a quiet efficiency.
The routine’s the same in every town; check into hotel, grab some lunch, soundcheck at 4, dinner at venue, concert, sleep, up in the morning, hit the road to next town, check into hotel, repeat. Sometimes there’s a few hours, or a day off to check out some sights, sample the local food and nightlife, but everyone’s back at the hotel pretty early. There have been some musicians in the band who could play, but had a hard time getting along with everyone and being on time, and they didn’t last long out here. This is a good gig for a jazz musician and everyone wants to make the most of it.
In Atlanta, Wynton introduces a guy to the band at the end of the soundcheck. His name is Bob Havens, he played in Al Hirt’s band, and for 22 years was a trombonist for the Lawerence Welk Orchestra. Bob asks to play one with the band during the soundcheck, but the guys are already leaving the stage so Wynton asks him to play something during the concert that night. I see Bob walking around blowing into his mouthpiece backstage before the concert, getting ready. He gets introduced and walks onstage to play with a small group set-up that does a number each night.They play Way Down Yonder in New Orleans and Bob plays like he’s played with these guys for years, then he takes a solo, beautiful tone, structured, soulful, he tells his story. The guys are all looking at him, and at each other, with smiles and nods of admiration. Bob walks off stage to a huge ovation with a spring in his step I didn’t see before. Later, I ask Wynton when he told Bob what song they were going to play. “When he walked onstage, I just told him before that it’d be something he knew.” Wynton said that he could tell just by looking at him at the soundcheck that he could play.
Walking to the gig in Asheville, NC
My last stop on the tour was Savannah. The band was continuing on for ten more days of concerts. As soon as I’m out of the protective range of Bossman Murphy, I encounter some trouble. Early in the morning, my taxi has a flat on the way to the airport. When the driver gets out to change the tire, I take this rare photo of the sun and the moon in the same picture.