In June of 1989 I was working as a driver for Columbus Limousine in Los Angeles, California. I was assigned to the Playboy Jazz Festival, traditionally held every year at the Hollywood Bowl. The musicians were staying at various hotels near the venue mostly along Sunset and Hollywood Boulevards.
The job consisted of ferrying the musicians between their hotel and the Bowl for either sound check or the actual gig. The bill was full from early evening to late at night and the preparation needed to produce such an event is mind-boggling.
I cannot attend a concert without realizing that even if there is only one person on stage, there are hundreds of others in the aisles and at the back of the auditorium, on the catwalks, beneath the stage, in the wings and usually in large trucks filled with sound and broadcast equipment parked nearby, each making sure that the concert occurs problem free and without incident.
Because of the tight scheduling I sometimes had to go to the hotel, pick up some band members, drop them off at the venue and then turn around and head right back to pick up another band.
It only took about fifteen minutes to make the roundtrip but at one point the scheduling overlapped and I was faced with taking one group and asking the other to wait for me to return.
No one likes to wait and of course everyone likes to think that they are the priority of the moment when a limousine is available. I was faced with a dilemma. I had a not too well known older male musician and a virtual superstar of the jazz and pop worlds to move between the hotel and the Hollywood Bowl. Technically the older jazz musician was first in line but status (and number of Grammys) might dictate that I reverse the order. What to do?
I have always been good at making decisions. I rarely have second thoughts. I consider my options, weigh the facts and decide. This was no different. I decided to take the older gentleman first. But, I had to go to the superstar and let him know what had occurred and that I would be right back. I also radioed my boss and let him know in case he received any complaints. Then he would be aware of the situation and my role in it.
The superstar and his band mates were a model of patience and diplomacy. The only thing they offered was that perhaps since the car was large and the older gentleman was only one or two in his party maybe they could share the limousine which sat seven comfortably. I thanked him for the suggestion (surprised I didn’t think of it first) and then quietly approached the older veteran of jazz. I was surprised by his reply. His response was, “Let him wait for his own limo.”
That was that, but I knew I had a job to do and the sooner I dropped off the old guy the sooner I’d return. So I explained the situation as graciously as possible and he and his band were just fine. “We’ll wait here for you,” they said and off I went.
When I returned they were out in front of the hotel and we made our way to the Bowl. I apologized again. They had put it out of their minds and were onto other matters. It was still early in the day and this was only sound check.
When he took the stage to check the various levels for the evening’s concert he plugged in his guitar and began rehearsing. When he began the place buzzed with activity. People were moving about the stage and all over the venue preparing for the festival that was soon to begin.
A few bars of each song and a mic check were all that was needed. It was a surprisingly calm process. Every concert or band I’d ever been involved in seemed to require hours of endless sound checking with the end result usually being dissatisfaction on the part of the musicians and the sound engineers alike. This was different.
Before he left he played about half of one more song and before long every single person in that enormous concert venue had stopped working and was simply listening to the man on stage, alone with his guitar. The song he played was “Here, There and Everywhere.” It was very moving. As soon as he felt comfortable or maybe uncomfortable with the pin-drop silence, he slowly ended. And with that, sound check was over. I drove him back to the hotel and we said we’d see each other later.
The jazz superstar was headlining and everyone had a good time. I was busy all afternoon and evening driving musicians back and forth to their hotels. Many had requested to be driven other places but the concert promoters weren’t paying for unlimited limousine access for everyone. We were essentially a shuttle service from hotel to the venue and back. This continued until all the acts were done and the concert was over.
The fellow who played guitar so beautifully during sound check also wanted to go out after the show and he asked if it would be possible for me to stay with his party until they had dinner and then drop them back at their hotel. I knew the concert was over so I said would call the office and I’d let him know shortly. A quick radio call and I had my response. Of course I could take him and his party anywhere they wanted. My only instruction was to keep the office posted on my whereabouts. I agreed without reservation.
They asked to go to a restaurant that no longer exists, called Nucleus Nuance. It was a jazz club on Melrose Avenue in Hollywood. I was lucky to get a spot out front so I dropped them off and said I’d be right outside when they were ready. All of them entered except for one fellow, a manager or producer that I had been chatting with earlier named Angel. From our conversations he knew I loved jazz and asked if I would like to come inside the club. In all my years of driving I had never been asked to come inside a private dinner or after party, and certainly not with anyone of his stature, so I declined.
He said, “Okay,” and entered as everyone was getting seated. I was an experienced driver and I was prepared to be there for several hours. I had my books and newspapers to read and if I really wanted, I could go in the back and watch television like some drivers, but I never did. I never wanted the client to emerge and find me in the passenger compartment. It may sound silly but radical communist that I am, I also believe in the honor of service. (We will need another post to explore that topic.)
After an hour or so, a waiter emerged from the restaurant carrying a tray. He approached the vehicle and I was very surprised to see that he had a very nice gourmet chicken sandwich and fries all prepared like a room service order and it was for me. Hrmmm… This was another first and I had driven everyone from Robert De Niro and Tom Cruise to Sherry Lansing and Sumner Redstone. (I have a list of everyone I ever drove.)
Waiting was never so pleasant. I had my radio, my papers, and a delicious chicken sandwich. At the festival I had caught the sets of Art Blakey and Ruben Blades. Life was pretty good. In fact, as far as jobs are concerned, I didn’t think it could get much better, but it was about to.
After another twenty minutes or so the fellow named Angel returned to the car. I thought he was about to tell me to start the engine and have the AC on because they would be emerging soon but instead he carried a different and not unfamiliar message. He said they were still inside enjoying themselves and would I like to come in? I said I was fine where I was and thanked him again. Then he stopped and looked me dead in the eye and said, “George is going to play.”
I had that car locked and was inside the club faster than you can say “our driver will be joining us.” It was true, here in the center of Hollywood, in a very small club rumored to be owned by Billy Dee Williams, I was sitting at a table with strangers who treated me like a member of the family and George Benson was about to take the stage. There couldn’t have been more than a hundred people in the place. It was late Sunday night and Monday was a workday. Los Angeles was more diurnal than nocturnal back then. I suppose it still is with bars closing at two am and not four am like New York.
The bandleader asked the audience if it was okay if a special guest took the stage for a couple of numbers. They voiced their approval as some of them had undoubtedly spotted the master in their midst but when he took the stage and the rest of them realized who it was, the place went nuts. He only played a few songs including “On Broadway” and the great Leon Russell penned “This Masquerade.” The house band was great and they were definitely up to the task.
As a jazz fan, I can honestly say it was a very special evening and I have seen Carmen McRae, Astrud Gilberto, George Shearing, and many others in small clubs. Jackie and Roy are right up there at the top as well. (Okay, maybe Antonio Carlos Jobim from the third row at the Greek but that is another story too.)
When the evening was finally over I dropped everyone at the hotel. Angel Rangelov came over and thanked me for staying with them. George was also aware that I had worked all day at the festival and stayed with them all night. As he exited the car he came over and thanked me personally. He shook my hand and left a bill in my palm like they did in the old days. After an evening like that, it was definitely unnecessary but he did it anyway.
After I got back in the car and drove a short distance I pulled over and looked at the bill. It was a hundred. With a new fiancé, (we would marry three months later) and three teenagers, tips were often the difference between beans and rice or steak and eggs (or maybe, beans and rice vs. beans and rice and Jobim).
My last thought of the night however was not of steak or eggs or even George Benson. It was of the fellow who refused to share the limousine with him. Besides a limo ride with George Benson, I wondered what else he was missing in life? I made two resolutions that evening which I try to keep but I am not always successful. I resolved to be as gracious as possible whenever I had the opportunity, especially since I have been the recipient of enormous kindness. I also resolved to tip well. It is not always possible, but I try.