May 5, 2011

The Wal-Mart Gig

This one came through a non-profit music school, where I worked at the time as jazz coordinator. Wal-Mart was opening a new store in our town, and was interested in establishing positive ties with the community. Because a member of the school’s board of directors was involved with developing the shopping center, I got the call.
When “Rick,” the music school director, told me that I had a gig to play the national anthem and some jazz for the grand opening of a Wal-Mart, from 8 to 10 AM, I said I’d only do it if the pay was good. He managed to extract $154 per player for two hours, with a $500 donation to the school, for a trio.
To play this gig, I had to find a sub for the middle school jazz band that I taught on Wednesdays, at 7:30 AM. A new teacher at the music school, a bright young percussionist just out of college, said he’d be glad to sub for me. I gave him a map to the middle school, and we agreed to meet there at 7:15.
On the day of the gig, I showed up at the school, tuned up the band, and waited as long as I could. No sub. I put the band under the direction of a trusted 8th grader, and left at about 7:50 for the Wal-Mart. (Although the kid did a great job, I now realize that this was a poor idea, and would not do it again.)
I arrived at the Wal-Mart a few minutes after 8:00, and was relieved to learn that the national anthem had been rescheduled to 8:15. Our bass player was there, but our guitar player did not arrive until 8:30. We played the national anthem with just bass and tenor sax. It went OK. In attendance were around 50 employees of the new store; the general public was not allowed in until 9:00.
Before we played our jazz set, there were about a dozen speakers. They were each welcomed by the assembled employees with a special cheer: “GOOD MORNING, WANDA! WELCOME TO WAL-MART! HUNH!!” The last word was delivered with fist jabs into the air. After the speakers, a local Catholic priest asked God to bless the building, and “all the buyers and sellers.” Then a pioneer Wal-Mart employee spoke about how she had known “Mr. Sam” (Sam Walton). She was close to tears. She told us that in this country anything is possible, and we might be the next Mr. Sam. Our guitarist, who had arrived by then, whispered, “I can’t believe this.” Finally, the employees gave another special Wal-Mart cheer, spelling out the company name and ending with 50 people snapping their fingers for about 10 seconds. Then it was time for us to play.
As the customers were coming in, we played upbeat jazz numbers. One of the first customers was inebriated. He listened to the band for a few minutes, then sat down on a bench a few feet away, next to a life-size replica of Ronald McDonald (there was a McDonald’s franchise inside the Wal-Mart). He put one arm over Ronald’s shoulder, and pulled out a $20 bill. He held up the bill, waving it at the customers coming in the front entrance. We kept on playing our upbeat jazz - bossas, Ellington, standards.
After about fifteen minutes, two employees took the guy to the back room. Twenty minutes later the local police showed up, to escort him out of the store. He was OK, but looked depressed.
After an hour of playing for arriving shoppers, 10:00 arrived. As we were packing up, the assistant manager asked us to play a little longer (they would pay us). The CEO of Wal-Mart was driving in from Pleasanton, and they wanted music for his arrival. We agreed to play for another half hour. He hadn’t shown by 10:30, so we packed up again, and went home. I called the drummer who was supposed to have taught my class; he had forgotten what day it was. The kids had rehearsed by themselves.
The rest of the day was solid with teaching obligations. At my evening class, an improvisation workshop, one of my adult students recollected that he had worked with my father 30 years earlier. They had worked for an early Silicon Valley company, on a project to develop a 42-track tape recorder that would fit inside a suitcase: “You can guess what 3-letter agency that was for.” My dad had never told me about that, of course. 

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