Travellin’ Light

Dave Ballou
Answers 20 Questions About Life on the Road

Dave Ballou

A trumpeter and composer, Dave Ballou has led eight recordings for Steeplechase, the latest being Intuition, an improvised trio session with Michael Formanek and Randy Peterson. Ballou is an Assistant Professor of Music and Coordinator of the Jazz and Commercial Music program at Towson University outside Baltimore, teaching courses in theory, composition, improvisation and trumpet. For detailed information, consult:

What is the most difficult airline to deal with in terms of instruments and equipment?

As a trumpet player I’ve been luck to not have much difficulty with getting my instruments on board (knock on wood!!!). But the small planes- like what Delta uses for domestic short flights are the toughest. Even a small trumpet case won’t fit in the overhead and I hear from my bass playing friends that they won’t even take a flight case on one of those. It seems like any airline can be the worse, or best, depending on who is behind the counter and what kind of mood the flight attendants are in. I’ve seen them bend the rules for some and be super strict with others.

Which airline has the worst economy seating and food?

Someone is still serving food on the plane? I haven’t had one of those meals in a long time. I guess Luftensa was the worst experience in that regard. Packed like sardines- no legroom at all.

Which airport is craziest for making connecting flights?

I guess the airport in Zurich is where I had the most difficulty. But most have been pretty close to the gate. If you have to change airlines you’re screwed- then you probably need to go to another terminal, but most have the connecting gates reasonable close to where you come in.

What is the most important thing you ever forgot to pack?

My Flugelhorn mouthpiece- of course I didn’t notice until I got to a sound check.
I was able to borrow one until I got to a music store and bought one but I’m use to a certain type so it didn’t help much.

What is your worst lost baggage story?

First time coming back from Japan. Landed in JFK but was living in Rhode Island at the time. When I landed I had to take a train to Rhode Island and the luggage never got on the plane in Tokyo. Eventually it arrived in RI but I think it was about at week later. Fortunately it was the end of the tour so I didn’t need anything in there-I had all my crucial stuff with me.

What country hassles musicians the most at customs and passport checks?

Well, Syria was the worst I can remember-although Brazil was difficult as well. Both were instances were they saw us coming as a group with big cases and lots of baggage. That was a red flag for them. They took us aside and looked through all our stuff- it took hours to get through all that. In Syria it was quite scary. The guards had rifles and we couldn’t even begin to understand anything they were saying! What was that movie? Midnight Express?

Which city has the worst cab drivers?

That’s a tough one. I think after the tour in Syria and Turkey in 1994 I can deal with most anything. The cab drivers in Istanbul were pretty special.

What is the best hotel that a presenter has provided for you?

This is going to sound strange, but in Pori, Finland with Maria Schneider’s band they put us up in a resort away from the city on the ocean that at first looked like something from the former Soviet Union. It was kind of run down and some of the members of the group complained bitterly. However, it proved to be great! It was summer so the sun didn’t really set but created these beautiful colors every night. Being away from the city lights we could really appreciate it. There was an amazing pool and steam bath. We were there for a week and it was so peaceful and relaxing! The Vanguard band was there for the same week so the hang was cool. I remember a softball game between the two bands- I might be remembering it wrong but I think we beat the Vanguard band. Someone will probably remember, but it was so much fun and it was a lot closer than you might expect- they should have killed us!

Do you travel with a laptop or a PDA? If so, how many times a day do you check your e-mail?

I travel with my laptop. I check my email every chance I get because of the teaching job I have now I get more email that I can answer. Thankfully, however, because I don’t have a PDA I can get some break from it when I’m traveling. I’m afraid if I had one of those things I’d be checking email more than I breathe!

Do you listen to music on the road? If so, what device do you use?

I have a 40 GB iPod. It is hard to listen on planes but now I have a decent set of noise isolating headphones so I can listen almost anywhere. I can’t sleep on planes anymore and I’d rather catch up on listening. Usually I’ve seen the stuff offered on the in-flight entertainment during the last flight. Usually once is enough for that.

Do you do your own laundry on the road?

Absolutely, a lifesaver once I learned about washing things out. Try to bring clothes that will dry over night and either doesn’t wrinkle or doesn’t matter if it wrinkles. The problem is when I need a tux or a suit- however, there aren’t too many instances like that anymore though -that was more for the big band days.

What is your most nightmarish sound check to date?

Man, had a lot of those!!! Mostly with big bands. Generally, someone with one solo in the entire evening will have to get their sound exactly right in the monitor while 17 other people have to wait for them. That brings a whole group down! I try to avoid them as much as possible but sometimes they are needed so the group can have another rehearsal more than check the sound. I don’t like to use PA systems too much but sometimes they are necessary. You can tell though, if you see mics everywhere and it’s a small house or you see twenty mics for the drums and one on the piano you know what is about to happen. Usually sound people are use to balancing the group through a sound system- they forget that we are balancing the group on stage, amongst ourselves. In my experience, the bigger the system the bigger the problems. Not only technically but in the sound people understanding the nature of an acoustic group.

Two things to always remember at sound checks: At some point there will be ear shattering feedback; and, “It will sound different with people in here”.

What is the scariest food that has been laid out for you backstage?

Usually there is this non-descript deli meat. I can go with most anything but when you see that the deli platter has been there for nearly a week you might want to consider fasting. Runny cheese, grayish cold cuts, yellow mayo, hard bread- watch out!

Backstage food somehow tends to be pretty much the same thing everywhere. Something they don’t have to spend much on and that will last un-refrigerated. That doesn’t leave much room for gourmet. But occasionally you get surprised.

What are your three favorite venues?

Roseland Ballroom, NY; Carnegie Hall, NY; Glenn Miller Club, Stockholm.

Which cities have the best restaurants for late after-gig meals?

Istanbul, Turkey.

Which cities have the best after-hours sessions?

I haven’t really been into that so much. Usually after the gig I’m wiped out and we have to run off again in the morning- if we get to stay the night at all.

What is the best city that closes down too early?

Usually, it is the cities in the States that close too early. It seems like there is always something to do in Europe after hours.

What is the best locale to have a day off?

I like Paris or London- so much to do in both places. I love sight seeing when I can. But Portugal is a great place to just chill out. Went to the beach in Tavria last September- beautiful!

What is your cure for jet lag?

Someone told me once to get in the water when you arrive. So, I either get to the pool- if it seems okay, or take a bath. Then if we arrive in the morning, I’ll take a short nap and stay up as late a s I can. If we arrive at night then try to get to bed and get up the next day at a normal time- just try to a get in the flow as quick as possible but take a nap if I can. Another important thing for me is to drink lots and lots of water. Getting dehydrated really sucks and drains my energy- I get pretty cranky if that happens. No fun.

What is your best tip for the novice?

Travel light!!! Really, try not to pack too much- you really don’t need that much if you think about it. You don’t know what you are going to have to do so have the ability to be light and quick. Dragging a suitcase through busy airports or trying to find a space for it on a sleeper car of a train will not only bring you down but your traveling companions as well. If you do check something, try to carry on stuff you will be able to get through a couple of days: things for the first gig, toothbrush, just in case you don’t get your bag when you land. Then, get on the plane early so you know there is room for your stuff.

Also, try to go with the flow if you can. Everyone has “special needs” but learn how to adapt and maybe even do without. Traveling in a group can be a great experience and a really wonderful way to make bonds with other musicians. It can also make the worse enemies out of the best friends. I try to remember I love what I do and no matter the hardships- they’ll pass… eventually. But how cool is it that someone is paying me to travel to great places, meet great people and play great music!


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