Travellin’ Light

Michael Jefry Stevens
Answers 20 Questions About Life on the Road

Michael Jefry Stevens
Michael Jefry Stevens       Courtesy of Michael Jefry Stevens

Michael Jefry Stevens is a Memphis-based pianist, composer and bandleader. For the past two decades, Stevens had led or co-led several important ensembles, including the Mosaic Sextet, the Fonda/Stevens Group and Conference Call. Stevens has composed over 400 works for various ensembles, including big band, string quartet, music for voice, music for solo instruments and various small group compositions. Mr. Stevens was the Margaret Lee Crofts Fellow at The MacDowell Colony in the summer of 2000, received 2nd prize in the prestigious Monaco International Jazz Composition in 1998, and was a 2005 composer fellow at the Centrum Arts Colony in Port Townsend, Washington. He is currently on the music faculty of Rhodes College in Memphis and he is artist-in-residence at the annual jazz workshop at EMU in La Plata, Argentina. Stevens is working on several new projects, including In Transit with drummer Dieter Ulrich, bassist Daniel Studer and saxophonist Juerg Solothurnmann, a duo with violist Szilard Mezei, and Eastern Boundary with drummer Balazs Bagyi and saxophonist Mihaly Borbely.

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

To be perfectly honest, I think European airlines in general are a bit easier to deal with than USA Airlines. Our worst adventure was the time Delta charged us $700 in over weight fees for the bass, coming back from Munich to JFK. Unbelievable.

Which airline has the worst economy seating and food?

Definitely American Airlines for me is by far the most uncomfortable airline in every conceivable way. Old seats and lousy food – well most of the airline food is terrible.

Which airport is craziest for making connecting flights?

London Heathrow is an awful airport for getting around, especially considering how in general European airports are so well designed as compared to American airports, especially JFK which is a logistical nightmare for getting in and out of the airport.

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

The worst moment we had as a band was when our bassist forget his passport at home. He actually took his old passport instead of the new one. That cost another plane ticket the next day.

What is your worst lost baggage story?

About 7 years ago, Joe Fonda and I were on tour, flying in and out of Berlin. On the flight back from Germany to the USA, Joe’s bass did not arrive in New York City. The airline was not able to find it. Finally, after several days of phone calls to the airport and the airline the bass was found, hidden away in the catacombs of the Berlin airport. Evidently some worker had hidden it and was trying to steal it. That was the strangest luggage story I ever experienced.

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

Canada is the biggest hassle by far.

Which city has the worst cab drivers?

We have had pretty terrible luck with Belgian taxi drivers out of Brussels North. For some reason they REFUSE to take the bass in the taxi. Last time we had to carry the bass 5 blocks to the club.

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

We stayed at the Grand Hotel in Karlovy Vary, formerly knows as Karlsbad. This was an incredibly lush hotel. The bathroom was larger than most hotel rooms. It was inhabited by mostly Russian mobsters. Quite an interesting several days.

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

If I am traveling every day I do NOT take a laptop. I do, however, bring my Blackberry which I am constantly checking for email. If I am able to stay in one place for 3 or 4 days at a time I will take the laptop. This allows me to do more business from my computer.

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

I have an iPod and just recently received for Christmas an iTouch which I use for watching movies mostly.

Do you do your own laundry on the road?

I generally wash socks, underwear and t shirts myself but if I have 2 days in the same city I will get the hotel to clean my shirts and pants.

What is your most nightmarish sound check to date?

Sound checks can be, in general, pretty scary. You really never know what to expect. We try to have minimal monitors and play as acoustically as possible. We mic the piano and sometimes the trumpet. The bass runs through an amp and the drums are almost NEVER mic’d. One of my more memorable stories involves playing a trio concert somewhere in northern Italy. The room was magnificent. The piano was impeccable. We told the sound man we were going to play acoustically and he argued that we were not allowed to. This went on for a while. Finally I put my foot down and he proceeded to say the reason he wanted us to be mic’d was so he could record the band. Of course, this had not been agreed upon. In the end, we did play acoustically.

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

I did get food poisoning recently in Argentina, but that was my fault. I ate something from a street vendor!

What are your three favorite venues?

Four favorite venues are: De Werf in Brugge, Belgium; Cavete (Jazz Club Marburg) in Marburg, Germany; Le Petit Faucheux in Tours, France; and Bunker Ulmenwall in Bielefeld, Germany

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

Paris, New York and Buenos Aires. 

Which cities have the best after-hours sessions?

I don’t go anywhere but the hotel room after a concert!

What is the best city that closes down too early?

I don’t pay any attention.

What is the best locale to have a day off?

I like Paris. The more time I get to spend there the more I enjoy it. Just the museums alone are worth an off day. Amsterdam is a close second. Great places to walk around.

What is your cure for jet lag?

Take as late a flight as possible from the USA to Europe. Sleep on the plane. Take a nap the next afternoon for 1 hour. Force yourself to stay up the night you arrive overseas. That will help.

What is your best tip for the novice?

Don’t eat anything from street vendors.

Carry as little luggage as possible.

Carry a copy of your passport.

Carry your cash money in a hidden pouch.

Learn a few simple words in every language for every country you will travel in.

Count your luggage pieces after every trip.

Don’t leave ANYTHING on the train.

Don’t be afraid to ask for a different hotel room.

Follow all directions for train passes.

Don’t change money in airports if you can help it.

Get a wake up call and eat the free hotel breakfast.

Make a sandwich at breakfast to eat for lunch on the train.

Buy water and snacks for your hotel room.

Don’t exchange your Euros. Keep them. They are getting more valuable.

Make sure you have electrical adapters for your computer and other devices.

Don’t expect to get rich playing this music. If that is your reason for doing this you are in the wrong business and should IMMEDIATELY change careers. This music is all about loving it!

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