TRAVELLIN' LIGHT
Ellery Eskelin Answers
20 Questions About The Road

Ellery Eskelin is a composer, tenor saxophonist and bandleader. His latest CD, Ten (hatART), marks the 10th anniversary of his trio with accordionist/keyboardist Andrea Parkins and drummer Jim Black. The trio’s 10th Anniversary European Tour is documented on the DVD, On The Road with Ellery Eskelin, Andrea Parkins and Jim Black.

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

Ellery Eskelin: I don't know which company is the worst.  The problem is that it's a real crap shoot.  You never know when you're going to encounter someone at the airport who is going to make an arbitrary decision regarding your instrument.  Once in Canada I had one of the baggage scanners literally tugging on one end of my saxophone case while I held the other.  She was determined that I wasn't going to take my saxophone on the plane even as everyone else's bags of underwear were larger than my  saxophone (which fits very easily in any overhead).  Another security person came by and asked what it was.  The woman trying to pull the instrument out of my arms told her it was a saxophone to which the second woman said, "oh, that's OK.  If it was a guitar it would have to be checked".  The first woman questioned that and the second simply said "it's your decision".  She finally let go.

So my experience is that it all depends on the personnel you deal with. I arrive at least three hours in advance of a flight, before people start stressing out and make sure I'm one of the first on the plane.  It's a fine art to bogart one's way through the gauntlet...lots of subtle cues to read.  Stresses me out just to think about it since the result is that I can under no circumstances put a saxophone in the luggage hold and therefore if they wanted to play hardball I would have to miss the flight. Uggghh...next question please...

Which airline has the worst economy seating and food?

I don't know, most of them are pretty tortuous.  I have been fortunate enough to have been bumped up to first class a number of times...wow, what a difference that is!  Thing is, they don't like to make a big thing about it.  So for example, I was secure in my coach seat, had  everything stowed away and felt home free after the boarding...feeling pretty good about having had no hassles...and then one of the crew comes over and tells us we're going to have to move.  Realizing that I'm going to have to pull the saxophone down and risk being told to check it I got rather indignant and stood my ground saying these were our seats and we're not going to move.  Suddenly Andrea Parkins gives me a quick elbow to the ribs and whispers for me to shut up.  The stewardess gives me a look and tells me that she thinks we'll like these seats and proceeds to escort us to first class.  I still get teased about that one...

Which airport is craziest for making connecting flights?

Probably Charles de Gaulle in Paris...at least that's the one I fly into most often and am faced with forty-five minute connections.  Of course the initial flight is usually late and then you have to stand in line for customs and then run from one terminal to another.  I've missed flights because of this and so now I always insist on a longer lay-over.  The worst was in Spain...to make a long story short, I left New York in the evening, flew overnight to Spain and missed my connection.  In order to get to the gig that evening I had to take three more flights zig-zagging the country just to get there in time for the downbeat.  And did I mention that I can't sleep sitting up?

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

I have a checklist and begin packing three days in advance.  Am I starting to sound obsessive?

What is your worst lost baggage story?

First tour or Europe with Andrea and Jim back in '96.  I had just gotten copies of the new CD Jazz Trash and packed a bag full of them to sell at our gigs.  The bag gets lost on day one and after a week I assume I'd just lost the whole thing.  No one had a clue where the bag was.  After three weeks on the road we're flying back home from the same airport and I get notification that they found my bag.  There it was in the lost baggage room.  At least I got to bring it home with me.

Andrea wasn't so lucky last year...on a flight to Portugal all her electronic equipment simply vanished in transit.  No one knew anything. It never showed up and so she had to replace her entire setup.  Did I mention that I'll never check an instrument into baggage?

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

CANADA!!!  Don't even get me started...

Although the most stressful border crossing I did was in the early '90s with Joey Baron and Josh Roseman.  We were on a train into Poland, asleep in our compartment in the middle of the afternoon when we hear this tremendous banging on our compartment door.  We awake to see a half-dozen police officers brandishing big-ass rifles yelling at us in Polish.  We give the our passports and there's a lot more talk in Polish after which the loudest guy starts shaking Josh's passport in the air and yelling "toilet paper" in English.  I think the plastic laminate was beginning to curl and they suspected the worst.  Plus the racial thing.  This went on for about 10 minutes until some German police who were still on the train came and talked the Polish police out of throwing us off the train.

Oh yea, and then there was the time Andrea, Jim and I were also asleep in our compartment in the middle of the day on a train in Austria.  A couple of Starsky and Hutch wannabees came in and let their German shepherd stick it's nose in my crotch.  Because we were all groggy they thought we were junkies.  They were so excited... they were sure they were about to make a bust!  They checked Andrea's arms for needle tracks...pulled all our stuff out and went through everything.  Once they realized we were just jet lagged musicians they kind of smiled sheepishly and went on their way.

Which city has the worst cab drivers?

HOLLAND!!! Amsterdam and Rotterdam. No question about it.  Many times we've pulled in on the train with all our stuff only to be told by the cabbies that our hotel is only a ten minute walk.  Too close for them to drive us.  We each have two or three bags and plus, Andrea's bags are quite heavy since they contain electronic equipment and such.  The problem is, you can't even pay these guys enough to make the trip!  More than once I've yelled in the face of one of these guys.  And I have to say, anger is usually not a good negotiating tool but that kind of unnecessary BS takes me from zero to sixty in about two seconds.  F*** THEM!

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

As a rule, the quality of the hotel is in direct proportion to the amount of hours you will spend in it.  For example, say you are arriving in a town and there's no time to check in to the hotel first, you have to go directly to the gig, sound check, eat fast, play the gig and then check in to the hotel afterwards for what will be about four or five hours of sleep before a 5AM departure the next morning.  That will be the best hotel you've ever seen in your life.  If on the other hand, you have three days off it will be in a tiny, smelly room in some small town where the hotel staff works part time and speaks no English. And the phone will not work.  And it will rain every day.

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

I never travel with a computer or any gadgets (actually, I finally broke down and got a cell phone).  At home I pretty much live on the computer and so I don't miss it at all on the road.  My wife will check my e-mail from time to time and let me know if there's anything important.  So don't e-mail me if you know I'm on the road as it will take about a week for me to get the message, since my wife is not my secretary.

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

No...I tend to take road time as an opportunity to completely zone out...with the exception of the newspaper I don't even take a anything to read.  And sometimes I even need a moratorium on the news since I follow that hourly at home and the stress sometimes adds up...George W. stress, killer disease stress, weather stress.  I know I should make better use of my time but I often feel much calmer without all the stimulus.  In those moments where I can get my mind calm with no guilt about doing nothing I tend to get my life in order and sometimes even come up with good ideas for music or a project.

Do you do your own laundry on the road?

The longer the tour is the fewer clothes I bring.  Who wants to carry around dirty clothes?  So I might bring two pair of pants and two or three shirts -- plus the accompanying undergarments --  and wash them out in the sink.  I have a whole system of choosing clothes that dry quickly and resist wrinkling, my bottle of Wool-Lite, my all purpose sink stopper and a clothes line with suction cups at the end that can be hung in the bathroom.  Wash, rinse, squeeze dry, roll in a towel, squeeze out all the water, hang to dry!

What is your most nightmarish sound check to date?

When electronics are involved they are all nightmarish.  But the prize goes to...well, they shall remain nameless...but essentially, they blew up Andrea's sampler (and their own PA system) during sound check and blamed it on her.  We spent the rest of the tour trouble shooting replacement equipment every day.

And then there was the time we showed up and there was no promoter, no representative, the drums were held together with tape. About an hour before the concert a guy shows up who barely spoke English and did not know how to set up the sound equipment or even run the admission.  But in a way this one was easy.  I was successfully able to communicate the idea of "no concert".  He got scared, made some calls and finally got it together.  That's ultra rare though.  It was our first tour...it hasn't happened since.

Then there was the 30 minute scream fest in Italy over the concept of no microphones.  I wanted to do an acoustic concert and the sound people found that to be an alien concept.  So that one should have been simple but it wasn't.  Seems that any negotiation in Italy involves at least six people all talking at once, some of whom were not even involved but decided to just to jump in...I don't know why...

Ironically, the sound-check that should have been the hardest turned out to be the easiest.  We once arrived in Holland thirty minutes prior to concert start time.  We had to go directly to the venue and set up for a radio broadcast in less than twenty minutes.  Normally this could take a couple hours.  We didn't have any time to even hear what the sound was like going over the airwaves or even whether our equipment would make any sound at all..  I was sure it was going to be terrible.  Turned out great.  Thanks Dick Lucas!

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

I recall a particular vegetarian meal in Austria in one of those super funky beer and blood venues...I think it was potatoes and rice.  And the woman who cooked it was smoking a cigarette the whole time she prepared it.

What are your three favorite venues?

Oh, I don't know.  I'm usually just happy that someone has seen fit to allow this kind of music to happen without shutting the whole thing down once we start to play.  Actually I never have that fear in Europe.  But it did happen a couple times when I was a teenager in Baltimore...and actually one other time in DC about 10 years ago when the staff at the venue we were playing at decided that they had had enough and came out halfway into the second set to announce to our public that the concert was over.  Go USA!  So yea, whenever we play in the States I still have some residual angst over that.  Somehow these fears from one's formative years never completely die.  No matter how well things may be going part of me still expects the worst.

But to try and answer the question...probably any place in which we can play more than one night in a row...which is quite rare actually.  There are some clubs in Paris where we can play three or four nights in a row, and three sets a night.  That's always great.  Here in New York you gotta fight just to be able to play more than one set on a night...a trend I've been railing against for years.

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

I remember a great post-2-am meal in Chicago at a Korean restaurant.  Myself, Joe McPhee, Josh Abrams and Paul Lovens after a hang at the Empty Bottle.  That was years ago and I'm always looking for something like that and never finding it.

Which cities have the best after-hours sessions?

I really wouldn't know.  I haven't gone to a jam session in many years.  I guess because I really don't play the kind of tunes in the kind of way that jam sessions often dictate.  When I was in my teens and early twenties I would foist myself on any kind of gig or session I could find, whether it was appropriate or not.  Didn't matter what kind of music.  But then I would at least try and fit in.

What is the best city that closes down too early?

Not sure I know the answer to this one either.  I don't smoke or drink any more.  No illicit substances either.  I'm kinda boring that way.

What is the best locale to have a day off?

Probably Paris or any other large city.  Although one must be careful about spending too much money.  We once followed up on a restaurant recommendation in Paris...called a couple weeks in advance for a lunch reservation figuring it would be less expensive than dinner, so we were told.  We were lucky to get in, sat down at our table and started looking over the menu.  After a few moments we noticed that the prix fixe for lunch for three people was going to add up to about as much as a down payment on a car.  We could have left embarrassed but decided to live up to the moment and enjoy a once in a lifetime meal.  And it turned out to be the best meal I ever had.

What is your cure for jet lag?

Hmm...I don't know.  I think I still have jet lag from last spring.

What is your best tip for the novice?

Be on time.  In fact, be five minutes early for everything.