Travellin’ Light

Steve Swell
Answers 20 Questions About Life on the Road

Steve Swell                                                           Courtesy of Steve Swell

A mainstay of the NYC jazz scene since the late 1970s, trombonist Steve Swell has performed with everyone from Lionel Hampton and Buddy Rich to Anthony Braxton and Bill Dixon. Swell is a well-documented artist, having led over two dozen recordings and performing on approximately 100 others. Swell’s ongoing concerns include Planet Dream, River of Sound Ensemble and Slammin’ the Infinite; his co-op quartet with Gebhard Ullmann will tour the US in April. Swell’s busy 2011 itinerary also includes dates with Roswell Rudd’s Trombone Tribe and Ken Vandermark’s New Quartet. A teaching artist in the New York City Public Schools, Swell was a recipient of a 2008 Jubilation Foundation Fellowship to support his work with special needs children. For more information, visit:

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

I find most American carriers when you are flying domestically usually have no clue. I’ve been flying with my instrument since the late ‘70s and I still have people tell me “Oh, that will never fit.” Even when I explain it to them. That goes with a lot of International carriers too but not as much. Most airplanes have enough room in the overhead for my instrument but there are smaller planes that don’t but I get this no matter what type of plane I’m about to fly on. The worst airline, the one that I refuse to have any dealings with if I can help it due to a bad experience is Swiss. A number of years ago I was going to Portugal on TAP but that flight got canceled due to faulty electrical so they got us on a Swiss flight. While we got our luggage back I was running late to the Swiss flight and as I was booking in, I was told I couldn’t board without checking in my trombone there, no questions, period. So I did as I didn't want to miss the flight, because I had a gig to get to. So due to the fact I had a connection to make in Zurich, and everything was pushed back for me I missed the connection. In Zurich I was trying to get my bags off their flight to make another flight. I was told I couldn’t do that because they are booked to my final destination, which wasn’t my final destination actually. They were not only unhelpful, 3 Swiss ladies were actually laughing at me and said I couldn’t get my trombone or bag off their flight. I was wrangling with them every which way for a good half hour, no one else was even there or needed help. After a half hour they told me to go to the baggage area my trombone was there. HUH? Why didn’t they just tell me that to begin with. They were so nasty about it I never want to fly with them again. PS I made it to my gig on time but that experience was the worst.

Which airline has the worst economy seating and food?

This is tough because it’s not so much about economy seating, it’s the people. There’s a lot of amateurs flying these days and they tend to be pretty much about themselves and their little space, ignoring the fact that there might be 200 people on that plane. Having said that, the new Airbus 380s are great in that there is a bit more room in economy, just a bit more but it makes a difference. As far as food that is a no win situation. I am a type II diabetic so I generally get the special diabetic meal but that usually comes loaded with carbs which is what I am trying to avoid so on alot of flights you can order a gluten free meal which is better for me but still none of the food, unless you are in first class is going to be that good. I would say though, at the least, being diabetic, I am happy to have options to at least avoid spikes in my glucose level although you are never really going to have a great meal. Also I usually carry some nuts or turkey jerky with me on the road and some other food if I can.

Which airport is craziest for making connecting flights?

There are too many to choose from. I find Frankfurt and Schipol, in Amsterdam, seem to be the biggest with a lot of walking to make connections. 

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

I’m pretty good with this one, I’m usually pretty prepared but occasionally I run out of my meds. I may be travelling at a time when they run out and I can’t get them before I leave because the pharmacy isn’t allowed to do that before the month is out, but sometimes a friend I have at my pharmacy will refill early for me.

What is your worst lost baggage story?

Flying to Africa in 2004, the people checking us in in Newark were very nasty to us, not the norm there, I don’t know why, but they were giving us a hard time. Anyway, our connection to Mali was in Paris and I’m sure this person in Newark did this on purpose. They didn’t put my luggage all the way through to Mali. So I was in Mali for 3 days without my bag. As I mentioned I am a type II diabetic and carry some extra meds with me while the bulk of them are in my luggage, but I ended up having to go a day without them. Not a great situation but I did get a free Air France t-shirt.

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

I’ve learned over the years that if you behave a certain way, you just don’t get hassled; but you never know when they do a special check on you randomly. I find going into Canada especially bad for me and most musicians I know due mostly, I believe, to the trade agreements we have with them. They can be very tough, you need a lot of paperwork these days to do gigs there. In the ‘70s you just showed your license and it was never a problem. Also I’ve traveled to the Ukraine from Poland and back a couple of times and because of the tensions between east and west, that border is now sort of demarcation line, traveling with Polish and Ukrainian musicians, those musicians were hassled on either end of the trip. 

Which city has the worst cab drivers?

I find there is no real rhyme or reason to this. If cabbies at the train station or airport see a band with all their stuff, it doesn’t matter which country you are in. You will either be turned down by most of them or you will get treated very friendly.

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

I’m must be too old for these questions. There have been so many outstanding ones and a number of just awful ones. The couple of times I’ve been in Sardinia was just fantastic, the food, the people. We ate at a restaurant once in the early ‘90s where they were catching the fish right there, reeling them in and then cooking them for us. Unbelievable. I would say the best recent one was in Berlin, the Lux 11. Free WiFi, great free breakfast (all the breakfasts are free in Europe, many of them really great), ultra modern rooms and, they give you a free huge pickle that comes in a tin can. Don’t ask.

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 trusty 12 inch PowerBook G4 most of the time. If it’s a short trip I have my Blackberry Storm but the laptop is what I bring on most trips. I check my email whenever I can. In Europe, alot of hotels still make you pay for WiFi, which I don’t understand so alot of the time you have to wait until you are at the venue to use it. I have even gone walking in neighborhoods looking for an open connection when I couldn’t conveniently get one. So you check in when you can since you may be out of contact for a couple of days.

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

I do and I use my BlackBerry Storm which I have a ton of music on as well as some videos of snippets of performances I enjoy and learn from.

Do you do your own laundry on the road?

Yes. Mostly I will do it in the room. One of the first things I check, this is mostly in Europe, is the heaters. If there is enough good heat coming up and I’m there one night and need to do some laundry, I’ll wash some things in the bathroom sink, use some “body wash” that is usually available and hang them over the heater. I do mostly socks, underwear and t-shirts this way. If the heat is really good, they will be ready the next day. Some cities where I spend more time in, like Krakow for instance, I’m there for a week at a time sometimes, I know a  good little inexpensive laundry that I will use for pants and shirts. Although I’ve used the sink method on occasion for jeans and shirts too. Portugal is also great, you can wash you clothes in the morning, hang them up outside and by noon they are dry.

What is your most nightmarish sound check to date?

Generally speaking European sound guys are very professional while in the U.S. it seems those guys are on some kind of power trip which is just awful. The guys who are professional know that once the sound is done that’s it. It’s amazing when you notice after all the work you’ve done in the sound check that when the concert begins, the sound guy is “riding” the board, lowering and raising the sound and mix to where he thinks it is going and it’s usually very wrong. Many of them with no experience at all are the worst, and don’t want to admit that and will not really treat you well because you know what you want. Two really bad experiences that come to mind are these. Years ago, playing with Jaki Byard at Alice Tulley in New York for a benefit concert, we were waiting for our sound check. We were the last band to sound check and we were a big band. They were behind as usually happens so as we were getting set up on the stage when our turn came, the head tech guy noticed it was time for his guys, all union guys, to take a break. They just left the stage, didn’t say anything to Jaki and we had no sound check. I am very pro union but that was way off to me. Another time, with Cecil Taylor’s large ensemble in Skopje, Macedonia, we only had a few minutes to sound check before we were to start the concert. As this was a large ensemble also, there were a lot of mikes and chairs to set up. While we all had taken our places the sound guys, about 10 of them, were running around us, placing mikes and hooking up wires. Well this was taking too long for Cecil so he just started the concert. We all were a little surprised but we started to play as well with all these sound guys running around us going nuts. 

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

Easily the scariest thing is this thing, I won’t even call it food, called “aspic.” Its some kind of gelatinous fat that, and I have movies of it, if you move the plate back and forth it jiggles and just looks very scary. I’m afraid to eat it.

What are your three favorite venues?

Again, I must be too old for these questions. There are so many good ones so I will have to go with recent ones. There’s Hnita in Belgium which is family run, second generation now. It’s in an old farmhouse and the food is fresh from that farm and the people are great. Another outstanding farm-like venue in Germany is Nigglmuhle. The Bimhuis in Amsterdam and De Werf in Belgium are great too. I’ve got mention something in the U.S. or I will be in trouble so I will mention 3, BopShop in Rochester, Hugo Claudin’s in Grand Rapids and Kerrytown in Ann Arbor. I think also, it’s what you bring to these venues too. Most people book you because they want you so if you bring good positive energy and good music, you’re going to have a good experience.

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

Just about any European city you will find a good after the gig meal if it’s not too small a town. The U.S.? I think I’ll take a pass.

Which cities have the best after-hours sessions?

I don’t really go to after hour sessions but for a late night hang, hands down, Krakow is great. Especially a club we play at called Alchemia. I love Lisbon after hours too.

What is the best city that closes down too early?

Again, my age is showing. When I’m on the road and playing that evening, I love doing the gig, meeting and talking with some people afterwards then I’m usually back in the room fairly quick. That is usually due to the fact that you are one day in that city and probably have an early train or plane to get to the next day.
I do recall being in Boston recently and we really wanted to go somewhere and couldn’t find anything, and it didn’t seem that late.

What is the best locale to have a day off?

There are many cities I wish I had more days off in. You kind of accumulate time in cities only because you’ve been to them a number of times and get to see them a little bit each time. Days off in a place rarely happens. I’ve been in Rome 3 or 4 times and have only had one day off there to enjoy that city. I would say recently, I’ve spent longer periods of time in Krakow and I enjoy that city very much. Lisbon I’ve spent longer periods of time in too and I really like that city as well.

What is your cure for jet lag?


What is your best tip for the novice?

Pace yourself.

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