Travellin’ Light

George Schuller
Answers 20 Questions About Life on the Road

George Schuller
George Schuller                                                                                    George Schuller©2010

A drummer, composer, arranger and producer, George Schuller broke onto the Boston scene in the ‘80s and early ‘90s with Ran Blake, Jaki Byard, and others after graduating with a BA in jazz performance from the New England Conservatory of Music in 1982. In 1984 he co-founded Orange Then Blue, a big band that released several highly acclaimed albums on the GM label during its thirteen-year run. Schuller moved to Brooklyn in 1994 and gradually immersed himself into the NY area jazz scene, forming a number of smaller ensembles (Schulldogs, Chump Change, Ruckus) and playing with a revolving door of like-minded improvisers.  Since then, Schuller has performed with everyone from Lee Konitz to J Geils, and Dee Dee Bridgewater to Mat Maneri. He has recorded as a sideman with Joe Lovano, Burton Greene and numerous others, while co-producing albums for another lengthy list, which includes Michael Musillami, Gunther Schuller and Luciana Souza. Schuller has recorded as a leader for several labels; his newest is 2008’s Like Before, Somewhat After on Playscape. Besides recording his own music, he has recorded tributes to Keith Jarrett, Miles Davis, and Jimmy Giuffre.  Schuller currently leads the groups Circle Wide and George Schuller Trio in addition to co-leading several others (Conference Call, Trio This, Whirrr!). He also co-produced the 2007 documentary "Music Inn," which was screened at the Tribeca, Berkshire, Galway, Munich, and Prague Film Festivals. Schuller’s new trio CD is Life’s Little Dreams (Fresh Sound/New Talent); he also performs on Conference Call’s newest, What About … ? (Not Two), and Jason Robinson’s The Two Faces of Janus (Cuneiform). For more information about George Schuller, visit:


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

I think they’re all challenging in various ways…some more than others, especially dealing with the cheaper airlines like Easyjet and RyanAir. The one thing I try to avoid whenever I travel to Europe is booking flights with multiple connections. I’ll pay the extra $50-100 just so I can get on a direct flight to get close to my first gig. I think you’re more vulnerable to either losing your luggage or being hassled about your instrument (or both) when having to deal with connections, let alone just missing the second flight because of delays with the first. Also the second flight is often a shorter flight…thus a smaller plane, which leads to other challenges such as what’s allowed on the plane. I haven’t had too many problems bringing my cymbals on board (I use a soft case Yamaha Tour Master Cymbal Bag with wheels when traveling abroad.). However, a couple of times, because of the smaller plane issue (ie. limited overhead bin space), I’ve had to hand my cymbals over to a bag attendant just prior to boarding. Usually that person would then place it underneath. Upon arrival, my cymbals are then handed over to me as I exit the plane. I’m ok with that.

I used to carry my stick bag over my shoulder with me on board, but since 9-11, I’ve been packing it inside my bag with my clothes to be checked. There is just too many long and wire-like objects that are likely to be judged by most security knuckleheads as potential threats to mankind. I also pack my bells and most of my hand percussion since that can cause a raised eyebrow. No need to be further delayed.

Lately, I’ve been bringing with me on board at least one pair of sticks and a pair of brushes to be sure that I’ll have something to play at the first gig of the tour just in case my main suitcase with the stick bag gets re-routed or lost.

Which airline has the worst economy seating and food?

They all have their drawbacks, but I do get the impression that the newer the plane, the less room there is in the “Cattle Section” especially regarding those dreaded Airbuses. I’ve often wondered if CEO’s of Airlines had ever tried flying 7-8 hours to Europe in those cheap seats next to a family with crying children. I think we know the answer…

I once had the pleasure of traveling First Class on Continental Airlines from Madrid to NYC and was astonished at how much leg room there was…I couldn’t even reach the next row of seats when fully stretched out, and I’m over 6 feet tall!

Food issues are just that, but I try not to get too worked up about it. I’m not that fussy and I don’t have anything that I absolutely can’t eat. I do always take with me a bag of finger carrots, unsalted peanuts or chips, and maybe a homemade sandwich if time permits before leaving for the airport. 

Which airport is craziest for making connecting flights?

I believe it’s Heathrow in London…the way it’s laid out with all the buses you have to take from one terminal to another, up this escalator, down these stairs, multiple security checks…a real drag when carrying cymbals, backpack and laptop.

However, I have been able to avoid, for the most part, going thru Heathrow when traveling to and from the US. I usually try to book myself thru Schiphol in Amsterdam (if I can’t find a direct flight to another city), which is an airport I can hang with if delayed or making a connection.

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

An extra Powerbook charger…I blew up mine on the first day of a 10-day European tour probably due to a faulty converter plug. So I had to borrow somebody else’s charger from one of my fellow tour mates for the duration of that tour. Kind of a headache, but no big deal…

In a related story, I once was booked at a really lo-fi, semi-hostel like hotel in Linz, Austria with the Michael Musillami Trio…the kind of place where you have to share bathrooms with ten other families. In fact, the place was so cheap that every time I plugged in my charger to charge up my Powerbook, the electricity would shut down, except I didn’t know that the first time it happened. As soon as the lights came back on, I tried plugging it in again, and sure enough the electricity shut off a second time. We packed our bags and got the hell out of there…we found another hotel pronto.

What is your worst lost baggage story?

I’ve been lucky…nothing major has been lost. But some duty free gift items I brought back from Europe were stolen from the overhead bin, which I thought was pretty low. I kept thinking, “Who would steal my Mozart Balls?” I had my suspicions about the flight attendants since they were the last ones to clean up after all the passengers deplaned…most likely, a latent fan of Don Giovanni and 17th century wigs. What’s worse is that I started to suspect the passengers…especially those holding duty free bags like the one I had. I did sneak up behind a few of them while they waited at the baggage claim just to see what they had. I was a little nonplussed by the whole episode, but got over it quickly…sans the Balls.

My father, Gunther Schuller, lost one of his bags on a trip to Europe. For some reason he inexplicably packed in his suitcase a new orchestral composition he had been working on complete with heavy 40-stave symphonic score paper. This was apparently the only copy he had and it was nearly completed and he was to perform it with an orchestra later that week. It’s the first time he ever packed an original score into his checked bag. Unfortunately, his suitcase was never found. He was utterly devastated to say the least, but true to form, within a week he recomposed the piece by memory and claims that he even made it better than the first version. He was positive that this newer recomposed work was better than the one he lost. He was able to get the parts copied with some help and it was performed later that week. Apparently, it was a huge hit.  

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

Sad to say, it has to be our neighbors to the North. As long as the venue or festival takes care of the work documents, border crossings into Canada should be generally smooth and hassle free, but if you don’t have the proper documentation, you can be screwed and they’ll turn you back or detain you long enough for you to miss your gig.

Which city has the worst cab drivers?

I haven’t experienced any really bad cab drivers here in the states or in Europe and I hope I never do. Locally, I generally take car service from Brooklyn to any of the area airports, not that they are any safer.

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

I’ve stayed in some amazing hotels over the years (of course, you never have any time to stay at the really good ones)…most of which I can’t remember where and when, but a few have stood out like Hotel Citta in Bolzano, Italy, Hotel de Medici in Brugge, Belgium and the Sorat Hotel Spreebogen in Berlin (now called the Abion Spreebogen Waterside Hotel). The last two have some of the best breakfast spreads anywhere. Plus any hotel that has those big-ass brass showerheads…the ones you stand under and get completely doused like a hot waterfall…can’t get enough of that.

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

Yes, I usually bring my Powerbook and try to check my emails everyday…a necessary evil.

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

I bring an iPod…try to load it up with all the latest CDs, mixes, downloads, etc., so that I can check them out on the road.

Do you do your own laundry on the road?

I try to pack enough clothes, socks and underwear to avoid it, but if it becomes necessary, I’ll either deal with it myself guerilla-style or pay for some laundered service in the hotel.

What is your most nightmarish sound check to date?

Usually the ones where you first arrive in Europe from the US earlier that morning, check in to the hotel with an hour to spare and no time to chill, rush to the venue for the sound check only to end up rehearsing (for several hours) really difficult original music which hasn’t been played in months.

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

Nothing too scary…actually, for the most part, I’ve been pretty lucky with some great back stage spreads. The extra bottles of wine and beer often come in handy for those post-gig, late night, hotel room hangs. 

What are your three favorite venues?

I’m going to break the rules and list several of my favorite venues in both the US and Europe since some of these rather unfamiliar jazz haunts deserve a mention or two.

Starting with Europe, and to go along with the usually high profile and upscale venues like the new Bimhuis in Amsterdam, Porgy & Bess in Vienna, and the Spielboden in Dornbirn, Austria, I would like to single out a few other smaller venues such as the Jazz Cavette in Marburg, Germany, The Hot Club of Lisbon, Portugal (I believe it’s now under reconstruction due to a fire last year), Alchemia in Krakow, Poland, and The DeWerf in Brugge, Belgium. All four have a great vibe, a good set of drums and very comfortable stage acoustics.

The best European large-scale hall that I’ve ever played in is — by far — the Berlin Philharmonic Hall, which for any musician or band is an acoustic dream come true.

On the US side, my favorite places to play include The Firehouse, New Haven, CT, Vermont Jazz Center, Brattleboro, VT, and the Bop Shop, Rochester, NY. They all have an intelligent business sense (with decent funding, promotion, and community support), warm hospitality, and a real understanding of how to present creative improvised music in an economically challenging environment…huge kudos to these folks, who keep our spirits up and our solos blazing.

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

I’ve had some of my best after-gig meals in Bolzano, Italy at the Jazz And Other Festival and in Marsala, Italy (Sicily). Also a worthy mention goes to both Lisbon and Braga, Portugal.

Here in the US, it’s sometimes a home cooked meal from a some very gracious, über-supportive hosts that usually does the trick…a shout out goes to The Iannapollos in Rochester, NY and Fran Bull & Robert Black in Brandon, VT.

Which cities have the best after-hours sessions?

Several years ago, I uncharacteristically sat in during an after hours session at the Ottawa Jazz Festival with vocalist/guitarist John Pizzarelli. I did end up having a great time playing with him and a few other local Canadian musicians. However, my brother, Ed Schuller, also sat in on bass and eventually took over the proceedings as the default host…I think he gave John a run for his money in the both the charm and vocal department. Not sure everybody else felt that…

But generally, I don’t get too involved with those after-hour sessions…I usually like to chill and listen to the local color.

What is the best city that closes down too early?

It may not be the best city, but Boston closes down way too early. No where to go after a gig.

What is the best locale to have a day off?

I usually dig having a day off in a small obscure European town, hopefully near some spectacular mountain range or near a quiet lake or a private oceanfront beach. Believe me, it hasn’t happened that much over the years, but when it does…

What is your cure for jet lag?

Assuming you are traveling from the US to Europe, try to stay up as long as possible on the first day of your arrival. Barring that, you can take a short nap, maybe for an hour or two in the afternoon before the soundcheck and then wake up with a couple of dry Cappuccinos. This only works in Italy, Germany and Austria. As for all those other countries, you’re on your own. 

What is your best tip for the novice?

Even though traveling can be a pain in the ass and mess you up and cause all sorts of head-trips, it’s the music that keeps you sane. That’s the whole reason why we do what we do. For most of us, we have to travel far to replenish that elusive tank of creativity.

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