How I Wound Up Here, by musician Steve Hashimoto

August 20, 2010

I’m off getting married and honeymooning and all that and, in the meantime, some friends have been kind enough to write my blog. Today’s piece is by Steve Hashimoto, one of our town’s best and best known jazz musicians, and it’s about his start as a jobbing musician. A few years ago, Steve put me on his “News from the Trenches” mailing list — a weekly dispatch of his adventures in music — and I’ve been a fan of his writing, as well as his music, ever since. If you’re not already on his list, you can reach him at hashimoto@aol.com. It’s really good stuff.

My name is Steven Hashimoto. I’m a musician…no, really, that’s how I make my living, or the majority of it, anyway.

I’m a freelance musician, meaning I don’t have a steady hotel or restaurant gig (which mostly don’t exist anymore, anyway), nor do I play for the Chicago Symphony. I work pretty much for whoever calls me, playing whatever kind of music is required. I don’t believe in false modesty, so I will say that I’m one of an elite cadre of players in Chicago who can handle almost anything that gets thrown at me. Jazz, rock, Lady GaGa, singer-songwriter, traditional folk musics of many cultures, avant-garde, da blooze, reggae, salsa, you name it, I’ve played it.

To paraphrase the esteemed Jerry Garcia (well, actually lyricist Robert Hunter), it has been a long, strange trip, and like any journey, it had to start somewhere. To be technical, I think it probably started as early in my life as I can recall. I have childhood pictures of me at the age of maybe 3 or 4 playing plastic toy saxophones and trumpets, and I distinctly recall a toy piano and a xylophone with brightly colored bars.

But realistically, I think it started with a drum. For some reason, now lost to history, my dad bought me a snare drum when I was about 5. He had been an amateur musician, playing in big bands in his youth in California, and was a company bugler in the army. Somewhere he had picked up the basic rudiments (how to hold the sticks) of drumming, but he hadn’t, I guess, thought the thing all the way through; we lived in an apartment, and an enthusiastic 5 year old with a snare drum turned out not to be what the neighborhood yearned for. So the drum got sold.

My next instrument was a bugle; I got it through some strange program at my Chicago public grammar school, and my dad taught me how to play calls on it. For a short while I played “reveille” at the beginning of the day at school (I was now in first grade, I think), but after a while apathy set in on all sides. The classic army bugle, a brass horn with no valves, isn’t a very versatile axe; it’s like bagpipes but without the mystery, and you can really only play bugle calls on it. I’m guessing we eventually gave it back to the school system, because I have no idea what happened to it.

My next instrument was the cornet, kind of the evolutionary link between a real trumpet and the army bugle; it’s smaller than the trumpet, but it does have valves and you can play all the notes in the scale on it (and evidently, if you’re a beginner, a few notes that aren’t). It has a pretty sound, not as loud as a trumpet, but more importantly for me, at that time, its size is more suitable for a small kid. I still remember the sensory impact of opening that instrument case for the first time; the purple “plush” in which the horn was fitted, the look of the yellow brass against it, the smell of the valve oil.

Again, the instrument came through the CPS, and I also signed up for real lessons through the school. I regret that I don’t remember the name of that first teacher, because he was probably a local jazz musician, someone whose name I’d recognize now. I was 10 or 11, and he was in his twenties, and I thought he was a little unusual, meaning he was probably the way I am now.

I applied myself fairly diligently, and learned how to play the horn pretty well, but as I was still in grammar school and this was in the 60’s, well before any sort of school band programs were implemented in the lower grades, I didn’t have much of an outlet for my playing. So I sort of drifted along until I got to high school.

I have to brag a little bit here; again, it was the 60’s and no one knew that maybe this wasn’t the greatest idea in terms of my socialization, but I was skipped several grades in grammar school, and became a high school freshman at the age of 13. So sometime in the 8th grade, I think, my parents, looking ahead, bought me a real trumpet. My dad, I guess, understood that I wouldn’t be able to get into the high school band or orchestra playing a cornet, and so as soon as I could I entered the band program at Nicholas Senn High School on the north side.

Even at this late perspective I’m not entirely sure how good the band programs at Senn were; the bands were directed by Henry Salita and the orchestra by Roman Andrushko. Salita’s pedagogical approach was to lock himself (and, we all suspected, his fellow teacher/girlfriend) into his office in the bandroom and let us run wild, with occasional rehearsals as the date of our semester-ending concerts approached.

For some reason this approach worked; we had some straw bosses in the various bands, including Dean Rolando, who is now an officer of the Chicago Musicians Union, and most of us who were enrolled in the program genuinely liked to play music, so we did do some work (although there certainly was a lot of horsing around as well).

Andrushko suffered from frequent migraines and also tended towards a laissez-faire approach to orchestral direction, so I spent my years in the orchestra jumping from chair to chair, learning how to sight-read and transpose parts not meant to be played on the trumpet (which is a Bb-transposing instrument; you don’t really need to know what that means). Anyway, Dean Rolando sort of took me under his wing, and he has been a valuable role model, mentor and friend to me since the day I met him in 1965, me a scared, confused freshman and he a jaded sophomore.

See, Dean’s father, Boyd, was a real professional musician. He had been on the radio and television staff of WGN for many years, played in the Bozo Circus band, and did, as I know it now, jobbing dates. So just the knowledge that one could somehow make a living playing music, that it could be a job, was a major revelation. As I became better friends with Dean I would sometimes go to his house after school, and there would be Boyd, lying on the living room couch, lights out, shades drawn, tv on, and the smell of funny cigarettes in the air. A few years later I’d realize what those funny cigarettes were, but I found out on my own; I can’t lay the blame for that on Boyd. But the very existence of an exotic and mysterious dad like Boyd, a guy who didn’t go to an office or a factory or a store for work, opened a world of possibilities for some of us, including his son Dean.

Dean soon helped to form a very good rock band called The United Nations, with a bunch of pretty talented neighborhood musicians. The band played r&b and soul and proto-jazz/rock, and soon they were gigging a lot. Another good friend of mine, Erwin Yasukawa, played trombone in the band, and many of us in the Senn bands thought that the U.N. guys were just the coolest thing.

Sometime during my junior year another significant thing happened, the importance of which wouldn’t reveal itself to me until many years later. I started taking trumpet lessons with a guy named Phil Meyer. Phil was a jobbing guy, like I am now. I still wasn’t old enough to drive, so my mom had to take me to his house for lessons. He lived near Peterson and Lincoln, and I distinctly recall that my regular lesson day, whatever it was, was also a day that he had a steady gig at the famous Purple Hotel at Touhy and Lincoln, so towards the end of our lesson he’d be getting himself together for the gig, climbing into his tux and tying his bow tie.

We mostly worked on my reading skills; there’s a book called The Arban Book that almost every trumpet player has to work through, so that’s what we did, but at the end of every lesson Phil would do something that I now know not many teachers did with younger students like me; he’d pull out a fakebook and we’d play tunes.
Now that’s musician-speak for a very specific thing.

Fakebooks at that time were mostly illegal collections of unauthorized copies of the popular music of the time. Legal sheet music, like you’d buy at, say, Lyon and Healy’s, had the melody and the piano accompaniment all written out, as well as perhaps guitar chords and lyrics; a typical sheet-music arrangement of a standard song might run to 5 or 6 pages. Fakebook charts were distilled to the essence; the melody and chords written above it. Those old-style fakebooks typically crammed three songs per page, and all the jobbing musicians had them (I now have a wall full of them). “Playing tunes” means that you’re playing the song as a jazz player plays; you state the melody and then you improvise.

So Phil was teaching me to improvise, whether out of his own boredom or because he saw that I could play by ear, I don’t know. But I enjoyed it, and many years later I’d realize that it was probably the most important thing he, or anyone else, could have taught me.
By this time I was really wanting to be in a band; I have to admit that for a shy Japanese-American boy I have a lot of ham in me. I knew that my cousin Bob, who had never shown any musical aptitude or desire, was playing saxophone in a rock band in his neighborhood, but musical snob that I was I didn’t give it much credence. We’d talked about it, but he didn’t offer to get me in and I didn’t ask; Bob was kind of a trouble-maker and I think he saw me as being too much of a good-kid nerd to be a rock and roller.

I had my first part-time job, working at a family friend’s gas station after school. Every day after school I’d either ride my bike or take two buses to get to work; the station was located at the corner of Lincoln and Rockwell. As you well know, Chicago is a city of neighborhoods, and a teen-aged boy’s life is as Balkanized as Eastern Europe is. Although at that time it wasn’t quite as bad as the gang situation in East or South Central L.A., there were clearly-defined boundaries that one crossed at certain risk. And again, although the situation wasn’t quite Crips-blue/Bloods-red, to a certain extent the way one dressed marked one’s home neighborhood as clearly as if you had your address tattooed on your forehead.

The dominant gang in my neighborhood was called Turf, and whether or not you were a member, if you wanted to get to and from school with a minimum of grief, you dressed Turf-style. Not only was there a uniform, but it was also important where you bought the individual items of clothing.

In fall and winter you wore a dark-blue tanker jacket, a knit cap and heavy canvas boots called “shit-kickers”. The jacket and the boots had to be bought at a store called Jack’s, on Devon near Western, even though that was out of the neighborhood; that area didn’t belong to any particular gang so it was considered neutral territory and safe to go shopping at. If you got caught with a non-Jack’s tanker it would be confiscated or worse.

During the summer you wore plaid Pendleton shirts and Converse gym shoes. I know, it sounds stupid, but I once saw two guys riding bikes near my grammar school; they weren’t dressed right (not to say that they were innocents; by their dress it was pretty obvious that they were from the next ‘hood and the next gang over, called North Shore Grease) and they got their asses severely kicked just because of that.

One day in the fall it was too cold to ride my bike to work so I was on the Western Avenue bus, and a commotion broke out at the front of the bus. A whole bunch of guys dressed in long black leather jackets and Beatle boots got on and were giving the bus driver a hard time. I was sitting at the back of the bus, in my Jack’s uniform, and it was like waving the red cape at the bull. En masse they shifted their attention from the hapless bus driver and started down the aisle towards me. I just figured I was going to get beaten; I had no romantic notions of fighting back like some super-hero or secret agent, I’m sad to say. My main thought was to protect my trumpet, which I was carrying.

They surrounded me, some of them sitting, hard, on either side of me on the rear bench. The inevitable “Where you from, shit-head?” was asked, meaning, “What school?” I managed to squeak out “Senn,” and a guy who seemed to be in a position of leadership put his arm out in front of a guy who was patently psycho and itching to clock me one and said “You Mo’s cousin?” I didn’t know who the hell he was talking about, and said “Mo who?”

“Bob Hashimoto,” and I was saved. The leader was Mario Ingroffia, and he was also the leader of the band, which was called The Soul Union. The psycho was Tom Schmid, the drummer in the band, and the rest of the guys were not in the band but just neighborhood troublemakers. I was in their ‘hood, the Amundsen High School area, and I had clearly trespassed, but Mario made a ruling. He said “Mo” had talked about me, and that since they were starting to get better and getting some gigs they wanted to add a trumpet so they could play real soul music, and maybe I was interested. I didn’t know a goddamn thing about soul music; we listened to the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean and Ronnie and The Daytonas in my neighborhood, but I instantly said yes, and was invited to their next gig, as long as I didn’t wear the goddamn tanker jacket.

So I went; the gig just happened to be in my neighborhood, so I wore the jacket just to prove I wasn’t a total punk, and they were probably a little spooked by being so far from home, so it all worked out. They were pretty raw, but it looked like fun, and it was decided that I would join the band.

The band consisted of Mario on bass, Tom on drums, my cousin on sax, Mario’s cousin “Little” Joe (to distinguish him from Mario’s brother “Big” Joe, who was kind of the band’s manager) on cheesy Farfisa organ, Jack Froelich on guitar and Arturo Perez on vocals. Their repertoire, looking back, was extremely hip, much hipper music than what I was listening to, but completely alien to me. Mostly Motown (the first song I learned was “Get Ready” by The Temptations) but with a healthy dose of Stax/Volt too. I started helping out with the horn parts, using that ear training that Phil Meyer had started me on. The band played dances in church basements and street gang parties that usually wound up with the cops being called and our cases filled with hastily discarded switchblades and brass knucks. And we got better.

We actually reached the point where we had to join the musicians’ union; we were starting to make a little money, and the union had much more clout in those days. If you wanted to work, you had to have a card, it was simple as that, so we all went down to the old hall on Washington street, paid our initiation fee and took our proficiency exams, which mostly consisted of “Play me a C scale” or “Play me a drum roll”.

And there we were, professional musicians. We got more gigs, some of them even better gigs, and we reacted to the changing tenor of the times. Mario still ruled the band with an iron hand, but even though he was as conservative (if not downright reactionary) as they come, he knew that our audience demographic, the Amundsen greasers, were a career dead-end, and besides we were increasingly playing out of the neighborhood. We changed our name to The Union and started incorporating songs by Chicago (C.T.A., at the time), Joe Cocker, the Stones and Sly (Woodstock had just happened; we went to see the movie as a band). Everyone’s hair got longer and some of us started smoking dope, although beer was still the consciousness-altering agent of choice.

But the world kept changing around us. It was no longer cool to be a “cover” band; if you wanted to be taken seriously as a rock musician/counter-cultural icon you needed to play your own music, so we changed our name to Wacker Drive and started writing songs. I’m sure they were horrible, but it did set us apart from the other neighborhood bands to the point where we attracted the attention of a real booking agency.

Source One was THE agency in town; all of the major local acts worked for them. They had the Rush Street scene sewn up, as well as a whole circuit of suburban and regional clubs. One of the first things that they did on signing us was to arrange for us to play a series of gigs at a chain of teen clothing stores, the Karrol’s Red Hanger shops (any of you listeners old enough to remember Larry Lujack or Dex Card or Dick Biondi will fondly remember their commercials). We played for free in exchange for suitably with-it threads: Elephant bell-bottoms, brightly-colored knit tank tops, 2-inch leather belts. Oh, we were a sight!

Source One also paid for professional promo shots and 8 by 10 glossies, and started sending us out into the world. By this point we had amassed a respectable amount of gear, and had to rent a panel truck to get to every gig. Whether this was done legally or not I really don’t know; we were, after all, still teenagers. I think Mario’s dad had some sort of a deal with the truck rental joint across the street from the Ingroffia household; Uncle Pete, as we called him, was probably a guy with a certain level of connections.

We began to play real dues-paying gigs, Rush Street clubs where the gig started at 9pm and ended at 4am, 5am on Saturdays (or Sunday morning). And we rapidly found out that we had nowhere near enough original material to fill those hours, so gradually some of the old soul and r&b material started creeping back into our sets, which was fine with the audiences; they, as audiences from time immemorial have proven, really wanted to hear what they were already familiar with.

In one final bit of irony, at some point Mario realized that the right-wing politics of most of the band members was not a positive marketing handle for the band. It was now the time of the Black panthers, the Chicago 7, the Weathermen and the Yippies. We were approached by the Rising Up Angry organization to play one of their rallies; RUA was formed to empower the last of the disenfranchised groups in Chicago, members of the white street gangs of the north and northwest side. The Blackstone Rangers had evolved into the Black P-Stone Nation; the Latin Kings were allied with the Young Lords Organization; and the white gangs like the Simon City Royals and the Insane Unknowns realized that they were being left behind.

Since we had a long history with some of the north side gangs we seemed to be a natural fit with RUA, and they wanted to interview us for their newspaper. Mario wisely recognized that, A) our basement practice space, decorated with Confederate flags and George Wallace posters, wouldn’t project the desired image, and B) that no one in the band but me even remotely understood the politics of the situation, so the interview wound up taking place in my basement apartment, in my parents’ two-flat in Edgewater. This served several purposes; the neighborhood was a bastion of several different factions (Turf till existed, the afore-mentioned North Shore Grease, the Margate Boys and TJO), and my pad was suitably decorated, since I considered myself to be an anarchist at the moment, a self-styled Yippie.

So on the appointed day a couple of hard street gang members filed into my basement and listened to me spout the fashionable rhetoric of the day while the rest of the guys occasionally chimed in with “Right on!”s. It was a bit surreal, and more than a little sacry, but at least I believed in what I was saying.

As most bands do, Wacker Drive eventually ended. Personalities started to clash and factions were formed; Mario and Tom had grown to intensely dislike first Arturo, then Mo, and finally me. I was becoming interested in jazz fusion, and Mo wanted to play blues, while everyone else just wanted to keep playing gigs. My drug use was increasing, while everyone else’s drinking was as well.

We played one memorable gig out of town during which the tension escalated to the point that we had an actual fistfight while loading out of the gig, and we had another where the drinking was so out of hand that the ride back to Chicago was chaotic and nightmarish. We were all riding in the truck, and both Little Joe and I puked our way back home while Tom staggered around until he gashed his hand so badly on a sharp piece of metal that we had to stop at the emergency room of Swedish Covenant before getting home, at which point, of course, we had to not only unload the truck, short-handed, but wash the blood and vomit out of it as well. And that, my friends, is what rock ‘n roll is really about: emergency rooms, blood and vomit.

The band finally broke up, and shortly thereafter both Jack and his little brother Jim, who was one of our roadies, committed suicide. Jack was a good musician but more importantly he was a great guy, and was the only person who could possibly have reunited the band and held it together. He was always the peace-maker, the negotiator and the conciliator, and with his death any chance of the band getting back together was irrevocably gone. The whole experience was so bad that I didn’t play any music for a couple of months. Eventually I resumed, but I never did play the trumpet again; I switched to guitar, and then to bass.

It was 41 years ago, more or less, that I played my first professional gig, at the Holiday Ballroom on Milwaukee Avenue. The joint is long gone, as are literally hundreds of other joints I’ve played at. I’ve lost contact with all of the surviving members of the band except my cousin, of course. Two of our roadies, my best friend Fred Knapp and James Caulfield, now a well-known photographer, remain good friends. Dean Rolando is still a mentor to me.

And I cross paths with dozens of musicians that shared stages with us, true survivors and true believers. Some of them are jazz musicians now, some ply the nostalgia circuit, some are jobbers. When we meet we tell stories, laugh a lot, cry a little. We lament the sad state of the music business. Some of us have no options, some have rejected the options, and some have just decided that music is simply what we do.

Although the guys in Wacker Drive were my gateway into the world of the professional musician, every other person and step along the way helped to get me there. Supportive parents, teachers who imbued in me the love of making music, mentors and role models. Obviously, it helped that I had some talent, but to be honest, to be a true professional, at anything, requires much more than talent.

I’m not the best bass player in Chicago, but I am the guy who will show up, on time, with the proper tools and uniform, and be willing to give anything a shot. Some of the greatest musicians in town can’t make a living, usually because they’re unwilling to make the devil’s deals that a pro often has to make. And that’s okay; not everyone’s cut out for the business, and that takes nothing away from their musicianship. We pros always respect a great player, professional or amateur, but we also take pride that we are the SWAT team of the music business.