Friday, June 11, 2010

Happy Mother's Day - Jacksonville Jazz Piano Competition

This Mother’s Day was our first official celebration and I really wanted to do something to make Dana feel special. After all, Mother’s Day is a great way to honor the woman who carried your child. Giving birth to Dylan with such valor is something that should be celebrated every year.

This year, in our inaugural Mother’s Day, Dana served me with up with the perfect gift. I didn’t even have to think about what to get her. She wanted me to buy tickets to the Jacksonville Jazz Piano Festival. More specifically, she wanted to see the Jazz Piano competition that kicks off the Jacksonville Jazz festival on Thursday night. When explaining this competition, Dana excitedly exclaimed, “The winner of this competition gets to play a full set on Saturday at the festival!”

It took all I had to keep my mouth shut and not ask her why we aren’t just watching full sets played by the ‘winner’s’ on a different night. But, since she was serving me up with a easy gift, I didn’t want to argue with her reasoning.

The concert turned out to provide quite a lot of entertainment. I figure there is no better way to share our night with everyone, but with a quasi-running diary.

5:40 pm - Thursday evening came and Dana pulled me away from work (we car pooled, so we could take one car straight from work). I left my coworkers with a ‘wish me luck, I might not back it back alive’ face that made them think I might as well have been going into a triple by-pass surgery.

6:00 pm- We made to the Burrito Gallery and ate some Mexican food. We are able to use a buy one get one free coupon from our Entertainment book, so the date immediately began to exceed expectations in my mind. Dana explained to me during dinner that the competition had general admission and we should get there early. I simply smiled and nodded and we were on our way to the competition 25 minutes early. I had convinced myself that I was going to have a good attitude about this competition.

*Side note: I have taken Dana to countless 80’s glam rock concerts since we met 10 years ago, and she has been nothing but a good sport about it. Additionally, I pouted like a 4 year old brat at the John Mayer concert when we tried to change genres 2 years ago. I think that night ended with me making a vulgar comment about losing a portion of my manhood thanks to that concert. I stand by that comment.

6:35 pm -We walked in and found our seats about 15 rows back on the ground level. On stage, there was a grand piano, a bass, and a drum set. Part of me was hoping for a two piano set up that would allow for dueling pianos and drinking games of some sort. The opposite end of the spectrum in my mind had one piano on the stage, and involved really slow music and a pianist crying their eyes out because it affected them so deeply. This set up fell exactly halfway between my expectations.

6:45 pm – I ask Dana for a pen. She asks, “Why? So you can make notes for a blog post?” I say nothing.

6:46 pm – Now that Dana knows that I capturing material for the blog she says, “I really wish I had a pez dispenser with me.” I asked how long she’d been sitting on that comment. The over/under in Vegas is 3 days as of this evening. By the way, if you haven’t seen every episode of Seinfeld 10 times, you probably don’t know what I am talking about 42.4% of the time. At least I think I’m funny.

6:50 pm – We’ve waited 15 minutes and still have 10 minutes to go. It feels like an eternity. Where’s the pre show music? Where’s the buzz of anticipation from the crowd? Wait, that’s right, we’re not at an 80’s glam concert. If they would have played “Back in Black” or “Blitzkrieg Bop” before the competition, I guarantee you that these people would get excited. Those songs transcend all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds.

6:53 pm – I calculate in my head that if there are 5 contestants and they all are playing 3 songs, this competition will be over under two hours. My thoughts of Dana and I romantically feeding each other late night dessert disappear when the man behind me tells his friend that, historically, this competition lasts 3 to 3 ½ hours. My body immediately tenses. His friend replies with sound reasoning, “It can’t last that long. There are only 15 songs total.”

I relax. Until the man fires right back with the clincher, “Yes, but it’s jazz. They can play for much longer if they are feeling it.”

I tense up again. That rationale sounded right. I had nothing to combat that argument. What an emotional roller coaster! We are still 7 minutes away from the start of the show.

6:55 pm – I choose the winner: Donald Vega. Dana is undecided on choosing a winner. She wants to know if we can text our vote for our favorite at the end. I tell her it’s not American Idol.

7:00 pm – Showtime! Our MC for the night, Noel Freidline, comes out takes control of the crowd. I think I recognize him as the MC from Toddlers and Tiaras. Not that I’ve ever watched that show or even know it exists. (I’ve said too much. We need to move on.)

Noel introduces the two backup players: Danny Gottlieb on the drums and Dennis Marks on the bass. It’s noteworthy that Danny Gottlieb is on tour with Gary Sinise and the Lieutenant Dan Band. I couldn’t make that up. We are in the presence of greatness tonight.
Dennis Marks looks like Joe Paterno if he was a music professor. I look forward to their contributions to the competition.
“Come to Penn State!”

The Lieutenant Dan Band: Coming to a town near you!

“Why do they call it Sunday? It’s not like it’s sunny every Sunday.”

7:05 pm- Our first contestant is Mr. Max Haymer. He comes out with some good songs, I think. I’ve never been to a jazz piano competition, so I have no other basis to judge. I give him a 5 of 10; Right in the middle of my scale. Every other contestant will be judged compared to Max.
During the end of Max’s performance, Dana quietly asks me why the first five rows are empty. I confidently answer, “better acoustics.” Before she could argue, Max launches into his last song.
(We later found out that these were reserved seats for a corporate sponsor. A large group of CB Ellis real estate agents rumbled in about 20-30 minutes late. Well done guys.)

One distraction from Max was that he looked like he was having a seizure when he was playing. Even his website picture shows him having one. I settle in my mind that this is normal jazz pianist etiquette.

7:30 pm- In between sets, Noel tries to entertain the crowd while the piano gets re-tuned. He goes into what sounds like stand-up comedy material. We question whether he is trying out new material or if he lost a bet. Either way, it’s bad. The crowd is clearly upset by this.

7:40 A more stoic Mamiko Watanbe comes out and plays her set. I was looking forward to this set, because her last song was called, I Remember You. I vowed that if it truly was a variation of the Skid Row song, I would buy the entire crowd a round of drinks. A quick calculation tells me that it would cost $6 per drink for about 1000 people. I contemplated if it would be possible to wire $6000.00 from our savings account in time. Yes, I am that bored. No, I wasn’t drinking myself.

Within 5 seconds of her last song, I found out that it was not Skid Row. My dreams were crushed. Final score: 3 out of 10. Not as good as Max. Next!

8:00 pm – While I eagerly awaited the upcoming comedy sketches Noel had up his sleeve, the crowd had other ideas. Everyone got up and had an impromptu intermission. Everyone was up and talking to each other. This didn’t stop Noel, who proceeded to delve into more comedic material. However, the crowd noise was so loud, we couldn’t hear what he was saying. That didn’t matter… Noel kept going. The only time we could hear him was when he said, “This was really a lot funnier when I read this on the Internet.”

This prompted an sweet old lady behind me to say, “Maybe if he would speak more clearly.”

The unintentional comedy reached a fevered pitch. Finally, he just stopped and was silent until he was able to introduce the next contestant: Laura Caviani.

8:10 pm – I don’t remember a lot about Laura. She was good, but not memorable.
Instead, my mind is stuck on Noel. What was he doing behind the curtain after two miserable failures trying to entertain the crowd? The way I saw it, he had 3 more times to entertain us. How do you follow up a crowd revolt, let alone follow up three times? Was he back there crying? Was he running around asking people for material? Was he frantically searching the Internet? What would his Google search be? Did he leave? I can’t wait for Laura to finish so we could find out.
8:30 pm – Finally, Laura is done. 3 contestants down, 2 to go. We are making great time. Noel comes out and declares a 15 minute intermission. We will have to wait one more contestant to see what he does.

8:45 pm – Contestant number 4 comes out: my pick, Donald Vega. Maybe I was biased, but he comes out with the best ‘ditty’ of the night. The crowd eats it up. In between his first and second songs, I lobby to Dana in a voice loud enough for the whole section to hear, “There’s our front runner.”
In between his second and third songs, he doesn't acknowledge the crowd. In fact, he kind of cowered at the applause and whistles. It was really strange. At the end of his set, the crowd goes nuts! He brought the house down, but didn’t acknowledge us as he walked off the stage. He really didn’t care about us. It was great.

9:00 pm – Finally, it was Noel’s time to face the crowd again and he came out swinging with more comedy material. This time, a couple of his wild punches land and he is able to keep the crowd at bay. He won me over just for trying.
The moral of this story kids: Never Give Up. Don’t Ever Give Up.

9:15 pm – Final Contestant: Hope Nwachukwu. His was the longest set of the night. Maybe that’s just because he was the last contestant and I was ready to go home. All we needed to do was get the results and we are done by 10pm. Dessert was looking good.

9:40 pm – While the judges went to a back room to deliberate, Noel took over one last time…but, this time at the piano. He and his quartet began by playing the jazz version of “Mrs. Robinson.” Then, he proceeds to play another song. Then another. And another. They play 6 songs in total while the judges ‘deliberate.’ If this was Noel’s way of getting back at the crowd, I say, “Well played, sir.”
I am positive that the pain he felt was comparable to the pain we felt while he tried to play a jazz version of Sweet Home Alabama.

10:30 pm- The judges finally announce the results of the contest. As all of the contestants were on the stage during the results, my man Donald had his Blackberry out and frantically typing something...on stage. I said for the entire section to hear, “Is he Tweeting? I think he’s Tweeting!”

Noel finally announces the winner: Donald Vega. Barely looking up from his Blackberry, he received his prize. I am not sure if he is just that good at the piano or is completely socially ‘impaired.’ Tonight, he was just that good.

I give Dana an all knowing nod of approval. That was enough to make it all worth it.

10:40 pm – 4 hours after we sat down, we were able to leave. We went home with no dessert. I was exhausted. If you read this entire post, I’m sure you’re exhausted by now as well.

Hopefully, Dana and I will have more time this summer to keep you better updated on things. Sorry for slacking.

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