By Blake Morris
When you first walk into Nic's Martini Lounge in Beverly Hills you're greeted by a bustling bar and booth's filled with patrons dining on expensive quesadillas and shrimp scampi. The dim lighting, strobe lights, and the beads of sweat on people's foreheads from the heat makes Nic's seem more of a nightclub than a swanky Beverly Hills lounge. In fact all that's missing is a DJ booth and Justin Timberlake blasting from his speakers. But in the center of all the commotion, there is music playing, just not from a canned track. It's because tonight is Friday and that means the Stewart Wilson Turner Quartet is playing live.
There is the vocalist, the bassist, keyboardist, and Lance Lee the drummer. They play the the cover songs with passion and enthusiasm as people gravitate to the dance area. Lance's job is particularly important because he has to hold the rhythm, not just for the band, but for the party. If he falters, everyone does. They begin to play a cover of the Isley Brothers "For The Love of You," and an older couple make their way from the bar onto the cramped dance floor. The couple kisses as if they are alone in their living room reliving a moment they had when the song debut back in 1975. Lance looks on approvingly knowing that they struck a chord with this couple in a club of a roughly one hundred twenty five people. Although the stage isn't very big and the venue isn't about music, Lance is doing what he set out to do forty years ago. Play the drums.
Lance was born in Brooklyn, New York into a musical family and began playing drums when he was nine years old. Lance's father, a jazz flautist began taking him to jazz clubs in New York to see the greats. Musicians like Miles Davis, Art Blakey, and Elvin Jones. These were jazz giants and the drums drew Lance in like a flame does to a moth. At home his father always had classical music or be-bop jazz on the radio. When his father wasn't home, his mother would let Lance listen to the Beatles, The Stones, or Aretha Franklin. The defining moment for Lance as a young drummer, however, was seeing James Brown and his drummer Tony Williams at the Apollo theatre. That's when he said 'I want to do this.'
Lance got his first kit from a pawn shop and practiced all the time. By the tender age of 13 he played his first gig with a community center workshop called the Bayou Legend at Lincoln Center in Manhattan. By the age of 16 he got his first paying gig playing for the Broadway show Bubblin Brown Sugar. His mother worked on the production and Lance used to go down there, play the drums and hang out with the musicians. The guys in the band realized he had some talent and taught him the entire production piece by piece until he could play it all the way through. One night, though, Lance learned a valuable lesson that every musician learns eventually. Right before intermission the play ends on a big dance number. Somehow Lance lost his timing and couldn't keep it together. Everything crashed. The entire 15 piece orchestra consisting of brass, trumpets, sax, trombone, and clarinets fell apart and all the old timers in the band were saying: "Ah man what's going on!" Lance was devastated. He cried and could barely walk. Luckily it was right at the break and he had time to regroup during intermission. The lesson Lance learned was that everyone crashes and burns. The good news is that in time he learned the production as well as any of the other musicians working on it, and when he turned 18 in 1978 took the show on the road to Paris, Amsterdam, and Brussels for the next six months.
That was 1978 and Lance, now 50 years old, has worked as a sideman ever since. Musical sideman are members of the professional music community who support headliners but whose name you probably have never heard of. Some major artists that Lance has been on tour with are Diana Ross, The Temptations, Jeffrey Osborne, Kenny G, and Al McKay of Earth Wind and Fire. Most recently Lance worked with Debbie Allen in Atlanta as the co-musical director for the musical "Twist." He has also worked with smaller no name artists at jazz clubs in and around Los Angeles such as Catalina Bar & Grill in Hollywood, Club Nyx in Glendale, and of course Nic's Martini Lounge in Beverly Hills.
After Lance returned from Europe, he moved to Los Angeles 1979. Interestingly, he wasn't doing too much drumming during this time and primarily lived off the $10,000 he had saved from the Bubblin Brown Sugar Broadway show . He played small clubs locally, but nothing on a big scale. He worked as a painter and worked a briefly at Guitar Center in Hollywood for about a year. But in 1988 he auditioned to be the drummer for The Temptations and got the job.
This particular tour was tough on Lance because he lived out of a suitcase for two years. They worked 52 weeks a year and went to every state in the country. In addition to the demands of travel, the environment tested Lance on a personal level. There were drugs, women, and negative personalities in that environment, and Lance was about his music. After two years, Lance and the Temptations parted ways and he took a year off.
In 1991 he auditioned for Jeffrey Osborne and began playing his dates. Then in 1993 he began playing with Diana Ross, and in 1998 Kenny G. Because he was a sideman and not the headliner, Lance only works when they main artist works so he was responsible for managing his work schedule himself. When Jeffrey Osborne wasn't working Lance would commit to Diana Ross and have to juggle the dates. If he couldn't play a gig he would have to find a replacement. He was constantly looking for the next gig and had to make sure he was making the most money he could.
The most precarious part of touring life is the interpersonal relationships between musicians. In a touring situation there's the artist, the musical director, the sound crew, and all the different guys in the band. Lance could have been fired at any time, had to deal with musicians that were strangers, and had to be on guard against people who were better at politics than he was. In a world where people are being judged constantly and stability isn't guaranteed, it took more than just being the best drummer Lance could be.
He also had to take another artist's material and make it feel good personally. Lance was coming from a jazz background which is highly improvisational. R&B and soul music is very disciplined it its approach and that can be a challenge for a musician that is a free spirit musically. But the joy is found in the fact that you are playing music and with each new gig you have an opportunity to connect with the music, the other musicians, and the audience.
In 2002 all those major gigs ended when those artists stopped touring. He briefly worked with Al Mckay, but right now his bread and butter is Los Angeles based club gigs.
In Los Angeles, Lance is just one of the thousands of working musicians living here. It's hard to get an exact figure of how many musicians live here, but as of this year the Professional Musicians Local 47 Union represents over 9,000 members. Granted those aren't all sidemen, but a substantial amount of the members gig locally as sidemen. Then there are the other thousands of musicians who aren't members of the musicians union. According to payscale.com the average salary of a musician in Los Angeles ranges from $24,000 to $75,000. Lance works about 50 gigs per year that can pay anywhere from $200 to upwards of $10,000.
Sidemen in a Changing Business
In the changing music business, older musical sidemen such as Lance have had to find ways to adapt. Music is created on laptops in home studios, so session musician work is sparse. Also, older big name musicians aren't touring as much because the demand isn't there. One of Lance's dreams was to one day work with Sting, Elton John, and Michael Jackson. But that probably won't happen (aside from the fact Michael Jackson is dead) because these artists don't tour all the time. Either because they are tired, they don't have to, or most likely because they aren't relevant anymore and the people aren't showing up to the concerts. This means that there are less touring opportunities Lance because the number of people competing for jobs is higher and the number of touring acts are less. It's a supply and demand issue.
But the changes have also created more opportunities for a whole new crop of younger musicians, and older ones, to make music with creative freedom. Jonathan Coulton is a singer-songwriter who was able to quit his job as a computer programmer and pursue music full-time. In 2005 he started a blog and a Myspace page and uploaded a new song every week. By mid 2007 he had 3,000 people visiting his website daily, his most popular songs were being downloaded as many as 500,000 times; he was making between $3,000 and $5,000 a month. All this success because he had good music and updated his blog.
Norman Langford is 21 years old and is just starting his music career. He writes songs, he sings, and plays guitar and bass. He has worked as a sideman for two bands playing gigs at the Un-urban Cafe in Santa Monica. He plays regularly as a solo artist on the third street promenade. He wants to be the next Adam Levine, the frontman for the popular LA based rock band Maroon 5. Norman, not surprisingly, also has a Myspace music page full of songs recorded by Garageband on his Macbook. This is the direction for musicians coming up today. Making music on inexpensive software and uploading it to the internet. While sitting in his garage, he told me that he can't picture himself doing anything else than playing music. He's only 21, but like Lance he loves music enough to live the life of a musician.
Lance recently started his own musical project called the FreaLance project. Frealance is designed to establish a conversation with other musicians and to see where it goes. Lance and the musicians he gets together played totally improvised music. A musical idea is presented and everybody collaborates in a thought, an idea, however that thought inspires them to contribute. It's like the jam band Phish, but in a jazz context. Lance hasn't started recording and has only played at a small club in Hollywood called Hollywood Studio Bar & Grill. But Lance decided to do pursue this project because the improvisational aspect of music, in his opinion, has been lost. The point is that ten years ago this project probably would never get off the ground because it was extremely expensive to record and even more expensive to market yourself. Today, this project can work because Lance can start a website and upload his music for very low cost. It he wants to market the Frealance project he can upload videos to Youtube and let people find him. And like Jonathan Coulton, Lance and crew won't have to sell millions of records or make it onto MTV to be successful.
The Tradition Continues
Lady Coco is a jazz singer in Los Angeles. Lance is a member of her band and I had the privilege of attending a rehearsal prior to an upcoming gig. It was at a non-descript building located in the historically African American part of Los Angeles called Leimert Park. I was let into the building by a nice older gentleman and could hear the band practicing upstairs on an open loft. I was met with the sounds of a version of Chrisette Michele's song "Is This The Way Love Feels." I couldn't think of a better song title to describe what was happening in this loft. Music is exactly what love feels like to them.
They weren't in a fancy rehearsal studio in Hollywood, with a full food spread, and cushy furniture. But it didn't matter because it was all about the music. Lance was behind his drum kit playing with unbridled enthusiasm. The guitarist, Drew Simpson, played each note as if they were extension's of his fingers. Scott Carpenter played the bass, David Fitzpatrick played Keys, and Buddy McDaniels played Sax. All five members of the band played, in my untrained ear's opinion, flawlessly, in support of the main attraction, the vocalist, Lady Coco. She belted out each song.
The night was full of musical jargon that the musicians used to communicate:
"The record had a lot of slides like Beyonce records."
"What is that chord change again?"
"Let's take it from the Vamp."
"The bridge, our intonation, what's going on with that?"
"I could be wrong, but I really think that it would be better and more dramatic Lance if we end on the hard stop with bop bop da bop!"
Lance and company are truly the last of a dying breed. Most younger musicians today want to be artists and the truth is that this is a very achievable goal. With new media and technological advances it's easier than ever to be make music independent of traditional media outlets and large labels. Lance knows that music is changing and the work opportunities that he has had in a traditional sense are vanishing. But being present at this rehearsal made it clear to me that talented musical sidemen are going to be okay. It's not going to be easy, it never has been. The changes in the industry have created opportunities for these musicians to shine like never before. They can spread their wings creatively, make the music they want to make and put it out there for music fans.
1 - 90 minute interview with Lance Lee
1 - 60 minute interview with Norman Langford
1 - 20 minute interview with Leslie Lashinsky at Professional Musicians Local 47 Union
Brief interviews with Drew Simpson, David Fitzpatrick, Scot Carpenter, and Buddy McDaniels
Observed Lance playing a gig at Club Nic's
Attended full band rehearsal
Google searches on Lance Lee
Norman Langford Myspace page
New York Times article "Sex, Drugs and Updating Your Blog" by Clive Thompson
http://techradar1.wordpress.com/2008/01/11/facebookmyspace-statistics (Myspace statistics)