Monday, March 1, 2010

My brief career as a harp roadie

There was a short period of time in my life when I worked as a roadie for a harpist. It wasn't a full-time gig, but whenever this harpist would play locally, I'd drive out to the venue with her and haul her harp. I'd get $75 and the pleasure of watching the show. And what a show it always was. The harpist in question was Deborah Henson-Conant, a jazz harpist who has taken her immaculate instrument into the dirty downtown vibe of blues, funk, and electronica. Though I haven't seen her in years, she was a friend and the story of how we came entwined in each other's lives is pretty interesting.

It all started in 1985. I was freshly out of college, it was summer and my friends and I were looking for entertainment. We saw there was a jazz cruise happening in Boston Harbor, so we got tickets for it. I was just getting into jazz, my friends not quite so much, but we were into the idea of a "booze cruise" on a nice summer night, so we went.

There were two bands playing simultaneously. On the main deck was the Gary Burton Quartet. I knew of this remarkable vibraphonist from his duo recordings with Chick Corea. When the night started, I was all set to spend the night enjoying his artistry. After a while, though, one of my friends wanted to check out the other band playing below deck, so I went with him. There we saw a group calling itself the Jazz Harp Trio, featuring the tall, striking Henson-Conant with a bassist and a drummer.

The sight of this combination was enough to keep me there for a while, but it was the music that kept me there all night. The highlight was a medley from The Wizard of Oz, as epic and powerful as Buddy Rich's classic West Side Story medley. At one point, the drummer put down his sticks and did a scat-vocal drum solo. I was hooked. There was a sign-up sheet, which I applied my information to, and I may have bought one of her cassettes that night as well. The point is, I was under her spell.

I also knew where she lived, since her business address was also her home address. She lived outside Davis Square in Somerville, Massachusetts. I lived not far away and within a year or two I was actually living just a few blocks from her. I began going to her shows pretty regularly and bought a couple more tapes. In 1987, I lost my job and was unemployed for a number of months. During this time, I got a mailing from Deborah, asking for volunteers to help with mailings. Having nothing better to do, I called her and said I'd be happy to lend a hand.

I got to meet her and her then-manager Susan, and see her interesting home, which featured the fledgling Burnt Food Museum. We became friendly, and one day she asked me if I'd like to carry her harp for her at a show. Now, I'm a big guy but a harp is pretty big, too, and not the most symmetrical thing you might ever be asked to lift. Not only that, it's ornate and expensive and I was afraid if I mucked it up, it would not at all be a good thing.

But she told me she would teach me how to hold it and, of course, the prospect of earning some money convinced me there would be worse things than spending an evening with a tall, striking harpist. I forget the name of the venue and what town it's located in, but I'll never forget the architecture of the building. The downstairs was a restaurant, the upstairs was a jazz club. The stairs themselves were quite narrow and very steep. I was starting to have second thoughts, but it was too late to turn back. That harp had to get upstairs and I was the one who had to bring it there (I didn't even let myself think about how I was going to get it back down).

Following Deborah's instructions, I gripped the harp at just the right places, bent my knees and lifted it up. If I did nothing else with it, at least I knew I was holding it securely and ergonomically. Now, to climb the stairs. I went slowly, never looking down, stopping to lean my back against the wall when I had to, then continuing, keeping my grip firm (did I mention it was summer and I was sweating?). Amazingly, I made it to the top of the stairs, harp and me each in one piece. It was then that Deborah swooped in and grabbed the harp and placed it on the stage. Very smoothly, I might add. My work, for the next couple of hours anyway, was done.

I enjoyed the show and a couple of draft beers, and then it was time to bring the harp downstairs. To my surprise, it was actually easier; I'd been afraid the thing would drag me down or make me lose my balance. The final trick was laying it gently in the back of her car (I forget the make, but it was just a plain old urban shitbox, not a vehicle designed for transporting large, awkward, valuable objects). Anyway, the night went well, Deborah was satisfied with my hauling and enjoyed my company (I learned that part of the job was keeping her focused and unanxious before the performance), and subsequently she hired me at least a half dozen other times.

By that time, I'd gotten a full-time job and had begun my progressive rock newsletter, so I used my new desktop publishing skills to redesign and produce her newsletter, called Harp Strings.

By that time, I also had met a woman name Laura, who happens to currently be my wife. For our first date, I took her to the Regattabar jazz club, located in the Charles Hotel in Cambridge, to see - who else? - Deborah Henson-Conant. When we arrived, I saw Deborah's manager, Susan, and went over to say hi and introduce her to Laura. She shook Laura's hand and said, "Ooh, your hand is so cold!" Then to me, she said, "Are her hands always this cold?" I replied honestly. "I don't know, I haven't held her hand yet."

So that was our first date. When we got married in 1993, we decided to hold the wedding at the Charles Hotel. We hired Deborah to play during the processional and recessional, as well as the cocktail hour. And then Deborah suddenly got kind of big. She was signed to GRP Records, began appearing on TV, and toured the world. I think I've only seen her once since the wedding, but I'm glad she's taken off and gotten the recognition she so justly deserves.

At this point, I'd be very curious to see her perform again, to see how her music has progressed. My back, however, insists that the only harp I lift again be the one on a Guinness pint glass.

This, by the way, is a much smaller harp than the one I carried:

This one is more like it:

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