This story from former Commodore Ballroom Stage Manager Tee Crane is a wild ride, and offers a glimpse into how hectic things can get during a Festival with many moving (and international) parts.
I was the Jazz Fest Stage Manager for the Commodore Ballroom for quite a few years back in the day, and there are so many stories of magic and delight that I have. However, one stands out as a great example of how what goes on behind the scenes is never known by the public.
This story is about the Otis Clay/Ann Peebles Review/Jim Byrnes Band show, and it was one of the many miracles that happen when a great team works together to avert disaster.
We were awaiting the arrival of Otis’ tour bus with the the bands and their instruments for sound check at 2pm. When 3pm approached I contacted Bob Kerr and told him they still hadn’t arrived, so Bob put the wheels in motion to try and track down their location. In the meantime, Jim Byrnes and his band arrived for set-up and their part of the sound check.
Paul Way, our house sound engineer, said he could get the band up and running on the fly so we decided to just move ahead with Jim’s band sound check. It was around 430pm I got a call from Bob – Otis’ tour bus was stopped at the border, everything had been seized as Canada Customs discovered that all of the bands merchandise had not been declared, and in fact had been hidden in the bus (more on this in a bit). So the bus, merch, instruments had all been seized and the occupants – both Otis and Ann’s bands were in process of being denied entry.
Now this show had been sold out for weeks, and Otis had been up here before and is a wonderful man—integrity, kindness, and cool—so it was surprising to us all that he would be in this situation. He had toured for years so he knew the dangers of trying to smuggle undeclared goods. That said, he was engaged with the Canadian Customs officials trying to negotiate the release of his bus, instruments and people. Bob was able to get the border to put Otis on the phone and it was explained that his tour manager was responsible for this. Otis had given (his manager) the money for the tax at the border and the manager had decided to pocket the money for himself and sneak the goods in instead.
Coastal Jazz and Blues had a very good relationship with the Canadian Border and Bob managed to get them to release the band and their personal instruments so they could play the show. Big relief! So we loaded up a couple of passenger vans with refreshments and snacks and off they went to the border. I spoke with Jim Byrnes and asked if he would be OK with allowing Ann and Otis’ bands to use their gear and he was more than happy to oblige—not only is Jim an awesome human being, he is also from St Louis.
So we started the show on time. I also asked Jim to watch for the possibility of me asking them to stretch their set an extra song or two. They were so cool, and out they went and started to play, right on schedule. A couple songs into their set, the bands arrived. I was at the stage door greeting them as they filed in and my crew showed them to their dressing rooms. One by one they filed past me. The last one coming in was the tour manager (more on this in a bit) and… no Otis.
I asked, “Where’s Otis?” he said “Oh he’s still at the border trying to get the stuff released.” I couldn’t believe it! What kind of a tour manager leaves his head artist at the border and shows up to the gig? I called Bob and told him, and he called the border and got them to put Otis on the phone (amazing he was able to do this). Bob told Otis we really needed him here, that the show had been sold out for weeks and everyone was coming to see him. Long story short, Bob convinced Otis to get in a cab and head straight to the Commodore.
Meanwhile on stage, Jim had just finished his set and we were in the 15 minute break before putting Ann Peebles Review on. They were so grateful they were able to use the stage gear from Jim Byrnes Band. We got them on stage and line checked, and they started—again, right on schedule.
I was watching the clock very closely as we awaited Otis (hopefully) arriving. I had his clean stage shirt by the backstage door next to my station. Ann Peebles was one song away from ending her set when the stage door opened and there was Otis and the cab driver. I greeted Otis with a, “Man I sure am happy to see you!”, paid the cabbie ($85 fare from the border to the backstage—it was 1992!), and handed Otis his fresh shirt which he thanked me for. Ann ended her set, walked off stage, and Otis walked on right away. The band launched into the first song of his set—we were only 1 minute behind schedule.
After the first song everything seemed to be on a roll, so I went and got myself a cold beer from the lounge. Bob walked in and I handed him a cold one as well. We clinked bottles and just laughed at how close to a disaster this show had come.
After the show I caught the tour manager trying to steal one of our microphones and some rolls of gaff tape. He tried to excuse it by saying he thought it belonged to them, and I was about to tear into him when Otis called him to the dressing room, closed the door, and fired him.
The audience had no idea that any of this happened, and it was a spectacular gig! Thank you again to Jim Byrnes and his band for being awesome and amazing, Bob and the volunteers who rallied and made it all come together. I think a few of us aged significantly that night, and that cold beer tasted great!I miss working the Jazz Festival—I made so many friends there and was able to work with some incredible artists. Thank you to Kenny P, Bob Kerr, and Johnny O for the opportunity. Much love everyone! <3