June 24th, 2014 was a jazzfest evening that was astoundingly memorable for me, one that contained a somewhat crushing low, an incredible highlight, and a self-defeating decision that remains submerged in regret. Though there’s no need to worry, for due to the shining brightness of the aforementioned highlight overall the day came out as a solid 9.5, perhaps even a 10.
The crushing low came first when my teaching gig forced me to arrive in line too late to get in to Bill Frisell’s indoor theatre concert. Bill is one of my all-time favourite guitar players – certainly my favourite living jazz guitarist – so I was rather bummed as I sat outside of the theatre waiting for the show to end. Though as I at there I comforted myself by thinking of the nearly countless times I had seen Bill previously, and I was sure (rightly) that I would see him again and again.
I was also consoled by the knowledge that I would be meeting with Bill immediately following his set. Which was a pretty comforting thought, really. And so I waited patiently.
As I’ve mentioned here and there, I run a musically-driven not-for-profit organization and one of the ways we raise money for it is by auctioning artist-signed memorabilia, which is arranged and acquired by yours truly. I had contacted several of the jazzfest artists months earlier and was pretty excited when Bill Frisell’s road manager got back to me saying that Bill would be happy to meet with me after his show.
When the concert ended the crowd shuffled out and I made my way in and found the stage manager. She led me backstage, which at the NAC’s small-ish theatre is really just a table and a chair set up on a concrete floor in the wings just off stage right (the main hall, on the other hand, is equipped with proper dressing rooms and a green room and more).
Bill was resting in a chair when I arrived and when I told him I was from Instruments For Africa he literally leapt to his feet and bounded towards me, eagerly extending his hand. He seemed thrilled to meet me and asked all kinds of questions about IFA and what we do. He was mortified when he learned that I hadn’t gotten in to see his concert that evening, turning to his road manager and asking why I wasn’t given VIP tickets. Of course I found this all quite incredible, as most artists just smile and sign without even asking what the organization is even called, much less what we do. The only person who came close to Bill’s interest was Daniel Lanois, who chatted on and on with m’lady and I about our organization and so much more in the very same building a year later.
Anyway, I presented Bill Frisell with the guitar I wanted him to sign, a cheap Chinese Fender (I made a point of buying the Telecaster model; Bill always plays a Tele), and a Sharpie. And to my joy and amazement he sat down and started playing it! Thank ye gawds I had taken the time to tune the guitar! So there I stood, not three feet away from my favourite living jazz guitar player as he casually meandered through about ninety seconds of miraculously wonderful, fluid stream-of-consciousness soul-elevating jazz gold. I barely breathed.
(I had seen him play an entire concert with one of my other favourite guitarists Kevin Breit in a church in Guelph. At that show the two players were sitting maybe eight or nine feet away from my seat in the front row but this was different. This was just me as a fly on the wall as the great Bill Frisell felt his way around a new guitar. As amazing as that Guelph concert was – and it was amazing – this experience was even more unique.)
Part way through his noodling I asked if I could take some pictures, as it would be a way of verifying that his signature was authentic. He agreed so I snapped a few. After he signed the guitar I pulled out a photocopy my friend Christine had sent me long ago, a portrait of Bill Frisell drawn by his friend Gary Larsen, famous for his comic The Far Side. I asked if he would sign it for me personally (making it very clear that this would not be for the benefit of IFA, as I always did in this sort of situation) and he did, giving his inscription significant thought before putting ink to paper.
Howdy Todd -Thank you for all the good things you are doing. All the best to you [peace sign]
An incredible highlight it was, indeed.
The forecast had called for rain so to keep the signed guitar safe I had parked my car in the NAC parking garage, which proved to be a worthwhile investment. By the time I was done meeting with Bill it was raining cats and dogs outside, I mean it was coming down. Which leads me to the stabbing regret of the evening. Y’see, the aforementioned Daniel Lanois just happened to be appearing on the jazzfest main stage outside and trouper that he is the show was going on despite the drenching downpour.
And though I could have easily just stored the signed guitar safely in the trunk of my car and emerged from the garage to enjoy the concert (alongside m’lady, who stuck it out for the whole Lanois show standing in water up to her ankles and said the concert was downright incredible, which didn’t surprise me) I didn’t. Instead I drove slowly out of the parking garage and emerged right behind the stage, where I saw just a smattering of people – like, fifty max – standing in the pouring rain while Dan and his rhythm section huddled tightly together on the covered stage knocking everyone’s soggy socks off, before continuing home, happy, dry, and one step ahead of my coming regret.
However, taken all together the night was a big win for this guy.
*I’ve actually had Bill sign things several times over the years (including at that Guelph show with Kevin) and it always looks to me like it says “Bill Nill”. Of course Bill Nill has become Bill Frisell’s nickname around my household.