Bandleader at bay

Arranger-conductor Onzy Matthews proves that only the strong survive

An obscure facet of Matthews' bio is that he was once employed by Sheraton hotels, singing and playing solo piano in lounges on exotic islands. If I were him, I'd get me a swank gig like that, I told him, and stop jacking with the big band thing that gives him such grief.

"But in those places, music is incidental," he responds. "If you have other goals, you can't stand it when your role is to accompany conversation. The most important thing about trying to make music is trying to make a contribution. Other guys are trying to make a living. I feel that if you make a contribution, the living will be there. I'm not the kind of guy who'll sleep under a bridge, so the living will be taken care of in some kind of way. I can't feel that people are trying to listen to you, if you're in a bar! Some guys don't care, they get a gig, pay the bills. I care about that also. But the most important thing is, your music is serving some purpose other than selling someone's liquor. And anyway, whether I'm working solo or in a trio or a small group, I'm still trying to make it sound like a big band.

"I see guys in Dallas, and they're comfortable because they have great-paying day jobs, and music has become more of a hobby," he continues. "Guys'll get together and play for beers. I used to do that. But I'd rather play for free than for beers, and since I can't afford to play for free, I just don't play. I don't just sit here; I'm busy writing, because I know eventually I'll get a fax or the phone will ring, and when it does, I'll have just the thing."

The phone rang sometime before June 2. On that day, Matthews left for three weeks of work in Germany, where he did TV shows, gigs, and jazz clinics and was featured at the sizable Freiburg Jazz Festival, where he conducted a big band partly composed of members of his Paris orchestra.

"I didn't come home with a Mercedes Benz or a pile of loot," he says, downplaying the trip, but he did make a slew of contacts that might lead to conducting gigs with orchestras on Randy Crawford and B.B. King albums. More importantly, he learned that Freiburg's symphony has plans for the future performance of the Scared Concerts with a jazz choir from Baden-Baden. Impressed by Matthews' credentials, officials are trying to get Swissair to sponsor Onzy's relocation to Germany to steer the project.

"I'd be very happy with that," he says. He also says that although offers to do the Freiburg fest next year sound inviting, he's been hearing about "next year" all his life.

"What I want now is something for next week," he says as he settles down to write, waiting for the phone to ring again.

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