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Why Play?

June 15, 2012; Henry B. Reiff, Ph.D.

At my first gig in junior high, playing as the "B" band for an eighth grade school dance in 1966, we were quickly stared down by a semi-circle of hoods and toughs. When the "A" band finished their set and announced us, the gang started booing and mocking us, even though we had not played a note. Later that same year, a wise-guy friend "accidentally" kicked out the power plug in the middle of a song at another dance. Welcome to the world nasty teens—and a scene that would be played out with countless variations.
 
In the ensuing 45 years, I have suffered my share of humiliations and defeats. I've had sets cut short at clubs—and been paid in full (perhaps even more disconcerting than getting ripped off). Of course, I've been ripped off, too, from club owners to band leaders to other musicians (who hasn't?). I've played frat parties where the police barricades blocking the riser were not sufficient to prevent the occasional flying body landing on our equipment. After getting my lip split open by an errant drunk backing into my mic, I have literally kicked people off stage. I've played clubs where my trio outnumbered the crowd and redneck bars so small, dirty, and isolated I knew no one would ever come searching for my body.
 
So why do I play? In spite of a musical lifetime of occasional disappointment and constant schlepping, playing music has never let me down. I am able to express myself through my instrument in a way that is unique and vital to my sense of who I am. And every nightmare has been balanced by a triumph, a dream come true, and a forever memory. I've opened up for legends such as Professor Longhair, Clifton Chenier, The Meters, Irma Thomas and many others. I've played throughout the south and east, at festivals, nice clubs, theatres, and peoples' homes. I have met my best friends, both on and off stage, but especially on, where musical relationships develop in the ineluctable communication of individuals making a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts. And I've even performed at Shemp Fest, a tribute to the forgotten stooge, where the world's largest pie fight took place as we played our raucous version of psycho-billy.

I play because I love music and recognize the gift that it is. It is not about being good, having commercial success or being the object of adulation (and unprotected sex). It is about the sound that comes out of my ax. That's enough.
 


Henry B. Reiff, is Dean of Graduate and Professional Studies at McDaniel College in Westminster, Maryland. You can reach him at: hreiff@mcdaniel.edu

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