Saturday, November 17, 2007

Trombone in the Wilderness

Being a musician takes you into a lot of out-of-the-way places. Tonight I played with a community band, the Scottish Rite Band, for a dinner at the Masonic Lodge in South Pasadena, California. My wife was playing flute, dinner was free, and so I went and joined in with the regular trombone section--they were glad to have reinforcements.

Community band playing, in general, is a blog for the future. This is about the Masonic Temple and the people I saw there. Very strange. My deepest information about the Masons, and their ancestors, the Knights Templar, comes from novels like Thomas Pynchon's Crying of Lot 49 and Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code (I admit, shamefaced, I read it). From these books, I gather the real history of the organization is lost in the dim mists of myth, mysticism, folklore, and religion. It must also have connections with the military, since people seemed to focus on the war, veterans, commemorating soldiers of the past. A speaker at the end intoned the axioms that "Freedom is not free," and "All of us have given something; some have given all."

The building itself must have dated from the thirties. The lighting was dim, the stage right out of the proscenium tradition of old auditoriums. The dinner: some overcooked steak, scalloped potatoes, peas and carrots from one of those large cans you see on the shelves at Costco. They had wine, too: 2-buck Chuck.

I had expected a rousing affair, but the members of the band outnumbered the audience, which was mostly older people. The hall gave the band and its spouses dinner for free; others had to pay $8. The Masons must have lost money on that, because the Masonic membership seemed pathically low or indifferent to the occasion. (I have seen similar lack of enthusiasm at the American Legion Hall in Pasadena, where I rehearse weekly with another band. We play the occasional event there, and the audience is almost always the spouses of the bandmembers and American Legion stragglers.)

I can't help thinking at events like this, that these organizations seem to be on their way out, a relic of the forties, slowing dying, their traditions maintained by diehards with a need to attach themselves to some cause and no other cause in immediate sight. There were one or two families with children, but neither the food, the music, nor the ambience seemed such as to encourage the children to say, when they are free to make their own decisions, "Wow, let's check out the Masonic Lodge tonight--it's bound to be a happening place."

Both the Lodge and the American Legion hall are home to strays--guys who come down to drink cheap during the day, hang out with a few friends, watch game shows on tv without being heckled by their wives (or watch different game shows than their wives want to watch). You can start drinking the moment the doors open--around 8 am. For the men who have lives, the occasional events are barely appealing enough to spend a Sunday afternoon, judging from the attendance. There is a musty quality about it all, from the lifeless American flags, to the scuffed hardwood floors, to the darkened bar room with its dart board and pool table. Office-brown faux-leather chairs line the anteroom. In the hall, old theater seats, four or five rows deep, surround the center, where Events take place (or used to take place, when such Events could give meaning to a young man or young woman's life). It's a milieu that regards women skeptically, as bothersome appendages, who show up occasionally as guests but have a vaguely uncomfortable feeling that they're admitted as a courtesy, not because they are valuable to the institution.

However, the Masons do have their Women's Auxiliary: the Job's daughters.

I don't know why they're called Job's Daughters. Presumably not because they counsel the men to "Curse God, and die," as Job's wife famously did in the entertaining Biblical book about his unjustified suffering.

Once, in a world long ago, when I was in high school, I was invited to a Job's Daughters ceremony. My upbringing must have been terribly deficient--I had no idea what I was witnessing. I saw girls (some of whom I knew from school) dressed in these white semi-ball gowns; I think one was being crowned. I don't remember recognizing any of the guys. I don't know who invited me, or what I was expected to do. I was a peripheral onlooker. I can believe there is mysticism in those rituals: they were a complete mystery to me. At school in the days following, no one alluded to it. It was as though I had been kidnapped by aliens, taken to another world, watched their alien rituals, and then been deposited back on earth to resume a normal life.

At that time--the late fifties--the hall was packed with attendees.

On this night, at the South Pasadena chapter, it was virtually empty, except for the band, which number about thirty, and the audience, which numbered about twenty-five, including five or six children who could not possibly have been interested in anything except dessert.

The band played old marches, patriotic pieces, all at a tempo roughly one-third slower than they should have been, so it sounded sluggish, pervaded with the same sense as the hall: the time is running out, the energy has given way to the entropy of change. It's like the dead or dying limb on a tree that will eventually fall off as the tree takes new forms, as kids go on to new types of experiences, as even new veterans (we'll always be producing them--war is big business) find post-war bonding in other venues.

When the Knights Templar appear only in novels, it will be a sad day. There are few enough places anymore where a musician can get a free meal.


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