The drummer wears a puffy red cap over his dreadlocks, and dangling behind his head from a nail in the wall of the garage is a squashed red, yellow, and blue Sesame Street ball, so that Big Bird seems to be peering forward with interest as the drummer hits his sticks together three times and the music begins again: a reggae rhythm imposed on a funky tune because they are working on the bass line and only four of the musicians are here. The garage door is open and it is raining. Late rush-hour traffic hisses up and down Catalina Boulevard. That evening the Padres are scheduled to play the Mets and the game gets called because of the rain — the first time a Padres home game rained out in 15 years.
The two car garage seems a parody of a cluttered garage — bikes, suitcases, car seats, beach paraphernalia, gold clubs, vacuum cleaners, chairs, file cabinets, broken tennis rackets, an old washer, dryer, and refrigerator, boxes, tricycles, hot water heater, and the music stuff — speakers, monitors, amplifiers, keyboards, drums. The cars are parked helter-skelter in the driveway and along the curb. Rain drips from the double overhead doors and collects in pools on the concrete floor.
The drummer has a moon-shaped cat face, a ragged beard, and his eyes are narrowed to slits. His name is Leon Wesley. At 40, he’s been playing funk for 25 years. His drumming has the fluid grace of a swimmer, as if all his movements were joined into one elegant stroke, a calculated series of repetitions that seem all of a piece. Even at his fastest, he never seems to hurry. The guitar player, David Harris, is very different. Blond, ponytailed, ascetic, and 36, his breakneck fingering shows his roots in acid rock and the music of Eric Clapton. He stands tall and motionless as his fingers blur across the strings. He has a benign smile. When not playing music, he’s teaching 8th-grade math at Rincon Middle School in Escondido. Seated on a bar stool is the singer, Belinda Elias, 38, who also writes a lot of the lyrics. Trim and pretty, she can do Motown numbers like a fourth member of the Supremes, gliding through three octaves like Otis the elevator.
The man playing electric bass is Glen Fisher and it’s his garage, his house, and his band, although three members still haven’t arrived. Glen started playing the bass at 11 and he has been playing 22 ½ years. Tall and handsome with mussed short dark hair, he looks younger that he actually is, almost boyish. He’s brash and self-confident with dark eyes and a long straight nose. He dresses like a golfer and looks like an infielder. He is always moving and has the hyper intensity of a second baseman. His electric bass is made of light-colored wood, and under the strings is inlaid a chocolate-colored fish standing on its tail. Leaning against the refrigerator beside him is a stand-up or acoustic bass that he uses on his jazz gigs.
Glen tells me, “I do three or four rehearsals a week with different groups. My friends that are musicians laugh. They say, ‘You’re always rehearsing, man. You make 50 bucks a night and you’re rehearsing every week.’ But for me the joy is to grow a band. You’re able to hold your head up high if you’re better every week. You try to do something that you couldn’t do before. Then when musicians walk in they realize this is some polished shit and you put some work into it. We’re not reaping the financial rewards so we might as well get the most out of it that way.”
As for me and why I’m standing in a damp garage getting my eardrums fired, my path to this place began in the mid-1950s standing outside the Metropole, a jazz bar in midtown Manhattan listening to a jazz band with Cozy Cole on the drums. There was jazz at the Metropole all day, and there was always a crowd outside. I was 15 and the music took hold of my gut and hasn’t let go yet. In 1941, the year of my birth, there were 350 jazz bands traveling around the United States. Even into the 1960s a small band could book into a club for two weeks and play three to four sets a night. Now if a musician wants to play that often, he or she has to be adaptable.
Glen Fisher plays in at least five bands a week, and this is far from unusual. He plays in a funk band that is rehearsing in this garage; Planet Grove. He also leads a jazz band, Glen Fisher Con Alma, that puts an overlay of Latin onto straight-ahead or mainstream jazz. He plays in a Brazilian band, Sambrasil, in an acid jazz band, Kubikai, led by the saxophonist Harold Todd; and he plays in his brother Mark’s rock-and-roll band, Fish and the Seawards. And in the week last May that I was trailing him around, he also did a jazz gig with the trumpet player Bruce Cameron, another with the blues band Cream of Soul and he was part of a trio backing up the singer Coral Thuet.
Glen does freelance gigs at bars and clubs on the spur of the moment when another bassist can’t make it. He plays at weddings, corporate parties, groundbreaking ceremonies, and wakes. He played with Con Alma on the stage of the Republican National Convention and for six or seven private parties at the convention, including a party for the secret service agents. “They were the most fun,” he says, “because they were the least stiff. Everyone else at the convention was really stiff.”
“I’m unique,” Glen tells me. “I’m not bragging or anything, I can just play all these different styles. They’re lots of great musicians out there who won’t play because the money’s bad. They’ve got the ability, but they’ve let themselves get stagnant. “