"You're a hooker, aren't you?"
"What?!" my friend Liz Mendez stammers. "No, I'm not a hooker. Why do you say that?"
"Because only hookers go to work at midnight and get off at five in the morning."
"I'm not a hooker, I'm a piano player."
I think Liz has tricked me into driving her to a whorehouse. She is a piano player, I know. I saw her graduate from the University of St. Thomas, where she had to play Bach and all that. She shared the stage with Celia Cruz; she closed the Kansas City Women's Jazz Festival; and her jazz band opened for Tower of Power (believe me, you should be more impressed with that).
"Look," she tells me, "it's a salsa show. You know those don't start until late."
"Yes, midnight late."
"And why do they want you to play a salsa show anyway? You're Mexican."
"I'm Mexican-American," she corrects me, looking more offended than when I called her a hooker.
"Whatever. Salsa ain't Mexican music. That's for Cubans and Puerto Ricans and them. Why did they call you?"
"Hey, at least I'm Latina," she says. "The horn section is a bunch of white guys."
We turn into the parking lot of Celebrations Party Hall (6237 Highway 6 South, 281-530-2001). "Who's the artist?" I ask Liz as I help her carry in her equipment.
"I know, I know. He isn't famous famous, but he's a little famous. He's had a couple of hit songs. It's going to be all right," she tells me.
Inside the club, it's a full house. Four or five hundred people sitting at big round tables. "They don't have a liquor license, I think," Liz whispers to me. Sure enough, I notice that there are no beer bottles or glasses on the tables, but plenty of Styrofoam cups filled with liquor. Okay, now I know this is a whorehouse.
She's right -- the horn section is a bunch of white American guys. I recognize a few people: Eddie Lewis on trumpet, Ed Lowe and Reggie Goebel on trombone.
"Oh, good, you make it, that's good, Liz. How you doing?" It's the bandleader, Jairo. "We gonna start by one o'clock, for sure, okay?" Six foot three with a heavyweight boxer's build, Jairo is from Colombia. I think he used to be with Grupo Niche, but since it's midnight and we're in a club with no liquor license, I don't ask him. Once he moves off, I whisper to Liz, "So how come Jairo hires white guys? Those guys are union; they gotta charge more than other horn players, right?"
"Yeah," Liz says. "But they're the only ones that can read the charts."
I'm sleepy and tired. I give Liz a big yawn to show her that I don't understand.
"When it's a show like this, with an artist coming in for just one night, they hire a pickup band. There's no rehearsal usually, so we all have to sight-read. The horn parts are crazy, and most of the time the charts aren't very well written, so whoever plays has to fill stuff in. Ed Lowe, Reggie and Eddie, they're monsters. Not only can they read, they can read backwards. And they know all the breaks, all the claves. Whenever it's a salsa show, Jairo calls them."
"White guys? A black Colombian salsero calls white Americans for his pickup band?"
"If he wants them to read, he does."
Out on the dance floor, a guy dressed in all white is dancing with a girl I'm sure has ball bearings in her hip sockets. She's wearing a bright orange halter and miniskirt. The miniskirt looks like it's made from torn handkerchiefs, and the raggedy ends flip with each step. She moves in ways that are probably illegal. I'm watching her flip-flips and starting to doze when Liz moans, "Oh, no."
"The artist won't get out of his car," she sighs.
"One of the guys just told me Roberto Lugo is outside with the club owner, sitting in a car, and they're arguing."
"Good, we can go home."
"No, no go home! It gonna be all okay." Jairo has overheard us and is panicking at the thought of his pianist going home before the show even starts. "You stay right here, Liz." He throws me a dirty look and rushes outside.
"It's gonna be a long night," Reggie says with a sigh. People start to drift toward the door.
Two hours later, Roberto Lugo finally gets out of the car. The club is only half full now, and littered with empty Styrofoam cups.
Roberto Lugo looks like a Las Vegas lounge singer. A bushy black toupee sits on top of his head, with little regard for gravity. He's wearing a yellow chiffon blouse (I know it's a blouse, because I have one just like it in blue). Mostly unbuttoned, the blouse reveals a tangle of long chest hair. He's waving to the crowd, smiling at the girl in the orange miniskirt. My watch says 2:30 a.m., hooker prime time.
"One, two, ah, one, two, three, four," the timbale player counts off and the crowd hits the dance floor -- but they're not dancing. Everyone has their cell phone out and is taking pictures of Lugo. He's smiling and posing and, oops, missing his cue. Liz looks at the bass player, who shrugs his shoulders like, "Hey, it wasn't me." The timbale player starts to give the "back to the top" signal, but Lugo stops him.
"Hold on, hold on," Lugo says into the microphone, talking to the band. "We're gonna do this right. These people know me and they pay a lot of money to see this show, we're gonna do this right." Liz looks mortified; the horn players are giving each other "Oh, hell no, he didn't just stop us because he missed his own cue" looks.
I've never seen a professional singer stop a band before. Even if they aren't playing the song he's singing, singers keep going. They figure it out, they cover, they talk out the side of their mouth and tell the piano player to vamp until they can get it together, but they don't stop the band. They especially don't stop a band they didn't bother to rehearse with. I can barely see Liz; she's sunk way down in her chair and looks like a head of curly hair with arms where her ears should be.
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The show goes downhill from there. After two songs, everyone's done taking cell phone pictures and they go back to their Styrofoam cups. Nobody dances. There's a steady stream of people leaving. Lugo, who actually sings pretty well, manages to get a whole nine songs done in two hours. It's kind of pitiful: an old guy in a toupee and blouse, singing to an empty dance floor. But Liz didn't lie -- the horn players are monsters. And probably better than Lugo deserves.
He's smart enough to skip the encore. The sound of horn cases snapping shut behind him before the last "ta-da" hits the "da" part might have been a hint.
"You're a hooker, you know that, right?" I tell Liz as she walks off stage.
She checks her watch. It's 4:30 a.m. and she's just now getting off work. She nods and says, "I prefer the term 'musical prostitute,' if you don't mind."