Monday, June 29, 2009

On Meeting BB King

I had the pleasure of meeting BB King -- and indeed playing in front of him -- about a decade and a half ago. Tower Records had organized a meet and greet and a jam session, and people showed up in the hundreds to meet the man, get his autograph and pose with him for some pictures.

In the Tower Records offices before the event, BB asked to meet the band. Up close and in person, BB had an incredible aura and generosity of spirit. I felt like I was in the presence of someone, or something, truly great.

He showed us a couple of, what he called, his personal 'survival things'.

Reaching into his pocket for his wallet, he showed us the few dollar bills that were inside. And from a hidden compartment, he retrieved a nicely folded, crisp 100 dollar bill. "You'll never know when you'll need it," he quipped.

He then asked which of us in the group were guitar players. Looking at the two of us who had sheepishly raised our hands, he produced a coin and asked us to pick a side. I won the coin toss and was rewarded with a tortoiseshell BB King guitar pick. He paused for several seconds, looking at the other guitar player's expression of slight disappointment. At exactly the right moment he produced another pick, a black one this time, and put it in the hand of the other guitarist. "Always carry a spare," he smiled broadly.

It was all about timing, and giving at the right moment when one least expects it -- hallmarks of his guitar playing.

He didn't play a lick with us at the jam, choosing instead to be a true statesman of the blues by signing autographs and making pleasant conversation with an endless queue of eager fans that seemed to never stop coming.

After a long session, and clearly exhausted from jet-lag and the rigors of the road, BB took the time to come up to each musician, shake our hands and thank us personally. I felt like it was I who should have been thanking him. His words to me were something along the lines of, "You have a jazz influence in your playing, young man..." and "I know I'll be seeing you again." I was on a high for days.

It's rare that one meets someone who transcends definitions. Meeting him, it didn't seem to matter that I was standing before one of the greatest bluesmen of all time, or that his playing, singing and music are embedded in the DNA of our collective musical consciousness.

Meeting him was like coming face to face with the Truth. And the Truth of Music is difficult to describe or define. The moment one tries to define it, its meaning escapes us.

And BB King is that one ambassador of the Truth.

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