Little Scraps of Paper

Kids and drunks have a lot in common. They’re brutally honest, totally unpredictable, and anxious to be noticed, even if it means jumping up and down on a red velvet seat and pouring the remains of a beverage down the collar of any guy who happens to be in fun’s way. With this in mind, it’s not such a stretch for me to go from lounge pianist to musical director of a touring Sesame Street show.

(In loving memory of Emilio Delgado.)

Kids and drunks have a lot in common. They’re brutally honest, totally unpredictable, and anxious to be noticed, even if it means jumping up and down on a red velvet seat and pouring the remains of a beverage down the collar of any guy who happens to be in fun’s way. With this in mind, it’s not such a stretch for me to go from lounge pianist to musical director of a touring Sesame Street show.

 I’ve done kids’ shows before, as an actor. I played Tanya Baum the Talking Christmas Tree at a “wake up Santa Claus” breakfast in Pittsburgh. And I’ve worn so many Easter Bunny costumes in department stores that it’s hard for me to go through the revolving doors of Bloomingdale’s without hopping. I once had a Valentine’s Day job at the Pittsburgh branch of Saks Fifth Avenue dressed as Cupid—I wore a red leotard with wings and ran around the store shooting foam-rubber arrows at customers with kids.

 In the late seventies I donned a full-body Winnie the Pooh suit and marched in a parade to greet Santa Claus as he parachuted into the parking lot of the South Hills Village shopping mall outside of Pittsburgh. As the official parade marshal, I was scheduled to ride in a big red fire truck in my Winnie the Pooh costume. Not surprisingly, there was a fire that day and the truck canceled. 

 “No problem,” I said to the promoter. “I can walk the parade route.” I didn’t want to disappoint all those kids. So I marched in front of an eighty-piece high school marching band. I started off strong, but the parade route was long. Very long. Those big steel Pooh boots got heavier and heavier as we neared our destination. I could see—but just barely—through the honey pot on the head of my costume. I heard Santa’s airplane circling around and around. It became increasingly difficult to put one foot in front of the other. I couldn’t get enough air. I still remember the sensation of the trombone slides nudging me in my back, getting closer and closer as I dragged my legs and tried to wave at the throngs of kids lining the mall parking-lot parade route. My vision grew dark around the edges and my ears started to ring. Next thing I knew, my knees were buckling and I was sinking to the concrete. I had hyperventilated and passed out, causing a high school marching-band pile-up behind me. The drum major and two women from the marketing office carried me back into the mall before they took off my Pooh head. 

 “You really should have gotten her out of the suit immediately,” said the doctor examining me. “It’s very dangerous to be in one of these costumes for more than fifteen minutes.”

 “Well,” said the promoter, who was nervously looking out of her office window. “We didn’t want the kids to know that Winnie isn’t real.

  “What?” said the doctor. “Better they should think Winnie is dead?”

Didn’t matter much. Santa missed his parachute target and got tangled in an oak tree at a gas station across the highway. It was a traumatic day for those kids. 

When Emilio Delgado—Luis on Sesame Street—calls to ask if I’m interested in being the musical director of his show, the first thing I ask is, “Do I have to wear a Muppet suit?” After my Winnie-the-Pooh fainting episode I’ve sworn I’ll never again wear another big furry costume with a twenty-pound head and lead boots. No way am I going to play the piano in a Cookie Monster outfit.

 “No!” says Emilio. “You’re thinking of the Sesame Street Live show. That’s the Muppet show. My show only involves Roscoe Orman—the guy who plays Gordon—and me. And you on piano, if you want the gig.”

“But you said musical director,” I say. “Is there a band involved?”

“No,” says Emilio. “You would just be directing yourself. And us.”

“Oh,” I say. “I think I could do that. What’s the tour schedule? I’ll have to take time off from my Marriott job.”

“We’ll go out maybe one weekend a month. Sometimes more, sometimes less. The money is good, and I’m sure we’ll be treated very well. There’s just one catch.”

Here we go. There’s always a catch. The last time someone told me there was a catch to a piano job, I’d ended up topless in a Boston dinner theater with policemen and attack dogs in the wings. 

 “We need you to warm up the audience before the show starts. You know, do a little stand-up comedy routine and then move over to the piano and get the kids singing.”

“Oh,” I say. “I can handle that.” I envision us in school classrooms, with thirty attentive children sitting with their sweet little hands folded neatly on their tiny desks.

One month later I find myself in Frankenmuth, Michigan, at the Frankenmuth Bavarian Festival, wearing an orange baseball cap and hightops, standing backstage getting ready to run out and tell jokes to 1,500 screaming children. Gordon and Luis are big stars. Kids have come from all over Michigan to get a chance to see them in person.

St. Louis, ca. 1987

I watch from the wings as three children leap onstage and play a game spitting ice cubes at each other. The first waves of doubt creep over me.

You’d be much better off in the bear suit, says Voice of Doom.

I run onstage and start the show.

As the daughter of a Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood musician, it’s ironic that I’m playing for a Sesame Street production. But though the two shows are completely opposite in their philosophies—one stimulating and aggressive, the other calming and gentle—they share a love of music and an awareness of the importance of music in a child’s development. 

Emilio Delgado and I attend the same acting class—two working professionals trying to better ourselves by studying the two-year course in the Sanford Meisner acting technique. We’re friends and acting partners, spending long hours together rehearsing impossible scenes, and doing acting exercises that tap our emotional resources and usually result in either fits of laughter or trails of tears.

 Emilio and his beautiful wife Carole come to my Marriott gigs or anywhere else I’m playing. They’re quite a pair, Emilio with his dashing Mexican good looks, and Carole, a lithe blond who can’t decide if she wants to be Margaret Mead or Lovey Howell. I turn on the TV in the morning and watch Emilio sing (as Luis) about the number “5.” I laugh out loud at his antics with Big Bird and his rendition of “La Bamba” with a herd of Muppet sheep singing baaaa, baaaaa, baaaaamba

But both Emilio and I want more from our careers. We want to be challenged, to be stimulated, to follow a more artistic path. So we torture ourselves in acting class trying to get out of our creative ruts. I don’t want to be just a piano player—I want to do modern American drama. He wants to do film. We end up doing Sesame Street Live with Gordon and Luis.

Pasting together a live kids’ show, especially for such large audiences, means scrapping our adult concepts of entertainment. We start from scratch, trying to remember what it’s like to be five years old. Being quiet and gentle and singing hushed songs about love and family values? Those things function brilliantly in a small classroom or on a television set. But in a theater packed with 2,000 spirited children and their stressed parents—no way.

My job at the beginning of the show is to get the kids to guess where Gordon and Luis are hiding. After we exhaust all the usual possibilities—under the kids’ seats, in their mothers’ purses, in their neighbor’s ear, I go into the audience with the microphone and ask for suggestions to get Gordon and Luis to come out of hiding. I have a notion that one of the kids will say “music!” But the kids have other things in mind.

“Gordon, if you don’t come out, I’m gonna rip my sister’s hair out.”

“Luis, if I don’t see you in one second I’m gonna slap Timmy in the face with a wet washrag.”

“Gordon, if you don’t show up, my Dad’s gonna sue you.”

“If you guys don’t get out here soon, I’m gonna kick this microphone girl in the knees.”

 “How about music, kids?” I say.

“It smells like sweat socks in here.”

“Gordon, I bet you’re on the potty!”

“Luis, come out or I’m gonna tell Santa you’re a jerk.”

“How about music, kids?” I say once again as I leap over to the piano. I get them clapping in time, tear into the Sesame Street theme song, and Gordon and Luis charge from the wings as the kids cheer and sing along. Many children wonder how Gordon and Luis have gotten out of the television set.

 In the beginning we try, we really do, to do a variety of music, alternating up-tempo audience participation sing-along and dance numbers with poignant ballads about love and sadness. The ballads are a disaster. Both Gordon and Luis have gorgeous voices, and there is a ton of great music from the television show that we would like to do. But the same thing happens every time Gordon or Luis try to sing something slow. Halfway through the song, members of the pint-sized audience get distracted. They crawl under their seats, hit their neighbors, and cry out of boredom. Every singer’s worst nightmare.

At a beautiful concert hall in Calgary, when Roscoe goes downstage to sing a wonderful ballad called “Family” there’s a huge ruckus in the first few rows. Roscoe sits on the edge of the stage for this number in his casual “get down on their level” pose. “There’s more than only one way for a family to be,” he sings in his deep baritone.

 Not even four bars into the song, a bucket of popcorn flies up into the air. Three or four kids start bawling. A mother drags a couple of the offenders up the aisle. Another kid screams, “Sing the doggie song!” and everyone claps and laughs. I see a tennis shoe soar through the light from the spotlight and land a dozen rows back. A ten-year-old boy jumps up and throws the shoe back where it came from. Three or four kids begin chasing each other up and down the aisles, trying to retrieve the shoe.

Really, it’s not all that different from the Atrium Lounge at the Marriott Marquis. 

 Through all the commotion, Roscoe maintains his concentration and continues singing, “You could have a brother, a sister, an aunt . . .”

 One of the silver helium balloons attached to our set gets loose and floats up to the ceiling of the theater. While continuing to pound my way through the ballad, I look out at the audience. Not a single eye is on Gordon as he forges ahead to the big dramatic ending of the song, “Oh, oh, family, family, family . . .” 

The audience has been hypnotized by the balloon, and they’re still sitting there, heads back, mouths open, looking at the ceiling when Roscoe finishes the piece. Luis and I have to force the audience to clap for him. We move on to “The Doggie Song.”

“Robin,” says Gordon after the show. “No more ballads for me. Did you see what happened out there?”

“Yeah,” I say. “Unbelievable. The chase thing with the shoe was terrible. And then they couldn’t stop watching that stupid balloon.”

“What balloon?” says Gordon. 

“The one everyone was watching while you were trying to sing.” 

“Oh, I didn’t even notice that. The whole time I was singing there was this little kid in the front row bugging me. He had scissors with him and he was cutting up little scraps of blue paper and putting them on my shoes. Then he started going after my shoelaces.”

“Oh. That must have been, uh, annoying.”

“Yeah. No more ballads. Enough is enough.”

Everyone has their limits.

It takes a few months of trial and error, but eventually we’ve got a nice show. We adjust to the constant buzz buzz buzz that lives inside theaters filled with preschoolers. There’s a lot of positive energy and power in these young audiences, and it’s a blessing to be part of it. I travel all over North America with Gordon and Luis. We’re quite a representative trio: the Mexican American, the African American, and the blond American. Gordon and Luis are swarmed at airports by starstruck stalker moms and their kids. They sign autographs and have their pictures taken with four-year-olds from Seattle to Atlanta. I stand off to the side and observe as the two men perform their public-television celebrity duties with grace and good humor. Then the three of us climb into an airplane and wing off to the next city, the next hall, the next zealous group of kids that will allow us, for sixty minutes, to share their fun. 

It’s an honest job, and I love every minute of it.


In loving memory of Emilio Delgado.

Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist and popular solo piano streaming artist. She is the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl;  Rhythm: A Novel and Manhattan Road Trip. New from Backbeat Books: Piano Girl Playbook: Notes on a Musical Life

New music from Robin Goldsby:

Living Room, Volume 1

Living Room, Volume 2

The Story

Since 1994, John Goldsby has been a member of the Westdeutscher Rundfunk Big Band (also known as the WDR Big Band or the Cologne Radio Big Band). From 1980 to 1994, Goldsby lived in New York City and was a fixture on the jazz scene there. He continues to contribute to the art form as a bassist, bandleader, composer, teacher, clinician and author.

The son of a Baptist minister, John was born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky. He played piano, guitar, and electric bass before taking up the double bass at age 18. His early musical experiences include work with hometown jazz greats Jimmy Raney, Helen Humes, and Jamey Aebersold. In 1979, John got a gig with the house trio at a jazz club in Louisville that brought in famous jazz soloists to play with the trio. For almost one year, John played with some of the legends of jazz including: Jay McShann, Buddy Tate, Johnny Hartman, Barney Kessel, Tom Harrell, Dave Liebman, Buddy DeFranco, and others. When this gig ended, John knew he had to relocate to New York. In 1980, he put his bass in the car and made his move.

After moving to New York, John found himself in good company with all of the other young players on the scene. His first experiences with the established New York elite included gigs with Albert Dailey, Sal Nestico, John Hicks, Benny Bailey and Bob Wilber. During his years in New York, Goldsby recorded with many world-class musicians, including Scott Hamilton, Randy Sandke, Michael Brecker, Mel Lewis, Toshiko Akyoshi, John Lewis, and the American Jazz Orchestra.

Goldsby’s most recent recordings as a bandleader include Segment (with Billy Test and Hans Dekker), The Innkeeper’s Gun, Space for the Bass, The Visit, and Live at the Nachbar [all Bass Lion]. The Innkeeper’s Gun and Live at the Nachbar feature a powerful sax-bass-drums trio with Jacob Duncan and Jason Tiemann. The Visit is a duo recording with pianist Bill Dobbins. The John Goldsby, Peter Erskine, Bill Dobbins Trio are featured on the acclaimed album Cologne [Fuzzy Music].

The WDR Big Band records constantly and is featured on many releases, such as: the Grammy-nominated Köln (Marshall Gilkes), Birth of a Bird (WDR Big Band), Samba Jazz Odyssey (Hendrick Meurkens), Blue Soul (Dave Stryker & Bob Mintzer), Homecoming (Vince Mendoza), The Broader Picture (Billy Hart), Grammy-Award-Winning Avant Gershwin and For Ella, from Patti Austin; Joe Lovano Symphonica; Abdullah Ibrahim Bombella; Maceo Parker Roots and Grooves; Big Band Time from Paquito D’Rivera (featuring John’s burning duet “Basstronaut” with electric bassist Oscar Stagnaro); The Latin Jazz Suite, Esparanto, The Jazz Mass, Jazz Goes To The Movies, Gillespiana, Bullit and Mannix from Lalo Schifrin; Pussy Cat Dues with Bill Dobbins, Kevin Mahogany, Charles McPherson, Jimmy Knepper, Dennis Mackrel; Better Get Hit In Your Soul with Bill Dobbins, Jack Walrath, Miles Griffith; Eddie Harris The Last Concert, and Prism – The Music of Bill Dobbins and Peter Erskine.

Goldsby is busy with recording projects as a sideman, like the recent album with Benyamin and Ludwig Nuss (father and son) Nuss-Nuss-Goldsby (Benyamin Nuss & Ludwig Nuss), tenor saxophonist Paul Heller: Special Edition 1, (featuring John Engels and Michael Abene) and Special Edition 2 (with Al Foster and Olaf Polziehn), and the release from Saxophonist Karolina Strassmayer and drummer Drori Mondlak, Joining Forces. Waltz for Worms, Frisky and Live at Le Pirat are swinging, straight-ahead albums with trumpeter John Marshall.

Feed the Birds, The Shimmering Colours of Stained Glass, and The Underwater Poet with pianist Hubert Nuss, Ups and Downs with trombonist Ludwig Nuss, and guitarist Joachim Schoenacker’s Blunatic are among albums which feature John. Behind Closed Doors with Peter Erskine, The Chase with Randy Sandke, An Ellington Affair with Bill Mays, Big Man’s Blues with Andy Fusco, and The Return of the Great Guitars (Herb Ellis, Larry Coryell, Mundell Lowe, and Charlie Byrd) are among other noteworthy recordings. Three critically acclaimed records with the Frank Vignola Trio are Appel Direct, Let It Happen, Look Right, Jog Left and Off Broadway.

In 2000, John Goldsby recorded Viewpoint, which presents a combination of original material and standards, featuring some of the best musicians on the European scene today: Frank Chastenier, Hans Dekker, Olivier Peters, John Marshall, and Hayden Chisholm.

Tale of the Fingers is the premier recording of the John Goldsby Quartet from 1993. The other musicians on this Concord Jazz CD are Bill Mays (piano), Terry Clarke (drums), and Andy Fusco (alto). This recording features two compositions by Mr. Goldsby as well as rare works by Charles Mingus, Duke Ellington, Oscar Pettiford, Paul Chambers, and Sam Jones. A highlight of the recording is the classic-meets-jazz masterwork “Three Short Stories for Bass and Piano” by Bill Mays.

Other notable performances include “The Tonight Show” with Claude Bolling and Hubert Laws, the Grammy-Award winning soundtrack for “The Cotton Club,” and work with Wynton Marsalis, Gunther Schuller, Lionel Hampton, and the Smithsonian Masterworks Orchestra. Goldsby has performed at the JVC Jazz Festival, the Chicago Jazz Festival, and the Odessa Jazz Festival among others in addition to tours of Europe, Japan, Canada, and the United States.

The Village Voice says that John Goldsby is “One of the few bassists steeped in the tradition of Jimmie Blanton and Oscar Pettiford.” The New York Times says “John Goldsby’s bass playing was spectacular . . . the rhythm-section contributed some of the most vivid passages to the concert.”

John Goldsby is well-known as a jazz educator and currently teaches at the Maastricht Conservatory (NL). He has also taught at the Folkwang Hochschule in Essen, Germany, Cologne Musik Hochschule, William Paterson College, Long Island University, and Columbia University. He has given jazz workshops all over the world, most recently in Sligo, Ireland, London, and Graz, Austria. Goldsby has taught at Jamey Aebersold’s Summer Jazz Clinics since 1980, and he has recorded many educational jazz records for Mr. Aebersold.

The Jazz Bass Book is Mr. Goldsby’s classic work, documenting jazz bass players and their techniques from a historical perspective. This first-of-its-kind work is filled with transcriptions, historical and technical information, discography, and Goldsby’s insightful and inspiring writing. A play-along CD (or online files) is included for the reader and student to use with written etudes, patterns, scales, and improvised solos and bass lines. Also on the CD are several performance tracks for listening or play-along. The CD features Goldsby on bass along with the masterful assistance of Bill Dobbins (piano) and Hans Dekker drums).

Mr. Goldsby has written two other instructional method books, Jazz Bowing Techniques for the Improvising Bassist and Bass Notes. Bass Player magazine says, “Bass Notes is an excellent resource for intermediate to advanced jazz bassist.” The National Association of Jazz Educators says, “Bowing Techniques should be a required publication for upright bassists!” Goldsby is a disciple and master of the Paul Chambers school of jazz bass playing, and spent many years perfecting his own style of arco (bowed) jazz playing. Through private study with Dave Holland and Michael Moore throughout the ‘80s, Goldsby codified and honed the techniques of arco jazz. Goldsby perceived a gap in jazz bass pedagogy in the area of arco technique, and published his first book Jazz Bowing Techniques for the Improvising Bassist in 1990.

John Goldsby has filmed four superb courses at Discover Double Bass that cover all the essential learning for any jazz bassist looking to improve, whether that’s in bass lines, solos, ensemble playing, or technique. In 2019, John filmed Jazz Bass Vol. 1 (Building Up) and Vol. 2 (Stretching Out) which offer a collection of lessons for intermediate to advanced players. In 2020, John came back to produce two more courses – one on soloing: Tell Your Story and the other on walking bass lines: Lay it Down.

John currently writes for Bass Magazine Online: The Future of Bass. From 1990 until 2019, Goldsby was a featured writer for Bass Player Magazine with his columns “The Tradition,” “Mastering Jazz,” and “Jazz Concepts.” The print magazine morphed into the online magazine in 2019, and Goldsby continues to contribute workshop columns. Goldsby has also written for Double Bassist Magazine, The Strad, and the International Society of Bassists Journal (ISB).

In 2009, Goldsby was awarded the International Society of Bassists Special Recognition Award for Scholarship, a biennial award recognizing players and scholars who contribute their special talents, knowledge and support to furthering ISB ideals. Goldsby received jazz performance grants from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1988, 1990, and 1993. The “John Goldsby Plays Oscar Pettiford” concert, which was funded by the 1990 grant received much critical acclaim from the New York Times, Jazz Times, and the Village Voice.

John Goldsby is currently working (or has worked) with the WDR (Westdeutscher Rundfunk) Big Band on projects with artists such as Bob Mintzer, Vince Mendoza, McCoy Tyner, Joyce, Nicholas Payton, Dick Oatts, Francesco Cafiso, Clarke Terry, Gary Bartz, Eddie Henderson, Phil Woods, Mike Manieri, Jon Faddis, Alex Acuna, Paquito D’Rivera, Jack Walrath, Bernard Purdie, Gil Goldstein, Ray Brown, Christian McBride, John Clayton, Peter Erskine, Jeff Hamilton, John Riley, Dennis Mackrel and arrangers such as Rich DeRosa, John Clayton, Maria Schneider, Pedro Giraudo, James Darcy Argue, Vince Mendoza, Bob Brookmeyer, Bill Dobbins, and Michael Abene.

Goldsby is an inquisitive scholar, constantly studying, documenting, and codifying jazz bass styles, techniques and players. He seeks to understand the aesthetic foundations and structural development of jazz bass playing in order to define the state of the art. Goldsby heartily endorses trumpeter Clarke Terry’s educational maxim: “Imitate, emulate, innovate.”

The WDR (Westdeutscher Rundfunk) is the television and radio station in the Nordrhein-Westphalia area of Germany. It is run as a “public” radio station, but with a much broader scope than the PBS in the United States. In addition to the Big Band, the WDR also employs two full-time symphony orchestras and a choir. John was born Dec 10, 1958 and currently resides in Germany, near Cologne, with his wife Robin.