There is a very old saying in the Mahayana tradition of Buddhism that tangos off the tongue like so: "Before enlightenment: chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment: chop wood, carry water." Bodhisattvas have been riffing on that one for centuries.
In present-day Cleveland, Ohio, Michael Bay is working through a simple chord progression, methodically embracing the neck of his Fender Telecaster. Not so much the Buddhist he may outwardly appear, he is rather a guitarist. He is practicing. And as the shadows shrink back against the walls of his Tremont storefront on this quiet Tuesday morning, he will practice some more.
"I've been lucky to be in the right place at the right time," he says, looking up from his instrument only to confirm how deeply he means this. The clean tone of his guitar contrasts against his raspy voice, and the words hang sweetly in the air. A cat named Goober perches on a nearby windowsill and surveys the neighborhood, occasionally casting a glance back at Bay, who is still flexing a bluesy lick.
The guitarist might be talking about how he met his girlfriend Denise Graham, about whom he speaks with Neruda-inspired love. He might be talking about how the guitar hanging on his wall right there—that Orville Les Paul he's treasured for years—made its way back to him after being stolen one gray afternoon in Lakewood. He might yet be talking about a Wednesday night in 1994 that altered the musical landscape in this town forever.
Surely, though, luck has quite little to do with any of this. Bay's been practicing since he was a young kid from the neighborhood whose name no one knew. And the practice is everything.
"It will become what it becomes if you let it," he says, discussing the music he's working on. Or is he talking about life? "Be in this moment now and listen—and let it evolve."***
Now: Michael Bay is driving down West 58th Street, heading north toward the hilly terminus above the West Shoreway. The Parkview Nite Club, an unassuming little joint, flashes "FOOD—LIQUOR" in dull light above the roadway. Bay is driving here because it is Wednesday night, and this is what he does every Wednesday night.
Inside, people are buzzing on the heady foam of imported IPAs and the succulent ground chuck of Parkview's dynamite burgers. "Have a whole bunch! Tip your server well!" they're reminded happily by a friend. They're also awaiting the arrival of Bay and his closest compatriots, bassist Michael Barrick and drummer Jim Wall—The Bad Boys of Blues—who will each arrive shortly for the evening's routinely awe-inspiring main event. Laughter rolls down the bar. Every seat's taken, but you can ease in and lay down an order. No problem.
You could gather a hint of what's to come by checking out the massive photo collage hanging in the back hallway of the place. All the musicians who passed through the weekly jam night's first 10 years are pictured. Tonight is jam night once again, and the magic is rekindled as old friends congregate inside.
The musicians, meanwhile, amble through the double doors and set up their rig in the corner, leaning toward the crowd occasionally to talk shop with a passing friend. A fellow guitarist leans his ax against the back of a nearby booth, tossing a casual nod to Barrick. A pinball machine sputters and whirls in the corner. Familiar faces abound; this is, in a sense, a homecoming.
And this has been going on for 20 years. For some, it's just the best damn show in town; others, a temple.
"The Bad Boys of Blues: I just think they're top-notch. They're the cream of the crop. And they make me want to do my best," singer Becky Boyd says. It's Aug. 28, and she's hosting tonight's jam at Parkview. She's been hanging with the Bad Boys for years, long a fixture on the scene. People are visibly excited to see her on the bill tonight. Her jazzy flair reels in devotees by the droves.
Boyd met Bay and the rest of the crew when she was playing around town in a band called the Delgados in the early '90s. The budding jam night, then a fledgling event tucked neatly among Lorain Avenue hovels, needed a singer—a host for the night. Everyone seemed to play, but no one sang. Along with many others who would eventually wander into the circle, Boyd took hold of the mic and wrangled the restless tide of the blues.
It would be simple enough to say that everything was different back then. To a certain point, though, perhaps it was. This was before the Cleveland Blues Society was even a thing. Before the Guitar Conservatory. Before Parkview jam nights. Before the Savannah.
But in 1994, Michael Bay and the gang were just playing music. Really, in so many other ways, nothing has changed. He was just playing guitar and looking to get a little jam together each week. Still is, honestly.
"Michael Bay was really cool about it. We talked on the phone a bit and got our songs together, and that's how it started," Boyd says. "We just learned a bunch of tunes as we jammed together."
The guitar was always there, lying in wait beneath the couch in the living room.
It was a little Buckeye-brand acoustic number, purchased long ago by Bay's grandmother and likely assembled in a nondescript warehouse somewhere in Chicago in the first half of the last century.
Bay—born in Austin, Texas, though his whole life has transpired in Cleveland—was a shy kid growing up, but he really dug music. He voraciously consumed his parents' hi-fi records, finding vinyl-clad solace in the melodies and in the words crackling out through the speakers. Music made sense to the young boy—more sense than trying to talk to anyone about his feelings. Hell, even considering such a thing brought on bouts of pain.
"No one has ever suffered the way you suffer at 14. You're all alone in the world," he says, effecting a teenaged whine and smirking over thoughts of his introverted youth. "The guitar became this thing that belonged to me."
So he started playing. Always practicing, he found he could broadcast his deepest feelings through six strings and a fretboard. "Playing guitar was a way to let the stresses and troubles disappear and also a way to kinda express myself. Words were difficult, so here was a way to express myself and be a part of a larger world outside myself." Like he would later go on to describe the fortuitous and absolute magic of the Telecaster he would one day play, the pieces of the whole just fit perfectly.
As he grew up and continued drawing lessons from the notes of guys like Eric Clapton and Duane Allman, Bay grew comfortable with the pathways of his adventure. This was it. Being one to always find the beauty in life, Bay as young man had found a quickly expanding toolbelt for sharing his heart with those around him. His family saw in him an empathetic soul with a desire to do good in this world.
"I asked my father what should I be when I grow up. I figured he knew my strengths and weaknesses better than anyone," he says. Bay's father, in turn, posed a Socratic dialogue:
"What do you think about when you should be thinking about something else? What are you doing when you should be doing something else? Where's your heart and your passion? That's what you should do." "Really? It's that simple?"
"It's that simple."
And so Bay continued playing guitar and thinking about playing guitar. He was listening to Pink Floyd, early Cream, At Fillmore East, Hendrix's Rainbow Bridge—all sorts of great stuff. Through John McLaughlin he picked up on John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington. "That's where the whole thing started. I became interested in jazz and a much wider range of music," Bay says.
The question of practicality demanded an answer along the way. How does one become a musician? Can you make a living doing this? It seemed simple, of course, but the road to dreams is never paved with ease. His father certainly couldn't tell him; there was no musical background in Bay's family. "We didn't travel in that circle," he says. Money, of course, would be an issue. Gigs, too.
His father set him up at a six-week trade school, where he learned the craft of welding. "That was what he did for me: Here's this trade with which you can make reasonably good money." Bay hated the work, but the welding job opened doors financially that would push him further toward a goal that he had set. He treasures the opportunity his father granted him.
"It was what I needed to do at the time, because I didn't know how to make a living as a musician," he says. "What helped me get through it was: Right now, my practice is that I have to go to work every day. This is my practice. I wish it was the guitar, but I have to do this thing to make these other things happen. So, this is my practice eight hours a day, and then I go home and practice guitar."
The paychecks funded a music education, wherein Bay met teacher and mentor Ralph Russo. Soon, the opportunities started flowing and Bay had the privilege of quitting his day job and setting out for the dream. He played in a jazz trio now and then, bummed around a few cocktail lounge bands, spent a little while in hibernation—woodshedding his craft—and carted his guitar out to any ramshackle blues clubs that would have him. There were nights when he waited until 2 a.m. to get onstage for a song or two. Good nights.***
In the early '90s, the Jimmy Landers Blues Company spent Wednesdays leading a jam night at a place called Mr. Z's. Anchoring a corner at West 117th and Lorain, it was one of several tiny blues centerpieces in Cleveland. Using nickel-wound strings to hatch out of his self-made shell, Bay began seeking out clubs like this. "I walked in and I was like, 'How does this work?'" With each passing week, Bay was playing around town more and more.
The jams were always a fun break from regular gigs. And Landers' jam night proved to be a valuable stomping ground as Bay's talents began coalescing. This young gun had started showing up to play, and people were wondering who the hell he was.
"Jimmy Landers would let me sit in on the first set," Bay says. "Even then I understood what an honor that was—to be allowed to play with the house band." Week after week, he hung out at Mr. Z's, honing various skills and talking shop with the others.
Another little place called Chief's Fidelity Inn lay across the street at the time. They didn't have a jam going on over there, but they brought in blues bands on the weekend. Al Evans, the owner, desperately wanted a jam night. Mr. Z's was already humming along, and Sunday nights at Brothers Lounge down the street were picking up steam. The problem was competition: You can't just start hosting a jam on the same night as the guys across the street. Chief's Fidelity was already running promo events and shows every night of the week, except for Wednesday. But Mr. Z's had that night locked down.
"I showed up at Mr. Z's one Wednesday and there was no band. Nothing. I run—run—across the street, go up to the owner: 'You want to do a jam night?' 'I can't.' 'Yes you can.' 'What do you mean?' 'It's over at Mr. Z's.,'" Bay recounts. "The next day he got, like, five calls from people wanting to do a jam night. I was just hours ahead of the mad rush."
That otherwise quiet Wednesday evening in the fall of 1994 turned out to be a fortuitous turn of fate for the guitarist and for the city.
The move actually doubled as a chance for Bay to offer his students a live setting to hone their chops. He had been teaching for a few years at that point—an endeavor that he had initially been hesitant to undertake. "This would be the performance class," he says, likening his teaching career and that of his bandmates to a university setting. Still, he needed to anchor the thing with a house band.
In September that year, a young Michael Barrick had arrived via Japan, where he had been playing trumpet with the Air Force Band and Jazz Ensemble. After two days in his new city, he found himself killing time prior to an impromptu gig and taking a walk on Clifton Boulevard, where he encountered several musicians just doing their thing.
"Michael Bay and these two high-school kids were playing on the street, and we just listened to their whole show," Barrick says, adding that he introduced himself to Bay after the set. A few days later, Bay called the bass player and invited him to the jam at Chief's. He hadn't even heard Barrick play.
"So there were those jam sessions happening. And we were all just freelancing, doing what we needed to do, and decided to put a band together," Bay says.
The Chief's Fidelity days were short lived, though, as the club quietly shuttered. By then, Jim Wall had come onboard as the band's drummer after wrapping up a degree at Berklee. The Bad Boys of Blues took jam night and its budding community to Parkview Nite Club, where its Wednesday night antics have resided since.
"It just started happening," Boyd says. "You started seeing more and more people coming. There would be veterans playing with kids. Back when I was younger, you couldn't do that. You couldn't just go into a jam and get onstage and play with people who have been around for a long time." Indeed, something subtly different was brewing among the Bad Boys' events.
Soon enough, the owner of the Savannah Bar and Grille, in Westlake, came calling, hoping to bring a jam night to his place. At one point, the band was holding down jams four nights a week. By the late 2000s, the band had staked out a Thursday night residency at Brothers Lounge. And the musicians, of course, came with. The family was along for the ride.***
Bay's meandering roots system traces back to the Buckeye guitar, the early Cream records, the chance introduction to Barrick. And to Princess Lydia's voice.
Princess Lydia, a big, soulful jazz singer, needed a guitarist in the early '90s, and so came the next stop, playing with Princess Lydia and the Blue Knights, featuring King Solomon: Alligator Recording Artist and Grammy Award Winner. "Put that on the marquee," Bay says with a laugh.
This was the first blues band Bay played in — several years before the advent of jam night.
"But everything they did was in the key of G. At first, I could see myself getting really frustrated.
"In essence, I'm playing the same song all night long. So in my role, what I can bring each time we start the same song to make it different? That's what my challenge was night after night. And what a great opportunity. Here's a shuffle. Now here's another one. Do it differently. Here's another one. Do it differently."
He used to sit and watch Princess Lydia work the crowd after each show, in awe of her gift of gab. She pulled Bay aside one night and told him that part of the gig entailed chatting up the people in the crowd. "It was painful to talk with strangers. Become a professional musician and you've got to get over that real quick," he says.
But he saw it as a necessary assignment. Homing in on a pleasant-seeming table, he planned his course of action one night. Just a little conversation about the show. Simple. He walked toward the group—the butterflies in his stomach practically gnawing his innards, the walls of the room suddenly breathing with emotion—and walked right past them, outside and into the fresh air.
The same thing happened the next week.
By the third week, he figured something had to give. He found a quiet couple and rehearsed his neutral line, engraving it on his tongue: "Thank you for coming out. I hope you enjoyed the music."
With courage kicked into high gear, Bay approached the table and spoke his first words to an audience member: "Thank you for coming out. I hope you enjoyed the music." A brief pause. And then: They talked his head off for the entire setbreak. Bay rolled with the conversation, discussing the music and answering questions about the show. Though the pain hadn't evaporated, he saw he could do this with a little practice.***
"Musically and lyrically, blues is simple in that way," Bay says. He's working a bowl of pho in Cleveland's flourishing Asiatown district. "Now, I didn't say 'easy.' I said 'simple.' You get six lines in most blues tunes to say what you've got to say. Take B.B. King's 'The Thrill is Gone.' Just that right there changes everything. You know right where it's going. And it's a great tune."
Given the shyness of Bay's youth, it's a bit of a wonder that he's a terrifically amiable conversationalist. But the man is an avid learner and navigator of the world of words and harmony.
"Haiku is simple, right? But say something in 17 syllables that'll move you to tears," he muses. "I can come up with 17 syllables all day long, but something that really means something?"
Simple, but not easy. Like haiku, surely. Like cooking a fine meal.
Were it not for various threads knotting up the impressionable years of Bay's young adulthood, he may have set out on a course for the great kitchens of the world. Had his grandmother's old Buckeye guitar not been lying in wait beneath the family's couch all those years, perhaps the culinary world might have called a little more loudly.
"I was planning on doing that," Bay says, kicking up the memories of his youth and his visions of becoming a chef, "but I wasn't thinking about cooking all the time. I was thinking about guitar all the time." Nonetheless, he's always possessed those inclinations toward a life of heat and fire.
There's a market on East 30th Street, tucked neatly among Asiatown's finest restaurants, that Bay knows rather well. He's presently about to dash off to an aisle of sauces—chili, soy, satay, the absolute works—before a cache of mangoes catches his eye on the way in. "This place is terrific for produce," he's saying, possibly considering stocking up.
From time to time, he and his girlfriend Denise host gatherings of friends and musicians at their Tremont home and cook up vast tables full of Asian cuisine. Mountains of cha gio and goi cuon, whole oceans of noodle soup. In preparing pho, the recipe is fairly simple. But the nuances of spice and depth preclude any ease. There's a certain freedom to assembling the ingredients, but everything's gotta come together just right. Like improvisational music or holding court over a blues jam, the dance of the kitchen is not an easy one. To that end, pho is one of the great things in life for Bay.
There was a time when Bay and the westside musician crowd couldn't be pulled away from Khiem's Vietnamese Cuisine in Lakewood. Faithful to the soup and to his friend, Bay made damn sure he was there on former owner Khiem Nguyen's last day. He got the last bowl of pho ever prepared by Khiem at the restaurant. Tears rolled down his cheeks as he downed the finality of the broth, the noodles, the fanfare of the flavors.
A few weeks later, Khiem himself showed up at Bay's door, asking for a guitar lesson. Bay, in the midst of the typically busy day, was already working with a student. "What guitar lesson?" Turns out Khiem had talked about taking up guitar in his retirement. Offhand comments he had made in previous months brought him to the door of Bay's studio.
An accord was soon struck: Bay would teach him guitar, and Khiem would cook pho for him at home. Through music and food, the friendship deepened.***
Jeff Hurd, a guitarist and close friend of the blues scene, is hanging out off to the side, posted up at a red-checkered table in the corner of Parkview's homey little den. He's chatting with Boyd, who's about to hit the stage and kick off tonight's performance. Like many others here, Hurd and his guitar are jam night staples. He met Bay back in the Jimmy Landers days of Mr. Z's on West 117th. Then there were the late-night jams at Chief's Fidelity. Within a year or so, Hurd was brought deeper into the circle and offered a couple of hosting opportunities.
Along the way, he helped form the Nightwalkers, a local blues outfit whose members first met during the jam nights of yesteryear.
"One of the great joys for me on jam nights—and we're in no way taking responsibility for this—but jam night is a catalyst for bands," Bay says. "There are a number of bands around town that came and met here."
Likewise, around 2000, a swing and blues band formed in Cleveland under the moniker the Rhythm Syndicate. As younger men and budding talents in this town, guitarists Pat Sandy and Angelo Ciu hung out at the Savannah. They were stopping by the jam nights in those days to hone their chops and talk the talk of music with fellow travelers. Drummer John Yencha ran in that circle too.
They were all introduced to one another via Bay, and more than a decade after the first meeting of minds, the band is going strong and weaving more tales into the tapestry of the local blues scene.
"It makes me cry when I think about it," Bay says. "How wonderful it is that people who had a vision for themselves were able to find other people who had the same vision."
Conversations like the ones that formed the Nightwalkers and the Rhythm Syndicate take place constantly. Alongside the idle chatter of old friends, talk turns to the community of bands—those that have come before and rocked, and those as yet unborn.
"It really seems that this really great community of people who want to support the blues has come about. It feels like a family," Boyd says.
The maintenance of the jam nights, Bay's territory singularly, is that communal fathering. His command of the evening's structure is just downright impressive. He spends the late hours of the night building bands out of the musicians who showed up. Taking the lessons first learned under the watch of Princess Lydia, Bay is a sociable master at work as the night unfolds. On the few occasions when he's had to miss a jam, the void is notable.
"He just knows how to put good bands together so that the jams run well," Boyd says. "That's where it's key about Michael Bay coming in there. He will put certain people up with certain other people and know that this jam is gonna run well because you've got this person and that person. There's a bit of a formula there."***
As in the early days, when Bay would toss Rainbow Bridge onto the turntable and dive deep into the canon, each day and each night remain dedicated to practice. Jam nights are shows for an audience—the evening's entertainment—but the fulcrum of everything going on is the intensity and dedication of the individual musicians.
"Every time I've opened a door, there are 10 more on the other side," Bay says, referencing at least one method for how he visualizes his practice. "I've got to do the work to get through those 10. When I first started playing, I figured in a year I would know everything. Then I didn't. So I figured in five years I'll get it. When I made it to five years, I realized maybe in 1,000 lifetimes I'll begin to scratch the surface of what I need to do."
Barrick and Wall carry similar thoughts. The bassist references his old trumpet teacher, Jack Schantz: "He used to say 'Practice, practice, practice; then, when you get onstage, forget everything.' That's a brilliant way of looking at it." And that's precisely what's going on, as he and the other guys elaborate.
Bay jumps in: "For me, the joy and the fascination with it is within this simple form we play over and over again, we find different ways to say what we need to say."
His studio, the aptly named Guitar Conservatory, is a mindful little storefront. It is exceptionally clean and well designed, all due to the loving eye of Denise. A print of a Bodhisattva from the Kimbell Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas, hangs on the wall and broadcasts a message of simplicity. Goober maintains a windowsill vigil over Kenilworth Avenue.
Bay has geared his teaching over the years more toward professional, established musicians. Those seeking a master's teachings often have a strong foundation already. Teachers like Bay merely navigate the ever-deepening waters. Still, he remains a student in many ways.
"I practice the same things you do," he says. "What I practice now is what I practiced 40 years ago. Not with the same intent, but those are the tools I have."
Against the back of the room, Bay's guitars hang loosely. The Orville Les Paul has been the iconic guitar in his toolbelt for most of his life. When his car was stolen outside his old studio in Lakewood several years ago, he lost the Orville and most of his gear. Several weeks and many trips to area music stores later, a friend helped Bay find it.
Still, it seems his heart lies with another ax lately. You'll most often see him play his Fender Telecaster these days, though for most of his life Bay abhorred the model.
"A student was moving out to Colorado and needed to unload his Telecaster," he says. As a teacher with dozens of students stopping in each week, he typically offers a helping hand in this situation: "Bring it in, we'll hang it on the wall for everyone to see. It may sell, it may not." Turns out, Bay himself loved the instrument. The fit was impeccable.
"I don't like Teles; never have. But it's this magical moment, and it's in great shape. We're talking about this thing that's made up of wood, and each piece of wood is different," Bay says. "It's just that these parts came together in the factory just right and arrived in my hands."
After his first night with the guitar—a blistering evening of soulful blues, though with something different about it—Wall came up to Bay and told him that the guitar was perfect. "That's your guitar!"***
There is a very old story about a man who practiced in a Zen monastery tucked among the foothills outside Kyoto. He had spent years there, chopping wood and carrying water. And after many years of living there, he left. He went to work in the prefecture.
But his practice remained strong, and the pull of zazen drew him back up the hills and into the monastery once again. "This place is wonderful!" he exclaimed upon walking into the room, blinking his eyes as though seeing the wonder of life for the very first time.
With nary a smile, his former teacher emerged from an alcove and said, "This is how it has always been." The young man pondered this.
"When you're here in the monastery, you just do you what you do," Bay says. "You eat, you pray, you sleep. That's part of how I see it. I always like to try to remember how special it is, and I'll never take it for granted. You gotta remember: The cool stuff is happening now. It's only until later that many of us realize that."
Onstage, Bay's steely gaze supports the notion. He assumes the mantle stage-left and plays guitar. And when the applause arrives or when Wall's drum solo begins taking off into the stratosphere or when the evening's guest host hits just the right note, Bay rolls with the moment.
"When I'm immersed in what it is that I'm doing, the world disappears. How I feel disappears, my opinions—everything goes away. And if I'm doing it the way I want to, then there is nothing else but this moment and what I'm trying to do to express, say, this music. Maybe in all that practice, I was meditating," he says.
And so there are people who have watched Bay play guitar for years in this town who will say that what he's doing is fairly simple stuff. But there's nothing easy about it, they'll hasten to add.
A recent jam at Brothers Lounge saw one audience member leap up and shout, "The master!" as Bay concluded a solo.
For the past few years, Bay has become more cognizant of his own standing on this plane and his own trajectory toward achieving his dreams. With the perspective of many years removed from that first time he played the blues, he's come to consider the gig with a certain depth he hadn't known in the past.
"This might be the last time I ever play," Bay says, casting a wayward glance out of the window and toward the street outside. Now and then, he thinks about the fragility of the moment in ontological terms. "This may be the last performance ever. If I knew that, would I think about something else, would I be someplace else, would I care less about this, would I pull back? No. If this was the last thing I was ever going to do as a performer, I would put everything I had into this moment. One day, it will be my last performance. Hopefully, not for a very long time. But this could be it."
He lifts a glass of iced tea and clarifies his point: "And I don't mean that in a negative way, but if this is gonna be the last one, it better be a good one."***
"Good evening, Parkview! Is anyone having a good time?" Bay asks the crowd as Barrick dusts a jaunty bassline alongside Wall's cymbal work.
"Is anyone having a helluva good time?"
Roaring still, though louder now, and cheering.
"In case you were wondering, our guest and host is the fabulous Becky Boyd." Applause—oceanic, celebratory. Boyd has been brilliant all night.
"And here on bass is the irrepressible Michael Barrick." Bay draws out the word "irrepressible," somehow turning the word into more of a sentient being than a simple abstract adjective.
"On drums, the outstanding Jim Wall." OUTSTANDING, in all capital letters, neon-blazed in the air.
"My name is Michael Bay, and we are the Bad Boys of Blues." As he tosses his own name into the ether, he grabs hold of his blonde Telecaster and the jam kicks back up and lopes toward a bluesy plane. It's gentle; the band just wrapped up an hour of fiery music onstage. As the band's final song of the set peaks every Wednesday and Thursday, Barrick and Wall fall into an upbeat little number, a bridge to this welcoming monologue. It's a ritual, and the crowd often helps him along with the phrasing.
"So, it's Wednesday. It's jam night! If you want to play, you've got to see me. If you don't, you've got to stay all night. Those are the rules. And while we're here, we're gonna remember three things. No. 1: Here at Parkview, all the guys are good-lookin'. It's true! Just ask them. No. 2: Here at Parkview, all the beer is cold. Have a whole bunch. Tip your server well. And No. 3: Here at Parkview, when you take time to check out all the lovely women who are here tonight, take your time, walk up to them, introduce yourself. And as you do, remember one thing: They're all my sisters, so if you can't treat 'em right, don't treat 'em at all! And with that, jam night begins."
As the evening rises in crescendo, Bay will often remind the crowd: "Tell your friends tomorrow what they missed tonight!"
Because everything is happening right now.
And with that, jam night begins.