The Guitarist: Michael Bay and the Music

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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."


About The Author

Eric Sandy

Eric Sandy is an award-winning Cleveland-based journalist. For a while, he was the managing editor of Scene. He now contributes jam band features every now and then.
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