The following is an online interview of Sweet Mac, the migrant street musician with José Miguel Vilar, a journalist/writer from Spain.
Could you explain your show and repertory?
I play bebop jazz and blues on the alto saxophone. When I first started busking I used a Pignose amplifier with a CD player to give me a rhythm and bass background. This worked well and a lot of passers-by stopped to dance to the rhythm. It also made it easier to play the sax and I could play for a long time before getting tired. Later as my skills on the sax improved I stopped using the background because it allowed me to be much more creative with my music. I love improvisation.
Do you prefer to play alone or with other jazzmen?
I usually play alone, although I enjoy it when other musicians ask to sit in. When it works it can be good. I mostly enjoy when my son Billy is playing his guitar with me because it always sounds great.
Where do you play actually?
I like to play in the evening on streets where there is an active night life with people who maybe just had dinner and a few drinks at a nearby restaurant and are wandering around enjoying the ambiance or later in the evening when they are stumbling out of a bar can be fun too. Whatever happens, it's always interesting.
Do you prefer the street to the stage?
Absolutely! I love the freedom of the street. If the mood is good and the music flowing smooth I can keep playing till my lip gives out. However, if the mood is not so good I can always leave or move to another location. As for playing on the stage, I can make a lot more money but I loose all the freedom.
Did your children know that the saxophone that they gave you for your 50th birthday was going to change your life that much?
They knew how much I loved jazz and the saxophone. I would listen to Bird, Miles and Trane all the time and had often said I wish I could play the saxophone. I don't think they realized I would take it to the streets nor did I. I know they are all happy with the path I have taken.
How did you decide to leave your old life for music?
The business I had was a graphic arts company and at the time it was going through major technological change with the use of computers. My children were much more suited to make this change as they knew a lot more about computers than I did. Also, after many years of running a business I was pretty burned out.
Had you ever played any instrument before your 50th birthday?
I played a little guitar when I was a teenager. I'm glad I had that guitar sitting around because my son picked it up when he was young and became an excellent guitarist.
Do you miss your family business?
What have you won and what have you lost becoming a busker?
I have won freedom and lost nothing.
Joey Picasso encouraged you to start busking with his stories and experiences. How did you meet him?
I moved to Key West because there was a very active music scene. I was just a beginner on the saxophone and hoped to some day become good enough to play with some of the local jazz or blues bands. During my first week here I ran into Joseph busking with the alto saxophone out on Duval Street. We immediately became good friends. He taught me much about the saxophone and busking. It didn't take me long to realize it was the busking road I would travel. He also introduced me to Trumpet Bob who was just learning to play the trumpet. We all spent many hours practicing together. Within a year we were all playing on Duval Street.
It was a hard decision to choose the life of musician?
Not at all, and I have no regrets.
How did you meet other musicians?
Just playing on the street is a great way to meet street musicians and going to jam sessions is a good way to get into the gig scene. I enjoy the company of street musicians as they usually are free-spirited. Many of the gig musicians are only interested in fame and fortune. However, the musicians I like the most are those that put their music first.
What did you learn in New Orleans?
Everything! After I realized I could hold my own on the street in Key West, I decided I would like to test out my new skills somewhere else. One of the reasons I wanted to be a busker was to travel and I have always dreamed of New Orleans since I first heard Louis Armstrong's music as a kid. When my friend Trumpet Bob said he wanted to come along, it helped rid the little fear I had traveling to the unknown alone. He stayed with me about a month before he had to leave. Then I was alone without a job, just my saxophone, the Mississippi shore in the day time and Royal Street at night. I was barely making enough money to pay rent on a room and feed myself. If it rained one night and I couldn't play, I might go hungry the next day, but the important thing was, I had now become a real busker.
How did you feel in New Orleans being a white man playing jazz? Could you explain your experience and sensations in those months?
There were a lot of street musicians in New Orleans. More than I've seen anywhere in my travels. At first I was quite intimidated because of the high quality of these musicians. Although there is a pecking order and you have to find your own place, we were well received into this community. It seemed that the godfather of the street musicians was someone they called Grandfather, an older black man who played the best harmonica I have ever heard. He usually played with Nephew who played guitar and sang. They played as good a blues as you will find in New Orleans. Sometimes Grandfather would play classical music on the harmonica along with a white classical guitarist. It sure is something to hear. I could see no color line between musicians. Black and white played together everywhere. The musicians were always ready to help each other out but if you played in someone else's spot they would let you know. Grandfather gave me my spot on Royal Street. I loved living in the French Quarter. I was awakened by the sound of live jazz every morning as people were having coffee at a nearby restaurant. During the day I played at a park on the Mississippi River and at night I busked on Royal Street. Sometimes when I arrived at my Royal Street spot there was a very good puppeteer already there and I had to wait my turn but I didn't mind, I always lived by the rule of first come first serve. I usually made more money when I played later anyways. On busy nights I would do best after midnight. Mardi Gras was a gas! Royal Street was so thick with revelers you could only walk in the direction of the crowd. In that one weekend I made enough tips to pay my rent for three months and had the time of my life.
In your website you define yourself as musician, busker and adventurer. What do you take of any vocation?
I consider myself a musician first. I get as much enjoyment practicing as I do playing in front of a crowd. Busking is how I feed my self. If I didn't have to eat, I would still play on the streets but without out a tip jar. As for the adventure part, I love backpacking and try to spend part of each year somewhere in the wilderness areas of North America hiking and communing with nature. I love to meditate in the forest.
Do you apply the freedom of jazz to your own life?
I practice mindfulness, freedom from control of the past and expectations of the future. I let life happen. I live in the now. I also live a simple life without desires for material things. This gives me more freedom than I could ever have imagined. To me, life is jazz, jazz is life, all is freedom.
“A busker finds his niche, and finds where he is supposed to be and he does what he is supposed to be doing, and the Universe takes care of him” (Mustafa). Do you feel in your travels that the Universe takes care of you?
Yes! All you have to do is let it take care of you without expectations. Every day is a gift from the Universe. That gift is awareness.
“Forget the self and you will fear nothing” (Carlos Castaneda). Some street performers say that busking is a medicine against fear. Do you agree?
I feel that living in the moment is the best medicine against fear and busking is my path to that moment.
“It brings health and awareness to my body, mind and spirit”. Do you think that music is therapeutic?
Sometimes my body is beginning to feel it's age and the quickness of my mind seems to have slowed a bit, but my spirit is more aware than ever.
For a busker, is his website as important as his instrument?
My web site is my toy. My saxophone is my life!