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Disneyland for musicians: Notes on my NAMM experience

I went all the way to California for NAMM 2016, and all I got was this lousy T-shirt. Well, that and five days of beautiful weather and more musical virtuosity than I proved capable of digesting in one sitting.

NAMM (the National Association of Music Merchants) is an annual convention for music dorks – players, luthiers, craftsmen, exhibitors, salesmen, dreamers who are all of the above – held in Anaheim, Calif., mere blocks from Disneyland. That’s appropriate, for as dry as it sounds, NAMM is essentially a trade show, after all – the convention is a Disneyland for musicians.

I made the cross-country trek with my son, Declan, a 15-year-old bassist who has been talking about NAMM in hushed tones for the past few years. He had been working on me for a good while – showing me an endless stream of YouTube clips from previous NAMMs, peppered with his own commentary (“Dad, Stevie Wonder goes every year!; Dad, Victor Wooten will definitely be playing!; Dad, all the new gear will be there!; Dad, I’ll pay for my own plane ticket!”). Finally, I broke down. He’d made some contacts with bass and amplifier manufacturers, he had arranged a few meetings, he was on Cloud 9, and what parent doesn’t want their kid to be happy? Besides, I’m part of the NAMM target market anyway. I’ve been fascinated by the latest gadgetry – the amps, the guitars, the effects pedals, all of it – since I was younger than my son. NAMM sounded pretty heavenly to me.

As it turned out, the Anaheim Convention Center did look a lot like my own vision of heaven. There were gorgeous instruments everywhere; the place was packed all day long with musicians of the famous, the infamous, the underground legend, and the struggling unknown variety, and they all intermingled like it was no big deal. The cherry on top of the musical sundae, you couldn’t walk 10 feet without bumping into an open-all-day bar, doing bang-up business by 10 a.m. (Most NAMM attendees were staying in the adjacent hotel, and for those who weren’t, getting a cab in Anaheim is a lot easier than it is in Buffalo, so yeah, people were getting their drink on.)

NAMM is surreal. One moment you’re listening to some unknown kid playing guitar with mind-bending virtuosity in one of the endless vendor booths circling the city-sized convention center, the next, you look up and realize Stevie Wonder is standing right in front of you. (Known as the “Mayor of NAMM,” Wonder wanders through the convention every year, greeting people, posing for pictures, and always ending up in some sort of jam situation. I was speechless when we bumped into Wonder; Declan looked like he was going to pass out – Wonder is his idol. We walked next to him for a while, soaking in what sure felt like a genuine aura. Then we broke off, and took a few minutes to high-five each other, and get all “OMG, we just met Stevie Wonder!” Classic.)

Minutes after the Wonder encounter, I looked up, and there was Jon Anderson of Yes. Around the corner, Dug Pinnick of King’s X was showing off his new signature line of Tech 21 bass amps. Oh, look, Steve Vai is going to be playing at this booth in an hour. Hey, let’s go hang out and watch Victor Wooten jam at the Fodera Bass kiosk. Oh, wow, there’s Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes – I think he just cut Yngwie Malmsteen off in the line at the bar. Hey, Dr. John and his band are going to be playing outside by the food trucks in 10 minutes. Cool.

Yeah, it’s really like that. And the coolest thing is, NAMM does not allow anyone who isn’t a sponsored musician, vendor or a guest of a vendor, into the place. You don’t go to NAMM to collect autographs. You go to hang out with your peers and check out the new gear. Even if those peers are international celebrities, you’re supposed to know enough not to make a big deal about it. Over the convention’s five days, I never witnessed anyone violating this unspoken code.

Our evenings during NAMM focused on the annual Bass Bash event, during which a lineup of some of the world’s finest bassists in the jazz, funk, soul and various progressive music idioms play full-blown concerts. The big news at this year’s Bass Bash involved the performance of Alissia, the Geneva-born, London- and Milan-raised, present-day New Yorker who has garnered millions of YouTube views for her virtuosic funk performances. The young bassist and bandleader has “star” written all over her. Even more impressively, when Alissia & the Funketeers took the stage before a packed house during a Bass Bash, Buffalo’s own Rod Bonner was manning the keys, and killing it.

We took in sets from jazz legend Brian Bromberg, African bassist (and veteran of Paul Simon’s band) Bakithi Kumalo, funk pioneer Bobby Vega (who has played with everyone from Santana and Sly & the Family Stone to Joan Baez and Etta James), funk-Flamenco-jazz star Oskar Cartaya, Gerald Veasley (Joe Zawinul Band) and the incredibly masterful Hardrien Feraud, all of whom offered incendiary performances of wildly diverse programs. It was, frankly, pretty overwhelming. We heard so many gifted musicians throughout our NAMM journey that, at one point, I turned to Declan and said, “Man, there are so many great musicians in the world. You would think there would be more great music.” This led to a long discussion concerning the difference between being a great player and a great musician.

On the flight home, somewhere above Las Vegas, Declan offered an unsolicited proclamation: “As great as all the cats we saw are, I still think Buffalo has the best musicians.”


Money well spent.