Mary Pat Hughes blows her own horn, and makes a comfortable living doing it

December 24, 1990|By Rafael Alvarez

The attorneys are in evening dress, nibbling rare roast beef and Oriental chicken in the stately grandeur of Baltimore's Peabody Library.

The mood is set by aged volumes asleep in six floors of stacks that rise to the ceiling in shelves set behind iron grillwork worthy of an opera house.

Mary Pat Hughes, squeezed into a little black dress set off by silver high heels, scans the crowd and thinks, perhaps, that a change of pace is in order.

What this party needs, she decides, is a right good dose of Little Richard.

Leaning back on her glittering heels, Ms. Hughes arches her back so far that her thick auburn hair skims the floor.

She grips a monster in her hands, a tenor sax gleaming in a spotlight like a wicked serpent as she raises its bell to the roof to fill the dignified Peabody with the turn-the-world-upside-down wail of "Tutti Frutti."

It is, the journeywoman musician says later, just another night of work for "a broad and her horn."

Other working nights in the career of Mary Pat Hughes -- a 29-year-old Hamilton resident who plays four instruments, teaches a dozen students and holds a bachelor's degree in the bassoon -- are anything you can imagine.

She has played before 10 people and 10,000.

Each of her cars, a Camaro and a pickup truck, has ferried her and her horns more than 100,000 miles from job to job.

On a good night, she'll pick up $150 or more, usually somewhere out of town.

A one-night paycheck in Baltimore is about $75.

In a routine year she makes more than a schoolteacher, less than a dentist, and, even among musicians, she is a bit strange in her work.

She plays an instrument almost exclusively associated with men -- Phil Woods and Stanley Turentine stand above all her sax heroes -- and she uses it to cross any musical landscape that pays.

"I don't think I'm any more twisted than any other musician -- they're all strange eggs," she says.

"But I am odd in that there isn't much music that I don't like. And I mostly enjoy people who get out there and sweat," she says.

Ms. Hughes doesn't tell many of her symphony friends that she loves to rock and roll herself to death, and not many of her rock, funk, and soul buddies care to discuss the subtle shadings of the bassoon.

She'll tell you in a minute that backing up '50s legends like Danny and the Juniors is a thrill, but "there's not much comparable to doing Handel's 'Messiah' at Christmastime with a bassoon in your hands, 100 people playing around you, and 100 people singing behind you."

And she never leaves the house with less than two horns, even if it's just to go to the grocery store.

The Cutters, the band she played with at the Peabody Library, is her current regular gig. One night they're playing for attorneys, the next it's a room full of home builders.

Other work has come with the Gettysburg Symphony, the Temptations, the Morgan State Choir, Martha Reeves, a jazz band called The Broads of Be-Bop, the Coasters, Lesley Gore, the Left Bank Jazz Society, the Platters, show bands in Atlantic City and, before it folded, Baltimore's Fish Market.

When Ben E. King crooned "Stand By Me" at the Meyerhoff Hall a few months ago, Ms. Hughes was behind him with a horn.

She picks up a few bucks playing a little supper music with a jazz trio featuring Ed Myers on piano; she sits in every now and then with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra; has backed the Vogues and Little Anthony; and made countless parents weep with joy at weddings and bar mitzvahs.

Once she played a biker party in Laurel. "You know," she says, "guys with three teeth, tattoos and hair who put their arm around you and say, 'Hi, my name is Killer.' "

She played the party on roller skates to keep a moving distance between her and the bikers, their guests, and any ideas that might have visited them.

"Over the years you learn how to think fast on your feet," Ms. Hughes says in a husky voice that seeks the tough rasp of Tina Turner when she sings.

"I have a lot of drunk people getting in my face, from the elegant to the not-so-elegant."

After 10 years of that kind of life, always hustling around the East Coast for any gig that pays well, Ms. Hughes said the time is coming soon to leave Baltimore for California and the pursuit of bigger money and studio work.

"It's out there," she says. "It's not here."

For Ms. Hughes, "here" extends south to Northern Virginia, where she was born in 1961.

She began taking music lessons in public elementary school. Her formal training ended with a degree in performance, centered on the bassoon, from Towson State University.

"When I was 10, I told my parents I wanted to play the clarinet. I meant the sax, but I didn't know what it was called," she said.

"So for four years I played the clarinet.

"I guess I should have looked it up in the World Book Encyclopedia," she says.

A natural gift for music was honed with discipline and strict adherence to her instructors' golden rule: Learn as many instruments as you can.

"They tell you to double, to learn two instruments," said Ms. Hughes, who doubled the double and learned to play four -- flute, clarinet, saxophone, and bassoon. "From the time I was 10, I have played in every situation I could. It was a practical education."

The more pragmatic and less artistic approach has provided a relatively stable life -- "I've had the same phone number for 10 years, and I can't say that about any musicians I know" -- and one not too far removed from what she envisioned as a kid.

"What I'm doing is [close] to the dream," she said.

"And that was to play saxophone in front of large audiences.

"The art is in taking people some place else, it comes through the soul of the playing," she says. "You're taking people away from where they are, even if it's just for an hour."

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