A lot of years down the tubes for 'Blue Man Group' drummer Jeff Quay

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It's Friday night, and Jeff Quay is spending his evening doing what he has done on most Friday nights since Bill Clinton was in the White House.

Shortly after 7:30 p.m., Quay slathers his face with fluorescent paint, puts on a black, neon-splashed jumpsuit and climbs up to a loft high above the stage at the Briar Street Theatre in Chicago, where he provides a tribal backbeat as the drummer for the long-running show "Blue Man Group."

"It's become so much of the fabric of my being and psyche that I've almost forgotten what it's like not to do it," Quay said.

Quay is intimately familiar with the show, which he first saw back when it was an edgy New York phenomenon in the early 1990s. He was hired as a drummer in the band that accompanies the characters when "Blue Man Group" opened in Boston in 1995, four years after the original show opened off-Broadway with the title "Tubes."

And when "Blue Man Group" opened in Chicago in October 1997, Quay came along. He's still behind the drums today, where he is by far the Chicago show's longest-tenured member.

"I've probably played more than 5,000 shows, although I've lost count," says the 51-year-old Quay. "And I'm not bored in any way. Every night still has the potential to be really unique."

In addition to his responsibilities as a drummer, Quay also serves as musical director for the Chicago show, and as a roving associate musical director for the Blue Man Group organization, which currently has shows in New York, Boston, Orlando, Las Vegas and Berlin, along with a national touring group and a group that performs on the Norwegian Cruise Line.

The odd, vaudevillian antics of the three blue men are essentially choreographed to music, so Quay's role is an important one.

"Jeff is the musical spine for what happens in the show," said Brett Presson, stage manager for "Blue Man Group" in Chicago.

"He's in charge of the musical aesthetic (in Chicago), so he works with all of the performers to hone and work on the music to make sure that it's in the realm of what 'Blue Man' should be," adds Kori Prior, the general manager of theatrical productions for Blue Man Group.

 

The Chicago show got a major revision in March 2011, adding giant GiPad props and other nods to the latest technology. Quay's three-person band, which plays above the stage, consists of a drummer, a guitarist who plays the Chapman stick (a polyphonic twelve-string instrument with a variety of timbres, which a musician plays by tapping the strings) and a keyboardist.

But three blue dudes onstage are also making music through a variety of objects — from different sized tubes to Cap'n Crunch cereal — that become percussion instruments in their hands. Quay helps train the constant stream of blue men, showing them the basics of percussion.

"He gets us in tune with how it's supposed to sound," said Barney Haas, a 27-year-old from Berlin who started as a blue man in Chicago in July. "He's concerned about the feeling, dedication, passion that you put into the music. And above anything else, keeping it in time."

Quay says that his drumming for the show informs his work as a musical director and arranger, both here in Chicago and for other shows around the country.

"The best way to direct is by playing," Quay said. "That's true even when I'm providing direction for the other 'Blue Man' shows (outside of Chicago). You find out new things, like that part that I played in the Chicago show doesn't work in another theater because it's a different layout."

Quay's fellow musicians appreciate the fact that their musical director is playing in the trenches with them.

"Most times when guys are promoted to be directors, they don't play the show on a regular basis; they're based in New York City and just show up every other month for quality control," said Graham McLachlan, who plays the Chapman stick in the Chicago show. "But Jeff plays a full-time show, so that has a lot of currency for those who play with him in the band. So if he has an idea, it's grounded in his playing the show so many times.

"And it's great to work with someone like Jeff who has a connection with the original show in New York City," McLachlan added. "That show was a little darker and more mysterious than the show today, so having someone who knows what that original show was like is invaluable."

Quay says he didn't plan on spending much of his adult life as a key member of the Blue Man Group organization. Born in rural Wisconsin, he started gigging in rock bands when he was an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin in the early 1980s. From there, his musical career included stints with the Grateful Dead cover band the Zen Tricksters, the '80s band Expose, and playing for Chicago jazz musician Eddie Harris and Julio Iglesias.

A friend took him to see "Blue Man Group" not long after the show opened off-Broadway in the Astor Place Theatre, and backstage he met the show's three founders — Matt Goldman, Phil Stanton and Chris Wink — and drummer Ian Pai.

"I loved the show and mentioned to Ian that this is a cool gig, and that I'd like to audition if they needed another drummer," Quay recalled. "He was surprised, because Ian thought that most drummers wouldn't gravitate toward the gig because it was so unorthodox and weird."

Despite his immediate love for the show, it did take time for Quay to get used to the different style of drumming.

"So many traditional drum parts, especially in pop music, has the drummer playing his right hand on the hi-hat (cymbal), his left hand on the snare (drum) and his foot on the bass drum," Quay said. "But the 'Blue Man' vocabulary of drumming is the exact opposite — it's all this melodic churning on the tom-toms. It's very tribal and visceral, and a lot of the rhythms are basic in a way and there isn't a lot of polyrhythmic stuff happening."

Quay said his biggest challenge as a musical director for the show today is getting musicians to adapt to the "Blue Man" way of playing.

"We have to get guys to stop relying on the common vocabulary in the drumming world and rely on the specific vocabulary in 'Blue Man,'" Quay said. "If we're doing cliched rock things, we're doing them tongue-in-cheek as a specific reference."

Quay's job as an associate musical director for all the "Blue Man" shows takes him away from Chicago several times a year. In September, he traveled to Rio de Janeiro, where "Blue Man" is planning to open a show next spring.

But Quay says he still finds time to practice two to three hours per day. "(Practicing) combats aging, and it makes my show better," Quay said. "Because once atrophy and complacency sets in, then it's time to leave. But I know that's not close to happening, because there are always challenges. I know I can respond quicker and be smoother."

Quay says he's also energized by the show's involvement with the audience.

"On so many other gigs, the audience is there to just check out the band, and there's nothing wrong with that," Quay said. "But here, we demand more response and interaction from the audience. What we do from night to night depends on them. It's not like a Broadway show where you just read the book and go home."

"How long can I do it?" Quay adds. "Realistically, only another 30 years or so."

ctc-arts@tribune.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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    Jeff Quay

    Jeff Quay, drummer and musical director of the Blue Man Group, sits on the stage of the Briar Street Theater in Chicago

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