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September 22, 2014

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LV Musician Union takes ‘dim view’ of free shows at Tropicana lounge

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Bobby Gladd

Jerry Lopez of Santa Fe and the Fat City Horns.

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Santa Fe and The Fat City Horns, a blaring good time at the Trop.

When Santa Fe & The Fat City Horns and assorted Las Vegas big-band musicians put on their rollicking music showcases at the Tropicana each week, everyone’s happy.

The assembled musicians, given the opportunity to play for scores of avid late-night fans, are happy.

Those who attend the free Monday night performances at Tiffany Theatre and Celebration Lounge -- many of them musicians themselves -- are happy.

Tropicana hotel executives, who pay scant wages to Santa Fe & The Fat City Horns to compensate the musicians and reap the benefits of a few hundred potential gamblers and drinkers each Monday, are happy, too.

But officials with the Las Vegas Musicians Union Local 369 … not so happy.

In a skirmish likely to unplug the late-night jams that follow the Santa Fe performances at Tiffany Theatre, the Las Vegas Musicians Union has sent letters to member musicians who participate in the post-show performances at Celebration Lounge to stop playing. Union President Frank Leone said the union began contacting musicians this week, asking them to cease playing in the hour-long showcases.

“We’re simply asking our members not to do this,” Leone said. “We understand the big-band musicians who want to have some place to play, but we can’t condone it happening in a Strip casino that is the beneficiary from liquor sales and ancillary playing -- people who stroll over to the machines in the casino -- and the musicians are not getting compensated.”

Leone says member musicians have told him they will no longer perform at the Trop in the Monday night big-band showcases. The scheduled band for Monday was to be led by percussionist Bruce Harper. That show is still on the schedule.

Santa Fe frontman Jerry Lopez, who organized the Monday night music doubleheader, says there will be a big band performing Monday night even if the orchestra is filled with non-union players. When asked what he thought of the union’s recent maneuver to ask its members to stand down on Mondays, he laughed.

“What do I think? I’ll tell you what I think -- I’ve had issues with the union ever since I first came into this city,” said Lopez, an ace guitarist and vocalist whose career in Las Vegas dates more than two decades. He’s had an off-and-on union membership throughout his tenure here.

“They’re just going to kill another cool thing,” he said. “All the guys in the union who are working (at the Trop) are in big shows, making money. These are the times to remember why we play … To play in front of an audience that really wants to hear the music. These are not for us to make money, but this is how guys get gigs with ‘Mamma Mia!’ or ‘Lion King,’ or with Bette Midler. It’s a chance to play and be seen.”

Formerly a mainstay at Palms Lounge, the highly acclaimed Santa Fe began performing a no-admission show at Tiffany Theatre in January in what was expected to be a two-week trial period that has instead blossomed into one of the more enjoyable entertainment experiences in the city.

What makes it so enjoyable, for fans, is that it costs nothing.

Lopez and Santa Fe’s musicians are paid a modest amount to perform at Tiffany Theatre. The problem, says Leone, is the players who show up for little more than gas money to play at Celebrity Lounge for the fans who just attended the Santa Fe show at Tiffany Theatre. The Celebration Lounge abuts the Tiffany Theatre entrance and the night, which begins when Santa Fe hits the stage at 10:30, turns into a no-cost, 2 ½-hour concert.

“Musicians like to play, and there is an irresistible desire to play but this is not a neighborhood bar, or a church basement or whatever,” said Leone, himself a high-caliber music director, conductor pianist and arranger. “To play for nothing, at a resort casino, which is a huge corporation, we take a dim view of that. At least the guys from Santa Fe are compensated. Everyone deserves the respect of fair compensation.”

This all becomes a moot point -- at least at the Trop -- when Tiffany Theatre shuts down for renovation early next month. Santa Fe & The Fat City Horns’ Monday shows will have ended then. But the issue, expect it to fester. Leone says the union is looking to establish a new scale in these instances where musicians perform what are essentially glorified jam sessions in lounges for free.

As for Lopez, he’s typically pointed in his view of what’s unfolding.

“We’re not going to let the union throw water on a very cool thing,” he said. “They’re the only ones to have a hair up their ass about this.”

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at twitter.com/JohnnyKats.

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