The music video begins with Nathaniel Hefferman, dressed in a Honk T-shirt, blowing the opening notes of Deee-Lite’s “Groove Is In The Heart” on saxophone. Then a drummer in red and a couple horn players with red and white scarves join in. Soon the group adds musicians in black vests and polkadots and then a couple gentlemen in tuxedos playing bassoon until there are 10 of them.
The gag is that they’re all Nat Hefferman, who has turned himself into a one-man Honk band for this moment more than a month into the social distancing demanded to stem the spread of coronavirus. Stay-at-home guidelines have shut down most of the big brass bands and marching bands affiliated with Somerville’s annual Honk Festival.
In recent weeks, the HONK! Musicians and Dancers Facebook group has included posts joking: “Please Practice Social Distancing: Keep 1 Fully Extended Trombone” between you.
Providence’s Extraordinary Rendition Band, in which Hefferman plays baritone saxaphone, “had a bunch of gigs through the summer which obviously have been cancelled,” he says. “Even into the fall, it’s still up in the air what’s going to happen.”
The band usually gathers to rehearse on Thursday nights, but social distancing has turned these into Zoom calls where mostly they just chat. One member of the band tested positive for coronavirus and is quarantining in his home, Hefferman says.
“It’s hitting home close to us. We can’t be together to make music,” Hefferman says. “The whole creative process has been brought to a halt. We’re all really anxious to get going again. We obviously don’t want to do things too soon because that would be really dangerous.”
Instead, Honk bands have begun sharing videos assembled by cutting together footage of members performing separately in their own homes to create a virtual big band. In a bassoonist Facebook group, Hefferman saw one person play all the parts of a Bach score on bassoon. So he hatched his one-man Honk band idea.
“I picked a School of Honk song because they are relatively easy to learn,” Hefferman says. The Lexington musician headed into his wife’s home office to record two tracks of tenor sax, one track of baritone sax, two tracks of sarrusophone, two tracks of bassoon, plus guitar, drumming on a paint bucket, and an egg shaker.
“I prepared a backing track that I would listen to on my headphones for my place,” Hefferman says. Each instrument required multiple takes, “a lot of stopping and starting. … I have to remember do I play here? Do I rest here? Do I take a solo?”
Hefferman says, “I started playing the sax in fourth grade,” inspired by his father playing saxophone when he was in school. He continued with the instrument through high school. There a student who played bassoon had just graduated, so the music director instructed Hefferman: “You’re going to play the bassoon.” Which led to Hefferman becoming a bassoon major at Ithica College in New York.
Hefferman says he said aside the instrument after college, until he married 26 years ago and moved to Lexington and picked it up again to perform in community concert bands and orchestras. (When he’s not playing music, he’s social media coordinator for Carlton PR & Marketing, his wife Bobbie Carlton’s firm.)
Hefferman has attended Honk festivals since they were first held in 2006. One year at the festival of activist marching bands, he heard that Extraordinary Rendition Band was an open band and took up their invitation to join the musicians at a rehearsal. That was about a decade ago now.
“When you start in one Honk band and you go to all the festivals, you meet all the other bands from everywhere,” Hefferman says. He now also serves as a mentor in Somerville’s School of Honk band and plays in Somerville’s Desperate Measures Street Band.
In the one-man Honk band video, Hefferman’s tuxedo is a tribute to his performances with community orchestras. The polkadot outfit evokes School of Honk’s signature look. The red outfit honors the Extraordinary Rendition Band—in the past, you may have seen him wearing signs reading “More Sax Less Violence” and “This Machine Creates Harmony” (a play on the old Woody Guthrie scrawl on his guitar: “This Machine Kills Fascists”) pinned to the back of his red band jacket.
Hefferman notes, “It’s a lot easier when you have different people covering the different parts, when they know what they’re doing. Usually I play the bass parts, not the melody parts. It gives me new respect for the people who have to carry the melody.”
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