Sax, Drugs, and Rock and Roll

It’s common knowledge that the saxophone is the most seductive instrument in the world. So when we saw the infamous “two saxophones” guy playing at Golden Era, we knew we had to talk to him. How can one man carry that much seductive power? Clearly, it’s not fair for the rest of us. We tracked him down and met up for morning coffee. We learned that his name is Gary Regina, that he’s opened for Miles Davis, and that he has had a 50-year musical career that has taken him all over the world.

This interview has been edited for clarity

How would you describe your musical background?

I’ve been playing since third grade. I grew up on Long Island and was in all the bands: marching band, Dixieland band, jazz band, concert band, all that. I tried going to community college at 18, but I didn’t want to be around young people. So I just went on the road with this funk band that I stayed in for five years. We did the whole sex, drugs, rock and roll thing. And then I decided in my early twenties I had to learn to play jazz if I wanted to be a professional musician. That’s when I decided to go to Berklee College of Music in Boston. 

Was it challenging going from a more funk background to studying jazz seriously?

I just wanted to expand my musical knowledge. I wanted to expand my harmonic knowledge. I needed to know how to play all music. I was 23 at the time, and I was at Berklee with these 18-year-old monster players from all over the world. I thought, “Whoa, I’ve got some practicing to do.” So I practiced six hours a day. 

Who were some of your early influences?

The guys that first got me really inspired were Dave Sanborn and Grover Washington. They would use funk and incorporate jazz and so, through them, I developed my ear. So when I started hearing more sophisticated chord changes, it was easier. There was also a lot of inspiration from bebop; classic guys like Charlie Parker. I’ve also always loved world music and in the early eighties in Santa Cruz, I started one of the first world beat bands ever called Special Fun. We started hooking up with other bands in San Francisco and incorporating a lot of African and Latin rhythms that we were hearing. 

Naked Photoshoot with Gary’s Band ‘Special Fun’, in 1983

Where is the most unique place you’ve played?

We played an Air Force base gig in Greenland. The band I was in had women in it, and the Airforce guys wanted to see women so we were flown in to play. It was at the end of November, so it was basically one hour of sun and 22 hours of darkness. Greenland is a territory of Denmark, so we got to know all these Danish guys. They had really good hash and their own planes. They took us out over the ice caps, and there were herds of musk ox and caribou. They would stampede across this baby-blue ice cap. You could hear the herd running because it was otherwise such a quiet and empty place. 

Have you always been the “two saxophones” guy?

I’ve been playing two saxophones at the same time since the 70s. There was this guy named Rahsaan Roland Kirk I started listening to and he was this blind Black jazz musician. He played three saxophones at the same time, all harnessed up to him. He was like this musical shaman with instruments all over him. He had nose flutes and penny whistles and recorders and noisemakers and everything’s hanging off. So I said, “I’m gonna try that.” 

And what kind of saxophones do you play now?

One of them is a tenor and the other one is a C melody which they stopped making in the  1920s. They are tuned thirds apart so I can play the same fingerings and create some really unique harmonies and sonic dimensions. This C melody saxophone I have was made in 1924. 

What is your gigging schedule like these days?

I play two or three gigs a week here. I also go to Santa Cruz and do a couple of gigs a month there, too, if the money is worth it. I play in eight bands right now. 

How do you manage it all?

I say, “Whoever hires me first, gets me first.”

How has this last year of the pandemic affected you financially and artistically? 

I just set my looping stuff up in my living room, got stoned and played around. It was awesome. I wrote 40 new tunes. I was able to make some money recording for people in my studio, but otherwise I was on unemployment. It was the first time in 50 years I wasn’t constantly having to look for another gig. I got to go on dates with my wife and enjoy my weekends. 

As a constantly gigging musician, what is your relationship like with your wife?

Music is the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do. It’s all I’ve ever been good at. When we got together, I was very upfront, like I had been with everyone else. I just said, “I’m a professional musician. I don’t make a lot of money. I make enough to live. I don’t care about owning a house. I don’t care about having kids. I don’t care about having a relationship. I just love music. If you’re on board with that, great!” She said, “Got it. I understand.” And we’ve been married twenty years. 

Image from Gary Regina

As things  start to return to normal, do you have any observations about the local music scene?

It’s really bouncing back, and I’m glad to see people gigging and out at shows again. My only complaint — and it’s not just here, it’s everywhere — is that I’m making the same amount of money that I was in the 80s. [It’s] about $125 plus tips. The cost of drinks has gone up. Cover charges have gone up. I understand that it’s expensive to run a business, but artists aren’t appreciated and valued as much as they need to be.

What is a favorite memory from your career?

I was playing a show in Boston, and I decided to try and imagine that I was emitting a white light from my saxophone into the crowd. It was the first time I visualized this. After the gig, a big gangster guy came up to me in tears. He hugged me and said that he had gotten out of prison that day! He’d been locked away for five years, and he said my playing helped him to wash away all the stuff that happened to him. It was such a powerful experience. Every gig I play now I imagine that white light. 

More to explore

Leave a Comment