William Spruill briefly tried the college life at Maryland’s Bowie State University, but when he couldn’t make ends meet, he took a detour into the counterculture.
He was staying last week at a Travelodge hotel in Sacramento, busking with his saxophone on downtown streets to get donations that will pay his bills. He never knows when the police will come along – maybe right in the middle of a Whitney Houston-inspired performance of “I Will Always Love You.”
Spruill began performing in Sacramento just a month ago, and on his first day, he was greeted by Sacramento police who told him to pack up and leave. It was a new experience for the 20-year-old musician who had played for months on the streets of his native Washington, D.C., without any problem. Later, he said, he learned from veteran street musicians that artistic expression isn’t so welcome on the streets of California’s capital.
“I can’t just stay at one spot anymore because the police are cracking down,” Spruill said.
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City code prohibits vendors from selling items on the sidewalk unless the activity is affiliated with a public event or a neighboring business. Noise ordinances also can be used against street musicians. One such ordinance makes it illegal to create “any loud, unnecessary or unusual noise which disturbs the peace and quiet of any neighborhood or which causes discomfort or annoyance to any reasonable person of normal sensitiveness residing in the area.”
Dion Dwyer at the Downtown Sacramento Partnership said horns and drums definitely disrupt the peace for hotel guests, downtown residents and workers who are themselves trying to make a living.
“Having a horn underneath your window while you’re trying to conduct conference calls or trying to conduct business can be very disturbing,” said Dwyer, DSP’s community services director. “You have to balance the needs of the people who are paying their taxes, paying their rent, paying for parking, paying for the services downtown.”
As odd as it may seem to workers in the towers around him, Spruill would rather have the freedom of his musical expression, even if it comes with occasionally unpleasant encounters with law enforcement, than sign up for a job with a boss and a schedule and a uniform.
“I’ve worked in other jobs, but only for about a month,” he said. “Then I quit because I didn’t like the idea of having a job.”
It’s not that middle-class culture and values are alien to Spruill. He grew up in Washington, D.C., where his father, a financial adviser, and his mother, a flight attendant, still live with his four siblings. Spruill didn’t know what he would do in life until he picked up a saxophone a couple years ago and discovered that, on his own, he could figure out how to play the Top 40 hits he heard on the radio and the old-school tunes his parents loved.
The band director at Anacostia High School gave him a saxophone, and Spruill made it his mission to become the best saxophonist in the world, even better than his idol Lester Young. He admired Young so much that he did a research paper on him, watching videos of his relaxed posture and his admirable finger work.
Spruill played at church and on the streets of the District, and when he came to Sacramento a month ago to visit family, he started playing here as well.
“I love the way it influences other people,” he said. “When somebody comes off of work, from like a long day – a long, hard day – they listen to my music and feel better. It’s calming. It calms them down. That’s what I like about it. I also like watching myself get better and better at performing.”
Spruill said he doesn’t count the hours he performs. Instead, he counts the money, and when he reaches $150, he knows he can call it a day because he has enough to live on and something he can put away to take formal music studies one day. One day, he said, his busking could pay off, just as it did for such entertainers as Tracy Chapman or Rod Stewart or Josephine Baker.