Thursday, October 17, 2013

Me and Music, the First 30 Years

October 18: Added three paragraphs about high school band.
My first memory of music is also my first memory of any kind. It is of listening to Burl Ives sing about a romance between a fly and a bumble bee. I loved that record – it was one of those old 45s – and played it over and ever. I must have been 4 or 5 at the time.

Some time after that, but I have no sense of how long, I remember listening to "Tubby the Tuba" and "Peter and the Wolf" and other things for children. I also remember listening to Viennese Waltzes and to Beethoven and Schubert with my father.

My next specific memory is of taking up the trumpet in fourth grade. The school offered group lessons to children free of charge. I was in a group that included at least two clarinet players, and perhaps that is all; I don't really recall. The two clarinet players were good friends of mine and remained so through high school. We played together in the band, and outside as well.

I do remember that, at some point, I fell behind the others in my lessons. At some point I starting taking lessons with a private teacher whom my parents hired. And then another. I did not practice willingly.

During this period I spent some time figuring out how to play simple melodies that I liked – from TV programs, the radio, whatever. I did this without music. I just fumbled around trying this note and that until I got them all. In some cases I would notate the pitches – but not the rhythms – on staff paper. I would also make up my own tunes.

Then, when I was twelve or so, I starting going to another private teacher, Mr. David Dysert. That's when things clicked. Dysert tailored his teaching to my interests and capabilities in a way then other teachers had not. When he discovered I was interested in jazz – remember the "Firehouse Five Plus Seven" from the Mickey Mouse Club? – he wrote out exercises in swing interpretation and taught me to play them (I've still got these). Later I also took piano lessons from him and he taught me the basics of keyboard harmony. That gave me that basic knowledge of musical structure that I needed years later (late in my college years) when I decided to write horn arrangements for a band I played in and when, still later (graduate school), I decided to become at least moderately proficient in improvising in the swing, bebop, and post-bop jazz styles.

My first musical hero was Rafael Mendez, “the Heifetz of the trumpet,” as he was billed. I was 11 or 12 when I discovered him. He was a Mexican immigrant who’d been Pancho Villa’s personal cornetist when he was ten. He emigrated to American in his early twenties, first to Detroit, but then ending up in Hollywood playing in the studios. From there he went on to a solo career during the 1950s and into the 60s.

I collected his records and bought the sheet music for his trumpet solos. I’ve still got both the records and the sheet music, 30+ solos. Some of them I can play, some of them I can’t. But I still work on them.

And then I started getting into jazz (while studying with Dysert). Louis Armstrong, Maynard Ferguson, Al Hirt, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Cat Anderson, those were the first jazz trumpet players I discovered. I bought a bunch of Louis Armstrong transcriptions and started working on them. As they came with piano accompaniment I work on them with my teacher, Dysert. He’d give me pointers on how to play the rhythms – Armstrong’s timing was masterful – and accompany me on the piano. We also worked on the Mendez solos – and, for that matter, the Hayden Trumpet Concerto.

At the same time I played in the school band during junior high and high school, marching band in the fall (football season) and concert band in the winter and spring. That was a complex and rich experience. It WAS music, and performance. That was good. The band director, Richard Cuppett, was good and so the band was good. I preferred concert band, of course. Not only was the music more interesting, but it was the music itself that was important; we weren’t performing as an adjunct to football glory.

But, you know, marching band has improved in memory, while concert band has not. Concert band remains concert band. But marching band, well, sure, the music was limited, but it was also PUTTING ON A SHOW. And just the business of moving while playing, even doing dance steps for half-time shows, that feels better in retrospect than it did in real-performance. Go figure.

In either case, repertoire was important, for that repertoire covered a lot of time and cultural space, even if it was mostly Western. Military marches, of course, were central to the marching band repertoire; that means Sousa. And Sousa’s band was enormously popular in 19th century America. But we also marched (and danced) to pop tunes, Broadway tunes, movie themes, even re-worked jazz. The concert band repertoire overlapped with the marching band repertoire in all those categories, though many of the arrangements were more complex. This repertoire also included band transcriptions of symphonic music, e.g. Dvorak’s Symphony from the New World. It was one of those concert band arrangements of something or other, a medley, that put “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho” into my head. I can still hear the trumpet solo from that arrangement in my mind’s ear.

We’re now in the early 1960s. Rock and roll was all the rage, but I would have none of it, for I was a jazz man. I was also a “nonconformist” – don’t know where the word came from, but that was the word I used back in those days. Secretly I’d admit to myself that some of this rock and roll was OK, nice melodies, good beat. But my public stance was one of opposition. Jazz was superior music. Long live jazz.

That lasted until the Beatles came out with Sgt. Pepper. That was my sophomore year in college (Johns Hopkins) and my upstairs neighbors, sophisticated “older” women in their early 20s, thought it was great. So did I.

For the next four or five years I immersed myself in rock. I also maintained a strong interest in classical and, for that matter, in jazz. But it was rock front and center. I was a Beatles man rather than a Stones man. And I suppose I still am, if that matters. Nor did I get into the Dead all that much either. But The Doors, Hendrix, Vanilla Fudge, Quicksilver Messenger, The Who, The Electric Flag, Moby Grape, Donovan, Traffic (“Dear Mr. Fantasy, play us a Tune…”), Procol Harum, Cream, ate it up.

In the early seventies, while I was working in the Chaplain’s Office at Hopkins, I returned to the concert band and joined a rock and roll band, The Saint Matthew Passion. We were a horn band – rhythm section plus trumpet, trombone, and sax (doubling on flute) – modeled on Chicago and Blood Sweat and Tears. That’s when I got serious about improvising.

As I’ve already indicated, I’d always been picking up tunes by ear and I’d always messed around with making up my own tunes and licks. In high school jazz band (they called it “stage” band for some reason) I even composed my own “improvised” solo for Mancini’s “Pink Panther Theme.” But I’d never really gone at improvising in a systematic and serious way. Now I did and I quickly developed a number of solos with the band. And I wrote some arrangements: “A Whiter Shade of Pale”, “Something”, “Hey Jude”, and a complex thing combining “Summer in the City” with the “Theme from Alfie” which we never managed to play. We played some fabulous gigs.

At the end of this period I enrolled for trumpet lessons in the adult preparatory division of the Peabody Conservatory. My teacher was Harold Rehrig, who had spent his entire career playing with the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra. (He must have been with them when the recorded the score to Fantasia.) He helped me get my technique up a notch; in particular, he worked on my breathing.

I went off to graduate school at SUNY Buffalo in the fall of 1973. By that time I’d pretty much lost interest in rock and concentrated on jazz and on my improv skills. I hung out in an improv workshop run by Frank Foster, a top shelf pro who’d played with Basie, Sarah Vaughan, Elvin Jones and many others. He was now a free lancer in New York and would commute to Buffalo to teach class.

That’s when I got really serious about improvising, surrounded as I was by music majors and local jazz musicians (more about that HERE). I did a lot of serious shedding, writing out exercises and working through tune after tune after tune. When the school started a big band, I signed up. I also went to a few local jam sessions and played in a quintet led by Simon Salz.

I left graduate school in 78 and took a job on the faculty at The Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. But I’ll stop this here, more or less. I was born in ’47, so that’s just over three decades. That’s by no means the end of my musical history; it’s only the first half, of my life, or my music. It’s a good place to pull over and chill.

But I will say this. By the time the ‘90s started rolling through I was losing interest in simply listening to music. I’d only checked out hip hop enough to satisfy myself that there was some real craftsmanship among the crap – and, you know, every genre’s mostly crap, it’s the craftsmanship that lasts. I want to make music, not merely listen. If someone wants to engage me on a hip hop project, fine. Love to. That’s when I deal with hip hop, while playing it.

Same with any other kind of music. Call me on the gig and I’ll learn the music. ‘Till then, bye.

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