Jazz Hater

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I suspect that I would be infinitely cooler as an individual, if I could say that I knew jazz, that I got jazz, that I loved jazz—but in truth, I just don’t. I really wish that I did. I’m sure I’d be considered more suave, more debonair if I could talk jazz instead of baseball.

I don’t think I could even name 5 jazz artists depending on how you define jazz. Let’s see, there’s John Coltrane, Dave Brubeck, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, and……er, ….. yeah, not even five. So there’s the problem. There is a big gap in my musical education.

I can actually name only one jazz classic, Brubeck’s Take Five which is a perfect example of why I hate jazz.   It opens with a tight, memorable melody and then wanders away into a confusing maze of solo performances that don’t sound anything like the opening, that don’t complement the opening, that sound as if the musicians have forgotten what song they are playing, until they swing back into that great, memorable melody to end the song. By the time they get there I’m likely to have missed it because I’ve dozed off.

I had two recent experiences that reinforced this antipathy. The first was on my annual pilgrimage to see the Dave Matthews Band at the Irvine Meadows Amphitheater. I had read that they were going to feature Herbie Hancock (OK, there’s my fifth) and I was kind of excited to see how they were going to integrate him with the band. Dave opened his song Mercy at the keyboards and then gave way to Hancock who proceeded to go into his own riffs. Within seconds, he had lost me. Even though the band bobbed their heads, and tapped their toes, and just looked delighted with Hancock’s contribution, he was playing something that didn’t sound anything like the song that Dave had started.

It’s my problem with solos in general. They just seem so fucking self-indulgent. The artist is allow to just wander off into a musical Neverland, playing whatever the hell he wants regardless of the structure or integrity of the actual song he’s supposed to be playing. Hancock basically hijacked the show for about half an hour. Whoever thought that was going to be a good fit had badly miscalculated. It was like trying to integrate Riverdancers with a ballet company.

The second and more miserable of the two experiences was when Mary and I visited a jazz club in Montreal, one that had been recommended to us by a local, a local who clearly hated American tourists. Ever since then the words “jazz club” have become synonymous in my mind with “dentist office” in terms how I feel about the possibility of having to go to one.

It was a cute space and I always like live music—honestly. I was predisposed to give the music a chance especially given the local endorsement of the place. The group consisted of a man who played trumpet and a woman who played bass. Once they began to play, I realized that once again, I had entered jazz hell. Occasionally it seemed as though they were playing the same song, but mostly it felt like they teamed up just to get in some practice playing whatever melody (and I use that term loosely) came to mind. I could not distinguish one song from the next. It pained me to watch some of the patrons nodding their heads, sometimes with their eyes closed, clearly grooving and getting something that I simply could not hear. I started to hate them unreasonably. The saving grace was that the bar served a strong, American IPA that I liked and the musicians eventually took a nice, long break that I enjoyed much more than I had their musical performance.

I should probably take a “History of Jazz” or “Jazz Appreciation” class at our local community college and see if I can expand my musical knowledge. Hopefully, it will contain lessons on how to properly nod my head in time to the music.

 

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If It’s Friday, It Must Be Barry White

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To be honest, I think most of Barry White’s music is pretty awful. That being said, two songs—“Can’t Get Enough of Your Love Babe,” and “You’re The First, The Last, My Everything”—belong right up there in the Catchy-Ass Music Hall of Fame.

I first got hooked on just how great these tunes were when I noticed that one of the sports guys I listened to on the radio as I was driving home from work every day,  ended his program with a small clip of “You’re the First…” and with the words, “Hey, if you ain’t getting any, it ain’t Barry White’s fault.” The words made no sense, and had nothing to do with sports, but I loved the fact that he did the same thing every day. It was his send off. His ritual.

I’m not sure when I started incorporating music into my classroom (I taught English) but it came from noticing how often some periods began with such lethargy that I felt I was lifting a boulder of boredom before I even got started. So, I started picking out two or three songs to play from the start of the passing period until I had shaken hands with each of the kids, taken roll, and was ready to start the day. When the music went off, kids knew it was time for class to start. I created playlists I thought they would like, made them listen to some international music like Manu Chao, Mexican fusion from Los Lobos and Ozomatli, and lots of Beatles and Motown—basically anything that I liked. Occasionally my son or daughter would advise me to slip in something current, just to keep the “cool factor” up, so I’d surprise the kids with that.

But Fridays were always reserved for Barry White. Monday through Thursday was  a mixed bag, but every Friday was a Barry White Friday. I didn’t explain why, or tell the story about how I had come upon it. I just wrote on the board on the first Friday of the year, “Today is a Barry White Friday.” For some kids, it took months to even notice. Some picked it up right away, that Fridays were different. Fridays were to be celebrated.

Kids are so immersed in so many things that I had to laugh at the number of times I would crank Barry up, and I’d hear someone exclaim, “Oh, my god! It is Friday!” Dancing would then sometimes ensue.

At least two or three times a year, I’ll get a text or FB message from a student telling me about how they were walking through a grocery store or listening to the radio and one of his songs would come on, songs that I had played for 36 almost-consecutive Fridays, and they would be flooded with the memories of senior year.

I don’t think anything about Barry White made my kids better students, improved test scores, or fundamentally changed the arc of their lives. It was just one of those very little things that made our class a little different, a little special. Something that their friends in other classes wouldn’t get, and would never quite understand.

 

 

 

 

Montreal Afternoon

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On a recent trip that included a visit to Montreal, my wife and I stood outside the Basilica de Notre Dame trying to decide if it was worth 5 bucks each to go inside and look at a church. As we rested, standing together near a fountain in the church square across the street enjoying the shade on the warm and humid day, I started to notice a street musician with his electric guitar hooked up to a practice amp. He had just begun singing a song that I recognized, but did not know the title or the original artist.

The song (I later found out) was Chris Isaak’s Wicked Game, and as the tune echoed out over the square it began to lift me as I took in the milling crowd, the façade of the church, the feeling of my wife’s hand in mine. It was as if I had entered a movie where time had slowed and everyone around me was moving at half-speed. The warm breeze was a caress as the tune soared and echoed and leaves from the trees fluttered down over us. My wife didn’t understand when I refused to move until he had finished the song because, of course, this my moment. The song had made that fleeting moment perfect for me and there were no words that were adequate to explain.

I felt a longing for the song to go on, for the moment to continue, but of course, it did not and life sped up again and the momentary magic disappeared. When he finished I went over to drop a couple of bucks in his guitar case and tell him that I had enjoyed the song, but it was an inadequate tribute.

If I had heard the same song on Wednesday night instead of that Tuesday afternoon, or if I had been walking through a subway tunnel instead of in front of the church, it might have been distracting or annoying. If it had come on the radio, I might have changed the station.

But sometimes music has the power to simply stop me in a moment, to define that moment and freeze it in my memory. For me, a Montreal afternoon will always belong to a mournful song and a solitary singer.

The Dave Matthews Band–My Musical Addiction

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“Hi, my name is Tom (“Hi, Tom”) and I’m addicted to the Dave Matthews Band.”

Now, before you stop reading, realize that I’ve been dreading and struggling with writing this piece. I hate admitting to being an avid fan of anything because as soon as I say it out loud, I know that people start to make judgments, that I begin to define myself in their eyes, and inevitably the haters come out.

I was at a bar one night, and the bartender, muscular and tatted up, asked how I was doing. A DMB song had just come on and I said “Great, especially with this song playing.” He listened for a second, recognized the song and said, “Yeah, it’s so easy to bag on Dave Matthews.” My immediate impulse was to launch myself across the bar and grab him around the neck and…and, well I really didn’t have a plan after that. I’m sure the aftermath would have involved ambulances, broken bones, and various lacerations, all at my expense.

That’s the problem with being a devoted fan. It creates a huge blind spot in my brain and a complete inability to understand, or in severe cases, even stay in the same room with someone who doesn’t get it.

My musical tastes got frozen in the music that spanned the 60’s into the late 70’s. I skipped the ‘80’s and 90’s entirely (I mean, Depeche Mode—really?). And then as my son entered college and my daughter was in high school, they began to help me thaw and begin to listen to new music. My son’s partner has taken it upon himself to create new CDs for me every year for Christmas to introduce me to new music that he knows I’m not listening or to fill a gap that he feels is unacceptable for someone who really loves music.

My fascination with the Dave Matthews Band began when my daughter and some of her friends dragged me to my first DMB concert in 2004. I didn’t know a lot of the music but what caught me was the raw energy and enthusiasm of the band. The guys had been on tour all summer with San Diego being one of the last stops, and yet they played as Rolling Stone magazine once described, “as if their lives—and yours—depended on it.” That visceral passion was what initially plugged me into the band’s sound and drew me to collect and listen constantly to the ever-changing concert versions of their songs, some of which are now 20 years old.

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My wife dislikes his music commenting, “I just don’t like his voice.” Nobody likes his voice, I think to myself. He’s not a smooth crooner. He’s got a rusty, gutsy voice like a Ryan Bingham or a Seth Avett. He admits he just mumbles his way through some lyrics especially if he forgets them on stage. He says that he feels grateful that he gets to go out every night and scream at the top of his lungs.

In watching some interviews on YouTube, he rates his musical skills negatively compared to others he admires such as Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen, but if you watch him closely as he plays in concert he’s changing chords constantly, sometimes syllable by syllable to create the sound that he wants. As he plays the same songs night after night, the band improvises, constantly blending the intro of one song with the body of another and effortlessly weaving in the work of others into his original works. Don’t be surprised if suddenly you hear “Fools Rush In,” “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, or “This Land is Your Land” popping up in the middle of an old DMB standard. One of my favorite improvisations was the summer he took the popular “Everyday” and gave it a reggae rhythm and then wove in a short tribute to Hugh Masekela’s “Grazin’ in the Grass.” I heard it on that one night and never heard it again.

If you have ever watched him in concert, you know that Dave does not have an easy, bantering relationship with the audience. The first show I saw, I think the only thing he said to the crowd was several variations of “Thank you.” It’s almost worse when he does start talking, often drifting off into nonsensical chatter. It doesn’t matter. His fans connected with him long ago through the music and will wait patiently for him to stop talking and launch into another song that everyone in the audience seems to already know word for word.

While some of his songs have a clear focus and straightforward lyrics, others are mystifying. I still do not know who the Nancies are or why they are dancing. I have seen or experienced or met a “Jimi Thing” nor have I come across a “river of Jimi.” I do not know why there is a warehouse in the song “Warehouse.” I’m a lyrics guy, lyrics matter to me, but when it comes to Dave, I just know that sometimes I have to let the music take me and forget about understanding every little thing. I wonder if he even knows what some of this stuff means.

So, maybe the bartender did not deserve the imaginary beating that I inflicted on him that night. Maybe there are a lot of reasons to bag on Dave Matthews.

All I know is that I would never want to actually meet the guy. As much as his music has been the soundtrack of my life over the past ten years, if I were to encounter him, I’d immediately turn into that oozy, goo of fandom where I would have absolutely nothing to say to him except how, “I really love your music, man! I mean, I’m talking really love it!”

Yeah, I don’t want to see me dissolve into that. For now, I will kindly accept all attempts to get me to broadening my music appreciation while I peacefully ride my inner tube down that river of Jimi for the foreseeable future.

 

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Thank You, Paul McCartney

Baby, I’m a man, maybe I’m a lonely man

Who’s in the middle of something

That he doesn’t really understand…

I have to admit, despite my eventual qualms about all things Catholic, it was a good decision for me to attend Saint Augustine High School, an all boy’s Catholic school in San Diego.  All freshman had to endure a period of hazing, which included wearing a beanie with the purple and gold school colors for the first six weeks, and being taunted and ordered about by upper classmen, but it was tolerable, and a part of a fierce sense of school spirit, loyalty, and tradition.  The entire school could fit inside the gym.  We did so every Friday during football season, and I can still feel the sense of anticipation as we waited for the band to begin blaring out “When the Saints Go Marching In” as the football team marched in and began a loud and raucous pep rally.  I had excellent teachers for the most part and was proud to be a Saintsman.

Meeting girls, though, was a different story.  Our school took turns hosting dances with the local Catholic girls’ schools, but I found them uncomfortable and awkward, full of a multitude of opportunities for rejection and only slim hopes for satisfaction.  I did managed to go on a couple of dates in my first two years, mostly with girls who were as scared and awkward as I was, but still found them to be mysterious and confusing.

Then one day, I hit the jackpot.  My friend, Pat, a drama kid, came to me and begged me to join the musical production of “The King and I” at Rosary High School, the nearby girls’ school.  “You don’t have to be able to act OR sing,” he reassured me, “they just need guys.  Anyone can do it.”

So, I joined the production for the simple reason that I knew that the girls would vastly outnumber the boys, and I still had hopes as a junior that I could salvage at least some valuable and maybe even memorable social experience before I graduated.

It was my first exposure to drama and in my 16-year-old-eyes, we slowly mounted a magnificent production on the tiny high school stage. The only musical accompaniment was a single piano played by the enthusiastic and dictatorial nun who was also the play’s director.  I had seven different parts in the play, all of them non-speaking.  Nightly, I had to smear my body with a base make-up to make my pasty skin look bronzed and I spent every performance racing from costume change to costume change, just trying to be in the right place in the right time.

Having never been in a drama production of this magnitude or of any magnitude, I was a little overwhelmed by the emotion of closing night.  Even before the final curtain call, there was a tremendous amount of hugging and kissing going on and I was intent on being involved in as much of it as I could be.  In the midst of this vortex of emotion, one of my friends nudged me over towards Dolores, a lithe, beautiful Pilipino girl who seemed intent on passionately kissing every boy she could get her hands on.

I should mention here that I did not then, and even sometimes do not now, have a clear understanding of the appeal of French kissing.  My only introduction up to that point had been my older sister and her boyfriend showing off in front of my younger sister and I who both agreed the behavior was completely disgusting.  My older sister sneered at us.  “You’re too young to understand,” she sniffed.  Whatever.

But when suddenly I found myself in Dolores’s arms, she was kissing me with her mouth wide open, something that immediately made me feel I had become connected to a lovely but out of control vacuum cleaner.  She seemed to be waiting for me to do something, but I had no idea what it was.  I was just sure I wanted to kiss this way as long as she would let me, hoping maybe I would figure it out.  We broke the kiss and I stumbled away with a sense of wonder, loss, and determination.  I had to have a second chance.

The chance came a week later.  My school had a junior-senior prom coming up and so I had been casting about in my mind for who to ask.  After that night, my sights were set firmly on Dolores.  She had no good reason to go with me except that we knew each other from the play and as a sophomore girl she had never been to a prom.  It was just enough for her to say yes.

Proms are supposed to be about flowers, tuxedos, music and pictures, but in my mind, the dinner, the dance, and the after-prom were simply 10 hours of foreplay leading up for a chance to kiss her goodnight. Through the first part of the evening, she was a delightful date.  I still remember the aqua-colored dress and her long, lustrous hair done up beautifully to frame her delicate face. I, at times, could not believe that I was there with a date as lovely as she.

Things took a turn for the worse at the after-prom.  Suddenly Dolores disappeared and from the reports I was getting from my friends, she was chasing after Rocky, our star wrestler, a friend of mine, while I sat disconsolately by a pool table in the bowling alley.  After a miserable hour or so, she re-appeared, looking bored, and finally, it was time to take her home.

I walked her up to her front porch feeling a little sulky.  After all, she had bruised up my ego pretty well.  Of course, I had asked her for the shallowest of reasons but still, was one night of pretend loyalty too much to ask?  My feelings weren’t hurt so badly that I didn’t feel a rush of anticipation as we approached her front door.  She turned and smiled and thanked me, and the smile was enough to melt any resentment I had felt as she drew me toward her and once again kissed me deeply and passionately and for the last time.  Somehow during that kiss, that I hoped would last forever, she taught me what I was supposed to do.

I drove home in a daze and I can still hear Paul McCartney singing, “Maybe I’m Amazed” on the radio, which seemed perfect at that moment.  The sun was coming up, and I was immersed in the wonder and mystery of love and lust, hope and loss.  I had a feeling the world had just grown for me a little bit.

Thanks, Paul, for crystallizing that experience for me, freezing the moment in a way that only a song can do.

Baby, I’m a man,

And maybe you’re the only woman who could ever help me.

Baby, won’t you help me to understand?

 

Rock Star

 

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I told a group of students in a baccalaureate speech that I was asked to give, that I had a dream one day that I would be called out from off-stage at a Dave Matthews Band concert to join the group as a guest guitarist, where I would get to jam with one of my musical heroes. I also told them that I accepted the reality that maybe if I worked really hard, I might get to practice with one of the local bands around San Diego who I’ve come to know or maybe perform protest songs at my old high school when the American history course starts covering the 60’s and 70’s.  Maybe I’d get good enough to play some Christmas songs during the holidays for the family or get a few Mexican tunes under my belt so that I can play along with my wife’s cousin, Felipe, who is always the hit of the party.

The truth is, I’ve only been taking lessons off and on for the last 5 years or so, with lots of gaps.  I am indifferent practicer, even with all of the time I have available in my retirement.  I avoid the accusing stares coming from my unused guitar as it sits there in the family room waiting for me, making me feel guilty.  Now and then I’ll pick it up and pretty soon find myself lost in making my way through a little bit of James Taylor, or Jackson Browne, or The Band.  I practice some scales and go through my blues progressions and finish up feeling fresh and clean, sort of like I used to when I’d finally get myself to confession and feel relieved of all of my sins.

The problem is that starting into music in my post-middle age years is really hard.  With no real musical background, any signs of improvement are incredibly slow.  Even when I practice more regularly, I can feel deflated by a perceived lack of progress. And I’ve learned terrible things about myself musically.  I’ve discovered that my vocal range is quite limited and that when I do sing, I make small children cry.  I’ve also discovered that I simply cannot play and sing at the same time.  I thought it would be easy, but as soon as I start groaning out the lyrics, my hands forget all about strum patterns and chord progressions, my left hand flies all over the fret board, and the song screeches to a halt.

All of that was true until two weeks ago.  After a three-week absence I returned to my Monday night, adult education intermediate group guitar class.  It is a friendly bunch of mostly guys, all of who will profess to be terrible but some of whom are actually pretty talented musicians.  I’m definitely in the bottom third, talent-wise.  Our instructor, Bill, is friendly and enthusiastic and disorganized and never quite sure what he wants to do with us.  We might spend half the class going through some music theory and then he’ll take us through a comfortable version of “Let it Be” that we all play together and when it’s done he will always declare, “You guys sound really good!”

But two weeks ago, he decided we needed to get into groups and required each group chose a song and gave us 40 minutes to rehearse, knowing that we would have to perform it for the class during the last 15 minutes.  I immediately made for the group forming around one woman who had once said that she was a singer.  We picked the Buffalo Springfield song, “For What It’s Worth” because it was easy and we all had played it before.  Suddenly, Susan, the supposed singer declared she couldn’t sing this song.

Very quickly all the other guys in the group looked down and pretended to be practicing.   No one wanted to sing.  It just so happened that I had been playing around with that song during the week and could vividly remember it, having heard it so many times, and that as we just started practicing the chords, I found myself beginning to channel my inner Stephen Stills and tentatively began to sing.

No one asked me to stop or looked appalled and in fact, they began to follow my lead when I knew I wasn’t getting the timing right or when I knew we had lost our way.  Suddenly, I was the de facto group leader and lead singer.  After a while, once we had worked over the rough spots and run through the song repeatedly, we actually felt we were kinda, sorta ready and it was time to perform.

When it came our time to play we launched into the song and somehow, I lost all self-consciousness and just tried to stay in the song, to hear the song I had lived with for almost 50 years and try to sound a little bit like it.  Before I knew it, we were working through the tricky third verse…

Paranoia strikes deep,

Into your life it will creep,

It starts when you’re always afraid,

Step outta line the man come,

And take you a way…

…and then, before I knew it, we are coming around to the chorus.  We are listening to each other and adjusting, and fixing problems when they come up and doing everything a band actually has to do when they are in the midst of a performance and it felt really good.

…Think it’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound

Everybody looks what’s goin’ down….

We ended there and the members of the Monday night, adult education intermediate group guitar class erupted into applause.  Well, in all honesty, it wasn’t an eruption. It was more the kind of polite applause that class members are sort of required to give to each other.  Bill declared, “You guys sounded really good.  Yeah,” before starting off the next group.

When it was all over, Juan, who after one conversation has decided that we are best friends, came up to me and said, “Tommy, you sing really good, man.” (no one except my 91-year-old mother calls me Tommy).  I deflected his comment with a joke but, in fact, I was floating as I packed up my guitar and walked out to the car.

It wasn’t an appearance with Dave, but I had performed.  I loved it.