The last 4 days I have had the honor and privilege of working with beautiful young musicians at the Shenandoah Conservatory. In collaboration with the fabulous Washington Performing Arts Society, we rehearsed my Blues Symphony with the Conservatory Orchestra conducted by Jan Wagner. I also held master classes with the National Jazz Workshop All Star Band directed by Alan Baylock and the Shenandoah Conservatory Jazz Ensemble directed by Craig Fraedrich.
Michael Stepniak, Dean of the Conservatory, interviewed me in a public dialogue for the University community and I even visited John Kerr Elementary School to hear and speak with the exceedingly well-behaved 4th grade and their enthusiastic Orff ensemble led by Ryan Stitcher. Having the Shenandoah Music Education Students in attendance added luster and charisma to this event. It was a busy and emotionally rich week and I left having experiences I know will become even more significant as valued memories.
Big Boss Murphy and I are now on 78 East in Pennsylvania on our way back to Manhattan, and the skies are progressing from grey to magenta in anticipation of the snowstorm that is chasing us north. As the radio drones on ridiculously about the New England Patriots deflating footballs, Boss and I comment on the absolute banality of this nonsense and shake our heads.
Here are some of the topics we covered over the last days:
With my 4th graders we talked about listening to yourself AND others at the same time and about keeping your place in the time of the music.
We said you should always look with support at someone who has messed up in the course of a piece and never tease or show your displeasure with them.
They told me that Mr. Stritcher says “make mistakes with confidence.” Then we talked about the power of the word RESPECTFULLY as a way to behave and to listen and to respond to others.
We learned about the importance of drinking water, sleeping and BREATHING especially that first breath in time as a way of focusing a group entrance.
They taught me how to start things: Have a plan, have the right ingredients, have courage, heart and confidence, know what you’re going to do and be alive.
And how to end things:
Pace yourself, happily, with confidence, and most importantly, together. Finally we learned about the importance of being present and the need for consistent energy and enthusiasm when making music and in life.
With the Orchestra and Maestro Wagner we rehearsed for 9 hours over three days and talked about:
This is some of the music we listened to and discussed:
Orquestra Aragon of Cuba and how to play danzon, how to whoop on a French horn from Coltrane Africa brass, Tito Puente’s Ran Kan Kan and rhythmic intensity, Duke Ellington and the Habanera rhythm, After Hours with Erskine Hawkins’ Orchestra to exemplify playing in the triplet time on the blues, how simple rhythmic units work together to form a groove, Jelly Roll Morton’s Maple Leaf Rag, the characteristics of half steps in blues harmony especially when sounding across octaves, the shuffle rhythm and 6 against 4, the sound of the Afro American church 6/4, the Holy Ghost is in a tambourine, Pixinghinua and Brazilian choro phrasing, American dance band drummers from 1905 to 1920 and the range of affects they commanded, how to choke cymbals and what is a stingy choke, the cascara rhythm and how it’s played, phrasing in the 19th century by stretching the 1st beat at the appropriate times and learning to hear great musicians of all idioms from Mahalia Jackson to Oum Kalthoum to Cachao and understand what makes them great.
With the National Jazz Workshop All Star Band we worked on Concerto for Cootie. I was so happy to see them playing great music. When I was growing up (and I’m sure it’s still prevalent today) high school orchestra’s played Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, the concert band played Vaughan-Williams and Holst, and the Jazz band played whatever the director has written or some jazz-funk or jazz-rock tunes. This band, however, was well-prepared and also very easy to work with. The trumpet soloist, Caeley Niess, was absolutely soulful, creative and a pleasure to work with.
We talked about:
With the Shenandoah Conservatory Jazz Ensemble we talked about:
Whew! It was an incredible week for me. Everyone was so hospitable and warm. It felt like the South. Thank You to the entire faculty and staff at Shenendoah University and Washington Performing Arts Society, from Dean Stepniak and the irrepressible Murray Horowitz to Karen Walker, the Associate Dean for Graduate Studies and Associate Professor of Piano, and Bob Larson Director of Jazz Studies all the way around to the hard working Shenandoah Conservatory Music Production and Recording Technology students. Yes.
1982 was my first year as a bandleader. Thanks to Michael and Randy Brecker, our quintet had a regular gig at their Manhattan club, Seventh Avenue South. It was ironic because only five or six years earlier my brother Branford and I had been at home in New Orleans learning their horn parts on Parliament Records and playing Brecker Brothers songs like “Some Skunk Funk” in our high school jazz ensemble. They took a risk on us and I’m forever grateful. What they provided for us was what every developing band needs: a reliable home base to work out technical aspects of music under the pressure of an audience, and a welcoming place to learn how to move a room of people with diverse and specific emotion.
In 1983 we were booked to play New Year’s. It was a special holiday cover and we ended up playing for ONE couple the entire night. It was both the most embarrassing and liberating thing that had ever happened to me as a performer. We played as hard for them as we would for a room full of people and they were as nice and cool as could be. I never saw them again and don’t even remember their names, but I think of them whenever New Year’s Eve rolls around. Something the lady said to me all those years ago has always stuck with me. Seeing that we were disappointed and somewhat dejected she said “Don’t be sad. You have given us a great story. When y’all become famous, we will tell everyone about how in a city of millions of people we were the only ones smart enough to come out and hear you play.” We all laughed. As long as they stayed—-we played.
Yesterday we drove 4 hours from Fayetteville, Arkansas to Pine Bluff to visit the great Clark Terry (CT as we call him). This was a day off and originally planned as a trip to his home to celebrate his upcoming 94th birthday (on December 14th) but an emergency on Friday night had landed CT in the hospital. With literally no lead-time, the hospital was able to source and set up a classroom so we could come in and play for him. As we pulled up to the everyday world of the hospital, with two tour buses and an equipment truck, we knew it would be special. From the security guards who set aside parking spaces for us, to the hospital administrators, aides and the assistants working specifically with Clark, to his wife Gwen and some of their friends, everyone and everything was soaked in hospitality, human feeling and soul.
We filed in and quickly set the band up. CT has been such a positive influence on so many of us in the orchestra; we were of one mind about the way we wanted to play for him. Swing! Even before we started playing, many of us were full of emotion.
I reflected on the depth of Clark’s impact on me and was overcome. At 14-15, he was the first great jazz trumpeter I had ever heard actually playing live. His spectacular playing made me want to practice (of course) but his warmth and optimism made me to want to be a part of the world of Jazz. I would try to stand like him, play like him, announce tunes like him and treat people the way he did. And each of us in the band had personal stories like that about Clark. For our trumpet section, he is a Great Immortal. Back when Ryan Kisor was a high school kid in Iowa, CT was the first one to tell me, “There’s a young boy in Iowa who can truly play.” “Iowa?” “Yeah man, for real!”
Moving a big band around on a scheduled day off can be very complicated. And any last minute adjustments will definitely create logistical havoc. But a number of our team displayed dedication and determination to make things go smoothly. Victor demonstrated his advanced communication skills in coordinating all of the particulars with Gwen. Big Boss Murphy kept us on point by responding to each challenge with a calm even-handedness. Gabrielle Armand and our JALC staff in New York provided whatever was needed to assist with the hospitality. Chris Crenshaw transcribed a couple of Jimmy Heath arrangements that featured Clark on lead trumpet: “West Coast Blues”, a Wes Montgomery composition from Blue Mitchell’s album entitled “A Sure Thing” and “Nails”, from a Jimmy Heath Orchestra recording entitled “Really Big!”
As Clark’s bed was wheeled in we launched into Duke and Strayhorn’s “Peanut Brittle Brigade” from their version of Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker”. After playing, we each went over to his bed, introduced ourselves and said a little something about our pedigree and how much we appreciated his contributions to our personal development and to the music. He recognized each of us and responded to every salutation with some pithy comment of joyful appreciation.
The hospital staff stood by watching in amazement as this informal caravan of musicians who had transformed this classroom into a concert hall, genuflected one by one before a patient who they knew was important for some reason…. but this type of homage perhaps meant something different from whatever their perceptions might have been. Without knowing his music or his profoundly personal influence on so many of us it was probably impossible for them to realize that they were caring for one of the world’s great Maestros.
When it was his turn, Carlos enthusiastically told Clark, “I’m representing all of the Puerto Ricans in the Bronx. They send their love.” And we all cracked up.
We then played Basie’s “Good Morning Blues” and let him check out Cécile. She stood right next to his bed and sang into a microphone connected to his headphones. She too was overcome with emotion, but she sang with poise and so poetically. It was elegant, yet intimate, like someone singing to a beloved family member. As soon as he recognized that unique quality in her voice, he started cosigning her and demonstrating that infectious personality that always made you feel great about playing.
Chris introduced the “West Coast Blues” and told Clark when it was recorded. He didn’t remember so Chris started to sing it. After a few bars of Clark trying to remember Chris said, “You’ll know it when you hear it.” We played and cats were swinging hard for him. As we were playing, he asked Gwen to identify each soloist. Our sound stylist, David Robinson, helped her call everyone out.
We didn’t want to stop, but it was time for all of us to go. But before that somber moment, we gathered around the bed and played “Happy Birthday” for him. When he went to blow out the candles, he broke down. Many of us joined him.
We all said goodbye and he once again recognized each individual with a touch and some kind words. We took a good picture with the trumpet section of which Vincent said, “This is the only time I’ll make way for y’all.” And then it was that time.
What is deeper than respect and love? That’s what we felt: veneration.
Later we went to Clark’s home. Gwen and some friends had a spread laid out. Good fried chicken and catfish, coleslaw, succotash…you know, the usual suspects that never wear out their welcome. Pure southern soul.
After eating, Ted and I sat in Clark’s den surrounded by memorabilia from his career plus a not-completely-assembled drum set and a couple of African drums. The mantelpiece was dominated by a large picture of CT and Sweets Edison playing together. Right after Sweets passed away, I remember Clark telling me that he had left him his suits. “How am I going to wear those big-ass suits?” was what he said. And we laughed thinking about how Sweets would have laughed at that.
Ted and I reminisced about seeing Clark play on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson during the 70’s. He had all kinds of tricks like playing the trumpet with both hands or upside down, or playing trumpet and flugelhorn at once. These antics amazed and delighted audiences, but he was playing great ideas the whole time. I recalled him coming to see me play with the New Orleans Philharmonic when I was 16 and telling me how much he loved it at the club later that night. Ted recounted playing with the California all state high school jazz band in 1975 when he was 15. They performed at the Monterey Jazz Festival and Clark was guest soloist. On one song, a blues, Ted came out front to play the soprano saxophone with him. When the song finished, CT grabbed the mic and said enthusiastically “Ted Nash on soprano!” The feeling in that introduction by the great Clark Terry of an unknown high school musician gave an almost spiritual validation to Ted’s playing.
We recognized that he also did that for many thousands of other musicians throughout his career. He lived as a jazzman, full of soul and sophistication, sass, grit and mother wit, and he made us want to become real jazz musicians.
We talked about how good it felt that many of us were moved to tears in his presence. And we weren’t emotional because he was blind and bedridden, or because he was having trouble hearing, had lost some of his limbs and was in a hospital. He’s 94! We were full of emotion because his presence reminded us of how much of himself he had given to the world, this country, our music, our instrument and each of us individually. And it hit us. All the gigs, recordings, lessons, bands, students, all state jazz orchestras, master classes, TV shows, world beating concerts with Basie and Ellington, his own groups, jam sessions – and all of it at the absolute highest level of engagement- was laying in the bed before us. And we wanted him to be proud and feel the love we felt for him. It was palpable. After we left I said, “Man, CT always had a way of lifting you up.” Ted countered and said, “HAD a way? He still IS that way. It was there today.”
Yeah. He blessed us.
We left Green Bay at 7:00 am for Carmel, Indiana. You have to always take Chicago Rush hour into account. Although sound check was scheduled to start at 6:00 pm, with 390 miles to drive and at least one stop for food, the day is packed tight. Whenever we drive by Chicago, Frank Stewart and Andre Bragg always – rain, sleet, snow, hail – stop at Lem’s Bar-B-Q on the South Side for some hot links. This trip is no exception.
We’ve been on 48-hour rides across the country and they’ll go 3 hours out of the way after 30 hours in the seat, just to sniff some ‘stinky links’. 11:30 am… There is no food served until 1. We will go south from Carmel so no Lem’s on this tour. The drive was longer than planned and we were behind. I need at least 2 hours to get together and iron and think about the set before the gig. Thankfully, sound check was scheduled 1 1/2 hours later than normal. This puts great pleasure on our sound Engineer David Robinson. We tease him by calling him the Celebrity Sound Man but he works non-stop. He had to work from the time our buses arrived until the night was over. We are truly lucky to have him. David has a very complicated job and he works it everyday. He is a stalwart out here.
We played at The Palladium at The Center for the Performing Arts. Michael Feinstein is the Artistic Director of the Center and the hall has all types of interesting memorabilia like the history of the American Popular Songbook (probably from Michael’s fantastic collection). Michael has more interesting things than anyone and is such a great ambassador for our song tradition. Of the Performance venues we play around the world, The Center has the most hospitable and well-managed backstage crew and production teams. Ellen Kingston, our presenter, deserves a shout out.
This audience is always listening and great, and they loved Cecile who was in great form. Carlos played an inventive and virtuosic solo on ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ and the rhythm section demonstrated their range and flexibility on Vincent’s arrangement of ‘What Child is This.’
After the show we had to make a quick turn around. The buses left for Arkansas at 1am. Frank, Bragg and I don’t do too much talking in the car. To add insult to injury, our XM Radio is not working because the car rental service didn’t renew their subscription. Now we can’t argue about the two stories passing for news that are repeated ad nauseum. Well, I can continue with my hobby, tweaking ‘Blues Symphony’ to see if I can figure out how to make it sound like music.
A day off in Green Bay and the Packers President and CEO Mark Murphy gave the cats in the band a tour of Lambeau Field. Some of us spend days off relaxing; others work on music and other projects, and still others go out to see things and participate in the life of the community. In the midst of catching up on the emails and written obligations for Jazz at Lincoln Center and Juilliard I had a moment to reflect on the recent happenings in our country.
Last year around this time we were touring and the government was on strike. That strike was the culminating achievement of intense partisan politics. It should have been a wake up call for us, but it wasn’t. Whenever a group of elected people can’t even agree on how they’re going to misappropriate, mistakenly take and misspend a big pot of your money, you know there’s a profound dysfunction.
This year the grand jury cases of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, after a spate of public abuses of power against black folks, have deepened the feeling of separatism through partisan style tribalism in this country… The presence of our orchestra, without saying a word, is clearly an opposition to that feeling. It’s in the music that we play. Jazz is a cultural counter statement to tribalism and provinciality. It was always an agent for integration, not assimilation, but true integration. The music has always been in the forefront of American diversity in a meaningful and real way, not as a media response to demographics or a response to market demand for the illusion of diversity. Whether it is Louis Armstrong’s profound influence on everyone in the 20’s, Benny Goodman’s pioneering efforts in the 1930’s, Dizzy Gillespie and Cu-bop of the 40’s, Dave Brubeck’s band in the 1950’s, or John Coltrane’s bands and world music of the 1960’s, the music has been on the front lines. It goes on and on… Duke Ellington and all that he embraced from Django Reinhardt to Toshiko Akioshi. It’s not integration if there is no recognition and no acceptance of the ‘other’s’ point of view or achievement. Jazz has always achieved victories without sacrificing quality.
These police cases as well the issues of domestic violence and crimes against women – the revelation that we torture people is added to our knowledge that our financial industries prey on the general public and that our campaign finance model needs to be reformed – are creating a heavy undertone across this country. With the need for sensational news to fill the agenda and wide open social media channels, we are being forced to confront the types of injustice that corrupt our way of life, and we are called to battle with the close mindedness that casts a blind eye on injustice. The obvious traditional and systemic inequality in jobs, education and criminal justice that counter state our national mission has forced us to question who we are and who we want to be. Jazz music itself has a clearly stated take on the American identity, but the nation has yet to become enraged enough with our failure to honestly engage these issues. Truth be told, we are slowly coming to it and will.
Green Bay reminds me of my cousin Charles Harris. When we were growing up everything was always about the Green Bay Packers. Being a Raiders and Saints fan, Green Bay was never on my list of favorite destination. Green Bay is the Packers. That’s all to that. Whenever anyone hears the name Green Bay, they think Packers and Vince Lombardi.
We played the Weidner Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Wisconsin Green Bay and it was a great opportunity to reach audiences we don’t usually get to see. The audience was small but enthusiastic. Our way of playing is not affected by the size of the audience. The engagement of whoever is there is what motivates us. Jazz needs participants and we love you in all shapes and sizes.
On this tour we have the pleasure of playing with James Chirillo. He plays great fills, rhythms and solos. He is a complete guitarist and we are happy to have the fourth voice to form the classic rhythm section. Because many of us grew up in jazz households, we know that every opportunity to play this music for people is a sacred opportunity. Every concert is significant, whether it’s the third, the fifth or the twelfth day on tour, it doesn’t matter.
On the drive to Minneapolis I checked out the violin concertos of Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Sibelius, and Benjamin Britten. I am working on a concerto for Scottish virtuoso Nicola Benedetti and critical listening to concertos is educational and essential for me to form the identity of this work. It is also just fun.
We played in one of my favorite halls, the Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis. As we took the stage, I looked up and spotted Manny Laureano in the audience. Manny is principal trumpet with the Minnesota Orchestra and conducts the Minnesota Youth Orchestra. At 15, I attended the Eastern Music Festival in Greensboro North Carolina for summer camp. Counselors and teachers always comparing me to Manny because he was playing classical trumpet and was also a minority (which was extremely rare, I haven’t been back to the camp in years so I don’t know if it still is). He is one of the world’s finest trumpeters and musicians and is an even greater person. I am always uplifted by seeing and speaking with him. We spoke about the ochre steal voice in different Concertos among other things. I left hoping to hear his youth orchestra soon, I know they can play and he is very very proud of them.
From October 2012 to January 2014 The Minnesota Orchestra was locked out. They are now back to work under new management, doing well and even more committed to their craft. The music world watched these proceedings with great interest. We know that major American cities need Symphonic Orchestras and listening halls. If communities lose the desire and ability to listen together in concentrated silence and experience profound music, throw-away music products which feature extra musical distractions like light shows, pre-recorded tracks and repetitive loops will pretty much be the only alternative.
Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday nights can be challenging for ticket sales but this Tuesday the audience was robust and attentive. After the concert I stopped by the atrium of Orchestra Hall in order to hear pianist Jeremy Walker. He is curating a new collaborative jazz series with the Hall. Our own Marcus Printup, Vincent Gardner and Ted Nash joined Jeremy’s trio in a program of his compositions as well as some standards. The room was intimate and full of good feeling. By the time the hall had cleared out this evening, people had enjoyed a full night of jazz music.
Every time we go to the Minneapolis/St. Paul area I always think about the Dakota, a classic jazz club with great food that’s been functioning for many years. Over the years, I’ve seen great musicians there, from Esperanza Spalding to Joe Henderson, but we didn’t get a chance to check it out this time around. Next time.
Our first concert on the Big Band Holiday tour was at the Marcus Center in Milwaukee Wisconsin. Milwaukee is Dan Nimmer’s hometown. His parents were in attendance and he showed off for them by tearing through ‘Santa Claus’ with Carlos and Ali. The first gig of a tour is always tricky because we’re trying to work out who is going to solo on what songs, how to order each song so the concert flows smoothly, how to balance talking with playing and generally seeing how the gig plays out. You don’t know if the show is effective until it is over. Sometimes gigs earlier in the week consist of one 90-minute set instead of two halves. Tonight was a 90. They are always more difficult to program because you have to conceive of the impact of different tunes across a longer time. Though I was apprehensive, the gig was well received and Cecile was an absolute star.
After the concert we saw some old friends that love to recount the times we’ve played here. They always have some remembrance that I struggle to recall (sometimes with more success than others). Some of the cats hung with the touring company of The Lion King choreographed by our close friend and genius, Garth Fagan while Dan hung with his parents and others of us attended a reception held by the Black Arts Think Tank of Milwaukee. There isn’t always so much activity after shows early in the week.
The Think Tank services The Ko-Thi Dance Company, African American Children’s Theatre and the Hansberry-Sands Theatre Company with board leadership and administrative support. They came together to cultivate more community wide support for their dedicated organizations and Afro-American art in general. During the reception I spoke about the need for a revolution in cultural consciousness in this country. Culture through the Arts is never on the agenda in times of reform. The change that we are seeking has to, in some way, come out of our own identity. We Americans tend to look at ourselves demographically and don’t even consider the cultural solutions to our polarity.
On Thursday in St. Louis, we opened the Harold and Dorothy Steward Center for Jazz. The Center houses a new Centene Jazz Education Center and a completely renovated and redesigned Ferring Jazz Bistro.
Though sheets of rain beat against the “in case of inclement conditions” gala tents, the business and arts communities showed up in full force to recognize the enormous civic contribution of the Steward family and Jazz St. Louis, the city’s top presenting organization. The Bistro itself was comfortable, classy and filled with the rushing excitement of an opening night deadline that is being met. Both concerts were streamed and a festive time was enjoyed by all.
The next morning, Todd Stoll and I were on the road at 7:30 to pay a surprise visit to Dr. Inda Schaenen’s 8th grade class at Normandy Middle School. Joining us was Dr. Schaenen’s mom, Susan Rudin. (Jack and Susan founded and endowed Essentially Ellington and she is a member of our stellar JALC Education Committee).
After recovering from the shock of seeing her mom with us, Inda got down to business. She brought us into the familiar cacophony of kids from challenging social and familial situations struggling to negotiate the one experience that could help them redirect a generational dysfunction that stretched back to auction blocks, stock markets, and plantations, and that defined the present as poverty, broken homes and prison. Still, the kids were brimming with talent, personality and possibility. Just the energy on this educational cutting edge of our society was itself invigorating. It is. Dr. Schaenen was strong and committed to the kids’ overall education and they responded with love and respect. Todd and I observed and were inspired by how she kept her kids moving forward, ever forward. When she invited us to introduce ourselves, Todd and I spoke our piece and the kids really could have cared less. But when Susan introduced herself their beloved teacher’s mother, they erupted in applause and recognition asking, “Is that your REAL mother? Your BLOOD mother?” When they realized that she was in fact Momma, they were deeply touched and on better behavior.
After the class, we left for Normandy High School. Vincent, Marcus and Chris had been there working with the school jazz band since 8:30. We joined at 10 by the entire JLCO. Band director Bernard Long Jr. had his band set up right beside us. We all participated in one of the best master classes we’ve ever conducted. Each chair of their ensemble had a chance to receive direct and personal attention from our musician occupying the same chair. It was all warm, informal and familial. Mr. Long Jr. was hired last April and has been transforming the program.
Ali Jackson was only 19 years old when he met Bernard’s father, Bernard Long Sr. According to Ali, “Mr. Long Sr. was dedicated to quality jazz education and to creating the best environment for educating. The right environment could be in his house over a meal or in a car ride to a venue. When I was in my early 20’s, Mr. Long Sr. invited me to do a workshop with his students. His son Bernard would often tag along. I would give him (a few years younger than me) pointers on the drums and on music. The instruction though informal, was personal, genuine and most potent. It was meaningful to see Mr. Long Sr.’s work carried on through his son.” Mr. Long’s father is deceased. He would have been quite proud and just as excited about the meal Mrs. Long Sr. prepared for our lunch. That cobbler!
During the question and answer portion that ended the class, an 11 year old boy stepped forward and asked, “Do you all ever get nervous?” As several of us basically said, “Sometimes, yes.” He said, “I guess so, because me, I was nervous even just coming up here to ask this question. I’m nervous now.” He was so direct and honest, some of us started to get full. It really hit us because he implied, “But I’m still up here asking though!”
This weekend I received a Legend Award from the National Black Arts Foundation in Atlanta. I was given the opportunity to choose musicians to play for the awards ceremony and requested Melissa Aldana & Crash Trio and the great Detroit trumpeter and educator, Marcus Belgrave.
Not only did they represent our music with great clarity and depth of purpose, they also showed the diversity of artistic excellence still present in Jazz today.
Backstage Marcus and I hung and swapped stories about Ray Charles, Dizzy, Pops and New York. His beautiful wife Joan, also a great singer, spoke about the importance of sound and how she was initially attracted to Marcus by the warmth and distinctiveness of his tone. Anyone who knows Marcus knows that his sheer presence is an act of soul. In addition to the nuggets that come from his horn, no one in the world can verbally cosign an improvised solo as well as he can. He’ll drop a “yeah” or a “blow your horn” on you at the perfect time.
I accompanied him on the dressing room piano as he taught me a tune he had written for Clifford Brown. It had a lot of complicated changes, but we kept at it until I had it all completely correct. We played it for a while and would laugh when I stumbled at the different harmonic twists and turns. I told him it reminded me of my dad and clarinetist Alvin Batiste. Marcus said Alvin played with him for a brief period in Ray Charles’ band, but drove cats crazy because he practiced all day and night regardless of circumstance. They didn’t know the half of it. Bat and my father would teach you long complicated tunes with not a piece of music in sight and would keep at it until you absolutely knew every note and chord change.
This method of learning also reminded me of a time I went to Ornette Coleman’s apartment to practice with him. In the 1950s Ornette lived in New Orleans with drummer Herlin Riley’s uncle, Melvin Lastie, a deeply soulful trumpet player. I remember getting to Ornette’s house at about 11:00pm and we played our horns until about 2 in the morning without saying a word. Ornette was something, with a rare kind of home-spun seriousness and pure insightfulness that immediately made you feel at home. He told me not to worry too much about criticism, because my playing was very nuanced. He said I had a subtle command of the emotion in my sound, in much the same way people communicate by raising an eyebrow or scrunching their face. I can’t lie; it felt good to hear him say something like that.
After we played, he told me that in the late 1950s my father and Alvin drove all the way from New Orleans to Los Angeles to visit him. They rolled up to his crib unannounced and, said “Hey man, we just came to see what you were dealing with.”
We laughed about all kinds of stuff and when I finally left his house at 3:30 in the morning he said, “Don’t compete with people, compete with yourself. Music is an idea not a race.”