Listening to the 9 CD's of Mexican traditional music given to me by a hermano in Mexico City.
Victor Alejandro Brian Avendano Ramos, who is driving, is telling me what region the music is from and what its function is. We joke about his 5 names. but that levity does not obscure the message. There are many styles and much depth in this music and in the art of Mexico. Now we are hearing a groove that sounds like New Orleans Indians with ritual flute playing. Before that was a most abstract-scratchy-violin-slightly out of tune-incantation about death (I think).
We speak in extremely limited Spanish and English about how people are stereotyped and you have to know people to understand what they are about. Zora Neale Hurston said, "You have to go there to know there." I have always found Mexico to be a place rich in culture, hospitality and diversity.
I told him the Afro-American stereotypes are taken to represent us also.
He said, "I know, I see the videos." We laugh but don't.
If whoever gave me these cd's reads this, can you give me your contact info please?
Down on the Bayou where the mighty Mississippi kisses Lake Pontchartrain and spills into the Gulf of Mexico. There sits that jewel of the Southland. What the French lost to the British who gave it to the Spanish who lost it back to the French who sold it to America for….. Well, some folks say Jefferson conned Napoleon in a card game and won it for some jambalaya and a chicory coffee.
New Orleans, N’Awlins, the Crescent City, the Big Easy, the northern capitol of the Caribbean, Groove City. Man, they have things down there you wouldn’t believe. A mythic place of Mardi-Gras and mumbo, Voodoo and the moss-covered, alligator-spiked pathways of back-country swamp drained and sprinkled with gris-gris dust to house a wild, unruly population. A city with they own cuisine, they own architecture, they own music..streets with names like Dorgenois and Tchoupitoulas.
People in crazy costumes parading talkin ’bout “throw me somethin’ mistah,” dressed like Indians chanting ’bout “Madi,Madi-Cudifiyo,” sittin in the young twilight on the ‘poach’ of they camelback shotgun house eatin po’ boys bout to ‘make’ groceries for the crawfish ‘burl’ they gon’ have on ‘Sadday.’ They sing through horns down there you know. Yeah Padnah! Something called Jazz, started by a cornet man named Bolden. They say Bolden could play so loud the sun was scared to set. Some folks say the air is so thick down here you can eat it with a spoon.
Drummers drag rhythms in dirgey solemnity down neighborhood streets as horns moan, mock and moo. Man, hot notes echo against the sky with such weight as to be objects. Objects of sorrow so passionately played that the dead begin to cry. Then that trumpet calls and everyone falls in behind the band for a second line parade and those musicians get to hollerin and shoutin and folks get to struttin and steppin and the living let go of the dead and sorrow soon becomes laughter. In New Orleans we bury our dead above ground. They always walk amongst us…. but that music… It always ends happy. So when a strong rain brings angry winds howlin’ down the Mississippi or up from the Gulf, those misty winds carry the dreams of ghosts, yes, but not just the goblins of Marie Laveau the Voodoo queen, or the tortured spirits of the legendary, lascivious lovelies of Storyville sporting houses, or even the undead demons of corrupt politicians who have steeled our idealism over three colorful centuries. They also bring the spirits of Saints, of those who have lived here in quiet dignity and sanctified religiosity, of those who have raised kids in the shadow of the St. Louis Cathedral and Sundayed in Jackson Square or of the River Walk lovers holding hands… of many who have fallen in love here, proposed here, honeymooned here. Not just the howling ghouls of the frat-boy drunks on Bourbon Street, but they also bring the angels of all who have romanced in and with this beautiful land on the Delta.
Yes, the ‘haints become more famous but the Saints endure. Where were you when 85,000 people gathered in the last open seated stadium in professional football to witness John Gilliam run our very first kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown? When Tom Dempsey kicked that 63 yard field goal with half-a-right foot? When Tom Fears, Hank Stram, and Jim Mora prowled the sidelines? Were you there when Howard Stevens, Danny Abromowicz, Rickey Jackson, and Archie Manning donned the black and gold? Ahhh..those New Orleans Saints! Confined to a purgatory of their own making, looking for the fast track to hell. Maybe a brand new dome would appease the gods of football—a Superdome.
Fathers bounced kids on their knees while explaining how we would certainly blow our 30 point halftime lead by game’s end…..and the Saints did not disappoint. Were you there when the Dome Patrol brought us to the upper chambers of purgatory in search of playoffs, playoffs..playoffs? Yes, ‘haints become famous but Saints endure. Just ask Deuce. If 4 years is a long time: (your high school years, your college days, the length of the Civil War..WWII)…then 43 years is an eternity. You ever wait for something so long that waiting for it becomes the something? You ever see grown folks put bags over their heads in public, covering up to hide from themselves like an old alcoholic who won’t admit? We can’t help it. We’re with our Saints even when we ‘aint. New Orleans people are stubborn and hate to leave home. Down here, people like to brag about how they handle tragedy. Epochal hurricanes like Betsy and Camille are discussed as if they’re people. “Betsy was bad but Camille, ‘Lawd Have Mercy,’ the water was up here to my neck.” Nobody brags on Katrina. She swept through here like death on a high horse. Those flood waters seemed to run all the demons, goblins, AND saints away forever. There goes old Jean Lafitte, the pirate, relocated to Houston; there goes old Jelly Roll Morton off somewhere in Memphis with that diamond still sparklin in his front tooth.
But quick to return is the unbending will and irrepressible spirit, sin-dipped in Tabasco sauce and spiced with file’ in possession of an unshakable, unbreakable soul that Louis Armstrong first announced to the entire world through a red hot trumpet, that Danny Barker broadcasted on a burnished banjo, and Sidney Bechet shouted and screamed through a scorching horn said to be a soprano saxophone. And here comes that chastened Noah’s arc of a dome rising from ignominy to become again a beacon of community. And, oh yes, they are still down here marching in those funny-named streets blowing history AND the present moment through singing horns. And people still dance with abandon, exuberance, and unbridled human feeling because that music tells ‘em “what has been may be what is, but what will be cannot possibly be known.”
We live the moment. Laissez les bon temps rouler! — Let the Good Times Roll. I think I hear that trumpet calling the children of the Who Dat Nation home–not Gabriel’s or the horns that blew down the walls of Jericho–that jazz trumpet conjuring up the spirit world with a Congo Square drum cadence. Ghosts, goblins, and ‘haints aggravate. Saints congregate. I hear them now bringing that 43 year second line to a glorious crescendo. “Who Dat Say What Dat When Us Do Dat?” It’s like waiting 43 years to hear somebody say ‘I Love You’ back. And they do. Let the tale be told ’bout the black and gold won the Super Bowl.
And those jazzmen still play sad songs, but they always end happy…they always do.
After 43 years of pain, the New Orleans Saints have finally reached the promise land. For all of us who have grown up with the Saints, the impossible has become a reality. Lord have mercy!
The super bowl game poses an interesting conundrum for Peyton Manning, son of the most beloved Saint of all time Archie Manning. Peyton, a New Orleans boy who has to be infected with the same irrational love all New Orleanians have for the Saints, must now summon all of his skills and heart to defeat his hometown team. I feel for him.
I'm sure he will be a professional but he's in a bad spot. Love and respect to him and, of course, the New Orleans Saints and the Who Dat Nation.
In the past thirty years, I have had the good fortune to teach thousands of bands and an incalculable number of students in diverse settings. Though each situation is unique, students share many of the same concerns in pursuit of a more profound relationship with music and with life through music. Every style of music presents distinct challenges which demand the development of different skills. Jazz requires creativity, communication and community.
Through improvising we learn to value our own creativity; through swing we coordinate our communication with others; and through the blues we learn to find and celebrate 'meaning' in the tragic and absurd parts of life that afflict every community. Certainly three things worth learning. I believe jazz revolutionized the art of music by vesting the individual musician with the authority to 'tell their story' and by positing that an even larger 'story' could be told, by choice, by a group of equally empowered musicians. Our educational system has yet to be retooled to accommodate that revolution. Of course there are some educators pointing the way, but many still view this music as exotic, mysterious and unteachable. Some jazz lovers believe the music can't be taught in schools when, truth is, it can't be taught THE WAY we are teaching it.
How many decades must we watch these faulty methods fail? It's time to begin an earnest national effort to teach our kids the glories of jazz. Not a way to play scales on harmonies, or some jazzy misrepresentation of rock tunes, but an engagement with the stories, songs, rhythms, and the lives of those who made this music so vital— from the inspired dancers who blanketed this country in the 1930's to the many earnest and eager kids now in jazz programs all over the world, to the local musicians playing their hearts out in small clubs everywhere.
Jazz is life music and education is not anti-life.
To achieve greater success in producing students who play inside the reality of this music, the modern teacher should consider combining various methods of instruction:
1) The gradual, graded, literature-based method employed in most traditional music education. Students should perform music of the great composers and arrangers, from Bill Challis to Don Redman, Duke Ellington to Gil Evans and Charles Mingus and so on. A selected and graded canon makes the compositional victories of the music obvious while and provides a practical way to assess progress; performing the 'best of' of all eras creates a more informed, sophisticated, and technically proficient musician who is better equipped to influence the tastes of listeners as well as develop and defend a comprehensive art.
2) A method that focuses on the substance of all periods of jazz instead of segregating them by decade and arbitrarily assigning greater value to later styles. In this way, free expression (which encourages experimentation and the focusing of personal intentions) and early New Orleans music (which is rich in melody, danceable groove, and triadic harmonies) is taught concurrently to beginners. More structured and/or rigorous harmonic and thematic material is covered later. The initial instruction should be entirely aural in imitation of how we learn to speak our mother tongue. (By the time we study the mechanics of English we have employed them for years). Teaching jazz is sometimes confused with teaching theory. Instead of learning what scales to play on which chords, we should be thinking about HEARING ideas in the context of harmonic progressions and understanding what those ideas mean.
3) A method that teaches vernacular grooves and dance as integral to jazz. For example: a New Orleans two groove is different from a Texas two, or the Kansas City two or a Nashville two. The 12/8 blues-rock shuffle is different from the Afro- American church 12/8…. on and on. Each groove has its own characteristic, meaning, and dance. I call this 'root groove' teaching. Many of these grooves were achieved after years of distillation. It's a shame to discard cultural victories in lieu of grooves that machines can play, or old-timely, corny reductions of the actual groove, or no groove at all. A jazz musician should be able to convincingly play a wide cross section of American vernacular music. Let's teach our kids how to play the most essential part of our music—-the rhythm—-with authority and feeling and lets encourage all kids to improvise. Of course most are shy at first because it sounds so bad, but any activity (playing ball or singing or doing almost anything) takes time for little ones to develop. The seeds are always there. It's up to us to tend to them with love, concern and intelligence.
In all of my years of teaching, I have encountered all types of directors. Regardless of philosophical differences, I have found them to be principally concerned about the education of their students. They often ask me to comment on the most common problems confronting the modern jazz ensemble (after improvisation). These are a few suggested solutions to issues I have encountered with bands throughout the world:
1) Implement good listening habits. If students don't listen to the type of music they play in band, there is no way they will sound good playing it. You want your students to develop their musical taste as well as their playing. At the beginning of each rehearsal have the students listen to a great piece of music. Assign weekly listening and put aside time to discuss what was heard.
2) The band is just too loud! The median volume of a jazz band today is a soft f. It should be an intense mp, with a powerful and dramatic f. Rehearse the band at pp so they become accustom to hearing each other while playing. Also, the acoustic bass and rhythm guitar are a great check to balance the power of drums. Checks and balances in the rhythm section were developed over decades of playing. Why should they be discarded so easily for a less favorable result? Jazz is constant communication. Above a certain volume communication becomes very difficult.
3) TEACH a piece of music when rehearsing. Students should know how we get from one theme to the other and what musical devices are used for what effect. Knowledge of form and function lead to a much more listenable performance. Furthermore, improvised solos require detailed listening because you are required to respond with some degree of appropriateness to music as it's being invented. After playing a piece, ask members of the band to recall what the soloists played, then have the soloists explain what they were doing.
4) Embrace the dance beat orientation of jazz. There is such a proliferation of non-swinging styles bearing the name of jazz; it's hard to know what to teach. Samba has a principal rhythm, mambo has a rhythm, rock has a rhythm, Jazz has one too: Swing! It is such an elegant, supple, and dynamic rhythm constantly evolving; it must be tended to with care in the same way the most serious Latin musicians tend to the clave.
5) How to make students want to learn…hmmm…. My father used to say, ʻYou can bring a horse to water but you can't make him thirsty.' The best way I've found to combat the haze of uninspired participation that engulfs some of our young is for the director to be aggressively Inspired. Yeah, that's what we need to do out here: stay inspired no matter what.
And encouraged that we are not alone.
DownBeat Magazine October 2009 Issue: Special Education Edition
And another tour ends. The caravan of cats moves on. And so many presenters move on to next shows, and people move on to next dates, and cats move on to next gigs. And Jonathan Kelly and I are no longer joking or playing chess or Facebooking or anything but working on notes day and night and day and night….And Frank, Boss Bragg and I prepare to ride into the midnight from Lincoln, Nebraska to New York City…20 hrs after the last gig of the tour. Whew!
All of the experiences of the past month hit us. A year crammed into three and a half intense weeks. The cats ad hoc assemble in Old Chicago, a restaurant across from the Lincoln Holiday Inn. (We usually end tours with some type of drink or fellowship but nothing was planned tonight). We sit under TV screens which broadcast final highlights of the Yankees' drubbing of the Twins, eating, drinking, breezily enjoying each other’s company without the oppressive presence of an impending deadline, and looking at old recordings of bad shit collected by Ernie Gregory and David Robinson in the various cities we have passed through. Sarah Vaughan with Count Basie, A.K. Salim, Benny Goodman Live, and so on…..
"Man, you remember that recording I got in Japan of all the outtakes of Sarah singing Stardust from this record? And you asked me why would I do that? Look at Jeter get every ounce of this ball. Pow!" That's Rob. He's coming up on his 20th year of being our soundman and lightman and resident hard, hard lover of the swing. Joe sits on the corner stool and responds to our questions about Salim with, "What was his original name?"
Curious patrons watch us inspect and discuss these recordings and notice the age ranges and physiologies of the men. They recognize the unforced intimacy that only comes from some type of well traveled group or team.
As folks from the concert come in and greet us, the room begins to buzz with the genial glow of informal significance. "They're a band you say?", "Yeah! They just played the hell out of some music. There's the drummer. Man you were working tonight. I play percussion. Damn! That was sweet. Let's get this picture.", "My mother taught elementary school and she took me to jazz concerts. I never GOT it until tonight. The way you all played with and for each other and us made me understand the jazz experience. Take a picture with my friend please. He is a musician." A young woman of twenty something. We enjoy talking with everyone and letting the dust of the tour settle.
Ted and I talk about beer (I never have liked it because my uncle drank a lot and damn near killed my grandmother doing it) and he summarizes the tour. "That was fun. It gets better and better as the years pass." That means a lot. He is not given to gratuitous enthusiasm. Ted is perpetually youthful (I think it’s because he avoids sugar). A few hours ago he was leading the University's Jazz band in a master class.
He is great with college kids because he gives them candid and quality information in a straightforward manner…then encourages them to be who they are. And he loves and can play all kinds of music with all types of musicians.
Ernie is telling people who we are and where we're from. Soon he will come to me, "Squazz, come get this picture with my man and his old lady, they from Seattle and dig the music." Billy Banks, our original road manager-now production manager in the House of Swing, once said if Ernie was as interested in doing his job as much as he was in collecting records…he wouldn't be Ernie. But Ernie loves the music and brings a down-home feeling and originality of character that can never be duplicated. He listens to the gig EVERY night and snaps pictures of us at various inopportune angles. These we see the next days with a blow by blow, "This was the King's (Ryan Kisor) expression when Marcus was playing all that horn on ‘Free for All’."
We played the Lied Center tonight. It was the inaugural concert of their 20th season. I could swear we played here about 20 years ago. I have the honor of playing with these great musicians and meeting parents and girlfriends and boyfriends and husbands and wives and supporters and critics and sponsors and old friends alike. All are present tonight in Lincoln, Nebraska, and though sleep was in very short supply on this tour, it was as it always is…the profoundest of pleasures.
To continue to live out a boyhood dream which proved to be far less (as a dream) than the reality which becomes even sweeter as a memory, makes me want to be better. That people get dressed up or not dressed up; travel from their homes, jobs, and dorms; spend their hard-earned money on tickets and come together for two and a half hours to find solace and enjoyment in the jazz music we play early in the Twenty-first century still gets to me even after 35 years of gigs. To play with a swinging rhythm section and be surrounded by cats who want to and can play is something I cherish at every gig. To have dedicated fans for years and the respect of the people that present your group; to be able to look at Victor, Marcus or Ali or Ryan after all these years and still feel that love and respect that comes with sharing the experience of playing all the various and difficult musics we have played under all types of tenuous circumstances and not have to be about any bullshit because every night the music makes you strive for more even if only through listening. I love to watch Walter Blanding listen to other cats play. He is more enthusiastic about what we play than we are.
It is 5:30 in the morning. Boss Bragg, Frank and I are crossing the border of Iowa and Illinois. We just pass Moscow, Iowa, about 200 miles from Chicago. The faintest hint of light breaks the sky and illuminates a light fog or it could be the lights of another city in the distance. We travel on in silence and pass the world’s largest truck stop, Iowa 80. Packed with trucks that resemble the gathering of wildlife around the one watering hole for miles on the Serengeti, this Iowa morning the sky is amorphous pre-blue gray with slight splash of orange that makes you feel something is about to happen . As we pass the top of the mighty Mississippi into Illinois, I reflect on some highlights of the tour:
1. The playing of the Monterey New Generation High School All-Stars.
2. The Turlock audience came to swing.
3. Kareem graced our gig in LA. So did the great acoustics guru Sam Berkow.
4. The hospitality of the Swalleys in Santa Barbara.
5. The softball game that was won by Victor's team over Carlos'…highlighted by the impartial pitching of boss Andre Bragg who once, as an outfielder, couldn't decide whether to put his beer down or catch a fly ball. This indecision resulted in a home run that is still discussed. We keep him away from the outfield.
6. Seeing Dave Brubeck, Inaki and Jasone, Carlo Pagnotta, John Patitucci, Gerald Wilson, Marcus Gilmore, Vijay Iyer and Joe Lovano in Monterey…and Clint Eastwood who always supports this great festival and jazz .
7. Talking to the Arts community in Sacramento at the behest of Mayor Kevin Johnson. (It felt like coming home.)
8. Ted's father playing with us in Thousand Oaks on ‘Ceora’ (Ted's arrangement).
9. The beautiful band of high school kids who came backstage in San Diego, all brimming with excitement talking about entering Essentially Ellington (our high school festival and competition).
10. The acoustics of the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa. Russell Johnson (he was the lead acoustician on the House of Swing and has passed away) would have loved the way his masterpiece of a hall sounded.
11. Katrina's pecan pie in Santa Fe.
12. Sherman Irby on ‘Blues Walk’ with our rhythm section maintaining a super slow tempo in Costa Mesa.
13. The second show in San Diego.
14. Both shows in Monterey.
15. The trombone section all over 6’3’ and swinging. The way our trombones loved the trombones of the Monterey young all-stars, some of whom we saw individually at other gigs later in the tour.
16. All the beautiful youngsters and their families I had the chance to hear and meet after almost every gig.
17. John Clayton, master bassist, composer and arranger, co-leader of a great band with Jeff Hamilton, one of the true gentleman of our time, came to our gig in LA…helped me carry my things to the car one hour after the gig ended…waited for me to talk to the remaining students (another thirty minutes)…stood in the loading dock with me 'til well after midnight (another 45 minutes)…agreed to look at my scores and gave me an impromptu lesson and sage advice on how to best orchestrate different passages. He showed so much concern and interest and love, I get full now thinking about me and him leaning into the car to use the light while Frank and David Robinson observed it all with curious smiles and no hint of impatience after they had worked all day and faced an hour drive.
It’s impossible to express the depth of my gratitude for all these things and many more.
Now we have put more than 9,000 miles on our vehicle. The cats have arrived home safely. We are still on the road in Pennsylvania, shrouded in darkness. It is 7:30pm. It looks like Boss Bragg won't have to buy me a too expensive meal from a bet he lost on the Dallas Cowboys vs. our NY Giants in Monterey which seems like two months ago. We begin to reflect on what we saw: the golden plains of Saskatchewan giving way to the sharp hewn Canadian Rockies. The majesty of the great American northwest with its crystal clear skies, Douglas firs, Redwoods and Sequoias. The peaks and valleys of California down through the wine country and past Cannery Row framed by the expansive Pacific. Many tangerine sunrises and sunsets sometimes through the lens of morning fog and the twilight shimmer of so many car lights and street lights and neon lights.
The down-home soul of the Worker Bee Cafe in Carpinteria, California – a true American mom and pop, breakfast spot featuring the cooking of a tough retired Marine chef known as Sergeant Grill with his sweet as honey wife waiting the tables. The windy fingers of a hurricane coming up from the Baja as we crossed the desert into Arizona. The craggy, rocky terrain sculpted with rusty mesas, canyons and plateaus that have the patience of old folks and tumbleweed, stingy cacti and the occasional dust devil kicking up to be dispersed and reformed later somewhere else. The indigenous American territory with its spiritual peacefulness, super dry air, elevated altitude and contemporary problems in need of continued attention.
Yes, we have traveled this country for many years and…Damn! Frank just got a ticket.
My kind of gig. Refurbished high school auditorium with excellent sound. Local people with an interest in culture. Just folks from the community come to have a good time and swing. A lot of cosigning and true interaction with the band.
As everywhere, people afterwards talk about all the different inventive solos. I meet the couples most responsible for presenting these types of events (always a highlight for me because I know how hard it is to keep artistic things going). A lady brought 60 students with her (I saw the roll sheet).
JK and I have our hands full with this music.
We open the gig in Eugene playing my arrangement of Wayne Shorter's 'Free for All'. Wayne wrote this for Art Blakey, and I always think of Bu (what we all called Art) and the integrity he always exhibited on the bandstand. So many highlights on the gig – Ali firing on all cylinders; Elliot playing so much trombone with such virtuosity and accuracy, I had to lean forward to see if it was a valve trombone (it wasn't); Vince sounding like a human voice on Horace Silver's 'Peace'; Ted Nash's pristine flute on 'Itsy Bitsy Spider'. I don't know what possessed me to sing Joe Turner's blues, but it didn't stop us from playing Duke's 1947 masterpiece 'The Tattooed Bride', and it didn't keep Vic from crooning that sweet ballad at the end and cresting that last high f concert up over the band for 6 or 7 long measures.
Yeah. We still out here swinging. And so is Duke and the blues and all of them. We bring 'em with us.
Finally, a drive that commences later than 4 in the morning. Hallelujah! 7am. The highway comes out of the mountain, and you are close enough to read the rock lines on both sides. Shimmering brooks run through mountain passes and give way to green vistas as we pass through the Shasta Valley. Back up through mountains cloaked in redwoods, Douglas-firs and other trees whose names I don't know. Rare, bare, stony peaks stand starkly against the sky. Down into the flatlands of northern California, we pass all kinds of farms and personal signs – "Julia's Fruit Stand – home of the Great Pumpkin Festival".
On side the road: people smokin’ ribs, wooden frame houses speak silently and eloquently of the everydayness of living. All this produce for sale in a down-home fashion reminds me of the vegetable man who came through the neighborhoods when I was growing up singing, "I got your peas – snap, sugar and black, your cabbage, your mirlitons just off the vine, and your watermelon ruby-red to the rind.”
The gig in Chico is absolutely swinging with a first set that catches fire. Just a lot of inspired solos and diversity in the rhythm section. Well, you have Sherman playing all kinds of blues, then Chris making it plain with the plunger, and the very next tune Ted playing every inch of the alto on 'Epistrophy', followed by Marcus Printup playing with deep soul andlogic, verbally and rhythmically cosigned by Ali at every fresh twist and turn. Victor and Walter lock horns on a galloping 'Stage West' which concludes with Ali taking over after a brief syncopated and soft 5 chorus discussion with me.
As we walk off for intermission Elliot says, "That was probably the best set of solos we've played since I joined the band," and Ted says, "Chris is so patient and unpredictable when he plays." Sherman observes, "Yep." Walter and Ted follow every minute of every solo. They are very enthusiastic listeners – excellent models for students who come to hear us. We speak to some beautiful young musicians after the gig and then J.Kelly and i meet at the hotel to lay out our battle plan for orchestration.
Tomorrow we play Monterey, but the gig is not until 10 or 11pm. Amen, brothers and sisters.
5am: Travelling through Washington going southwest. Farmlands and handmade signs, "fresh blueberries", "sweet corn all you can eat". We want to stop but all is still. Rolling hills in the distance and patches of communities periodically gleam on the horizon under the new, orange sun.
7am: School buses hit the road in Pasco. Many taco trucks painted "La Diferencia" await the day. Kids, in small groups and alone, walk to school with varying degrees of enthusiasm.
We're on highway 84 west, 130 miles east of Portland. The sun and clear, clear sky reveal a gorgeous day. Sand colored hills with intermittent fields of stark-white, three-pronged windmills in various degrees of motion give way to periodic oases of green. A super long train with two engines snakes along above the river bank. I am brought back to Kenner, Louisiana where we grew up down the street from a railroad track on the left and the mighty Mississippi on the right. Miles and miles of open highway and the Columbia River is crystal blue. Hmm…the Mississippi was brown. Here's some Bighorn sheep clustered on a ledge right above the road, looking for something to do. Passing Blaylock Canyon and everything is a living postcard.
Coming into Portland to visit Dr. Monette's shop, we are so tired it's comical, but the drive was inspirational. Frank says, "It was like being in a cathedral at some points. Stained glass and all." Portland reminds me of Leroy Vinnegar and Ben Wolfe. Two bassists of different generations — one love of swinging.
We're at Dave's shop outside the Portland airport. We have a needed a visit with the Doctor. The shop and everyone working there is a model of soul and concern and first class workmanship. We share a noonday meal and discuss various issues of the day, like George Blanda's age when he retired from the NFL and the beat-down my Raiders received on Monday.
Andre Bragg (diehard Cowboys fan from D.C. no less) is not a man given to lots of talk. He says only one thing the entire time. "They needed Blanda on Monday." We look at old photos, and I play the horn I'm fortunate to be taking…and Frank and Dave ruminate on some issues, and Dave shows Frank the components of an earring he's about to make for him, and we give hugs and respect to all these wonderful craftsmen…and we're off.
Two hours to Eugene when we thought it would be twenty minutes…Well there goes any hope of working on my orchestration this afternoon before sound check.
We leave Banff at 3:45am and come back to the U.S. Rolling hills speckled and blanketed in evergreens as we pass through northwestern Idaho into Washington. The northwest is crisp and alive with hospitable people possessing the hard-edged realism of nature. We still remember a great gig in Orcas Islands years ago that had tenor saxophonist Todd Williams wanting to move there. Frank gives a seminar on hawks, eagles and buzzards. "You see, hawks and falcons don't fly over thermals. That's a buzzard." Highway 90 west. We pass a Steinway piano gallery on the left, then immediately right, a fisherman's fly shop. A mile or so down the road, we find what seems to be the world largest junkyard…reminds me of when my daddy and I put up a too high basketball hoop in our yard years ago. We got the pipe from a junkyard and the cement and hoop from Sears. It was 10 feet 4 inches, but we were still proud of it.
Keith, a high school trumpeter, sits in on our sound check. He plays a couple of well constructed solos and brings a great attitude. He's probably going to the University of Washington next year. Marcus and Ryan and I tell him we've been playing together for 16 years. He is 17. Hearing him and feeling his love for our instrument and for jazz music inspires us.
Two hours later, our audience is very lively and interactive. We love it. When people shout and cosign and participate, we are encouraged. That's jazz. It's what our music invites you to do. Carlos is playing all kinds of bass tonight – making up beautiful lines and inventing interesting vamps and counter grooves, listening and interacting with soloists even when they can't hear him, negotiating the time with Ali (all night they look at each other and ‘yay or nay’ decisions to put the beat in a certain place, to play in two or four, to groove or swing, to push or relax the time, to play at a balanced volume), and keeping the energy positive and flowing. Someone knows what 'Crepuscule' means. She wins the prize. (Even though we don't yet know what it is).
After the gig, I luckily catch the New York Philharmonic playing the hell out of Berlioz's ‘Symphonie Fantastique’ on TV. Now it's 5 in the morning and we are driving to Eugene. 7 and 8 hour drives day after day wear you down, but so do a series of 1 hour plane rides. It takes hours to move a big band around, so the plane travel will consume roughly the same time.
Now I like to write about what is inspiring to me, what I like. But let me tell you, this is not a vacation. The road kicks you in your ass. In the 90's we toured constantly with the septet and the orchestra. Some members of cats' families would think we were out 'travelling' and partying—we always encouraged them to come out here. One tour is all it takes. When they would be sleeping all day in public spaces, struggling with the constantly changing conditions while being victimized by the various unexpected mess-ups that cost you the two hours of normalcy you need to achieve any type of equilibrium, we would laugh and say, "Dee road, dee road! Fun!" They understood. The only thing resembling vacation is the gig. "Put together thirty years and we can talk about it." That's what Elvin Jones told me about 15 years ago.
Well…all is dark and quiet. Let me go before I begin to dislike my angle on this seat. We got 6 hours to go…
The feeling of jazz…trumpets, trombones, saxophones scooping, swooping and squeezing notes to life. Piano sparkling, bass homping and drums smacking skin and metal, painting with brushes. The constant stream of ideas and the strain of perpetual negotiation (under the pressure of time) excites the room.
Somebody cain’t help theyself after Sherman tells 'em on “Blues Walk”. To and fro, in and out, back and forth, me and you, us.
Ted Nash playing something so fluttery on “Epistrophy” makes Ryan and me say, "What is that?" After some time off, the sound of the band is always unique and refreshing.
We won't start aggravating each other for at least two weeks.
People in Banff, a resort with a deeply spiritual overtone in a valley 4800 feet up in the Rockies, come to swing…hard. They are cosigning solos and having a generally great time, making it easy for us to communicate. It feels good at any time, but after 40 something hours in a vehicle…better than good.
Is Frank Stewart sleeping? Hell no. He makes the sound check 10 minutes after arriving…then the gig.