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.
On the road again. 40hour drive to Banff, Alberta, Canada…the type of drive that makes you reconsider your fear of flying. We travel this time in a Lincoln Navigator. I look forward to this ride because I know I will get some sleep. These last weeks have been rough.
We have driven so many miles up and down the U.S. in the last 25 years; the front seat of a car sleeps better than a single bed. Frank Stewart and Andre Bragg are driving and will be on the road crew, and Frank will also take all kinds of great pictures.
We have had more problems with vehicles over the years. One winter we had a Winnebago with no heat on a tour through the Midwest in the middle of a deep freeze. You had to sit right under the front vents to get any heat. "Man, is it supposed to be this cold in here?" I asked looking at my breath. Frank accused me of whining and volunteered to switch places. “Three blankets and still no satisfaction.” Later he observed, "Damn it’s cold in this m.f.!" We couldn't switch the vehicle until reaching the west coast so we eased the situation by using this inconvenience to considered real hardship that folks have endured. We ended up speculating on how Napoleon's soldiers must have felt in Russia which led to talk about why vodka doesn't freeze. Sometimes I read books or poems out loud to them. They wouldn't admit it but they always say, "Read another one man… read another one." We also pass hours by telling the stories of each others lives from first memories to the present. It's called 'the life of', but Frank's life is so interesting, we never get past him.
You may have noticed we had fewer post in the last weeks. That's because J. Kelly and I have been up day and night with notes, notes, notes…thousands of them. Wayne Shorter once told me, "Notes are like people. You have to go up and meet each one." Well I must be running for something because I've met a lot of those people in the last three weeks. These were hard but extremely intense days of 15, 16 hours of concentration. It’s funny because that type of absorption is difficult to get to and harder to let go. Once rehearsals began for tour, no more day and night vacation withmusic. And I'm still late and not working on orchestration yet, so this is gonna be three or four completely sleepless weeks. I love this, and when waking up at 5am after 2 or 3 hours of sleep, mutter to myself, "Let's see m.f. Let's see." J. Kelly joked with me after one week of intense work. "No posts huh?" He sent me this list of number of notes for each movement in the piano sketch:
Whenever I compose long pieces and see page after page of hard-earned music, I think about Sandy Feldstein-drummer, composer, arranger, music publisher and educator par excellence, man of sartorial splendor and down home humor. He would always say, "Are you suffering with diarrhea of the pen? Man, turn the music upside down when you’re halfway through and that's your whole piece with half the work." Good drummers hate to see a lot of notes anyway. You have to let them do their thing for the music to be free. Duke didn't write drum parts (I think). Sandy used to laugh when looking at a pile of notes and say, "Yes, there are a LOT of notes, but are they GOOD notes?" I loved him. We lost a great friend of music and American education whenhe passed away. I'm gonna check on Wendy today.
Before satellite radio we used to search all over for games and have the radio cut out at the crucial moment. Well, I slept from 9pm (when we left) to 5 in the morning (now) and missed that Packers-Bears game last night. We tease whoever sleeps about their snoring but Frank wins the prize. Now it’s just past 6 and the sky is that deep Matisse blue. We are chewing up open, American highway, and the trees are shadows that dot the misty landscape. The pre-sunrise lights of people's homes make us nostalgic for the school time mornings of our own childhoods, and the big trucks roll on and on and on…and so do we.
Today is my big brother Branford's birthday.
We had some helluva times growing up. He is a musician with such great ears and reflexes that playing with him was something you could take for granted…until you played with other people.
I remember us learning tunes in the mid-70's off of Earth, Wind and Fire, Parliament, Stevie Wonder, Tower of Power and all the recordings of funk bands with good horn sections. We were so country…we would write the names of notes (a-b-b-d-f-f) on regular loose-leaf paper.
Our first gig was an elementary school dance in Kenner, LA. We had a four piece band——sax, trumpet, guitar and drums. The gig was supposed to be two hours and took place in the school cafeteria-gymnasium-meeting room. We learned about 12 songs. Well, those songs took us about 35 minutes into the gig. We stopped. People said, "We came here to dance, y'all better come up with something, NOW". The next hour was a continuous medley of all 12 songs with some of the saddest solos you ever heard in your life. We were 11 and 12 then.
4 years later we played in a funk band called the Creators. Girls would ask us, "What do y'all create?"
The band was about 9 pieces, and Branford and I were the youngest by 4 or 5 years. We played a talent show in the 9th ward at Nicholls High School, and some kind of way had neglected to learn one of the contestant's songs…and to add insult to injury, didn't realize it till he walked out onto the stage.
Now these could be raucous brown affairs with the audience commenting (back and forth about what they liked and disliked) to the band. One group of singers earlier that evening had butchered “Kung Fu Fighting” and had the nerve to announce to the audience, "The band is fuckin' us up, y’all."
We had 9 and 1 packing, so we took the mic and announced that they weren't shit. It was funny, but we had to think about whether they would go home and come back with something because it was their neighborhood and those karate outfits probably gave them the feeling they could whip someone's ass. So we were on edge and the people were ready for some Crescent City type excitement to jump off.
Here comes my man whose song we definitely don't know. The show stops while we discuss another song to do. "Hey man, this is what I know. You motherfuckers better play my song." He has his country-best clothes on and probably all his friends and girlfriend there.
It was tight.
The people start murmuring which soon leads to shouting which we know will lead to a really colorful story, if you survive to tell it. Branford had only heard the song a few times on the radio. He sat down at the electric keyboard and played the intro and changes of the tune. He guided our bass player and drummer through it all with complete cool and saved us from a very unpleasant physical encounter with a hyped up audience.
My man made it through his song, yellow suit intact, and we all couldn't believe Book pulled that off. That was Branford's nickname Book, Bookie, Book-Book Nova, Track Star Book. He could play any instrument he touched and run the hundred in 10 seconds or faster if being chased through South Boston.
Happy Birthday Book.
Jonathan Kelly is from Maine. He plays bass.
J.K. copies music (translates the hand score into playable parts). He is a one-man team of copyists. When we did my Abyssinian Mass he turned 2hrs of music into professional parts in one week and made the choir director tremble.
He used to have a bass at my apt. and we would play after going through something to be copied.
His wife Phoebe is perfect for him. They were married in a most soulful and completely unpretentious ceremony in Manhattan's Central Park.
J. Kelly and I will be up and sleepless for 4 or 5 days rushing to meet some deadline at 3 in the morning but we still sit down after every music pick-up to play a game of chess.
We always say, "no need to be uncivilized."
He immediately walks out the door upon making a winning move to let me assess what has happened. Not a word. We have worked on hundreds of pieces.
Phoebe asked jk once late at night.
"What ever happens to all this stuff you are killing yourself over?
"We laugh about that all the time because we don't know what happens to it and wonder why we do it especially on really long pieces that never get recorded and everyone complains about it's too long and hard. Let's just play Black Codes forever. It would be a lot easier… Then jk says, "pick up at 2" and I have to be ready. When I'm really late, we compete. Can I compose faster than he copies? I knew I would miss the deadline for the symphony last year when jk said," we're not going to make it. This is too important to write with this type of fatigue."
He never says that. It's ready to be that time again.
Long live JK and Phoebe!
I'm thinking about how he can translate my completely homespun scores with thousands and thousands of notes into all that printed music and almost never make one single error. Must be something in Maine.
I'm thinking about whippin his ass on that chess board.
I'm thinkin' we're gonna be up for the next 4 weeks.
Happy birthday to my brother Ellis.
He is to the point and no frills. He is a photographer, poet, and computer engineer. Has three kids and works his ass off. We call him the oracle. He is constantly studying something. He was reading a transcript of Justice Scalia's opinion and decrying the lack of precision in the language.
All the while he's reading passages that he's marked in fluorescent blue to highlight this lack of judicial integrity. He backs every opinion with some form of evidence. We called him Lut when we were growing up. I still call him Lut or Lil 'Lut even though he's the tallest one of us. He's writing a book on war.
Ellis said he has been getting distracted lately and not doing what he is supposed to do. So I'm wondering what was he doing. Maybe looking at TV, gambling, hanging out, going to clubs, some frivolity…….he's reading the Old Testament.
When I first moved to New York, I studied ear training with the great Cuban maestro Alberto Socarras. I think Socarras was the first one to tell me about the master of choro— Pixinguinha (who is to Brazilians what Scott Joplin is,or should be, to Americans). Both Socarras and Pixinguinha played the hell out of the flute.
Kent Jordan (who made me practice as a teenager leading by example) plays an unbelievably virtuosic New Orleans flute. (He played on the first ballet I composed for the New York City Ballet,' Jazz Six Syncopated Movements'). I wrote an impossible to play part for him and he didn't even blink at it.
New Orleans people are related to Cubans through red beans and rice and to Brazilians through feijoada and Carnival…..and sometimes through flute.
Socarras would have loved Kent.
I'm writing a flute part right now.
Pixinguinha would have loved him too.
There is snow high on the Pyrenees. We are on a 45 min drive to Tarbes due east of that majestic range. Today we have an all day rehearsal of the music of Sidney Bechet, the Creole genius of clarinet and soprano saxophone. A hell raiser and musical hero in France after WW2, Sidney brought the emotional power and glory of New Orleans jazz to the world. We love playing this music (with special guests Olivier Franc and Bob Wilber (who studied with Sidney) because early jazz is optimistic, hardy, and always fun to play. Wycliffe Gordon is also on this concert, so Vic and I will have a great time playing 3 horn collective improvisation with him.
For twenty years, in Marciac, I stay in the home of Marcel and Christiane. Their three kids are around my age and they have shown me and my kids much love through these many years. All of my kids have studied French and love France because of their experiences in Marciac and in the house of Laberriere. They are family to me. We sit at the kitchen table (Frank Stewart's picture of that same table is in our book Sweet Swing Blues on the Road) and speak in broken Spanish about all kinds of things. When their daughter Cathy is home, she translates, all the while adding her own passionate commentary and arguing with her father.
We talk this morning about: the quality of ham in Bayonne; the various shapes of tomatoes from south america (they pull out a tomato that looks like a pepper and another shaped like a heart); the glories of a pepper festival in the city of Espellete; how they loved taking their kids to the Basque region when the family was growing up; how Basque people adorn the outside of homes by hanging peppers on draped strings (also, I observe, a tradition in the U.S. south). Out comes 4 or 5 Basque cookbooks with commentary on memorable past meals.
We are eating confit de canard and sliced potatoes fried in duck grease. They say you can only get a proper magret in homes because it takes 6 to 8 months of soaking the duck in its own grease and restaurants don't want to take the time. This meal reminds me of the cuisine my great aunt used to make in a little bitty shotgun house on Gov. Nicholls street in New Orleans (my momma and them speculated her recipes came from slavery, well, my great uncle was born in 1883 so that's not far fetched)…. anyway, New Orleans was founded by the French and we eat the same bread and like our coffee the same way and, regardless of economic status, have that same high regard for savory sauces and ornate sugar bowls and taureens.
Marcel and Christiane have been married for 48 years. Yesterday we had a long conversation over a section of roasted pork. This was an intense back and forth about black and white folks and France and America and imperialism and Charles DeGaulle and wars and generations and what people know, want and expect, and progress and, of course fraud and frauds. Cathy and I represent a younger more progressive and liberal (we think) way of thinking. Marcel says when he was young, he was with Gen. De Gaulle who was against all kinds of imperialism (including American) and long before that, he remembers German soldiers occupying his family's house. He is proud of what his generation has achieved and, like most who remember the American effort in WW2, he loves the United States.
In his early 20's (1958), he fought in northern Africa for 2 and a half years. He says war opens you up for life (for better and worse). As we get deeper into a rumination on black and white folks and old and young folks, he becomes more forceful. He says France fought in Senegal and the Congo and Algeria, Vietnam and so on and a lot of lives were lost over trying to oppress people and take their things because their skin color was darker.
He says he understands what is the battle of the races and that the loss of life in those wars made many people in France realize they would rather accept people of different colors and cultures coming together than continue to die trying to prevent it and or trying take people's stuff free of charge (or so cheaply as to be free).
About the generations he says you go to school you think you know something.
You do something (like fight in a war)——you know something.
Today I am working on the 'guts' of one movement of my symphony……. thinking about the late great Freddie Green who played guitar with Basie for so many years. Freddie spent 5 decades of nights playing those steady springy quarter notes that undergirded everyone else's rhythmic flights of fancy. He was the key to the infectious Basie swing. Mr. Green said that his role required a lot of humility AND aggression.
His playing was dependable and flexible like bamboo. I am thinking about that constant stream of on the beat quarter notes (or eight notes depending on tempo) that is found in classical symphonies, tango, and some rock bass parts, in latin music (sometimes on the güiro), marches, and a lot of viola parts. I'm remembering how Mr. Freddie Green told me there's a lot of motion to be found when you're being still.
I guess he was talking about all the little melodies and nuances he would find in that steady stream of rhythm. Or he could have been talking about what those whirling dervishes achieve: through motion——-stillness. I mean the swing is also a circular motion.
Well, Mr. Green was so intelligent and experienced by the time I met him—-no telling where he was going. I should have asked better questions back then.