Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Bad News For Prof. Harold Hill

In the '80s, the Orange County Rhythm Machine was a fixture in Southern California, a big band with a regular Monday night appearance at a Seal Beach restaurant named Dunbar's. It was an excellent band with somewhat revolving personnel, when the regulars had other gigs.

One Monday night which will live in infamy among the players who worked with the band, a very large gentleman was playing alto sax. When the leader announced an intermission, this saxophonist stood and slipped, or tripped, and fell backward, right on top of one of the trombones. He didn't appear to be injured, but the instrument was crushed. Everyone witnessed the unfortunate event, and the entire room went dead silent -- but only for about ten seconds, when a voice from the trumpet section quietly intoned, "Seventy-five trombones led the big parade..."

Friday, April 22, 2011

Another Super Hero?

Our five-year-old granddaughter Nanea phoned her Tutu (grandmother Haidee) today to wish her "happy birthday." Haidee asked her how she enjoyed the luau last night, with the response, "How did you know I went to a luau??" Haidee said a little birdie told her, and asked Nanea what her favorite thing was about the luau. "The Fire Boy," came the quick answer. "What did you like about him?" "It was scary!" Scary always seems to gain our attention.

The luau shows always feature Samoan fire knife dancing, where men twirl much in the style of majorettes, but with bladed weapons in the place of batons. There's always at least one brave soul who wraps the ends with kerosene-soaked material, ignites it and spins away, at arm's length and all around, behind the back, between the legs, etc., ergo The Fire Boy. From the Los Angeles Times travel section: "The nifo oti, Samoan for "tooth of death," resembles a machete with a hook at the end of its blade. The hook's sharpness and weight increase the difficulty and risk for the fire dancer catching the blazing blade." Occasionally they do burn themselves, which alone would keep me at arm's length from attempting anything like that. But in a way that makes them a kind of super hero, risking life and limb for the entertainment of luau-goers, which I suppose keeps the non-locals from thinking about the taste (or lack thereof, to their uncultured tastebuds) of the poi.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Rod Serling's Looking Down

I received an email from my college buddy, Tom, asking if I had heard about the passing of Wayne Pegram. Tom didn't know any details, so I contacted a friend on the faculty of Tennessee Tech, from which Wayne had retired. Wayne had attended Tech as an undergrad and was a music department legend when I started there; stories were told of his escapades as a saxophonist with the Troubadours big band. He went on to make his mark as a high school band director, then as assistant director of the University of Tennessee Pride of the Southland Band, then as Director of Bands at Tech. He was playing tenor again with some jazz groups; I got to jam with him once or twice when I was visiting there.

A month or so after I heard from Tom, I was at a rehearsal with one of the bands I play with, the music of Dick Cary, who played piano with Louis Armstrong for many years. Dick also played trumpet and alto horn, and left a legacy of several thousand arrangements for various sized groups. On this particular night, my friend Jim, whom I hadn't seen for quite a while, was subbing on tenor sax. Jim said he had met a friend of mine from Tennessee in Singapore Airport. He couldn't recall my friend's name, but he had said he was on his way to Indonesia for his son's wedding. They met the way musicians do, with this stranger seeing Jim's tenor case and striking up a conversation, which led to his asking where Jim was from (Los Angeles) and did he by chance know Les Benedict. I finally figured out that Jim had met Wayne.

The irony of this, the Twilight Zone Moment, is that Jim was telling me in present tense of meeting Wayne, when I already knew that Wayne was gone. Wayne made it to Indonesia, but had a heart attack in the car on the way to the wedding and died. Jim had no idea of Wayne's demise and was shocked at how the story unfolded. This is yet another "isn't it a small world" story, but with a strange twist at the end. [cue the theme music--doo-doo-doo-doo...]

Wayne will be missed, but certainly not forgotten.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Battery's Down...

...and the Bronx is up. So's the production (up, that is), tomorrow (well, later today, now). Five rehearsals and ten performances of "On The Town" for the USC Theater Department. It's a helluva show with some very talented young people, and a fully professional orchestra. The show premiered in 1944, and the much-changed movie adaptation in 1949. Fortunately the original show features the wonderful music of Leonard Bernstein, which is very challenging and fun to play. (According to Wikipedia, only three songs from the show made it to the movie.)

Friday, April 8, 2011

Sadness abounds

We lost a friend today, a dear friend who has been like a brother. Michael Morita passed beyond this mortal plane, apparently a victim of cancer, although that has not been revealed for certain as yet. I met Mike at the same time I met my Haidee, at the first rehearsal of the Al Lopaka show at Duke Kahanamoku's in the International Market Place in Waikiki, summer of 1971. Mike was the trumpet player, and Haidee was one of two dancers. We became good friends, and that relationship endured until we moved from the Islands, and then over more than 30 years of separation by many miles. Mike became the manager of the brass section of the Royal Hawaiian Band, and as such, was able to offer me work whenever we visited the Isles. He played for our daughter's wedding, and was always quick to be part of whatever event occurred in our family, such as the arrival of a new baby.

We'll miss you, my friend. Aloha, and bon voyage.

A Jazz Tale

My earlier post mentioning Jimmy Knepper reminded me of a gig I did in the early '80s, a Dixieland band in Pershing Square Park in Los Angeles, before it was renovated and was less "sophisticated" than it is now. We were playing for the MJB Coffee company, who was giving away free coffee to anyone who wandered by. As I remember, we started at 5 AM, and they kept adding overtime; I guess their coffee was popular that day, and it turned into a 7-hour gig.

At one point, while we were playing "Sweet Georgia Brown," an obviously homeless guy dressed in rags and not smelling too good, wandered up and was listening to the band. I played a couple of solo choruses on tuba, and after we finished, the homeless man approached me and said, "You plays the tuba just like Jimmy Knepper plays the trombone." He pronounced it, "Kneppa." I must have looked shocked, because he asked, "Don't you know who Jimmy Knepper is?" I responded, "Sure, he's a great trombone player. Thanks for the compliment." He said, "I rememba Kneppa and Mingus having a big fight on the bandstand one night." (Charles Mingus had famously punched out Jimmy on a gig once.) Then he turned and wandered off through the park and into oblivion, leaving me wondering who he was and if he had been a noted musician sometime in his past, and how he knew about the Knepper/Mingus incident. Not to mention how he knew enough about jazz to connect my style with that of Jimmy Knepper...

Thursday, April 7, 2011

What is jazz, besides a lifelong quest?

I had an interesting and provocative phone call yesterday from a friend, for whom I had just recorded some jazz arrangements. He wanted to tell me that he thought I was the best "pre-Watrous" jazz soloist, in the [earlier] tradition of Jimmy Knepper and Lawrence Brown. That, of course, set me thinking about what I do, or attempt to do, when I improvise a solo.

The steps in learning to improvise, as I see and remember them, are:

1. Learning to hear and identify chords and chord changes (I got a head start when a new friend my freshman year of college asked me if I would play tuba in his Dixieland band; I had to learn root progressions and bass lines).

2. Learning to hear lines/melodies in my head which might fit those chord progressions.

3. Developing the technique on my instrument(s) to be able to channel those mental melodies into actual sound.

4. Maturing (or aging) to the point that real and interesting melodies appear, which means, to some extent, getting beyond the technique aspect. Lots of technique gives you options, but one of the options should not be technique for its own sake. I think that is a mistake made by a lot of younger players, and some of them never get beyond it.*

*This could lead to an entire discussion of the evolution of trombone technique, from J.J. Johnson showing that the trombone was capable of the type of technique which enabled him to keep up with the likes of Dizzy, Bird, etc. J.J. took that melodious style that the trombone is so capable of and transitioned it into the bop style that developed in the late '30s and '40s. I think the part that some players missed is that J. always played very melodically, no matter what the tempo. This may have spawned an entire generation of "technique for the sake of technique) players. Exceptions, of course, include Frank Rosolino, who was unbelievably technically adept, definitely had his own voice and style, but still played very musically; and Carl Fontana, a technical wizard who still played linearly and musically, another unique voice. (Frank and Carl, as different from one another musically as they could be, were still a "mutual admiration society.") There were earlier players who had astounding technique but were more "old-school," like Abe Lincoln and Tommy Turk. The melodic swing-era players that were heroes of the trombone were the likes of Lawrence Brown, Jack Teagarden and Trummy Young. Brown became a hero of mine at a young age, when my dad brought home a double album (remember those?) of Duke Ellington recordings from the late '30s-early '40s. Lawrence was unbelievable to me for his versatility of style, and remains so to this day. Later on I glommed onto the playing of Urbie Green, another player with amazing versatility, great chops, musicality and style. Others have contributed to my musical persona, I'm sure, but my heart belongs to those older players who knew how to sing a song through their instruments.