Throw Down Your Hammer and Sing

Sep 16, 2014

My George Szells

Originally appeared as a part of ROVA:Arts Quarterly Newsletter 2014

This was an amazing piece of writing. Take my word for it. It was revelatory, profound, and the sentence structures alone would have changed the world. It was truly an essay of the first order; the kind that would make us all reconsider the direction of jazz and improvised music, not only in the 21st century, but expanding into the possible futures and misremembered pasts of music making itself. In it, I posited ideas that could only be comprehended by reconstructing and building a new semiotics to explain its advanced concepts. It was that good…seriously. After finishing and formatting, my computer literally creaked and strained under the weight of its ideas. Simple circuitry and digital doodaddery could not contain the power of human thought in this instance.

At this point, I had to make a humanitarian decision. Like Jodorowsky’s Dune, the world will never be ready for something so deeply ridiculous, so utterly shocking and mind-expanding. I simply couldn’t be responsible for the massive global uprising my words about jazz would surely cause, so I did the right thing and hit delete. You’re welcome, world.

And so, the rest of the words, from below this paragraph and conclusive of the final period, will be about my musical education. I suggest you get a beer. You’re going to need it.

I spent my post-gig hours last night watching an interview between Met conductor, James Levine, and Charlie Rose last night. Levine was talking about his early education, and I, being at the general level of cultural fluency commensurate with my position as a trumpet player, spent the hour trying to wade in the wine-dark sea of musical personalities I should know. I had heard of George Szell, and gathered from the other presences in the historical footage peppered throughout the interview, that these were people with true musical gravity. I was impressed.

The program made me think of my own musical upbringing. Certainly not to compare myself to Levine, musically or otherwise, but the mind wanders, doesn’t it? At least mine does. I certainly won’t ever be on national public television and my life is woefully low on historical footage thus far, so I hope you’ll forgive me for taking the opportunity, so graciously offered me by ROVA, to ruin your day by making George Szell’s out of a handful of Oregon Coast amateur musicians who remain my first and, in some ways, my finest teachers.

***

I began playing professionally at age 13 with an organization known as the North Coast Big Band. My father has, at various phases, played the bari and tenor sax chairs in this band, finally ending up as the lead alto; a role he maintains to this day. I have no delusions that my prowess as an improvising trumpet player got me a spot in the big band and often say a little thank you prayer to whomever it was that decided it was a good idea to have 5 instead of 4 trumpet players. I’m guessing it was Stan Kenton. Without him, I’d probably be working at the mill.

The NCBB rehearsed weekly in different halls in Astoria, Oregon. My favorite was the Elks Lodge and Suomi Hall: a grand ballroom above the Finnish steam baths on the main drag. It was consistently dark in this room, requiring us to use stand lights even in the middle of a summer day. The dark wood of the room, its looming great bar and the many ghosts of New Year’s Eve depravity provided me the feeling of subtle immorality that every hormonal 13 year-old mind craves. I was hooked.

There were a few people that consistently played, and provided me with my practical musical education. First, the leader: Terry Hahn. He was the lead trombonist, and this made his helmship of a band somehow preternatural to me. His leadership style was probably closest to that of the Henry Blake character in MASH. His primary concern, as far as I could tell at that age, was what color tie we should all wear. Sadly, he passed away in 2002 from cancer. I am still honored and proud that one of the last gigs he played was my wedding.

The trumpet section contained one of the two truly unique characters I have ever spent time with, Louie Spivacek. His legend was that he had played at one point with the Stan Kenton band, although I’ve never found proof to support this. He was a great solo chair player in that grand style of the wide hand vibrato and Harry James sound. He was my idol. His favorite joke was to hand me the roll of clear tape as we prepared our parts, exhorting me to see if it smelled like scotch. It remains one of the worst jokes I’ve ever heard, and it still makes me laugh. He disappeared one day, supposedly to Belize.

“Cap’n” Jack Chadsey is the second of the two truly unique characters I have spent time with. He played piano in the band until his recent retirement. He had some arthritis that caused his fingers to be limited in how far they could stretch. Since he played mostly locked hand solos, (the melody note in the pinkie of the right hand, the bass note in the same of the left and all the other fingers filling in the chord tones) it meant that eight of his fingers just fell where they could, regardless of the harmony of the song. To this day, he played some of the most beautiful, strange and wondrous voicings I’ve ever heard. Everything you said reminded him of a girl, prompting this response (or something like it), ”Your car broke down? Reminds me of a girl…Elizabeth Galatea was her name. The year was 1962 and I was quite a man.”…and so forth. The last time I saw him he told me that maybe I should think about quitting what I was doing and become a professional musician so I could be miserable. I followed his advice.

***

I spent almost every weekend of my youth playing weddings, Elks lodges, and outdoor “festivals” with these maniacs. They may seem like just a cast of made up characters to the outsider, but these gentlemen provided me with the roots of my music today. I learned empathy and love for my fellow musicians and the great power of people taking time off from their lives to come hear you play music from Terry Hahn. I learned to distill out all the bullshit in an eight bar solo to “make the girls notice” (as well as lining your pockets with Ziploc bags at wedding buffets so you can take home some meatballs for tomorrow…which I still do) from Louie Spivacek. And, from Cap’n Jack I learned the greatest lesson when he said this to me on a set break: “You know what? It’s just music. Why do we have to make it such a big deal?”

These were my George Szells. I love them dearly, and will hold them in my heart and my mind for the rest of my life. They shaped me, for better or worse. And, regardless of where I am and who is in the audience, I think I will always think of myself as the “kid” in the 5th trumpet chair at the end of the row….and be proud. Honestly, thinking back on that interview, I think Levine got the short end of the stick.