When I was young -- I don't mean just early childhood or adolescence, but into my 'thirties -- I was easily discouraged. If somebody told me I couldn't do something I ingested it and digested it and it became part of my permanent self-image. When someone, adult or another child, spoke with authority and assurance I assumed he knew what he was talking about. There are laws and he knew the law.
"Easily discouraged" is such an understatement that today it still baffles me. Where did it come from? My parents weren't easily discouraged. My siblings weren't. There were incidents in very early childhood that might expain it but they would be too much of a tangent and a distraction so I'll put them aside for now.
From birth I loved music. While my home was filled always with an eclectic mix of Irish step-dancing (which my mother taught), country -- Grand Ol' Opry -- Broadway show tunes (Manhattan Merry-Go-Round), opera, classical, the best of the pop music of the time and -- jazz. Jazz was the music I leaned toward the most. I enjoyed all the rest but jazz -- even when I didn't have any idea what to call it -- made my ears stand up and my heart pump with enthusiasm.
I was born into a golden age of music. By 1934 when I was born great music of all genres had already been commonplace for years. Anyone who missed the stellar days of radio can't imagine. Television served a purpose I guess but what it displaced will never be replaced. But with all the choices at my disposal it was not just jazz but the wonderful jazz pianists -- James P. Johnson, Fats Waller, Willie "The Lion" Smith, Mary Lou Williams, then as time went by, Nat Cole, Bud Powell, Erroll Garner and, as they say, the list is endless.
My next older brother was one of those people who just sat down one day and played. He was ten. There was a piano in a local rec center. He decided on a random night to play something, sat on the bench and played it. He turned to his friends and said, "hey, I can do this!" And he was off. His tastes were pretty much the same as mine, it turned out, but I wouldn't be born for another year so there was no way to know that. In a few years WWII broke out and he was drafted into the Army Air Corps Engineers and in no time found himself on Okinawa. While he was there he was sending money home for me to take piano lessons. I studied with the Sisters Of The Immaculate Heart, good teachers, the best, but Sister Mary Ursula had no idea what she was up against. Always curious I wanted to know what the stuff in the back of the book and the sheet music in our piano bench at home was. It all looked like someone had taken a fountain pen and sprayed those pages. The good sister would just tell me, "you're not ready for that yet." But I'd still be thinking, "what is it? How does this lead to that?" And my friends kept telling me, "if you had it you'd be doing it by now." Of course, I eventually got discouraged and -- quit.
After Hiroshima and Nagasaki that brother came home. With a house full of people waiting to greet him he arrived in a taxi with a three day growth of beard and a duffle bag. The first thing on his list was to hear me play. I played, if one could call it that, and he said, "that's it?"
I never stopped loving the instrument but I didn't try to play again for many years. But I listened, always mesmerized by the chops of those people -- Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, Marian McPartland -- How do they do it?
An interjection is necessary here but again I won't make a tangent of it. Through all my young years there was one thing I never stopped hearing. "You have a lot of weird ideas." From my friends, family, everybody I expressed any of these ideas to. I mention this because it becomes a major part of this story. There was also a period of seemingly hopeless alcoholism too. I broke free of that -- with help -- at twenty-five. One large obstacle down. So onward.
In 1963 I moved from Philadelphia to Los Angeles. In Los Angeles I started college, for the first time in my life, at the age of 34. After I had been in that school for a semester or two I noticed that as an elective I could take piano study. Almost on a caprice I decided to take the course. The first night in that class I met an amazing teacher. He assured us all that we'd play the piano. He convinced me almost immediately. Some kind of insight came over me, I guess, but I knew I would play. Not Vladamir Horowitz maybe, but I'd play. He assigned two practice books and I bought them right away.
As it happened the course was filled when I signed up and the teacher allowed me to stay for a few weeks in case somebody dropped out. Nobody did and I had to leave the class. But something in that man's attitude and his approach to teaching and learning stayed with me. I rented an instrument and practiced. And practiced. In my time in LosAngeles I had met some of my jazz idols. Even those from Philly I met in L.A. Jazz players, I found, were usually quite generous with their time and encouragement. Especially the more successful ones. One great drummer, when I told him I never had much talent but I had always loved the instrument, said, "heyyy, I seen a lotta guys go a long way on a love of the instrument." Another fine player, a saxophonist, when I mentioned that I was a slow learner, said, "some of us learn slow, some learn fast but we all wind up playing together!"
There were years of personal turmoil -- marital stuff mostly -- and I wound up going back and forth across the country, wasting valuable years. Too much to go into except to say that there were setbacks. But wherever I was if I could aquire a piano I played, sometimes well, sometimes not so great, but I kept playing when I could.
Another interjection is needed here. About all those people who were always telling me I had a lot of weird ideas -- another benefit derived from my attending Los Angeles Valley College. I was an English major and in the first English class I took I met another invaluable teacher. His name was Monty Hart and he had designed the course and written the text books, The course was in five parts and each part required a pre-test. If the student got a 90 or better he didn't have to take that part of the course. I got my 90-something in the first part and went on to the second part which was Principles of Logic. I flunked the pre-test, got a 70. Monty Hart knew what I had done. He was that perceptive. The answers to the questions were so obvious that I thought they were trick questions and answered as if the obvious answers couldn't possibly be. I wound up glad that I had flunked the pre-test because what happened remedied the "weird ideas" problem forever. First, I had to study the Principles of Logic section which was so valuable and reassuring to me that I wouldn't have missed it for anything. Then, with just Monty Hart and me in the room, he issued me another test and warned me that it would be much harder than the pre-test. I aced it with room to spare. He said, "wanta try for a higher score?" I did and got a better grade, both of these over the 90 which was no longer required. He smiled and said, "wanta try again?" I agreed and he said, as he handed me the test, "I want you to approach this as if you have ice water in your veins. No feeling, just what's there." I got 99.9.
Back to music. Over the years I had mostly been a machinist but by the 'ninety's the trade was going to Asia. I was living in Reading, PA by that time, mostly by default, the same way I'm living in Cape May, NJ now. Circumstances. Between the trade going to Asia and other places where labor was cheap and after my fifth heart attack and fourth surgery I was making a living through a day-labor place. Hard physical work, rock quarry for a while, loading trucks, unloading trucks, wherever they sent me. Then one day when there wasn't any work at the day -labor place I went to what, in Pennsylvania, they call Career Link, a service of the Dept. of Unemployment. I pulled up a listing on their computer for a security guard job and when the screen said, "do you want to apply for this job? I clicked yes and three days later I was a guard in a bank. Across the street from that bank was a YMCA. The Y had a Yamaha concert grand in an auditorium on the second floor. I knew some people over there and they let me come over when I could and play on that grand.
One day I went up there and there was a black man playing a nice blues that I liked so I just stood out of the way and listened. He and I got talking a little and he said, "play something." I played one of my favorite tunes and he said, "play something else" and I did. It turned out that he and his wife were producing a segment of the Reading/Berks Jazz Fest, one of the top jazz fests in the country. He asked me to play in it. At first I said, "whoa! I can't do that, you'll have world class players there. No way." He said, "you can do it." The next time he insisted and as I was in the middle of saying, "no," I said, "what the hell... Why not?"
On the night of the first event I got there before the other musicians (the "other" musicians) and told them I couldn't sit in with them or have them sit in with me. I didn't have that much confidence. The main headliner, a fine sax player named Frank Guido, said, "just have fun, that's what we're gonna do."
I played two sets of solo piano that were very well received. A few people in that audience -- 75 people -- knew me and had no idea I played. They asked me to come back the next night which I'd have loved to do but Marian McPartland, who was 86 at the time was playing nearby and I didn't want to miss her (she was 86). They asked me to come back the next year but I had just been unjustly fired from my security job, which I loved, and was very depressed, too much so to trust myself playing for an audience.
However. I was 69 the night I played in that jazzfest and had never done anything like that in my life. If it's still here maybe I should throw in the write-up they gave me in their brochure. (Just looked for it; it's not here. Can't believe I'd be that careless.)
Since this is a re-creation of a blog that I submitted and that got lost and I'm pretty fatigued I left out some of the wonderful piano players who taught me in L.A. A woman, a Julliard graduate, who after I had taught myself for a year answered almost instantly the questions that had gathered while I taught myself; Buddy Motsinger who had played with Charlie Parker and other jazz giants; JoAnne Grauer, a good friend and a musical genius who was so much fun to study with. JoAnne would do things like this in the middle of a lesson: she had perfect pitch and rather than explain what that was she'd turn her back on me and tell me to hit any cluster of notes on the piano and make them as dissonant as possible. I'd do it and she'd tell me every note I'd played. Once she missed one and she couldn't believe it. She said, "play it again." I did, the same ten notes, and she said, "B-flat!" It was. Sadly, I called JoAnne in April to wish her a happy birthday and she had gone into dementia. Alzheimer's. A fabulous musical mind -- gone.
This entire reminiscence was inspired by a blog post of Katherine Gregor's. As I've told many people many times, Everything reminds me of something.