Confirmation: The 2004 Telluride Jazz Celebration
"It's like you really know you are meeting one of the greats, because they are just so encouraging and embracing. They are so genuine about what you are doing." said Mike Dillon as he looked up from arranging his congas. We were on stage, and he was putting together his "percussive corner" at Fly Me To The Moon Saloon in Telluride, Colorado, about to play the unofficial closing to this year's Telluride Jazz Celebration, where he was stage-hopping all weekend. We were discussing the Miles set I had played in the park, when Larry Coryell joined us to close with "All Blues". Dillon truly verbalized my reflections in meeting Coryell, while being that genuine himself. He had no idea he was in fact the prototype he had just described. I learned that, and so much more from Dillon while we played that night on stage.
I thought back to just one year before, when I was making my way through my first set at the now extinct Roma Restaurant and Bar. My band had traveled from New York to play the Telluride Jazz Raynier Institute & Foundation Elks' Park Free Stage, as well as a few night gigs at local venues. During our break, legendary jazz guitarist Larry Coryell walked in off the street, with guitar in hand. He had just arrived in Telluride for the festival, where he was to perform with his trio. The "Godfather of Fusion", and one of my personal heroes, took charge of the room with just a few glances, and quickly agreed to join our band for a bit. Within moments there was an amplifier dialed up to his preference, and an audience that had nearly doubled in size. With the coolest demeanor, the most genuine respect and kindness, and with a hand on our shoulders, Coryell pushed us. I was in awe to be making music with Larry Coryell; attempting to listen to each humbling note and inflection. It was impossible to contain my nerves, as the list of greats who stood along side Coryell ran through my mind: Hendrix, Scofield, Miles Davis, David Sanborn, Sonny Rollins, John McLaughlin, Maynard Ferguson, Stephane Grapelli, Chick Corea, Charles Mingus, etc. for starters!
As we started into our own adaptation of "In a Silent Way", he tastefully and texturally elevated our sound to a new level. He sat in a chair beside me, with a warm and powerful presence. As we played guitar side by side I became overwhelmed and tense with humility. Sensing that my playing was reserved, he looked up at me dead in the eye with a question-by-guitar, and I reacted to answer him as sharply and quickly as I could. That first moment, the first interaction, when I introduced myself to this guitar master, is a moment I will never forget. It was the perfect conversational ice-breaker, and following almost immediately was the most incredible, warming, and easing smile as he called out, "Yeah!" He was vibrant, excited, and made us groove.
The next day, during Kenny Garrett's main-stage performance at the festival, the man we now call "Uncle Larry" pulled up a chair next to mine. The way in which he embraced our quartet was as genuine. The manner in which he taught me, coached me, and encouraged me was fatherly, with a comfortable distance reserved for genuine friendship; the kind that immediate family can often mask. Amongst the younger generation at the festival, he was indeed Uncle Larry.
"Do you understand what is going on here? Can you hear what he is playing?" he whispered to me.
Though I listened to jazz regularly, though I was a studying musician, and though I was able to recognize, appreciate, and dissect the improvising, I knew I could not be true to anyone in answering "Yes". My formal training had been brief, and I had been playing guitar less than a decade. What Kenny Garrett was doing on stage that day was a mystery to me. The nearly chemical riffs; and the layered, exponential, complexities were far beyond my grasp and my knowledge.
"Not really," I answered anxiously.
"Do you know where this comes from?" he asked as a curious eyebrow rose. There was a brief moment as I tried to quickly listen and make a connection. "This all comes from Byrd, Dizz, Miles, and Coltrane. You have to learn this! " he smiled. He truly wanted me to learn it, and just then, I wanted to.
By the time The John Scofield Band was done blazing through their set, Coryell and I had plans to meet sometime in New York for a lesson. In just a few meetings that weekend, this master musician had given me so much encouragement and confidence. He was so eager to push me in the right direction, and it was so reassuring. I remembered this moment with Mike Dillon. Just this July, before the festival, Larry Coryell and I met in New York for my first Bebop lesson.