In the nearly sixteen years I've been at my post as resident Genius here at AAJ, the question has often come up as to how I came to be the Dean of American Jazz Humorists®. As most of you know, I was born in Kentucky to West Virginia hillbillies and raised in the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia. Clifton Forge, my hometown, was not known as a hotbed for Our Music; nor was the nearest "city" of Roanoke, where the Jazz scene consisted solely of a guy who had once felt up Bessie Smith
at a cotillion. I was educated in Mars Hill, North Carolina, and have spent the balance of my life in a place where Jazz is as culturally relevant as Mongolian throat singing.
So there I was.
It was the winter of 1980 and, at the age of twelve, I was entranced by Chuck Mangione
's recording of "Feels So Good," which was popular on the radio at the time. I decided that I wanted to play whatever instrument it was that he played, so I marched into the band director's office (not literally, people stare when you do that. I walked) and joined the band. At which point I was put to use addressing a need rather than my own wants, and was given a baritone horn to learn. I was disappointed, of course, but desirous to learn any instrument so that I could later transition to the flugelhorn.
I barely had time to learn even the basics of the baritone horn before I found myself in eighth grade, and thus in the high school marching band. Clifton Forge High School encompassed grades eight through twelve, plus a special grade for people who just couldn't seem to get their sh*t together. I became a Mighty Marching Mountaineer by default, thrown into the low brass section with people who had been playing their instruments for years. But, I was more of a team player in those days. I was determined to give it my all for the old green and gold.
High school marching band repertoire in those days consisted mainly of current radio hits and Seventies pop tunes from our band director Carolyn G. (Go-Go) Altizer's high school and college days. We played everything from Blood Sweat and Tears's "Spinning Wheel" to The Knack's "My Sharona." But one tune in our folder merited special attention, a greatly simplified arrangement of Benny Goodman
's "Sing, Sing, Sing." Even abridged to the level of teenagers coming of age in the disco era, the song was as propulsive and exhilarating as it was when Goodman himself played it at Carnegie Hall. At least, it was to those of us who were in the band for reasons other than to get into football games for free.
At this point, I'd like to say that it was this exposure to Jazz that began me on my path towards becoming the Dean of American Jazz Humorists® but that would be wrong. For one thing, there were no record stores in the Alleghany Highlands at that time, and none of the outlets where albums and eight tracks could be purchased carried anything jazzier than Steely Dan. NPR didn't reach that far into the mountains, and PBS was for The Electric Company
(featuring a young Morgan Freeman at his hippest) and moldy Masterpiece Theater
Computer technology was just becoming available for average people to use, but the Internet was still beyond even Al Gore's wildest dreams. And even if there was a place to go to find Jazz, such as Roanoke, I wouldn't have known what to look for. Mention Miles Davis
or John Coltrane
to me then, and you would have been greeted with the same blank stare people get today when they ask me what my favorite network television show is. As great as "Sing, Sing, Sing" was and is yet, it was to me still a lone voice in the wilderness.
Fast forward a bit to 1983. I'm now a sophomore and low brass section leader. Both the upperclassmen and the band director who were so influential on me are gone. I have taken to the baritone horn, and am teaching myself trombone. My days of wanting to be the next Chuck Mangione
are behind me. Along comes a new band director, Bill Hammanfresh out of West Virginia Wesleyanwho brings with him a visit from that college's Jazz ensemble. He also brings a knowledge and love of Jazz that would be instrumental (no pun intended, but I'll take what I can get) in forming my own love of Our Music.
It is no coincidence that 1983 was also the year an exceptionally roundheaded young trumpeter from New Orleans
burst onto the scene with a performance on the Grammy Awards telecast that drew my attention away even from a still-black Michael Jackson. On my next trip to the Star City of Roanoke, I purchased Wynton Marsalis's Think of One
Somewhere in my memory, there is the recollection of the epochal moment the needle of my record player dropped into the first groove of the opening tune, "Knozz Moe King." I prefer to remember it as the very instant I was irretrievably hooked on Our Music. But like most of my memories of that time of my life, like those of my first girlfriend or my days on the CFHS wrestling team, my reminiscences are colored by the accumulation of both tribulation and the banal realities of regular life that filter everything through the hopelessly clichéd rose colored spectacles that adulthood applies to one's own youth. In short, Think of One
was not, at the time, the watershed moment I like to remember it as being. It was, even to my preternaturally hip fifteen-year-old self, in a word confusing
Make no mistake, I dug it. But I didn't understand it. Why the hell is the drummer not just laying down a simple back beat, like they did with all the music to which I was accustomed? Even in my entrant into Jazz, "Sing, Sing, Sing," the legendary Gene Krupa
drove the beat with a relentless but measured assault on the skins. Jeff Tain Watts
seemed to be on his own planet, both respecting the fact that there was in fact a beat to the tune, but disregarding any effort to lay it down in terms someone with my limited musical training could comprehend.
Imagine my chagrin.
In fact, it wasn't just the drummer, but the entire concept of rhythm as I understood it that was being called into question. My rudimentary knowledge of syncopation was not so developed as to allow for the seemingly loosey-goosy treatment that Marsalis & Co. were giving the sacrosanct beat. Of course, I had played on the "and" part of the beat, but I couldn't imagine this much "and." This brand of Jazz seemed to be playing by its own rules, and not particularly interested in explaining what those rules might be.
Then, there was melody to be considered. The songs I had listened to thus far in my young life had one and it was straightforward, recognizable, singable. Even as badly as my high school band mangled "My Sharona," it was still identifiable. The songs on Think of One
had melodies, but they weren't the kind of thing one would whistle while running up Rose Street Hollow during wrestling practice. It seemed as though Mr. Marsalis and his band mates were intent on playing whatever the hell they felt like, consequences be damned. If it was melodious, fine; if not, so be it.
I did not understand, of course, that there were in fact volumes of Jazz that had led to this point. Wynton Marsalis
had not created anything new, in a sense, as much as he had built upon something that had its beginnings in those jam sessions that had produced Bebop. I had no way of knowing that at the time; Dizzy Gillespie
and Charlie Parker
were as foreign to me as was the New York pizza that stood in stark contrast to the Pizza Hut pies to which I was accustomed. Which is, in itself, an article for another time.
In the meantime, my beloved Clifton Forge Mountaineers had consolidated with the Alleghany County High School Colts to become the Alleghany Mountaineers. Gone were the decorous Green Bay Packers' green and gold, replaced by the garish Houston Oilers' colors of cyan and red. Bill Hamman became an assistant band director under Ken Large, a mentor in his own right. But more importantly, Hamman was handed control of the nascent Jazz ensemble. Which is where I found myself in 1984, on bass trombone. And, perhaps not coincidentally, where I would leave my mark playing Chuck Mangione
's "Children of Sanchez" at a band festival in Toronto
The rest, of course, is history. I'd go on to major in music at Mars Hill College and Virginia Commonwealth University, plumbing the depths of Our Music as both a musician and listener over the next thirty plus years. Somewhere in the Nineties, I discovered that I was a better writer than I was a musician. I happened upon the great humorists of the TwentiesRing Lardner, Robert Benchley and S.J. Perelmanand stole from them as shamelessly as had Woody Allen decades before. The Internet came along and with it, AllAboutJazz.com. Autumn turned into winter, winter to spring. People married and died. I took the mantle of the Dean of American Jazz Humorists® mostly because no one else showed up for the gig.
I pulled out Think of One
the other day for the first time in many years. The CD still occupies a place of honor right next my precious Coltrane box sets, but hasn't been played in years. I expected a blast from the past, an instant conduit to the halcyon days of high school when the world was a simpler and, arguably, a better place. I expected to spontaneously lose 100 pounds, regain a girlfriend, and receive a call from my long-departed parents. If only.
What I did not expect was how fresh it still sounds. There is a certain timelessness to it that is present in most all better music. It is no surprise that Marsalis, steeped in Jazz as he was from the days of his upbringing in his hometown of New Orleans
to his stint with the inestimable Art Blakey
, would defy the temptation to make music of the moment filled with synthesizers and quasi-urban beats. There is nothing that dates the music to the early Eighties; it would have been as at home in 1957 as it is in 2017. I cannot say the same for most of the things I was into when I was fifteen. Have you seen Cyndi Lauper lately? Actually, she still looks pretty good. Forget I said anything.
It would be an understatement of epic proportions to say that the world today is drastically different from the world of 1983. Back then, Russia was our enemy and some people were convinced that the president was an unstable and incompetent man who was going to destroy us all. How silly that seems now.
As for Wynton Marsalis, it could be argued (by me, here) that he is the de facto face of Our Music. He is positioned to be one of Our Music's elder statesmen and most influential voices. He certainly has the roundest head. He is also, the last I checked (3:37 PM, March 26th), still making music. The intervening thirty-four years have been kinder to him than they have to me; though, to be fair, most of my wounds have been self-inflicted. I have no one to blame for my early Nineties mullet but myself.
In his storied career, Marsalis has made better albums. He's won eight other Grammys besides the one he won for his first album. His accolades and accomplishments would fill Lincoln Center, where he is the managing and artistic director of their vaunted Jazz program. But everybody has to start somewhere, and it would be safe to say that both of us owe at least part of where we are today to Think of One
Till next time, kids, exit to your right and enjoy the rest of AAJ.