The first music I remember hearing was country. My dad was from Oklahoma, and his musical tastes reflected his heritage. He controlled the radio in the car, and so that’s all I knew. I don’t remember having a radio in the house when I was a kid, although we probably did.
When I was ten, two things happened. For some reason we got a console electronic organ in our fourth grade classroom, and we took turns playing on it with headphones. I remembered thinking the “clarinet” sound from the organ was very cool. And, I got a transistor radio. It was by Westinghouse, and I vaguely remember my dad objecting to it because it came from Japan, and it wasn’t that long ago that he had been bombing the crap out of them. But it opened up a whole new world for me, and I heard things I immediately responded to and it set me on a lifelong path.
Then in the sixth grade we had the opportunity to learn an instrument, and so I picked the clarinet. My parents went into debt to buy it; it was a Pan American (Conn) hard rubber clarinet, and cost $80 if I remember correctly. It played OK but not great, but it was good enough to get me started. I remember learning “Glow Worm” and getting immediately how the thing worked. I also remember picking up a Beatles songbook for clarinet, and another one with 100 pop songs or something like that. I distinctly remember playing House of the Rising Sun, which really sounds goofy on the clarinet.
In junior high I got into the “intermediate band” (directed by Mr. McAlexander, who was a great guy), and realized that I was never going to be a great clarinet player, and that there were others who were better and always would be. So, in the interest of reduced competition, I took up the bass clarinet, which turned out to be a huge amount of fun, easier to play, and much less stressful. We would play things like Hawaii Five-O and pep band stuff a lot. And then… one day in 9th grade Mr. Mac showed up with a super long black case, and asked if I would try it. It was a Leblanc EEb straight contralto clarinet, brand new, from the high school. The thought was that I could work on that, and specialize in it during high school, which was exactly what I did.
There were, however, a couple of obstacles. One was that there wasn’t a lot of music explicitly written for the instrument, so I had to learn to read bass clef. And, it took a LOT of air. Knowing what I know now, I would have to say that the tip opening on the mouthpiece was too open; eventually I learned how to work on the reeds and soften them up so I could at least hit the lower register without passing out.
When I got to high school (Thurston High School, Springfield, OR), I was lucky in that the music program was strong, well-established, and had lots of talent and momentum. The band program was led by Royce Osborne, who was not only an excellent musician and teacher but a great human being in general. He has always been one of my personal heroes and was a mentor to me for a long time. I played contralto clarinet in the concert band, along with a couple of excellent bass clarinet players (Sheryl and Carol). That physically placed me next to the last chair clarinet player, who is my friend to this day (Keith).
One of our activities that year was a band trip to Victoria, BC, which was quite an adventure. I’d never been anywhere much, so this was a totally new experience in a lot of ways. I’m not exactly sure where the first concert we played was; it may have been Port Angeles because I know we took the Coho ferry to Victoria. But I *do* remember the jazz ensemble. I’d never heard anything like it; they opened with Final Analysis by Don Ellis, and it was beyond amazing. I knew then that I was going to have to learn the saxophone, if only so I could be in THAT BAND. They had TWO DRUMMERS who were equally good, and strong players in almost every chair. The lead trumpet player, Brad Allison, went on to become a pro. The piano player, Gene Skinner, arranged for the band as well, which was a major plus. I remember his arrangements of “Thunder and Lightning” and “Old Fashioned Love Song” were pretty good. The band had Phil Wilson in for a clinic (“Piano Fortress” is on the record from that clinic) that year, and also gigged constantly around the area for dances and proms and whatnot.
We made a double album that year, one disk jazz, one disk concert band. I still have it, and I am still amazed at how good we were. The cut of Basie Straight Ahead is particularly good, and Channel One Suite is awesome along with Final Analysis and its odd time signatures. There is also a short cut on it of a clarinet quartet piece, called just “The Blues” or something like that on which I play bass clarinet.
That summer I attended band camp (I know…) at the U of O, where I played the contralto clarinet. The next year I made it into the regional and state honor bands, again on contralto clarinet. I think that was probably because nobody else HAD one.
I had somehow made friends with the lead alto player, a very cool cat named Barry Bogart. He taught me a lot, and that summer I took home one of the school’s two bari saxes (an old Conn, I think) and taught myself how to play it out of the Rubank book. The previous occupant of the bari chair, a guy named Norm Dahlquist, had graduated, and so in September I found myself in the bari sax chair of the best high school jazz ensemble in the state. Gulp. Luckily I had some good teachers; the alto players in the band (Mitch Costin and Vic Myers) were both monster players and good mentors. By then I was playing the other bari sax the school owned, a King Tempo with a Brilhart Level-Aire mouthpiece. There had been some turnover in the band, but most of the key players were still onboard and we still were a damn good band. I remember playing a lot of gigs that year, and taking my first solo. And it turned out I had a certain amount of talent. Playing bari in a big band takes a certain skill set, and a certain mind set. It’s complicated, and not always straightforward, and I was pretty good at it.
That summer a bunch of us piled into Royce’s station wagon and drove to Sacramento for the Kenton “Jazz Orchestra in Residence” program. Basically this was a week at Sac State; each day we had an hour of theory with Phil Rizzo, then playing all day in bands and sectionals, then a concert each night by the Kenton band. Our sectionals were run by Roy Reynolds, one of the two bari players in that incarnation of the Kenton band. I could not for the life of me understand how he could chain smoke and yet still play bari. He gave me a key piece of advice – “Kid, always play louder than you think is necessary, until somebody tells you to quiet down”, delivered in a grizzled old veteran voice. Words to live by.
That fall we got a pile of money in the band budget somehow; we picked up a Fender Rhodes, a keyboard bass, a bigass PA, and a brand new Selmer Mark VI low A baritone. Be still my heart🙂. It was AWESOME (although the middle E was pretty far out of tune). But the downside was that we had suffered a lot of attrition, and I ended up playing lead bari a lot. We tried hard, and actually attempted a couple of Maynard Ferguson charts with Jim Svoboda on lead. I know we recorded a bunch of things that year on reel to reel tape; no idea what happened to those. There was one chart in particular I liked called Moon Song that I remember taking a really awesome solo on – now I wonder just how awesome it was🙂. I thought I was a pretty good soloist then, even though I was totally lazy and didn’t know a bunch of the scales. It was more about instinct and feel, I think. We gigged a lot as usual and went to a lot of festivals and whatnot, and it was a good year overall. I was voted “outstanding jazz musician” that year; I haven’t been in the band room at Thurston lately so I have no idea if the plaque is still on the wall (probably not!).
People talk a lot about how they learned about leadership and teamwork in high school sports, and they talk about their coaches and student leaders and stuff like that. Well, I learned all that IN BAND. Playing in a big band is essentially a 22 person team, with four subteams and leaders that you are trained to follow no matter what. You learn teamwork real fast when you’re in the middle of a dance chart and the rhythm section drops the ball. I learned early on how to behave as a professional, and it’s served me to this day.
In the summer we went again to the Kenton camp – this was 1974. I took the Greyhound down this time; it was kind of weird because one of the lower doors on the bus CAME OPEN somewhere up in the Siskiyous and some luggage came out. Luckily neither the Selmer nor the bass clarinet I had with me fell out of the bus! That year the band I was in played a chart called “Indra” by Hank Levy that had a soprano solo in the bari part. Luckily my friend and fellow bari player Norm had a brand new Selmer soprano that he let me borrow; I had never played one before, and it was quite an experience. I have a distinct memory of being up on stage in front of hundreds of people, playing soprano for the second time only, in 9/8 (I think), and TOTALLY SUCKING. Or at least making some pretty odd noises. Ah well, it was the 70s.
So in the fall of 1974 I started at the University of Oregon, which has a very strong music program. I had taken a hard look at my transcript, however, and realized that two hours a day of band during high school was a fair chunk of time, and I decided to quit music and concentrate on class work. This lasted until the following year, when I signed up for the Duck marching band. I borrowed a tenor sax (I think it was an early Yanigasawa, looking back. Good horn.) and played in the marching band and the pep band. These were not the glary years of Duck football, and we were seldom victorious. We in the band were of the opinion that we were better than the football team was, generally speaking. Although we had practically no budget to speak of; I remember going to an away game in Seattle and being amazed at the obvious wealth of the Husky band. And they knew it too, and treated us like dirt. Did I mention this was also the year I learned to drink beer? I did not, however, get back into jazz. This was a result of an ill-timed kidney stone the day of my audition for the renowned U of O jazz ensemble. But I continued to play in the pep band, switching to bari and being one of the cornerstones of the band through the Kamikaze Kid era at Mac Court. The band was directed for a couple of years by a guy named John Schuberg, who was a great leader and director. We had some awesome musicians in the pep band, and we had a LOT of fun. We were legendary, and feared, throughout the conference. And so I once again became a band geek – but I never became a music major. That was just looking for trouble🙂.
In 1979 I was once again faced with a dilemma, and I decided to drop out of band activities so I could graduate college. I managed to stumble out of the side door at the U of O finally in 1980, and got a job in Portland. I rented a bari for a while from Portland Music, and played in the PCC adult jazz band for a couple of quarters, but it was frustrating and so I quit. And that was it till 1998. I had been watching big bands now and again at community festivals, and it seemed to me that there was no reason why I couldn’t play that well. Most of the bari players I saw sucked, and I just missed the music. A lot. I’ve always got a tune in my head, and I know I have to play. It’s a central element in me, for good or bad. And so, after some soul searching, I went to the WWBW site, and ordered up a new Yani 990 bari, which at that time set me back $4500 (choke). And I started to practice a bit, and it came back to me. The horn was perfectly set up, and better than the Selmer I had played in high school. I started to experiment with the sound, with reeds and mouthpieces, and soon got to a place where I thought I would not embarrass myself. The horn played like a dream, was perfectly in tune, and after a bit I got another Brilhart mouthpiece like I had in high school, and I was rolling.
So I signed up, once again, for PCC Monday night adult education jazz band class. It was then directed by an old big band vet named Frank Leuck. The band was gigging a lot, mostly due to pro management by my friend and trombone player Ken Stine, and I was immediately thrown into the deep end of the pool. I think I sight read half the charts at the first gig🙂. But Frank and I got along well, the band had some good players and vocalists, and it was overall a pretty good experience. We played the Oregon State Fair, the Portland Rose Festival, the grand opening of the Oregon Convention Center expansion, something at OMSI, and the Cathedral Park Jazz Festival, among other gigs. We were quite busy. Frank, however, was good at alienating some folks; he used to spend time yelling at people who really didn’t deserve it, and we lost some good folks that way. The other issue was that the band was making a fair amount of money… which was going into the PCC slush fund. Hmm. So we had a band meeting and decided to split away from the school. Ken had bought a big band music library from someone, and so we struck out on our own. The trouble with *that* scenario was that once we were no longer associated with PCC, the gigs dried up for some reason. We blew a bunch of money playing at the Bridgeport Brewpub; the gig was OK but Frank was drunk the whole time and the crowd was, well, not as large as it might have been.
So we broke up with Frank and got Jack Quinby, awesome trombone player, to direct the band. We were rehearsing at that point at the Kingstad Center near the Nike campus, and had several open rehearsals where people just showed up and danced and listened for free. I remember at one of them a high school kid came up and told me that I was the best bari sax player he had ever heard. I managed to be gracious about it🙂. Around this time I also played in the Duck alumni band a couple of times, which was a surreal experience. It’s like the 70s never happened; no one even thought there WAS a band during those years. Where do you think the arrangement of All Right Now you guys are STILL PLAYING came from? Yes, the Stanford band room. But that’s another story…
I also played in the One More Time Around Again marching band for a few years, for the Rose Parade. That was a physical challenge; marching five miles with a bari is not really fun.
Also during that timeframe I picked up some other horns, as I had some disposable income. I got a soprano, alto, tenor, clarinet, flute, and bass clarinet as well as a Telecaster and a Fender Precision Bass just for the hell of it. And a whole drum set, which I never quite figured out how to master. Apparently I don’t have the drummer gene although I always thought I did. Hmm. My clarinet chops are not good, but I can still do pretty well on bass clarinet.
The last gig I remember playing with that band was at the Jenkins Estate in Aloha; somewhere there is some video of it but I never saw it😦. Not long after we moved to Seattle.
Since being in Seattle I’ve played a LOT more. Seems like the music scene in Seattle is much busier than in PDX, with many more big bands and other groups to play in. My horns were all in storage for about six months while our house was being built; when I finally got them out I started playing with the Woodinville Community Band on bari in the jazz band. I managed to connect up with a number of other players, and have substituted on bari, tenor, and alto for the Mach One Jazz Orchestra, Route 66 Big Band, Moonlight Swing Orchestra, Sophisticated Swing, and Critical Mass. And I’ve actually gotten paid a few times! I’ve also played in some smaller groups, and the Microsoft Jazz Band. And I’ve been playing bass clarinet and contrabass clarinet in the Woodinville Community Band (courtesy of Jim Glass and his extensive instrument collection) and also have substituted in the Washington Wind Symphony on bari sax and bass/contrabass clarinet. During the course of this I’ve been on a seemingly endless quest to find the perfect folding music stand, as well as stand lighting (currently Peak stand with Super Giglight) and have spent a lot of time on ebay trading mouthpieces (now on RPC on bari).
Probably the coolest thing I’m up to currently is the Eastside Modern Jazz Orchestra, which is what the community band jazz band has mutated into. Neil Proff is directing, and we are definitely a non-traditional group. We play a fair amount of funk, and other unexpected things. The band is really gelling now and we have a number of gigs lined up.
So where is my head at now? I think I sound better than ever. I think this is partly experience, and partly luck. I think it was advantageous to play contralto clarinet when I was a teenager, and I think it worked to build up my lung capacity. Anyone will tell you the key to a good bari sound is breath support, and I have that. Usually. I am also a bari player by inclination and training; as I mentioned above, playing bari in a big band is a challenging and unique thing, and it’s what I do. I find I’m uncomfortable playing tenor or alto; I just can’t get my head around it. Especially since second alto and fourth tenor are usually unrewarding (but important) roles. I don’t have the soloing chops to play lead tenor, and I’ve never tried lead alto. Maybe I should one of these days.
And about small groups – I don’t like them that much in jazz. To me it’s almost always bunch of noodling, usually done to show off for other musicians rather than actually engage the audience. Too much of bop in my view is inward looking, not outward. I find it boring; the musicianship is usually astounding, and I totally respect that, but it’s damn hard to whistle the changes to Giant Steps on the way home. I guess I’m just not cool enough🙂.
I relish the drama and power of a full big band; that is what pushes my buttons and it’s what I will continue to pursue until my lungs give out.