Sunday, January 9, 2011

Puking at the Monterey Jazz Festival - Part II: The British Chick

We got to the Monterey County Fairgrounds late in the afternoon. It was a nice warm Indian summer day. I think this may have been the first event I ever attended where I was given a wrist band at the gate. The wrist band allowed us to stroll grounds and then to enter the arena where the main stage was.

The grounds where interesting. The offerings reminded me a little of Telegraph Avenue -- Telegraph Avenue in a more pastoral setting. There were lots of long-haired artisans selling macrame, homemade candles, t-shirts, and various kinds of artwork.

Further in, there was a side stage where local bands entertained the crowds on their way to the main stage. And throughout the grounds solo instrumentalists were positioned in odd spaces, noodling on saxophones, strumming on guitars. All very eclectic.

We had some time to kill before the main show got started, so we wandered about.

I stopped at one large poster board display that told the history of the festival. Pictures of Miles Davis's famous performance in 1963, Brubeck in '66, Sarah Vaughn in '74. In one corner of the display was a piece about the first festival in 1958. I was surprised to read that the Abalone Stompers were the first group to open the festival that year. There was even a small picture of Jake Stock -- a much skinnier Jake -- up on stage with his then trumpet player.

At the 79' festival the line-up included: Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz, Sonny Stitt, and the two Woodys: Woody Shaw, and Woody Herman and his Thundering Herd. I didn't know too much about Woody Shaw or Sonny Stitt at the time, but I was huge fan of Dizzy, Stan, and the Thundering Herd. In my high school jazz band we'd played a few of Woody Herman's charts. I remember Blues for Poland the best.

When we finally went into the arena, I was taken back by the dimensions of the place. It was very long and narrow, like a skinny football field. There was stadium seating all round and then rows and rows and rows of seats on the ground level. I was disappointed to discover that our seats were located at the far back of the ground level. We weren't gonna be able to see shit.

The up side to sitting back in the boonies was that we were located close to the drinks booth. While we were waiting for the show to start I went over and ordered a couple of Bloody Marys for Mark and myself. I was into Bloody Marys in those days for some reason. Before the music started I think I may have even made a second run. This was in addition to a couple of beers I'd had earlier.

Seated next to us were these three women. Two of them were black women with beaded hair-dos. 1979 was the same year the movie 10, starring Bo Derrick, came out and beaded hair-dos were the rage. The other woman was a kind of pale bookish-looking blonde chick.

We sat there and started making conversation with the three. The blonde woman had an English accent. The two black women did not. Rather, they spoke with the standard urban American speech. They could have been from the area, or from SF or LA. I wasn't quite sure how the three all fit together, but they seemed to be friends. They seemed to be interested in us, or at least in Mark who was sitting closest to them.

It turned out that Dizzy Gillespie was the emcee that year. The first thing he did was come out center stage and blow this incredible riff on his bent up horn. When he was done, he did some hep-cat chit-chat about the line-up that night, talking up each of the performers.

Woody and the Thundering Herd started the show. From the distance, it was hard to distinguish the individual musicians. I just remember all that shiny brass reflecting the many-colors of the stage lights. The sound was loud -- long streams of thick saxophone chords -- high-pitched trumpets wailing through the air. That 70s era band music -- Maynard, Woody, Don Ellis -- was fun, but it could get a little monotonous as well. Before long, I was making my way back to the drink booth for another round.

When I got back to my seat, Mark was chatting it up with the three girls. I was informed that, after the show, the girls were going over to the Blue Ox for drinks. They wanted to know if we wanted to come along. Sounded good. I smiled at them. The blonde seemed particularly interested as she smiled back.

As I sipped my drink, I could really start to feel the effects of the alcohol kicking in. My head was starting to spin as the sounds of Woody's Herd pelted me. I needed to cool it.

Dizzy was now sitting in with Woody's band. Very cool -- the blazing trumpet of Dizzy Gillespie riding on top of all that horn power.

After a while, Mark leaned over and said, "Hey, the girls want to know if we want to leave now."

My friend Mark was pretty good at negotiating for sex and it seemed he'd struck up some sort of arrangement with the three women. I was game, but 1) I was really drunk, and 2) I really did want to stay around and at least hear Stan Getz.

Mark could tell I was vacillating. "We got our wrist bands. We can come back later if we want."

Knowing full well we wouldn't be coming back, I took one last look up at the stage and agreed to go. I didn't want to waste my drink, so I took a good-sized chug and then pitched the rest into a trash barrel as we walked out.

It was now dark. Walking back out into the main fairgrounds I could feel the British chick take hold of my arm. Normally my libido would have been all abuzz at the imminent prospect of sex, but as I walked, I was barely aware of her. My head was starting to spin violently; I could feel my equilibrium begin to falter.

"Are you ok, love?"

"I need to sit down."

We walked toward some benches, but before we got there, the heaves began. I staggered over to a tree, braced myself against it, and then fell to my knees. The girl came over and stood beside me. At that moment out it came, big broad gushes of Bloody Mary splashing all over the base of the tree.

"Oh, gawd!" She yelled. "Oh, fuck! The bastard puked on my foot!"

She kept saying oh gawwwwd in her English accent -- the way only the English can say it. She was pissed.

As she walked away I could still hear her saying it again and adding, "Gawwwd. How the fuck am I gonna get this shit off of me?"

They were gone.

Mark came over and stood there till I was done. Finally, I said, "I'm sorry I blew it for us."

"It's alright. You ok?"

"Yeah," I answered feebly.

I crawled a few feet away from the big red puddle of puke that I'd created and laid on my back, looking up at the stars. Appropriately, I could hear the soft sounds of Stan Getz wafting across the air from the arena. He was playing Corcovado.

Quiet nights of quiet stars
Quiet chords from my guitar
Floating on the silence that surrounds us

That was the only time I ever went to The Monterey Jazz Festival. For some reason it's just never really appealed to me after that.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Puking at the Monterey Jazz Festival - Part I: Lolitas in Big Sur

In 1979 I moved down to Monterey to go to school at Monterey Peninsula College (MPC). When I think back on it now, my decision to move to Monterey was probably ill-advised. Many of my life decisions have been ill-advised.

The idea was first implanted in my head by my high school friend Jim. His sister had lived in Monterey and had gone to MPC. I found Jim's sister attractive and thought maybe there were more like her down there. (Odd logic, I know, but I was 19.)

I also remembered taking a trip to Monterey with my family when I was a kid. It was during the summer and it was particularly warm on the days we were there. I remembered making sand castles on the little beach by Lovers' Point. I remembered the white sand beach at Carmel. It was a place of great beauty.

Then there was the Monterey Jazz Festival. I love jazz. I loved it when I was 19 and I love it now. In high school I listened to Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, Herbie Hancock's Headhunters, and the Stan Kenton band. I'd read about how all these guys (cats) had played at Monterey. Monterey, and Newport on the east coast, were meccas for jazz.

So there I was in Monterey. I had moved down in August and when September rolled around it was time for the jazz festival. Another old high school friend of mine, Mark, who was going to Berkeley, came down to go with me.

Mark came down on a Friday afternoon. The immediate thing to do when he arrived was to get high. Marijuana and booze were the drugs of choice. The marijuana back then wasn't as strong as it is today, so you had to keep smoking to maintain a buzz.

After driving around Monterey, checking out MPC and the beaches at Asilomar and Carmel, we decided to drive down to Big Sur.

Even though I was still new to the area, I had discovered Big Sur a couple of weeks earlier when one of my new classmates at MPC coaxed me to drive down to the River Inn with him to check out Jake Stock and the Abalone Stompers. I found out then that it was easy for under-aged guys to get a drink there.

Even though I was only 19, I usually didn't have much of a problem getting served alcohol. I had a fairly thick mustache. I also had the faint beginnings of a bald patch on the back of my head -- a great source of insecurity for me, but it did allow me to get a beer pretty much everywhere I went. My friend Mark, on the other hand, looked about 16. But I figured if there was a place where he wouldn't get carded, it was the River Inn.

By the time we got to Big Sur it was getting late. Probably around 10:00 or so. Jake's band wasn't playing. They usually only played Sunday afternoons. Rather, there was a trio comprised of bass, guitar, and drums. The bass player impressed me in that he was missing a finger from his left hand, but he still swung like hell.

I was right about the River Inn. Mark was able to order drinks with no problem.

After a while, we decided we were hungry. The kitchen must have been closed because we ended up going over to this little store across the parking lot to get some chips and shit for the drive back up.

As we were coming out the door, there was this dude about our age sitting on the steps. He saw us smoking and asked if he could bum a cigarette. He introduced himself as Eric.

We ended up talking to the guy and found out that he lived around there, down the road a bit at this place called Eselen. He asked if we'd heard of it. We hadn't. He then asked us if we could give him a ride.

As I navigated the turns on Highway One, Eric explained to us that his dad was therapist at this retreat center. We asked about the therapy but he was closed mouthed about it all. "It's kind of hard to explain," he said. Maybe he really didn't know what his dad did.

He told us that Eselen was famous for its sulfur hot springs -- that the hot water came right out of the sides of the cliff and that they had built these baths to capture it. "Far out," I thought.

When we got down there, we had to pass this funny little guard shack. Some spaced-out woman recognized Eric and waved us through. Eric explained to us that we were there during non-public hours, but because he lived there, it wasn't a problem. He asked us if we wanted to check out the place. We parked and got out of the car. By then it was getting close to midnight. It was a perfect night. The moon was out and was shining on the surface of a very calm Pacific Ocean.

"The baths are this way," he said. We walked down a short path to the back of this building, went down a few steps, through an open doorway, and ended up in this dressing room that reminded me a little of a pool house.

"You can put your clothes in one of these baskets," Eric said, as he held up something that looked like a shopping basket.

Up until then I wasn't sure whether we were gonna actually go in the baths, but since we were there, why not?

After we undressed, we headed through this other doorway and down another, longer, steeper, darker, flight of stairs. At the bottom we came out onto this landing built on a cliff over the Pacific. I could hear the sound of the surf below. Only the dim yellow light shone down from the room at the top of the stairs, all other light came from the moon and stars.

The smell of the sulfur from the baths was overwhelming. There were two large baths made of concrete. They were about ten by twenty feet, and about three feet high. Water ran over their sides. More steaming water was running into them form pipes protruding from the wall.

I moved to the nearest bath and stuck my foot in. The water was scalding hot and I exclaimed and immediately jerked back. I noticed a woman at the far end of the bath rising a bit out of the water.

I was taken back to realize someone was there. I thought we had the place to ourselves. She was an older woman, probably in her thirties, and having her there was awkward for me -- the naive small town boy.

"This one's not so hot," Eric called over, so I joined him and Mark in the other tub.

He was right. It wasn't so hot. I settled in and, once I became accustomed to the smell of the sulfur, all was bliss. Buzzed from the evening's smoking and imbibing, lulled by the sound of the gentle Pacific, lying naked in the planet's medicinal waters …all very good.

At one point the woman in the other tub got up. I checked her out and remember noticing how she sagged in places. She wasn't a bad looking woman but, as I said, she was old -- in her mid-thirties at least. Perhaps even 40. I thought, if she were only younger, how much more interesting the situation might be.

We must have stayed about an hour. It was hard leaving the baths, but after a while, it was time to go.

When we crept back up the stairs and entered the dressing room, I was shocked to see a group of five or six naked girls milling about. When I say girls, I mean girls as in children. These kids were probably about nine or ten.

As we were drying ourselves off, the girls came over and started chatting with us. A couple of them seemed to recognize Eric. I guess, as the daughters of "enlightened Eselen folk," these kids had no issue with the group nudity thing. The whole situation seemed very routine to them. However, I found it awkward having these little girls standing there checking me out.

Thinking back on it now, that was probably the closest thing to a Lolita experience I've ever had. It wasn't -- I mean the girls were too young, as were we, for it to be a true Lolita experience. At the time, the perversity that comes with age had not yet twisted my mind enough to take me there. But I remember looking back on the experience later and thinking, if those girls had only been two or three years older, it could have gotten real interesting. And much later, as a parent, I remember wondering what those damned Eselen hippies were thinking, letting their daughters run around like that in the middle of the night!

Mark and I drove back up the coast pretty much in silence. We were both pretty burnt. We smoked cigarettes and pondered the day ahead. Tomorrow was the jazz festival.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

BeBop Vertigo

In my last blog (the one about "other horns") I mentioned the legendary flugelhornist Johnny Coles. I actually had the honor of playing with Johnny Coles once. Mentioning his name got me thinking about that gig and about a phenomenon that I call "BeBop Vertigo."

Before I proceed, I should qualify this business about playing with Johnny Coles. I am by no means in the same league with Johnny Coles. It was simply one of those things where I was in the right place at the right time and I got to play with a true world-class musician. There have been a few such instances in my life. For me, such occasions are always exciting and scary at the same time.

The gig took place in the mid-80s at this hotel lounge in Santa Cruz, CA. The leader of the band, Bob, was this rich old guitar player who put together a band as a kind of retirement hobby. He was an ok musician. But his angle was to get a bunch of young, talented (and naive) guys to play for peanuts, then he'd use his business shtick to drum up a bunch of gigs. I have no idea what Bob himself got paid.

Bob was also connected with a lot of the local entertainment folk. One of his connections was Johnny Coles' wife, who did a radio show. He managed to talk her into having Johnny come and sit in with us. That's how the gig happened.

I don't remember the tune that was called, but it was one of those balls-out, 300 beats per minute, tunes from hell, like Just Friends or Cherokee. 1, 2...1-2-3-4, and we were off.

There were a couple of very good musicians in the rhythm section with me: Kenny Wollesen on drums and John Dryden on piano. (Bob opted to sit out.) Both of these guys have since gone on to become career players. At the time Kenny and John were both in high school, but they were still way better players than me, who was in my mid-20s.

Before Coles even got to the second chorus, the experimentation began. John was going off, throwing in substitutions for every other chord change. Kenny was spanking out polyrhythmic shit all over the place, three over four, seven over four, bridging over downbeats. And over it all, there was this incredible be-bop trumpet solo ripping away was wild.

In the meantime, I was hanging on for dear life. For a while, I thought I knew where we were, but it wasn't long before I was adrift in the form. It was like going on some modern amusement park ride and all your buddies are enjoying the hell out themselves and you feel like you're going to puke. Everyone was beaming, just having a gas, while I had a look of terror on my face. "Oh my God, I have no idea where we are. I have no idea where one is."

A friend of mine who had done ski patrol duty described being in a snowstorm as not being able to discern the sky from the ground. That's how I felt musically. I knew what key we were in, and I knew where the pulse was (I think I knew my own name) but that was about it.

Finally, I let go and gave myself over to the vertigo. I played what notes I wanted. I listened to what the others were doing and tried to answer harmonically and rhythmically, but it was all done without roadmap. I was spinning into a psychedelic mandala of sound.

Finally, John did something on the piano that brought me back in. Suddenly, I knew where we were. RELIEF! I was saved. A few bars later, Coles started playing the head again.

Afterward, the legendary horn player turned around, beamed at me, and said. "Far out, man! That was far out."

Little did he know how right he was.

Steve Ackley
Let's Play Jazz

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Other Horns

The mention of Carol Hulbert’s mellophone in my last blog entry made me think of a topic that has always intrigued me.

It’s always been interesting to me how the instrumentation in the modern jazz band came into being. Of particular interest is why certain wind instruments have “made the cut” and others have not.

In Ken Burns’ jazz series on PBS, there’s an excellent presentation of how the early “jazz orchestra” was formed. In turns out that, during the reconstruction era after the Civil War, when the carpet baggers were in charge, that many freed slaves were given the opportunity to become educated. This included music education. As a result, many skilled instrumentalists were produced. In addition to western classical music, brass band (or wind band) music was popular.

For a good read on 19th century brass bands, I found the following article on the Lipscomb University website: The Nineteenth-Century American Wind Band.

As you can see from the photos in the article, in addition to the instruments we’re familiar with (trombone, trumpet, etc.), there were many other instruments in the band: mellophones, alto horns, sax horns, and so on.

Sadly, after the reconstruction period ended, the black population of the south was forced back into subservience. The education and the artistic flowering it produced became stifled. However, as a result, music took a new direction. One that led to what we now know as jazz.

While in the north, the era of John Philip Sousa and uniformed bands performing in big white gazebos on Sunday afternoons came into vogue, the discarded black bandsmen of the south found another outlet known as ragtime.

Early ragtime music was a hybrid of brass band music and early blues (or work songs). The chief figure of ragtime was Scott Joplin.

Even though ragtime bands were smaller-sized, the instrumentation still included many of the horns from the brass band era. It really wasn’t until Dixieland music emerged, and bands became smaller still, that the main four wind instruments (clarinet, trumpet, trombone, and tuba) rose to prominence and the others faded away. Eventually the tuba was replaced by the string bass and the clarinet, though not replaced, was superseded by the saxophone.

But what of these other horns? Jazz is such an open musical form it seems odd that it wouldn't welcome other instruments with other timbres into the mix.

To some degree this has happened.

In the early 1960s, big band leader Stan Kenton incorporated a “mellophonium” section into his band. A mellophonium is really just a mellophone with its bell straightened out. However, the softness of the mellophoniums tended to get buried by the other instruments and the experiment didn’t last.

In the 1970s, Chuck Mangione made a splash with the flugelhorn. Though tuned like a Bb trumpet, the flugel has a larger conical bore that produces a darker (or fatter) more mellow sound. It’s easy to listen to and can be very romantic sounding. Some other flugelhorn notables are: Art Farmer, Kenny Wheeler, Johnny Coles, and Hugh Masekela.

Then there was Maynard Ferguson and his superbone, a trombone that incorporated both slide and valves. Maynard would also take solos on the baritone horn or euphonium. I think I recall that he even tried using the French horn for solos.

Another fun brass instrument is the flumpet, developed David Monette (see: The flumpet is a cross between a flugelhorn and a trumpet (hence the name), capable of the fat sound of a flugel, but also able to get an edge, giving it more versatility. The idea being that players won’t have to switch back and forth between horns.

Here’s a cool video of Dave Matthews Band trumpet player, Rashawn Ross, trying out a flumpet.

But, despite the various forays that have been made, the main wind instruments remain: sax, trumpet, and trombone. Perhaps it’s just natural that things get distilled over time. However, I can’t help hoping that the sounds of these wind instruments may reemerge, adding back forgotten colors into the jazz sound palette.

Steve Ackley
Let's Play Jazz

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Choosing an Instrument - Dick Smothers and Miles Davis

Every musician has his own story about choosing his instrument. Here's mine.

In the public school district where I grew up (Woodland Joint Unified in Woodland, CA) the instrumental music program started in the 5th grade.

In the 5th grade our school's music teacher, Mr. Corvo, came around to my classroom and introduced us to the instruments of the band. (Band, not orchestra -- the string program had been dropped years earlier.) He demonstrated each of the instruments for us and then asked who would like to learn to play an instrument. I raised my hand.

The next week he came back and gave a musical aptitude test to those of us who were interested. As best I recall, this involved discerning pitch -- which tone is higher, which tone is louder -- sort of like a hearing test. The test was important, I later found out, because it determined who would get to use a school instrument and who would have to rent their own.

On that same visit, he asked us to state our instrument of preference. I first said I wanted to play the tuba. I liked the tuba because it was big and heavy and made a nice fat sound.

But Mr. Corvo told me that they usually don't start kids out on the tuba because of its size. He suggested that I choose another brass instrument and later, when I was a little older, I could switch to the tuba if I still wanted. Seeing as how a few other kids had already chosen the trumpet, Mr. Corvo suggested the trombone. I went along.

I guess I didn't do so well on the aptitude test because, when Mr. Corvo came back a third time, he told me I would have to rent a trombone.

I remember going down to Traynham's Music with my mom and renting the trombone. It was an Olds student trombone. It had a brown vinyl case with the inside lined with copper-colored velvet. It was new and had that new instrument smell.

The trombone and I had a very flighty relationship. That first year, being the only trombonist in the school, I took my group lesson with Carol Hulbert who played the mellophone (a precursor to the French horn). Carol progressed a bit faster than me and, by the end of the year, I was disinterested. The instrument just didn't grab me. Plus, I was what, 11 years old? Nuff said.

My next attempt at music came in the 7th grade when they offered a guitar class at the Jr. High. My mom had this Harmony arch top sitting around that I used for the class. (She'd given up trying to learn a few years earlier.) The class was taught by Mrs. Schwartz.

At one point during the semester, Mrs. Schwartz taught us how to do the thumb-brush strum, where you alternately pluck the root and the fifth of the chord with your thumb in the bass register, and then use the rest of your fingers to strum the remainder of the chord. It's sort of the standard country-western strum.

I remember one day, while we were practicing the thumb-brush strum, I thought to myself how easy it would be to play the bass, like Dick Smothers, and just do the thumb part.

The next year, in the 8th grade, I signed up for what was called Beginning Band, designed for kids who wanted to start an instrument late in the game. There was a part of me that regretted quitting the trombone and I wanted to give it another go. I still liked the idea of playing in band. I wanted to be a part of that.

This time I was able to get a school instrument. I was able to pick up the trombone again fairly easily. Interestingly, the Jr. High band instructor was Mr. Schwartz, the guitar teacher's husband.

In the corner of one of the practice rooms in the Jr. High music building, there was an upright bass. No one played it. It was a leftover from the days when there was string program. It made me think again about playing the bass notes, like Dick Smothers. I wanted to give it a try.

When I asked Mr. Schwartz about it, he said there was no one at the school to teach me, but that the high school music teacher, Mr. Alfree, played the bass and that, maybe if I called him, he would give me lessons.

Well, I did call Mr. Alfree and he did give me lessons. And a year later, I was playing in the high school jazz band. That was 36 years ago.

Through the years, I've considered other instruments. I've even tried to pick up the trombone again a few times. I've learned a little guitar, a little piano, but bass has always been my primary instrument.

However, I think if I had to choose over again, I would choose the trumpet. I think be-bop trumpet playing is like the coolest thing there is. The image of Miles Davis bent over his horn, blopping and blooping, arching his eyebrows -- how cool is that?

Plus, it's so compact. You can just show up with your gig bag over your shoulder. No amp. No bulk. It's perfect for jam sessions.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Steve Ackley
Let's Play Jazz

Friday, August 27, 2010

An Introduction - Part II

The reason for the blog is to rehash past performances, announce upcoming performances, and to comment on jazz happenings in general. So to get started, let me rehash a couple of recent gigs.

A couple of weeks ago we had the privilege of playing at the San Jose Jazz Festival's 48-hour Jazz Stage. According to the Jazz festival website, the 48-hour Jazz Stage is suppose to reflect San Jose Jazz's commitment to local talent. The funny thing was the group that followed us was the Yoshiaki Miyanoue Tokyo Quartet. (They were great, BTW.) I guess it all depends on your definition of local.

Playing at the festival was fun. We got to play indoors at the Theatre on San Pedro Square -- a wonderful little venue with comfortable chairs and far from the madding crowd.

Last weekend we got to play at another wonderful little venue, the Unwind Wine Bar in south San Jose. The picture above is from that gig. Unwined has a very relaxed atmosphere. Musically, is was a good night for us. Coming right on the heels of our jazz festival performance, I think we were all feeling fairly "on" that night.

An Introduction - Part I

So the reason for the fish, if you haven't put it together, is the idea of "scales." Fish have scales and jazz musicians use scales when they improvise. Scales = scales. A bit of a stretch perhaps, but I thought the picture of the fish (a koi) was cool. And it fits with the motif of the website, such as it is.