Monthly Musings – May 5, 2017

A Career In Music

I want to share my story that I think demonstrates how things may unfold in a musician’s career. We all have an idea as to what we want to do and how we think things will work out. But, in my case, there have been a series of opportunities (at times surprising) that have driven my career. I write this not to blow my own horn but simply to show that we are presented with choices throughout our careers and that they can make all the difference in the world!

I was born in Quincy, Illinois on July 23, 1937. My early life was spent there but, in 1952, my father was transferred to New York City for his work. So, my junior year of high school was at Flushing High School on Long Island. While in New York, I heard a lot of music at the original Birdland and other clubs. Later, we moved farther out on Long Island and when I graduated from Hicksville High School in 1955, I really had no idea of what to do next. So I asked my dad for advice and he suggested I go to college and study engineering so I could get a good job. I enrolled at Hofstra College and started a program in engineering. I hated it and did poorly so I dropped out of school and went to work in a grocery store.

In 1957, my dad was transferred again to Cedar Rapids, Iowa. I asked my folks if I could study music and they said yes. So I enrolled at Coe College and began a major in music education. All through high school and college I was playing music as much as possible. In those days, we all majored in music education so that we could be accredited and get a teaching job. But my piano teacher, a Juilliard grad, treated me like a performance major and I did full junior and senior piano recitals. These were not required on the music education degree but I wanted to become a better player and I loved doing them. I also did a lot of accompanying and learned a great deal about music and the piano.

After graduation in 1961, I took a job teaching instrumental music at elementary, junior high and high school levels. It was rewarding and I enjoyed the work but I knew I wanted to study more. As an undergrad, I had no opportunity to study composition, in which I was very interested. So, in 1963, I enrolled in the college of music at North Texas State University and started studying composition with Samuel Adler who had studied with Paul Hindemith at Yale. During my three years at NTSU, I had to write a lot of music to make up undergraduate deficiencies since my bachelor’s degree was in music education. An important part of my time at NTSU was the fact that I was a graduate teaching assistant for Leon Breeden in the jazz program, teaching improvisation and arranging and directing a big jazz band..

In 1966, I completed my master’s degree in composition and took a job at Kansas State University teaching traditional theory and composition. I was very active writing compositions for faculty and student groups and it was a rich time for me. In 1968, I was approached about coming to California to teach half classical and half jazz at Monterey Peninsula College. This was the result of Leon Breeden recommending me for the job. This was a big decision because, though I loved playing and writing jazz music, I wasn’t sure I wanted to teach it for a living. My view of my career was to become a respected composer and someday have my music performed by major orchestras and chamber groups!

Finally, I decided to try it out. So in 1968 I started teaching at Monterey Peninsula College. While a colleague was on sabbatical, I taught classical theory and classical piano lessons. On the jazz side, I taught an improvisation class, a jazz appreciation class and directed a jazz ensemble. When my colleague’s sabbatical was over and I was relieved of the theory class, I added a jazz piano class and a small group.

Monterrey is probably my favorite place of anywhere I have lived. But I was dying professionally there. It was at least a two and a half hour drive to San Francisco so it wasn’t practical to think of trying to do any performing there. At the military base, Fort Ord, there were some good players who came through but most were transferred out so it wasn’t possible to develop any long-term relationships. Also, there weren’t many venues for gigging in Monterrey unless you had some kind of pop act together which I didn’t! So, in the spring of 1971, I received a phone call from Jerry Coker asking me it I would like to come to Miami and teach in the jazz program at the university there. This too was the result of a recommendation by Leon Breeden, a reminder to always try to do a good job wherever you are working or whatever you are doing.

I knew of Jerry’s work, mainly through having used his “Improvising Jazz” book at North Texas. So, I knew I wanted to work with him and learn more of his ideas about music. Plus, I knew that there would be many musicians in a city like Miami and I would have more opportunities to play. I actually took a cut in salary from what I was paid in Monterrey to make this move. But I felt it would be important to me to give it a try. At that time, Jerry and I were the only full time jazz faculty and we were actually part of the theory department. Each semester, Jerry and I would teach some non-jazz course to fulfill our obligation to the theory department!

Working with Jerry was stimulating and very enjoyable. I feel that we developed some concepts of jazz curricula that were very important. Also, I did get to do a lot of playing and, my second year there, I played as many shows on Miami Beach as I could to build up my savings. This was because I had reached a point where I was torn between being a teacher or a performer. I wasn’t sure that I wanted to continue teaching the rest of my life. I had always believed that I should try to be the best player I could or my teaching didn’t mean anything. In Dallas, I worked six nights a week while teaching or I would go on the road in the summer time when school was out. Also, I was frustrated with my playing and wanted more time to practice.

So, in 1973, I resigned my position at the University of Miami and went back to New York to experience it at another level from my high school days. It was a great period of time for me. I usually got up and took my coffee to the piano to practice until lunch time. Then, I often went to jam sessions in the afternoon and sometimes had gigs at night. I had the opportunity to play with many great players and to be constantly humbled by them. However, as a keyboard player, I often had to drive my van and haul my electric piano around. I was amazed at the absence of pianos in what were considered music venues! And then there is the challenge of parking in New York. You either had to pay a premium to park or hunt for a place. I remember, first of all, having to double-park to unload my gear and hope I didn’t get towed in the process. Then I recall hunting for a parking place on the street and worrying about finding one and getting back to the club in time to start the gig! Oh yeah, and then there was the same challenge when I got back to Brooklyn after the gig. Sometimes I would have to park a mile away from my apartment and walk through some strange areas to get home. Of course, the next morning I would have to get up, after little sleep, and run over to move my car before they towed it for being on the wrong side of the street! Fun and games!

So, needless to say, those circumstances made being there less glamorous and affected my attitude about “making it” as a player. Plus, I was always playing other people’s music and I had music that I wanted to pursue. Also, I realized that I really loved teaching and wanted to have a more stable life style. So, in 1975, my good friend Herb Patnoe made me aware of a new jazz degree program that was to start that fall. Long story, short, I applied for the job and was fortunate to be hired. That fall, I headed for Tempe, Arizona to join the faculty of Arizona State University. They had a terrific faculty, excellent facilities and great students! Plus, I loved the country. I co-led the program with my dear friend Bob Miller who paved the way for the major in jazz studies. He did this by setting a standard of excellence and showing the students that they needed to meet that standard in all of their activities, traditional subjects included!

This now was my first job that involved only jazz curricula and it only took me nine years to get there. So, I was happy and ready to put down some roots, planning to develop one of the best jazz studies programs in the country. But, in 1977, Leon Breeden contacted me about a new faculty position at North Texas State University. I suspect that, for whatever reason, he was having trouble filling the job. So he appealed to me to come interview for the gig and, after all he had done for me, I felt it was the least I could do. Once I came and met some people and heard the students play, I decided I needed to come back to Texas. It was another hard decision because I regretted leaving students at ASU who had actually come there to study with me. I vowed to myself that, unless I was fired, I wouldn’t do that again.

In 1977, I assumed a position on the North Texas faculty that lasted for twenty-five years full time and another ten years part time and adjunct. It was a great place to be and I feel very fortunate to have had the colleagues I had to work with and the excellent students who have always been inspiring in their passion for jazz. I feel good about my contributions to the jazz program and the successes of the graduates. It is interesting to note that several members of the current faculty (2017) are former students like me. That seems only natural since those who have been in the program know better than anyone how it works!

Now, for the last couple of years, I have been on my own schedule, pursuing personal projects and doing things like writing this blog. Oh yeah, and I’m still trying to learn how to play better and understand the harmonic universe. I assure you, I will never be bored!

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12 thoughts on “Monthly Musings – May 5, 2017

  1. Such a great read Dan! What a great life and wonderful story! Thank goodness by the time I arrived at NTSU in the fall of 1979 you were already there and well entrenched in the program. You were a gift to me and many othere sir.

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  2. This is great Dan! I loved reading it! Funny I would end up living part-time in the 813. I learned a lot in our brief association in Miami. Many thanks! Hope to see you sometime!

    Whit

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    1. Whit,
      Funny how close friends you can become in just a couple of years! We had some good times, especially with Kaleidoscope! I appreciate your comments and hope we will always keep in touch!
      Best,
      Dan

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  3. Great read Dan! You’ve had an interesting voyage in life. Strangely, your experiences are a pretty good metaphor for the journeys many of us have in life. Good stuff, thanks for sharing.

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  4. Dan, I was one of your first NTSU students in 77-78. I was accepted to work on my doctorate, having finished my M.M. at UT-Austin. The problem was I was gigging in Austin 6 nights a week. You and I worked out a crazy idea, that I always tell my students to this day. You told me that if I got to your home at 9AM Monday, and we worked all day, then I could skip the rest of the week, and do my gigs. Hah! Well, we did it! I would get up at 3:30 or 4:00AM, drive to Denton, and come straight to your home. You had a pot of coffee going, and we would get to work. You had your hand written transcription of Chick Corea’s Matrix, and we dissected each measure, analyzing quartals, pentatonics, diminished structures, polyrhythms, all in the blues form. I had some Keith Jarrett stuff, and we talked and played around a lot with that new Lydian Augmented sound maj7#5, that was a fresh concept back then. These were strong influences on me, and all because of your help and attention. I can’t thank you enough! I’m pretty sure that your recommendation letter got me my National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in 1979 in jazz composition ( http://hankhehmsoth.com/NEA-Document.html ).
    Life is full of strange and beautiful twists, and I am so glad we had our association back then!
    I’ve been a professor of jazz piano at Texas State University for 20 years, and all my students work with your books.
    That was a beautiful read, and your story is fascinating, with many parallels on my end, too. (I had a van and my Fender Rhodes in the back, too!) Take care, and see you down the road!
    your student, Hank Hehmsoth
    http://www.music.txstate.edu/facultystaff/bios/hehmsoth.html

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  5. Hank,

    Thanks for recalling memories of our time together. But, you were a fool to do all that driving! Hah! It’s fun to revisit those times and think about all the cool friends I made over many years!

    Hope all is good in your world these days!

    Best,

    Dan

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  6. Dan, luckily I got to your blog today, by surprise and it is a joy. Very interesting read. I still drop a story about your string class at NTSU). Tues and Thurs we studied “legit” strings, but on Sat., because so many in the class had weekend jobs (and were in varying states of recovery), we played from lead sheets, instead. It was pretty funny, playing “walking cello”. Again, loved your story. You’ve always been an inspiration even from afar. Thanks again. Gary Sapp.

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    1. Gary,
      Thanks for the memories! A lot of water has gone under the bridge since then but it’s fun to think about some of those silly times!

      I hope all is well in your world!
      Best,
      Dan

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