Monthly Musings – May 10, 2017

My development as a player

I wanted to take piano lessons when I was young but my folks didn’t want me to be a musician. They had both been on the road and knew the life of musicians! So they put me off for a while but finally, when I was about 12, they gave in and let me take piano lessons. It was easy for me so I usually sight-read my lessons and played softball the rest of the week. My early teachers just taught me to play pieces, nothing about theory or how to practice to get better. At the same time, I began listening to records and picking out the notes to melodies by ear. I played the melodies because I loved the songs. Gradually I started to mess around with the melodies to the songs and embellish them or change the rhythm slightly. That was my introduction to improvisation. My dad taught me what notes to play so I could accompany him on tunes when he played trombone. I was his play-along long before those recordings existed! Then one day, I asked him why I played certain notes and he explained basic chord structure to me. That was my only jazz lesson. Other than that, I am pretty much self-taught. It took me longer than it would today because I didn’t have the opportunities that young people have now! But, in some ways, I learned to hear better, I became familiar with the traditions of the music, and I gradually formed a conviction about how I wanted to play. These are facets of a musician’s development that can’t really be taught or learned from a book.

In high school I played in little bands that played for sock hops after basketball games or an occasional musical revue. When I went to college, I took classical piano lessons but, outside of school, I was playing gigs and learning to play jazz, mainly by ear. I listened a lot and copied chord voicings and melodic ideas I heard on records. But I also learned a lot about music by playing the classical literature and observing things like melody, harmony, the registers of the piano, independence of the hands, etc. When I was in college, I was lucky to get a chance to play with older, more experienced players who helped me a lot! Gradually I established myself enough to get calls for gigs. I worked with Al Jarreau when I was a student at Coe College and he was a graduate student in psychology at the University of Iowa. I worked in a club in Cedar Rapids, Iowa called The Tender Trap. We played until 2 am and the local ballroom, where famous road bands played, closed at 1 am. So we often had people come sit in because they didn’t get to play much jazz in the big band setting. Sometimes, I was really nervous because of who was on the bandstand!

A huge part of my development was due to my studying piano with Herbert Melnick, a Juilliard graduate who was a phenomenal player and a great teacher. He was the first piano teacher to show me how to practice! This carried over into my jazz practice and helped me get better as a piano player and improve my jazz improvisation. So I learned a great deal during my college career! After graduation, I taught instrumental music in a small town about half way between Des Moines and Cedar Rapids, Iowa. I put 28,000 miles on my car in one year because of the commuting I did to play gigs in those cities!

When I went to North Texas to do graduate work, I found myself in a community of very talented players who, like me, had come there because of the jazz program. That’s where I first met Ed Soph, Lou Marini, Billy Harper and other players of their stature. During my three years there, I did a lot of playing in various large and small groups. I also took advantage of being in close proximity to Dallas and Fort Worth. There were (and still are) many excellent players who came to the area primarily because of the burgeoning jingle business. I met and worked with many great players and I recall one experience that was a real epiphany. I worked with a saxophone player named Billy Ainsworth who was very secure in all keys and, on gigs, would call tunes in unusual keys. I will never forget the gig when he called “My Romance” in A major. I was used to playing most standards in the conventional keys and I knew the tune but could only kind of play it in F major. It was a baptism in fire! That night I realized I didn’t really know harmony very well and needed to become more secure with all keys. That began a serious revision of my practice regimen that included learning songs in all twelve keys or just taking one key like E major and playing everything I knew. In fact, since jazz groups played mainly in flat keys, I spent a lot of time playing in the sharp keys.

Also, at that time, I played a lot of dance gigs in small groups where there were no books of arrangements or charts. There were no fake books either so I learned many tunes on the band stand by ear. I would listen to the melody and the bass player and could usually figure out the root progression and qualities of chords. But it was great experience and helped develop my ability to hear harmony and melody. After I got my master’s degree, I met some great jazz players while teaching college and occasionally would back someone on a concert at our school. Through my entire teaching career, I made it a priority to be the best player I could be. I felt that I couldn’t reasonably tell students to do something that I couldn’t do myself.

I first met Clark Terry when I was teaching at Kansas State University and he came there as a guest artist. It was a thrill to get to play with him as I had listened to him on recordings and learned some of his tunes. I have done a lot of clinics and concerts with Jamey Aebersold, in the states and overseas and have met more great musicians working at his summer jazz workshops. I met Pat Metheny when he was 16 and he came to the University of Miami as a student when I was teaching there. We had a group with three faculty members and three students that played a lot although we never recorded. Whit Sidner, Don Coffman, Michael Treni and Danny Gottlieb also played in that band. I toured with the Stan Kenton band one summer when he was ill. I subbed on the Woody Herman band when they came through Miami and Andy Laverne, the piano player was sick. I can’t begin to itemize all of my professional experiences but I am grateful for all of them, good and bad!

I wasn’t sure I wanted to teach for the rest of my life so I took a couple of years off and freelanced for a while. In New York, I played with a great Hungarian guitar player, Atilla Zoller and Al Porcino’s big band. Also, I worked with Chris Connor for a while. I did two tours with Clark Terry, one in the states and one overseas. Eventually, I returned to teaching and, after two years at Arizona State University, returned to North Texas where I taught 25 years full time and another 10 years part time after I retired. While a member of the faculty, I usually played at least one concert with faculty and one concert with students every semester. Plus, I tried to play a lot of extra gigs in the DFW area and out of town. I have always loved teaching but I also love playing so that was my motivation. In recent years, I have enjoyed playing and taking short tours with my quartet and offering a format that combines clinics for the students with concerts. This has been a rewarding experience because of the opportunity to play the same music often and see it evolve in the band. Also, I feel fortunate to play with great players on a regular basis!

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