Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Power Of Music

So, I've been battling a pretty serious bout of depression this past week. I've blogged about my depression before, so I won't go into it too much. Suffice it to say that the planets aligned just right (or wrong) to put me in a place I haven't been in a long time. It's not fun and I wouldn't wish it on anyone.

Yesterday was my birthday. I turned 47. Now, before you chime in and start pointing your finger at that as the source of my depression, let me stop you. While it's true that I'm not a big fan of birthdays, it's not the "getting older" part that bothers me. I'm human. I get older. We all do. I simply think making such a big deal about a single day is kind of silly.

Anyhow, about my birthday. Last Spring, I learned that Return To Forever, the legendary jazz-fusion group, would be playing in Columbus on my birthday. Readers will note that my introduction to jazz was facilitated by an introduction to one Stanley Clarke, bassist for RTF. Needless to say, I bought tickets.

So, the concert was last night. The opening band was Zappa Plays Zappa - Dweezil, along with some other excellent musicians, playing his father's music. It was really something to see and hear.

Then, RTF hit the stage. We were third row center. And I could feel my depression washing away from me. At one point, I wanted to cry - tears of joy, not tears of sadness. This is the power of music.

Monday, June 13, 2011

My Friend Gil

In honor of Pride Month, I've decided it was time to share this very personal story...

When I got my first job as a computer programmer in '92, I shared an office with a couple of other guys. One of those guys was a balding, overweight, heavily-bearded person who just never seemed to be able to get his clothes to match. His name was Gil.

Now, Gil was a very friendly and personable character. He had a wry sense of humor and a boisterous laugh. I immediately felt at ease with him. I found out later that his mismatched sense of fashion came from his colored blindness, which also accounted for the extra tie and pair of socks he kept in his briefcase.

The thing I remember most about Gil was his love of music. He would come in every day with 5 or 6 cassette tapes, which he would play throughout the day for the enjoyment of anyone entering our office. Fortunately, I found that I loved listening to music while writing code, so this worked out well for me. We listened to all kinds of music. He turned me on to some wonderful, eclectic stuff, and occasionally I was able to do the same for him.

It wasn't until some time later that I found out he was gay. This did not present a problem for me, because growing up in and around Atlantic City, I'd been exposed to quite a lot. My mom had gay friends when I was young. I knew a good many gay people. It really was not a problem and didn't effect our relationship at all. At least not at first.

We would hang together at lunch, sometimes breaking off from the other "pod of programmers" as we walked along the boardwalk after eating. We discussed various forms of pop culture, went to see the film adaptation of Burrows' "Naked Lunch" and made plans of getting together to jam sometime (he played keys). I suppose some people might accuse me of having a "boy crush" on him, but I don't think so. I just genuinely liked him.

And then, one day when he was out and I was walking off lunch with one of the other developers, he told me that someone had asked him if I was gay. Now, normally, I don't give two shits what other people think about me. I dress how I like, wear my hair how I like, and just let it go. But I was in an odd place in my life at this time. I had had my heart torn apart a couple of years earlier and had just stayed away from any kind of romantic relationship since then, but I knew it was time for me to get back into the game. And here I was making people question my sexuality.

Eventually I started to put some space between Gil and me. I would let him go off on his own during lunch while I walked with the other group. I still liked him and we still talked, but I just allowed myself some distance. I remember one Friday in particular he invited me to a party at his house--a "Wizard of Oz" party. "Come dressed as your favorite munchkin," he said, "and we'll all watch the movie on TV." I told him I'd be there, got his address and then, come Friday, spent the evening hanging with an old friend while I watched the minutes tick away on the clock.

When I saw him on Monday, I apologized for skipping the party. He assured me it was alright, that I'd missed a good one, and that it would be on TV again. I told him I'd be sure to catch the next one.

Two days later he was dead. He had been in a car accident on the Margate bridge. He hit a patch of black ice, slid into the rail and broke his neck.

People have asked me why I care so much about GLBT issues. After all, I'm not gay...why is it so important to me that they be allowed to marry or adopt children? I usually say something about it not being a "gay" issue so much as a "human being" issue. And that's 100% true, but it runs deeper than that for me. I had considered myself to be an enlightened person, and yet I managed to let my own, deep-seated issues separate me from my friend in what would be the last months of his life.

I've mostly forgiven myself for this, but have never let myself forget it.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

How jazz has ruined my life

The year is 1986. I'm playing in a very good originals hard rock band. The writing is good and the musicianship is top notch. I'm happy (well, for me anyway). Sure, we were what would one day be called a "hair" band, but we enjoyed it. It was good music and good fun. Then the drummer, one Jimmy Paxson, introduces me to Stanley Clarke (not album form). It seems his mother played keys with Stanley and he assured me it would blow me away.

He wasn't kidding. Here was a music where the bass wasn't buried beneath all the other instruments. The music was complex and driving and just...there. That day was the beginning of the end for me.

Fast forward a couple of years. I'm still playing "hair" band music, but in a different band. We're good, and have a decent following around South Jersey, but I could tell something was missing for me. When I went home from practice, I no longer listened to Ozzy or Metallica or even Bon Jovi. I listened to Jean-luc Ponty and Jaco Pastorius and Return to Forever. This was the music that did it for me. Eventually, the rock band broke up (as they do) and I did finally manage to find myself in a fusion style band. Of course, the problem was that there was no audience for it, so our playing was limited to the basement.

Move ahead another decade or so and you find me selling all of my instruments because I don't play and I have kids and a job that take up my time. But this won't last long.

So, eventually, as the kids get a little older and no longer need constant attention, I get the bug again. I buy a really nice bass (because I can finally afford a really nice bass) and start playing. But wait a minute. What kind of music am I going to play? I can't play covers. I hate playing covers! I still like fusion, but it's even less popular than it was in the 80s.

Then, for some reason, I started going backwards. Who influenced the fusion artists? I started taking Miles and Coltrane CDs out of the library. I bought classics like Cannonball Adderly and Charles Mingus. I familiarized myself with the bassists of the time - Paul Chambers, Sam Jones, etc. This stuff was fantastic. You start with a chord progression and a melody. The horns play the melody so it gets in your head. And then they just start playing. You can still hear the melody in your head as the soloist builds on it. It's the perfect marriage of musicianship and creativity. Oh, and the bass! The bassist doesn't just sit on the root of the chord. He's playing chord tones and scale tones and passing tones, all while driving the music forward...always to the next measure. And then what's this? The bassist gets a solo? Really?!? And it's not just a solo thrown in to keep the bassist from complaining too much either. A jazz bassist is expected to know how to solo.

Of course, all of this is done on a double bass. So I get a double bass and a teacher. At 40+ years old, I pick up what is essentially a new instrument. Sure, it's strung the same as an electric bass, but that's where the similarities end. Even with my fretless bass experience, it's just not the same instrument. It's quite physically demanding and difficult just to even get a good sound. But I figured it's worth it because nothing says jazz like the double bass.

Remember what I said about jazz being the perfect marriage of musicianship and creativity? Well, I have a very limited supply of each of these. Sure, I can find my way around an electric bass ok, and I can find a decent groove, but walking bass on an upright? Well, that's a different animal.

So how has jazz ruined my life? Well, simply put, everything else pales in comparison to me. Sure, I still like classic rock, but hell if I want to play it. And I like blues (and, quite frankly, could possibly be a good blues player if I put my mind to it), but it gets old fast. But jazz? I could (and do) listen to that all day. But even now I can't seem to play it. After 6 years, the upright still gives me fits. I struggle to play a simple two octave scale. Add that to trying to swing the beat and drive the music and outline the chord movement, and I just fall apart. (Don't even ask about soloing.)

There you have it. My current music process moves on a continuous cycle:
  1. I'm going to be a jazz bassist. I'm going to work to tackle this damn instrument if it kills me and I'm going to play music that most people no longer listen to (and that's...ok). But then I try to play and realize I'm 46 years old and can barely play a scale after 6 years of trying. So...
  2. I'm going to play electric jazz. I have the equipment and (some) of the talent, I can do this. But wait. Even fewer people listen to electric jazz, including me. It just doesn't strike me the same. And what passes for fusion these days is filled with college students who don't want to play with an old man. So...
  3. I'm going to play blues. It has improv (sometimes) and lots of people like it. But for some reason I can't stand to listen to it for more than 1/2 an hour or so because it all just sounds the same. Same form, same solo, same same same. So...
  4. Go to step 1