biography, first verse

I grew up off the coast of Texas on a subtropical island called Galveston. It was hot and it was quiet. It was hot, and it had a lot of hurricanes. It was hot, and more than a little dilapidated. It was hot and caught up in the Twilight Zone. It was so hot that Dorothy Fields’ lyric imagery in “Sunny Side of the Street” escaped me. . . why “coat?” and why “sunny side?”

Music was a variable constant in our home. My mother played piano by ear, exclusively in the key of G major. Her re-harmonizations of minor key tunes into major were intriguing. Meanwhile, Dad swore he couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket. He was correct, but he always listened to every musical show on radio and television, playing along with passable ham-bone on the arms of his recliner. My sister Kay, the true artist in the family, studied piano. So I studied piano. She sang, I sang. We played duets and sang between and during arguments.

My grandmother, Myrtle Mae, also played piano in what apparently was our legacy key of G. She loved hymns and rhythm-and-blues. Between choruses of Bringing in the Sheaves and The Old Rugged Cross, she taught me Ray Charles, Little Richard, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis. For hours. we would park comfortably on the store porch, and spin the dial on the Bakelite Zenith, occasionally trooping indoors to figure out some newfangled move on her venerable Mason and Hamlin.

Having a grandmother who was a rocker (but did not sit in one) seemed normal to me. The whole family was musically omnivorous… Bill Haley, the Dixie Hummingbirds, Mozart, Hank Williams, Peggy Lee, Miles Davis, the Hit Parade, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Liberace all played for us every day.

I never learned to discriminate styles. I was wonderfully untrained in the belief that one style could somehow be intrinsically better than another. I fell in love with all music.

After four or five years of piano, I picked up the clarinet and then the saxophone. I was lucky to have great teachers and understanding parents. Music became a pure focus for me, and the daily rigors of practice led me to the intellectual challenges of composition and arranging. I taught myself chord symbols and transpositions. I tried to transcribe TV themes and pop songs. I learned by myself the equal value of what I thought were exact reading and good improvisation.

A short while later, I remember listening for the first time to Miles Davis play “Stella by Starlight.” I carefully followed the lead sheet melody. After a quick riff up to the pickup, Miles played a staccato eighth note, not the whole note written as the second pitch in Victor Young’s chart. I had a late-1958 epiphany: negative space! I had just heard a complex player take a note and place it beyond the grasp of the written melody, but not beyond the reach of the heart. John Coltrane’s out-of-tune hand-off from Miles became another structural event. So did Miles’s sudden re-entrance in the middle of Bill Evan’s last chorus.

I think that recording may have been why I joined a rock-n-roll band in junior high a year or so later. Surf music was big. We covered the Champs, the Surfaris and the Del-Tones. We never found a bass player, so we played without one. But we had four, count’em four, guitars. Imagine Wipeout‘s eighth notes with four guitars through four different sets of tubes and speakers, spilling upon the highway from a roadhouse nestled beneath the petrochemical glow of a Texas City refinery. Cowboys and wahines and beatniks and rednecks all piled together. I felt like I was inside a Langston Hughes poem.

When the Beatles hit, we all wanted to grow our hair long. None of us did. We played jazz, country, blues, rock, zydeco and soul, all side by side in a lot of honky-tonks and fais do-dos. My early professional experience seemed to emulate my early listening…play it all, play it now, play it well.

Actually, we would’ve said “play it good”. High school graduation signalled the end to my subtropical backwater prep. Many unforeseen changes lay ahead. Life had accelerated.

To be continued . . . .

One Response

  1. I *love* this, Jim! Your writing is very evocative and imagistic! You also know how to build a great sense of suspense–*and* it’s very informative! I have to go back to familiarize myself with all the artists that contributed to your formative years! :)

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