In my fifth decade on this planet I believe I have reached a point in my life where the feeling, “Inside every old man is a young man wondering what the hell happened,” is a daily occurrence. The landmarks, cultural conventions, and things that I have come to know are disappearing. The family owned restaurant where I waited tables and tended bar I as a young man during my college years is gone. Language, dress codes, personal etiquette on the sidewalk and on the road seem non-existent. Kids don’t play baseball in the street, fewer young kids don’t ride motorcycles, and the cars many seem to want don’t even require an active driver. Even at very fine restaurants families and couples spend more time considering their smartphones than the food in front of them. Much popular music has truly devolved in to rhythm generated by a computer, and little, if any actual melody. The lyrics are at often offensive (at best) and downright violent (at worst). Culturally we seem more divided than ever, the failure of our democracy as a possibility, an outcome encouraged by leaders who drive wedges in between our differences on a daily basis.
The saving grace for me is that despite having listened to it my entire life, all of these aspects of modern life have made the art form of jazz even more meaningful. Jazz shines a white hot light on these things, exposes them and then, like the deck of a beach house exposed to the sun, bleaches their darkness until it fades and is gone. Jazz is not only a uniquely American art form, it, along with the Constitution, and baseball, remains a touchstone for where we are in the world. Music written by and played by King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Charlie Parker and countless others is relevant not only in its original form, but equally important when reimagined by new young artists. And yes, there are still young people worthy of the title “musician” playing live jazz in front enthusiastic audiences (if small) without a sampler or drum machine in sight. Wynton Marsalis, the elder statesman of jazz, continues to educate, evangelize, (and sometimes even occasionally pontificate) support and promote the music to all who are interested. Most importantly, he encourages young musicians in both word and deed, examples of which I will share later.
The volume and catalog of jazz that has been produced up to the present day is so massive, so diverse, so rich in every aspect, that it could sustain us for the rest of our lives. Perhaps the only frustration I have with it is that there is simply so much great music to explore, and not enough time to hear and appreciate it all. And jazz rarely exposes its genius early on. It sometimes takes dozens of listenings before we begin to understand its message, and even after hundreds of listenings, it continues to reveal. Jazz truly is the music of all time. A random selection of 10 jazz recordings from the 40s to the 70s will last you the rest of your life. You’ll never be bored, and no matter what your age, it will serve you well, celebrating in joy, commiserating in sorrow, reminding you that there are some things in this world always worth having around.
I was a musician from the moment I was old enough to operate my parents’ hi-fi. My parents loved music and my father had a record collection that included Stan Kenton, Benny Goodman, Mel Torme, Ella Fitzgerald, and George Shearing. My mother had Herb Alpert, and musicals, in this case “The Music Man.” Apparently I went on a bit of a tear for a few weeks during which I would get up early in the morning, put the needle on the record and blast “76 Trombones” for the entire family. Mic drop.
I began playing the trumpet at age 7 and for the following 15 years of my life, it was a significant part of my identity. I played in every band I could be in from elementary school through high school. The quotes under picture in my Senior Yearbook has numerous references to music, including that I wanted to “revel in it” for the rest of my life. I was in the Santa Clara Vanguard Drum and Bugle Corps, and earned a minor in instrumental and vocal jazz.
I listened to all kinds of music as a young person, but classical and jazz (the only music I felt was “legitimate”) were in my heart, mostly the latter. I wasn’t good enough, or suitably dedicated to get good enough to be a professional musician, something I’d known for years.
After college I began working in sales for a software company and for the following 25 years I almost never even touched my horn. Music was still a huge part of my life. I consumed it voraciously, went to concerts, and there was always music playing in my house, from dusk to dawn. In my workshop there was (and is) always music. I stopped thinking of me as “a musician.” It was part of my past life, and while I could still make a note on the horn, I had not “made music” in so long I doubted if I could even remember how to read.
5 years ago the Santa Clara Vanguard Drum and Bugle Corps celebrated its 50th year of existence with an “Alumni Corps,” and without much hesitation I committed to doing it. I got my old Benge out of the attic. I opened the case and pulled the horn out. It immediately felt at home in my hands, as if I’d played it the previous day. I would not experience the same comfort when I pressed the mouthpiece to my lips and tried to make a note. ppppppPHWuhhhhhh. I knew it would be a long road to recovery, but I was energized and focused.
The Vanguard is an organization which demands excellence, and I resolved that if I was going to wear that uniform again, my level of performance would be as high as it could be. I knew it was going to take practice. Lots. Of practice. I knew it would not be easy at first. I had many years to make up for in a short amount of time but I also committed to myself that I would not be the weak link in the soprano (trumpet) line.
The 18 month journey that began on a cold, gray January day at San Jose State University, and finished on a warm Friday night in August at Lucas Oil Stadium was one filled with all kinds of lessons, new and old. Past the thrill of performing in front an audience of over 10,000, the joy of making music that is sacred to all Vanguard alumni, and the permanent bonds sealed with every alumnus with whom I performed, I almost felt like I could call myself a musician.
After the final note of the final performance of the Vanguard Alumni Corps my very first thought was, “what now?” I wanted to keep playing my horn, but I knew that without a band to be a part of, it would be hard to remain motivated to play every day. There are only so many lip slurs, scales, and etudes one can practice before making music with others becomes an imperative.
Luckily, within a few weeks I found a local community big band. Playing new charts every week and learning how to prepare for gigs was a new and exciting challenge, one that I relished. I was still far from being what I considered “competent” on the trumpet, but every day I practiced, every rehearsal I attended, I got better.
Soon after that, I found another big band. The book was more challenging, and the caliber of musicians in it, higher. I told the band leader I wanted to be in the trumpet section and told her I’d commit to doing whatever I need to in order to be a permanent member. Those early rehearsals were challenging. I’m not a great sight reader. My trumpet chops as well as my musical chops were still weak. But I practiced. And practiced. I took the music home with me every week and practiced it until I could play it with a modicum of proficiency. I took private lessons, began reading books on jazz chord theory, and started listening almost exclusively to jazz. I revisited old loves (Miles, Diz, Bird, Kenton, Chuck, Duke, Count, and Maynard) and discovered new ones.
Prior to 2016, my passion was cars and motorcycles. My father instilled a love of vintage machines in me from an early age, and from the time I was old enough to have a license I bought, repaired, restored, and drove vintage cars and motorcycles. I raced motorcycles, did track days, and my wife and I spent hundreds of days riding our dirtbikes at off highway vehicle parks in California. For the previous 15 years I’d been obsessively restoring several Alfa Romeos, one of which after 8 years is still in process. My free time, money, and energy were devoted to the cars. They were my hobby, my raison d’etre, my inspiration. The management of their restoration gave my mind something to chew on, plan for, and dream about.
One morning I awakened and for the first time in a long time, the first thing I thought about was not going for a ride, or what I was going to do in the shop, but that I couldn’t wait to play my horn. I was feeling like a real musician!
During the years when my horn and I were not seeing each other, music had remained my antidote to the challenges of the world and life. Listening to it, always with an appreciation gained from having spent a good amount of my life studying it, gave me joy, inspiration, and energy. Once I started playing my horn, that joy, that inspiration, and that energy was intensified tenfold. The music that I immersed myself in almost exclusively, was jazz. I was once again a boy of 5 or 6, wanting to play my horn like the cats on the records, or in my iTunes library anyway.
The world in 2019 is a crazy place. Past the insanity in our country, as well as the unrest that is global, it feels like everything that we used to know is either going away, or changing significantly. Internet and mobile device technology, something that I spent 30 years evangelizing, has changed our world in so many ways that to attempting to quantify it in even a few paragraphs is impossible. It’s easier to talk about the things that haven’t changed than what have. Many of the material objects we desire are essentially disposable. Few things that are part of our daily lives will be around in 10 years, or perhaps even 5. That’s not exactly new, but it seems to have accelerated, and it’s always bothered me.
One of the reasons that I’ve always loved vintage cars and motorcycles, mechanical watches, tools, and well made clothing, is that they’re always worth having. The Omega Speedmaster on my wrist right now was my first mechanical watch, and I bought it over 30 years ago. I just replaced my 2000 Ford F150 (purchased new) which had 272,000 miles on it with a 2019 F150, and I hope it’s the last vehicle I ever have to buy. I’m under no illusions that I’ll be able to perform routine maintenance on the new one like I did the old truck though. Technology….
Experiences, especially those shared with others, are more important than material objects, but surrounding ourselves with well made things is not only satisfying, it’s good for the soul and the planet. Anything that endures long enough to be handed down from one generation to another carries with it not only the spiritual attributes of timeless style and quality, but also bears witness to the life experiences of its owner. Imagine the watch that Charles Lindbergh used when he made his famous Transatlantic flight, or a vintage radio on which a family listened to FDR’s fireside chats. They can’t tell share their own stories of these historic events, but they can help us get closer to them.
The “things” in which I’ve chosen to invest have been mostly vintage cars and motorcycles. Aside from a handful of watches, a small collection of books (usually about vintage cars and motorcycles), a nice set of tools (to keep those vintage cars and motorcycles on the road), my material possessions are relatively mundane. A nice suit, a few pairs of shoes, some boots, and a small selection of leather jackets. Many of my clothes have been in my closet for decades, and you’d never know it.
Unfortunately vintage cars are beginning to lose, or have already completely lost much of their utility. As more Electric and Autonomous vehicles make their way on to our public roads, even the relatively high performance cars of only a decade or so ago, are being literally passed and left as ghosts of the past. Cars like the ones I have, built in Italy in the 50s and 60s are almost unusable on the highways and byways of Northern California. They’re too slow to accelerate, too slow to stop, and even too small to be visible to the drivers of today’s massive and heavy machines, insulated as they are from the traffic around them. The person behind the wheel is likely paying more attention to the texts on their phone than they are the traffic around them. I gave up my life long love of riding motorcycles on the street a few years ago after too many close calls with distracted drivers. Now I ride on race tracks or on dirt, where there is no threat of errant automobiles.
As their utility wanes, so does the interest of new generations of vintage car enthusiasts. There’s a reason why few people want Model T Fords. It’s kinda morose so I won’t say the words, but I think you get it. With fewer people interested in old cars, and increasingly onerous environmental regulation the small, independent shops that service and restore them are being pushed of business, it’s becoming harder for enthusiasts to keep their old cars on the road. Platers, painters, and many other services are either non-existent, or extremely rare and expensive as the economic realities of low supply and low demand weigh upon both customer and vendor.
I’m fortunate in that I can do much of the restoration and maintenance on my cars and motorcycles. And I don’t need to ride or drive them in order to enjoy them. I can go out to the shop with a cup of coffee in the morning, or tumbler of bourbon in the evening, sit in a chair and regard them. I can putter around the shop, cleaning a cam cover, checking fluid levels, or even just sit in or on one, and remember dreams future and past.
And yet, the feeling that their place in my life is fading. They are after all, meant to transport me from one place to another, not just figuratively. My motorcycles rarely get ridden, the cars, only a little more frequently. What does a retired 53 year old man do with his life?
For me, the answer was in jazz. As a young man the musician who most profoundly influenced me was Miles Davis. After years of listening to big bands like Ellington, Basie, Kenton, and Maynard, the spare and modern sounds of the jazz quintets of the 50s and 60s were life changing. The first Miles Davis record I listened to was “Four & More.” I was 15 years old and it was one of three records I bought simply because a friend who I looked up to (and who was a jazz drummer) said, “hey TJ, you should listen to Miles,” more like a directive than a suggestion. I went down to the local record store, bought the live record already mentioned, along with “Miles Smiles,” and “Milestones.”
The way Miles solo’d was a revelation. A neophyte listener seeking to understand the essence of improvisation need only listen to Miles. He played with such spontaneity that you could hear ideas, in the form of notes, pass across his cortex, sometimes at lightning fast tempos. His tone could be soft and breathy and meandering, or it could be edgy, and open, phrases sometimes falling apart but magically reassembling before they concluded.
Then as now, I wanted to be a proficient jazz improviser. Now, unlike then, I’m much more disciplined and able to focus on learning the art and science of jazz chord theory. I have no desire of developing my trumpet craft to the level necessary to play lead. My role as 4th chair in the big band affords me the opportunity to be part of the trumpet section, play some cool harmonic parts, and work on my improvisation skills. It is the pursuit of that kind of competence that has saved me. I know that even if I am able to play my horn for 40 more years, I will never truly master jazz chord theory. I’ll never know it all. I won’t even be able to scratch the surface. I will likely never be able to truly understand the changes to John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.” Hell, I’ll likely never even be able to fake it. Depressing you think? Nope. Despite the fact that the lives of many jazz musicians were short and tragic, (many never saw their 30th year) there are some truly legendary musicians still alive and making music. Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Chick Corea, Arturo Sandoval, and many others are not just coasting, they’re driving with the pedal. The aforementioned Wynton Marsalis is at 58, a relative youngster but he is truly honors and practices the tradition of shepherding young musicians. Years ago some friends of mine went to hear him at a club in San Francisco. They were 18 at the time, and sitting in the audience, grooving to his band, Wynton took notice. After his set, he invited them back stage, ended up offering one of them a horn, practice books, and lessons. He told them to “come see him when you’re in Manhattan.” They did, and he welcomed them in to his home, to visit, talk about and make music. His book “To A Young Jazz Musician-Letters From The Road” is a collection of missives written during his long bus rides across the country with his band, and sent to a young musician. The lessons he shares transcend the usual dogma of “practice your scales and develop your own voice,” aspiring to a meta-level discussion of what it means to be an artist today. Imbued with philosophy as well as strongly worded opinions on what Wynton sees as the degrading nature of popular music, especially with regard to todays “Negro” his tone is both stern and loving, cautionary, and uplifting. “Moving To Higher Ground-How Jazz Can Change Your Life” inspired me to write this.
As a child, early in life, jazz chose the trumpet for me. As a young man, the trumpet chose jazz as the music that would help me navigate life, even when my horn didn’t leave its case for a couple decades. Now, life has reunited me with my horn and a new relationship with jazz, a relationship in which I seek a deeper and more profound understanding of it and the musicians who made, and continue to make it a world treasure, made in America.
Jacob Collier discusses harmony with 5 people of varying ages https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eRkgK4jfi6M