Monday, May 31, 2010

22 Days Until NMA Reunion

I am really looking forward to seeing Frank Mullen ( at the Navy Musicians Association Reunion in San Antonio, June 23-26. I'm looking forward to swapping some "sea stories" with him and others. Frank is probably the funnee-ist guy I've ever met (if you have to ask what "funnee" is, odds are you wouldn't understand). Frank is also one of the best musicians I have ever met. But what do the descriptors "good", "better", or "best" mean when talking about musicians?

I used to have an attitude about musicians. Time was, in my younger and friskier days, when I looked down my nose at musicians who didn't make, in my opinion, the grade. I remember that the first argument I ever had with my ex (the psycho hose-beast) was about music. She was talking about how much she liked Roy Orbison and I poo-pooed him. When she insisted that he was a good musician, I told her that she was unschooled; that she didn't know what she was talking about. Obviously, that went over like a lead balloon! Years later, I came to appreciate Roy Orbison for his talent.

There was a time in my life when I was crazy about jazz-fusion... (Chick Corea, John McLaughlin and the like) and any music not in this narrow description was lumped into the "crap" category. Nowadays, I can appreciate the artistry of great music in a variety of styles and genres: rock, jazz, Celtic, country, rap... anything. In the past 37 years, I've performed virtually every kind of western music there is; barbershop to opera, dixieland to heavy metal, jazz to western swing, polka to pop, etc. Nowadays, when I say "no more crap", I mean any music in any style which doesn't have something meaningful to say.

Yes, and by meeting and/or performing with a few of the "best" musicians of our time, people like Herb Ellis, Barney Kessel, Joe Pass (jazz guitarists), Jean-Luc Ponty (jazz fusion violinist), Kallen Esperian (operatic soprano), Stanley Clarke (jazz fusion bassist), John Williams (classical guitarist), to name a few, I learned a secret apparently not widely known outside the circle of "best" musicians...

Listen. Just about everyone has something to say.

Just about everyone has something to say, and these "best" musicians were willing to take the time to listen to what I and others like me have had to say. Oh, I occasionally forget that lesson, for instance when I am in a music store and the teenage head-bangers are pounding out the only three chords they know at ear-splitting volume levels. I can only sigh when one of them starts a conversation with "Yeah, me and my band, we play mostly rock, like Blah-dee Blah and Blah-blah-blah". It's what Frank Zappa was saying on his album Shut Up and Play Yer Guitar... In other words, don't tell me what you can play, let your guitar do the talking. Frank Zappa, by the way, had and has more than a few detractors. So when a pimple-faced teenager starts talking about his cool axe, etc., I don't try to wow him by dropping names. Sure, I drop names in my blog, but let's face it: it is, after all, my blog. Instead, I would rather let my guitar do the talking, and he who has ears, let him hear what I have to say.

Frank can play just about anything in any style and pull it off nicely. My only claim to fame is that I can do the same. We've both had a rich history of performing a myriad of genres and sampling a smorgasbord of music that few have been able to partake of. And after many years of doing so, I've "settled down" to spend the rest of my life exploring jazz, both in its classical and contemporary forms. So when I say "no more crap", what I mean is that whatever I play, I will try to express something meaningful in my music.

Enough. Time for me to shut up and play my guitar.

Friday, May 28, 2010

25 Days Until NMA Reunion

I see that I have forgotten a special thanks. When I say that the VA has been good to me, I mean the VA as a whole, but especially a guy who does a normally thankless task, working with 400+ veterans in the Vocational Rehabilitation Program, who sits in a tiny office and has to put in 10 hour days just to sort of keep up with the load. That guy is Darrell. He has worked tirelessly to help me with getting the VA to fund all this gear I've been talking about, going way beyond the call of duty. Thanks Darrell.

And while I'm thanking people, I want to make sure I don't forget Aaron Waggoner at Guitar Center of Springfield, MO. He's had to ride the red-tape roller-coaster along with me in getting my gear list written and executed via the VA. If you are in Springfield and need anything --- see Aaron.

More later....

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

27 Days Until NMA Reunion

Still practicing away. Yesterday I took delivery on an effects system, variable speed CD player, sequencing software, and bass amp, all courtesy of the VA. I have to say that the VA has been good to me. Through the Vocational Rehabilitation Program, they have or will acquire over $7,000 worth of instruments and equipment for me. I had to sell all my musical equipment a couple of years after retiring from the Navy in order to pay some bills... money was scarce. Now I'll be able to go back into the music biz with some quality equipment. Sure, I had to jump through a lot of hoops (the VA is, after all, a government agency). For instance, the business plan I had to draw up was over 20 pages of detailed plans and budgets and stuff. Tedious at best. But eventually I got it done and lo and behold it was approved.

"Lo and BEHOLD!" said Cradrevocsid, the Lady of Lake Taneycomo, breaking my reverie, "You have acquired lots of fancy gadgets," said Cradrevocsid. "I thought you said you were going to play 'no more crap!'" said Cradrevocsid. "Now here you are with all sorts of fancy-schmancy gadgets and... and... gizmos!!" said Cradrevocsid.

I had to admit... Cradrevocsid, although lacking in certain social graces, had a point: when Steve Abshire ( took me to hear Herb Ellis perform for the first time, I was impressed that he could play all this amazing music with just a bass player and drummer. Herb was playing his Herb Ellis model Aria guitar with one cable plugged straight into an eensy-beensy-teensy-weensy-schmeensy Polytone amp. Me? I was playing with the Naval Academy Band's rock band, Electric Brigade (I always thought it was a stupid name) with no less than seven huge effects units (remember, this was in the days before little digital units) into two 120 watt amplifiers. Playing guitar was half playing and half dance as I kicked in and out phaser, echoplex, distortion, etc. Cradrevocsid was reminding me that I didn't need all that equipment to make good music. I remember Mike Shepherd, drummer and yet one of the finest musicians I ever knew, who would intone in his gravelly voice, "A good musician can make good music on Quaker Oats boxes."

When I traveled to the now defunct USSR with the Sixth Fleet Band, I heard some incredible music out of the Russian Navy Musicians who were playing instruments which weren't much better than Quaker Oats boxes. The brass players didn't even have valve oil. The reed players were using reeds that were to our reeds as a golf pencil is to a real pencil. The guitar and bass players made strings out of whatever wire was available. Incredible! When my band left the USSR to go home to Italy, we gave them our whole box of spare valve oil, reeds, strings, drum sticks and such. By the expressions on their faces, you would have thought that we had given them gold! On an editorial note, we American musicians sometimes forget how good we have it in the USA as compared to a lot of other countries. In the USA, even a pimply-faced teenager can easily acquire decent strings.

I have a fine guitar in Axecalibur, a cable and an amp, and I assured Cradrevocsid that I was wary of my personal failings; that I know I still am a pyro-flatulant gizmo-holic. I promised her that I would remember the lessons of Mike Shepherd and Herb Ellis, and that I would not fall prey to the temptation to cover up musical incompetency with dazzling special effects.

Well... if I am to make good on my promise, I'd better get back to practicing.

Monday, May 24, 2010

29 Days Until NMA Reunion

I have weird dreams. For some reason, Eddie Murphy seems to be in a lot of them. In one dream, I actually was Eddie Murphy. I (Eddie Murphy) was making an action/comedy film about an old grizzled, jaded detective who was simultaneously trying to solve a murder and interact with the only witness to the crime: a young grizzled, jaded boy from the streets. Up until the other night, the weirdest dream I ever had was one in which Captain Kirk, Spock, my ex (the psycho hose-beast) and I were fighting the evil Democrats in the vast tunnels underneath West Memphis, AR. I wish I could have saved that one to a DVD. Not only did it have mind-blowing special effects, but also a really great musical score.

Once, when I was Director of Operations for the Memphis Symphony, we had as a guest conductor --- a rather famous film score composer, Alan Silvestri (Back to the Future II & III, Abyss, and others). Anyway, as D of O, one of my duties was to wait until everything was set to go and the orchestra was tuned, and then open the stage door for the conductor to walk out. While Alan (I call him "Alan") and I waited for the orchestra to finish tuning, I decided to find out if famous film score composers had to put up with the commercial crap we not-so-famous musicians do. I asked him, "Do you ever get like the perfect score written and then some suit with a cigar says, 'Great work Alan, but you've got to cut 37 seconds from the main title.'?" He answered "Yes! I hate it when that happens!"

And I remember another incident years earlier when I was stationed at the Naval Academy Band. Herb Ellis was performing at the King of France Tavern in the Maryland Inn. During a break, some suit made a tune request and made to give Herb a fiver. I fully expected Herb to tell him to stick his request up his ol' wazoo. What did Herb do? He took the $5 and played the suit's tune. Later, at Denny's, I told Herb that I was thinking of tossing away my 12 years in the service to get out and play some decent music. "Stay in the Navy," said Herb, "Look! Last time I counted, my name was on the front of more than 130 albums. But if I stop playing, in a few months I'll stop eating. I wish I had been in the Navy: you can retire in 20 years and then play whatever the hell you want!"

I learned a very important lesson from these two incidents: If you play for money, the money will tell you what to play. Years later now, I am in the fortunate position where I don't depend on music to pay the bills. If I make some money playing, great. If not, then what the heck. Bottom line is that I have the freedom to play no more crap!!

But I digress.

I was talking about dreams. The weirdest dream I've ever had happened night before last in Springfield, IL. It was about the NMA reunion. Ann and I were in the lounge by ourselves. The other Navy Musicians were trickling in. We got to chit-chatting and telling sea stories, but underlying our banter was the anticipation that Frank Mullen was expected to arrive soon. And arrive soon he did. Frank strode in, to thunderous applause, wearing a knee length Hawaiian shirt and a beaver-skin cap. He had poise. He had dignity. He had the longest durn conductor's baton I ever saw! He strode up to the stage (which magically appeared) and began to conduct his rather eclectic ensemble: electric upright bass, a couple violins, a trumpet, keyboard, accordion, etc. The music was strange but good, and Frank, conducting, reminded me of a pelican flapping its wings. The next act was conducted by a Chinese dwarf playing a violin with an impossibly complex bow. The conductor wore the typical Chinese robes and they, like the ensemble's robes, were of a shiny blue and gold material. But the thing that struck me about all the Navy Musicians was that they looked just as I had last seen them.

Upon waking with a start, I was troubled. I got up, grabbed Axecalibur, and played an E flat-9, sharp-5, add mystery-note chord in order to summon Dracrevocsid, the Lady of Lake Taneycomo, whereupon she appeared, unkempt and yawning. She said, "Who in the name of Mother of Mini Pearl gets me up at this hour? Oh, it's you. What do you want at such an un-Godlike Vision hour?" "Well...," I stammered, "I was a good boy, took Axecalibur to Springfield, IL and practiced... but... you probably already knew that." "Of course I do," she replied, "Wouldn't be much of a Godlike Vision if I didn't! What do you WANT??"

"Well... You see... I was kinda hoping you'd grant me a wish, you see... it's... well... I had this dream, you see. It was about the NMA reunion and all the other musicians still looked good, and I've grown old and fat and bald and my right shoulder hurts and I have wrinkles and bags under my eyes and I don't get around much anymore..." She had begun to nod, but woke up and asked, "Could you be more... specific?" "Oh Lady of Lake Taneycomo, it's that... well... I guess I'm just not the same anymore." Whereupon she whupped out her magic wand, bonked me on the head and said, "There!". She blew on the end of her wand as though it were a six-gun. "Wish granted," she said, holstering her wand, "That was too easy."

Excited, I ran to a mirror, but when I looked in the mirror I saw that the wrinkles, fat and such were still there, and the hair was not. Disappointed, I said, "I'm still old and fat and bald and such." "Of course you are!" she said, "Did you not ask to be the 'same'?" "Yeah, but..." "'But' me not, mere mortal. You asked for a wish and I have granted it!" "But what will the other guys think of me?" I asked. "Worry not, mere mortal, for I have cast a spell on all of them. When you see them, they shall have aged as much as you (well, except for that Charlie Sweet. He must have made a deal with the Lady of some other lake).

"There remains only one thing left for you to do at this point..." I paused for quite a while before answering in a small voice, "Practice?" "Right!" she said, "Now get to it!" So I picked up Axecalibur and started to play with renewed vigor.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

33 Days Until NMA Reunion

The Lady of Lake Taneycomo came to me in a dream last night... "Hark!", she said, "Hark, hark... Hark!!", she said. "I'm listening, I'm listening" I replied. "Pardon me..." she said, "I was just clearing my throat. --- Lo, I have come to you to bring you a task... and a gift."

A task and a gift... I asked her what they might be. She replied, "I couldn't help but notice that you --- didn't --- practice yesterday! What's that all about?" I told her that I just got wrapped up in stuff prior to my wife and I leaving today for Springfield, IL for a few days. She wanted to know why we were going there, and I told her that Ann wanted to visit the Lincoln Presidential Library and some other Lincoln groupie stuff. "You are taking Axecalibur with you, are you not?..." "Of course, of course" I said. "GOOD!!" she thundered, causing my wife to turn over and say, "Murf, murf-murf... murf!" before she rolled over and went back to sleep.

"Lo!" she continued, "your task is to not miss another day of practicing! Let's face it... you've only got 33 days before the NMA reunion and you have a lot of years not playing to make up for." I promised to take Axecalibur with me and asked what the gift might be. She said that my gift was a guilt trip for missing a day's practice. "Not much of a gift..." I said, "I was hoping for, like, a magic case for my magic axe." "IT IS A GIFT!!!" she thundered, "Were you not born Roman Catholic?" I replied, "Is this like Jeopardy or some game where everything you say must be phrased as a question?"

"SILENCE!!" she thundered, "Silence, you fool!" this time causing Freeway (the surly cat) to meow and jump off the bed. "I command you to rise, take up your mat, go downstairs and practice!" I couldn't help saying, "It's freaking 2:30 am! It's bloody zero-dark-thirty! Even the neighbor's dyslexic chicken isn't up yet!"

"Alright," she said, "Will you not get up at 4:30??" I briefly considered asking another question about Jeopardy, but thought better of it. "Okay... Yes! I mean I will not get up at 2:30 and I won't not get up at 4:30... uh... I'm not quite clear on how I should phrase my answer, oh Lady of Lake Taneycomo." "Never mind," she replied, "It's all good." I asked her, "Don't you mean 'Is it not all good?'"... "DON'T BE A SMART-ASS!!" she thundered, then more kindly, "Is it not true that nobody likes a smart-ass?" I just nodded my head and gave her a big "thumbs up", figuring that this tack would be the most wise.

She gazed at me for a few moments and said, "Why aren't you asleep, yet?" This seemed like a lot easier question to answer, so I told her, "I am truly sorry, oh Lady of Lake Taneycomo. I will get right on it."

"See that you do", she said, and with that bade me farewell.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

34 Days Until NMA Reunion

When I was a basic student at the Armed Forces School of Music back in '72, I was a big cheese. Yup, I was a salty QM3 who was changing rates. This meant that I got a room in the barracks with only one roommate and I didn't have the house-cleaning and field day chores that the other "A" School students did. This was cool, but even more cool was the fact that the other students, fresh out of boot camp looked up to me as the font of all Navy Knowledge. Chest "full" of medals, sea stories from my time on a real Navy ship which had traveled to Viet Nam and other "fun" vacation spots, I could have told them anything and they would have believed it! They would gather around me in the lounge, their eyes big and innocent, slack of jaws and some of them drooling, I would tell them whatever crap I wanted to and they took it hook... line... and sinker!

While I was stationed there the SOM had their annual convention/concert/clinic thingy. I wonder if they still have it. Service bands from all over would come there to perform... I remember the Commodores impressed the heck out of me. At any rate, this was back in the days when the SOM actually had some money and they hired Gary Burton to perform and do a workshop on improvisation. To this day, I still remember two of the things he said on that subject. One was that if you're soloing and play a clam... just play the clam 2 or 3 more times to give yourself time to think about how to get out of it: "Everyone will think you did it on purpose!" Believe me when I say that over the years I've had lots and lots of opportunities to follow his advice. The other thing he said (and this one took a while to sink in) was that improvisation was 90% listening and 10% playing.

Well, you can believe me when I tell you I've been doing a whole lotta listening as well as practicing in preparation for the NMA reunion. Herb Ellis, Barney Kessel and Joe Pass mostly (sadly, they are all gone now). I listen in my truck on the way to everywhere. I think I can safely conjecture that I may be the only person listening to jazz recordings out here in rural hillbilly country.

I really enjoy listening and playing once again. It's been years and years since I enjoyed doing so. Even when I'm not in my truck and I don't have my iPod connected to my head, I still have music to listen to. It's in my brain and I listen to it all the time, but I have to be careful: I get so wrapped up in what I am "listening" to that I can actually get lost in a Walmart, or even crash my cart into a grapefruit display (not good for me, Walmart, or the grapefruit). I find that I can visualize the positions of the chords on the fingerboard as I listen. What fun! I haven't had this much fun in it seems like forever!

Before I close, here's a tip: Go to Bob Roetker's website ( and click on "free stuff". You will find instructions on how to download Bob's fake book. It's very well put-together and it's huge! More than 600 pages of the best jazz tunes ever!

Monday, May 17, 2010

36 Days Until NMA Reunion

So you're probably wondering why I gave up playing in the first place. I mean, why would a guy who obviously loves music as much as I do just --- quit --- playing. Well, here's the deal:

I retired in '92 as an MUCS, assistant leader of the Navy Band in Memphis. I had completed 21+ years of performing (mostly crap) all over the world. I enjoyed being a CPO. In fact it was the finest thing I had ever done --- maybe the finest thing I will ever do! But I was tired... bone tired of dragging my amp, my band, and myself from point A to point B on the planet Earth just to play (mostly crap) for people who, for the most part, could care less. Yes, there were the good gigs when we were actually listened to and appreciated. It was these gigs which allowed me to jolly myself along for so many years.

Anyway, when I retired I said to myself and my invisible alter-ego, "No more crap! From now on only good music for people who listen and care." I got a gig as Chorus Master/Music Administrator and Company Manager for Opera Memphis. Sure, I had to deal with divas with attitudes, choristers with attitudes, orchestras with attitudes --- even audiences with attitudes, but at least it was good music and all the above listened to what was being performed --- and cared. Heck, I used to get to play some minor "buffo"comedy roles with the opera, usually the town drunk: you get to sing a couple of lines and make the audience laugh. Just my cup of tea. All was good and I had finally "made it", being a part of great music for good people, but after a couple years with Opera Memphis I moved on to be Director of Operations for the Memphis Symphony. It was here that I started circling the drain, so to speak.

Listen: On the plus side, if you enjoy being an assistant leader of a Navy band, director of operations for a professional orchestra is as close as you will ever come in the civilian world. On the minus side, a D of O position will eventually kill ya unless you were born on Vulcan. You see, the D of O position in an orchestra is a lot like being Mrs. Brady. The "kids" (orchestra) are constantly trying to play "mom" (me) off of "dad" (the administration) in order to get more money, better music, more money, better working conditions, more money, etc. While "dad" is constantly insisting that "mom" makes the "kids" shut up, behave, and do their chores. It's easy to see why such a situation can burn a guy out. At symphony orchestra conventions, I met with other D of O's at other orchestras. The talk amongst us was always, "Well, after my divorce, I..." or "Well, after my heart attack, I..." The D of O gets a whole lotta pressure without a whole lotta satisfaction. I found myself dealing with all the crap so that others could make great music. You can only jolly yourself along for so long before ya pop. And pop, I did. My doctor said "Get another job, or die." So I did. I became Executive Director for a couple of humane societies --- another tough gig and another sad story.

So I quit playing. No time. No energy. But now that I am semi-retired, everything has changed. Some guys go fishing. Some guys buy an RV and travel. Some guys sit around the house vibrating while talking about the "good ol' days". This guy, however, has decided to do what I shoulda done in the first place. You know, they say that the difference between a blues guitar player and a jazz guitar player is that the blues guitarist plays three chords for a thousand people, while a jazz guitarist plays a thousand chords for three people. But hey, it's all good. I'm semi-retired. I can do whatever I want! It doesn't matter that I wont make a lot of money at it. The point is that from now on I will be playing no more crap!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

37 Days Until NMA Reunion

I put in 1.5 hours practice today (in pieces). I don't want to count my chickens before they hatch (I live WAY out in the country and it's really important not to count chickens here), but there is a chance that I may not embarrass myself too much at the reunion. Axecalibur is easy to play --- easy as a cowgirl on a Saturday night. I will cross my fingers (in sequence, holding each for at least 30 seconds in order to stretch the ol' phalanges).

Saturday, May 15, 2010

38 Days Until NMA Reunion (part 3)

But seriously, folks, I decided to (and my wife let me) buy the Les Paul, leaving the 30 day guarantee to deal with the VA purchasing system. It's a wonderful instrument. I gave it a couple hours test drive today. Heck. Maybe I can find my chops after all.

Oh yes, Cradrevocsid, the Lady of Lake Taneycomo, also gave me two golden tablets with clear and easy-to-understand instructions on how we humans can live together in complete harmony. Unfortunately, I uh... lost them.

38 Days Until NMA Reunion (part 2)

A miracle has happened! I was napping under a banyan tree by Lake Taneycomo today when the Lady of the Lake appeared unto me. She was dressed in glittering Ruthenium which shone like the sun and said her name was Dracrevocsid. She held aloft Axecalibur (a Les Paul Supreme) and gave it unto me, saying, "Take this axe, young page, for no longer a mere apprentice shall you be! With this magic axe you will embark upon a quest to regain the Lost Chops of JD."

At last! I hold in my hands Axecalibur! And with it, I shall go hence to claim JD's Lost Chops.

38 Days Until NMA Reunion

Five days of practicing and I still sound like I just picked the instrument up! Well, I'm exaggerating a little. Not about how I sound, but about the five days of practicing: the past two days I have had a nasty cold and every time I look at my guitar I can feel a tractor beam pulling me back to the couch. I would rather have had my guitar in hand instead a tissue, but I couldn't face it.

"What will they think of me?" I say to my invisible alter-ego, sitting on my left. I used to be well thought of in Navy circles as a pretty decent guitar player and now I'm merely a weak shadow of my former musical self. In Mucinex induced dreams I see myself in a lounge, out of chops on the second chorus of Satin Doll --- moaning in pain as my hands cramp. The old fart retired musicians are gathered around me laughing. And as they laugh, they morph into hideous circus clowns, pointing at me, laughing hysterically and chanting "Lame! Lame! LAME!!" I turn to my invisible alter-ego and say, "Gosh! I hate it when this happens!"

Speaking of guitars, I still haven't picked up my new guitar. The Les Paul Supreme hanging in Guitar Center calls to me. I think, "If I only had that guitar, getting my chops back would be SO much easier." I'm still waiting for the okay from the VA to purchase it to be reimbursed. The VA has already ordered the other equipment they are buying me, but they have a rule about how to purchase items which cost more than $3,000. Perhaps on Monday...

People ask me "How do you get the VA to buy you musical instruments?!!" It's easy, I tell them. All you have to do is to go to Viet Nam and get all messed up in the head. Once they declare you at least 40% disabled you can apply for the VA Vocational Rehabilitation Program. "What are you disabled with?" they ask, and I tell them the VA has diagnosed me as a paranoid schizophrenic, adding "But, then, that's just what they'd WANT me to think!" Then I turn to my invisible alter-ego and say "I TOLD you not to TELL them that!!"

Well, I've said about enough for now. I'm feeling better today (so is my invisible alter-ego, thank you very much for asking) and I plan to get in some wood shedding today.

Monday, May 10, 2010

43 Days Until NMA Reunion

Who in the name of Mary, Mother of Perpetual Motion stole my chops? I started practicing today in order to get some of my old chops back by the time I attend the NMA Reunion in San Antonio, June 23-26. Right now, I'm wondering if I'll be ready in time. A little nervous, to say the least, especially after Frank's phone call last night wherein he told me that he and I are probably going to be the only guitar players there. Yikes! I'm looking forward to picking up my new Les Paul Supreme hopefully later this week. I've been practicing on a classical guitar. The strings are sloppy loose and too far apart for me to get a high NPM count (Notes Per Measure) or to reach the stretchy chords. Oh, well. I'm committed. I've already sent my check in. Wish me luck.