Wednesday, June 30, 2010


From the Editor:

I'm glad to have so many new visitors. Hey, the laffs just keep rollin' in. It's like the tide: you just can't stop 'em. PLEASE subscribe via the "Follow" button on the left. You'll get automatic notices when I post a new one AND you'll boost my self-esteem. It's a win-win situation!!

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

We Serve With Honor

During the NMA Reunion 2010, Frank Mullen narrated a concert band piece which was set to the words below. If your liberty card was like mine, these words were printed on the back.

Tradition, valor, and victory are the Navy’s heritage from the past. To these may be added dedication, discipline, and vigilance as the watchwords of the present and the future. At home or on distant stations we serve with pride, confident in the respect of our country, our shipmates, and our families. Our responsibilities sober us; our adversities strengthen us. Service to God and Country is our special privilege. We serve with honor.

On the Road Again 2

My passion is music. My wife Ann? Her passion is books. She loves books. She loves books a lot! She loves the books she's read and loves the ones she hasn't read just as much. She loves going to libraries... even libraries where you can't check out, or even look at any books. She has taken me to four Presidential libraries, now, and I've found out the awful truth: you can't check out any books there! "What the heck kind of library is that?" I ask her. She just sighs and says, "They're not that kind of library. They are the kind of library where scholars go to research things about Presidents." It doesn't make sense to me, but it must be true if she says so.

I've got to admit that the museum part of the George H.W. Bush Library was pretty cool. It had neat stuff in it like a tennis ball launcher he gave to Gorbachev, a gold plated putter some middle east royalty dude (aren't they all the same?) gave to him, and his old Studebaker and fishing boat. I think my favorite part was this kind of family room where it had comfortable furniture and a TV which constantly played a bunch of funny things, like Bush introducing Saturday Night Live, and Dana Carvey doing impressions.

This picture was taken in a mock-up of his Oval Office. Even though it was just a set, and the volunteer said we could, we just couldn't bring ourselves to sit in the chair: it would have felt disrespectful. Anyway, just as the volunteer snapped the picture, Axecalibur rolled into the office. After a week of reunion type stuff I was pretty brain-dead, but I thought that was kinda weird.

Today, the morning after, as we headed down the final leg of our journey, I think I found out what the deal was... Ann said that last night I fell asleep pretty quickly, and just before she fell asleep, she thought she heard someone say, "Sleep well, mere mortal, for your real journey has just begun!"

Two guesses who that voice belonged to. And that warning was a little bit ominous. I suppose I'll just have to wait and find out what the deal is with Dracrevocsid, the Lady of Lake Taneycomo.

Monday, June 28, 2010

On the Road Again 1

We're on the road again, headed home to Springfield, MO area. We're stopping at a couple of Presidential Libraries on the way home: LBJ's in Austin, TX, and George Bush (original flavor) in College Station, TX. We're doing this for three reasons: 1) We're getting old and this is the kind of thing old people do, 2) Ann and I are really into this kind of thing because, 3) we're getting old and this is the kind of thing old people do.

Yesterday, we did LBJ's. It was underwhelming. Today we are in College Station and will visit George's which promises to be a lot more interesting. Then, after that, we'll drive as far as we can before stopping for the night. We'll still be in Texas. Dagnabbit, it's a big state!

NMA Reunion Post Post Posts 4

Here is Randy Martell. I'm sorry, but I've already forgotten his wife's name. But anyway, here he is with one of his girlfriends. I think he said he picked her up in the airport where she was selling books brought back from India by John Lennon. He was one of the best all-around trumpet players I served with at the Academy Band. Everybody followed his lead because they knew Randy knew where the arrangement was going.

NMA Rock Band

Frank Mullen showing off some of his too cool rock keyboard player moves from the 70's. Dave Whitaker on drums and vocals. I'm not sure who the rest of the geezers are.

NMA Reunion Post Post Posts 3

Hey, MU's!!! Keep visiting my page even after the reunion stuff. It's gonna be more fun than a bunch of drunk Marines!!

Here's Frank on piano. I can't tell who the other guys are, can you?

NMA Reunion Post Post Posts 2

Here's a picture of my right elbow jamming with Dave Whitaker and CJ Landry. Wow! Playing a few tunes having to cover both bass lines and chords will kick a guitar player's butt!

NMA Reunion Post Post Posts 1

The La Quinta wireless went on the fritz last night before I could post any more pictures.

I took my gear down to the lounge to play some combo. There was a full rhythm section playing, but when I got all my gear set up and turned around, they had all disappeared! Was it something I said? This seemed to happen a lot!

Sunday, June 27, 2010

NMA Reunion Post Posts 4

Here's the dance band at the dinner/dance. When these old farts swing, they're in danger of falling over completely!

NMA Reunion Post Posts 3

Here's my wife, Ann, the prettiest girl in the crowd. On the way to College Station, TX (we're here to visit the Bush Presidential Library on the way home) we thought of all the hugging going on at the reunion and we came up with a bumper sticker the NMA oughta sell:

"Hug a Navy Musician -- Maybe He'll Toot For You!"

NMA Reunion Post Posts 2

This is what Navy Musicians do best: hitting the ol' buffet line like a swarm of locusts!

NMA Reunion Post Posts 1

Here's a whole mess of old fart musicians. Don't they look confused? It's because they are not used to being the guests at a dinner/dance, rather, the band.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

NMA Reunion Day 5 pt. 7

This is the NMA Stage/Dance Band, getting down with their bad selves. At our age, it's easy to get down, it's the getting back up again that is tricky.

NMA Reunion Day 5 pt. 6

Here is the NMA Concert Band. Not bad for a bunch of old 6/8ers. As always, I am jealous of the Clarinet and Flute players who can put all their gear in a briefcase.

NMA Reunion Day 5 pt. 5

Here is Dave Whitaker, with whom I served at Navy Band San Francisco 1976-1979. Dave was, and still is, the happiest guy in the band.

NMA Reunion Day 5 pt. 4

Here is Dick Bonefant. He taught me bass drum and cymbals in the basic course back in 1972. He is still a fine drummer.

NMA Reunion Day 5 pt. 3

Here is Doyle Church, one of the many, many people to whom I owe an apology for my crappy attitude in the service. Doyle, in fact, almost sent me home from a Great Lakes tour in which I really pissed him off. Fortunately, Doyle's memory is even worse than mine and he doesn't remember those times.

NMA Reunion Day 5 pt. 2

Here is Rabbit Simmons (on left). Yes, the Rabbit Simmons. Aside from being a fantastic bass player, I'll always remember him for the story of "Freddie-In-A-Basket and the Nine Screaming Niggers"*.

Rabbit was performing in the Jacksonville Beach area when he passed a blues club which had on the Marquis: "Freddie-In-A-Basket and the Nine Screaming Niggers". He said he just had to see what that was all about, so he went into the club to check it out. When it was time for the show to begin, the drummer and bass player started playing while the horns shuffled out. They picked up their horns and began to provide some pop licks. Then, with a fanfare, the two backup singers came out carrying Freddie, who had no arms nor legs, in a basket. There was a boom mic on the floor. They put Freddie down, spun him around a couple of times, then he sat up and began to sing. According to Rabbit, "That cat was one of the best blues singers I ever heard. Think about it. He could really sing the blues."

*No racist intent is behind this story. Rabbit swears that it is true and that he only reports the name that the group chose (for some reason) and which was on the Marquis.

NMA Reunion Day 5 pt. 1

Here is Bob and Mel Leketa. Mel was a vocalist and retired as Command Masterchief of the SOM. Bob was one of the last survivors of that dying breed: accordion players. At one point, the Music Program decided to do away with the accordion billets and, since it would have been bad press to actually murder them, made them all switch over to keyboards.

I'll always remember Jim Hayward's wish, which really had more to do with clarinets than accordions: I'd like to take every clarinet in the whole world, put them in one big stack, throw an accordion on top, and light it on fire!

Sad News re: MUCS Tracy Ford

I just received word that MUCS Tracy Ford (far right) finally lost her battle with cancer and passed away at 2330 24JUN10. Tracy was without a doubt, the finest woman I had the pleasure of serving with in my entire career (no offense to any other women). I served with her in the COMSIXTHFLT Band in Naples, Italy. She was not only a very fine vocalist, but was always on time and ready to perform. She looked great, sounded great, and always quite literally carried more than her weight in gear. I will miss you, Tracy.

Word is that she will be interred at Arlington sometime in the late summer or early fall with full military honors by the Naval Academy Band, with whom she served. Contact the NAVACADBAND for specific date/time.

Friday, June 25, 2010

NMA Reunion Day 4 pt. 3

Here is a rare photograph of Frank Mullen with his wife Jo. He is wanted in four states for art fraud... that is, imitating other musicians. He is known as the Chameleon of Music. He can appear to be a pianist, guitarist, trombonist, and even the bassist of musicians. Both he and Jo are armed, legged, and considered dangerous.

NMA Reunion Day 4 pt. 2

Ann and I tried to visit the Alamo yesterday. My thinking was that Ann had never been there and therefor could not actually remember it.

Unfortunately, we never found the Alamo. Just some old decrepit building where some people had died for some reason. I asked an employee where I could find the Alamo and she just laughed at me. Can you believe it? Just laughed at me! Still, I did get a few pictures of our search for the Alamo.

NMA Reunion Day 4 pt. 1

Day 4 of the NMA reunion. Here's the guy who got me in the Navy Music Program. MUCM Ben McHorney. The 7th Fleet Band was on a tour of various ships off the coast of Viet Nam when they arrived at the USS Okinawa LPH-3 where I was stationed as a Quartermaster (QM3). I wanted to be a Navy Musician in the worst way, and I got my wish! When the band found me on the Okinawa, I was working on the bridge as a navigator and also part timing as a Chaplain's assistant.

When I first joined the Navy, I didn't really play guitar: I knew a few chords and could play Alice's Restaurant. Rather, I played violin. I had told the recruiter so and that I wanted to be an MU. He said, "Aw, sure, they'll take ya", which, of course, was a lie: the Navy didn't have any violinists.

I was Pinocchio. The recruiter was "Honest John".

Before I knew it, I was a QM on a ship off the coast of Viet Nam. I began practicing guitar because the Navy did have some of those. To make a long story short, I auditioned (Ben and Don Junker saw something in me), was accepted and was sent to the MU "A" school. After passing the basic course, I was sent to Orlando, my first band.

The thing about Ben McHorney that makes me sick is that except for the gray hair, he doesn't look any different nearly 40 years later.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

NMA Reunion Day 3

It's Thursday morning and I traded in my exhausted sleeping in for my usual up early sleep pattern, so I have a few minutes to post.

I played last night for the first time at the NMA reunion. It went pretty well, altogether. I played better than I feared I might, but not as well as I hoped I would. I've received plenty of compliments on my playing --- earned, I hope. I think part of the problem last night was that I had to pick harder than I normally would because I couldn't hear myself very well. Tonight I'll get my amp stand which will tilt it up toward me and make it easier to hear what I'm playing. All of us in the rhythm section remembered most of the changes for the tunes we played. The problem was, of course, when I remembered version A, the piano picker version B, and the bass player version C. When that happened, things got confusing and one or more of us would lay out until a quorum was decided by the others. All in all, I think it worked out pretty well.

I think the highlight of my day was talking to Frank Mullen about matters concerning the Pair-O-Clowns club (which consists of Frank and I). As Frank says, as far as he can tell, the only purpose of the Pair-O-Clowns club was/is to keep the third one out. The "third one" was MU3 Leo Keiswether, a one term drummer who now lives in Maumee, OH, who wanted to be funnee like Frank and I. It's a really long story and I might tell it someday, but not today. It was the duty of the Pair-O-Clowns club to keep the other musicians gainfully entertained during long road trips. By "gainfully entertained" I don't mean that they were entertained, rather that we afforded them the opportunity to keep Frank and I entertained!

One of the many ways we did this was to play games. Games like "Leo is...", a game the is much like the name game played at Tupperware parties since Medieval days. It went like this: Frank would say for instance, "Leo is... an ass." The then I would say, "Leo is... an ass and a bum." "True, true," Frank would say, then, "Leo is... an ass and a bum and a cross-dresser." Then I would say, "Leo is... an ass and a bum and a cross-dresser and a dunce..." and so on. As you might guess, the winner was the person who could correctly remember the longest sequence of insults. But if you guessed that, you would be wrong. Actually, the winners were both Frank and I plus Leo! Leo, you see, is one of those people who need attention so much that he will be satisfied even with negative attention. Leo thrived on the attention and laughed as much or more than Frank and I. The actual losers would be the other people in the van. Believe me, it didn't take very many rounds of "Leo is..." for the other band members to groan and beg us to stop, and of course their groans served merely to egg us on to say, "That was a good one. How about another?"

There were many such games, but perhaps the best one was the "Cigarette Lighter Game". A bit more complicated than "Leo is...", it went like this: Frank would say "Things are pretty boring right now. How about the 'Cigarette Lighter' game?" "Sure," I would say, "that sounds like fun, whereupon MU1 Phil Letcher and MUC Charlie Sweet would intone, "I hate that game!"

Try as we might to get others to join in, the game was played by Frank and I alone. Deciding which one of us would go first could last 15 minutes or more, as we "tried" to recall who went first the last time we played or, through chivalry insisting that the other go first. This was merely the warm up, the opening act, so to speak, when we "primed" the audience for the hilarity which was to come.

A word about the audience and the "playing field". In the "Cigarette Lighter Game", Frank and I would be pitted against each other, but it was neither germane nor important to decide the winner and the loser. The winners were always Frank and I, while the losers were always the audience, so it was important for us to have an audience who could consistently accept defeat with ill-grace. It was also important that the audience be a small one, captive and in close quarters so they could neither move themselves out of earshot nor remove themselves entirely from the situation. This made the game perfect for Navy Bands in long van rides to who knows where.

The "Cigarette Lighter Game" was a guessing game of sorts. Frank would take out a cigarette lighter in full view and, still in full view, would "hide" it in his hand. Then I would have to "guess" what was in his hand. I'd get three questions and then I'd have to make a guess. Questions like, is it bigger than a bread box, or is it used for counter insurgencies, or does it weigh the same as a duck? After asking the three questions I would make a guess, and it was always important to guess wrong. Guessing wrong was often difficult because, in full view, Frank had just hidden a cigarette lighter in his hand. This meant that I would have to make myself forget what was hidden in his hand. I know that, like Nether-Laughter (laughter which occurs almost entirely in another dimension and requires no laughter in this dimension to be funnee), it is a difficult concept to explain. In fact, I've never successfully been able to explain it to anyone but Frank.

So I would guess that it was... say, a llama, a space shuttle, a tuxedo, etc. and Frank would tell me that unfortunately, I was wrong, and would then "console" me. By way of making up for my crushing defeat, Frank would then say, "Okay. Let's try another round, only this time I'll guess." And so on and so forth.

Ah, but those were the days. Having no wine or roses, having no swank accommodations, we made do with WPLJ and pepperoni sticks [White Port and Lemon Juice, the poor man's whiskey sour] and often crappy barracks. Somehow we got through endless days in a van, and a blur of school gymnasiums with grace and wit. Like Johnny Appleseed, we traveled to far off destinations like Fresno, Barstow, and that entertainment destination Salt Lake City, spreading the love, so to speak, of the U.S. Navy for reasons that we knew not. Still, they were and are the Good Ol' Days, and it is truly a joy to be able to get together with the other old farts to recall them.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

NMA Reunion Day 2

We made it! We're in San Antonio, TX, where everything is big, big, big!

I've only just begun and have already seen Kim Holl, Leon Harris, Doyle Church and Rabbit Simmons --- yes the Rabbit Simmons. He was bass player for the Commodores and he's the guy who asked a pesky Bay Area restaurant manager who had her live pet parrot on her shoulder, "Hey. Where'd you get the pig?" She said, "It's a parrot!!" falling right into the trap. "I was talking to the parrot," he replied. I also saw Ben "Hoss" Winters who used to play with the D.C. band Country Current. I told him I thought he had died, but obviously he hadn't. I understand that Pat Verner, past bass player for Country Current, will be checking in later today.

On the drive from Dallas to here we saw a billboard which was obviously could have been paid for by George W. Bush, however the official story is that it was paid for by a small group of businessmen who wanted to remain anonymous. It had a big ol' picture of him and the message: Miss me yet? How's that hope and change working out?"

Just time for a quick note and breakfast before the first Concert Band rehearsal. More later. The wife needs the computer.

NMA Reunion Day 1

Today's the day! We stopped in Waxahachie, TX (I've included a picture) for the night and we're just about to get back on the road for the final six or so hours to San Antonio. My wife, Ann, has been uncharacteristically quick off the block this morning and is almost ready to go, so I'll have to make this brief --- no, it won't be like my usual lugubrious diatrive... And I mean quick!

I was thinking about road trips past as we were driving down here. I was thinking about the stupid games we used to play on the road. You know, like 20 Questions, etc. What brought them to mind was that my wife and I were playing "Who Can Spot the Most Walmarts". I won, of course, at the score 6 to 1. It was just about then my wife announced that it was a stupid game and she didn't want to play anymore. Well, of course it was stupid. She was losing!

Frank Mullen used to have a game called the "Cigarette Lighter Game". I can't for the life of me remember how it went. I'll have to put our heads together and see if I can remember. If we see Charlie Sweet in San Antonio, maybe he'll help us. As far as Frank and I can remember, the only point of the game was to irritate Charlie, so he might have a better recollection than we.

Well, gotta trot. She's ready to get on the road. More later. Oh, and I think we may have given Dracrevocsid, the Lady of Lake Taneycomo, the slip. I haven't seen her since we left.

Friday, June 18, 2010

2 Days Until NMA Reunion

Here it is. Only 2 days until the NMA Reunion. Ann and I will leave tomorrow for the drive to San Antonio. If internet is available at the hotels, I'll post things to let my avid readers know what's happening. The prospect of going on the road again bound for some musical destination feels weird after all these years.

During a break from practicing yesterday, I began reminiscing about the countless number of gigs I've played over the years in cities across... well, across just about everywhere! There is a map of Europe on the wall of my man cave. It is a "cruise map": a nautical chart with lines drawn on it showing where I've been. It looks like some spider with a poor sense of direction drew a web across the face of Europe. Once, I counted the states and countries I've performed in. I've performed in 42 U.S. states that I can remember, and 16 countries. Some good gigs, some bad... while others were just plain weird! There are too many to write about here, so I thought I'd just list the best and the weirdest by category. In this episode, the weird. A performance note: This list is more entertaining if you try to imagine Rod Serling narrating it:

Meet Mr. Derby. A simple guitar player (some say very simple) whose only wish was to make good music. But Mr. Derby possessed a singular ability (some would say a curse)... Not being very firmly attached to reality, he would sometimes come "unstuck" and pass into an alternative dimension. Sometimes he would step into a bus, airplane, or van, never realizing that his next gig would be... in the Twilight Zone...

Weirdest Barbershop Quartet gig: In Orlando, a few of us (four of us to be exact) decided to sing some barbershop quartet just for fun. It was Jim Hayward, Gary Seitz, myself and, I think, Jim Richards. We sang some barbershop songs in the middle of our concerts for variety's sake. Once, while we were singing in the middle of a concert in a tent at some festival or other, the generator popped a cork and all the lights went out. The band was dead in the water, but that didn't make any difference to the quartet. While the generator was being worked on, we killed some time by singing every tune we knew as well as some we didn't know. Our mistakes only made us laugh harder, and the audience enjoyed it, too.

Weirdest Marching Band gig: Somewhere in Florida, we played a parade that was supposed to lead from one small town to another small town right next to each other. Unfortunately, "right next to each other" turned out to be miles of uninhabited orange groves. Some said it was 10 miles. I don't know, but it was at least several miles of slogging in the hot, humid climate through endless orange groves where the only audience was insects. After a while, we just quit playing and fell out of ranks to mosey to the next town, forming up only when we were almost there.

Weirdest Stage Band gig: Has to be the Swamp Cabbage Festival we played every year in Okeechobee, FL. It was a festival where people gathered from "all over" to celebrate the wonderfulness of... swamp cabbage. Here's how to cook swamp cabbage: boil the stuff. Here's how to tell when it's done: it hangs limply to your fork like over cooked spaghetti. Here's how it should taste: tasteless.

Weirdest Show Band gig: Goes to a festival my Sixth Fleet Band played in Sicily. We blew the generator during the sound check, so they hard-wired us to a pizza oven across the street, using a very thin wire which grew dangerously hot. I had to station townsfolk armed with fire extinguishers along the length of wire from the pizzeria in case it caught on fire. Fortunately, it didn't catch on fire, but during the concert, we faced the active volcano Mt. Etna and watched it erupt during the gig.

Weirdest Opera gig: A close second was Opera Memphis staging of Don Pasquale which was set as a spaghetti western, complete with real spaghetti and a life sized fiberglass horse. And the winner is a dress rehearsal of Tosca where, when the heroin throws herself off a castle wall (hey, it wouldn't be a proper opera if someone didn't die a tragic death). Unknownst to the audience (but knownst to the soprano) the stage hands, for a joke, had placed a trampoline out of sight so that when Floria tossed her bad self off the wall, she started bouncing back up again while everyone else sang their sorrow.

Weirdest Rock Band gig: Goes to my Navy Band San Francisco rock group, Nautilus, when our first gig after being formed was in the bathroom (head) of the Treasure Island brig! A rock band in close quarters surrounded on all six sides with shiny porcelain? Not a good combination!

Weirdest Bluegrass gig: Goes to the Bogus Bluegrass Boys of Navy Band Memphis. Okay, it wasn't very weird, but how many bluegrass bands do you know of who switch instruments in the middle of the gig and start playing jazz? The banjo guy would trade for a guitar, the mandolinist (me) likewise, string bass turned into electric bass, and the guitar player became the drummer. I've got to say we did a pretty dang credible job of bluegrass.

Weirdest Patriotic Opener gig: Was in Memphis when we played to open the new officer's club. The grass on the lawn hadn't had a chance to grow, yet, so the guy in charge had this great big dirt lot spray-painted green! Which would have been alright except that we were all wearing whites!

Weirdest Change of Command Ceremony gig: A tough one to call... It was either the one where the departing C.O., whose motto was, "It's not over 'till the fat lady sings" hired a fat lady to sing opera, complete with armor, helmet, and spear. Or it could have been the one where the female departing C.O. became so emotionally overwrought during her remarks that she began to cry uncontrollably, sobbing, sniffling, and embarrassing the Admiral in attendance who could hardly contain his disbelief over the theatrics.

Weirdest Civilian gig: Second place is when I was delivering singing telegrams for a company called Eastern Onion. I wore a tux with a pink ruffled shirt, and around my neck was an electric monkey which banged cymbals in time with my telegrams. But the winner in this category has to be when I played on a TV show on the USA network for the WWF... a show called Tuesday Night Titans. It was a wrestling "talk show" modeled after the Carson show in which wrestlers would be "interviewed" about past and future wrestling matches. Of course, most of the time, the interviews morphed into brawls and general mayhem. Lots of good sea stories about those gigs, but no time to recount them. It's time for....

Weirdest All-Time Group: Goes hands down to the Memphis Symphony Orchestra. Something happens to symphony musicians who have been "sentenced" to years of solitary confinement in university practice rooms --- especially when they weren't wrapped too tightly to begin with! The orchestra was absolutely rife with neurosis! For instance there was a violinist who had a picture perfect bedroom which looked like it had been taken straight from a page of Better Homes and Gardens --- and to make sure it stayed that way, she slept on a cot in her closet! I swear I'm not making that up. And there was a violist (no surprise there) whom I had to reprimand for sexual harassment. While in D.C. for an audition, he presented himself at the White House and asked a nice young man wearing a business suit and an ear-piece to let him speak with President Clinton. He wouldn't tell the Secret Service man what it was about, and mind you, he was carrying his viola case (which he wouldn't let them examine). He explained that he felt only Clinton could understand his problem since they had both been falsely accused of sexual harassment! The nice young man was like, uh... sir, we are going to need you to come with us. I only found out about it when the Secret Service called me to verify the violist's employment.

Once, for a lark, I came up with fitting aggregates for the various sections. You know, like a gaggle of geese, school of fish, etc. They all have their unique personalities. Garrison Keillor once remarked at a Symphony Orchestra League convention that he used to like walking around back stage before the musicians had even taken their instruments out of their cases, and tried to guess what section they played in. He said, "... and I was surprised at how good I was at it." Anyway, to match their personalities, I came up with aggregates like a pride of trumpets, a pod of low brass, a coven of oboes, etc. The most fitting aggregate I came up with was a psych ward of violists, who are, pound for pound, the strangest section of the orchestra.

At my first rehearsal as Director of Operations for the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, a bassoonist came to me and shook a chair in my face, complaining, "This chair is unacceptable!!" I said, "Pull the other one!" I thought he was kidding, but he was not. Shoot, in the Navy we were just glad when we got chairs of any kind! The musician's union argues for crazy stuff like that whenever contract negotiations are up for renewal. I know this is hard for ex-Navy musicians to believe but, for instance, they have an official thermometer and an official temperature range. If the temperature goes above or below the acceptable limits, something like 75 to 89 degrees... they just quit playing. Period. And there is an official clock at rehearsals and gigs. At a rehearsal, once the clock reaches the minute past the contracted hour, they just stop playing, put their horns in their cases and leave! I told you that you wouldn't believe it.

They have a whole bunch of rules like that. There is another rule that absolutely no sunlight is to touch their instruments. Not at all! I remember one ridiculous outside gig where I had made arrangements for a tent to be constructed for the concert. Still, when the sun started going down, a couple beams of light hit the viola section's instruments. So there I was, for the remainder of the concert, standing in front of the orchestra to the conductor's right, holding two big umbrellas up so that the sun wouldn't touch their instruments. What can I say?

I'm sure I'm forgetting some weird gigs, but I need to practice some, get our house in order, and start packing for our road trip to San Antonio. I'll try to post some sea stories about road trips while we are on the way. Until then, I leave you with words that Eva Gabor said on the very weird show Green Acres. She said, "Truce is stranger than friction, dahling."

Thursday, June 17, 2010

5 Days Until NMA Reunion

Only 5 days until the start of the NMA Reunion and I'm starting to get the jitters. If you've read earlier postings you'll know that Dracrevocsid, the Lady of Lake Taneycomo, has counseled me on stage fright: she reminded me that I won't die of stage fright. She's right, of course, but that doesn't stop the jitters from happening anyway. Let's face it, it's been right at 19 years since I grabbed a guitar and got on a stage!

I've had the stage fright jitters before, and sometimes played well. However, there have been times when I didn't play so well. One time I didn't play well was when I was stationed at the NavAcadBand and "auditioned" for Dick Morgan at a jazz club in D.C. called Blues Alley. Dick was a fantastic piano player --- truly top drawer! At that time, Dick was accompanied by Keeter Bets on acoustic bass and Mike Shepherd on drums. Whew!! They were awesome! You couldn't ask for a more musically intimidating trio. The fourth member of the group was Rick Whitehead, guitarist and leader of the Airmen of Note, the Air Force's premier stage band. When Rick couldn't make it onaccounta an Air Force gig, Steve Abshire played in his stead. Steve played with the Commodores, the Navy's premier stage band. The idea was that sometimes both Rick and Steve couldn't make it onaccounta Air Force and Navy gigs happening at the same time, so Dick needed a third guitarist to sub when the first two couldn't be there.

Mike Shepherd knew my playing from being the leader of the Naval Academy Band's stage band, and thought well of my work, so he asked Dick if I might sit in one night as a kind of audition. Boy, was I nervous. Man, was I nervous! Jeez Louise, was I nervous!! I was so nervous that I dropped my pick a couple of times and, unable to see the black pick on the floor in the dim lighting, had to finish my solos with just my thumb. I choked up that night. It seemed like any lick I tried to play was destined for disaster. Believe me when I say that I had plenty of opportunity to follow Gary Burton's advice about improvising that night (see an earlier post) Somehow or other, I made it through the night, though. Mike Shepherd had a "conference" with Dick Morgan, afterward, about me. It was a lengthy discussion (or maybe it just seemed that way as I stood in the next room with my guitar). Eventually, Mike came out and told me that I had been accepted. He tried not to admit it, but I know he had been telling Dick that I was capable of a lot more than I played that night. That didn't matter to me: by hook or by crook, I was in! I'm just glad there wasn't a recording of that night.

Another time when I was nervous and, unfortunately, there was a recording, was when my band, Ocean Express (Navy Band San Francisco) played at the School of Music Clinic in Little Creek, VA. Ocean Express was invited to play at the clinic because we had a reputation of being a cutting edge jazz-fusion group. Of course, we could play all the usual popular stuff, but we specialized in tunes performed by the likes of Chick Corea and Return to Forever, Jean-Luc Ponty's band, John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, etc. RTF's music was carefully orchestrated while Maha was more or less jam tunes in really weird keys and time signatures. At the concert, I thought I played pretty well and came away feeling good, but years later I discovered that there had been a recording. I listened to the recording with great anticipation, and... I... sucked! I sounded like crap! Oh, sure, it was fast crap, but still crap.

Seems like guitar players (myself included) always try to play fast. That's part of my nervousness about the NMA Reunion: I still don't have the chops to play all the really fast licks I used to play.

What is our fascination with "fast"? Our obsession with "faster"? Our goal of being the "fastest" guitarist on the block? Why can't we guitarists, in general, just settle down and play "well"? My answer to that question is I don't know... don't have a clue.

The very best guitarists are capable of playing well and playing fast at the same time. Still, it doesn't take too many choruses of an extreme barn-burner to wear down even the jazz greats. When Joe Pass performed in smaller venues, the audiences had a fair number of guitarists, and he knew it. Joe often played solo. Just him, his guitar, and nothing else. Sometimes I'd have to open my eyes to see if there were more than one musician on the stand, so great was his mastery of technique. He'd play for a while and look at his watch, saying, "Well, I guess it's about time I played something fast". You could spot the guitar players: they were the ones who lit up when he announced a fast tune. He knew... Joe knew what the deal was. Herb Ellis knew, too. Herb could burn a barn with the best of them. I've heard him live and on recordings playing unbelievably fast solos. Yet, very often, he would eschew the fast licks for slower, more soulful ones.

Shouldn't we guitar players (and all musicians) concentrate more on dazzling the crowd with brilliance and turn down the baffle-with-bullshit knob? I think so. Now I've just got to teach myself to play that way. All too often, music is a competition. Sometimes, as with the Van Cliburn, the competitions are organized and there are huge cash prizes for the best musicians. I think there is something intrinsically wrong with that. Of course, at least part of the competitor's arsenal has got to be amazingly fast chops.

I guess I'll just have to live with the butterflies. Certainly, I'm not the only person going to the reunion who hopes he doesn't make a fool of himself. Certainly, I'm not going to be the only person in San Antonio who is worried about his chops (or lack thereof). To them, and to myself, I say relax, play as well as you can, and just let it happen. There are doubtless going to be enough clams played in the Double Tree Hotel to make a very large chowder. Let's not add frustration and disappointment to the soup.

As Obi Wan Kenobi said, "Relax. Use the Force, Luke". And as Yoda might have said to us, "'Higher, Louder, and Faster' is not the Jedi way. Become one with the music, you must. Only then at peace, will you be."

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

7 Days Until NMA Reunion

Only 7 more days until the NMA Reunion and I still have a lot of work to do. I got up early this morning, as I usually do, at around 4:00 am, and set Axecalibur on its stand in preparation for some practicing. While sipping my coffee I looked at Axecalibur. Jeez what a nice instrument! With its artfully done binding, mother of pearl inlays on its ebony neck, gold frets and hardware... It has a AAAA wood top and back, a chambered mahogany body... When you look at it, you need to hold on to your chair lest you lose yourself in its depths (and no, I haven't been eating mushrooms).

I thought about all the cool guitars I used to have. Have you ever done something and, years later, kicked yourself in the butt for doing it? I sure have! Why, why, why did I sell those guitars? Or worse, why did I give them away?? I said out loud, "Sell or give away Axecalibur?!!" I was about to say "Never in a million years!!!" when with a pop, a sleepy-eyed Dracrevocsid, the Lady of Lake Taneycomo, appeared in my living room wearing a more or less frumpy flannel night gown which was much too big for her small frame.

"What, what, what??" she said. "What, what, WHAT???" she repeated. "Sell Axecalibur?? What madness is this?!! Have you lost your mind??" "No, no, no," I assured her, "I would never sell Axecalibur. I was just reminiscing about the guitars I used to have which I eventually sold." "Or gave away!" she reminded me. "Yes. 'Gave away'" I admitted. "I'm sorry to have awakened you," I said. "I was just sort of thinking out loud." She snorted and said, "Thinking? Thinking?? You call selling or giving away guitars 'thinking'?" "Believe me," I pleaded, "I'm never going to sell Axecalibur!!"

"See that you don't!" she snapped. "There are stiff penalties for mortals who sell or give away gifts given to them by Ladies of the Lakes!" she said, ominously, while patting the wand in her belt. She looked at her Rolex and said, "By Neptune's Trident, it's early! Where can a girl get a cup of coffee?" "It's in the kitchen," I replied, "Help yourself," whereupon she padded off to the kitchen, her dowdy gown dragging the floor behind her and muttering, "Gave away guitars! Gave away guitars...!"

While she was gone I thought about the guitars I had sold, or worse (I admitted) given away. There was the Fender Jaguar that I gave away to some girl I was dating at the time. The Gibson L-5 that I had traveled by train to Manny's Music in New York City to buy, only to be sold a few years later so I could buy some Anvil cases. My first guitar --- a Goya nylon string --- not expensive, but it had held a lot of sentimental value. I gave the Goya to girl whose most attractive feature was that she was the first female musician in the Army.

I could hear Dracrevocsid banging around in the kitchen. "Where are the coffee cups?" she asked. "The same place they were last time," I replied, "In the cupboard above the coffee pot." "Oh, yes," she said, "Now I remember". I thought about the Gibson L-5s solid body guitar I had sold. I don't even remember why I sold it. And the Aria jazz guitar I sold. Can't remember why I sold that one, either.

"Have you any sweetener?" asked Dracrevocsid. "There's sugar on the counter," I replied. "Not sugar! Sweetener! Like Equal or something similar. A Lady has got to watch her weight, you know." I told her it was in the cupboard above the sugar and went back to my thoughts. Perhaps the hardest memory to bear was the custom guitar and matching fretless bass that Jim Cunningham (link in side-bar) built for me. I had had to sell them to help pay some bills after I retired from the service and money was scarce. They were beautiful and, above all my other mistakes, that's the one over which I kick myself the most.

Coming back into the living room with cup of coffee in hand, Dracrevocsid said, "That's better. I could hear you thinking, you know. You were thinking quite loudly and I heard every word. Why is it that you mortals can't seem to get the big picture? Is it because you live for only a few decades in this mortal world? Instead of merely thinking in the short term, you should remember that there will be an eternity of jamming in Heaven. Great Caesar's Ghost! Haven't I told you about it many times. Oh, I'll admit that getting rid of your instruments on this mortal plane is unfortunate... even stupid! But should you make a mistake, as all mortals are wont to do, it can be corrected in Heaven!"

"Really?" I asked, "How do you mean?" "Well," she explained, "in heaven you can play any or all of the guitars you ever had on Earth. They will be expertly repaired, refurbished, and restored to their original quality --- some say even better than original. Or... if you like, you may have custom guitars built for you to your exact specifications, although I understand there is quite a waiting list. One hundred years or more! But let's face it. In eternity you can do a hundred years standing on your head!"

"Wow," I said, "I didn't know Angels built guitars." She said, "They don't! All guitar work is contracted out." "Contracted out?" I said, amazed, "To who?" She sputtered and corrected my grammar, "'To whom?', you mean." "Please," I replied, "I get enough of that from my wife. Alright, then, 'To whom' is the guitar work contracted out?" She took a bite of a biscuit which suddenly appeared in her hand, and said, "Mmmf-mmf, mmm mmmf!" "What's that?" I asked. "Sorry," she said after swallowing, "To the wood-sprites, of course. Nobody knows wood like wood-sprites. I thought you'd have figured that out on your own."

She looked at her Rolex again and said, "Look at the time! I must be going." She ran her fingers through her head and said, "Drat! I have 'bed head' again and not much time to deal with it. I have other clients to see this morning, and then there's that lunch meeting with Hades, Lord of the Underworld. Let's hope he's in a better humor this time than at our last meeting. I teased him about his tie and he shot some fire at me. Nearly singed my hair! Well, I really must be off. Good luck with your practicing today." She stood up, snapped her fingers and, with a pop, she vanished... taking with her my favorite coffee cup.

Man, I thought to myself, I sure hope she doesn't know the way to San Antonio. "I heard that!" came her voice from afar. "Now get off your bum and go practice!" I picked up Axecalibur and began to practice, being careful to guard my thoughts.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Disclaimer and Apology, etc. Pt. 2

To my avid readers:
I realize that in this blogging venue I sometimes tend to go on and on. Sure, I've got a lot to say (and hopefully, some of you will find it of value), but after reading my long posts, your minds must get as numb as they would at a Barbershop Quartet Convention and, for this, I apologize.

Fear not, for here are some tips and tricks which may help you get through it with sanity intact:

-- Fortunately, I don't post them every single day. Take them in small pieces, reading just a few paragraphs each day. Like sipping cheap Russian vodka, it may make it easier to keep down.

-- Speaking of that, you may find that a couple of stiff drinks will grease the skids.

-- If you have babies, try reading them aloud as they fall asleep. My posts are guaranteed to put 'em out faster than Maxwell's Silver Hammer.

-- Did I mention a few stiff drinks?

-- Read them while exercising on a treadmill or stationary bicycle. By the time you get through reading a posting, your mind may be numb, but you will have burned off enough calories to afford you an extra beer or two.

-- If a few stiff drinks doesn't help, try drinking a Pan-Galactic Gargle-Blaster, the best (and most powerful) drink in the known universe, according to the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: the effect of which is much like wrapping a lemon peel around a large gold brick and then bashing your head in with it.

Some of you may have guessed that the reason I do this is to chronicle my conversations with Dracrevocsid, the Lady of Lake Taneycomo... and you would be wrong. But some of you may have guessed that chronicling the search for my lost chops is not the whole reason why I do this... and you would be right! In fact, the real reason for all of this is to get it straight in my head why I am searching for my lost chops; to order my thoughts and feelings, and put them on "paper" where they will hopefully stop moving around and quit changing.

Constantly moving and changing thoughts and feelings are my Kryptonite!

I thank you, dear readers, for your patience. I congratulate you, dear readers, on your persistence. I implore you, dear readers, to keep on reading. I am the proverbial monkey in front of a typewriter: sooner or later, I'm bound to type something intelligible.

8 Days Until NMA Reunion

Wow! We're now down to single digits in the number of days until the NMA Reunion in San Antonio. I'm feeling better about my chops now than I did a few weeks ago, but I'm sure once I "hit the deck", I'll have some butterflies. On the other hand, I'm confident that my fellow Navy MU's that they can bend their elbows with the best, and let's face it, the more they drink, the better I'll sound. Still, I get frustrated with myself that I don't sound better than I do, yet.

Back in the early seventies in my first Navy Band (Orlando), I was frustrated with myself as I learned how to improvise. Very frustrated! So frustrated, in fact, that after a particularly fruitless practice session, I became angry and threw my guitar into its case. I shudder to think about that even now, and I'm sure you do, too. But it wasn't as bad as you might think: it was one of the gazillion cheap Fender Mustang guitars that the Navy big-whigs dumped on us in the early seventies.

You see, in the early seventies the Navy was down-sizing after Viet Nam. This was the same down-sizing which reduced and reorganized the musician branch from around 1,500 musicians down to 900... then 700. The same down-sizing which resulted in very few musician promotions for many years.

While the Viet Nam war was in full swing, the Navy had sunk a whole lotta recreation fund money into fairly cheap instruments and equipment for impromptu ship bands. After Viet Nam, a lotta those ships were being "moth-balled" and the Navy had a whole lotta equipment gathering dust in the warehouses. Some bone-head in Washington convinced the Navy to give all this gear to the Navy Musicians in order to save some money. Trouble was, all this gear was crap! Trouble also was, the Navy Music Program wasn't going to be able to buy any similar equipment until the crap in the warehouses was all used up. Naturally, we Navy Musicians took this as a challenge!

We settled in to destroying the crappy instruments and equipment as fast as we could. Unfortunately, there seemed to be an endless supply of Fender Mustangs. Also unfortunately, this guitar was pretty durable and it took a lot of abuse to render it unplayable. I can't remember all the cheap instruments and equipment we received, but I do remember the EV microphones. Those microphones were easy to break, in fact they would often break all by themselves in the middle of a gig, but the Navy seemed to have an enormous stock of them. We'd bang them around, play catch with them, even use them for pucks for dance floor hockey. We destroyed them by the case but the Navy would just send us more. This dance went on for several years until they eventually ran out of EV microphones.

But I digress.

I was talking about being frustrated by my inability to learn how to improvise as quickly as I would have liked. After tossing the guitar in its case I sat down and stewed about it. Seeing my angst, then MU2 Jim Hayward gave me some really great advice. I listened: MU2 Hayward was, and is, one of the best musicians I've ever known. He was, and is, highly respected and admired by many musicians. I've had the pleasure of listening to him for many, many years --- and I've yet to hear him play a single clam! Jim told me that he understood my frustration ("Yeah, right!" I thought, "Easy for him to say"). But he gave me a book of jazz licks (I can't remember who it was written by) and told me that he had been listening to me; that I had a lot of potential; that if I kept at it, I would eventually succeed. Then he said something which I've never forgotten and have tried to incorporate into my playing. He said, "When you take a ride, don't try to play every lick you know. Save some for later. Just get in, say what you've got to say, and get out", and he advised me to listen to as many jazz masters as possible.

In those days, Disney ran a jazz club... the Buena Vista lounge. I heard a lot of jazz greats there: Red Norvo on vibes, Stephane Grappelli on violin and, of course, Barney Kessel on guitar. There was one time when Barney, who always seemed to enjoy getting laughs as well as applause, was playing a soft chord solo... when a bartender started up one of those annoying blender machines (I'm sure you musicians know what I'm talking about). He stopped playing, leaned over to the microphone and said to the bartender, "If you're going to do that, please do it in D-minor, since that's the key I'm playing in." Barney loved bantering with the audience, and still did ten years later when I performed with him.

Barney, as well as Charlie Byrd, and Herb Ellis used to play a couple times per year at the King of France Tavern in the Maryland Inn in Annapolis, MD. Barney would often tell jokes or quip with the audience between tunes. The three guitar players performed together as the "Great Guitars" and cut a few albums. All three of them had the same manager who lived in the Annapolis area, so they would often meet with him when they were in town. For a short time, Barney had an apartment in Annapolis. I was stationed at the Naval Academy Band at that time, so I tried to make as many of their performances as possible. There was an Eb Clarinet player in the USNA Band... MU1 Steve Fowler. Steve owned an instrument repair shop in the area and was an excellent luthier. Herb and Barney trusted Steve's work and would have him work on their guitars when needed.

One time, Barney brought in his old Gibson Charley Christian model guitar to be re-fretted. It needed it badly: the frets were paper thin and Barney complained about buzzing. Steve was excited about working on Barney's guitar, as was MUCM Jim Cunningham who, at the time, was learning the luthier trade from Steve. BTW, Jim still works on and/or builds guitars under the name Atlantic Woodworks (link in side bar) and, while the website only makes a small mention of the guitar works, he is the best! I've played a few of his instruments (more about that in an upcoming episode), so if you are thinking about having a custom guitar built, you should definitely consider Jim.

At any rate, Barney's guitar needed to be re-fretted so he took it to Steve and Jim. Barney's guitar was one of the first or second generation electric arch-top guitars... basically a Gibson ES-150 with a cutaway and armed with a magnetic blade single coil pickup. Unlike more modern electric guitars, the pickup on his guitar was unshielded and sometimes provided unplanned comedy when the pickup received and amplified CB radios from the truckers on the nearby interstates. Steve and Jim re-fretted the instrument and, for free, buffed and polished the oxidized brass work. When Barney tried out the refurbished guitar, he was taken aback by the now glittering brass work... It seemed like Barney preferred the old tarnished brass. He also said he needed the frets filed more; that they were too high. Steve and Jim filed the frets some more, but it was still too high. Barney brought the guitar back a couple more times for more filing. In the end, when Barney was satisfied with the fret height, we looked at the frets... they were almost as paper thin as they were when he first brought the guitar in.

As I said, Barney loved to get laughs. When the Great Guitars performed, he acted as the MC of the group. However, when Barney performed with Herb Ellis as a duo, he would mention that the two of them represented two-thirds of the Great Guitars, so he tried to come up with a name for the duo which was about two-thirds of "Great Guitars". He said the best he could come up with was "Those Wonderful Guitar Guys" which he reckoned was right at two-thirds. So, when I lucked into playing a week with Barney at the KoF Tavern as just two guitars, he announced our "group" the same way. I surprised him with t-shirts emblazoned with "Those Wonderful Guitar Guys".

Sometime during that week, Barney announced that we would play the "Theme from M*A*S*H". I said, "Suicide Is Painless," and he looked at me incredulously. The audience, of which many were musicians, agreed with me that the correct title for that tune was Suicide Is Painless. If you remember, in the original movie M*A*S*H, the dentist's nickname was "Painless Polosky" owing to his ability to practice his art with little or no pain to the patient. Painless was an avid ladies man, but one night, after he was unable to "perform", he concluded the reason must be that he was gay, so he decided to commit suicide. Hawkeye Pierce and the others decided to help him by putting on a mock "suicide" and the tune "Suicide Is Painless" was played during the "ceremony". Barney, it turns out, had no idea that that was the name of the tune and admitted, "I've been playing it for years and never would have guessed its title."

Of course, I loved listening to Herb and Barney at the KoF Tavern, but one of the best parts of our association was hanging out with them and MUC Steve Abshire (who hardly ever missed an appearance). We would often go to a Shoney's or Denny's for breakfast, afterward. One of these "breakfast clubs" happened during the period when the latest fad amongst the jazzers at the Navy Band in D.C. and the NavAcadBand was to talk like the mock Canadian "McKenzie Brothers" from the Saturday Night Live sketches. We wore out quotations like "What a hoser!" and, "Take off, you knob," to the point where our wives begged us to stop (which, of course, just egged us on). It was hilarity to the max when it caught on with Herb and he said to the waitress, "I don't need a menu, eh? I'd like some beer and jelly donuts, eh?"

Late at night, we would trade humorous "sea stories". Herb, naturally, had a million of them, but my favorite of his tales involved Ray Brown when the Oscar Peterson trio visited Italy. As they exited the Rome air terminal they looked for taxicabs to take to the hotel. European cars tend to be much smaller than American cars and an upright bass won't fit in just any cab. But Ray Brown, having traveled extensively in Europe, knew exactly which models would take his bass. The story is funny, but much more funny if you have lived in Italy. While ques in Germany are very ordered, Italian ques are decidedly not! For instance, in a German bank, there will be clearly marked lanes and even flashing lights to tell you when to move and to which teller. In an Italian bank, however, a "line" is a bunch of people pressing up to the tellers; the person who can yell the loudest is the first in line.

So Ray Brown found a taxi which would hold his bass, even though Ray, himself, would have to follow it in another cab. Once the cab driver understood what Ray wanted, he refused, saying that the bass wouldn't fit. Ray said it would fit, but the driver disagreed and argued with Ray. Soon, passersby began listening to the argument and began to kibitz, some saying it would fit and some saying it would not fit. The arguing became more heated. More and more Italians joined in the discussion, passionately arguing their opinions. Soon, a small crowd had gathered, gesturing and arguing in Italian. Seeing his opportunity during all the confusion, Ray Brown took his bass, threw down the front passenger seat, put the bass in the cab and slammed the door. Noticing what had happened, there was a moment of silence from the audience, after which they threw their hands up in the air and, the matter decided, went about their business.

Yes, memories of those nights hanging out in restaurants are precious to me. I haven't heard many musician sea stories in the last few years and I'm looking forward to doing some of that at the NMA Reunion. Most of my blog entries have some sort of "moral" to the story, and this entry is no different. Listen:

Cookies and punch.

Cookies and punch are two of the three most important benefits of being a musician. Why do we do this thing? Why do we expose our innermost feelings from the stand, baring our souls for audiences to either accept or reject as they will? Cookies and punch --- and while it may be disguised as scrambled eggs and coffee, potato chips and sodas, or even beer and jelly donuts --- the effect is the same. The third benefit is not, as you might think, the paycheck... That is the fourth reason. Cookies, punch and communication with each other is why we do it. All Navy MU's and, I daresay, musicians around the world enjoy sharing some time after the gear is unloaded in the band-room. We congratulate each other on tunes well played and commiserate about our mistakes. We "solve the problems of the world" as some musicians put it.

Playing music is a very personal thing. We put ourselves out there and hope to get positive feedback from the audience. It's like we are asking them, "Do you love me or not?" If we get applause, we feel good. If we don't, we take it personally and feel bad. And as much as we bitch about promotions (or lack thereof); as much as symphony musicians bitch about pay and benefits, we all do it for personal validation. Most of the musicians I know are pretty intelligent people and it's not like we couldn't do something else for a living... and be very successful at it! It's the same in all the arts, but especially in performing arts: The money is entirely secondary. I submit that the most "successful" artists are those who are satisfied enough with their financial situation that they can play for art's sake alone. Don't get me wrong. It's not that wages are of no consideration, because they are. But it's important to keep priorities straight. We all remember the cookies and punch after performances when we were kids, when parents and/or others praised us for playing so beautifully. So when the tires hit the tarmac, isn't that why we got into the music business in the first place?

Cookies and punch. That's what I'm all about now. Yeah, sure, you can put the check in the mail, but where are the cookies and punch? I didn't understand it years ago when Arturo Sandoval performed with the Memphis Symphony and he complained to me, "Where's da food? Da food for me and my guests?"

Sorry, Arturo, I know that back then I kind of shined you on. But now I get it!

Friday, June 11, 2010

11 Days Until NMA Reunion

I've spent an inordinate amount of time, lately, thinking about strings. I mean when Dracrevocsid, the Lady of Lake Taneycomo, hands you a magic axe, you can't just slap on any old thing that goes twang in the night.

I never used to give much thought to strings, and it would have been pointless: when I was transferred to Orlando, my first duty station --- you didn't have any say in what strings you used. It was either use what NMPC sent you, or buy your own. So it was a big deal when the supply CPO (I'm pretty sure it his name was MUCS Sam Patz) figured out a way to buy my Ernie Ball Super Slinkies from a local music store.

MUCS Patz was notable for two talents: 1) He was an incredible wheeler-dealer; the kind of guy who bought a big-ass Lincoln cash when the price was lowest... during the famous gas shortages of the early 1970's. And 2) was one of the last of the dying breed of vibes players, which of course meant that he had a lot of time on his hands to practice his number one talent. If you have read my earlier posts you'll remember that I alluded to the bad attitude I used to have. Well, one day I snapped. The band officer, Who-Will-Remain-Unnamed, whom I hated anyway, had done something or other which really yanked my chain. "That's it!" I announced, "I'm going to kill him!" It is evidential what a big deal those guitar strings were that MUCS Patz was able to stop my rage by barring the door and pleading, "Don't do it! Remember, I... I got you those guitar strings you wanted."

The Ernie Balls were really, really thin, starting out at .009 on the 1st string. I got to ordering extra 1st and 2nd strings onaccounta they broke so often. Not only that, but they were really, really sensitive to temperature and sunlight. I remember playing a concert at Walt Disney World on one of those days when spotty clouds passed, creating periods of shade and full sunlight. Every time the clouds were overhead, the strings would contract, causing them to go sharp. Conversely, every time the clouds passed, the strings would expand, going flat. This was in the day before in-line guitar tuners, so the entire concert was MC'd accompanied by me twanging quite loudly (did I mention my bad attitude?) to get the guitar tuned before the next number. I played those Ernie Ball strings all the way through Orlando and at my second band, Navy Band San Francisco.

My next duty station was the Naval Academy Band. Sometime in there, I switched to D'Addario EXL-110's, which were a little thicker, starting out at .010 on the 1st string. They sounded okay and the slightly thicker strings didn't break as much --- I guess that was the main thing. Still, I carried a spare guitar which was always tuned and on the stage in case I broke a string. I stuck with the D'Addarios through the end of my Navy career. I dunno, to me, playing rock on a solid body guitar, it doesn't really matter much what guitar strings I use: whatever tone there was being so often distorted or effected in some other way. They all sounded pretty much the same to me, at least close enough that the main selling point was string breakage.

But now that I have Axecalibur, a Gibson Les Paul Supreme, and intend to play mostly jazz, the choice of strings becomes very important! All kidding aside, many guitarists would ask why I got a Les Paul if I intend to play mostly jazz. Well, several factors went into my decision. First, I needed a lot of gear besides a guitar: bass (I'll get to that), amp, effects, software, etc., and the VA was footing the bill. I had to write a very detailed business proposal for my target business of not only playing, but also copy, transcribing and arranging work. This proposal had to pass the scrutiny of my VA Voc Rehab Counselor, then on to VetBiz, where a panel of volunteer businessmen reviewed my proposal to decide whether to endorse it or not. Then, it had to go to my counselor's boss in St. Louis for final approval. Altogether, my proposal asked the VA for more than $7,000 in equipment, web page development, etc. Adding a quality jazz acoustic-electric guitar would have added around $6,000 to that figure. Naturally, one of the considerations in granting approval was cost, and I was trying to keep it as close the the $5,000 limit as possible.

So I've got a Les Paul Supreme, a Victor Bailey Fretless J-Bass is on the way, and I can't put just any old strings on them, so I did a lot of research on the internet. According to Steve Abshire, Herb Ellis used D'Addario medium gauge flatwound strings (.13 -.52 or .54). Steve uses Thomastic-Infeld medium gauge BB 114 strings (.14 -.55) round wound strings. All I can say is WOW! Steve must have the hand strength of a gorilla. Those are some thick strings. By way of contrast, I am using Gibson SEG-900L Light L5 Pure Nickel Wound Jazz Electric / Wound Third String. I chose them because the salesmen at Guitar Center tell me that Les Pauls just behave better with strings gauges 10-13-18-26-36-46 or so. Unlike many other stores, the guys at Guitar Center of Springfield, MO aren't just out-of-work rock guitarists... they actually seem to know what they are talking about. For the J-Bass, after some research and Max Murray's opinion, I'm going to start out with Rotosound round-wound gauges 40-60-80-100 which I'll have to special order since they aren't available in a set in those gauges.

Up to now, in this episode of my blog, everyone who isn't a guitar player has probably had a hard time staying awake. That's about to change.

One of the cool things about guitar strings is that they can be used for many other things besides just on a guitar. Over the years, I've used guitar strings for a number of jerrybuilt or improvised purposes. I've used them to secure speaker mesh to an amplifier, to hold a microphone onto a broken mic. clip, to hang Navy Band signs, to temporarily repair drum pedals, provide upward pressure on a sticky piano pedal... The list goes on and on. When staying in a non-air-conditioned barracks, a bottom E string, shoebox, piece of paper, and wire snips can be used to build a personal fan. I know. I've done it. They can also be used around the house, for instance, to tie cupboards closed so the little tykes can't get in them, to hang pictures, etc. Lost your cotter pin? Voila! Problem solved.

Now it's your turn! What wacky things have you used guitar strings for? Both on the road and off. Post a comment with submission(s). The wackiest will win a free night on the town... you just have to come to Springfield, MO to claim your prize.

That's about enough frivolity for now. Next episode will be some more funny sea stories, including a couple involving Herb Ellis' or Barney Kessel. Watch your email boxes... Well, I need to go practice now.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

12 Days Until NMA Reunion

Only 12 days until the NMA Reunion and my wife and I are down to worrying about what to wear and I'm worried about what to play. I've been working diligently on my "A" list of tunes... tunes like "I Want to Be Happy", "Isn't It Romantic", etc. Fortunately, I have Bob Roetker's fake book. If you haven't asked Bob to email you a copy yet, don't delay! His link is in the side-bar and it is the best jazz fakebook I've ever seen!

Also fortunately, the Chief Fashion Advisor (FAC) has left some advice on Frank Mullen's page, Navy Lyres (link is also in the side-bar), on what to wear. Also, also fortunately, I, uh... acquired a draft of the FAC's recommendations. Ann and I went out shopping for clothes for me the other day. Let me state for the record that I hate shopping for clothes! Also, also, also fortunately, my wife is one of the few females I've ever met who feels the same way that I do about clothes shopping. Our motto is, have a list, get in, get the list and get out! Our first (and only) stop was the Casual Male XL (which is a nice way of saying "Big & Tall" --- you can assume I didn't go there for the tall sizes, but I won't tell you how many "X"'s I bought) and we found almost everything on the list. Forty minutes and a few hundred bucks and we we're outa there leaving the store with a very heavy bag, giddy with excitement or sticker shock (I don't know which). Today, I plan to get the last couple pairs of pants, call it good, and rest the next day.

Ann is not as fortunate as I: she is going to go shopping with my eldest daughter, Kim. Why is it that chicks never do anything by themselves? Kim is the kind of girl who is compelled to look at everything in the store! Whether it is the right size or not! No matter if the clothes are even for the target person. A day of shopping with Kim is exquisite torture! I went shopping with her exactly once, and I swore I'd never do it again.

So shopping for myself was relatively painless, but deciding on "A" list tunes is not. Bob Roetker's fakebook is more than six hundred tunes. Six... hundred! And almost all of them are good! Since Bob's fakebook is in PDF format, I was able to print out the approximately 100 tunes that I especially like and/or are likely to be called on the stand. Still, 100 tunes, while not a large number on an absolute scale, it is a whopping number on a "used chops" scale. I thought of asking Dracrevocsid, the Lady of Lake Taneycomo, for her opinion but, as you will know if you have read my previous postings, she tends to be a bit long-winded and I only... have... twelve... more... days. Yikes! I've decided just to go with the flow, take what I have, prepare for the worst and hope for the best. If they call up a tune I don't know, I'll just make a lame excuse about wanting to spend some time with my wife or something, and sit that one out.

Flustered, I think instead about the gear I'm going to take. The list is long, and I can only hope that including my wife's trunks, it will all fit in the car. Oh, I'm sure we can make it work, somehow. I remember John Jensen's old VW Bug in Orlando. We used to pack an incredible amount of instruments and equipment in that decidedly uh... petite car. Let's see, guitar (obviously), amp (check), extension cord (check), incredible folding two-wheeler (check), effects unit in case I can't talk myself out of playing some rock (check), music stand --- I hate band fronts and those awful wire stands (check), cables --- don't forget a spare one (check), guitar stand (check), spare strings and picks (check), I've got to remember the string winder and wire snips (check), little bitty recorder (check), practice headphones (check)... Did I forget anything? I sure hope not!

Speaking of John Jensen and his love bug, I can't help but remember going with him to the Quarterback Club in Orlando for jam sessions. The first time I went with him, I felt like a bug under a microscope. It was one of those jazz clubs frequented by people who want to get jazzed on something besides music. We were two of the only three or four white guys in the club. It was one of those places where we endured hostile scrutiny until one of the regular musicians said, "It's okay, they're with me. They're cool."

I remember a sax player named C-Major... Apparently, at one time, he had had a reputation for only being able to play in that concert key. And I'll never forget the B3 player... Magic. He was a fine musician with incredible chops. Whenever he was asked how he could play so fast, he'd just wiggle his fingers and say, "Magic." We played some pretty darn good music in that club. After a few visits, I was a known quantity and felt safe going there by myself.

And who could forget a white guy who insisted on being called "Mr. Entertainment". His trick was that he played extremely underwhelming one octave solos --- with two unison trumpets in his face at the same time! Talk about a waste of space. People were patient with him, though, providing welcome comedy relief. I also remember another jam session John and I used to go to. There was this really annoying drummer... He started off at "average", but tapered off from there, to "embarrassing", but the dude didn't have a clue. It was so difficult to play with him that one time John Jensen and I decided to leave early. As we were leaving, John leaned over the drum set and motioned to the guy to lean closer. When he did, expecting some sort of compliment, John said, "Hey... Burn your sticks, man."

Then there was the time that John Jensen and I heard that Stanley Clarke was going to be at the Scientology center in Tampa, and would be jamming with some musicians. Yes... back in those days, we did dabble in Scientology. Hey... if it was good enough for Chick Corea, it was good enough for us! Anyway, John and I were definitely not invited to the jam session, so... we decided to go anyway and just bluff our way in. So we drove to the place in Tampa and walked in carrying our instruments. We tossed off a casual, "We're with the band. Where do we set up?" whereupon a very cheerful and not-very-bright young Scientologist indicated directions to the correct room. And that is how we got to jam with Stanley Clarke. Over the years, I've found that a casual "I'm with the band..." can get me into lots of places where I don't belong.

In terms of destroyed instruments, the best (or worst) jam session John and I attended was at, I think, a Ramada Inn lounge... This one was definitely not John's fault! As we were playing, there was this guy who was drinking... and drinking, and drinking. He seemed to really be enjoying the music, but I got the feeling that he would have applauded a healthy belch. At any rate, he seemed especially to enjoy John's trombone playing, and began to try to hook dollar bills on John's slide when it was out. John played with his eyes closed so he couldn't see the guy, but when the guy accidentally touched John's slide, he could feel it. The first couple of times, John was very polite: "I'm glad you like my playing, but that can mess up my chops. Please don't do that." Finally, John was reduced to, "Look, man. I told you not to do that. Now please just sit down and listen!"

Well... I could see the drunken guy stewing about that. He got more and more angry as he got more and more drunk. Finally, when John started a solo, this drunk lunged at John, knocking his bone out of his hands and began wrestling with John on the floor. They were actually rolling back and forth over the top of John's slide, which was now flat on the floor. Seeing that John was in trouble, I jumped to the rescue... the trombone, that is... In my defense, that was what John would have wanted me to do. They were still rolling back and forth across the slide. I thought, "If I can just slide the slide along the floor until they're not rolling on it, then I can pick up the bone relatively unharmed". That's what I did. Unfortunately, just as I got the slide out from under the two combatants, and started to pick it up --- they rolled over on it, bending the slide into the shape of a "J". John was not amused when I later pointed out that it was the same as his initial.

I don't remember who the victor of that confrontation was, but the trombone was decidedly the vanquished. I guess it goes without saying that the bone was totalled. Luckily, it was a Navy instrument. I don't think John had to pay for that trombone. Many years later, I had to pay for a Navy guitar I "lost"... but that is another story. Time to practice...