Sunday, August 21, 2011

My Musical Adventures - Part I

Those who have been reading my blog probably view me as an angry left-winger, since that is pretty much what I have been writing about. And I have been sort of an angry liberal of late, as I view much of what our government is currently doing as quite unjust. But there are many more layers to me than that. In fact, I am rarely angry at all, and have a rich, happy life, full of love and art and music.

I probably define who I am much more by my music than my politics.

I play quite a number of instruments with a number of different bands in the Denver area. I currently play with 'Concept' - a free improv duo that ranges from the very tonal and quiet to sharp, angular screeching and squeaking. I also play with a trio/duo (depending on what we are doing and the availability of our drummer) called 'Walking Eagle' that is currently searching for an identity. We are the remnants of an 'aggressive world-beat jazz' band called 'Before the Rain,' which no longer exists because life has precluded some of our key members from continuing to be a part of that. 'Walking Eagle' issued a CD last December of improvisations that featured primarily the guitar and me on Native American Flute and Soprano sax. I have since written a number of pieces, but we have not yet gotten together to work them up. I have also played with jazz and rock bands, and play music as a solo artist. If you go to and you can freely browse my library and download what you want, and name your own price.

I have recently been reading the book The Music Lesson by Victor Wooten, which makes the argument that music is its own living entity in search of an instrument, and that it finds those of us who listen to bring it into the world. This notion rings true in my life, and music has taken me on quite a number of wild adventures over the last 40 years. I have followed music through school and across the nation and the world, and she continues to lead me on paths I would have not expected. I hope in this blog to share a few of those adventures.

I can really not remember a time when I did not create music. Some of my earliest memories involve me picking out tunes on our family piano, and singing song I made up at the top of my lungs (which really annoyed the other kids on the school bus...) In third grade, I enthusiastically let the music teacher inspect my hands to see if they were big enough to play the guitar in her class, and when she deemed they were of adequate size, we bought a nifty hippie guitar from my babysitter.

In fourth grade, we could play an instrument at school. I was very excited about the assembly where they showed us all the many instruments we could play in the school band. I was drawn to the violin. I ran home asking my mother if we could get a violin. As luck would have it, my grandfather had an old violin in his basement. He gave it to me, and I cleaned it up. With the violin ready to go, I reported to school, and when the music teacher asked me what instrument I was going to play, I blurted out, to my utter amazement, "the saxophone." Music had a plan for me. I told my rather astonished mother that we now needed to go find a saxophone, because that was the instrument I was going to play. "What about the violin?..."

We did get a sax, and I practiced it intently, sometimes up to eight hours a day, and was in the jazz bands in junior high school and high school. I learned how to improvise, largely with the help of Jamie Aebersold records - which were recordings of chord changes played by a rhythm section to which I could improvise a solo. I got pretty decent at it.

From the age of fifteen, I was playing with bands at whatever event I could - from the Kiwanis club dinners, where I got to see my neighbors behaving badly, to some of the bars around town, that, at that time, seemed to have little concern having a 16 year-old saxophonist in the band. (By this time, I was also playing the flute.)  I found my musical home in the local theater, where I played in and directed pit orchestras for six or seven years, until I could no longer stand anything at all about musicals. My love was be-bop music, the fast and frantic music of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, but there was little opportunity to play this, and very few could play along with me.  I went to college and got a degree in jazz composition, and I promptly quit playing music.

I think music was just ready for a break from me, and it was soon to lead me in such crazy and unexpected directions, but for a time, I would glance at my horn in the corner, and promptly feel ill. All of 24 years old, and already washed up, I thought to myself. I put my horn in its case.

I had just gotten married. My then wife had just graduated from college with a degree in Russian Studies, and let me know that she would never be happy until she was back in Russia. As she wrapped up her senior year, I sent letters off to every company and organization I could find that had anything to do with Russia, or was even near Russia. About a year later, we got a large envelope from the US government with applications for employment and security clearances. We applied, and got jobs at the US Embassy in Moscow: She as a driver, and I as a laborer.

We arrived in Moscow in mid 1990.

Moscow was a very odd place. We were afforded many unique opportunities there, but perhaps the most unique was the opportunity to travel. We could go virtually anyplace in the Soviet Union, and an entire trip, including airfare, hotel, food and transportation usually cost less than $100. And so many weekends out of the year were spent going to obscure places I had never heard of.

Once in my apartment in Moscow, I pulled out my saxophone and played a few notes. This lead to pounding on many walls of our apartment. I put my horn away again. I pulled it out one more time when I was asked to join an embassy band. I played once, and it felt good. After that, I seemed to be put on a schedule that conflicted with every possible practice they had. I was just not meant to play my saxophone.

But music awakened me again part way through our two years there.

We were in Central Asia. We had travelled to Uzbekistan, and it was, by far, the most exotic place I had ever been in my life! Music took hold of me again in a taxi. As we drove to our hotel, strains of Central Asian music came over the car radio. I was transfixed. I could hardly get myself out of the taxi. Once in the hotel, I learned that the telephones didn't work for making calls, but that it did pick up a local radio station. And so I sat, with the phone to my ear, listening to the exotic scales and rhythms. "Can we go to a record store?"

We found records at a local department store. I bought them all. There were't a lot, but it was a small box full. On the way out, I saw some exotic instruments. "What is that?" "A rubab." I bought it.

We were in the train station, to catch the train from Samarkand to Bukhara. "No, I don't stamp train tickets for foreigners," the lady told us. We couldn't get on the train. We found ourselves stranded. After hours of arguing with many people, it became apparent that there was no way to get on the train without the stamp from the lady who refused to stamp tickets for foreigners. Not knowing what else to do, we marched down to the KGB office at the train station and plead our case.

As my wife was pleading for them to get us on the train, a portly, young KGB agent looked at the rubab slung over my shoulder.
"You play that?"
"Pull it out. I'll teach you."

For the next several hours, Ulash taught me the basics of the rubab and the Uzbek system of music. All for the price of a Mickey Mouse watch. What a bargain!

"What about the train?" asked my nervous wife.

"Don't worry," said Ulash, "I'll get you on."

And sure enough, when the train pulled up, our lesson was done, and we were escorted to the secret KGB car on the train. "Don't forget to practice" said Ulash, as he handed me my rubab, and we boarded the midnight train to Bukhara.

To be continued

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