Thursday, August 25, 2011

My Musical Adventures - Part VI - Bands I Have Been

(This is part vi of my musical adventures. Parts i-v can be found under "Archives" to the right.)

I cannot even remember all the bands I have been in. I started my first jazz band in 6th grade. We had a clarinet, sax, guitar and a drummer. The drummer didn't even have a set. He had a couple of snare drums we tuned differently, and the school bass drum, that we put sideways on the bass drum stand and he played it with a stick. All through school, I had a few ensembles going.

In high school, our band, which was either called "Strawberry Jam" or "Y" played the background for a musical review called "Showcase," that was done by the community theater group "The Evergreen Players." I have a great picture of the band, looking all young and cool, and the 60-something-year-old pianist who joined us. I got to do arrangements for a bunch of the songs, including a very strange adaptation of "The Woody Woodpecker Song," of which I am still extremely proud.

The next year we were invited back to play for another showcase. By this time our drummer had gone off to college, so they called in Gus. Gus brought in a gigantic swing band drum set that had to be covered with towels to dampen the sound.

As the rest of the band went off in different directions after school, Gus and I continued to play for many years for the Evergreen Players, as well as putting together different bands with different configurations of people that ranged from Dixieland to Reggae to Rock and Pop, and just about everything in between. Though I was a saxophonist, and he a drummer, we quickly switched instruments when we did "Showcase 1950s." Gus saw this as an opportunity to buy an nifty, electric guitar and learn to play it. I was frustrated by not being able to find a bass player with any groove, so I bought a bass at a pawn shop and taught myself to play some fifties basslines by listening to The Stray Cats.

With Gus, we had all sorts of configurations of Christmas bands and party bands, and would show up a couple times a year at the town hall in the tiny village of Morrison as "The Morrison Town Band," meeting whatever musical expectations the town had of us. We had the Wassayl Bagpipe Band, focusing on Celtic Christmas music, and the earliest incarnation of the Scottish-Irish bands I worked with.

I cannot say enough about Dick O'Connell and Dugg Spalding, who were the backbone of "Before the Rain," and now are my musical cohorts in "Walking Eagle."

Dick and I worked together at the elementary portion of the program where I still work. After school, we would rock climb, bicycle and started playing music.

Dick's musical background consisted primarily of playing the guitar along with the radio. We started playing Celtic music, which had pretty basic chord changes. But I kept getting the itch to play jazz once again. So, I got together with Dick and started showing him ii-V-I progressions. I transposed some 'simple' jazz pieces into keys that could be easily played on the guitar, such as "Take Five," and later "Spain", "La Fiesta", "'Round Midnight..." as you can see, the songs kept getting more challenging. But Dick was always up to the challenge. He started taking guitar lessons with Bill, the guitarist from my bands in high school, who has remained a brilliant force in the Denver jazz scene. Like all of us, Dick started off with a lot of clumsy improvisations, which have now stabilized into mature and tasteful solos.

Dugg, like me, is a product of the Jefferson County Public Schools musical program. He played in the school jazz bands. He also comes from a very musical family. Dugg was, literally, a member of my family for a while, as he was married to my sister-in-law, at the time. He also worked at the school with Dick and I.

Dick and I started playing on corners in downtown Evergreen, and Dugg would show up and join us. It didn't take long before we saw what a good fit he was, and we made him one of "The Cornerboys."

We have always had a diverse repertoire, which has included union songs, immigrant songs, classic jazz, original jazz, world music, folk songs, and so forth. We recorded our first CD "Saguaro," on a cheap, 4-track recorder. The second CD, which is very rough and was rushed to put out as a Christmas present "Jammin' for Santa," was recorded on a 16-track Roland studio.

At this time, we also met Tyson, a very gifted pianist, who also worked at our school. He joined us for several years before starting a family. With him, and with Gus back on various instruments, we recorded "Hitchin' to Santa Fe" on a 32-track Roland studio. We recorded it in Gus' studio.

Several years later, we recorded "Tramps and Mystic Revolutionaries" on this same recorder. This album is sort of the pinnacle of that band, featuring a wide variety of compositions and performances.

While we were recording "Tramps..." which took a couple years, we met Ken Jones, a didgeridoo player who lent his talents to many of the tracks. Gus, during this time, also became a full-fledged member of the band, and then left the band, since the strange stuff we were playing was not the type of music he enjoyed.

I also met Paul Mimlitsch at this time.

Dick and Dugg are so instrumental in allowing me to bring forth the sounds I hear in my head into reality. They are incredibly flexible, and have learned to play different instruments and different styles to accommodate my musical whims. They never refuse to play, or complain that anything is too weird. When I leaned over to Dick at the end of the last performance we did and said "Make up something slow in E minor," it did not phase him, and we played a tasteful, spontaneous composition that people said was out best song of the night.

Paul has made it possible for me to express my totally spontaneous musical side, and, as he is one of the most accomplished and creative musicians I have ever met, he spurs me forward in my musical evolution every time we play together.

I met Paul at an open mic mainly for singer-songwriters. He went to the open mic as a means of networking with local  musicians, as he was new in town. I really don't know why I went, but I brought my flute, sax and Native Flute.

Paul saw my case and asked me what I played. I told him. He asked me if I knew "Footprints." I told him yes. We went into a little room to run it over once, and then we played that song, and improvised two additional songs. I knew we were musical kindred spirits.

We started playing together immediately. Paul was running a little deal in town where he set up his sound system and invited people to play 1 hour time slots on Saturday afternoons. We would play all the slots he didn't fill, which was essentially weekly. Paul and I lent our talents to a number of groups during this time, and played with an odd little new-age/toning group and a few other such things.

We played coffee shops, streets, open mics, music festivals, art galleries, and a variety of other venues for a few years until we got kind of tired of always searching out gigs. Paul then called and told me about a little place called "Blue Sky Collective." we ended up playing there weekly, and Paul ran his musical showcase/open mic kind of thing there for almost a year. We also did a little improv circle, through which we met a number of performers of varying abilities, including the talented guitarist, Howard, who we now play with regularly. Also, at "Blue Sky," I met my lovely wife, Stephanie. So I owe Paul a debt of gratitude for luring me there so I could meet her!

We call our group "Concept" to sort of represent the spontaneity of our ideas. Sometimes we play things based on themes or ideas. Sometimes we just play. I am always amazed at how frequently it sounds good.

Paul and I communicate through music. Our verbal conversations are usually not deep or philosophical, but our music always is. We have a CD out called "Conversations." If you go to and click on his link for "Concept Project" you can hear clips from this CD. We haven't put together a Bandcamp page for it, yet. Also, while you are on this site, listen to Paul's solo improvisations and watch his videos. They are great!

I have played with numerous other bands, sometimes once or twice, sometimes for a year or so.

I played for a while with Kathleen Widlund, a gifted singer who has the group "The Bucktones." She was playing folk music with a guitarist, and I joined them on the acoustic bass, sort of as an excuse to build up my bass chops. She later formed "The Bucktones," a pop/rock band, and we did the classic pop/rock bar and club thing. It was fun for a while, but I was growing weary of being in bars and playing to drunks. It was profitable, but was wearing on my psyche. We played New Year's Eve 2008/2009 at Cactus Jack's a local watering hole and biker bar, and I became so appalled at peoples' behavior that I quit the band a few days later, to free up time to pursue my other musical endeavors. I also realized that I had crossed a line that I had always avoided - which was playing music I didn't enjoy for money.  Much as I enjoy Kathleen and respect her talent, it was just not my thing.

Many of my musician friends are frustrated, because they have to play to make a living, and they don't play what they like; they have to play what people will pay to hear. I went a different direction and got a job doing something else I love to support myself, largely so that I could follow whatever artistic dream I chose. We play to very small audiences, sometimes no one. We often play for free. But I am playing music I love with people I love to play with. I have full artistic freedom, and that is worth everything.

1 comment:

  1. You are amazing! I am glad to read this, and thank you for sharing, and for meeting and marrying me. :-)