April 23, 2007
My dad is hilarious. This is a guy who once fertilized a weed in his own yard just to piss off his neighbor. (Now you know where I get it.)
He’s also far more supportive of my career than I deserve. I can’t count the times that he drove — drove! — from Ohio to New York City to see my performances. Then, last year, he drove — drove! — from northern Ohio to Nashville for the premiere of “Turbine.” Drive time, each way: about 8 hours. Length of “Turbine” : about 8 minutes.
I mention this only because I received a great email from him today, and I wanted to share it because I think it’s so damn cool. The Navy Band in DC is doing “Strange Humors,” and back in the 60s, my dad played trumpet in one of the Navy Bands. (He’s still an active sax player.) I never was clear which band (or which bands) he played in, so I emailed him to ask him, definitively, which bands, and where, just so I could answer that question when people asked me. Here’s what he said.
I had finished boot camp between grades eleven and twelve, then after I graduated, I left for the Navy Music School on June 20, 1960. I went to the Navy Music School in Anacostia when Chief Ned Muffley and Dr. Stauffer (phD in acoustics!) were there. This was soon after the Navy Band plane crash, and the Navy Band was still not up to full personnel levels. The students from the school spent a lot of time away from class playing funerals at Arlington.
From the school I went to the Treasure Island band at San Francisco, which was led by Gerard Bowen. He wrote the White Hat March and did custom arrangements for the band including “Afternoon of a Faun” and Bartok’s “Bear Dance”. Mike Beegle played the opening of “Afternoon of a Faun” beautifully on clarinet. Mike later played with the Naval Academy band and the Navy Band and was director of the jazz group “Port Authority”. Later I played in unit bands out of Coronado under Dave Blair and Sam Patz.
My dad has seen just about every jazz legend play — Miles Davis several times (reportedly, I was almost named Miles David Mackey — my dad’s name is David), the Brecker Brothers with Will Lee and Steve Gadd, Grover Washington, Stanley Turrentine, Ellington, and tons others. When I asked him for specifics, he said:
I have been changed by every concert that I have been to but nothing like when I saw Louis Armstrong. I was in the ninth grade and I must have been the first to order my ticket because I sat in the middle of the front row. The first song was “The Star Spangled Banner”, and Louis started it with first valve, Bb. I know now that he was playing in the key of Eb, (Db concert). The band was made up of Trummy Young (who could probably peel paint from the walls with the sound he got from a trombone), Edmond Hall on clarinet, Billy Kyle on piano, Arvell Shaw on bass and Barrett Deems on drums. Velma Middleton sang several times and did some duets with Louis. That concert set the musical path that I have been following since then. It was maybe not a baptism, but certainly a confirmation.
My dad knows that I’m working on a Sax Concerto, and today he offered this gem of a story from one of his very different concert-going experiences…
Check out Roland Kirk on Wikipedia. [Seriously. You need to read about this guy.] He was a blind Columbus native who played three horns at once. [I checked. I thought, oh, he goes from instrument to instrument — maybe tenor sax, then bari, then alto. No. He plays all three at once.] Your mother and I saw him play in Cleveland, along with Thelonious Monk and Gloria Lynn. Kirk would direct the combo by stomping his foot. His instruments had to be in terrible shape because he was always clanking them together. The flute foot joint fell off and landed near his foot. He almost stomped it flat but never did. At the same concert, during Monk’s set, Monk was standing on stage shuffling about while Charlie Rouse played his solo. Monk took out a cigarette and flicked his lighter maybe ten times trying to light it. A man in front of us took out his lighter and was going to light it for Monk, but then Monk pulled another lighter out if his other pocket and lit it on the first try. Your mother later talked to Monk for a short while. But I digressed… I did not know this until I read the Wikipedia article. Kirk had a stroke in 1975, leaving him with only one usable hand, so continued to tour using only one hand to play two horns.
I’m trying to imagine being at a concert where Thelonious Monk played, then had a conversation with my mother, and the opener was a guy who played three saxophones at the same time.
The email also talks about the altissimo notes on each sax, alternate fingerings, and circular breathing techniques (my dad says that Roland Kirk could circular breathe on a flute (!), but “he was neither calm nor elegant. Spit would fly like crazy”).
In another email today, my dad added this…
Concerts can be more important to listeners than a composer or musician can ever expect. One time a man asked me to play Harbor lights on the harmonica. I laughed and suggested that it would go better on tenor sax. He wanted the song played for his dead brother who never came back from WW2. I was happy to play what he wanted. Another man wanted to play “When the Saints Go Marching In” on my horn but he couldn’t because he had a tracheotomy. He had been a sax player. He wanted to work the keys while I played the horn. I agreed, because this was probably the last time he would play a horn. I don’t know what it looked like, but I remember that it went well enough.
My dad = awesome.