A talk on mentors and influences for YBCA

Thanks very much to Myra Melford, Isabel Yrigoyen, Roko Kawai, Doug Katelus, and Anya Rome over at the Yerba Buena Center for The Arts in San Francisco. Yesterday evening I gave a presentation in their “Mentors and Influences” series. Unusually for me, I wrote the entire thing out beforehand, and more or less read the paper. That makes it easy to present here, albeit without the live musical interludes played by Dan Seamans and I. Here goes:

When one is a novice at something one usually over explains, over writes… and over explains. So I ask for your forbearance in advance. I didn’t expect to write a formal paper and read it here, but thinking about this topic so got my wheels turning that I needed the contemplative, critical thinking that writing provides me.

[ first live musical interlude: West End Blues ]

As long as I can remember, I have had an insatiable appetite for teachers, mentors, role models and, let’s just come out and say it, HEROES. My life has been an obsessive, life-long, sometimes anguished, sometimes comical quest for people, in my life and in the pages of history, to serve as my personal North Stars. To be Moses, and lead me out of degradation and bondage, to the promised land. My relationships to the actual mentors in my life have sometimes been very intense. Not Whiplash intense, mind you. No one threw a guitar at me!

Today I’m thirty years out of school, I have a family, a mortgage, a modest discography, and yet I still feel the same innate compulsions that I did at 1, at 8, at 16, and at 20. I am an eternal baby in search of a breast, a third grader eager to impress the teacher, a teenager hungry to bond with a pack of boys, and a junior ninja-in-training, devoutly mimicking the Sensei, down to the last mannerism. I am like the character K. in Franz Kafka’s The Castle, perpetually knocking on the door, seeking admittance to the inner sanctum of music.

The population of my gallery of self-selected art heroes of history would comprise a small and very crazy village!

[Read as fast as possible, in one breath:] Bach Beethoven Brahms Schoenberg Stravinsky Berg Webern Wolpe Carter Babbitt James Joyce Karl Kraus Emily Dickinson Wallace Stevens Louis Zukofsky Ezra Pound Allen Ginsberg Charles Olson Marcel Duchamp Claude Debussy John Cage Merce Cunningham Franz Kafka Alice Coltrane Louis Armstrong Jelly Roll Morton Duke Ellington Charles Ives Sviatoslav Richter Jimi Hendrix Bob Dylan Skip James Bessie Smith Billie Holiday Howlin Wolf B.B. King Muddy Waters Thelonious Monk Charlie Parker Lester Young Sonny Rollins John Coltrane Miles Davis Ornette Coleman Cecil Taylor Lee Konitz Anthony Braxton Bill Evans Elias Canetti Gustav Mahler Lorine Neideker.

Wagner would be on that list except for my no anti-Semites rule. Except for the Jewish ones.

I assure you, I am unhealthily obsessed with all of those people, those artists, and I’m very familiar with the biographies, as well as the works of, all of those artists.

As I expect is true for all of us, any question of mentors and influences in my life must begin here: I was born in 1966, more or less in the middle of the era of the great martyrdom: the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, of saintly Medger Evers and of radical Malcolm X. I saw their faces everywhere when I was growing up. Not just their faces, also the faces of Jackie Kennedy, of Nixon, Shirley Chisholm, Muhammad Ali, Bruce Lee, the Beatles…. yery much a time of icons and heroes. Young people of my era were expected to carry on and fulfill that legacy, to bring about a better world. This was an absolute imperative in my house growing up. My mom was born in 1927, two years before the Depression. Her mother had buried two husbands, was very poor but very active in leftist and labor causes. My mother was completely in her mold, with no higher education, she worked tirelessly her whole life for school integration, ecological issues, democratic party causes, against the death penalty, and in anti-nuclear campaigns. My father was a German Jew who had grown up in Italy, and then in bomb shelters in London, and finally graduated high school here in Berkeley in 1941. A warm, bookish man, fluent in three languages, he became a high school teacher and librarian in Seattle, where I grew up.

Did any generation before my parent’s generation put as much of their heart and soul into the public education of their kids? PTA meetings, constant levies and other school measures on the local ballot, and my mom’s own cause, voluntary transfer students. Since the district wouldn’t impose integration, a group of people came together and said, well, at least let us set up something for people who want to send their kids to other schools. So I was bussed all the way across Seattle to a large predominantly Black elementary school. I was very lucky. This school, like all the Seattle public schools I went to, had a fantastic music program! In my middle school there was a band and an orchestra! And these weren’t the kids of rich software engineers, these were the kids of Boeing employees, workers for the County, as well as the kids of doctors and teachers. But those people supported their local schools like it was their religion, which of course it was.

By starting this talk with my parents and grandparents, as well as a quasi-sociological observation, instead of the Jazz musicians I’ll eventually come to, I am demonstrating a parallel obsession along with my mentor obsession, that of continually seeking to go further and further back to foundations. Call it the syndrome of: “Before you can talk about X, you have to talk about what came before X.” This is coupled with the belief that to live is to participate in a chain of personal relations and activity that goes back through time. I studied with Julian Priester who played with Duke Ellington, Max Roach and Art Blakey. I spent a half hour talking to pianist David Tudor about his mentor Stefan Wolpe and it changed my life forever. For a short but profound time I was a student of pianist Jeanne Stark, who had studied with Mieczyslaw Horsowski, who had studied with Leschetizky, who had studied with Czerny, who had studied with Beethoven! At this point it’s like doing a crossword puzzle, five degrees of separation and I could claim to be connected to Napoleon.

You know the joke about the great pianist Artur Schnabel: he’s staying in a little village in Switzerland for a year and there’s a pianist living across the street from him, who practices Mozart all day long with his windows open. He has a shingle hanging outside that says “Mortimer Snerd, Piano Virtuoso”. And he’s terrible, he’s really butchering Mozart. This continues until finally Schnabel can’t take it anymore, and he yells up to him, “Please, Herr Snerd! If you insist on playing the Rondo by Mozart, please observe the key signature – all of those Fs should be F #s.” The next day the guy has a new shingle: “Mortimer Snerd, Piano Virtuoso, Pupil of Schnabel”.

[Second live musical interlude: All Of Me]

Somehow, when I was a junior in high school, I knew that the bassist Gary Peacock was a very heavy musician who lived in Seattle. He had a reputation as a mysterious genius, a deep thinker. Somehow I was aware that he had played with Bill Evans and Albert Ayler. I hadn’t heard any of these recordings.

I didn’t take my guitar to lessons with Gary, and I don’t recall him taking out his bass.
We sat at the piano and discussed harmony. He had me do a lot of basic written harmony exercises, of a very specific nature. He would look at what I did and critique it. It was all quite plain. Several years later, when I fancied myself an advanced Jazz musician, I lamented that I had studied with Gary Peacock when I was so green, and thus focused on elementary things, missing the opportunity to talk about cutting edge matters of improvisation. But then a few years after that, I came to feel that there is such a profundity in the fundamentals, it is a great fortune to get fundamentals from a master.
Here’s a short clip from an instructional video he made, about fifteen years after I studied with him. (I played this video from 11:56 to 12:50.)

What he’s saying here is that the tones of the Major scale have gravitational impulses. They have weights. The first note is the most stable, it’s the sun around which the other notes revolve. The second note wants to resolve to the first. It has energy. The third note is somewhat stable, although it too seeks to descend to the tonic. The fourth note wants to resolve to the third. And so on. The notes have tendencies. That may seem very obvious, but Gary Peacock made me understand it as a way of life.

[Third live musical Interlude: Meditation on Major Scale Tendencies,
in C and Ab]

A Gary Peacock story: during the time I was studying with him, he went to New York and recorded with Keith Jarrett and Jack DeJohnette, the sessions that produced Standards Vol. 1 and 2, and the record Changes. God Bless the Child is on that record, and it’s a very celebrated performance. I remarked to Gary that I had been playing it, and that I was surprised to find that the A section was ten measures long, instead of the expected eight. “No, it isn’t, it’s eight!” he replied. We looked at the song, and he was as surprised as I had been: the A section was in fact ten bars. He had recorded this fantastic version of the song, and it had been utterly unconscious, and without any discussion between the musicians. This fascinated me.

Another Gary story, very much related to that one: I asked him about free improvisation: what should I know about playing free? He said he had reached a point around 1960 or so, when he knew all the standards, the several hundred songs that were played a lot at that time. He could play them in any key, and he didn’t even have to think about the changes. He could just play what he heard. He said free music is just playing what you hear, no matter what you’re playing. Even if you’re playing a standard, you’re still free to do whatever: stop playing, quit music, cook a chicken, whatever. At a certain point, as I understood it, you reach enlightenment, and you are free. When you are playing what you hear, all music is free music. I thought about that a lot.

One more: at one lesson I told him it was Miles Davis’s birthday, and Gary just up and called Miles Davis, right then and there, to wish him Happy Birthday. Mind = Blown. I learned something there too: Miles Davis is a real person, living at that time in the same time zone as us, and he had a phone.

A second video clip. Here he seems to be addressing the very issue I was talking about earlier, of wishing I could have studied the more “advanced stuff” with him. [I played this clip from 1:08 to 1:24]

The simplest things are the most important. That’s Gary in a nutshell. Listen, LISTEN!, pay attention to your body, and be aware.

[fourth live musical interlude: Solar]

After high school I went to Cornish in Seattle, which Gary had just stopped teaching at. At Cornish there were lots of great teachers, but today I’ll just talk about the drummer Jerry Granelli. Gary and Jerry played a lot together at this time, in a trio with Ralph Towner, and in other situations.

Jerry was a San Francisco boy. He was the drummer on Vince Guaraldi’s Charlie Brown music. He had played with everyone. He was a lifer, a soldier in the trenches, a Jazz musician to the marrow. Addiction, the road, Newport Jazz Festival, drum endorsements, you name it. Like Gary he had at one point totally retired from music for several years. Like Gary he was deeply involved in a spiritual practice. Jerry had taught at Naropa in Colorado and was a very devoted Buddhist practitioner and teacher.

The core of Jerry’s message to the musicians he mentored was to listen, and to be in the moment. “First thought – best thought” was, I think, a saying of his teacher, the famous Trungpa Rinpoche. The first way he demonstrated that was by listening to us, his students, when we played together. He feeling of being listened to by Jerry is indescribable. He knew what you were playing better than you did. He heard what you were trying to do. He heard when you wanted to do something but didn’t, or couldn’t. He even heard you hearing. That, I believe, is one of the greatest needs we have, to be heard. And perhaps never more so than in those formative years between 17 and 22. 

My two best friends and I were a trio, guitar, bass and drums. We had known and played together literally since kindergarten. During this time we studied with and were utterly devoted to Jerry. Jerry told us “when I get through with you, you won’t be able to play with anyone, and no one will be able to play with you!” What he meant was that even in Jazz, real improvising is a rare and special thing. He was warning us that if we were doing it right, we might be lonely. Real listening and real creating in the moment – you can go through a lot of musicians without finding that. We felt like we were in a secret cult. I come back to K. in The Castle: when you have a mentor that you really believe in, and that believes in you, you feel yourself to be in the inner sanctum of musical art. A mentor is a rudder, a compass, a shield, a servant and a master all in one.

Watch this video of Jerry from perhaps fifteen years ago, playing duo with a great drummer who Jerry influenced, Joey Baron. Jerry’s in blue, Joey’s in black. Watch Jerry react to what Joey plays, the way he listens with his whole body. Watch also how Jerry reacts to what he himself plays; once it’s played he has to hear what comes next. Drums are the ultimate instrument that it’s possible to get carried away by, to go into autopilot. Jerry is never on autopilot. Every time he hits something, he’s making a conscious choice. He is playing what he hears, and only playing what he hears. [I played the clip from 3:03 to 5:19]

Jerry story: Jerry was playing at the Jazz Workshop with Lenny Bruce. Lenny was deep into some long digression, talking about something in the news, and someone in the audience heckled him: “Lenny, you’re not funny!” And Lenny immediately shot back: “Fuck you, I am so.” That was important to Jerry – believe in yourself, be strong.

Another Jerry story: he’s on the road with Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson and Paul Chambers in the early sixties. Vinson, the leader, asks PC to call a tune, on the bandstand. PC calls The Touch of Your Lips. They play it, and all sorts of weird notes are coming from the bass. The next night, same request, same song, same thing. Third night, Cleanhead says “MF, I beginning to think you don’t even know The Touch of Your Lips.” PC replies: “Yeah, well, I’m trying to learn it!”

The hidden Jerry message: at home or on the bandstand: don’t just play what you know. Learn something!

So now we’ll play a song we don’t know. Well, a song we know in a key we’re not used to playing in.

[Fifth live musical interlude: How Deep is the Ocean]

I’d like to show one more video clip. Here’s Gary Peacock and Ralph Towner playing an intro. They are going to play Witchi-tai-to, the composition of Jim Pepper. The way these mentors taught me to play, when you really know a song, you can start from a completely free place, and sort of discover the song organically as you go. Similarly, the outro of song can be a place where magic happens. Never go on autopilot! Notice here how relaxed they are, how they let the song come to them. [I played the clip from the beginning to 1: 55]

Ralph Towner also lived in Seattle at this time and I got to know him a bit. I would go to Jazz Alley, sneak in through the back door, run into the Men’s room, and then exit into the club. Using this strategy I saw the trio of Towner, Peacock, and Granelli, play there the day Count Basie died, and they played a blues for Basie, and I’ll never forget it. One time my friend Aaron and I snuck into Jazz Alley to see Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, and when we ran into the bathroom Art Blakey was in there, completely by himself, standing with his back to us. A short black man in overalls with a big grey afro. He turned around, still zipping up, and we were so excited. “Hey Art Blakey!” “Hey yourself.”

My point, and I do have one, is that Art was short, but life is long.

Thank you. 

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