Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Star Search

Various Early Years, Ames and Nevada, Iowa.

My Mom Darlene and Dad Jim are music lovers all the way, and they know a lot. They went to see Harry James and Count Basie back in the day, dancing ballroom style in Washington, D.C. My Grandpa Dave, from Darlene’s side, when he wasn’t working on the railroad, played the organ on a live Minot, North Dakota radio program twice a week during the 1940’s and 1950’s. Not without some notoriety in the area, he played small dances with a combo that kept him on the road some weekends.

The first sign of me having any musical talent was singing with the family around the Wurlitzer in Grandpa’s basement around 1969 or 1970. My Grandmother Luella saw what was happening to me, with my eyes fixated on Grandpa’s fingers, singing out strong. She held my hand one day on the sofa and told me the life of a musician was no life. She had spent too many nights alone with Dave out on the loose, living and drinking hard.

Jim and Darlene were the kind of people, especially my Dad, who would bust out into a song if someone said something which reminded them of that song. Jim was a catalogue of partial song lyrics, always singing under his breath, not humming so much as brr brrriinggg through his lips like he was doing a trombone or trumpet sound. Around the house or outside while working in the yard or in the barn, he jammed out big band stuff mostly, but of course all the Sinatra, Dean Martin and Ink Spots hits filled the air, as well as the classic country of Marty Robbins, Johnny Cash and George Jones. Or Darlene would suddenly do a quick dance move and sing some old time number from Rosemary Clooney or Ella Fitzgerald from the Cole Porter Songbook. Lots of fun.

We also had a babysitter named Cheryl Costal, a neighbor on Bald Eagle Lake. She sang John Denver, Bob Dylan, Ian and Sylvia, and other popular folk songs to me and my sister out in front of the lake. We had great sing a longs, and I got a plastic guitar one Christmas, which I didn’t stick with. Not like the real thing.

Despite what Luella said, my folks were always trying to get me into music or acting. In second grade, just after moving to Ames from Bald Eagle Lake, the music teacher Mrs. Busch made a special call to tell Darlene that I had a great singing voice, and wanted me to do a solo at the next school concert. I wasn’t ready, at age eight, to get up in front of an auditorium alone. Instead we did a jubilee quartet singing Sloop John B. and Dem Bones.
Later on by popular demand I did do a solo in class for my classmates, singing along with George Harrison Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth), the first record I ever bought. I still can’t get that song out of my head.

After a couple years of chorus and singing at Guitar Mass in Saint Cecilia’s, it was time to take up an instrument in fifth grade. The plastic guitar had long been gathering dust. Jim decided I was to play the trumpet. I refused for some reason, he wanted me to be the next Doc Severinsen and also because he quit band when he was young so he didn’t want me to make the same mistake. We discussed the matter across the pool table in the basement one Saturday afternoon. He was explaining why playing a musical instrument was such a pragmatic thing to do, could be a money maker too. I wouldn’t budge. Occasionally we would lobby over a ball to the other person’s side in the midst of indecision and urging. When he finished preaching the benefits of the trumpet, I firmly said no, that I would decide once all the prospective students met in the band room the following Monday to choose instruments and do a tryout.

At the tryouts, It seemed to me that people split into groups based on personality or who was already playing a certain instrument. It wasn’t necessarily because they liked that instrument, there were many factors involved in the mind of a fifth grader, mostly forced into playing in the band, getting up two hours earlier than everyone else in school to practice.

In a full concert band, there is everything except strings. Gertrude Fellows Elementary had an extensive collection of instruments in a state of the art band room. That Monday, about sixty of us were assembled in the band room, taking turns at different instruments. At first I wanted to play the drums, but when a couple of known bullies went to the top riser and started beating the tympani, I shrunk back to the winds once again. The sax was out, mainly because you had to sit in front. No flute, thank you, even though some of the prettiest girls were in that section. I didn’t want to play a big instrument, like Tuba or Baritone, too much to carry. Piano was not portable, you had to buy one for the house, and trombone was for people with the same intelligence as drummers. So I was left with Trumpet after all.
I was first chair trumpet from day one, playing lots of concerts in fifth and sixth grade, even little quartets and competitions in other schools. I was already getting in with other musicians and meeting lots of girls at the band clinics and weekend retreats. Being in band was fun, my Dad didn’t tell me that part.

When we moved to Nevada in sixth grade word was already out about the hot trumpet player from the big city coming to town. I sat in last chair on the first day, just out of respect for the other players, but by the second rehearsal it was apparent I should take first chair, just in front of Chris Abbott and Robin Richards. We became the best of friends, listening to Dizzy, Louis and Miles all the time, playing in the jazz band doing all the great tunes. Band directors came and went, but our section was always swinging at the basketball games and other pep rallies at Nevada High School. We won a lot of awards in Iowa and went to Florida to compete, Chris won outstanding soloist and I got a second place. So that’s where I learned how to swing.

At some point people tried to get me over to the swing choir. It was enough for me already to wear the pastel shirts and matching black vests in the stage and pep band, but in the swing choir they did dance steps, but really cheesy dance steps. Jazz band was more my style, no uniforms and we could decide what charts to play. I gave in to the new director’s request one day in choir and went to a try out with the swing choir at the beginning of the year.

The new director was really sexy and flirty and we had a pretty good rapport. Her husband came later after class sometimes, he’d silently come in and play the piano a bit as she got her things to leave. We all couldn’t believe she was married to him, he was overweight and pretty ugly.

She called me honey in a southern kind of way, including in front of the chorus during practice. At first it was kind of scandalous, but then everyone just realized it was playing, that it just brought us closer together to feel the love. I knew that southern attitude from my family, especially my Aunt from Alabama.

The new director was nice to everyone though and everyone liked her. So she urged me to be in the swing choir, and I relented. The singing wasn’t a problem, I could site read no problem. It took a while to get the dance moves, especially with smelly Mike Hathaway, king of the cheesy swing choir, showing me how it’s supposed to be done. I tried but couldn’t stop laughing and the new director was giggling too, at the same time counting off and playing the piece with great effort at the piano, sweat forming in the armpits of her pastel shirt. I got it pretty good in the end and it seemed like I was in. Mike left and she and I went into her office.

She smiled at me approvingly, leaning back in her chair. I was still laughing inside, unable to accept but unable to figure out how to tell her. She really wanted me in that swing choir, in a southern kind of way. I just couldn’t do it, I told her I couldn’t be in such a cheesy group like that, and kind of made her feel ridiculous. She got really upset, like she felt rejected, that’s the feeling I got. I snubbed her. Needless to say our relationship wasn’t the same after that. By spring we had a new director.

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