Sunflowers, Fastballs, and Rock ‘n Roll

The Art Institute of Chicago once presented an exhibition titled Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Studio of the South (2001-2002) which provided a fascinating look into the lives and paintings of influential artists, Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin. Van Gogh loved to paint sunflowers, and since we plant sunflowers in our yard every summer—sometimes with help from the squirrels—we were excited for the opportunity to see one of Van Gogh’s most famous works, Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers.

To our surprise there were two versions of Sunflowers on display (Arles, December 1888 and late January 1889). We learned that there are as many as twelve versions of this painting. Van Gogh wrote that he created them all “with the three chrome yellows, yellow ochre and Veronese green and nothing else.” The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam states that “in this way, he demonstrated that it was possible to create an image with numerous variations of a single colour, without any loss of eloquence.” 

The Studio of the South show resonated with me. Here was a clear example of the importance of repetition (by that I mean practice) in the creation of art. The commonly held notion that creatives are naturally gifted people whose great works are the simple result of a spontaneous release of creative energy, is a myth. While there are the occasional one-hit-wonders and happy accidents, more true art comes from repetition, failure, rejection, study, more repetition, and more failure, than comes from the proverbial bolt of lightning. American painter Jackson Pollock famously said “I don’t use the accident; I deny the accident.” 

“I don’t use the accident; I deny the accident.”
—Jackson Pollock

To me, this was further confirmation of the artistic imperative that drives creatives in every discipline to improve their skills through repetition. Like many artists, Van Gogh was not celebrated during his lifetime, but he still painted every day for the same reason musicians practice, and composers, authors, playwrights, and poets write, because they are driven to do so. 

Art is a lifelong pursuit that offers no guarantees of success, yet creatives continue the chase. One of the most popular music memes that regularly circulates through social media is from renowned Spanish cellist Pablo Casals (1876-1973). There are a number of variations of this quote but essentially Casals is asked why (at his age) a master cellist such as himself continues to practice every day. “Because I think I’m making progress” was his meme-worthy response.

“I think I’m making progress.” —Pablo Casals

Casals used variations of this quote throughout his life, adapting it as he grew older, but there is more to the story. It began in a 1946 New York Times article titled Casals at 70: Great Spanish Cellist Waits for Country’s Liberation. In the article, cellist and Julliard professor, Maurice Eisenberg quoted from a letter Casals had written to him at the end of World War II. 

“Now that the enemy has been forced to leave, I have resumed my practicing and you will be pleased to know that I feel that I am making daily progress.” To Casals, improvement was a daily pursuit that continued throughout his life. It is an important distinction to note that he believed he was making progress rather than trying to achieve perfection or to become famous. He was already famous when he decided to put his career on hold for more than a decade in order to advocate for democracy in his native Spain. To most creatives, attaining perfection or becoming successful is only part of the equation. Success means different things to different people. 

One of the most successful bands in history is The Rolling Stones. But when asked what success meant to him, drummer Charlie Watts—who passed away on August 24, 2021, at the age of 80—said that “success meant being good enough that you would get to play every night.”

“…to me, success meant being good enough that you would get to play every night.” —Charlie Watts

For more than 60 years, Charlie and the Stones did just that. And by that measure alone, The Rolling Stones were successful, yet Watts believed that they were also still improving. He said “I think The Rolling Stones have gotten a lot better. An awful lot better. A lot of people don’t, but I think they have, and to me that’s gratifying.”

And what about achieving perfection? Measurable improvement over time is a healthy and sustainable approach to making art, but true creatives also know that becoming obsessed with perfection can lead to self-doubt and paralyzing fear. If the only measure of success is perfection, then why bother at all if it is unattainable? On the other hand, what would happen if one day an artist does achieve perfection; then what?  

What would a baseball pitcher do after throwing a Perfect Game? In baseball, a perfect game is considered to be a complete game pitched without a runner reaching base. It is one of the rarest feats in baseball and according to Major League Baseball.com there have been only 23 true perfect games since Lee Richmond pitched the first one for the Worcester Ruby Legs on June 12, 1880. 

To celebrate the start of Baseball season, here is a melancholy little re-harm of Take Me Out to the Ballgame which was inspired by a version played by the great pianist Larry Goldings.

For a musician, a perfect performance is even more rare—like Unicorn rare. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a musician (seriously) say that they’ve given a perfect performance. There may have been a few musicians throughout history who have performed flawlessly, but for most, there’s always something that could’ve been played better, performed more expressively, artistically, or effortlessly, and if nothing else, faster!

After throwing a perfect game, or even a no-hitter (a subset of the perfect game in which a pitcher allows no hits but batters still reach base), every pitcher knows that the next day they might just as easily give up ten homeruns (or more likely get benched after two). Regardless, they return to the ballpark the next day to try to do it again; to see some improvement­­; to paint another sunflower. 

For a true creative, the journey is more important than the destination. Satisfaction is more valued than success, and the ability to stir the emotions of others is far more meaningful than achieving perfection. Such dichotomies make it easy to lose sight of why we make art in the first place. For me, being a musician means making someone’s life a little brighter and their burdens a little lighter with music and laughter. Many artists throughout history have shared that same mission.

After completing perhaps his most significant work, Die Schöpfung (The Creation), Joseph Haydn wrote “[a] secret voice whispered to me: There are in this world so few happy and contented people; sorrow and grief follow them everywhere; perhaps your labor will become a source where the man bowed down by care or burdened by business matters will find peace and rest.”

“Perhaps your labor will become a source where the man bowed down by care or burdened by business matters will find peace and rest.” —Joseph Haydn

So, I continue to practice, compose, and perform daily because, like Casals and Watts, I believe that I’m making progress too. And like Van Gogh and Haydn, I plan to keep painting sunflowers and attempting to lighten the load of others for as long as I can—in hope of somehow lifting up those who are bowed down by care and burden. Of course, pitching a perfect game, like Lee Richmond, would be cool too but I’m not holding my breath.

Listening:

Not painting sunflowers, but playing music about sunflowers with the Britain Moore Duo


Citations:

Contributors. “Sunflowers.” Vangoghmuseum.ni. https://www.vangoghmuseum.nl/en/collection/s0031V1962
(Accessed February 20, 2022)

Art Institute of Chicago, “The Studio of the South: Van Gogh and Gauguin.” Chicago. September 2001-January 2002. https://www.artic.edu/exhibitions/2835/van-gogh-and-gauguin-the-studio-of-the-south

Thanks to the Quote Investigator for providing insight on the Casals quote.
https://quoteinvestigator.com

Eisenberg, Maurice. “Casals at 70: Great Spanish Cellist Waits for Country’s Liberation.” New York Times. Arts and Leisure, Page 45, Column 8, New York. December 29, 1946

Contributors. “Perfect Games in Baseball History.” Major League Baseball. com. https://www.mlb.com/team/photos/perfect-games.
(Accessed February 20, 2022)

Mangum, John. “Joseph Haydn: Die Schöpfung (The Creation).” Los Angeles Philharmonic Program Note, Gustavo Dudamel, conductor, https://www.laphil.com/musicdb/pieces/1543/die-schopfung-the-creation.
(Accessed September 18, 2021)

J.C. Combs and the Wisdom of Words and Wrestlers

In 1983, as one door closed to me, another opened in a most unlikely place, Wichita, Kansas. I won’t tell you how long it took me to be able to effortlessly spell “Wichita,” but it was there that I came under the tutelage of Dr. J.C. Combs—one of the blessings of my life. 

At the time I entered Wichita State University as a graduate student, Dr. Combs was enjoying a successful academic and performing career. But like a lucky few of his kind, J.C. was conflicted. He had one foot in the classical world and the other in the avant-garde. If he had more than two feet, they’d have been dipped equally into jazz, vaudeville, country, Elvis, and Bootsy Collins.

As a college percussion professor and a certified cut-up, J.C. despised playing percussion ensemble concerts to mostly empty houses. He thought that much of the contemporary repertoire for percussion was of little interest to the average concertgoer, so he began to create over-the-top percussion events to attract larger audiences. He used theatrical lighting, staging, video projections, actors, dancers, singers, poets, smoke and mirrors, you name it. His collaborations resulted in compositions for percussionists performing with pinball machines, bowlers, cloggers, jugglers, Gospel choirs, a “Velcro” tap dancer (a story for another day), and wrestlers (well, maybe not the kind you would find in Iowa).

“I haven’t seen Iowa people get so excited since the night Frank Gotch and Strangular Lewis lay on the mat for three and a half hours without moving a muscle!”

Mayor Shinn, from The Music Man

Yes, wrestlers. The Wichita Symphony (for which J.C. served as principal timpanist) rehearsed at the Century II Performing Arts and Convention Center in one corner of the building, and in the other corner (so to speak) were professional wrestling matches. There, in the backstage area, he met some of the wrestlers and began hatching a plan for his next big event. They suggested he get in contact with National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) promotor and referee Bob Geigel in Kansas City. J.C. floated his idea about a collaboration to Geigel (a former University of Iowa wrestler and football player) and the project took off from there.

The 1948 University of Iowa Wrestling Team. Bob Geigel back row third from left.

Somehow J.C. persuaded his colleague, Dr. Walter Mays, to compose a work for large percussion ensemble and wrestlers. Combs and Mays had already collaborated successfully on Six Invocations to the Svara Mandala, for which Mays won the Percussive Arts Society Composition Contest (1974), and a Naumburg Recording Award (1975). He had just been nominated for a Pulitzer for his oratorio Voices of the Fiery Wind, but his next major (and most infamous) work was War Games for Extended Percussion and Professional Wrestlers.

In addition to a large battery of standard percussion instruments, the work called for jack hammers, piano played with carpet-covered 2X4s, two drum sets without cymbals, a regulation fight ring, two wrestlers, and a referee. The now legendary work was presented at the 1983 Percussive Arts Society International Convention in Knoxville, Tennessee, and I was a performer on that memorable concert. Even in the huge ballroom, the audience was standing room only, and from my position in the ensemble I could see influential percussion teacher and PAS Hall of Fame member Haskell W. Harr, at age 89, standing up from his wheelchair to be able to watch the entire performance. The crowd went wild. It was the talk of PASIC that year, and of many years to come. The 30th Anniversary of PASIC Commemorative Program Book includes a photo of our performance.

Thirty Years of PASIC Commemorative Program Book.

That performance garnered both praise and criticism (cheers and boos in wrestling parlance) but it also secured J.C.’s reputation as “a cross between John Cage and P.T. Barnum,” a characterization made by Dave Samuels. 

One assessment of which J.C. is particularly proud came as the result of a chance encounter with a musician who was well known for his musical opinions. J.C. tells the story of a visit he made to New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen around the time of the production of War Games. While strolling around the city, he happened to hear the familiar sounds of a percussion ensemble wafting from an upstairs rehearsal hall. Never a shrinking violet, J.C. talked his way inside to see what was happening, and found himself in the company of Frank Zappa. 

When the mercurial Zappa learned that J.C. was a university percussion teacher, he asked what sort of things he did with the ensemble. Expecting to hear of music by John Cage, Lou Harrison, or—Zappa’s idol—Edgard Varèse, he was surprised when J.C. described the wrestler piece in full detail. When he finished, Zappa said, “That’s the outest [stuff] I’ve ever heard of.”  J.C. knew that if Frank Zappa thought he was “out,” then he must be doing something right. 

“That’s the outest [stuff] I’ve ever heard of.” 

Frank Zappa

In a recent phone conversation with J.C., I told him what a profound experience it was to be with him at WSU during that memorable time: with all the cool, one-of-a-kind projects we did, and how his positive and creative energy led us to so many amazing and memorable experiences. 

But he turned it around on me. To J.C., it was the energy he felt from his students that motivated him. When he got an idea, he was emboldened to pursue it because his students always “took the ball and ran with it.” They not only embraced his (often outrageous) schemes, they added their own ideas along the way. They became part of the creative process. It was this positive energy loop that was responsible for many of the creative projects accomplished by J.C. and his students. 

He said, “I was just plugging into my student’s creativity; the excitement of kids running the show.” That’s when I reminded him of the time one of those “kids” drove a golf cart onto the stage as part of a bit before the ragtime marimba band played. They tested the cart and the stopping distance on the stage (without passengers) but with the full complement of the marimba band on board, the stop was a little too close for comfort for audience members in the first few rows. He laughed and said, “Creative things aren’t always without risk.” He recalled that others were concerned about his productions as well. “I once had a dean ask me if I knew what I was doing? I just said ‘yes’, he said ‘OK,’ and that was it.”

“Creative things aren’t always without risk.”

Creative projects require tremendous physical and mental energy, but possessing that energy doesn’t necessarily promise success if the possessor remains inactive. There must also be a catalyst to set things in motion.  J.C. was the catalyst that jump-started our energy. When participants get excited and on board with the creative process, it tends to self-perpetuate. By definition, this is synergy.

Synergy, a buzzword frequently dismissed today as business jargon, is the sharing of creative ideas that amplifies energy in unpredictable ways. The old saying that the “whole is greater than the sum of its parts” is a classic illustration of the word synergy.

So, it wasn’t energy alone that was the driving force behind most of J.C.’s wild ideas, it was the synergy created when everyone became part of the process and felt empowered to contribute. There are many teachers and creatives who have a lot of energy, or who push their students to do great things, but do they generate, and perpetuate, synergy? Are they a catalyst?

J.C. was the catalyst that jump-started our energy.

Dr. Combs told me that when he would visit other schools as a clinician, he often found an energetic teacher full of creative ideas, but he didn’t always sense the same enthusiasm from the students. “Everything was flowing one-way: from the teacher to the students. There was just dead energy, and I thought, why don’t teachers just get out of the way of their student’s creativity?” A catalyst can quickly become an inhibitor if energy can’t be turned into synergy. 

Without synergy, students may only go as fast or as far as they are pushed (or dragged in some cases) and when that external pressure is removed, inertia sets in and nothing else happens. Some teachers believe it isn’t their responsibility to get students to “buy in,” but creating something worth buying in to is an important first step toward developing a perpetual culture of creativity. 

One energetic person acting alone can certainly bring a project to a successful conclusion, but it is difficult to sustain that energy if you have to pull the creativity wagon alone. It is much easier—and way more fun—to engage the creativity of others.

I consider myself lucky to have experienced energy and synergy both as a student and as a teacher. Thanks Dr. Combs!

Mentor and Student, Wichita, Kansas, 2019.

Dear Dave Samuels, thank you for. . .

Yesterday marked the second year of the passing of my mentor and friend Dave Samuels, and since Facebook Notes have gone the way of the dodo, I thought I would update and repost this remembrance to my new blog page.

Not long after receiving a text from Mat Britain that Dave had passed away, I began to see the many condolences and remembrances of him appearing on social media. And even though he had been in decline for several years and was no longer in the public eye, it still came as a shock. I guess these things always do. 

The last time I spoke to Dave, I couldn’t be sure if he really knew who I was, but at the same time he still retained the same dry wit and mordant humor that endeared him to (or sometimes alienated him from) people. I considered the possibility that this moment might be the last I would share with him. That fear was later confirmed to me by his longtime friend and duo partner David Friedman.

One of the most heartwarming developments in the weeks following his passing was seeing all the photos of Dave posted online. In every shot he graciously stood there smiling sincerely, arm in arm with mallet players both accomplished and amateur, and with fans from around the world. Everyone, it seems, had a picture of themselves with Dave Samuels. Why; because he was a talented and respected musician who performed a lot, played on many excellent recordings, won a couple of GRAMMYs, gave countless clinics and masterclasses, wrote beautifully crafted music, and inspired more than a few generations of vibes/marimba players? Yes, but it was more than that. He always took time to meet people, talk to them, make them laugh, advise them, or just pose for a picture, and here were the stories and photos to prove it. 

Two of my most influential mentors: Mike Mainieri and Dave Samuels at PASIC 2013.

I always admired Dave for taking the marimba to the big stage of popular, jazz, and Latin music; first with Spyro Gyra, then with the Caribbean Jazz Project along with Andy Narell and Paquito D’Rivera. In 1979, Spyro Gyra’s Morning Dance was a Top 40 Hit and a #1 Hit on the Adult Contemporary Chart. The recording featured a marimba solo and a steel pan both played by Samuels (a detail that Andy Narell never let Dave forget). With Spyro Gyra, Dave Samuels brought the marimba to perhaps its largest audience. He was—pardon the expression—a Rock Star. 

Morning Dance in tribute to Dave Samuels.

Mat and I once met Dave for dinner before a Spyro Gyra concert. We ate, talked, heard his latest jokes, and had a great visit. When we picked him up at the hotel he told us that he hadn’t actually been to the venue yet. As concert time approached he didn’t seem terribly concerned about getting to the hall. Finally, we headed to the concert arriving just minutes before showtime. We walked in the stage door and Dave casually glanced out to see the vibes and marimba set up with mallets carefully laid out and everything ready for him. We thought: “This is the big time; the kind of thing marimba players could only dream about.” Later we laughed about it—and aspired. He was one cool cat!

You may be cool, but you will never be jazz-vibes-player-on-a-cigarette-add cool! Not as cool now as it was then, but you get the idea.

With their originative group Double Image, Dave Samuels and David Friedman defined the marimba/vibraphone duo genre. They showed us that you could, and should, be able to play both instruments well and that they are perfect foils for each other in creating rhythmic, expressive, and compelling music. They remained friends their entire adult lives and played together around the world, even into the last years of Dave’s life.

Double Image: Dave Samuels and David Friedman.

I took my first lesson with Dave Samuels in 1984 then continued to study with him off and on for about the next ten or more years (longer than with any other of my important teachers and mentors). I listened to his recordings, performed his music, transcribed him, wrote papers about him, composed music for him, and consulted him on some of my life’s biggest decisions. During a memorable visit to Iowa City in 2000 he advised my wife and me, at length, on the ins and outs of buying a house. He loved giving financial advice.

Dave was a demanding teacher who had little patience for anyone who wasn’t serious about learning. “Stop right now” he would interrupt; “what chord are you on?” “C minor 7” [replying sheepishly]. “No, you are in the turn-around and it’s a G7.” He knew I was faking it and that aggravated him. “Come on man,” he would say in frustration. “It’s just the same [stuff] over and over again.” But he could also be incredibly patient. If I asked him to show me a lick, he would stop and break it down slowly to help me understand exactly what he was doing.

Funny the things you hang on to. Mat Britain had this from one of our lessons with Dave.

Whenever possible I would sit, practically at his feet, with my eyes and ears positioned as close to the bars as possible (without getting hit by a flying DS-18 mallet). I was trying to absorb as much music from him as I could by any means possible including osmosis if necessary. I’ve watched him from the wings of Spyro Gyra shows, Double Image concerts, and in many other settings including once with a surreal combo of hempen homespuns playing jazz standards in a Cowboy Bar in Livingston, Montana. True story. Over the years we played together both privately and publicly and I always learned something new every time.

Here is a fun photo of Dave Samuels and me jamming together on a piece I wrote for him. These were the times I learned the most — standing beside him and getting schooled. That’s also Mat Britain working the timbales back there . . . Wichita State University, 1984.

When the Britain Moore Duo was just starting out, Dave and steel pan artist Andy Narell became encouraging and supportive mentors. We had many memorable Duo lessons with Dave that helped shape the BMD. On one particular occasion, Mat and I infamously hauled our marimba and pans into the lobby after a Spyro Gyra concert to have a lesson with him. We played our hearts out while the crew noisily broke down the band’s gear. We worked until the stage grew dark and quiet then he stopped suddenly, glanced at his watch, said “later cats” with his familiar droll inflection, and disappeared into the tour bus that was waiting just outside the theater doors. No goodbye, no hugs or handshakes, just an implicit promise that we would indeed meet again—later.

By the time the bus door closed behind him with a final “cussshh,” it was well past midnight and pouring rain. As they pulled away, we were left standing agog in the lobby and with the theater staff telling us to get our stuff and get out! We didn’t sleep much that night as we tried to dry out our instruments and process everything that had happened over the course of one weird, wet, and memorable evening. We wanted to remember everything he told us to work on and make it better by the next time “later” rolled around.

But in all that time, over all those years, and given many opportunities, Dave never once told me “good job.” That just wasn’t his way. To study with Dave, you had to bring your own self-confidence, no matter how paper thin it was. He never let on that you were on the right track. You had to know that if he didn’t think you were worth his time and effort, he simply wouldn’t continue to teach you. After a particularly frustrating lesson I asked him: “Am I going to make it?” He snapped back; “I can’t tell you that; nobody can.” Speaking about his students in an interview for Modern Percussionist Magazine he said “[t]hey’ve got to teach themselves. Ultimately you are really a guide more than you are a teacher. I feel responsible for showing my students ‘how to,’ but I don’t feel responsible for how far their innate abilities may take them” (Mattingly 11). Well, I can attest to that. It was up to me to figure out—using the same logic—that neither could anyone predict that I wouldn’t make it!

There were however, subtle hints that you were in the hunt. If he complained to you that someone else’s performance “wasn’t so nice” or that their clinic “didn’t tell me anything new” then you knew his expectations for you were higher. There was an assumption that you had reached a certain level but it was never spoken.

When Mat and I started gaining traction as the Britain Moore Duo, we ended up on the bill with Dave on several Day of Percussion events. After one such event, Dave and I talked late into the night about how disappointed he was in his own performance that evening. Opening up to me in that rare unguarded moment allowed me to know that he respected my musicianship enough to reveal this to me. I remember thinking that “if this is how hard he is on himself, then how could I expect him to let me get by with substandard playing?” It made me want to work even harder.

When I stopped studying with Dave, it wasn’t because he never complimented me, but because someone else did. After a Britain Moore Duo concert, an audience member approached me and gushed; “Man! You sound great (the words every musician loves to hear). He continued, “you play just like Dave Samuels!” (cue sad trombone sound) That was the end of my lessons with Dave; or at least it was the beginning of the end.

One reoccurring theme in my interactions with Samuels was the importance of finding one’s own musical voice. He didn’t want the Britain Moore Duo to play the music of Gary Burton and Chick Corea (a lesson we never quite learned*), or Double Image, or any other established group. He would say “you don’t want direct comparisons with players like that.” It stung a bit but we—at least mostly—got the point. He encouraged us to write our own music and to use it to mark our musical territory. Being told that I sounded like Dave was a compliment to be sure, but it pushed me toward the realization that I needed to focus more on creating my own sound; my own voice.

*Some Lessons You Never Learn: Maybe That’s OK—Chick Corea (1941-2021)

Since Dave’s passing, I will be teaching a lesson, and find my thoughts returning to him. I hadn’t realized before how many of his pedagogical concepts I use every day. I’ll be working on improvisation with a student when a Dave-ism finds its way into the conversation. My teaching style today though is different than Dave’s. I have found value in both criticizing and complimenting. Maybe it’s emblematic of the times we live in or maybe it’s just my style, I don’t know, but I always encourage my future educators and band leaders to “start by saying something positive before moving on to criticism.” 

I still get perturbed when my students don’t do their best and I don’t hesitate to let them hear about it. The best thing that can happen as a student is to reach a point when the teacher becomes comfortable enough to transcend the “niceness” of someone who is clearly trying to avoid hurting your feelings. Honest constructive criticism is the only thing, outside of your own desire, that can help you be a better musician. Samuels’ approach during our early lessons was to say little or nothing meaningful. But when we finally got to know each other well enough, and he decided I was serious, the gloves came off and he began to tell me what he really thought—often at the expense of my bruised ego—and that’s when we began having the most productive sessions. 

Compliments you can get from your friends, family, and adoring fans but genuine helpful criticism can only come from a teacher who cares enough to give you the feedback you really need to hear at the moment you need it most. But for that to happen, you must be willing to allow your self-esteem to lose some steam.

Maybe Dave’s teaching style worked for me because I was not going to be deterred from my musical goals by anyone. But it did work, and I am grateful for that. I should’ve told him this before he left us, but I didn’t, and that I regret. So, if he were alive today I would sit down and write a letter that might begin: “Dear Dave Samuels, thank you for never telling me ‘good job.’”

In Memory of Dave Samuels
October 9, 1948 – April 22, 2019

Works Cited:
Mattingly, Rick. Modern Percussionist. Vol III Number 1, 1986-87.

Update: Since Dave’s passing, his archives have been donated to the Berklee College of Music and to the Center for Mallet Percussion Research in Kutztown, PA. Before the Pandemic lockdowns, I began working through the 10 banker’s boxes of music, 4 boxes of framed posters, album art, and awards, and other materials given to the Center for Mallet Percussion Research. It has been fascinating and enlightening to see many of Dave’s works in different stages of development and in manuscript form. Look for more about the Samuels collection at the CMPR in the future.

Some Lessons You Never Learn: Maybe That’s OK— Chick Corea (1941-2021)

Armando Anthony “Chick” Corea died on February 9, 2021. He was a musician’s musician, an inspired composer, a dynamic entertainer, and a warm human being. Chick mastered many different forms of music from classical to be-bop, and helped pioneer the jazz-rock movement of the 1960s and 70s, among many other musical milestones.

(photo credit: chickcorea.com)

In the early 1980s, Chick Corea was going strong while I — a die-hard-drummer-to-the-bone — was pursuing my passion for marching percussion as the drumline TA for the Wichita State University Marching Band. Mastering the mallet instruments was not on my agenda, but my percussion professor, Dr. J.C. Combs, had other plans. 

Dr. Combs showed me that you could be both a drummer and a mallet player, because that’s exactly what he was. Add to his resume entrepreneur, impresario, emcee, composer, conductor, and civic leader, and you begin to get a clearer picture of J.C. Combs. He is also one of the wittiest and most creative individuals I’ve ever known, and a treasured mentor to me and many others. My classmates at WSU comprise a long list of successful and creative musicians, composers, and educators that includes life-long friends such as composer Paul Elwood, drummer Matt Wilson, and my duo partner, Mat Britain. 

During a memorable vibes lesson, J.C. casually handed me a record, saying, “You might like this.” The album cover was a photo of a city skyline at night with the title, in simple typewriter print, Chick Corea and Gary Burton in Concert, Zurich, October 28, 1979

The next day, I asked Mat Britain if he had heard the album and he responded with an emphatic “Yes! but I thought I had the turntable on the wrong speed at first.” Indeed, the recording of Señor Mouse was so fast that it seemed to be playing at 45 rpms rather than 33 1/3 (something that could easily happen back in turntable days).

Though the album was minimalist and unpretentious on the outside, the music inside was embellished and bold. The double LP recording featured live versions of nine Chick Corea compositions previously released on their earlier studio albums Crystal Silence and Duet, and included a nearly twelve-minute version of Crystal Silence, which became one of my favorites of his works. Those three recordings set in motion my journey with Chick Corea’s music. 

Mat and I explored the Corea songbook together, banging our heads against tunes like Crystal SilenceSea JourneyThe Children’s SongsLa FiestaOpen Your Eyes You Can Fly, and many others. 

Then, when Mat and I heard Andy Narell and Dave Samuels perform for the first time as a steel pan/marimba duo at the 1983 Percussive Arts Society International Convention, the idea for the Britain Moore Duo was hatched. Adding to the significance of that moment for us was that they played a Steve Swallow composition that Chick and Gary Burton had recorded (which was another big influence on us). Andy later told me they chose Falling Grace because “it was the only tune we both knew.”

I began studying with Dave Samuels soon after that PASIC performance. He became an early mentor of the Britain Moore Duo who coached us, advised us, and admonished us NOT to play Chick Corea tunes, especially the ones Chick and Gary Burton had made famous. Dave told us, “You don’t want direct comparisons with players like that.” Ouch! 

But this was the one lesson of Dave’s we never learned. The pull of Chick’s music was just too strong. 

Chick Corea was a kindred spirit of percussionists, partly because he was a drummer in his younger days, but also because he just loved the vibes and marimba. We were fortunate to host Chick at The University of Iowa on several occasions, and during a Burton Corea duo tour, I got a call that they wanted a marimba for their performance. Sure, no problem. 

When the marimba arrived, Chick seemed more excited than Gary, who barely even looked at the instrument. Chick fawned over our Yamaha five-octave marimba as he told me that most venues on their tours couldn’t come up with one, so this was a real treat. I thought he was just being nice. At concert time, Chick bounced onto the stage clutching a pair of marimba mallets, wrapped in a towel and held tightly to his chest. He slid onto the piano bench and discreetly deposited them inside the piano where they remained hidden, and the marimba untouched, for the next 90-minutes. Near the end of their program, they launched into Armando’s Rumba and suddenly Chick retrieved the mallets from their hiding place and burst from the piano to join Gary in a spirited marimba vibes duet. He was having the time of his life, and so was the audience.

After the concert, Chick told me he was “really only practicing the marimba these days” and that he had a similar Yamaha marimba at home. He loved the marimba and enjoyed pushing himself in new musical directions. 

Chick performed often as a soloist but I think that he much preferred making music with others. Here are the final thoughts he shared with his many friends and fans from around the world.

“I want to thank all of those along my journey who have helped keep the music fires burning bright. It is my hope that those who have an inkling to play, write, perform or otherwise, do so. If not for yourself then for the rest of us. It’s not only that the world needs more artists, it’s also just a lot of fun.

And to my amazing musician friends who have been like family to me as long as I’ve known you: it has been a blessing and an honor learning from and playing with all of you. My mission has always been to bring the joy of creating anywhere I could, and to have done so with all the artists that I admire so dearly—this has been the richness of my life.”

I still have a great fondness for the mountain of incredible music Chick Corea left us. I will continue to enjoy learning and playing it, and letting it add to the richness of my life. 

 Some lessons you just never learn, and I’m OK with that.

Here is a recording of Crystal Silence made from the light booth at the 10th Patagonia Percussion Festival in Argentina, 2012. My tribute to Chick Corea.

Music in My Head (Part II) Bright Sunshiny Days

In previous posts, I have talked about waking up with music in my head. Like most people, this can be from the movie I watched the night before, an earworm heard randomly in the produce aisle of the grocery store, or the theme song from a long-forgotten TV show that inexplicably pops into my ear just as I am waking up. 

But along with the insidious sitcom themes and famous B-sides that have taken up permanent residence in my brain, there can also be new music. Ideas for compositions that have been turning over and over in my “resting” mind like a crazed rock tumbler. To some this can be an annoyance, but for a musician/composer it is usually a good thing. 

Okay, it can be annoying for a musician too, but when I am working on a new composition or recording project, it is a comfort to my already fragile ego to know that my muse hasn’t forsaken me in favor of bestowing musical inspiration onto someone else that day. Sometimes the music wakes me up: not content to wait for my conscious receptors to be wide awake, ready, and open for business. In such cases, I can either lay there until the alarm clock catches up with my brain or I can just get up and deal with it when the inspiration strikes—usually the sadder but wiser choice. (with apologies to Meredith Willson)

Author and contemporary percussionist cum orchestra conductor, Steven Schick told me that he was once introduced at a performance by the poet Chuck Milton who told the audience that he thought “percussionists and poets were a lot alike because they didn’t know where their art left off and where real life began. That the sort of boundaries that exist in most people’s lives—here’s when I’m on the job and here’s when I’m off the job—just doesn’t exist with us.”

Many are fascinated by this phenomenon. In the film Hitch, lovelorn Albert Brennaman (Kevin James) is trying to make a good impression at a party while chatting up a fashion designer by saying “the receptive nature of the creative facility just astounds me. Anybody want any spring rolls?” Well, fascinated to a point anyway.

If 2020 has underscored one thing, it is that waking early with new ideas far outweighs the inconveniences. Schick went on to say that “It seems to me that one could enforce those boundaries [of on the job or off] but you would lose something so private and so important: so much of the fuel that keeps us going when we’re not sure what we’re doing comes from the fact that it’s not what we do, it’s what we are.” 

During the pandemic, coming to terms with “what we are” has been a challenge for creatives who were forced to migrate their efforts from theaters, galleries, and concert halls to the Internet and backyard parties of no-more-than-ten-mask-wearing audience members. The imperative to make art is still there, and creatives have to find outlets for their work, even while putting on a smile and hoping they can pay next month’s rent.  

It also feels as though 2020 has been the backdrop for the poignant loss of many great artists. I am always surprised by the number of artists, thinkers, writers, and other creatives we lose every 365 days, especially when I see them compiled into a list at year’s end but somehow it seems more disheartening to lose them during such uncertain times: it’s easier to just blame the pandemic I suppose. 

When I learned that Eddie Van Halen and Johnny Nash had died on the same day, October 6, 2020, I thought “well, 2020 strikes again.” The former was 65, the latter was 80 and they both had a profound influence on the musical world in different ways. Van Halen was a rocker and guitar legend, while Johnny was a musician best known for his biggest hit, I Can See Clearly Now, as well as for his mentoring of a young Reggae singer named Bob Marley. But Nash moved away from the limelight and retired to a Horse Ranch in Texas while Eddie continued to tour and record until it was no longer possible due to his long battle with cancer. 

At home that evening we watched Eddie’s Eruption guitar solo, and while sitting at the dinner table, sang every word of I Can See Clearly Now. It might as well have been 1972 as the words and music came back to us instantly: one of those earworms locked away in the back of the brain until suddenly thrust into the foreground. 

The Caribbean inspired arrangement with janky out-of-tune instruments features a quirky bridge that modulates from the key of D-major to the key of F-major. The sudden upward push gives the lyric a musical lift, as if—you know—the sun is coming out after the rain. Then there is another rise to the key of A-major and a chorus of voices floating on a cloud of reverb before settling back into the original key of D. This is a brilliant bit of composition that helps the singer triumphantly exclaim “look all around, there’s nothing but blue skies.” Coming out of the rain he finds the rainbow that he’d been praying for. Symbolism and metaphors of positivity abound in both music and lyrics.

When I awoke the next morning, I Can See Clearly Now popped into my head right on cue. I sang it as I walked to school and upon arrival, went to the marimba and began playing. I think I played the tune for about an hour, only stopping to double check what I was hearing against the original recording. I’m not sure why I was compelled to play this tune so faithfully, but it was in my head and it had to be dealt with before anything else might be allowed in there.

There is something about the optimism in the lyrics that attracted people to this song nearly 50-years ago. Something that still feels relevant today. For me, it has the perfect sentiment to help us push through this exhausting pandemic. Sure, there is optimism, but we also learn that the singer’s troubles haven’t actually disappeared. The obstacles are still there, only now they can be seen clearly making them, presumably, easier to navigate. It is a lesson to remind us all to appreciate those “bright sunshiny days,” especially when it is raining.

I can see clearly now the rain is gone
I can see all obstacles in my way
Here is that rainbow I’ve been praying for
It’s gonna be a bright (bright)
Bright (bright) sunshiny day

lyric by Johnny Nash

Listening:

I Can See Clearly Now, Dan Moore cover

Eruption (Guitar solo) by Eddie Van Halen

I Can See Clearly Now by Johnny Nash

East Texas Recollectus: It’s a Beautiful Day in Commerce!

The first thing a person might notice upon entering the music rehearsal room at East Texas State University in 1976 was a large, brightly colored banner proclaiming “It’s a Beautiful Day in Commerce!” Over the years, mystery and lore came to surround the whimsically hand-lettered sign. No one seems to know who created it or how it got there.

Conflicting reports about when the banner first appeared are also in abundance. ETSU Music alumnus Toppy Hill recalls that “the banner first appeared in about 1972.” However, storied Music Professor and most-feared instructor of Music Literature, Gene Lockhart, recalled that his “first ‘intimate’ classes of Arts & Humanities 303 (100 to 150 strong) were taught in the band room in 1969. It was appropriately bedecked with folding chairs, raked seating and ‘The Sign’ on the south wall.”

While there is plenty of intrigue about the three by twenty-foot banner, one thing is certain: how the phrase originated.

Much has changed in Commerce since my college days in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In 1995 the school name was changed from East Texas State University to Texas A&M University Commerce, and in 2011, the original, well-worn music facility was replaced with a beautiful gateway building overlooking Gee Lake on one side and Memorial Stadium on the other. Then somewhere along the way—after numerous transmogrifications of the old building—the Beautiful Day in Commerce banner faded into memory along with Good Old ET. 

Touring the new Texas A&M University Commerce Music Building in February 2010 with Chris White, James Deaton, Gene Lockhart, and the architects.

In 1957—long before the banner made its debut—Dr. Neill H. Humfeld made his entrance at ETSU where he taught trombone and served as director of bands (1962-1972). A fresh recruit from the Eastman School of Music, he was one of the nation’s top trombonists, an inspired educator, and a remarkable human being by any measure. Many trombonists today would be honored to receive the “Neill Humfeld Award for Excellence in Trombone Teaching” from the International Trombone Association.

In those days, the music faculty at ET took a wholistic approach to education. A major professor guided your development but you might also be coached by the trumpet professor on how to play brushes on a ballad, you could be called out for your etiquette by the clarinet professor, or admonished to learn your scales and chords by your class piano teacher—in the hallway. I shudder to even think about what might happen should you miss too many questions on Lockhart’s Music Lit pop-quizzes. Although I was a percussionist, Dr. Humfeld was my academic advisor during my first few years at ET. Along the way, he kept me out (or got me out) of trouble on numerous occasions.

Chris Clark, trombonist with the “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band, recalled that as a high school student, many of his lessons with Dr. Humfeld began with the phrase “it’s a beautiful day in Commerce.” In fact, anyone who ever knew Dr. Humfeld likely received the same greeting at some point. “It was one of Neill’s favorite sayings” Lockhart added. It was his catch phrase but it was more than that; it was an affirmation intended to remind the hearer that beauty is more about how you perceive things than how they may appear.

In the 1970s, Commerce, Texas—formerly known as Cow Hill—was in decline. What began as an optimistic center of commerce for the East Texas Cotton Industry (thus the name), had long since fallen on hard times. Neither the town nor the university campus were picture postcard destinations by any stretch of the imagination, and many professors began to take flight from Commerce in the late 1980s. Some thought the banner might be an ironic statement about the “beauty” of Commerce itself.

Dr. Humfeld certainly wouldn’t have intended that meaning of the phrase. ETSU professor of clarinet, Dr. James Deaton, Humfeld’s lifelong friend, collaborator, and comedic accomplice, remembers seeing a motto in a colleague’s office that said “‘bloom where you are planted.’ I know that Neill’s ‘beautiful day in commerce’ sign meant the same thing, ‘attitude is important’. It means look for the positive things in life.” 

Another apocryphal story I was told as a starry-eyed freshman was that Dr. Humfeld coined the phrase as encouragement to the marching band to keep rehearsing in the rain before a big football game performance. But his daughter Nancy Jo recalled that “it had absolutely nothing to do with the weather—it was about your mindset.” Chris Clark agrees. “Dr. Humfeld’s statement really reflected, to me, his core value as a teacher; to always stay positive, and to teach his students that they were much more than just a musician.”

So, what’s the big deal? It’s just a sign; a stunt perpetrated by one of the music fraternities or sororities, or perhaps by some of those snarky misanthropes who hung out in the student lounge* all day. If that were the case, wouldn’t the banner simply disappear after homecoming or when a new band director took over? It probably should’ve, but still it remained. Dr. Deaton doesn’t remember how or when the sign was made either but he suspects there was some student “help” in the process. He said “I do know that the sign and the attitude it conveys has its own life now.” 

*During my time at ET the student lounge was dubbed the “Lizard Lounge” by director of bands, James Keene. One might infer the meaning of the phrase.

The banner and the symbolism seemed to bind us together into the legacy of ETSU, which may account for why many of my generation had a difficult time letting go of Old ET. But to help put things into perspective, a former TAMUC President once told me that there are “far more TAMUC graduates today than there ever were from ET.” Point taken. 

The many amazing people who sat under that banner went on to successful careers as leaders in music education, performance, and in many other walks of life. I’m sure this is still the case at TAMUC but perhaps today’s students are connected in different ways—by a new talisman—or could some small trace from the past still remain?

The people who sat under that banner went on to successful careers as leaders in music education, performance, and in many other walks of life. I can still name 90% of these folks.

Dr. Humfeld’s affirmation not only inspired several generations of music students, it ultimately transcended the walls of the music building and weaved its way into the fabric of the university. Professor Jimmy Clark, Dr. Humfeld’s former student and successor, wrote that “his quote is still used by a lot of people!” 

In 2015, nearly 25-years after Dr. Humfeld’s passing, Dr. Adolfo Benavides, Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs, announced that TAMUC had been classified as a Research 2 institution*. He went on to say that “to be among the select group of 107 universities in the United States is, indeed, quite an honor. What a fantastic way to begin writing the history of our next 125 years as one of the leaders in Higher Education—yet another beautiful day to be in Commerce, Texas.”

“Well roared, Lion!” as the Bard would say.

*The R2 designation by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education represents the second highest tier of research activity at a Doctoral granting institution.

When I asked about the possible whereabouts of the banner, professor Jimmy Clark exclaimed “I have it! It’s in our son [Chris’s] bedroom.” (Master Gunnery Sergeant Clark didn’t even know that one) 

Percussion professor and current Department Chair, Dr. Brian Zator, remembers the banner being in place “until a few years before the move to the new building.” He added “I have a small wooden sign in my new office with the saying.” Well, the more things change, the more they stay the same, I suppose! 

Perhaps the current students of A&M Commerce continue to be inspired in some way by Dr. Humfeld after all.

Professor Humfeld never retired from ET. He fought a long and valiant battle with cancer and died in October 1991 while “still on the payroll,” as professor Clark told me, “they hired me as an adjunct to teach for him in late summer but he was not able to start the fall semester.”

Nancy Jo recalled that her father “felt that you should always keep a positive attitude no matter what the weather or your circumstances. It was that mindset that allowed him to live twice as long as someone with his prognosis would have normally.” Dr. Deaton wrote “I know that is what it [the banner] meant to Neill because I remember when he was dying with cancer. He NEVER complained, never lost his sense of humor, and was always concerned about others.” 

Dr. Humfeld just wanted to continue to make music for as long as he could. Dr. Deaton noted that despite being in pain “he continued to lead the church choir and never ever cut rehearsals short.” His final performance was a trombone trio with his students Jimmy and Chris Clark at Commerce High School, Deaton remembers, “when he was so ill he couldn’t carry his trombone out to the stage.”

Yes, it is always a beautiful day in Commerce, or Iowa City, or wherever you happen to find yourself, just as long as you have the right attitude and remember to “bloom where you are planted.” Good advice. Thanks for everything Dr. Humfeld!

Dan Moore, Class of 1981

I wonder if there are other stories out there about how the banner inspired you, or if anyone knows more about its origin? I’m sure the statute of limitations has expired.

Do you have a story about Dr. Humfeld? Feel free to leave a comment below. Corrections, annotations, amplifications, or humorous asides are welcome.

Special thanks to the kind folks who contributed to this post: Nancy Jo Humfeld, James Deaton, Gene Lockhart, Jimmy Clark, Chris Clark, Toppy Hill, Sheila Howell Ratcliff, and Brian Zator.