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.

For Valentine’s Day: Remain in Love

A review of two books written by drummers.

As a performing musician and educator, I enjoy getting the inside scoop on the lives of artists, writers, musicians, and other creatives. I am interested in learning about group dynamics: what worked for them and what didn’t. Reading “the untold story” of a group’s successes, failures, longevity, or heart-rending breakup can be inspiring and instructive, and perhaps serve as a cautionary tale to musicians, young and old.

When I happened upon a notice that Chris Frantz, drummer for Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club, had written a book titled Remain In Love, I was intrigued. Although I was never a fan of either group, we did do a slightly twisted cover of a Talking Heads tune with Misfit Toys on our album Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?

But the main premise of the book was enchanting: Chris and the band’s bass player, Tina Weymouth, had remained married – and in love – for more than forty years while living the somewhat predictable rock and roll lifestyle. As I am approaching that same marital milestone (40 years – and in love) I know how rewarding and challenging such a feat can be for anyone. Add in a little rock and roll, punk, and disco folklore, and you’ve got a story. 

Frantz is a good writer and the book begins well with a recounting of his early years as a drummer and art school student, and meeting his future wife. But remarkable as it is that someone kept such detailed records of the travels, adventures, performances, and recording sessions of both Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club, the book bogs down as he recounts every day, stop, performance, and adventure of their tours. There are a few rock and roll tour stories, but not the kind of colorful believe-it-or-not yarns told—quite lucidly I might add—by Keith Richards in his autobiography, Life (also a fascinating read).

Chris is not one to dish the dirt. He is pretty clear about the disintegration of their relationship with David Byrne, but writes about others in the way one might in hopes of holding the door open for reconciliation and a future gig. Smart. The best quote in the book—provided by Tina—is that “the opposite of love isn’t hate. The opposite of love is selfishness.” 

It was nice to learn that Chris affirms what many have said about Talking Heads, that the band was far greater than the sum of its parts. Chris and Tina understood this, embraced it, and carried the concept forward into their most financially successful venture, Tom Tom Club. But the real story here is not about falling in love or being in love, it’s about choosing to remain in love.

Finding the right partner in life and in music is also a unifying theme of No Beethoven: An Autobiography and Chronicle of Weather Report by inimitable musician, masterful drummer Peter Erskine. It is a wide-ranging account of his life as a professional musician, husband, father, and businessman (a label that might make him bristle), covering his musical education, background, and illustrious career. Beginning with his first professional gig with Stan Kenton at the age of eighteen, his accounts of his time with Maynard Ferguson, Steps Ahead, Steely Dan, John Williams, and of course Weather Report comprise much of the story. Considerable space and care are given (as the title implies) to his relationships with fellow Weathermen Joe Zawinul, Jaco Pastorius, and Wayne Shorter.

The book takes a few detours into somewhat unrelated topics including Erskine’s musical equipment choices and instrument company affiliations. Readers who like to geek out over “what kind of sticks do you use” details won’t be disappointed. This only slightly disrupts the flow of the story of his journey with Weather Report, and some will enjoy the inside view of the corporate side of the music industry. 

As someone who is fortunate to have performed with Mr. Erskine and other top-tier drummers such as Danny Gottlieb, Ed Shaughnessey, Matthew Wilson, Johnny Rabb, Rodrigo Villanueva, and Roy “Futureman” Wooten, I can attest to the fact that there exists a rather large gap between the top tier of drummers and the next. The feeling is palpable, a mix of comfort and terror in knowing that a musician of this caliber can make YOU sound awesome just as easily as they can make you look like a complete fool. It’s like riding a motorcycle or playing Bach: lose your concentration for a split-second and you get thrown off. And yes, I have experienced being ditched by all three: bike, Bach, and bad boys of the battery.

The Britain Moore Duo and Peter Erskine performing as guests of the Percussion Group Nexus at the Concordia Day of Percussion.

Erskine is honest and forthright in his assessment of his friends and colleagues, and doesn’t throw much shade in anyone’s direction. On the contrary, he spends a good deal of time saying nice things about a lot of people while fretting about leaving someone out. He is what some might call a mensch. Rather than sensationalizing the mental decline and death of his friend and fellow Reporter Jaco Pastorius, Erskine gives a respectful and loving account of their time together. 

He does the same in recounting the somewhat prickly mentor/mentee relationship he experienced with Zawinul. It is enlightening that even the best-of-the-best seek approval from their mentors, only to discover that the affirmation they sought—revealed only by subtle clues and ofttimes too late—was there all along. 

Mr. Erskine’s informal (but not colloquial) writing style allows his personality, intellect, and humor to shine through. With more than 700 recordings to his credit—from Weather Report to La La Land—you know he has some stories to tell. He also has strong opinions about the state of contemporary music and the jazz scene. Grab some popcorn and enjoy the show.

It was Joe Zawinal who once said to him, “I ain’t afraid of no Beethoven.” I don’t think Peter Erskine is either, nor should he be.

Both of these books offer a glimpse into the art and lives of fascinating people who have benefitted from finding and holding on to the right partner. Read on and remain in love. 

Oh, and Happy Valentine’s Day!

Remain in Love: Talking Heads, Tom Tom Club, Tina

Chris Frantz

St. Martin’s Press

St. Martin’s Publishing Group

ISBN: 9781250209221

400 Pages

2020

No Beethoven: An Autobiography and Chronicle of Weather Report 
Peter Erskine 
Fuzzy Music 
ISBN: 978-0316194754 
320 pages 
2013 

More music from Misfit Toys:

Mary Ann and the Three-Hour Tour

As if 2020 couldn’t get any worse, in its final hours it claimed Mary Ann. Known to the world by that name, the actor Dawn Wells (82) died on December 30, reportedly of COVID-19 related complications. She played the smart, wholesome, eternally optimistic Mary Ann Summers on the enduring sitcom Gilligan’s Island from 1964 to 1967. The show ran only three seasons and was well into reruns by the time I took notice of it or Mary Ann, but in those 98 episodes both she and the show had secured their place in television history. 

The show also launched the long-running debate, “Ginger or Mary Ann?” Essentially, which character has the qualities you prefer: the down-to earth, cute Mary Ann, or the high-maintenance, glamorous Ginger? From CBS to USA Today, there have been countless polls to settle the question; there is even a Facebook page which assures us that this is an important subject. Spoiler alert: Mary Ann remains ahead of Ginger by about 3 to 1. In a 2001 interview, Bob Denver (Gilligan) said that Mary Ann would typically receive 3,000–5,000 fan letters weekly while Ginger might get 1,500 to 2,000.

Dawn remained close to her Gilligan’s Island costars, particularly Russell Johnson (The Professor) and Bob Denver (Gilligan). The trio appeared together for countless fan events and “Three-Hour Tours.” While some actors try to distance themselves from their TV characters, Ms. Wells embraced her iconic status. 

In the forward of her book, What Would Mary Ann Do? A Guide to Life, Russell Johnson wrote: “We love Mary Ann because she is the future, the hope of our world. The youngest of the castaways, Mary Ann has her entire life in front of her. Watching her unfailing good cheer, her optimism is never in question. We love her because we need her emotional support and her belief that all will turn out well.…We love Mary Ann because of Dawn Wells.” 

In 1995, I got to play a Three-Hour Tour gig on a Cincinnati barge decorated to look like a Tiki boat and renamed the S.S. Minnow. In a scene no doubt reenacted countless times throughout their careers, Bob Denver, Russell Johnson, and Dawn Wells were welcomed aboard to the Gilligan’s Island theme song and enthusiastic applause. The passengers enjoyed a dinner cruise on the Ohio River and questions/answers with the trio of stars, followed by a meet-and-greet and autographs. 

Our band was called Caribé and featured steel pan players Mat Britain and Dave Barr, bassist Michael Sharfe, and yours truly on marimba and drums. We provided background music from our position directly behind the stars. 

Caribé: Dan Moore, Mat Britain, Dave Barr, Michael Sharfe

I was closest to Bob Denver. At one point I leaned over and whispered, “Forget this Gilligan stuff, what would Maynard G. Krebs want to hear?” Denver had played the jazz-loving, beatnik sidekick Krebs on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, the role that preceded his run as Gilligan. With a sidelong glance over his shoulder, he grinned, “Probably anything by Monk.” The band called up Straight No Chaser by Thelonious Monk and he instantly burst into laughter, amazed that our Caribbean-styled band could produce Monk on steel pans and marimba. 

At the first opportunity during the cruise, Gilligan and then the Professor disappeared. But not Mary Ann. She stayed and listened intently to every person’s story, demurred at their proposals of marriage, and blushed at their compliments on her beauty (at 57, she still had the beauty that got her the role as Mary Ann in the first place, beating out none other than Raquel Welch for the part). 

At one point, she bade the band to stop playing so a fan could sing to her the Gilligan’s Island theme in its entirety — word for word and with choreography. As she listened, she smiled without a hint of embarrassment or mockery. Sure, Dawn Wells was an actor and might have been playing a part, but she was so sincere and non-judgmental that it was moving to watch. She was a beautiful person.

At the end of the night, the crowd was ushered off the boat and the band waited around for Bob and Russell to reappear. As the audience departed, a few people asked where Gilligan had gotten off to. Completely in character, Dawn improvised a clever line that he had been piloting the boat all this time. As the stars gathered themselves to depart, the band gathered around Dawn and declared to her that we had decided the question once and for all — it’s Mary Ann. She smiled that Mary Ann smile and blew us a coquettish kiss before skipping down the gang plank and disappearing into her waiting limo.

Russell Johnson, Dave Barr, Dawn Wells, Mat Britain, Bob Denver, Dan Moore aboard the S.S Minnow.

I think Dawn said it best in her book: “I learned that the belle of the ball doesn’t have to be a belle. I learned that beauty is an illusion. You make the very best of what you have, what you are, and what you can be. I still believe that.”

Bon Voyage, Mary Ann.

Dawn Wells (1938-2020)

The Professor and Mary Ann autographed our gig book. Gilligan must’ve been piloting the boat at that time.

East Texas Recollectus: Angels We Have Heard…

If you grew up in Texas like I did, then you’ve likely participated in more than a few holiday performances this time of year: Christmas cantatas, Messiah sing-alongs, or Christmas Pageants. 

Our church was a small congregation with a couple of paid pianists and a choir director. The choir usually numbered fewer than ten volunteers, and the choir director was always trying to recruit members so we might do more adventurous (for Southern Baptists anyway) repertoire. The big churches had the forces to mount full-scale productions: the Christmas cantatas and Messiah-sing-alongs (and as I got older, I played timpani on a lot of Messiah gigs). But our small church rarely got to mount a big production.

One year, when I was very young, the time seemed right to do a full-blown theatrical version of The Nativity Story. This was an all-hands-on-deck production with costumes, lights, sets, and dramatic readings with music and action. I was cast (not typecast, mind you) as the Angel Gabriel.

I had two big moments: first was to appear to Mary to tell her that she would bear a child, and then later to announce to the shepherds the birth of the Baby Jesus. My costume was a white robe with cardboard wings and a home-made contraption of coat hangers and silver tinsel to create an uncomfortable but cool-looking halo. It took a while to learn my lines, but I was confident.

Our dress rehearsal was beset with difficulties. A church elder was struggling to deliver his lines, and out of frustration he shouted, “The lights are so dern bright, I can’t see what I’m saying!” My cool halo rig wasn’t going to work with my wings on, so it was decided to simply place the tinsel halo on top of my head—bummer!

The next evening, the performance was going well. Gabriel appeared to Mary saying, “Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favor with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus.” My first line delivered! Then came time to address the shepherds: “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.” 

You may see the potential for error here: both lines begin with “fear not.” So, I announced to the shepherds that they were to “bring forth a son.” I caught the mistake just as I heard my friends (the shepherds) snickering beneath their keffiyehs. I stopped mid-sentence and smacked my forehead with a “duh” gesture that knocked my halo askew, then started again. After my soliloquy, the choir sang Angels We have Heard on High, probably wondering if they had heard the angel correctly. I never lived down my revelation to the shepherds, and it is one of my mother’s favorite stories.

Despite that theatrical setback, I have always loved Christmastime. In addition to its importance to my faith, I just enjoy the music. I’ve created a Christmas video for Public Television in Montana, recorded an album titled Good Christmas Vibes, and published several musical arrangements of holiday music.

Every year (until 2020, of course), Iowa Percussion has presented a Holiday Percussion Pops concert that welcomes winter and kicks off the season in Iowa City. Audience members bring a food item for the local food bank, and over the years we’ve collected a few tons of food to help families in our community: University of Iowa faculty, staff, and students doing their bit as angels.

The Voxman Angels (Jenny Hall, Kate Vos, Pauline Wieland) delivering to the Food Bank in 2018.

In 2011, I started recording a holiday video each year as a greeting to family and friends. I missed a few years here and there, but then released eight videos in one year from the Good Christmas Vibes recording, so I suppose it all evens out. I thought I would share this story and the 2020 video of my recording of Angels We Have Heard on High to say thanks to all the angels in my life—both human and divine—who watch over me . . . and you.

Merry Christmas!

Recommended Reading

Luke 1:26-35

Luke 2:8-14

Recommended Listening:

Angels We have Heard on High

Dan Moore’s Holiday Playlist

East Texas Recollectus: The Day I became a Student of History

It’s no secret that I struggled academically throughout high school and into college. By eighth grade, I was so single-minded in my desire to be a musician (or a drummer anyway) that I focused all my energy in the band hall and didn’t pay much attention to the whole “school thing.” 

For the greater part of my young life, the people who most influenced me were music teachers—band, orchestra, and choir directors—so it seemed only natural that I follow in their footsteps. Being a band director, however, required going to college which was something I never gave much thought until halfway through senior year. It was also a feat that I had no clue about how to accomplish. 

With the help and encouragement of my talented high school classmate Lynn Childers, combined with the shear impulse-of-will of James F. Keene, and certainly some Divine intervention, I found my way to East Texas State University (now Texas A&M University Commerce). Then, once again with Mr. Keene’s help and the support of other influential mentors such as Neil Humfeld, James Deaton, Gene Lockhart, Deanne Gorham, Bob Houston, and others I managed to apply for and receive the Basic Equal Opportunity Grant (the Pell Grant now) that made it possible for me to become a college graduate. 

Mentor and student some thirty-years later. Dan and James F. Keene, 2015.

I was not the first person in my family to attend college. My uncle George graduated from the University of Houston and worked for many years with NASA as Chief of Maintenance Control for the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston. Neither was I the first to receive a doctorate. As an automobile mechanic, my grandfather was awarded the “Doctor of Motors” degree. The certificate was proudly displayed in our house when I was growing up and I wish I still had it.

At college I threw myself fully into the study of percussion but from an academic standpoint, college would still be a challenge. Almost immediately in the Fall of 1976, HIST: 121 American Heritage became the bane of my existence. After flunking the course that Fall, then again in Spring 1977, I decided to give history a rest because it was clearly not my thing. The 7 a.m. class time might’ve had something to do with my spotty attendance record but who can say for sure?

I just couldn’t get the hang of things academically until two landmark events: the arrival of the blonde-haired clarinet player from Arkansas, who continues to inspire me to do better and be better, and meeting Dr. Frank Barchard, who was not, to my knowledge, a musician but a historian.

Dr. Barchard came to E.T. in 1965 as an Instructor of History, and officially retired as Professor Emeritus in May, 1995. He continued to teach at Texas A&M University Commerce through Spring semester of 2000 and passed away in 2002. He held offices in the Commerce Humane Association and the Rotary Club, and was a regular volunteer for the Presbyterian Hospital Auxiliary.

Dr. Barchard taught European History and was also Assistant Dean of the College of Liberal and Fine Arts. He was the sort of person you never got to meet unless you were a history major or in trouble academically. The latter would be my designation. I was summoned to his office in the Fall of 1980 to try and figure out if I was ever going to be able to graduate. He had a copy of my transcript that he went through line by line, scribbling over the courses and grades that moved me closer to graduation and striking through those that didn’t. At the end, there were too many strike throughs and not enough scribbles, and Dr. Barchard was shaking his head. 

At the end, there were too many strike throughs and not enough scribbles

On my third attempt I had passed HIST: 121 but HIST: 122 still lay ahead for my last semester. Dr. Barchard finally stopped shaking his head and told me that I was three credits short. Three credits that would prevent me from student teaching and possibly from graduating at all. With my grant running out, along with my resolve, I thought I might never finish school. But to my surprise he said “why don’t you add the 3-credit class I’m teaching this semester?” My response was something like, “let me get this straight, you want me to take an advanced European History course with a roomful of history majors when I can’t even make it through American History I in less than three attempts?” His response? “Yes.”

I joined Dr. Barchard’s, Age of Absolutism and Enlightenment seminar, in about the second or third week of the semester and tried to find my way to the back of the room. I had never been in an academic class with so few people. Hiding in the back wasn’t going to be easy. “I’m in trouble” was my first thought: a premonition that soon turned out to be true. 

A few class meetings went by before Dr. Barchard decided to bring me into the conversation, a decision we would both soon regret. “Daniel, tell us what was going on in music during this period?” he asked. Awkward silence. Still he pressed, “you know: symphonies, opera, string quartets. Who were some composers from this period?” Me, thinking to myself: “I got nothing.” He knew I had already taken Music History and Music Literature*, so he tossed me a lifeline. “Well, if we are talking about the Classical Period in music, who were some of those composers?” Now, we’re both looking for the exit. 

*It would be a few more years before I would come to fully appreciate what music history and literature professors Bert Davis and Gene Lockhart were trying to get across to me, but that’s another story.

Undeterred, Dr. Barchard continued; “Perhaps you are thinking of Mō… Mō… Mō…?” My brain stalled, churned, then suddenly lurched forward; “Mozart! Yes! Mozart was big! Really big!” Success at last. But while I’m certain everyone appreciated my insightful contribution to the discussion that day, I was just happy I hadn’t said Motown or Motörhead which was not outside the realm of possibilities from that period of my life. 

Embarrassing to be sure, but it was a defining moment (certainly an important semester) because I finally began to understand the interconnectedness of Music, Music History, and World History. I thought, “I really should know more about this.” Who knew that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s life and music were so heavily influenced by the ideals of the Age of Enlightenment? Dr. Barchard did, so why didn’t I? 

It turns out that the principles of the Age of Absolutism and Enlightenment informed many composers from Haydn to Beethoven. In his opera The Marriage of Figaro, Mozart builds upon the themes from Beaumarchais’s play in which servants play the primary roles rather than simply providing comic relief—to be laughed at or mocked. They were equally as important to the story as the aristocrats. 

I began to recognize the importance of knowing more about the music you play than just how to “hit all the right notes.” It also helped me understand why Dr. Davis kept referring to paintings and other great works of art during his Music History lectures, and why Professor Lockhart insisted we recognize the significance of world events in the creation of music. Knowing more about the sociopolitical environment in which composers lived and worked could help performers better understand how to interpret their music. Who knew? Evidently everyone except me.

Because of an evolving attitude about history, I passed Dr. Barchard’s course and then followed up with the second American History course. OK, I got a C, but my transition to a curious scholar didn’t happen overnight! Dr. Barchard’s class was the beginning of a journey that included making the Dean’s list in my final semester at E.T., then earning a 3.83 GPA in Grad School (Wichita State University) and culminating with a 4.0 in the doctorate (University of Kentucky). It also sparked a lifelong interest in learning and appreciating the history of things. 

This was all because Dr. Barchard, and the entire faculty of the Music Department at E.T., took an interest in helping me help myself, each in their own inimitable way. The next time we sat down to do the strike throughs and scribbles, Dr. Barchard finished, stood up, shook my hand, and congratulated me on my upcoming commencement.

Unfortunately, Dr. Barchard passed away a few years before I would be honored by Texas A&M University Commerce as a Distinguished Alumnus (2005). I wonder if he saw THAT coming? Even if he hadn’t, I think he would’ve been proud of the part he played in getting me from there to here!

I will always appreciate Dr. Barchard, and remember the day I became a student of history.

Recommended Listening:

Andante from Mozart Piano Sonata No. 16 performed by Dan Moore on marimba.

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