Some People Have No Imagination

It seems that folks now days have no imagination when it comes to expressing themselves. As a musician, educator, and kind of a big deal, I believe it is important that I be able to convey my thoughts in an originative manner. But I’m afraid what we’ve got here is a failure to communicate our own ideas without resorting to hackneyed lines from old movies, obscure song lyrics, and arcane television programs that nobody remembers or has ever seen. 

Using someone else’s words from over four-hundred years ago may seem like a good way to appear clever or smart; it may be for the purpose of wasting other people’s time. Maybe you want to prove that you have many leather-bound books and that your apartment smells of rich mahogany, but this type of behavior is inconceivable to me (if that word means what I think it does). Some might even say that “the constable is too cunning to be understood” (whatever that means!). If you think to yourself, “having the perfect Shakespeare quote for any situation would make me beloved;” It’s surprisingly unhelpful. 

This is a complex issue that is further complicated by those poor misguided souls who (more often than not) misquote the very lines they claim to love. This is particularly bothersome when it comes to classic phrases from the likes of William Shakespeare, Jane Austin, Oscar Wilde, or Elaine May (Oh, she wrote A New Leaf, The Birdcage, she did an uncredited rewrite on Tootsie).

When in a causal conversation with co-workers, how often have you found yourself saying, “thou art not for the fashion of these times, where none will sweat but for promotion,” or “I’m the guy who does his job, you must be the other guy?” If this sounds familiar, then you could be suffering from what I call quotation-dependency. If you didn’t notice that the two phrases above have totally opposite meanings, then you might also be a misquoter—an even more troubling malady. 

Here’s an example. In Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet, young Hamlet is visited by his father’s ghost, who commands him to avenge his murder. Hamlet replies, “by Grabthar’s hammer, by the sons of Warvan, you shall be avenged,” but the line is frequently misquoted as “let come what comes, I’ll be revenged most thoroughly for my father.” It’s really quite elementary my dear. What son would not grant his father’s request? Now that’s what I call a close encounter.

Misquoting is a common mistake of the quote-user-abuser, and we all know that some mistakes you never stop paying for. When crashing through a window, you may say to yourself, “this is me; I think it’s apparent that I need to rethink my life a little bit.” If so, you better fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.

To the person who wishes to compose an eloquent sonnet for the object of their affection, I say go for it. Carpe diem. You know, seize the day boys; make your lives extraordinary by coming up with something original. After all, that’s the stuff that dreams are made of. By doing so, you could become someone’s Huckleberry, their Girl Friday, or even their Density. Or, you might just as easily end up a bum who could’ve had class; could’ve been a contender; could’ve been somebody. You could end up living in a dingy, dismal, shabby, dinky apartment.

Remember, it’s what you do right now that makes a difference. It isn’t what we say or think that defines us, but what we do. Of course, you would know that if you were an Army Ranger or had any sense or sensibility whatsoever.

If you tried just a little harder to find the right words—your own words—you could have others saying, “you’re the best one in your row” or “I’ll have what she’s having.” You might also be thinking that failure is not an option, and if so, why try at all? Well, nobody’s perfect. But if love means never having to say you’re sorry, you’ve got nothing to lose. After all, tomorrow is another day. But if you should try to be original and fail, don’t worry, you have five minutes to wallow in the delicious misery. Enjoy it, embrace it, discard it. And proceed. Don’t cry about it; there’s no crying! 

In baseball, and other sports, there is no try. I think it was Yogi Berra who once said, “do or do not, failure, the greatest teacher is”—or something like that. So, for now, snap out of it! I mean, what is your damage? Like most people, you can’t handle the truth when it comes to criticism, but deep down, everyone knows that the bitterest truth is better than the sweetest lie. And unless you are content to sit upon a throne of lies, how hard can it be to come up with an appropriate zinger or the perfect response to an insult on your own?

If someone says “you can’t sit with us,” don’t just say “as if,” or “eat my shorts” or “why don’t you make like a tree, and get out of here?” Use your imagination. Come up with something erudite like “you don’t know the difference between a Mouton Rothschild and a California twist-top red,” or “In the whole vast configuration of things, I’d say you were nothing but a scurvy little spider!”—if you’re not into the whole brevity thing—or how about something musical sounding like, “you clinking, clanking, clattering collection of caliginous junk!” That’s the kind of comeback you really need to put a worthy adversary in their place! You see, it’s not that difficult to come up with something original and unexpected if you try.

I don’t know what it is that makes people want to co-op song lyrics from bands like the Beatles, Journey, or even Toto. I have a feeling we aren’t in Kansas when it comes to originality, and that raises the question, “how did we get here?” Some unimaginative thinker might say “I led you here, sir, for I am Spartacus,” but that would be a silly thing to do. I’ve always prided myself on having the ability to come up with a unique bon mot, should I have the need. 

The need for speed in these situations is, of course, critical. Life moves pretty fast, so if you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it. Maybe that’s why we cast about so much when under pressure to say something witty or profound. But I have hope, Rosebud. A day may come when the courage of men fails, when we forsake our friends and break all bonds of fellowship. But it is not this day. The sun’ll come out tomorrow—I’ll bet a nickel (a dime is the limit)!

Well—as the poet once said—I could do this all day, but I think you see my point about the importance of independent thinking in speech and writing, or even getting into Harvard Law (what, like it’s hard?). It’s not that I’m the king of the world or like I have ESPN or something. I’m just trying to help you become the clever conversationalist I know you can be—to perhaps choose wisely—when in social settings. But to do that, you’ve got to ask yourself one important question: “do I feel lucky?” Well, do ya, punk? If so, go ahead—make my day.*

*Quoted from a speech given by President Ronald Reagan while speaking out against the threat of tax increases at the 1985 American Business Conference.

More importantly though, don’t forget that a laugh can be a very powerful thing. Why, sometimes in life, it’s the only weapon we have. I hope the ironic nature of this post is clear, but if not, I can only say that surely you can’t be serious! This little etude is dedicated to all Quixotic Quoters (“Quixotic”? Dude, that’s like, a thousand points), and to the clever creators of the following motion pictures who unwittingly contributed. And with particular apologies to William Shakespeare—my favorite to (mis) quote. 

“A laugh can be a very powerful thing. Why, sometimes in life, it’s the only weapon we have.”

How many did you get? How many of these films have you seen? Power user tip: Try reading the text aloud using the voice of the actor who said it!

Paragraph 1: Anchorman (2004) Cool Hand Luke (1967) or Major Payne (1995), Paragraph 2: Anchorman (2004) An Ideal Husband (1999) The Princess Bride (1987) Much Ado About Nothing (1993) The Rewrite (2014), Paragraph 3: The Rewrite (2014), Paragraph 4: As You Like It (2006) The Departed (2006), Paragraph 5: Galaxy Quest (1999) Hamlet (1996) The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1929) Independence Day (1996), Paragraph 6: The Natural (1984) Ratatouille (2007) All About Eve (1950), Paragraph 7: Dead Poets Society (1989) The Maltese Falcon (1941) Tombstone (1993) His Girl Friday (1940) Back to the Future (1985) On the Waterfront (1954) Joe vs. the Volcano (1990), Paragraph 8: Black Hawk Down (2001) Sense and Sensibility (1995), Paragraph 9: Ghostbusters (1984) When Harry Met Sally (1989) Apollo 13 (1995) Some Like it Hot (1959) or Independence Day (1996) Love Story (1970) Gone with the Wind (1939) Elizabethtown (2005) A League of Their Own (1992), Paragraph 10: Star Wars: Episode V—The Empire Strikes Back (1980) Star Wars: Episode VIII—The Last Jedi (2017) Moonstruck (1987) Heathers (1988) A Few Good Men (1992) Men in Black 3 (2012) Elf (2003), Paragraph 11: Mean Girls (2004) Clueless (1995) The Breakfast Club (1985) Back to the Future (1985) Bottle Shock (2008) It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) The Big Lebowski (1998) Wizard of OZ (1939) Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) or The Big Lebowski with added expletive (1998), Paragraph 12: The Wizard of OZ (1939) That Thing You Do (1996) Top Gun (1986), Paragraph 13: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) Citizen Kane (1941) Lord of The Rings: The Return of the King (2003) Annie (1982) One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Paragraph 14: Captain America: Civil War (2016) Legally Blonde (2003) Titanic (1987) Mean Girls (2004) Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) Dirty Harry (1971) Sudden Impact (1983), Paragraph 15: Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) Airplane (1980) Tenure (2008)

Did I mention that I love movies and movie quotes? Here’s a little throwback to my days of electronic explorations!

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)

Come Sunday: Labels, Critics, and Narrow Bandwidths

Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington (1899-1974) is one of the best known names in jazz of the 20th Century, but he didn’t particularly like being called a jazz musician. Professor C. Michael Hawn, University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Church Music of the SMU Perkins School of Theology, writes that Ellington “resisted the designation of ‘jazz’ as too narrow for his compositions and preferred that his works be known just as ‘music.’”

Many musicians take issue with musical categories, particularly those surrounding the word jazz. While speaking to a meeting of  the Society for Neuroscience in a session titled “Dialogues between Neuroscience and Society,” guitarist and master musician Pat Metheny noted that “basically, my job description is professional improvisor, and while the word ‘jazz’ has some utility as a kind of shorthand to invoke a certain broad cultural tradition—within the community of musicians that I am lucky to be a part of, we’re mostly unlikely to use that word as having any singular meaning beyond those cultural connotations.”

But consumers seem to prefer labels; they like to put music into tidy bins that were created years ago at record stores or CD shops, for awards shows, for grant applications, and now on Spotify, YouTube, and other streaming platforms. These categories help consumers quickly locate the music they like and to just as quickly dismiss anything they don’t (or at least think they don’t) want to hear. Heaven-forbid discovering something new by accident. 

Metheny adds that “most people have a very limited bandwidth of what they are willing to consume as music listeners.” And that is perhaps the most unfortunate thing about labels. Metheny continues; “It regularly happens that people are brought to my concerts—most of them against their will, and then they come up afterwards and tell me that they had no idea that this music existed.” Sigh…

I too consider myself an improvising musician, but I am happily not attached to any musical genre, which is what makes collaborations with other likewise unaffiliated musicians so much fun. For many years, I have improvised with Swedish mallet artist, Anders Åstrand. We have a special bond because we both trade in classical, contemporary, popular, folk, and jazz influenced currencies, and we enjoy collecting and trading them with each other. When we are improvising, we can be inspired by classical music one minute then channeling jazz the next. Minimal, comical, or just plain kooky—nothing is out of bounds.

Any place, anytime; improvising with Anders at the Percussive Arts Society International Convention.

The problem is that most people conflate the words jazz and improvisation. Think of it like this; while jazz music is often improvised, not all improvised music is jazz. [I’ll wait…]

Nothing was out of bounds for Ellington either, which brings us to the composition Come Sunday. In 1942 Ellington and his orchestra were engaged for a Carnegie Hall concert that his manager had set up only a month prior. This caused Ellington to quip; “I don’t need time—I need a deadline!” Ellington met that deadline with an extensive new composition titled Black, Brown, and Beige. Each color represents a period of black history in America using what Ellington described as “tone parallels” for each period. According to JazzStandards.com, “Come Sunday is what is now known as the 32-bar, AABA-form song (which Ellington wrote for alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges), but originally it was part of a 12-minute portion of the first section, ‘Black.’”

And what did the critics think? Well, they hated it. They thought that Ellington had “deserted” jazz in favor of “serious” (meaning classical) music, and on the other side, classical music critics didn’t think Black, Brown, and Beige rose to the level of good “serious” music. 

K. J. McElrath, musicologist for JazzStandards.com writes: “Caught in the cross-fire, Ellington was clearly upset and soon after began to utilize the term ‘beyond category’ for his music rather than using the word jazz. It’s clear in retrospect that neither critical camp understood what Duke was attempting, and he was so disturbed by the turn of events that it would be several years before he would attempt anything similar.”

Such is the result of labels, critics, and those with narrow bandwidths.  

As a song, Come Sunday has been sung, played, and recorded by many artists. This is partly because it is a great tune with a beautiful message. Professor Hawn writes: “Ellington once said, ‘By and large, jazz has always been like the kind of a man you wouldn’t want your daughter to associate with.’ Yet, this master of jazz has a hymn in the United Methodist Hymnal!” 

Ellington was indeed beyond category. He didn’t like labels—musical or otherwise. He once said, “I don’t believe in categories of any kind, and when you speak of problems between blacks and whites in the U.S.A., you are referring to categories again.’”

Come Sunday has now become a standard in the repertoire that beautifully evokes the Black spiritual on both a musical and emotional level. Mahalia Jackson recorded a version with lyrics, and today both instrumental and vocal versions are still popular among diverse audiences.

The words of Come Sunday also provide a measure of hope and assurance during this time of angst, unrest, and evil in the world. Dr. Hawn writes that “the song is ultimately about the providence of God in all our lives. The refrain addresses God directly, ‘Lord, dear Lord above, God Almighty, God of love,’ and then makes a petition, ‘please look down and see my people through.’ The stanzas point to hope and heaven, concluding that ‘With God’s blessing we can make it through eternity.’”

And as we reach the second anniversary of the beginning of the COVID-19 lockdowns, we would do well to take Mr. Ellington’s words to heart. 

Lord, dear Lord above, God almighty
God of love, please look down and see my people through

Lord, dear Lord above, God almighty
God of love, please look down and see my people through

I believe that God put sun and moon up in the sky
I don’t mind the gray skies
‘cause they’re just clouds passing by

Lord, dear Lord above, God almighty
God of love, please look down and see my people through

References:

Hawn, C. Michael. “Come Sunday” reflects Duke Ellington’s faith & sacred jazz tradition. History of Hymns. (Accessed February 27, 2022)
https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-come-sunday-reflects

McElrath, K. J. Come Sunday. JazzStandards.com. (Accessed February 27, 2022) https://www.jazzstandards.com/compositions-1/comesunday.htm

Metheny, Pat. Dialogues between Neuroscience and Society. Society for Neuroscience: Music and the Brain with Pat Metheny, 2018. (Accessed February 27, 2022) https://youtu.be/yhAbNv1gJT8 

Listening:

Dan Moore and Peter Grubisich perform Duke Ellington’s Come Sunday
Dan Moore and Anders Åstrand in Patagonia, Argentina
Ben Webster and Oscar Peterson. One of my favorite versions.

When Good is Better than Great: A Drum Corps Story

photo Credit: Donna M. Kelley

My three-year association with the Sky Ryders Drum & Bugle Corps from Hutchinson, Kansas, was a memorable time. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, competitive drum & bugle corps was just beginning to be a thing in Texas. Fortuitously, I matriculated to East Texas State University, where our band, under the direction of James F. Keene, was among the first Texas college bands to fully embrace the Corps Style.

Jim Keene had become somewhat of a guru to the drum corps activity. Corps like Blue Stars, Bridgemen, and Phantom Regiment would find their way to Commerce, TX each summer to rehearse and maybe do a clinic or an exhibition performance but primarily to be advised by Keene. Because of Mr. Keene’s influence, ET students began participating in DCI: some classmates went west to Blue Devils and Santa Clara Vanguard, and a few went north to Kansas and the Hutchinson Sky Ryders. My friend Bruce Richardson marched in 1980 and then wangled himself an unpaid position on the brass staff in 1981, and managed to get me one of those sweet unpaid gigs as a snare tech. That year we contributed an arrangement of Lyle Mays’ Overture to the Royal Mongolian Suma Foosball Festival. It got cut mid-season.

“If I had a nickel for every drum I’ve cranked…” Photo Credit: Donna M. Kelley

Corps director George Tuthill and brass instructor John Simpson were both fully pedigreed in the drum corps activity and shared a singular goal: Get the Sky Ryders into the DCI top twelve. This was a task the Sky Ryders had yet to accomplish and the pressure was on to get the job done. Tuthill and Simpson were either in each other’s pockets or at each other’s throat depending on the day. 

George welcomed me into the spartan apartment he shared with his two young sons and two incorrigible basset hounds. At night I had to compete with them for sleeping space on the couch (the dogs, not the boys). George and I spent hours at his kitchen table discussing percussion arranging, drum corps history, jazz, and many other topics. He mentored me in the old school manner. He was tough and opinionated and we often disagreed on arranging for percussion, but George was ahead of his time in drum corps. His percussion features were more like contemporary percussion ensemble pieces, precursors of percussion features that would become the norm by the 1990s. 

On the other side of the street, I was hearing from John Simpson what he expected from a percussion arranger. John was known for his expertise in bringing out the best in brass players through his work with the Bayonne Bridgemen. 

The Bridgemen boasted one of the top drumlines in the nation, under the leadership of Dennis DeLucia. Simpson felt the drumline’s success was sometimes to the detriment of the hornline. In one show, the corps was spread out across the field, and the horns needed to make a syncopated attack that they could never get. Simpson asked DeLucia about adding a fill before the hit, but it never materialized. Finally, John whispered in the ear of the #5 bass drummer and asked him to play a single note as a setup for the horns. The bass drummer complied and the problem was solved. As a spectator at the time, I thought it was an understated and hip moment, and it was courtesy of the horn guy.

My interactions with George and John were often heated and volatile, causing many to think we didn’t get along. Yet at the end of the day, I always felt welcome in George’s home for another round of noisy discussions and to battle the dogs for supremacy on the couch, and John would go out of his way to defend me to judges or corps members grumbling about our scores. We were all passionate about our work and improving the corps.

Me, John Simpson, and Milt Allen doing the work. Photo Credit: Donna M. Kelley

In those days, drumline scores weren’t linked to the other captions. It was possible for a drumline to win high drums while the hornline languished at the bottom of their caption. The Bridgemen were enjoying a three-year run as the top drumline while their corps finished overall in the middle of the pack (except in 1980 when they finished 3rd in finals). Judging criteria was changing in DCI, but at the time, these were the facts of life: the best snare line and best soprano line wins.

When I took over as Sky Ryders percussion arranger/caption head in 1982, I knew we had to do two things: 1) Develop an offseason program and 2) help the hornline maintain their upward trajectory. To that end, I recruited players from the Dallas/Fort Worth area and began holding winter camps in Commerce. The Kansas guys came down and we made great progress. 

In writing the book, everything I composed was designed to make the horns sound great. We knew we weren’t going to win a drum trophy that year, but we might not be on a bus heading home on finals night like we were in 1981.

We made incredible strides as a corps in 1982. We were sounding good and looking good and all eyes were on our rifle line. The rifles were at the top of the “what to watch” list in our show. Drum Corps World called it the “Show within the Show.” The hornline was hotter than ever, and kept getting better throughout the season. The drumline improved dramatically as well but continued to be outscored by drumlines of corps who were nowhere near our level. It was frustrating winning shows while coming in fourth or fifth in drums, but I knew that support of the hornline was more important to our collective success. 

The drumline was being held back by our low “Exposure to Error” (the difficulty of the music) and “General Effect” (overall effectiveness of the music) scores, but there were more points available in the “Execution” (how cleanly the music is played) column so we focused our energy there. We edited parts and kept cleaning all season. Those inside the activity recognized what we were doing and acknowledged it long before the judges did. 

At Drums Along the Rockies in Denver — the biggest show we had been in all season — the drumline wanted to make a respectable showing against lines that had been killing us all season. Tension was high. The line was extremely nervous and the only place we could find to warmup was on a busy corner near Mile High Stadium. 

We finished our first warmup and it wasn’t good. I was about to launch into a lecture about the need to get focused when we heard a loud “Hhhhheeeeeeeey!” and the roar of a Harley. The line tried to maintain focus, but their eyes were clearly tracking something. I turned around to behold a motorcycle gliding by with a young woman on the back, shirt pulled up over her head, leaving nothing to the imagination. We stood, dumbfounded, then everyone burst out laughing uncontrollably. We pulled it together, played a few more notes, then headed to the gate. The tension was broken. Everyone was loose, relaxed, and extremely focused going onto the field. 

That night the line transcended. They granted drum major Milt Allen’s request to “leave it all on the field.” We beat everyone in execution except our arch rivals, the Freelancers (who bested us by one-tenth of a point). Although we finished fifth in drums, it was a huge victory for us and it inspired the line to dig in and really start cleaning.

Cleaning the line! Photo Credit: Donna M. Kelley

By the time we made it to the finals of Drum Corps South, we were beginning to receive some credit for our support of the brass section. We placed second in drums to Spirit of Atlanta, losing by only two-tenths of a point. This time we won in exposure to error and general effect but lost in execution (possibly as a result of our after-midnight start time due to a stressful two-hour rain delay). The judges were beginning to appreciate that our book was designed to groove rather than just be a gratuitous display of chops. My happiest moment that season came when Drum Corps World posted a front-page photo of the Sky Ryders drumline with the caption “The Sky Ryders’ vastly improved drumline helped them win the Drum Corps South title July 31 in Birmingham, AL.”

“The Sky Ryders’ vastly improved drumline helped them win the Drum Corps South title July 31 in Birmingham, AL.” Drum Corps World

That season the corps didn’t need us to be great: they just needed us to be good. And that’s what we were. We provided a solid foundation that propelled us into finals and gave us something to build on for the following season. A photo of the drumline — not the hornline and not the rifles — represented the Sky Ryders in the official DCI Calendar for the following year. Pretty Cool.

A photo of the drumline represented the Sky Ryders in the official DCI Calendar for the following year.

By the time we reached prelims, many of the top percussion caption heads such as Marty Hurley, Ralph Hardimon, Tom Float, Dennis DeLucia, and Fred Sanford took me under their wings, and each of them (in their own way) told me that we had what it takes to make finals for the first time in Sky Ryder history. We finished the season in 10th place overall and 12th place in drums.

This year, the bus ride home would have to wait until after finals, thanks to a good drumline.

Represent!

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.

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