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.

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 Chick Corea composition. Andy later told me they chose Falling Grace because “it was the only tune we both knew.” By 1983, ten years after its release, Falling Grace had become a Jazz Standard—immortalized in the ubiquitous Real Book, along with several of Chick’s other compositions.

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 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 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

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.

Stop the World (and let me off) Lessons Learned from a Pandemic

In 1957, Patsy Cline sang “oh, stop the world and let me off, I’m tired of goin’ round an’ round, I played the game of love and lost, So stop the world and let me off.” A few years later, during his first Nashville recording session, Waylon Jennings squared up the edges of Patsy’s dreamy 1950s “Stroll Dance” version and in 1965, turned Stop the World and Let Me Off into a Country Music Classic. 

Across the pond, in London’s West End, Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley staged the complex and multi-faceted musical Stop the World: I want to get off before bringing it to Broadway in 1961. The Play focused on the self-centered life of Littlechap from the moment of his birth until his death. Throughout the play, whenever faced with a difficult situation, he exclaims “stop the world, I want to get off,” then turns to address the audience directly: famously breaking the imaginary fourth wall. Though you may not know the play, you might be familiar with its most famous song: What Kind of Fool and I?

And in a darkened movie theater in 1963, Hank Cochran was inspired to write the lyric “make the world go away, get it off of my shoulders, say the things you used to say, and make the world go away.” Make the World Go Away became a hit that has been recorded by everyone from Dean Martin to Elvis, and from Donnie and Marie to Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley. It became a career defining record for Eddie Arnold whose version was selected for preservation in the National Recording Registry in 2019, perhaps foreshadowing the events of 2020.

Why were people in the 1960s so interested in stopping the world? The sixties were a tumultuous time: the Vietnam War, the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement, and the death of a president and a Civil Rights Leader. But who has never wanted to tap the brakes—have time to stop and think—to escape the anxiety of current events? A friend recently told me “I just want it all to stop—put Iowa in the rearview mirror and keep driving.” 

But it’s not easy to just hit the snooze button because those decisions are usually out of our control. Most folks have responsibilities, commitments, and aspirations that are difficult to walk away from without the imposition of some catastrophic event in our lives. A few months ago, no one could’ve imagined that a worldwide pandemic would indeed stop the world. 

In the course of a few weeks, everyone’s plans for 2020 evaporated. People worldwide were affected in some way which is what a pandemic is by definition. Many were forced to transition to an on-line work/school experience or worse—lost their livelihood entirely. Quarantines and lockdowns closed workplaces and changed things, quite possibly, forever.

On March 10, Mat Britain and I were in the middle of a tour, playing concerts and doing workshops with the Britain Moore Duo. We were sitting in the Hilton Garden Lounge in Terre Haute, Indiana having a nightcap and watching the rain when Mat’s phone blew up with messages. It seemed Vanderbilt University, where he directs the steel band, was joining several other colleges to be among the first to cancel face to face instruction, and all concerts, for the remainder of the semester. As would be the case for the next several months, there were more questions than answers.

We were in disbelief, and with three stops remaining on our junket we held out hope that we might at least finish the tour before things got bad. The next day we played a concert at Indiana State University (their last one for the year), and headed to Cincinnati for two more gigs including presentations at the National Society of Steel Band Educators conference (NSSBE). We completed our next engagement in Batesville, Indiana and had dinner at a quaint local restaurant across the street from one of the nation’s largest casket companies (foreshadowing again?). 

The NSSBE meeting cancelled as we were turning in for the night so we decided to head home the next morning. Mat and I embraced at the gas pump before going our separate ways. He recalled recently that “it was the last time I hugged someone.”

Stories of “runs” on grocery stores and school cancellations began to fill the radio waves, then reports that baseball had postponed the opening of the 2020 season. I thought “what the heck is going on?”

As I drove, I also started to think about what might happen next.

A year and a half earlier I had begun the process of applying for a sabbatical from the University of Iowa and was only a few weeks into what was supposed to be a coveted semester away from teaching, filled with performances, recording projects, a percussion festival in Thailand, a tour in Japan, and another BMD tour.

During the lockdown, the Voxman Music Building—where all my instruments and recording equipment are housed—was shut down completely for the foreseeable future. After our tour cancelled, Mat and I started a quarantine project in memory of Bill Withers who had recently passed away. We had barely finished recording the audio and video when everything closed for good. 

With all of my instruments and equipment locked away, my sabbatical projects were officially kaput.

So, what does happen next? You try to move on and—with any luck—learn something about yourself.

For me—and from what I gather from my students, colleagues, friends, and family—the pandemic unfolded in three stages: paralysis, depression, and adaptation.

Most people are familiar with the concept of Fight or Flight. It is the commonly held belief that there are two choices when facing eminent danger: stand your ground and fight or turn and run away.

“He who fights and runs away 
May live to fight another day; 
But he who is in battle slain 
Can never rise to fight again.”

But there is a third—possibly lesser known—mechanism known as “freeze.” Many in the animal kingdom use this approach: some with great success and others with disastrous consequences. Think “deer in the headlights.” 

The constantly changing definition of what was going on and the uncertainty of when (if) the pandemic was ever going to end created a growing sensation that I wasn’t going to be able to finish anything I had planned, so why start? I froze.

Adding to the stress was the thought of being held accountable for not completing the project I had proposed for my sabbatical. I remember a former colleague who was pilloried in the newspaper for getting a sabbatical to study the effectiveness of different types of French horn mouthpieces. It was held up to ridicule—an example of wasted taxpayer dollars—even if the community of hornists worldwide benefitted from the results of his research. I didn’t want to make page two of the Des Moines Register with the headline “Music professor gets paid to work in his garden at tax payer expense.”

I needed to come up with ideas to replace the now quite out of reach project I had proposed some eighteen months earlier. “How hard could it be? You’ve got lots of ideas” I thought to myself. But herein lies the “curse of the creative.” Most who undertake any sort of labor-of-the-mind can go along blissfully unaware of their gift, without a care in the world, enjoying an endless wellspring of ideas until—that is—someone takes notice. Once they call you a “creative person,” prepare yourself for a headlong crash into writer’s block, artistic stagnation, analysis paralysis, stage fright, or a batting slump.

Where paralysis has taken hold, depression can’t be far behind. 

Trying to imagine what comes next during a global pandemic is exhausting and debilitating. To a creator, it can be devastating: blocking the childlike wonder that fuels the imagination and feeds the creative spirit. I feel blessed that I have never had a shortage of (dare I say) creative ideas. I’ve had shortages of everything else including time, money, resources, energy, strength, and resolve, but never ideas.

But once the initial shock of something like a pandemic begins to wear off, the creatives get to work. Soon the damnable denizens of Facebook and YouTube began to fill the internet with endless and wonderful projects such as virtual ensemble performances, imaginative low budget music videos, and even a show about nothing more than Some Good News from around the world that broke the internet for several weeks (Thanks, John Krasinski). People were creating new projects and trotting them out daily. “Man, you better get on board or you’ll be left behind.”

Determined not to lose the creativity arms race, I opened my bag of incomplete projects and dumped them out (literally) onto the dining room table. In an effort to not be overcome by paralysis, I now had too many projects. I started (or restarted) a number of ambitious stay-at-home endeavors that would soon begin to collapse under their own weight. The reasons for their demise were as inexplicable as they were varied. 

“Behold, I have created depression” sayeth paralysis.

Like most of us, I have been given plenty of opportunities in my life to learn how to adapt but thanks to COVID, this time I was officially stuck.

So, now what? You adapt! Adapt and make a deal!

Recently, I had the opportunity to hear one of my former students speaking about her time at college. She recounted some advice I had given her about finding excellence as a composer. It was an affirmation to hear one of my oft repeated parables coming back to me some 30 years later. 

I still tell my students that when facing any type of writer’s block or loss of motivation, observing someone (anyone) who is at the top of their profession be it an Olympic athlete, an actor, a waitress, or a bus driver can inspire you to be a better performer in your own field. If my desire is flagging or I want to find inspiration, I need look no further than the local movie theater, library, or art gallery. The student, Sarah Vowell, went on to a very successful career as a writer, author, voice actor, and radio and television personality—if not a composer.

Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell

So, I decided to take my own advice and turned to the Library, Amazon Prime, and once again, YouTube. I took the opportunity to read books I had been promising to get around to and delved deeper into the treasure trove of interesting YouTube channels to watch and learn.

One of the more unique concepts I stumbled upon was of people attempting to recreate the daily routines of famous people such as Benjamin Franklin, Leonardo DaVinci, Ludwig van Beethoven, and others. Guitarist and singer, Mary Spender, attempted to inhabit Beethoven’s daily routine and shared her experiences and takeaways in a popular YouTube video.

But not every routine seemed to work for everyone. DaVinci’s lifestyle was based on a polyphasic sleep pattern, meaning that for every 4-hours awake, he took a 20-minute power nap which provided him 22-hours of work time and a scant two hours of sleep per day. Needless to say, this schedule would be a bit of a challenge for most of us. Spender, however found benefit in following Beethoven’s routine while acknowledging that some adjustments were needed to fit her own lifestyle and workflow. 

Comments on her video were interesting and also amusing. One commenter wrote: “Many artists are trying out Van Gogh’s daily routine: wake up in a daze, drink in a haze, isolate from society for days, appreciate nature from a gaze, paint and paint and paint and be amazed… at how you can forget to eat or drink, or love, or hate, or feel anything other than the inter-connectivity of you, your art, and the world it exists in.” And another simply wrote: “I tried Hunter S. Thompson’s daily routine. I died of a cocaine overdose four weeks ago.”

Establishing a good routine is a time-honored technique recommended by many efficiency experts, but as someone whose inspiration can strike in the middle of the night, I have long relied on the freedom to access my studio whenever an idea hits me. Losing that autonomy was a significant blow. 

Between 2008 and 2016, I worked in a 750 square foot double-wide FEMA Trailer as a result of the Iowa River Flood of 2008 (an excellent opportunity to learn to adapt). It wasn’t the most acoustically perfect environment for composing and recording music, and occasionally the racoon family living beneath the trailer provided some extra-musical material, but I was able to work completely alone and unfettered during what became one of the most productive periods of my career.

Others know the value of being able to go from zero to creativity at a moment’s notice. I once read that guitarist Carlos Santana kept a crew member on call to make sure his studio and guitar rig were ready to go at all hours. If he got inspired to work in the middle of the night, he only needed to make a phone call and put on some pants (I can’t say for sure about the pants).

The first step toward getting myself back on track was to make a deal. 

I made my case to the powers-that-be and assured them that I would sequester in my studio and make every effort to avoid contact with any other humans. They agreed to allow me to work from 1:00 to 5:00 pm Monday through Friday so as to minimize contact with the custodial staff. Not exactly the unlimited access that I was used to, but it was something. The new schedule would require a change in my work habits, but since everyone else was walking a mile in another person’s shoes, I thought why not give it a try?

Multi-tasking—another time-honored technique for productivity—requires the ability to juggle several different projects at once. In our daily lives we are often called upon to keep many plates spinning simultaneously, but multi-tasking doesn’t always work well for me, particularly as I have gotten older. I found myself having to redo tasks to fix a mistake caused by working too quickly or while distracted. Since about 2008, I have tried to become more one-project-at-a-time oriented. I focus my mental energy on one task, project, or part of a project until it is complete before moving on to the next. As this approach often benefited from the aforementioned autonomy, the new routine would take some discipline. 

As a result of my restructured work schedule, I needed to pare down the number and scope of my projects, plan daily sessions in advance, and then upon arrival in the studio, immediately get to work on what had to be accomplished that day. No checking the COVID statistics on line, reading the news, or responding to emails. 

My take away from the COVID lockdown experience is that the new routine helped me to become more focused and to waste less time in the studio. As a result, I was able to get back on track for the level of productivity I had hoped to achieve during the sabbatical. The projects were different than what I had proposed but they would certainly withstand any scrutiny, and definitely keep me off of page two.

As Summer turned to Fall and the Music Building reopened to prepare for the new school year, I enjoyed the return of unlimited access to my studio. The practical lessons I learned during the lockdown seem to be sticking with me, but the most important lesson was remembering to seize every opportunity to take stock of what’s most important in your life. For me those things include faith, family, and friends, and perhaps the value of stopping—whether you want to or not.

In writing about one of the songs from his latest album, Love is the King, singer/song writer Jeff Tweedy wrote: “At the beginning of the lockdown I started writing country songs to console myself… ‘Guess Again’ is a good example of the success I was having at pushing the world away, counting my blessings—taking stock in my good fortune to have love in my life.” 

Tweedy’s approach to stopping the world is slightly different, and perhaps more realistic, than the songwriters of the 1960s, but it feels more applicable to our current situation, and it certainly resonates with me. I tell my students that “every day we are allowed to create music together is a gift that we should take advantage of and cherish.”

Today, I’m back to my more typical look-on-the-bright-side attitude. I know that life will be different—maybe it will never be the same—but I am confident that people will still want to hear music just as much as musicians still want to compose, practice, and perform it. 

I also hope to continue to benefit from the lessons learned during the Pandemic: the year the world decided to stop on its own and let us off.

Recommended Listening:

Make the World Go Away, Eddie Arnold

Stop the World and Let Me Off, Waylon Jennings

Guess Again, Jeff Tweedy

9/11/01: A horrible day made a little better by music, friendship, and simple human kindness

Note: this is an edited version of a previous Facebook post.

In 1994 we got rid of our TV and unplugged from commercial television for good. No more CNN, Seinfeld, or MTV (back when there was actual “M” in MTV). So, in 2001 we were getting our news from newspapers, radio, and sometimes the internet, which we didn’t even have at home yet. On September 11, 2001, my day started later than usual, so with only a few commitments in the afternoon, we got up late and decided to have lunch at one of our favorite sandwich shops. 

At the counter, we placed our order and began to notice everyone seemed subdued. Something was “off.” People were talking quietly and the audio on the now-ubiquitous-restaurant-TV was turned up. Tom Clancy was being interviewed about terrorism and counter intelligence. “How serious could this be if they were interviewing a novelist” we thought “and why was everyone so interested?” 

The person making our sandwiches looked a little surprised when we asked what was going on. He said “the Twin Towers have been knocked down.” “Knocked down? What do you mean ‘knocked down?’” He glanced up at the TV then returned to making our lunch saying something about “airplanes.” We were still incredulous but reality began to sink in as we played catchup with the events of the morning. After that day, we could never bring ourselves to go back there.

After hearing the Pentagon had also been hit, things got more serious for us. A niece and nephew, both in the Air Force, were recently assigned to the Pentagon, so we tried to reach out to family members on our cool flip phone (why would anyone ever need more than one cell phone per family?). Lines were jammed everywhere and It took a while to get through but we finally learned they were safe and sound, and not even at the Pentagon thanks to a much-needed day off.

The rest of the afternoon was a blur. I went to the Music Building to teach a few lessons and Liesa went home to work in the garden. It was an incredibly beautiful early fall day. I spent some time talking to students and colleagues and learned that the Hawkeye Marching Band momentarily halted their rehearsal to watch Air Force One fly overhead to bring President Bush back to Washington from Offutt Airforce Base in Nebraska. It was the only plane in the sky that afternoon and it was remarkable how noticeably and strangely quiet the firmaments were.

The day was also unusual because Bela Fleck and The Flecktones were in town for a concert. I had invited their percussionist, my friend Roy “Futureman” Wooten over for a visit to Iowa Percussion before the concert. Futureman and I, along with Kirby Shelsted and late Nashville percussion luminary, Tom Roady, had played a few gigs together as a group called Digi-jam, and I was excited to have him in town. He had gotten us tickets to the show but there was a lot of discussion about whether to cancel or not. It was finally decided the concert would go on as planned. It made me proud that The University of Iowa would not allow terrorism to define us on that day. 

The show opened with Bela reading a short statement prepared by the university followed by a moment of silence. It was real—sincere—heavy silence that was gently broken by Bela playing America the Beautiful. As he continued, each band member entered the stage and joined in on an unforgettable group improvisation on the tune. They ended with a brief pause and a short breath before launching into an energetic performance of Aaron Copland’s Hoedown, that no one there will ever forget. The musicians were inspired and the audience was held spellbound for 90 minutes.

At the end of the show, we went backstage to say hello to Futureman, thank him for the concert, and wish them a safe trip home. It was now late on a Tuesday in Iowa City and the end of a really confusing day, but Roy wanted to go out. He didn’t want to go back to the bus and just be alone with his thoughts, so we decided to hang out a little longer before their bus departed a few hours later. He wanted to know if there was any live music in town. Futureman is always interested in hearing and supporting other artists. 

What could possibly be happening on a Tuesday in our sleepy little town—especially today? But there was something: a duo called Mates of State was playing at a low dive known as Gabes. I had only been there a couple of other times and I felt like the average age doubled whenever I walked in, but we decided to go. 

We each paid our five-dollar cover and headed upstairs to the music room. The place looked deserted as we joined a handful of others to hear their last brief set before they called it a night. The small audience then shuffled out, but Roy waited and made a point of meeting them. He asked about their music and their work and was genuinely interested in learning about them. He thanked them for their music, bought a CD, and we headed back to the band bus. 

I’m not sure they were really aware of who he was or that he was a multi-GRAMMY award winning musician who was genuinely interested in meeting them. We were just three nice (if somewhat eccentric looking) people who came out to their gig, paid fifteen bucks for 20-minutes of music, and bought a CD. At least they might’ve gotten enough from us to pay for breakfast.

9/11 was a powerful day—one I hope we never forget or have to repeat. It changed our country but it also showed me that the USA won’t be bullied and we won’t be terrorized. A few months later Liesa and I made our first visit to China. It was also our first air travel after 9/11. We were not without second thoughts as we boarded the plane but we were determined not to be made fearful to travel.

September the 11th, 2001 was over by the time we said goodbye to the guys in the band and headed home. It had been a long and emotional day that was made a little better by music, friendship, family, and simple human kindness. 

Things we could use a lot more of these days.

Listening:

Paradisum from Trinity Requiem by Robert Moran

If you want to know more about Trinity Requiem:

Bela Fleck and the Flecktones performing Hoedown

Dan Moore, Tom Roady, and Futureman live jam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dan Moore, Class of 1981

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

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

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