Monday, September 1, 2008

back to the beginning

So let's see, where were we. I had had a brief encounter with the flute the Summer of 1972 and resumed trying to get my academic life together. Things were going well with the doctorate and I was making enough money to take a real vacation. I was involved with a 'melt in your mouth' young lady who was to be one of my all time favorite lovers. She was quite a bit younger than me (a pattern that has resulted in my being alone in my 60's as one young women after another moved on with their lives). Faith was like chocolate to me, I feel in love with her the first time I saw her, just back from Greece, nut-brown with a bead on a thong around her neck. I snatched her right up and that Spring we decided to go to the Greek islands. I was just turning 33, skinny, with a pony-tail and flower-patches on my washed-out corduroys. We spent the night on a roof in Athens and headed to the port to get a boat to the Islands. On Crete we met a young guy from Prince Edward's Island, just returned from India with a dulcimer over his shoulder. He was 'mellow' personified and the three of us ended up traveling together. I was crazy with jealousy, musical, not sexual. He would play the dulcimer and I would itch to play with him. I tried whistling but that was too hooky. And then in some town there was a guy selling wooden flutes. I bought a six hole bamboo flute with some painted trim, that had no cracks, a sweet little sound and an interesting scale.  John and I  started playing together. The trip went from great to fabulous; I was playing again. 

We had been staying away from tourist islands, but the desire to score some hash led us to Mykonos where the best drugs were. We arrived the day before the new moon and went to Super Paradise, the hippie beach. New moon on Mykonos brings out the acid and soon I found myself, by myself, tripped out sitting on a rock over-looking the Aegean Sea and playing my one drachma bamboo flute. And then it happened (I was tripping after all). It hit me that I could be the musician I always wanted to be. Something, that whatever my success as a trombone player, I never really believed could happen. And I had a touchstone for what that was that came in a blaze of light into my consciousness.

I was raised in public housing in Brooklyn (the picture is me, probably in the 4th grade). My father was in the army during WWII (my older brother Cy was in the navy), so in 1944 my family moved from Red Hook projects to Fort Green, a new project with preference for service men and their families. After the war the project started going downhill fast and as a little boy with an over-protective Jewish mother and an atypical absent Jewish father I had to deal with an increasingly frightening environment. By the time I was in third grade my school PS 67, had fallen to the point where the brighter kids were sent off to another school that had an IQ-based program, IGC, intelligently gifted children. That was great in some ways. My teacher's husband was the music director of the Brooklyn Museum so there were lots of trips to the museum and interesting music related projects (I remember measuring wood to make the bars of a marimba). But it also meant that I had to walk through Fort Green Park by myself to get to Myrtle Avenue where I would turn left and have walking races with unknowing adults as I power-walked the remaining 6 blocks to the school. It is interesting, by that time my mother was increasingly worried about my safety and she was always warning me about going to Fort Green Park, but it never dawned on her that walking through the park to get to school was an equal threat to playing in the park with the big guys who might beat me up. Since I was going to school (safe) not playing (dangerous) I was on my own. 

But I was scared shitless, everyday, both ways, to school and back home. So I came up with a protective ritual. I had painstakingly learned to whistle when I was about 5. I remember it clearly. I believe it was my sister June who gave me the basics (she taught me to read in self-defense, when I was about 4 because I was always pestering her to read to me). I practiced constantly until I could get a sound and became a really great little kid whistler. Whistling got me through Fort Green Park. It was the first sign of the obsessive/compulsive response that ended up being the key to my experience as a musician (as well as my response to religion. I pray three times a day). I set myself a task. I had to whistle a 'real' song and then a made-up song (and repeat) for the entire time it took me to walk through the park. And as long as I was whistling, I was safe. That's what came flooding back to me on the rock on Mykonos, playing a bamboo flute, tripped out on some really clean LSD.

I could be the kid that I had been. I could play music with that purity and intentionality. Music would keep me safe in the scary adventure of coming to grips with being a divorced father with two babies who I loved more than life and an ex-wife who I had to come to terms with since we had joint custody (I lived ten blocks from my kids and never reneged on my promise to them that whatever the issues between me and their mother, the three of us were a team). When I came back from Greece I asked Joyce, my ex-wife, if I could borrow her flute. She said that she had given it to my daughter Rebecca, who sweet kid that she was, gave it to me. It was a student model Armstrong in a maroon plastic case. I took the flute back to my apartment, smoked a joint and made a promise to myself. I was always unhappy with my trombone playing, always critical, always comparing myself to, especially, Barry Rogers, the great trombone player who I played with on Eddie Palmieri's band. So I made a promise to myself. I would love every sound that came out of the flute! No matter what came out when I played it for the first time I would listen and find the beauty in what I had played. I opened the case put the flute together, blew into it, got some airy sounding note and held it until I heard it for the beautiful thing it could be. I fell in love right then and right there and no matter how much I have reverted to the self-critical stance necessary to progress as a musician I started the process that I have struggled to continue ever since, finding the beauty in what I am able to play.

The flute was no summer romance. It was a marriage for life. I played for hours everyday. I made up the fingerings as I found them. For the first few years I played all three octaves by over-blowing using the first octave fingerings. I didn't want to know the fingerings, I didn't want to know the notes I was playing. I had a universe of sound, of air, of fingers to explore. I played the first thing when I woke up. I played all winter, everyday, every single day without exception. When the weather warmed I played in the park while I was with my kids. I would move far enough away from the other people to discourage interference, but I loved the sense of audience. People were hearing me play! I loved playing outdoors. I played in the grape arbor behind the Band Shell in Central Park after I finished teaching at Hunter College. I played on beaches, I played on my roof. I played under the George Washington Bridge at night, when it was too late to play in my apartment. But mainly I played in Fort Tryon Park overlooking the Hudson, close enough to the playground so my kids could get me if they needed me, but far enough from the playground so that I could smoke a joint and play for hours on end, everyday, no matter what, indoors or outside. Within two years there were three other flute players playing in Fort Tryon Park. It was my first musical community. I met a few decent guitarists in the park and made my first recording in my house with one of them. I still have the 4 track reels in a box. Someday I ought to dig them out and see what they sounded like. That recording gave me a taste of what was to come and it wasn't all positive. 

I moved up from my student model Armstrong to a open-whole Armstrong and starting taking lessons with a great flute doubler Harvey Estrin. He taught me the right fingerings, gave me a basic practicing routine and my playing really started to improve. I decided to record my flute playing. It was winter of 1975 when I hired a guy with a four track machine to come to my house and record me. I recorded quite a bit of solo flute, some played into my 100 year old upright piano with the pedal depressed to get sympathetic vibrations and I played free against an acoustic guitar player playing 70's rock and folk patterns. There was about three hours of music, so I went to a studio to edit it down. I brought along an ex-student, Menachum, who was to become a life-long friend. He was a great lover of music and he sat in the studio through the hours that it took to edit the tape down. As we left with me carrying the tapes and a box of cassette dubs of the music, he said to me, 'You know the music gets really boring.' I didn't say anything, just freaked. It literally took all of my will-power not to throw the tapes into the nearest garbage can. That night I had one of the few real thoughts of suicide I ever have had in my entire life. I fantasized putting on my army surplus coat with the fur hood and walking that cold winter night to the GW Bridge and taking a header. The next morning I took out the flute and played just as I did everyday since I started. 

I took my life into my hands and brought a tape dub to my next lesson. Harvey listened to it and said, 'I'm not sure what word to use, but it is lacking in something, perhaps aesthetics.' I said, 'maybe I should stop playing flute.' He said, 'that might be a good idea.' I went home and took out my flute and played, that day and every day, just as I did ever since I started that summer of 1973

That tape ended up moving me to the next level as a musician. That story is for another time.


yesheford said...

Great story,really wonderful to read,
I have just started to play the flute
in the last 6 month, had brief guitar
lessons as a child and it's inspiring
to read your blog. I would love to
be able to play Bach well on the flute but then I would love to learn
to improvise. Any suggestions on books or approaches I should use?
I am not sure I want to use jazz
language as a way to improvise, perhaps blues or eastern penatatonic -Shakuhachi based or maybe raga based approach... any ideas? thanks - Robert

mark weinstein, jazz flutist said...

Yesheford, thanks for your comment. If you are familiar with the kinds of music you mention, why not just start playing by ear, finding things on the flute. I don't suggest playing with records you love, because it is too intimidating, but just putting on the radio and playing along with whatever pop song comes up is a great way to develop ear-hand responses.

If you want to be in touch contact my through the email on my web page: