Sunday, September 14, 2008

once more, from the top

I had about 25 minutes of music completed when Bob Blank pulled the plug on the free studio time. He figured that with the two prayers and three instrumental tunes I had more than enough to get a recording contract. Bob's plan all along was that I submit it to the record company that wanted the disco single. He was convinced the disco would be a hit and the company would jump at the chance of putting out such a richly innovative recording. Little did we know. The disco flopped and the company had no interest in innovation. I tried unsuccessfully to get other record companies interested in giving me a record date with no luck at all. But I did get airplay on Roger Dawson's Sunday Salsa Show on NPR (something very rare in broadcasting) and eventually did a live show on WBAI with Lenny Lopate. Roger was very supportive, even making a pitch to record companies for me during the broadcast. He eventually used a minute of one of the tunes as his opening theme. But it was no use, nobody was interested in the record. Except musicians. Everyone that I played the music for thought it was worth pursuing, but that didn't give me the money to record the rest of the material, another prayer and another tunes worth of drumming, enough for the 45 minutes required to record an LP. And I had a problem with Bob Blank and money.

I had promised Bob I would pay the cost for the raw tape; 2-inch tape that was used for multi-track recording was quite expensive and he had made me a number of good sounding 1/4 inch tape copies to play on reel-to reel recorders as well as a number of cassette copies. The whole thing was probably no more than a few hundred dollar. But I was totally broke. I had gotten as much money from friends as I could and was heading for bankruptcy. I had aced my comprehensive exams in the CUNY PhD program and had been given a full time teaching job at Hunter College that payed just enough for me to meet my obligations to my family and that gave me enough financial stability so that with the help of friends I could invest in the recording. But I lost the job when NY went bankrupt in 1976 right after I successful defended my dissertation and received the PhD. I had started the recording project the year before and had every expectation of pulling enough money from my paycheck to complete the recording and even, eventually, to pay back my friends if the album didn't sell. But I had been put up for promotion to Assistant Professor by the Philosophy Department contingent upon my receiving the degree. So when I received my PhD, and since promotions were frozen city-wide, I was fired instead of promoted and had to go back to teaching part-time as an adjunct at about 1/3 the salary. So I just couldn't spare the few hundred dollars that I owed Bob and humiliated at my failure to keep my end of the bargain left the 2-inch master with the additional recorded material at Bob's studio. I never saw the 2-inch master again. Given how much a reel of 2-inch cost, I was pretty sure Bob had cut his losses and reused the tape and so a priceless recording of Olympia Alfara (who has since passed away) was lost forever.  But I still had the 25 minutes of music I had recorded on a few decent tape copies and I started playing the music for any musicians that would listen.

Trumpeter Randy Brecker, who by now was quite famous , was running a jazz club called Seventh Avenue South. I had met Randy the summer before he came to New York when I was playing trombone with Herbie Mann at the Newport Jazz Festival. I had helped him connect with a number of bands that I was playing with and he was always grateful to me. He heard the music and offered me a weekend at the club. I put together a band with a great electric bass player, Eddie Guagua, three Cuban drummers, led by Tommy Lopez Sr. who had been the drummer that first refused to play the religious music, but then played on Cuban Roots once Julito said it was permitted to play jazz to the prayers. And Warren Smith playing vibes, marimba and assorted percussion. Warren ended up putting the horn section together for Janis Joplin, after I turned down her offer and quit the business, so he knew me and my music. He and I wheeled set a of vibes with a marimba upside down on it and a big  canvas trolley on wheels filled with gongs and bells down 7th Avenue from his studio in the West 20's to Seventh Avenue South, below Bleeker St (it is nights like that that a musician's dreams are made of). It was a unique concept, folkloric drumming, Warren playing percussive melodies and accenting with all of his percussion effects, a groove bass player and me playing free on top of it all. 

The club was packed with musicians who were curious as to what I was up to and after the second set on Friday a musician I didn't know, Mike Morganstern, came up to me and made me an offer. He was running a prestigious jam session under the aegis if the Jazzmania Society every Tuesday and he asked me if I would be willing to come down and play as a featured soloist. I jumped at the opportunity. I might not have been able to get a recording contract, but I was getting support from my fellow musicians. That had always been how I succeeded as a trombone player and it seemed to be happening again. The next Tuesday I went down to the session. The room was packed and there were about a half dozen sax players waiting to sit in. Mike gave me a big build up, describing the gig he had heard and talked about what a great innovative player I was. The band started to play a tune I didn't recognize and I, as the featured soloist, had to play the first solo. I had never played bebop on flute in my life, I only played free or with guitar players playing folk or rock patterns. And I started to flounder, trying to find the chords under my fingers. After my first chorus the sax player next in line to play nudged me away from the microphone and that was the end of my debut as the next great jazz flutist. I was devastated! But one thing was clear, playing free was not going to cut it; I had to learn to play bebop.

Although I played in the park as much as I could, I had stayed away from Washington Square Park where there always were two or three jazz bands jamming on the weekend. Their were always great sax and trumpet players, amplified guitar and bass and a drummer. It was street music and it was a loud as it could be, each band trying get the attention of the audience and each musician trying to outdo every other musician. Flute players (who played free or folk music, as I did) were not welcome, barely tolerated and almost totally inaudible. I started hanging around sitting on a bench playing along with the band far enough from the noise so that I could hear myself. I started to feel comfortable playing on bebop tunes, and pretty soon a few people would stand around and listen to my version of what the band was playing. I started meeting musicians and got enough respect so that they would let me play with the bands, but the volume was so loud that I never could really play comfortably, since I could barely hear what I was playing except when I would bang out high notes. 

All of the jazz guitarists who played with the bands had electric guitars except for one older guy who, like me, sat on the periphery and played along with the band on an acoustic guitar. I started sitting next to him when I played and soon he and I were sitting by ourselves away from the band playing acoustically on our own. It was a classic encounter, a cliche in musician movies. His name was Slim, African-American, no front teeth and in his 50's. He was recently out of jail after a long stretch and had learned how to play bebop guitar in jail. He had been a blues guitar player and a sax player in jail had taught him to play the chords to bebop tunes. Slim played bebop like a folk musician, simple clear patterns with strong time. Plus he didn't like to play solos. It was perfect for me. Pressed for cash and habituated to pot, I would hook up my friends with musicians who had the best weed, so I always had a taste for Slim and me. I generally had enough money to spring for beers when the guys who sold beer out of shopping bags came around so Slim was always happy to see me. We would play for hours. And I was getting my bebop chops together. One day a young, tall kid sat down in front of us watching Slim intensely. He listened for almost an hour, got up and left without saying a word. One of the other musicians came up to us and said, "Do you who that guy is? He is playing on 6th Avenue and he is a monster." Later I checked him out and he was one of the best guitar players I had ever heard. It was Jean Paul Bourelly who at 19 had just arrived in New York. He was later to play with Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner and with many other great musicians. We became life-long friends and he has recorded 2 albums with me and was responsible for getting together the Berlin date that I discussed in my second blog. Jean Paul started playing a few gigs with me, and playing with him was a revelation. He was such a great player that I came to realize that I had a very long way to go if I wanted to be taken seriously as a jazz musician.

That is when I discovered Jamey Aebersold. Every musician knows what I'm talking about. In the 1970's, Jamey Aebersold, a jazz saxophonist and educator had the brilliant idea of recording serious play-along records for aspiring jazz musicians. Before than there were only 'music minus one' records that let you play the melody and perhaps one chorus with dance-band rhythm sections. Jamey's idea was to record great rhythm sections (piano, bass and drums) playing the jazz repertoire with lots of room for solos, chorus after chorus, so the soloist could really stretch out and learn the changes to the tunes. Jamey Aebersold's recordings have revolutionized jazz playing. They are mandated for students in jazz programs in high schools and colleges (jazz programs are becoming the new economic foundation of the jazz industry. Teaching in a jazz program is how more and more jazz musicians manage to survive and young jazz musicians still buy jazz records). In my opinion Aebersold is directly responsible for the uniform level of competence young university trained jazz musicians invariably display. Playing with those great rhythm sections, learning the repertoire and, most important, soloing as much as you want without worrying about grand-standing for the audience or other musicians lets a developing jazz musician experiment and remediate, try anything or work for perfection. I own dozens of Jamey Aebersold recordings and played with them for hours and hours every day for 20 years.

I was broke but playing better and better. There where few gigs available and I needed to play with other musicians and for people. I was still wandering the parks looking for opportunities to play. I had bought a travel amplifier and a microphone to play with some conga drummers I had met in the park and started carrying it around with me.  One day in Central Park I saw an odd combination of musicians, mandolin, guitar, bass and drums. I caught the eye of the guitar player, hooked up my mike to the amp and started to play with them. The guitarist, Steve Groves and I hit it off. We became a regular street band and I started playing on the street regularly, earning small amounts of badly needed cash and applying what I was learning playing with Jamey Aebersold recordings on the 'bandstand.' The Almardewisegroove Quintet (right to left in the photo, Steve Groves, Bob Demaio, Alex Gressel, Martin Aubert and me) became a fixture during the golden age of street music in New York in the late the late 70's before it was all shut down in the early 80's. By that time I was working as a school consultant so I couldn't do it regularly anyway, but it did lead to some interesting moments. I had just applied for a part-time teaching job at the Ethical Culture (on 64th St.and Central Park West) and was out on the street playing. It was the horn players job to walk around with the drum case when the other players where soloing and get people to give the band some money. I was doing the thing and there in front of me was the Chair of the Ethics Department who had interviewed me a few days before. He put a few coins in the case. I did get the job eventually and ended up writing a curriculum that was published as the Fieldston Ethics Reader, something that I am very proud of.

The few dollars from playing on the street and, once again, teaching as an adjunct was not enough to meet my family obligations. I went through all of the available credit that I had, based on teaching full-time at Hunter College, and went bankrupt. I had to do something with my life. Through a lucky encounter with a former doctoral student from the CUNY program I learned about a program called Philosophy for Children that gave PhD's in philosophy the chance to work with schools helping students to develop thinking skills. Broke and with no job prospects that could support me and my family I went for a two week training session and was given the opportunity to work, at a minimal salary, in schools in New Jersey. That went well and within in a few years I had moved the program into New York and had expanded it to a grant-funded program through CUNY and the New York Board of Education called the Reasoning Skills Project. It was a full time job, traveling throughout the city running programs in 12 out of the 36 school districts in New York. I started to become known as a thinking skills expert and after a number of years got a position as Associate Director of the Institute for Critical Thinking at Montclair State University. That required a refocusing of my energies and flute playing became a hobby rather than a career option. My end-run around the music business had crashed and burned. All I had to show for it was 25 minutes of great music and an unfilled desire to do something with my growing competence as a jazz flutist. 

My life had turned around. I had a job, was publishing and was making presentations at critical thinking conferences all over the world. I had met my second wife, Lesley, at the World Congress of Philosophy in 1988. And I had defeated a 1980's substance-abuse issue with her help and my own determination, fueled by growing terror at what the headlines would look like if my stupid risk-taking behavior had led to exposure. My focus was on succeeding as an academic and I had to leave childish things behind me. I was still playing with Jamey Aebersold records every day, working gigs once and a while and I even made a few demo recordings with Jean-Paul. But I never felt satisfied enough with the results to do anything with them. I settled down into the routine of being a married academic, bought a house in New Jersey and built a successful career: tenure, full professor and head of the department. And of course, I was going nuts. I needed to play.

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