My Tortuous Journey to Jazz
I was sitting in the back seat of my aunt Tessie’s car. The year was 1951 or 1952, which means I was four or maybe five years old. My mother was sitting opposite the glove box (then known as the glove compartment), and on the radio was some lively music which I would eventually come to know as Dixieland. I really liked what I was hearing, and at one point I said to my mother, “I like fast music!” She ignored my remark.
For the next couple of years I didn’t pay much attention to music, but then, when I was seven, I discovered rock ‘n’ roll. Like many boys in that era, I would take every opportunity to impersonate Elvis Presley. I had access to my grandmother’s acoustic guitar, and the fact that I had no idea how to play it didn’t stop me from strumming along tunelessly in time with my singing. I might have been on track to becoming a rock star wannabe, but then something did its part in ultimately steering me toward jazz.
In the 1950s there was a TV show called Omnibus, hosted by Alistair Cooke. It was an outlier as TV shows go, since it dealt primarily with the humanities and the arts. On a Sunday afternoon when I was probably nine or 10, my father and my brother and I were sitting in the living room, about to watch Omnibus. We didn’t know what that week’s program would deal with, and I certainly had no idea that what I was about to see would turn out to be a seminal moment in my musical development.
Featured on the program that day was the classic Miles Davis Quintet of the era: Miles, John Coltrane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers, and Philly Joe Jones. I didn’t know what to expect, other than that it wasn’t going to be rock ‘n’ roll or classical music. And then they started to play, and suddenly I was transfixed. I’d never heard anything like this music before. It seemed to wrap itself around me even as it drew me in, and though I was only a child I knew on some level that I was relating to this music in a special, indefinable way. At one point I said to my father, “I’m gonna do that when I grow up.” He ignored my remark.
And then I completely forgot about it. (Or, let’s say, it was rendered dormant.) For the next few years it was rock ‘n’ roll and only rock ‘n’ roll, but as I entered my teens I began to develop a curiosity about
jazz, or at least something approaching it.
I grew up in Teaneck, New Jersey, a near suburb of Manhattan. Not far from Teaneck was an outdoor bazaar called Frankie’s Market, and one night I found myself there. As my parents shopped around for bargains, I gravitated toward a table of what seemed to be used LPs. I chose two of them—Basie Rides Again and Altotude, featuring alto saxophonist Earl Bostic. I wasn’t sure my father would buy them for me, but maybe I was underestimating his generosity.
Over the next weeks and months I listened repeatedly to those two albums. But I was also developing an interest in what my mother called “longhair music.” Pieces like Rhapsody in Blue, An American Paris, and 1812 Overture were tearing me away from Count Basie and Earl Bostic. But only in spurts. The fact is, I was torn between jazz and classical music—a dichotomy which would become even more pronounced a few years later.
And then I was sitting on a plane, flying out to Ohio for my brother’s college graduation. One night, probably the first night my parents and I were there, my brother took me to a bar that served what was called near-beer, which was low in alcoholic content. As my brother hung out with his friends, I was drawn to the juke box. I was surprised to see that along with the usual rock ‘n’ roll and pop stuff juke boxes offered, there was something by Miles Davis. Suddenly my memory of that Omnibus performance came back to me, and I ravenously took a quarter out of my pocket and selected one of the two available pieces by Miles. And once again I was transported. I’m pretty sure the first tune I listened to that night
was “My Funny Valentine,” but it was definitely a ballad. While all these college kids were yukking it up and drinking near-bear, I was standing in front of the juke box as if staring into it would take me even further into the music than I already was.
Unlike my first encounter with Miles a few years earlier, this time it stuck. When we got back home I told my father that in addition to my regular piano lessons I wanted to take jazz lessons. It took some repeated asking, but eventually he said yes.
And so a few weeks later, and with a new school year not far off, I had my first lesson with a jazz pianist named Vince Benedetti, who, sometime later, would expatriate to Europe and forge a pretty successful career.
I ended up taking less than a dozen lessons with Vince (he disappeared one day, perhaps to Europe), but he taught me some important stuff, like centering my left-hand chords around middle C whenever possible. Plus he suggested pianists I should listen to, with Bill Evans and Monk topping the list.
I was in ninth grade now, and I was hooked on jazz. Every night after dinner I would hole up in the little room that housed my spinet piano and play whatever came to mind until my mother knocked on the door and said it was time for me to go to bed. Homework? That took a back seat to the piano, which almost resulted in my having to repeat ninth grade.
And then I entered 10th grade, which, in those days, meant the first year of high school. It turned out that several of my classmates and fellow band and orchestra members (I played alto sax in the band and
clarinet in the orchestra) were also hooked on jazz. We would hang out at the house of one or another of us and listen to Miles, Trane, whatever we could get our hands on. And, to a person, we marveled at
what we were hearing—certain there was no way any of us could reach a point where we were playing at a level anywhere close to what we were hearing.
To re-personalize this, I never dreamed that I would be able to play well enough to have even a marginal career as a jazz musician. Besides, by the time I’d reached 12th grade I’d become an excellent clarinetist to the point where I finally had an ambition in life, which was to be first-chair clarinetist with the San Francisco Symphony. (We have big dreams when we’re in high school.)
But my dreams were dashed in the time it takes for a crystal mouthpiece to break in half. This was during the dress rehearsal of Damn Yankees, and it meant I had to spend the next month playing on a series of stock mouthpieces that were there for the taking in the band room. By the time I got a new crystal mouthpiece my sound on clarinet had been destroyed. For the next couple of months I did the best I could on clarinet, but once high school was a thing of the past I gave up the instrument for good.
So as I entered college I had no specific musical goal, despite being a music major. I had a sense, though, that there was something unique about my piano playing—something that could be developed to the point where I could in fact have that marginal career as a jazz pianist. I even began intimating to my family that I might want to pursue a career in jazz.
And this is where my father takes center stage. He was okay with the idea of my becoming a classical clarinetist, but once that was no longer an option and I began thinking openly about a possible career in jazz he began the onslaught. You know the one I mean. You want to be a jazz musician!? Jazz musicians don’t make any money! And you could end up addicted to heroin! You need to get a real job! And so on.
Sad to say, my father’s brainwashing campaign was extremely effective. The fact is, though I played gigs all through college, when I graduated I moved to Edgewater, New Jersey—another near suburb of Manhattan—and got a job writing junk mail with a small publishing company. And though I was playing (mostly weekend) gigs, the idea of giving up my nine-to-five was nowhere near the table, let alone on it.
Except something was brewing in the deep recesses of my mind. I was married, I had a decent job, I was on a career track that, though modest, was respectable—but I was miserable. And angry. Of course, I didn’t know why I was miserable and angry. Another thing I didn’t know was that I would go through some major changes over the next few years, and those changes—painful at times, exhilarating at times—would lead me back to jazz, and ultimately to a permanent commitment to it.
The first change came when I was 26. And, strangely, it had to do with Bobby Darin. My wife and I were watching the Ed Sullivan Show, and Darin came on stage and began singing “Mack the Knife.” Normally I wouldn’t have paid much attention to this, but that night—for whatever reason—I honed in on the sound of the ride cymbal. And that sound took me back to the same feeling I had the first two times I heard Miles. I knew at that moment—listening to a pop star, ironically—that jazz was part of me.
But so was my father’s relentless assault, which proved stronger than any newly discovered feelings I might have about jazz. On the other hand, I was sufficiently in touch with my feelings to know that a conventional job was all wrong for me. It had to be in music, though not in jazz. So I started writing pop-rock songs with the hope that I might have “that one hit” which would launch my career as a songwriter.
In those days, you could walk in to any music publishing company in New York—no appointment necessary—and play them a cassette of your best songs. Which I did. But after several summary
rejections and a gradually acquired sense of the politics involved in the pop music business, I gave up my little dream of having a career as a songwriter. Once again, I had no specific musical goal.
Sometimes, though, things just happen and they change everything. My wife had a friend named Julie, who was the daughter of Jimmy Buffington—a French hornist with the New York Philharmonic who moonlighted as a member of the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Band. This, plus all the studio work he did with the top jazz musicians in town, meant that he was well connected in the New York jazz scene.
On a Sunday afternoon in the summer of 1974, my wife and I were at the Buffingtons’ sprawling estate in Englewood Cliffs—one of the wealthiest communities in the country and the same town in which Rudy Van Gelder had the second of his two legendary recording studios. After maybe a half hour, in walked a tall, sandy-haired, leathery man carrying what was obviously a baritone sax case. It was Gerry Mulligan, who, Julie explained to me and my wife, was a longtime friend of the Buffingtons. That afternoon he was at their house to rehearse a quartet for an upcoming gig at the Village Gate.
One by one the other musicians filtered in. I don’t remember who the bass player and the drummer were, but the pianist was Hank Jones. And once they started the rehearsal it was clear that my wife and the Buffingtons—parents and daughter—were enjoying it. For me, though, it went way beyond enjoyment. It wasn’t just Hank’s impeccable playing that inspired me. And it wasn’t just the musical interplay between the four musicians, nor their expertise. It was the milieu. There they were—four excellent jazz musicians doing what jazz musicians do at rehearsals: going over the changes, perfecting intros and endings, deciding to add certain tunes and delete others . . . And I knew, sitting in that living room that I just happened to have been invited to, that this was what I needed to do. I was a jazz player and I needed to be one. Not just some of the time, not just peripherally. I needed to fully embrace the music and the life of a jazz musician.
So with my wife’s blessing (which was above and beyond, considering that our marriage was disintegrating), I quit my day job with the intention of moving into the city to begin scuffling like the countless other musicians whose goal was to become established in the most competitive jazz market in the world.
But I wasn’t naïve. Just as Dan Quayle was no JFK, I was no Hank Jones. Or Roland Hanna. Or Cedar Walton. There was no question that I had some serious work to do before I could begin to compete in New York. So in January 1975—my wife and I having recently separated—I moved to a small, $95-dollar-a-month apartment in Hoboken (which, at the time, wasn’t the trendy offshoot of Manhattan it was to become). And I practiced five hours a day for every one of the 365 days in that year. Then, in January 1976, I moved across the Hudson into Manhattan. It was both a small step for me and a giant leap. Have I ever regretted that decision? Not for a moment.