There can never be enough of a good thing.
And with that said, here is yet another intriguing tale from my community college career. There is no dream sequence attached to this; this is just a damned fun story. So sit right back, and you’ll hear a tale…
Two other courses that I took at CCRI back then were ” Jazz History” and ” Fundamentals of Rythym”; both taught by Prof. Lloyd Kaplan. He had also just published a book titled ” Who’s Who in Rhode Island Jazz”.
Professor Kaplan ( now retired ) was the penultimate gentleman. He was meticulously polite, very old-school; he wore a bow tie and/or suspenders with a sharply starched shirt every day. He was very soft-spoken in a Garrison Keillor sort of style with a similarly droll sense of humor. He was a local mainstay during the jazz years and played clarinet and sax.
His courses were listed as 3-credit electives, and consequently drew many students who were looking for easy courses to float through (once the finger-painting electives were all filled). Lots of sports kids, basketball players especially. Timberlands as far as the eye could see.
He would begin his courses by asking that people please keep to the same seat each day, so that he could assimilate their names. He referred to all as “Mr” or” Ms”, last names only; but in a very relaxed and familiar way. He would then joke a bit about his “easy 3-credit finger-painting courses”, and then politely warn those people to vacate while there was still time. No harm done. But if you chose to stay…
The music kids would mostly be clustered in the front rows, with the sports kids sleeping in the back. It has ever been thus.
Once we were under way, it didn’t take long for the finger-painters to try anything and everything to escape. Their dogs regularly ate their homework; they had been yet again abducted by aliens and left along Rt. 80w in Nebraska; or, there was a big important game that took precedence.
None of it worked. He just expected everyone to keep a good attitude and work. If so, then he would certainly pass you just for the honest attempt. If not…
He taught the Jazz History course from memory. There was no textbook. If you took good notes, you had a chance. If you didn’t, you sank like a stone.
The ” fundamentals” course was extrememly challenging. Based on the concept that musical rythyms can be divorced from the other aspects of music ( key signatures, melodies, scale use ), he wrote the book for the course. It was made up of hundreds of examples of rythym only( no key signatures, no particular instrument). The first example was: quarter notes in 4/4 time. You could use any verbal syllable that you were comfortable with ( da da, la la, do do, whatever ), but you had to verbalize the example; sing the rythym, as it were.
So, Ex.1 might sound like ” da da da da “( quarter notes in 4/4 time, 1 measure). The text included examples of every conceivable rythym pattern, in every time signature. Hundreds of them.
Mr. Kaplan went over everything in great detail, but ultimately could only tell if you were getting any of it by; calling out an example number, pointing to someone, and having them sing the pattern.
Most found it to be excruciating and embarrassing ( not to mention difficult.) The music -oriented kids caught on pretty quickly, but the others found themselves in a particularly awful purgatory.
It actually worked very well; you didn’t have to be musical at all, and you could learn to conquer the hardest single aspect of reading music.
Testing was done by dictation; he sang a pattern, you wrote it down. But the exams were a complex combination of things, and you could survive only if you had honestly worked at it.
Mr. Kaplan and I became friends somehow along the way. One day during the Jazz history course, he was trying to explain the idea of blues guitar ala Robert Johnson, and asked me if I might take my guitar out for a second and play a slide lick. I had the use of an old Epiphone classical, and played a few bars of ” Dust My Broom” with a Coke bottle. It did not work at all, but he and I were good after that.
He mentioned in passing one Friday that he had a gig that weekend, at the Larchwood Inn in Wakefield.
I asked about it, and he said he worked in a jazz quartet that had been doing that gig for the last three thousand years or so. I poked around a bit and was asking about how jazz guys ” did stuff ” and what would be different from what I usually did.
He invited me to come down and sit in.
I accepted. This is where the “pompous and delusional” part kicks in. I expected to go down there and easily shred the old jazz guys, show them what a modern Schenker-esque rock guy could do to them. Scare the tuxedos off them.
So I took a Strat that I had use of and a small amp, and set out that night to show those old guys what for. I felt like I was in a Clint Eastwood western; I wished someone could play that little flute lick that Clint always gets when he goes through the saloon doors.
The Larchwood Inn was a very quiet, dark and subdued setting, with lots of regular patrons. It was like parachuting into the middle of ” Casablanca”. Mr. Kaplan was kind of surprised that I actually came, and set me up sitting right alongside of him. Besides his clarinet and sax, there was a piano guy, a standup bass, and a drummer ( with just a snare, hi-hat, and one cymbal; playing with brushes only) Everyone in a tuxedo.
I sat and listened for a set, absorbing the vibes.
I of course listened for ways to fit in and integrate, but still thought that I was going to have to hurt these people. I didn’t know much of what they were playing, but knew that I could rely on my uncanny ability to improvise, to ” comp” as the old jazz guys would say. No worries. And, I had an inside edge with the sax player.
I sat in on the second set. Sitting by Mr. Kaplan, I noticed that he kept a small bright lamp by his chair that had a rolodex file by it; chord charts on file cards, I thought. What a good idea. Instant access. Sad, though, that he doesn’t just remember stuff anymore…
I played softly through a few numbers, just touching on a chord here and there, being cool, plotting my attack…
They played some pretty complicated stuff, and did it all very, very adeptly; chord progressions that changed so smoothly that you could hardly even notice them.I had to admit that the old guys were really good at this, and I was suddenly having some trouble keeping up. I finally leaned over to Mr. Kaplan and asked what the chord progression was.
His answer triggered in me one of the many ” OMG” moments that sometimes happens in my musical education, where the clouds may as well open up and hit me in the forehead with a sunbeam. Or more to the point, a band of angels pointing down and laughing.
He said; ” I don’t know. I’m a reed player, I don’t care about chords. You want chords, ask the piano player.”
While he spoke, I was squinting past him at the rolodex file that was there beside him.
No chords there. Little snippets of melodies written out.
I was not dead yet, but there was a distinct possibility. I was entirely on my own. These guys were good, and I was an alien on their planet.
I panicked, but just a little. Think, think…
I recovered by locking onto the piano guy. He played very expressively and flowery with his right hand, and the left kept touching on little chord bits here and there. I zoned completely on what his left was doing.
That helped a bit; I was not totally lost, but the music was complex and hard to track. And this had somehow become very hard work. I suddenly realized that I might not be shredding the old guys after all.
And then… Mr. Kaplan leaned over and said…” why don’t you take the next solo”…
I started off ok. I kept close to the progression that I had caught from the piano; the bike was a little shaky, but still upright and moving forward.
And suddenly; the old guys all took a very slick and sophisticated left turn, to a place that I could not hear any little bit of. No one of them even blinked or looked up; they were just suddenly somewhere else. And it was in a galaxy far, far away.
And I, Wile E. Coyote, with a stick of Acme dynamite taped to my head, went straight off the cliff on the bicycle, stopped and looked wistfully into the camera, and plunged to my musical death. I had absolutely nothing.
The chord progression came back around again to where it had been, but it did not matter. I was dead by then. They all knew it. The bartender, the band, all the ancient Larchwood Inn patrons. They all looked away, not wishing to stare at the horrific accident that had just smeared the nicely appointed carpet before them. I appreciated their sense of civility.
But being pompous and delusional, I had to try again. And again.
And finally begged off in the middle of the set for a rest. That was ok with them.
And then begged off for the rest of the night. I could not hang with these guys, and I’m sure that they were glad of my absence.
I had not just been outplayed a little by the old jazz guys; I had been completely and totally destroyed. In their tuxedos, and bowties. Ripped to bits.
It was a long drive home.
On Monday, back in class, we joked about it a bit. He was very gracious, and even asked me back, saying it was certainly not that bad; he had seen worse.
There was no way in hell that I would ever go near those guys again.
Later on, I chose to write about it in my term paper for the Jazz History class, and he enjoyed that so much that he gave me an A+ for the course; said that he never saw anyone learn to appreciate jazz so fast…