Humble Pie…

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…

Published in: on October 31, 2011 at 1:10 am  Comments (6)  

Deserted Cities of the Heart…

On a short (er) note;

This is the title of a favorite old “Cream” song, produced by Felix Papallardi. Felix was a phenomenal producer; he really knew how to infuse a recording with a sense of atmosphere. He was also the bassist in Mountain, using an old Gibson EB-1 bass when most of the world used Fender. Gibson was always a bit late to the party, and especially so where electric bass was concerned. At any rate, poor Felix was accidently… shot to death by his wife Gail in 1983.

 Hmm…not that short of a note after all. Sorry. How thoroughly pompous, to start writing a piece without mentioning what it’s actually about; and how delusional, to presume that readers will see how it ties in later on.

And now, on to the actual topic. Relax, this is only semi- delusional.

There are certain specific places, my ” deserted cities”, that I visit in dreams.
I attempted to describe one such place in a previous post, and even though the description was lacking, I still felt much better for the attempt. This is important stuff, and it is has apparently become imperative that I get this across to someone somewhere somehow. I haven’t a clue as to why. ( See? Only semi-delusional. If I were completely delusional, I couldn’t have written that at all.)

I was very pleased to re-visit this particular spot; it was only for the second time, and was very gratified to be back. It had been several years since.
An actual description of it might make more sense with a few details provided beforehand, so please allow me to back-fill a little back-story.

On a few different occasions over the years, I attended the local community college ( CCRI ); and partook of most of the music department’s offerings. The music department there is small and of course underfunded, and yet they manage great things at the hands of some truly inspired teaching.
One of my courses was Chamber Ensemble; we had piano, three violins, three guitars, two cellos, three flutes, and a trumpet. The instructor ( Cherie Markward ) managed to find suitable music for everyone, and a few pieces that utilized all of us.
One particular day ( when the guitars didn’t have anything to do), she asked me if I could play bass. Of course I answered in the affirmative. She then instructed me to venture into the instrument storage area and get one out.
Being the pompous delusional fool that I was, I got the keys, opened the door, flipped on the lights, and located the back closet where they were kept. I opened the door supposing an old Fender Precision or Jazz bass would greet me, with an old Bassman amp to supplement.
No, no, no.
There were two full-scale standup basses in there.
I was shocked, aghast; this had not occurred to me. Pompous fools always expect electric basses at such times. Why wouldn’t a chamber orchestra have an electric bass, said fool thought to himself. Could it be because all the other instruments were acoustic, and it had been thus for hundreds of years with chamber music?
I had never seen one of these things in close proximity before. I could only play electric bass, and therefore I should have been gaping at an electric bass just then; such is the tragic chain of logic of the pompously delusional.
And after the gasping, and the panicked short breathing, and the cold fear racing through my intestinal tract; I got one out. I figured; it has four strings, and they’re sideways, and there aren’t any frets, but so what? I can handle this. A bass is a bass.
Poor delusional ass. An ass is an ass.

Minutes later, Ms. Markward raised her conductor’s baton, and we began to play. Four bars in, and she stopped. And stared. At me. She lowered the baton.
Were there pizzicato marks on my score, she asked, or was I just in a ” jazz frame of mind”? I craftily decided not to answer, not having the vaguest notion of what pizzicato was, or what a pizzicato mark was, or what one actually looked like. Or what it would have meant anyway.
She craftily asked me to go back into storage and get a bow. Because there weren’t any pizzicato marks in this piece. Now, please…
A what?? A Bow???

A few minutes later…she stops again, to ask me if I could play just a little louder. Because I couldn’t produce anything at all. Absolute silence.

 I declared confidently that something was wrong or must be broken, because I was sawing away as hard as I could…

I then learned about bow rosin, at the assist of an adorable eighteen-year-old violinist, who led a hearty round of laughter at my expense.

And once again…eight bars in, Ms. Markward stops…and stares. Again.
What’s left, I thought to myself… really…

Is my score in E-flat? she asks. Yes, I reply…
Do I have issues with E-flat? Because the John Cage bass line is not working for Haydn.
Honestly, I said,… E-flat is tough for guitar players. ( Truth be told, we’d rather open up a vein and bleed out than play in E-flat.)
But it’s a walk in the park for string players…and you said you could play bass…
She asked me to check my tuning…which I did…
And discovered ( again with the smirky violinist’s help ) that string instruments( violin/viola/cello/bass ) are all tuned in fifths, not fourths…like an electric bass…
So, for me, the notes were all in the wrong places.
The class thankfully ended right about then, and I and my intestinal tract barely got out of the room alive.
A very tough day at the community college.

Over the next few weeks, I persisted, and could finally play a few simple parts. My bow technique was atrocious; apparently, they’re all supposed to move forward and back at the same rate. And, I had to make little chalk marks on the fingerboard where the frets should have been… The cool rock-and-roll guy was getting mangled daily by sarcastic children and a woman with a pointy stick. But I didn’t run.
And then…at the Christmas break…
Ms. Pointystick asked me if I would want to take the bass home over the break. Get some practice time in. Couldn’t hurt.
I was very surprised that she would allow that, and gratefully agreed.
I practiced a lot, and by the end of the two weeks…
I discovered that the double bass was the coolest instrument ever. Even though I was terrible, I still came to realize that the sound of a bowed upright bass was just the most sonorous, strident, and purely musical instrument of all.

I went back after the break, worked even harder, played the recitals, played the end-of-semester concerts, and aced the course. I played in a really neat Vivaldi trio reworked for three guitars, played my bass parts, and even got to play tympani a little. A great experience overall, and I took several more courses there. All wonderful; and there are certainly a few more entertaining stories buried in that bone lot. The tympani thing was fun all of itself; the monkey-with-a-screwdriver syndrome at its absolute worst. Seems that you can’t just pound away at will; they expect you to exhibit a sense of decorum.

And that’s all the backwash we need. On to the dream.

Not too much of anything happens in this dream. It’s where it takes place that holds significance.
The setting is a gigantic cathedral. Not so much of the old medieval stone variety, but more of a Westminster Abbey kind of place. It’s circular in shape, with acres of wooden partition seating arranged around a central open area, with a large ornate stairway that leads up to an enclosed platform with a dais. The outer walls are very high and very dark; the windows comprise the roof, which are of stained glass in a circular pattern. There are no doors, but the outer walls have heavy black drapery where the doors might otherwise be. Everything slants downward towards the central open area.
In the dream, I find myself walking down an aisle towards the lower central part; I stop about halfway down, and realize that there are many people in the seats all around. The partitions are all actually closed off from each other, each with just a  small door that opens onto the aisle. There are students in the partitions, each with an instrument, a music stand, and a small bright light to illuminate the stand. They are all practicing to prepare for some very important event. They are working very intently. Some of them get up and leave the cathedral through the black draperies, and as many others enter the same way. Bright sunlight shines through when the drapes are opened.
Not far from where I stop to look around and observe, I see a partition with a bass in it. I’m not sure if it’s mine or not. I walk towards it slowly, and stand just outside the partition door. A girl with a violin in the next partition says hello, and reaches over to open the door for me. I want to play the bass, to sit in the partition and quietly work in preparation, as all the others are. But I cannot.
The overwhelming feeling in this dream is that I do not belong. Everything about this environment reflects order, quiet, a silent joyous knowledge of belonging, and of sharing an appreciation of the entire environment. I cannot partake; my life has been too tumultuous, too painful and erratic; I am not qualified, or ready.
I can visit as long as I want, I can play the bass for a while. I notice that they are working on a Bach piece; even the sheet music moves in long, graceful flowing lines. Pastoral; civilized.
But ultimately, I have to leave. I walk upwards to the outer wall, and open one of the black draperies and step outside into the blazing sunlight.

There are trees of varying heights all around; and from each branch, there are three pieces of rope, attached to a triangular cloth seat. There is a student in each seat, lying backwards as if in freefall. This is what they are coming outside for, and going back in again when they are rested.
I stand there amazed at the sight of such a large structure surrounded by sleeping musicians in freefall; and while I stand there, I quietly dissipate in the sunlight.

I first dreamed this many years ago; but went back just the other night. I played the bass again, and played a little better than the first time.  I didn’t remember leaving, but I seemed to sense that I’ll be allowed another visit…maybe when I’m a bit less pompous and delusional.

Or know what the hell pizzicato marks are for…

Published in: on October 23, 2011 at 3:25 am  Leave a Comment  
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E before I…

E before I…except after… Pie? I before E, except after … My?

I used to know, really, and it didn’t even have to rhyme. But no longer.

Seems that one of the first things to slip out the back door without much fanfare is spelling. I used to be on a quite firm footing here, and didn’t have to look up correct spelling very often. Never, actually. Things just looked right or not.

But now…an ever- lenghthening list of things I’m just not sure of anymore. At worst, I would find myself taking an occasional 80/20 shot at a word, and just use the instinct; did it look right? Good, then go with it.

And now… I’ll have to sit and stare at recieve/receive, or…occasion/occassion…or embarass/ embarrass/ embarras ( I’m going to go with Door #2, Alex, but it’s down to about a 25/75 probability…)

This is quite annoying. I recall the Desiderata counseling that I should gracefully surrender the things of youth, but I really thought they would be talking about things ( at least initially)  that you wouldn’t mind giving up anyway, like drinking a bottle of Southern Comfort and waking up on some guy’s lawn at dawn, in a rainstorm, face-down in wet leaves. ( Yes, it did. No, I’m not. I might have been at the time.)

But spelling?? Come on, I kind of need that. Can’t we start with something a bit more colorful, say? I’ve already sworn off trying to make my own hot sauce ( because of the Incident)…

A quick description, then, and this stands as an excellent example of something that age and experience teaches one to avoid at any cost. Here’s the recipe:

Roger’s Five-Minute Homemade Habanero Sauce:

First, grow gorgeous ( I think that’s spelled right…) backyard tomatoes; the first homegrown attempt at habanero peppers ( they were so adorable, just little orange puffy things) and onion ( Vidalia, if possible ). Before starting, drink a lot of your favorite beverage, so that you”ll really, really have to go to the rest room quickly. ( An enlarged prostate gland is helpful here…one more thing I’d rather not surrender gracefully, thank you…)

Now, for this part, you’ll need a timer; set it to five minutes, and …begin.

Get all your diced ingredients into a large serving bowl, and while dicing the habaneros make sure not to wear any protective gloves or anything like that. They’re orange, for God’s sake, aren’t they just the cutest things? Then, mix tomatoes, peppers and onions thoroughly, and test immediately with your favorite brand of corn chips.

We should be a few minutes in now…plenty of time yet…

Notice that it’s not very hot at all. Very mild, really. Add more peppers.

Two minutes to go.

Things I Didn’t Know At The Time;

The substance in peppers that makes them hot is called capsaicin;

Habaneros have a capsaicin level that is 100 times higher than a jalapeno or a cayenne pepper. High- capsaicin level peppers are…orange…not red, as most people would think.

Now the fun part.

You have sampled heavily, shared some with your spouse; and are now dicing more habaneros to add. You’re secretly a bit disappointed, because you had heard that these peppers were very spicy. That’s why you grew some, after all. And while considering even adding a few jalapenos to remedy this rather pedestrian sauce…

Your face explodes.

Aparently, it takes high levels of capsaicin a few minutes to engage fully.

Your sinuses have decided to abandon all hope, and are trying to crawl out your nose. There is absolutely no passage of air, because your throat is completely constricted and your lungs are not functioning. There is a searing fiery pain spreading through your bronchial tubes. You cannot see. Liquids of several forms are streaming from your eyes and nose. Your fingers hurt; capsaicin sinks right through the skin.

You start rubbing your eyes frantically. At first, your spouse is laughing…but then, not so much. Share and share alike…

The pain is excruciating. The panic is mounting. You really can’t breathe. You can’t gather enough breath to shout “911.”  And then…the pressure is too great. You must race immediately to the rest room; because there are still a few body parts that have not yet been contaminated…

Now they are. Notice that when you scream in a bathroom, the acoustics are actually very good.

You plunge your hands into cold water and wash everything frantically. You splash water in your eyes. You gulp down cold water.

The pain actually intensifies. ( One more thing that I didn’t know about capsaicin.)

Blinded, suffocating and panic-stricken, you realize  that the high-pitched shreiking/ shrieking you hear must be coming from you somehow. Your genitals are trying to recede into your intestinal tract. Your intestinal tract wants nothing to do with this whole thing, and is barring entry. Your eyes have turned into gelatinous muck.

And once again, you find yourself on the lawn, face down in wet leaves, pleading for a merciful death. But no…you will survive, and live to write a blog post to warn the others.

And…stop.  Time’s up.

Five minutes, start to finish. You did not die, although if there were a gloriously bright tunnel of light like there’s supposed to be, you would have run straight into it, screaming for help.


They’re in your local produce section…lurking. Right there, in plain sight. They mix them right in with the others, the big friendly green and red peppers. They’ll sit right beside the jalapenos and cayennes, the ones that people are wary of. They’re small, and orange, and very unassuming. They may not kill you, but they will do their level best to change the course of your life. Not bad for $2.99 a pound.

Hey…maybe it’s the capsaicin that ‘s affecting my capacity to spell. Or do I mean effecting…