scouts-l Mail Archive for November of 1999: (Long) several potential SM minutes in one
Fri Nov 12 1999 - 15:00:21 CST
I drive down a tollway around Chicago every day. One company on the way is a
paper company that has always, through about three different owners now, put
little slogans up on the sign on their roof. Today's caught my eye for some
reason I cannot state in simple terms:
Every Artist was once an Amateur
Simple, logical. But it set off a bunch of memories. Maybe its just part of
what I do for a living, I don't know. But remove the personal parts of the
stories and you could apply them to a SM Minute -- or a bunch of them....
At the ripe old age of 21 I had several copyrights under my belt and songs
being played around the area for Jazz Bands. I figured I was getting to be an
artist. And when a favorite recording artist died and we couldn't buy one his
arrangements for our band to use, we decided to do our own take off on one of
We barricaded ourselves in a college classroom where the chalkboard was
covered with staves and wrote out the notes for the introduction. That was
the easy part. This artist was famous for his odd meter songs - 5, 7, 11, 19,
even 33 beats in a bar. So we worked out the melody of the introduction and
had it drawn up there trying to figure out the structure and write harmonies.
We left with a "Please do not erase" that night on the board.
A one day job became two, then three, then we called in a professor because
we still couldn't figure it out. Four. Friday. Some teacher has endured an
entire week of a chicken scrawl across his blackboard for his classes and now
we're determined to get out of there.
Two seniors and a Professor, trying everything they can and that they know.
The introduction being played over and over on the stereo so we can guess at
things, try things, draw in measure bars and erase them.
A freshman walked by, was curious what we were doing, came in and sat at one
of the desks, took one look and said "Have you tried 4/4?" Three to one we
argued, "It can't be 4/4, this guy NEVER plays songs in 4/4."
You got it, four beats to a bar, for the first eight bars of the intro, just
to throw us smarties off. The kid who had never arranged a song in his life
Of course, it then moves to 7/4 and the kid was in trouble and we "artists"
had to take over again.
(Side note: Even I did not try the 33 beats to a bar stuff. But if you want
some wild music, it evidently was a jazz version of a Bulgarian folk song
that the locals *dance* to....)
My father taught band for 41 years. You'd think in all that time there would
be someone in those bands and orchestras -- thats three groups, over 100 kids
each, for 41 years -- who would be famous. If there ever was, they never let
One kid came into the program playing piano and organ and was a year ahead of
the rest of the band in days learning clarinet. When he left he hit High
School and finished college and moved back, working two jobs. He would play
piano or organ in bars and weekends he would play keyboards for a group of
youngsters in a 7- or 8- piece band that seemed OK but wasn't making a lot.
He came to my dad when he made the decision to stop the band stuff because he
could make more money playing organ and piano on his own. They talked for a
while about not playing in a band anymore and playing in bars. It came down
to money, he was sure he'd get right playing piano and organ, he was already
doing well; but the band would never get anyplace, there are hundreds of
those things around and few make it.
That band got a different keyboard player. And of course sometime after that
was when they started making money using their original band name. They
adapted it after a few recordings so it'd be shorter.
So far as I know he's still the artist in bars around the Chicago area, not
frequenting many bars in my life. But I do know his friends from the band
always would get him real good seats whenever they come back to town if he's
free. Yup, he can always count on seats front and center when Chicago comes
through on tour.
Sorry, my dad again. Someday I'll go in the box, I have a picture of him
playing Baritone Sax in the military jazz band at a base where Mike Walton
grew up. Only thing'd be funnier would be if it had been during a dance and
Mike had been in it.
When dad died we started through boxes of what seemed like garbage. Some were
old music sheets, but often only one part, no real use. Others were
interesting, but no value.
Then we came on his discharge papers. It listed every musician he ever took a
lesson from during his enforced military "career." Besides the base where
Mike was, dad had also been stationed in several hard duty (everybody start
giggling now) areas apparently, one of which included Hollywood.
I won't go out and dig up the paperwork. Some of the most famous musicians of
the next decade or two were private lesson teachers and amateur musicians
when my dad took lessons with them. And he studied every instrument he could,
the space where they were supposed to list this was single spaced and it
started a line or two above the space provided and ended several lines after
the space (obviously the typist was also on an enforced "career" and eager to
get everyone processed and out).
And dad, after all those lessons with all those people, decided being an
"amateur" with a teaching degree was more important than being an artist.
Although I watched for years as he automatically went around the table at a
"join the band" demo every fall and picked up every instrument and played
like crazy. It wasn't until I was an adult I found out that he was the only
director in the area that did that, all the rest had "their instrument" and
they could play that and fake it on the others well enough to beat the local
kids, but they couldn't do what dad did.
Maybe there was an artist in that teaching degree anyway....
I've played with a few pros, here and there. Clark Terry (trumpet,
flugelhorn) still remembers me. He doesn't recognize me anymore, but a gentle
reminder of a couple stunts and he brightens up and smiles and yells "Mr. Low
Blow" and hugs me. Signs things for my kids.
So you know, "Mr. Low Blow" is a double entendre - I played tuba when he
needed it for one song that actually had a tuba solo, all of three notes
long. He gave me a long lecture about how we would do it -- he'd come to help
me, he and I would spend about 4-5 choruses with the band blowing their chops
away while we fiddled with the mike and everything else so the solo would be
perfect, for it to turn out to be only 3 notes long. I told him I'd do it if
he would give me two choruses while he watched the band. When he turned
around I had a shirt with a hand drawn picture of him on.
Like I said, remind him of a few jokes....
Don't know who the artist and the amateur was there. At least as far as the
jokes, if we're talking being able to play its easy to figure out, 'cause it
(And if the BSA had an award for being the most diplomatic guy in dealing
with all races, I'd nominate him in an instant. He dealt with us "well-off"
white kids as well as he did with every race around the world with that same
smile and same good intention, no matter who the person was. He's an artist
at working with people, too.)
You don't want to be a guy in a band playing with Louis Bellson (drums) if
the town is anywhere near Moline, IL (his home town) and they advertise it
there. About two weeks before he came in to play the old friends started to
show up with this story and that story and they expected us to be as
interested in them as they were, even though we had not met the man yet.
First of all, Louis is a great guy (even though the first thing I think of
when I remember him is that his wife was on that train that crashed down in
New Orleans direction and she was there in the disaster directing traffic and
getting people out of the cars, even if it meant they were in the middle of
no where and no immediate help was in sight, bless her soul). Almost matches
Clark for race relations, except that he had it in the family -- white
husband, black wife in an era when you would expect those things to "never"
occur. Except among the "artistes" of the era.
But Louis knew what it would take to be an artist when he was still an
amateur. The story EVERY guy that came through told was that in High School
they would stay for athletic practice. And while they were warming up Louis
would haul his drum set out onto the stage in the gym. Then he would start to
practice. He would practice while the athletes practiced, and still be
practicing when they left. Finally, he would haul the drums back to storage
and go home. Hours and hours of practice, plus school. Every day of the week,
the entire school year. (I noticed none could tell me how much he practiced
in the summer, though.)
Imagine being younger than 18 and knowing you had to put that much effort for
it to pay off as an adult. And doing it and sticking to it.