Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Who Changed the Changes?

Newport, Rhode Island, 1984

I'm driving along the wharf on my way to a gig. On the radio, an old jazz sax player is talking about performing again after a few decades in retirement. The interviewer asks him what is his biggest challenge.

"The changes," the old jazz player answers. "I don't remember the changes."

I break out laughing. How can you forget chord changes? I'd forget my serial number before I forgot the changes to "A Train" or "A Foggy Day." Fact is, I pride myself on never using a fake book on a gig. Fake book? I don't need no stinkin' fake book.

I arrive at the club and haul my keyboard inside. Terry Chesson is setting up on the bandstand, and I tell him about the brain-dead old sax player.

"If I ever become so senile that I can't remember the changes," I say, "Put me out of my misery."

Louisville, Kentucky, 2006

I'm sitting at the piano in a lounge full of musicians. It's my first time at a Navy Musicians Association reunion.

I am among legends. C.J. Landry is warming up his sax, Dick Bonenfant is adjusting the drum set and Rabbit Simmons is tuning his bass. These guys were the shining stars in my Navy days, the monsters, the senior musicians who set the standards I hoped to live up to one day. When I was in the basic course, students used to stand in the passageway outside Chief Bonenfant's studio with jaws dropping, listening as he showed young drummers how to coax living, breathing swing out of a Navy-issue brass cymbal.

That I am about to sit in with these giants is breathtaking.

It's also slightly risky. I haven't played a gig since the mid-1990s, when a series of stress-related muscle problems, surgeries and therapies encouraged me to stop playing. In anticipation of this reunion, I've started practicing again. After all this time away from the piano, I expect to be only moderately superb.

C.J. finishes running a quiet scale on his tenor sax and calls out, "'Desafinado' in F." Dick counts four beats and the rhythm section starts vamping.

It feels good to be doing this again. I always loved these Latin tunes, the rhythms, the chromatic harmonies. After eight bars, C.J. comes in with the melody, and we're off.

Not all in the same direction, however. By the fifth measure, I've taken a left turn and find myself playing the changes to "Take the A Train." I hear where C.J. is going and fall back in line.

Now I remember--"A Train" and "Desafinado" open with similar changes. Duh. It could happen to anybody.

Something goes wrong when we reach the bridge. The flats in the key signature march offstage and are replaced by a platoon of sharps. I have no idea what key we're in and vainly search for a chord that is compatible with the new situation. C.J. rescues me, turning his sax my way and blowing a few clarifying notes indicating the bridge is in A. I remind myself to pay more attention to the changes and spend less mental energy admiring myself.

What the--? How did we wind up in the key of C? That's the trouble with these cursed Latin tunes: the tonalities don't stay in one place long enough to let you get a good shot at them.

Well, I tell myself as we finish the head, I've got the tune mapped out now--the bridge goes to A and C, then back to F and out. I smile in anticipation. Once C.J. starts soloing, I'll be comping my butt off with those famous Frank Mullen extended chords that made me so popular as a--

Whoops. C.J. is wailing dominant seventeenth riffs over the changes now. I'd better pay attention to Rabbit's bass lines.

Uh, oh--Rabbit's going progressive, too. He's stopped walking me through the tune, his fingers now snaking up and down the neck of the bass, plucking high notes, low notes, long downward glissandos that make you hold your breath and wonder how he'll reach the downbeat in time. Things are getting dicey.

C.J. finishes his solo to a roomful of applause and turns to me.

It is my turn to solo. Immediately I make an accidental detour into "The Girl from Ipanema." In the sixth measure I catch myself slipping into "A Foggy Day in London Town," and dig myself out of the hole just as we're approaching the bridge, which, I recall, goes to the key of--

D major? F# minor? I'm sure it's a key with sharps in it, but the trouble is Rabbit and Dick don't stop and wait for the dolt at the piano to work out his personal problems. No, Dick Bonenfant's legendary driving cymbal work presses forward, Rabbit Simmons's rock-solid bass line holds things together, and Frank Mullen is off on a mental Med Cruise, floundering from key to key, left hand tentatively poking random two-note chords that cannot possibly commit the ear to any certain tonality, right hand running chromatic scales--logically, about half of these notes should have some relationship to "Desafinado"--all the while praying for the blessed moment that C.J. Landry will put his sax to his lips and lead me out of the wilderness and back to civilization.

Aledo, Illinois, 2008

I'm sitting at the piano in my living room with a fake open to "Stella by Starlight." This is how I prepare for the reunions now: in January, I start at page one, looking at the music while I play, then close my eyes and do my best to continue without looking at the music. I go through a few tunes a day until I finish the book. Then I go back to "A Child is Born" and do it again.

I've become a lenient teacher to myself. There's no point in being harsh. I've sat in with big bands and played in small jazz groups at two NMA reunions now, and none of my shipmates have mutinied or thrown me overboard.

I start with the metronome set on adagio and move it up a notch every week. I see steady progress and am content to live with my limitations. The pressure is off and I'm playing purely for enjoyment. And nothing is more enjoyable than an NMA reunion, a few days of fellowship, sea stories and, yes, music. By June, I'll be ready.

I could be ready sooner, but the changes to "Stella by Starlight" won't sit still.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Stars and Stripes--Ooorah!

Many of us were, at one time or another, shanghaied into performing in ad hoc Navy vocal groups.

In San Francisco, I was drafted into a Four Freshmen-like quartet. Whenever we performed, it was, indeed, a blue, blue world.

I sang Beach Boys medleys. I was pressed into service in a number of doo-wop groups and once sang in a barbershop quartet.

The tradition continues. Below is a video of a recent concert by Navy Band Northwest. Their barbershop quartet performance of "Stars and Stripes Forever" got me up out of my seat. Having finished my private standing ovation, I sat down to share it with you.

At last year's NMA reunion, CDR Don Keller, then commanding officer of the School of Music, praised the level of musicianship our fleet bands now enjoy. Those of us who heard the CINCLANT ceremonial unit perform were convinced. Check out this video, and I think you'll agree.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Victory at Sea

Someone--God bless him--has downloaded the episodes of "Victory at Sea" onto Youtube, where you can watch them at your convenience. Clicking once or twice on the image below will play the opening of the first episode.

I watched the TV show with my Dad a few times in the Fifties. He wasn't as interested in it as I was, probably because he'd been there, done it and didn't need to watch it on television. The show, and Richard Rodgers's score, are icons not only of the Navy's participation in World War Two, but the way our Navy's contribution was remembered afterward.

Considering that the various episodes total eleven-and-a-half hours, the creation of the musical score was a formidable task. Of more interest to us, perhaps, than to the general public, is the fact that Richard Rodger's contribution to this effort was limited to the compostion of twelve short themes. The scoring, the cutting, pasting and embellishment of Rodgers's themes into orchestrations that supported the moods of the episodes--was not his own work.

This dirty business was handled by Robert Russell Bennett. Bennett was a premier orchestrator and arranger of Broadway shows for close to half a century. Showboat. Oklahoma! Annie Get Your Gun. The King and I, The Sound of Music: his music is ingrained in American culture.

And thanks to "Victory at Sea," in our Navy careers, too.

It's stirring to experience the music in its original context, with the images, the narration, the "whole nine yards." You can watch many of the episodes at YouTube by clicking here.