Monday, October 27, 2008

When Frank Came Marching Home

Here in small-town Middle America, the safe return of a local soldier is a big deal. We hang flags on street corners and nail "Welcome Home" signs on phone poles. Alert residents track our hometown hero's approach by cell phone, and by the time his or her motorcycle escort crosses the county line, we're lining the streets.

There were no parades when I came home from my first tour back in the '70s. No loudspeakers blasting "Anchors Aweigh," no motorcycle escorts, no speeches from the mayor.

Things were different back then. People just didn't understand the sacrifices we MUs were making in San Francisco.

Big Band rehearsals, sometimes as often as two a day. Showband trips with pit stops at California wineries. Bumpy cable car rides to clubs where Mose Allison was playing. Arduous evenings at the EM club where one of the trumpet players worked as a bartender.

Nope, they didn't shoot off fireworks when Frank Mullen came home. They must have thought a two-year tour at Navy Band San Francisco was some sort of extended party.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Remembering My Mentors

"E=MC2" may not be Count Basie's best album. But it's the one I grew up with, the one I found in my father's record collection and listened to so frequently during my high school and college years that I memorized each pop and scratch along with each shout chorus, solo and punch figure.

The album's arranger, Neal Hefti, who helped shape the sound of the postwar Count Basie Orchestra, died last week. He has always been my favorite arranger. In a sense, he was my first arranging teacher.

Just as composers of the Baroque era learned their craft by hand-copying the scores of the masters, I learned about Big Band music by sitting at the piano in the living room for hours, gradually learning to plunk out and harmonize every note of "The Kid From Red Bank," "Li'l Darlin'" and "Teddy the Toad."

Unlike the Baroque composers, I didn't write out the scores; I couldn't figure out how to notate jazz rhythms. The ensemble chord on the downbeat of the third measure of "Li'l Darlin'" came, somehow, before the downbeat but after the last 8th-note of the second measure. Jazz education hadn't arrived in high schools and colleges in the Sixties, so I had no way to learn about jazz notation. Swing sounded to me as though it should be written in 12/8, but every book about jazz said swing was "in four." I tried writing out the opening trumpet line to "Flight of the Foo Birds" using dotted 8ths and 16ths, but the result looked like the tracks of a wounded pigeon.

After college, I gigged for a few years as solo pianist and with small groups, learning tunes by ear and from fake books, but when I joined the Navy in 1974, I'd never played in a Big Band, still never seen how swing is notated.

On my first day in the Basic Course at the Navy School of Music, I sat down at the piano in "C Band," the beginning-level ensemble into which all new arrivals were funneled. The director, MUC Ed Rodgers, started the rehearsal by asking the sax section to play their opening section. After the conglomeration of Army and Marines had thoroughly butchered the first four bars of "Brownsville Station," the chief stopped them and said the words that live in me to this day:

"Remember what we talked about yesterday? Swing is written with regular 8th-notes, but you interpret them with a swing feel."

My ears became as focused as the latest active listening devices.

"You lengthen the downbeat 8ths," the chief said, "and shorten the offbeat 8ths."

My mind began to envision the rolling trumpet line of "Flight of the Foo Birds" as a pure string of 8th-notes.

"So, it's like 12/8?" asked a young soldier.

"Sort of," Chief Rodgers said. "But written only with 8ths." God of All Things That Swing, You have saved me. "You add a little lift to the offbeat 8ths," the chief added. "That's what really make swing swing."

The earth shifted beneath my corfram shoes, and room 2-B-5 swayed around me. In a second, everything fell back into place. I now knew everything I'd joined the Navy to learn. There was no reason to stick around this silly school any longer. I decided to put in my papers for early retirement so I could head for L.A., New York, or any other musical hub where my skills were in urgent need.

Chief Rodgers and the Training Officer, however, wanted Seaman Mullen to stick around the Navy a little longer.

I'm glad I did.

In my first band, Navy Band San Francisco, I worked for MU1 Doyle Church, a recent graduate of the Advanced Course. I wanted to arrange, and Doyle was willing to help. Even after working hours, he'd sit down with me and pass on his knowledge of swing lines and chord voicings.

Eventually I became the band's staff arranger, a job I also held in Navy Band Newport, where Ed Rodgers was now running the Show Band. He was not only glad to use my arrangements, but willing to pass on tricks of the trade that arrangers can only learn from experienced band directors. By the time I returned to the School for the Intermediate Course, I couldn't imagine what anyone could teach me.

MUC Jim Miller walked into arranging class on the first day and told us he would test our knowledge of chord spelling. Ooh-rah, I thought to myself--another chance for MU2 Mullen to demonstrate his expertise.

"Take out a piece of paper," the chief said, "and write down the pitches in each chord symbol I show you." He held up a flash card: F#min7b5.

Piece of cake, I thought, and began writing the pitches: F#, A, C--

"Next," came Chief Miller's voice. I looked up and saw he was already holding up another card: Abdim7.

"Slow down, Chief," someone called from the back of the room.

"This is slow," Chief Miller responded. "Now we'll pick up the pace." EbAug7. C#maj6. Amin/maj7. The cards came faster than I could think. It was small comfort the next day to learn that I'd failed the test with a 2.2 and still got the highest grade in the class.

But I eventually learned what Chief Miller wanted us to understand: the arranger must know the basics without thinking, so he can concentrate on the art instead of laboring over elementary things.

MUCS Roy Mahoney became a mentor during my tour as piano instructor at the school. I could walk into my Branch Head's office at any hour with a question, and Roy would drop what he was working on, which was usually a Big Band arrangement for the Faculty Lab Band.

"Is it okay to use parallel minor seconds in the inner voices of a section?" I once asked him.

"What the hell kind of question is that?" he asked through the cloud of cigarette smoke that always filled his office.

"An honest question?" I replied. You had to observe the formalities with Roy.

"Weren't you paying attention in Lab Band rehearsal yesterday?" he bellowed. We'd run down an arrangement of "Satin Doll" Roy had recently completed, a chart that added some welcome tension to that old favorite. Roy now fired up an unfiltered Camel, pulled the score off the top of his piano, spread it on his desk and jabbed his forefinger at a spot on the first page.

"Here, parallel minor seconds between trumpets two and three," he said. He flipped a few pages. "This whole phrase is filled with parallel minor seconds between tenor saxes."

Roy was not the gentlest of mentors, but the most direct. He encouraged me to write for his Faculty Lab Band and treated me as his peer during rehearsals.

I did four tours at the Navy School of Music as a student and instructor. I learned a lot as a student and teacher, but never more than when I engaged in the Navy's oldest and truest method of training, one sailor showing another the ropes.

Tex Waldron told me I didn't need augmented-flat-diminished 15th chords in every measure, and passed on the proof: copies of arrangements John Fluck had written for the U.S. Navy Show Band. Jack Miller taught me there is a difference between G# and Ab, no matter what the trombone players think. Dave Johnson showed me that the best way to identify a problem with your concert band arrangement is to have someone else conduct it.

In 1986, the Seventh Fleet Band was heading to Australia on a destroyer, and I had commandeered an empty rack in an unoccupied storage room. I was lying down one afternoon when one of my guys walked in, a young trumpet player and budding arranger.

"Got a minute, Chief?" he asked. I'd been up half the night before and was about to take an afternoon snooze. Before I could chase him away, he said, "You know your arrangement of "Waltzing Matilda" we rehearsed this morning?"

Yeah, yeah, I thought, the kid's gonna bitch about the music. That's what they all do.

"I was wondering," he said, "how you made that quick modulation from F to Ab at letter "C."

I slid out of my rack and located the score. "Simple," I said, my forefinger pointing to the phrase in question. "It's a simple two-five progression."

"But you wrote it in the chiefs' mess last night without a piano. How did you know the modulation would sound right?"

"Let me show you something," I said. "Pull up a couple of those chairs while I find some manuscript paper."

I was a little slow--the kid was already dragging the chairs into place.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

I may have to change political parties.

During the presidential debate tonight, John McCain took a question from a member of the audience who identified himself as a retired Navy chief.

The senator began his response with the line every politician gives to every vet: "Thank you for your service to the country."

But he didn't stop there. "I want to say," McCain added, "everything I ever learned about leadership I learned from a chief petty officer."

Now, that's the straight talk I've heard so much about.