Viewing: Dmitri Matheny Group - View all posts
Destination: Yreka CA
Distance: 413 miles
Scout and I are hitting the road today for California, Arizona, and New Mexico.
The first leg of our journey will take us all the way from Centralia, Washington to Yreka, California.
$5 per gallon for gas is no joke!
Heartfelt thanks and a "free" music download for all our generous tour support contributors!
Recommit to OMAD, black coffee, and portion control.
Plant new salad vegetables in the garden.
Walk every day before the evening meal.
Curtail alcohol consumption.
Prioritize memory work.
Perform mostly songs from the new album.
Expand melodic range in both directions.
Arrange Joni Mitchell material for Holly.
Write songs for top Indiegogo backers.
Study Nelson Riddle's orchestration.
Practice Beleza duo repertoire.
Arrange for album design, distribution, promotion, and marketing.
Maintain tourbus with regular servicing, repairs, and upgrades.
Apply for touring, residency, and commissioning grants.
Schedule tours and album release events.
Purchase a backup horn.
Reduce debt by 25%.
Make an emergency response plan.
Write a blog post every week.
Invest in home security.
Make time for friends.
“All of us labor in webs spun
long before we were born.”
The next morning I asked Lela the question that had kept me awake most of the night. “Same repertoire? What did you mean by that?”
She smiled. “Well, you played Stormy Weather, My One And Only Love, and I’m Beginning To See The Light ... I did all those same tunes!”
“What do you mean, you did those tunes?” I asked. “When? How? Where?”
Her face registered genuine surprise. “You knew I was a singer, didn’t you?”
“No, ma’am. I mean, I found some pictures of you in high school,” I stammered, “you know, singing musical theater stuff, but…”
“Oh, honey! I was a jazz singer! Your father used to come to my gigs. That’s how we met!” she laughed. “Where did you think your gifts came from?”
You could have knocked me over with a feather.
“Lela, honestly, I always figured it was Dad’s record collection that set me on this path. Sketches of Spain, Round About Midnight, Kind of Blue…”
“Ooh, that’s just like him!” she interrupted, shaking her head. “First of all, those were my Miles Davis records.” She paused a moment. “He never told you? Really?”
Nope. He told me you were crazy. He said you were a criminal. He said you “ran off in the middle of the night” and told me we were better off without you. But no, he never once mentioned anything about you singing jazz.
Was it even true? Or was this just another of Lela’s tall tales?
I was determined to find out. After she returned home to the midwest, I drove out to Daddy Bill's Hermit House to see if I could verify her story. I was a man on a mission. The three-hour drive through the Lonesome Desert gave me plenty of time to consider how I might broach the subject with my old man.
I arrived in the late afternoon to find him hunched over a bucket on his front porch, methodically shelling and cracking pecans with his blistered, blackened fingers. Pecan trees grew wild in the scrubby chaparral of Graham County. It had become Dad’s habit to harvest the nuts each autumn and gift large bags of them to family and friends during the winter holidays. I admired his resourcefulness.
“Hey Bub!” Daddy Bill greeted me cheerily. “You’re just in time.”
He handed me a Sam Adams from the cooler. “Don't tell the Mormons,” he said with a wink.
Another glorious Arizona sunset.
“So. Dad. How did it feel to see Lela again after all these years?”
He gazed thoughtfully into the distance. “Welp. She got old.”
“You and I aren’t getting any younger either,” I laughed. “Anyway, did y’all have a good talk at the concert?”
“She did most of the talking,” he said, adding “you know how she is.” He kicked a pile of pecan shells off the porch.
“Right. Listen, Dad. Lela told me she used to be a jazz singer.”
My father rolled his eyes. “Aww, she was what we used to call a torch singer. But that was a long time ago. Before you were born.”
“So it’s true?” I asked, astonished. “You didn't think your son -- the musician -- might want to know about that?”
“Why would you care?” he said dismissively. “She wasn’t a big deal or anything. She just sang in nightclubs with her little combo.”
“Dad…what exactly do you think I do for a living?”
“Myths are lies and therefore worthless,” CS Lewis told
JRR Tolkien, “even though breathed through silver.”
“No,” Tolkien replied, “they are not lies.”
“Dmitri, I can’t believe it! How on earth did you find me!!?”
How indeed! I cannot account for the bizarre sequence of events that led me to Mr. Bill’s Adventureland, nor can I rationally explain how I knew that Mr. Bill’s Lela and mine were one and the same. But somehow, whether by fate, synchronicity or merely coincidence, at the age of 43 I became penpals with my long lost mother.
We didn’t converse so much as trade soliloquies. She ignored my questions, so I volunteered details from my own life hoping she might respond in kind. I told her about my successful music career and failed marriage. I shared all my hopes, dreams and fears.
Lela answered these confessional data dumps with imaginative tall tales in which distant relations appeared as folk heroes. Often embedded within these homespun legends were non sequiturs of a more personal nature (e.g. “the scent of oranges always reminds me of Christmas”). I jumped at these crumbs like a starving orphan.
One day an envelope arrived with no letter at all. Inside were a one page single-spaced typewritten genealogy labeled “The Brown Family” and two photos. In one of the images a group of adults stands in a distant row facing the camera. On the back, in crayon block letters, they are identified as “(L-R) Mama Zulah, Brownie, Jo, Allene, Sissy, Evelyn, Frances, Sara, Jim, Willard.” The reverse of the other photo, a mother with two children, is annotated in Lela's handwriting, “I was about 8 and my little brother was 6 when this was taken, so it was about 1950.”
A close study of The Brown Family genealogy reveals “Mama Zulah” to be Lela's maternal grandmother. Following is the final paragraph, together with Lela's pencil notations in bold italics: “James Andrew Jackson Brown (1877-1961) PAPA son of William J. and Sarah Catherine, married Cornie Perdue around 1900. They had 2 children, V. R. (Brownie) 1904- and Vera Estelle (Sissy) 1906-. After the death of Cornie, James Andrew married Zulah Estes Cummings (1888-1963) MAMA in 1908. She was the daughter of Nancy Docia Brown who was the 13th child of Jeremiah Brown and Nancy Hodges Brown. Jeremiah Brown was the great grandfather of James Andrew and the grandfather of Zulah. James Andrew and Zulah had 7 children, Evelyn 1909-, Allene 1912-1972 MY MOM, 5 FEET TALL, BIG BOOBS, TINY WAIST, Josephine 1913-, Frances 1920, Sara 1923, James Andrew Jr. 1927- MY UNCLE WWII PURPLE HEART and Willard 1929-1977.”
This convoluted “kissing cousins” report represents the sum total of what I know about Lela's roots. More often than not her letters would only recount the superhuman exploits of America McGee, the larger-than-life (and likely imaginary) Native American ancestor who, according to family lore, worked miracles, healed the sick, communed with animals and angels, predicted future events, and inspired everyone in the community with her wise counsel.
I doubted the very existence of this messianic figure, but eventually came to appreciate her significance as a mythic hero. Fictional or not, America McGee was my mother’s personal avatar, the embodiment of her highest aspirations. Perhaps McGee was, to Lela, what the Green Lantern is to me.
I’ve never had much use for religion but I must admit to enjoying these quasi-biblical stories a bit more after having experienced McGee’s magic for myself. After all, a Google search on her name was the deus ex machina that brought Lela and me together again. Even if I never find confirmation of America McGee as an actual historical figure, I will always be grateful to her mythos for moving our plot along. #AmericaMacGuffin
Every once and awhile my mother would let her guard down and reveal something personal. I briefly regarded each of these revelations as precious nuggets of truth until they, too, were inevitably contradicted by Lela herself.
For example, in one of her letters, Lela cast herself as a child prodigy and honor student who “tested at the genius level” and graduated from a prestigious university while still a teenager. In another she appears as a college dropout who never took school seriously and scandalized everyone by “running off with a professor” during her freshman year. In yet a third version of events Lela skips college entirely, having been recruited right out of high school to join a prestigious national advertising firm as a professional commercial artist.
Lela mentioned my father exactly twice. “Bill Matheny was a hopeless romantic,” she complained, “and I was his child bride. He smothered me with too much affection.” In a subsequent email she wrote “The man never said I love you, and I was the kind of girl who needed to hear that from time to time.”
Bill Matheny: Hopeless Romantic?
The two of us corresponded regularly for the next four years.
When you consider the sheer volume of words we exchanged, it’s really quite remarkable how little I learned about my mother’s actual thoughts, feelings or life experiences. Her fraught relationship with the truth was frustrating, but after so many years of silence, I was grateful for any contact at all.
Then, in October 2012, Lela called with big news:
“I bought an airline ticket today,” she said. “I’m coming to your next show.”
memoria praeteritorum bonorum
As we approach the first anniversary of this damndemic, I grow ever wistful for my old life on the road.
My propensity for rosy retrospection is well-documented, but I’m often surprised by where the waves of nostalgia choose to make landfall. Curiously, I don’t miss the big cosmopolitan cities so much as the funky little towns, especially those special places that made a mark on my heart, the places to which I loved returning, year after year.
Of late I think of Santa Cruz.
I love this dirty town!
About 75 miles south of San Francisco, and just over the hill from San Jose, the colorful seaside hamlet of Santa Cruz, California was one of my early discoveries when I first began traveling for music in the 1990s.
Among its myriad charms, Santa Cruz is home to Kuumbwa Jazz Center, a great little concert venue managed by true believers Tim Jackson and Bobbi Todaro. Named for the Swahili concept of creative spontaneity, Kuumbwa is much beloved in the community of musicians. Where else can you perform for an enthusiastic listening audience, in a convivial room with an expert sound engineer and a recently tuned, well-maintained grand piano? You’d be surprised how seldom such a confluence occurs.
(L-R) Tim Jackson, Kuumbwa Jazz Center, Bobbi Todaro
But the magic runs far deeper than professional production values. Established in the nonprofit arts boom of the 1970s, Kuumbwa is one of those places that genuinely treats everyone like family. Dig: after an easy breezy soundcheck, Tim (an excellent flautist who also happens to be artistic director of the Monterey Jazz Festival) stops by to greet the band and give us a tour of the new black and white photography exhibit in the hall. A few minutes later, Bobbi (simply the coolest) sits down with us in the green room, enthusing all about the expansion of Kuumbwa’s educational programs for kids and families. Then a friendly volunteer arrives, serving up a hot, homemade meal for the band. Now that's how it's done, friends!
I remember hearing about Santa Cruz back in my Boston days. I was interested to learn that three of the best musicians I knew at Berklee -- David Valdez, Donny McCaslin and Kenny Wollesen -- all happened to be from Santa Cruz. I wondered if there might be something in the water out there.
When I first visited Santa Cruz after the big earthquake in 1989, the downtown area was a post-apocalyptic hellscape of white tents and rubble. Even then, the town’s groovy bohemian spirit shone through. A cute girl with a nose piercing offered me grapes in front of the Catalyst. A street vendor in the alley by Sylvan Music told my fortune and sold me some incense. A soulful little combo called Warmth was busking valiantly on Cooper Street. I thought to myself, “This place is heaven.”
(L-R) Vibraphonist Don McCaslin, leader of Warmth and father of saxophonist Donny
Claudia Villela, a favorite recording artist who happens to live and work in the area
The other Ray Brown: flugelhornist, composer and Cabrillo College jazz educator
After that, I routed my tours through Santa Cruz whenever possible, playing one night at Kuumbwa between shows in Oakland and Los Angeles. I would always make sure to arrive a few days early for a little advance work, usually a KUSP radio interview and workshops for music students at UC Santa Cruz and Cabrillo College. Then, after checking the arts section and calendar listings in the Sentinel, Metro and Good Times, I would put up fliers on all the bulletin boards downtown.
gig fliers ... the original social media posts
The promotional rain dance now complete, it was time to chill and enjoy the town. I called these mini-residencies “composition retreats” for tax purposes, but they were really just delightful little solo vacations.
Each year I’d spend a little longer among the hippies, dot com millionaires and homeless hackysack teens that populate Pacific Avenue. By day I’d browse lazily in the vintage shops, galleries and bookstores. Afternoons I’d take a picnic lunch out to Natural Bridges and play my horn as the sun set on Monterey Bay. At night I’d ramble down to the wharf for fresh seafood, then catch a terrific set of live music (Claudia Villela!) before retiring to my cozy Boardwalk motel.
My favorite hang was this big warehouse downtown that had been converted into a funky cafe and community gathering place, with high, vaulted ceilings, giant windows, lots of leafy green plants, and a large, sunny patio deck out back. I’d sit in that joint for hours, sipping coffee, reading, scribbling in my journal, and people-watching. It was glorious!
To this day, whenever I catch the scent of patchouli, I’m immediately transported there again … to my happy place.
“Kuumbwa Blues” from Red Reflections