Big day, big night! Afternoon workshops for two outstanding music programs — Pioneer and Community high schools in Ann Arbor — followed by an evening set at Moriarty’s in Lansing with the ace rhythm team of Jeff Shoup (photo credit), Lisa Sung, and Reuben Stump. Made lots of new friends, one of whom contributed some outstanding “Evergreen Girl” lyrics. Surprise celebrity appearance by the great Randle Gelispie! #respect
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Logged 147 miles this weekend traveling back and forth from my base camp, a bucolic farm in Fairfield, to the bustling cities of San Francisco and Oakland.
Friday's venue was Bird & Beckett, a cozy Glen Park (SF) indie bookstore that hosts live jazz every weekend. Eric, the owner, is so hip that he named his shop for Samuel Beckett and Charlie Parker!
Saturday was the Sound Room Oakland, my favorite music venue in Northern California (and I've played them all). Proprietors Karen and Robert just do everything right, and the sound engineer Carey is top notch.
Although the band had no opportunity to rehearse, everyone did their homework, listened to the album, prepared their individual parts, and showed up ready to play. We had a ball! Both performances went spectacularly, quite gratifying when performing for the hometown crowd.
Our drummer Deszon played especially well, later commenting that perhaps it's so easy for us to connect because we’ve known each other half our lives, playing together in different configurations for over 30 years!
Between gigs I had a little free time in San Francisco, so I took a stroll down memory lane (aka Clement Street) and visited a few of my old haunts from back in the nineties.
Surprisingly little has changed!
It’s comforting to know you can still pair a steamed pork bun from Wing Lee with a latte from Blue Danube, grab a slice from Georgio’s, or lose yourself in the stacks at Green Apple books.
And it’s reassuring that the battalion of dusty Ultraman action figures still stands sentry, presiding over the Toy Boat gelato counter, silently awaiting your next visit.
“Open your minds, my friends.
We all fear what we do not understand.”
Charlie Higgins leads me by the arm into a space entirely unlike the rest of this mysterious fortress.
The dining room is sunny, warm, and elbow-to-elbow with convivial groups of men in business attire, eating, drinking, talking and laughing.
“This is us,” Charlie says as we approach a corner table where a couple of seated gentlemen rise to greet us. “Let me introduce you to two of the original hep cats, Walt Connor and Will Cooley. Gentlemen, this is Dmitri Matheny.” We all shake hands and sit down together.
At each place setting a single card embossed with the now familiar OC logo offers a simple selection of steak, seafood, sandwiches, and salads. I’m delighted. Since moving to San Francisco from Boston a few years ago I’ve enjoyed a steady diet of international and vegetarian fare. I’ve even learned to appreciate California cuisine with its requisite avocado, pine nuts and sun-dried tomatoes. But I was raised on American comfort food from cafeterias and diners. This is my kind of menu.
Nevertheless, I decide to order something I’ve never tried before, a Crab Louie Salad. Based on the name, I’m fairly certain that I will enjoy at least two thirds of it.
Over lunch, Charlie cheerfully embodies his role as table host, guiding the conversation so as to include everyone. In spite of our difference in age (I’m in my late 20s and they’re all in their 60s) we all get along swimmingly.
Curiously, no one discusses business. Charlie, the candy magnate, talks about his experience as a paratrooper in World War II. Will, a Southern California real estate developer, holds forth about Stan Getz and his involvement in the committee for jazz at Stanford University. Walt, an author and photographer (who may or may not also be heir to a large national department store fortune) speaks with authority about the forgotten history of jazz on the Barbary Coast. I mostly listen, fascinated by these wise old owls.
As coffee is served, Charlie casually turns the conversation to the unique history and ethos of the Owl Club. Unlike other quote-unquote secret societies and fraternal organizations, Charlie explains, we aren't centered around a particular industry, sport, or school, but a common interest in nature and the arts.
“Our membership roster includes not only prominent businessmen and CEOs,” Charlie says proudly, “but writers, journalists, military heroes, politicians, global leaders, and many well-known artists and musicians.”
I'm intrigued. “But no women?”
Charlie smiles. “You know, a hundred twenty years ago when this club was founded, men tended to stay in their unhappy marriages. They needed clubs like this as an escape. Of course these days, if you aren’t happily married, you get a divorce. That’s why so many of our happily married members are now requesting more events to which they can bring their spouses.”
Taking this as my cue, I pull the glossy jazz festival sponsorship brochure from my breast pocket and lay it on the table. I’m just about to begin my pitch when Charlie interrupts me, raising his hand and saying, “no-no-no, not here.” A red-vested waiter immediately approaches to ask that I “kindly put away the literature.”
“I’m sorry, I thought …” I stammer, befuddled.
“We can discuss all that later,” Charlie replies magnanimously.
At precisely this moment, as if responding to a silent alarm, everyone stands to say their goodbyes. I stand too, shaking hands with Will and Walt, who leave together.
Charlie places his arm around my shoulder and ushers me back through the grand foyer, past the empty bar with its mad jumble of framed art, to the dark alcove where I first entered the building. It looks somehow different to me now. Less off-putting. More cozy.
“What a pleasure,” I say. “Thanks for lunch.”
“Ah! I almost forgot!” Charlie replies, reaching into his pocket. He retrieves a small box, about 4 inches in diameter, wrapped in white paper. “This is for you.”
On my way back to the jazz office, I stop by the piano bar at Kuleto’s, my favorite Union Square watering hole. I find a seat by the fireplace and order a bourbon, neat, feeling not unlike a noir detective at the beginning of a perplexing new case.
I unwrap the mysterious gift box, genuinely curious what I will find inside.
Perhaps some chocolate truffles from Charlie's candy company? But no.
I place the heavy totem onto the table in front of me and study it.
No card, no explanation.
Just a tiny silver owl.
“What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?”
When the time came for Daddy Bill to move into hospice care, it fell to me to clean out his stark little studio apartment.
The task didn’t take long. I’d planned to rent a storage unit for his stuff, but this turned out to be entirely unnecessary. In the man’s eighty-something trips around the sun, he only accumulated enough possessions to fill a few small boxes.
I was amazed. Not by Dad’s extreme minimalism (don’t forget I used to live with the guy), but by the eloquence of the items he deemed precious enough to keep. In his closet was a sleeping bag, camp stove and hand crank portable radio. Everything else was arranged in neat little dust-covered piles around the room. He had an axe, a battered pair of binoculars, an old fly rod, a few books and compact discs, a coffee cup, some framed photographs, a pocket knife, and a small leather pouch. That’s about it.
The pouch was empty, but when I opened the drawstring to look inside, the familiar scent of Middleton’s Cherry Blend brought tears to my eyes. I was about nine years old when we last visited the Schley Family Farm in Georgia. I still remember sitting next to Daddy Bill, watching with rapt attention as Dr. Schley used his leather-crafting tools to carefully cut, punch and sew the pouch together. Once finished, he ceremoniously presented the soft little bag to my father, as if it was some kind of totem or talisman imbued with magic powers. The Schleys were important people in the Brookstone community, and Dad treasured this handmade gift. He stored his pipe tobacco in that leather pouch for years.
In a drawer under the sink I found a mishmash of papers: old bank statements, love letters, canceled checks, poems, his birding “life list” handwritten on a yellow legal pad, and a stack of picture postcards, many of them from me, which had once adorned the thumbtack-covered walls of his Graham County hermit house. Resting on top, like a paperweight, was a small carved wooden sign: White Thorn Gallery.
As far back as my great-great-grandfather, the Matheny men were all expert craftsmen. Daddy Bill and his brother Jim grew up working alongside their father in the Matheny Cabinet Shop, building and restoring heirloom furniture in mahogany, oak, walnut, cherry, maple and cedar. Almost everyone in our extended family today has at least one precious Matheny antique at home.
But the only furniture my father owned at the end of his life was a single reclining armchair, purchased for him a few years ago by a generous friend. Everything else had long since been given away. He was funny that way. He gave all our furniture to one of his stepdaughters. He gave our car to my friend Kent. I have no doubt the old man would’ve eventually given that recliner away, too.
So I followed his example and left that chair behind for the next tenant. I slipped my father’s poetry into my backpack, and boxed up the rest, stacking everything in the corner of Nedra’s garage for safekeeping.
I suppose I’ll come back for that leather pouch someday.
And maybe that fishing pole, too.
I miss you, Daddy Bill.
“We all grow up with inherited genes
and inherited sensibilities, and
they run very, very deep.”
To recap: it turns out that my estranged mother, who left us when I was a baby, was a singer. Although she never recorded, Lela had an active performing career singing torch songs in Tennessee nightclubs with her combo. And apparently my father was a fan who regularly attended her gigs before they met and married.
So music, my passion in life, is what originally brought my parents together, yet neither of them thought to tell me. I chased my dream obliviously ignorant of this history. I chose this path all on my own, or so I thought until age 46, when Lela showed up to one of my gigs and dropped a DNA bomb on my self-made origin story.
After Lela returned home to Michigan we took up where we had left off as penpals. She shared more wild yarns about America McGee (whose very existence I doubted), but the primary focus of our correspondence had now shifted to our shared interest in music.
“When you were singing, who were your influences?” I asked. “Any favorite artists or albums?”
“Well, if you ever get a chance to hear a record that Nancy Wilson made with Cannonball Adderley, that one is very special to me,” she replied. “I played that album to death when it came out and learned all of it by heart. I was probably singing those songs while you were in the womb!”
This revelation struck me like a thunderbolt. To find out that a classic jazz recording I’ve admired and enjoyed all my life also happened to be formative and personally significant for my mother? Damn. I wondered how much more we might have in common.
Lela must have been curious about this as well, because a few days later a Zune portable media player arrived in the mail with this note:
Here’s my music collection.
This will tell you more about me
than words can ever say.
She was right. Her cherished music encompassed many genres, from classical to country to jazz and blues, and I loved all of it. Our likes were so eerily similar, in fact, that it would feel self-congratulatory to compliment her excellent taste.
The overlap in our music libraries was uncanny. Of the several thousand songs and artists in Lela’s playlist, nearly all were already prized plums in my own collection. She sent Sarah Vaughan with Michel Legrand, Elly Ameling singing Schubert, Ahmad Jamal Live At The Pershing, Chet Baker on Pacific Jazz, all the Ella Fitzgerald songbooks, John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, Patsy Cline Showcase, Anita O’Day Travelin’ Light, nearly everything Miles Davis did in the 1950s and ’60s, some recent recordings by Diana Krall and Shirley Horn, and soooo much Nancy Wilson, clearly her favorite. Lela even included Willie Nelson’s cover of “Stardust!” Amazing.
Only a handful of the artists in her list were new to me (Jo Stafford, Helen Forrest, June Christie) and their songs resonated so deeply that they immediately became part of the soundtrack of my life. Driving around the Lonesome Desert at night, listening to my mother’s favorite music, made me feel a profound sense of connection to her in spite of the fact that we were basically strangers to one another.
I met Lela only once more.
In April 2014, while on tour in Michigan, Sassy and I accepted an invitation to visit her at home in rural Potterville.
Lela and Bill Horton (of Mr. Bill’s Adventureland), her husband of 23 years, received us warmly. Lela even cooked biscuits and gravy for us! Sitting there at my mother’s kitchen table, watching her fix me breakfast for the first and only time in my life, flooded me with conflicting emotions. Gratitude. Wonder. Comfort. Melancholy. Loss.
After our meal Bill gave us a tour of the rambling, ramshackle Horton house. The place was a packrat’s dream, filled to the rafters with papers, boxes, books, knickknacks, old computers, oxygen tanks, medical supplies and more. As Bill led us from room to room, Lela toddled behind, randomly tidying up and apologizing. “We don’t get many visitors.”
I remember thinking how beautiful it was, that this frail and fragile couple were lovingly taking care of one another in their declining years. Will Sassy and I do the same?
Bill was especially eager to show me their collection of records, tapes and compact discs. Lela had already sent me MP3s of most of it except for one major omission: the Hortons had amassed an impressive, damn near comprehensive stockpile of Dmitri Matheny CDs!
I was astonished. Not only did they own all my albums as a leader, they'd also somehow acquired a bunch of sideman recordings from my early years in San Francisco. Seeing this stash of obscure, out-of-print discs, I realized that Lela and Bill must have been quietly following my career for years, buying each new recording at the time of its release, long before I found Lela online.
Flattering, yes, but also infuriating. I’ve had a website since 1995. Lela obviously knew where I was and what I was doing. Why had she never contacted me? I’ll likely never know.
In August 2018 I received a phone call from Bill Horton letting me know that my mother had died. He didn’t mention her cause of death, but I assume it was severe emphysema after a lifetime of smoking.
“I also wanted to tell you that some years ago Lela and her brother inherited a parcel of land on a mountain near Chattanooga,” Bill said. “They sold it and she put her half of the money into a Vanguard account. You’re listed as beneficiary after I die. I’ll send you the paperwork.”
I remembered Lela's cryptic “mountaintop inheritance” call back in the 1980s. How about that? Another mystery solved.
I'm grateful that Lela and Bill Horton had so many good years together, and glad I had the chance to visit them before she died. Bill and I have stayed in touch since Lela’s passing and I’m glad. I’ve come to think of him as part of the extended family, especially now that both my mother and father are gone from this world.
The other day Bill sent me an antique sepia photograph.
“Lela would want you to have this,” he said.
“It’s a picture of your great-great-grandmother ... Matilda America McGee.”
“It’s good to know where you come from.
It makes you what you are today.
It’s DNA. It’s in your blood.”
In 1984 I was at boarding school in Michigan when my father called from Arizona to tell me about a long-distance phone call he had received from my mother.
Her husband Tom had died after a prolonged bout with cancer. Now a widow in her forties, Lela was back in college studying to become a registered nurse. The reason (or pretense?) for her call was to ask for my social security number. Apparently she was updating her will and wanted to list me as beneficiary.
“But you know how Lela is,” Dad said. “According to her you stand to inherit a mountain top of all things! I promised I’d let you know … even though it’s probably horseshit.”
“Wait, where is she?” I asked my dad.
“Did you get an address? What’s her phone number?”
I already knew what he would say.
“Naw, I didn’t ask. Why do you care? She’s crazy!”
Same old stubborn Daddy Bill.
I didn’t press him. Ever since Lela’s Irish goodbye in '79, I’d grown increasingly ambivalent about her. I had many questions, but it was clear to me that they would never be answered by her or by my father.
A few years later just before my college graduation, Dad came to visit me in Boston. He’d recently divorced wife number four and he wanted to take me on a road trip.
We spent two weeks exploring New England, including one of his favorite birding spots, Mt. Desert Island off the coast of Maine. I would sit on the rocks for hours, playing my horn over the Atlantic, while Dad studied the flora and fauna of Acadia National Park.
Dmitri Matheny - Mt. Desert Island, Maine | Summer 1988
In the evenings we’d enjoy delicious seafood dinners in Bar Harbor before retiring to our hotel, where we’d crack open a Sam Adams and reminisce. Perhaps because I’d been away for several years at Interlochen and Berklee, Dad was uncharacteristically talkative, so I took the opportunity to steer our conversation to wife number two, hoping to learn a little more about their brief time together and my own origin story.
I noticed that if I asked Dad a direct question (“How did you and Lela meet?”) he would abruptly change the subject, but if I introduced the topic in a more oblique way (“Where did you live before I was born?”) he would begin to wax nostalgic and eventually would find his own way to Lela-land.
I’ve forgotten much of what Dad told me during these late night chin wags, but I do recall him saying that Lela was raised in Chattanooga, not by her parents but by “two old maid aunts in a big house with white columns.” Apparently Lela and several members of her family (the Aults) had experienced “nervous breakdowns” and were “taken to the nut house.” Dad also mentioned a schizophrenic and homeless uncle who was known to wander the streets naked. “Every year they’d find him, clean him up, get him dressed, and bring him to Thanksgiving Dinner,” Dad said, shaking his head, adding “that whole family was crazy.”
I didn’t give these accounts much credence, chalking them up to a combination of heartbreak, hearsay, and hyperbole, but a few years later, when I repeated these stories to my fiancée in California, she expressed concern. “It’s important for us to know the medical history on both sides of your family,” Larissa explained, “especially since we want kids of our own.”
I agreed, so Lara and I traveled to Tennessee on a Lela fact-finding mission. We didn’t learn much about the family but we did find out a few revelatory things about my mother's adolescence.
In the microfiche archives of the Chattanooga Public Library we found the obituary for Lela’s paternal grandmother and namesake, Lela Elizabeth Ault (born Bryson) 1878-1953.
Lela Bryson Ault
July 26, 1878
Dec 12, 1953
Since the article included an address for the Ault family home, we drove over to take a look and, sure enough, it was a big house with white columns, looking like something straight out of Gone With The Wind. We knocked on the door but no-one answered.
Returning to the library we discovered my mother’s Chattanooga High School yearbooks. What a find! In official school portraits between 1957 and 1960, we see Lela Ault transform from a cute, mischievous girl into a mature, sophisticated young woman right before our eyes.
Lela Ault - Chattanooga High School, Tennessee
(L-R) 1957-58, 1958-59, 1959-60
Her senior photo, in particular, is striking. There’s something deadly serious and almost defiant in her expression. At eighteen she already appears to be someone of substance, and the arts-centric bio blurb beneath the image supports this impression.
It turns out that Lela Ault was not only a visual artist in high school, but a prolific singer and performer as well. Who knew?! She sang in the choir and cantata, was a featured soloist in several student talent shows, and appeared in musical theater productions of Porgy & Bess, The Pajama Game and A Star Is Born. Moreover, as a member of the art service and specialty clubs, she was invited to perform off campus for various civic organizations around town.
Prior to this moment I had no idea that Lela was a music person. In media interviews, whenever I was asked if I came from a musical family, I always answered “not especially” and credited my father’s excellent record collection as the catalyst for my career in jazz. I was raised to believe that nurture, not nature, had set me on this path.
But here, in the pages of a midcentury high school yearbook, was new evidence that I could not ignore: photos of my biological mother on stage, five years before my birth, singing jazz standards by George Gershwin and Harold Arlen.
Lela Ault - Chattanooga High School, Tennessee | 1959-60
Singing "Summertime" and "The Man That Got Away"
A few days later we visited Daddy Bill's side of the family in Cookeville, Tullahoma, and Nashville.
“Did you know that Lela was a singer?” I asked my Aunt Maxine.
“Oh, she had a lovely voice,” she replied. “We all thought so.”
Childhood memories are like polaroid photos in an old dusty box.
They don’t provide a cohesive autobiographical narrative, only brief flashes of insight into the murky past. You sort through the random images, shuffling them like playing cards, until one of them finally whispers to you, and a shard of memory is revealed, darkly, like a half-forgotten scent or song fragment.
It is from these small, disparate clues that you must fashion your origin story. But each time you take the box down from the shelf, there seem to be fewer snapshots inside.
It’s the summer of 1978 in Columbus, Georgia. A U-Haul is parked in front of our little apartment at Warm Springs Court. Daddy Bill and I are loading our last few boxes into the back of the truck.
Daddy Bill Matheny | Summer 1978
Warm Springs Court, Columbus GA
“You about ready to hit the road, Bub Man?” Daddy Bill asks. He’s been calling me “Bub Man” lately instead of Little Bub, and it feels right. I’m 12-and-a-half now, not a little kid anymore, and we’re about to begin a whole new life, far away from this place.
The past year was an emotional roller coaster. Up and down, love and loss. Dad finished his seventh year at Brookstone School on a high note, winning a prestigious teacher’s award from the city and having the yearbook dedicated in his honor. Then he abruptly resigned. Devastated by divorce, he slept for days at a time, rarely coming out of his room. “The doctor has me on tranquilizers,” he explained. When finally he emerged from the darkness of depression, other women came around, comforting him, playing mother to me, and we were happy for a time. But eventually they left, too.
When Dad’s last great love, Judy Mehaffey, moved to Nashville to pursue a songwriting career, her teenage son Jay came to live with us. Welcoming Jay into our home made sense. Our families were already intertwined. Jay’s mom and my dad, who still loved one another, were now prolific penpals. Jay’s older sister Kim, away at college, had been my babysitter and Dad’s star student at Brookstone. Kim and Jay’s father Lem (divorced from Judy, estranged from Jay) was the landlord of our little apartment complex.
Confused? Welcome to my world. The important thing is this: for one glorious summer I had a brother.
I was an only child who never especially wanted siblings. I cherished my solitude and was never bored. Daddy Bill and I were pals, and if I needed more companions there were always plenty of kids in the neighborhood. But Jay’s arrival in the summer of ’78 was right on time.
We lived in a small, two-bedroom apartment. Jay slept on our couch and made the living room his domain. As a tween on the precipice of puberty, I was utterly fascinated by this confident, lanky 17-year-old now living in our midst. It seemed like the most natural thing in the world, the way he immediately made himself at home, blasting Frampton Comes Alive on the stereo, watching Midnight Special on the tube, drinking Sprite, talking on the phone, holding court. I didn’t even try to play it cool. I thought Jay hung the moon, and he knew it.
Jay Mehaffey | Summer 1978
Warm Springs Court, Columbus GA
Dad knew it, too. Inviting Jay to move in may have sprung from a desire to help Judy, but it turned out to be the very best thing for all of us. Jay had a stabilizing influence in our home. His arrival prompted Dad to come out of his cave. Order was restored. We kept the pantry stocked, shared household chores, enjoyed regular meal times, and took road trips together.
Jay showed me how to assert my independence. Prior to Jay, I was Daddy Bill’s little sidekick, not so much a separate entity as an extension of his adult persona. I perceived Dad’s needs as my own; his moods became my moods. After Jay, I was my own man. There were three of us now, each with his own desires and responsibilities. We were a family.
But Jay was more to me than an ersatz older brother. He was like a cosmic life coach, sent by the universe to guide me through the emotional, hormonally turbulent life transition from boyhood to early adolescence. Our alliance felt all the more momentous because we knew it to be temporary. Summer’s end would mean our separation. Jay would stay in Columbus to finish high school, and I would move out west with Daddy Bill. Dad had accepted a new teaching position in Tucson, so that was where I would turn 13, begin junior high, and meet my destiny.
If Jay felt it was a drag to have a shadow that summer before his senior year, he certainly never showed it. He introduced me to his friends and let me tag along on their outings. He helped me find a job mowing lawns, taught me how to pop a wheelie on my bike, and hipped me to all kinds of music. At night I would make a pallet on the floor between the couch and coffee table, so we could continue talking into the wee hours. I’d stretch out flat, parallel to Jay on the couch above, and imagine that we were real brothers, sharing a room with bunk beds.
Our late night heart-to-hearts offered a crash course in what I should expect from life over the next few years. We talked about all the things I didn’t feel comfortable discussing with my father: cliques, crushes, flirting, fighting, parties, popularity, petty rivalry, peer pressure, the prom. I asked Jay all about the rituals of dating and how to talk to girls. He answered solemnly in great detail, stressing the importance of things like having plenty of money (chicks are expensive), when to give a girl your letterman jacket (only if you’re serious), and how to unhook a bra clasp (always use both hands). He spoke earnestly, as if he’d been tasked with a sacred mission of passing along his accumulated teen wisdom. I was riveted and hung on his every word.
Jay and I haven’t really stayed in touch since then, except to exchange Christmas cards once or twice, the way men do. But I sure hope he knows how important he was to me that summer, and how grateful I remain.
When the moving van showed up I was ready. Packing up was a breeze. After all, I’m the minimalist son of an anti-capitalist. We didn’t have that many possessions to begin with. Plus, we’d already moved several times before, so I knew the routine: put your stuff in boxes; say goodbye to all your friends.
Moving days are always bittersweet, but this one felt different. Inspired by everything I learned from Jay, I was committed to reinventing myself. I divided my belongings into two piles. One pile comprised only the essential things I’d need in my new life out west: clothes, books, trumpet, bike. We loaded them onto the truck. The other pile was all the “kid stuff” I would leave behind forever: comic books, action figures, toys.
Word got around quickly and the neighborhood kids descended like vultures. I sold everything I could and gave away the rest, pocketing a little over five hundred dollars.
“You about ready to hit the road, Bub Man?” Daddy Bill asked. “You bet,” I replied, climbing into the cab.
I didn't look back as we headed west. To the future.
“if this town is just an apple
then let me take a bite”
I love New York.
Artists are drawn to New York City of course, but unlike many of my college friends, I chose not to move there after graduation. I picked the other coast, and for better or worse, that decision has shaped the trajectory of my life and career.
The first time I ever visited NYC was on a road trip in the seventies with my father. I can’t remember the reason for our trip, or why he insisted on driving into Manhattan, but I vividly recall how he muttered and cursed the whole time, anxiously gripping the steering wheel, his knuckles white, his face crimson red.
For the rest of his life, whenever New York came up in conversation, my dad would launch into his litany of grievances, about “that bastard who cut me off,” how “we both could’ve been killed,” how “crowded and dangerous” that city is, and how “some druggie” even tried to break into our parked car.
But Daddy Bill would always conclude with a smile and the same magnanimous declaration: “Welp, at least Little Bub got a kick out of climbing up that statue.”
First Crush, 1975
I've always had a thing for powerful women.
At age ten, I was fascinated by the Statue of Liberty. Our New York trip happened to occur just as bicentennial celebrations were ramping up, and I was enthralled by all the patriotic pageantry and symbolism. But it wasn’t the ascent to Lady Liberty’s crown that thrilled me so much as the sheer sight of her, towering majestically over the harbor. To this day, I can’t see that iconic statue in a movie without getting chills.
Thus began my complicated affair with The Big Apple. Like my father, I felt out of place there, but I also felt the city’s mysterious gravitational pull.
Surely part of New York’s magnetic appeal is its reputation as the cultural capital of America. The entire history of twentieth century music, film, visual art and literature can hardly be imagined without that city’s seminal role as a proving ground in virtually every genre.
So in 1985, when I began commuting to New York for music lessons with Carmine Caruso (who changed my embouchure) and Art Farmer (who changed my life), it felt right.
Art Farmer, who changed my life
I loved taking the train down from Boston, the romantic feeling of passing through all those quaint little New England towns along the northeast corridor, the crescendo of excitement as the skyline gradually came into view, and the butterflies in my stomach as I exited the station and made my way over to Caruso’s 46th Street studio.
After our lessons I would visit a friend or two before picking up Hot House or The Village Voice to check the club listings and decide which of my heroes to go see that evening. I knew that I could never actually live there. As an introvert, I found the city exhilarating but overwhelming. But I was motivated to visit often. When you need inspiration, you go to New York.
Even during my lost years in San Francisco, when I was married and working for Jazz In The City (later renamed SFJAZZ), I enjoyed many business trips to New York. Whether to sell jazz festival sponsorships (Sony, Verve, Blue Note), participate in industry conferences (APAP, JazzTimes, IAJE), or serve on grant review panels (Doris Duke, CMA), I never missed an opportunity for an all-expenses-paid pilgrimage to Jazz Mecca.
I never missed an opportunity for an all-expenses-paid pilgrimage to Jazz Mecca.
I saw Art Farmer at Sweet Basil, Tommy Flanagan at the Vanguard, Illinois Jacquet at Tavern on the Green, Sonny Rollins at Town Hall, Chris Potter at the Knitting Factory, and more. I was even so fortunate as to attend a secret late night performance by Ornette Coleman in his Harlem loft.
After I’d lived in California for awhile, immersed in the vibrant Bay Area scene, I started my own band. It took some time to make my bones as a bandleader, but eventually we had a full dance card, playing concerts, clubs and festivals all over the region. We were essentially a territory band, criss-crossing the western states.
As much as I loved life on the road, I soon learned that traveling with a quintet was unsustainable. Presenters rarely covered all our hotel and travel costs, and our margins were razor thin. Eventually I followed the example of my mentor, and began to travel solo, working with outstanding local rhythm sections in each destination. I found talented, capable sidemen everywhere. As one frequent collaborator observed, “The Dmitri Matheny Group is now a cast of thousands.”
But even after I’d begun to tour internationally, New York City remained a tough nut to crack. It was a challenge to get the attention of the gatekeepers, but I was determined to play there. Nobody on the ice world of Hoth gives a damn how hard your cantina band swings back on Tatooine.
I made my New York debut on Valentine’s Day 1995 at the Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall. Presented by Monarch Records as the east coast release party for my album Red Reflections, the concert featured a solid line-up of young NYC musicians, friends old and new, assembled just for the occasion.
February 14, 1995
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall NYC
Dmitri Matheny Group featuring Mark Gross,
George Colligan, Jesse Murphy, Hans Schuman
My next New York appearance would be a couple of years later at The Jazz Gallery on Hudson Street. I was introduced to the venue’s founder, Dale Fitzgerald, by photographer Lee Tanner, whose work was on display in the gallery. Since the exhibit featured photos of Thelonious Monk, we all thought it would be cool to program an evening of Monk’s music in the same space. That show turned out to be one of the swingingest gigs of my life. I credit the world-class rhythm section for making everything feel so effortless. We had a full house, and the music seemed to play itself.
November 8, 1997
The Jazz Gallery NYC
Dmitri Matheny Group featuring
Jonny King, Larry Grenadier, Tony Reedus
The following year, Hans Schuman invited me back for a youth concert at the Brooklyn Museum. I’m so proud of my buddy Hans, who founded the nonprofit Jazzreach in the early nineties and has since built it into an arts education powerhouse. The show was a blast, the kids in the audience loved it, and the band Hans put together was first rate. As a surprise bonus, concert sponsor Armani Exchange outfitted us all with stage wear. (I rocked those black velvet pants for years afterward!)
October 7, 1998
Brooklyn Art Museum NYC
Jazzreach presents Get Hip!
Hans Schuman, Mark Turner, Xavier Davis,
Josh Ginsburg, Dmitri Matheny, Vernice Miller
Later that month, on Halloween, I returned to Weill Hall for a second Monarch showcase, this time in support of my album Starlight Cafe. Pianist Darrell Grant, who played brilliantly on the CD, was able to make the date, and we had a ball. A highlight of the evening was a performance by dancer/choreographer Rebecca Stenn. The show was a big success and even raised some money for charity.
October 31, 1998
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall NYC
Dmitri Matheny Group featuring Darrell Grant,
Josh Ginsburg, Rebecca Stenn
Two weeks later I was invited to participate in a series of promotional appearances for a compilation CD called Gershwin On Monarch by the Crown Project. Our final event was a performance for music retailers and distributors at Windows on the World, a glass enclosed restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center. The view was incredible, a treasured memory now that those towers are gone forever.
November 14, 1998
Windows on the World NYC
The Crown Project
My hero, Art Farmer, passed away the following year. It was a tremendous loss, not just for me, but for the entire jazz world. I felt then as I do now, extraordinarily grateful to have known him and to have benefitted from his wise counsel. I was humbled to have been among the musicians asked to pay musical tribute to him at a memorial celebration at St. Peter’s Church.
November 7, 1999
St. Peter’s Church NYC
A Celebration of the Musical Life of Art Farmer
Dmitri Matheny and Billy Taylor
St. Peter’s is often called “the jazz church” by musicians, partly because it’s where so many of our icons have been memorialized, and partly because of the church’s history of presenting jazz in concert. Grant & Matheny appeared there in a 2001 program celebrating the legacy of MLK. Darrell and I premiered new works dedicated to Dr. King, and many of our friends and fellow musicians turned out in support. We were thrilled.
January 14, 2001
St. Peter’s Church NYC
Grant & Matheny
It’s funny how memory plays tricks on you. I didn’t realize it until now, but I performed in New York seven times between 1995 and 2001. Not so many, considering the number of shows I played elsewhere over the same period. But what really blows my mind is the fact that I wouldn't return to NYC until 14 years later, when Mark Taylor and I shared a bill at the Cornelia Street Cafe in Greenwich Village. We did the usual promotional rain dance and invited everyone we knew, but somehow our audience that night barely outnumbered the band. That was a rough one.
September 14, 2014
Cornelia Street Cafe NYC
Mark Taylor's Secret Identity and the Dmitri Matheny Group featuring
Richard Johnson, Michaël Attias, Eric Revis, Michael TA Thompson
I’ve returned to the Empire State several times since then, playing modest venues in far-flung corners and giving more workshops than I can count. I even performed at the Rochester International Jazz Festival — a career highlight — but I haven’t yet returned to NYC.
September 26, 2014 and October 13, 2017
Beanrunner Cafe Peekskill NY
Dmitri Matheny Group featuring Richard Johnson, Harvey S,
Joe Strasser, Sheryl Bailey, Tony Jefferson, Rob Scheps
September 27, 2014 and October 14, 2017
Abilene Bar & Lounge Rochester NY
Dmitri Matheny Group featuring Richard Johnson, Jeff Campbell,
Mike Melito, Doug Stone, Bob Sneider, Danny Vitale
June 26, 2018
Rochester International Jazz Festival
Dmitri Matheny Group featuring
Bob Sneider, Jeff Campbell, Mike Melito
Our plans for the post-pandemic future are uncertain.
I’m getting older, and touring is a young man’s game.
But I sure would love another bite at the apple.
“Adulthood and what they call maturity is
the slow acceptance of what you will never be.”
“Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die.”
As of today, about 71 million Americans have been fully vaccinated, representing 22 percent of the total US population. As the shots-in-arms number rises, so do our spirits. Restrictions on travel and events have already begun to relax. Folks are starting to get back out there.
Progress is slower globally. According to UNICEF, 130 countries have yet to administer a single dose, leaving 2.5 billion people out of luck in the worldwide vaccination effort. Doses remain scarce in many countries, despite resource-sharing programs like COVAX. Same storm, different boats.
Meanwhile, new COVID-19 variants continue to emerge. The experts are now saying that coronavirus will never be totally eradicated. It has already spread too far and is changing too fast. The primary goal of public health efforts is now to make the virus manageable, like seasonal flu. We may need to get a coronavirus shot every year.
So hope in the air, but so is trepidation. We now consider the road ahead.
I received my first dose of the Moderna vaccine last month, and am scheduled for shot number two this weekend. With cautious optimism, I decided to dip my toe in the water, and agreed to play a couple of socially-distanced jazz festival gigs and teach at an adult jazz camp next month.
Did I make the right call in accepting these jobs? The decision seemed reasonable at the time, but as May approaches, I can feel my blood pressure going up.
I'm nervous! Covid cases continue to rise, and hospitalizations have plateaued even as vaccinations increase. This thing is far from over. But health concerns are only a part of my ambivalence.
This year in lockdown has taught me a great deal about myself as an artist and as a man. To put it simply, I’m not entirely sure that I even want to return to public life.
When I was a young man, I believed that I was part of a sacred continuum. I regarded my musical heroes as ancestors, and felt that it was my responsibility to take up their mantle and follow their example. I fully expected that one day I would join them, in the grand succession, on Olympus.
As I got older, I began to think about my legacy. I had no protégé, no students, and no children, yet I saved every concert program and news clipping. I imagined that these items would be valuable to future historians, biographers, and curators of retrospective exhibitions about my life and career. I even lugged my memorabilia around in a giant footlocker, which I called The Dmitri Museum without a trace of irony.
The Dmitri Museum
When I hit midlife, after I'd been making a living in music for awhile, I began to realize that my career held no great significance. I’m neither a virtuoso nor an innovator. I can play, but my simple songs and modest independent recordings are not likely to be remembered by history.
After some soul-searching I made peace with the demotion and embraced the more realistic role of blue collar bandleader. I'd lost interest in collecting museum exhibits anyway, so I scanned a few items, tossed the rest, and focused all my energies on filling the schedule.
“If I’m not going to be important,” I thought, “I can at least be busy.” Over the next decades my bands and I spent over two hundred nights a year on the road, playing thousands of shows for small audiences in intimate venues. I took pride in our success, but I also felt like the dog that caught the car ... now what?
Then came the big Pandemic Pause Button, and with it the chance to stop, think, and ask the big questions. Am I happy? Why did I choose this life? What other paths might I have taken? Should I stay the course, or find a new way?
The first few weeks of the shutdown were especially challenging. My ego was attached to my manufactured identity as one of the hardest working, busiest cats around, and that had been taken away. I felt defanged and emasculated. But as weeks turned into months, I began to let all that go. Gradually I settled into a new rhythm.
The pace of life during lockdown slowed to a stroll, my preferred tempo in all things. Each day was perfectly balanced: a little writing, a little teaching, a lot of relaxing. I puttered around the house, played my horn, wrestled with the dog, and took naps. I spent time outdoors, walking, gardening and fishing. I enjoyed home-cooked meals with Sassy and heart-to-heart talks with faraway friends.
We also watched tons of movies. One that I found particularly inspiring was Harry Dean Stanton’s final picture Lucky, in which a 90-year-old man comes to terms with his own mortality in a small desert town.
Harry Dean Stanton in Lucky (2017)
Lucky finds enlightenment in the minutia of life. “He has a routine,” observes film critic Matt Zoller Seitz, “and like many older people, it gives shape to his days.” Yes, indeed.
Like Lucky, I’m a non-religious seeker, and ritual is important to me as I prepare for my own senescence. This year provided an unexpected, welcome preview of what daily life will be like when I retire. I was surprised to learn that I love this simple life, and that even without music and travel, I’m still me.
This year of Liminal Time was a gift from the universe, an opportunity to reevaluate foundational assumptions. For example, as a child I was taught to see myself as a winner, and that idea was reinforced every time I excelled in school, work, music, life. But how can you be a winner if you never try things outside your comfort zone? How can you be a winner if you never attempt something at which you might lose?
All my life I’ve parsed the world into two absurd, Randian categories: “things that matter” (where I win), and “things that are a foolish waste of time” (where I never lose, because I refuse to participate). I now see that what I believed to be discernment was actually a childish defense mechanism against the inevitable shame of failure.
This cartoonish worldview served me for awhile as a useful delusion. It gave me strength during times of adversity. But it also deprived me of valuable life experience and depleted my capacity for empathy. It hindered my ability to make friends, because whenever I dismissed something as foolish, I would be equally dismissive of those who enjoyed or excelled at that thing.
Art Farmer was 100% correct when he told me that I don’t take enough chances. Art also said that there is really no such thing as losing. “There’s only winning or learning.” What he didn’t say, but I now believe, is that of the two, learning is best.
Art Farmer was 100% correct when he told me that I don’t take enough chances.
Looking ahead, I’m not sure what my new normal will look like, but I hope to fashion a more balanced lifestyle, one with less busyness and more curiosity.
I do still have some ambition in the tank. I'll surely write more music, play more concerts, and record at least one more album before I call it quits. But I also feel the need to make space in my life for frivolous hobbies, silly games, small talk, chance encounters with strangers, taking chances, and exploring new interests.
I’d like to spend fewer nights on the road. It’s time to begin my transition from “touring musician” to “northwest composer” and eventually “eccentric old guy at the diner.”
The fact is, I may have no choice in the matter. Competition for post-pandemic work will be intense. Many venues, including several of my longtime clients, have gone out of business during this crisis. Others are now booking bands at unrealistically low wages. Most won’t return to live music at all until capacity restrictions are lifted. #SaveOurStages
But if this year has taught me anything, it’s that work for work's sake is overrated. Been there, done that.
The new goal is a smaller, simpler, more sustainable life.
One shaped by ritual and routine, punctuated by moments of discovery and wonder.
That’s the life for me.
Remember the song “Fame?”
Not the groovy David Bowie ear worm. The other one:
Fame! I’m gonna live forever
I’m gonna learn how to fly
High! I feel it coming together
People will see me and cry
Fame! I’m gonna make it to heaven
Light up the sky like a flame
Fame! I’m gonna live forever
Baby remember my name
“Fame” was a major showbiz anthem of the ‘80s, a big hit for Irene Cara, and the titular theme song of a popular movie and television series.
I watched Fame every Thursday night. I had no idea whether New York’s High School for the Performing Arts was real or fictional, but the premise of a special school for talented teens? Seemed pretty magical to me. To this day, when I hear that song I can’t help but sing along.
Lori Singer as "Julie" in Fame
My school in Arizona couldn’t have been less like Fame. Nobody at Canyon del Oro was gonna “learn how to fly” or “live forever,” least of all some skinny little pep band trumpeter with delusions of grandeur.
I could really see myself thriving, however, in a place like that Fame school. It wasn’t the bright lights of New York City that attracted me so much as the notion of being among my own kind.
How glorious it would be to collaborate every day with other young creatives! Learning from experts, making music together, attending plays and exhibits, talking about art! I just knew I could find friends in a place like that, and maybe even meet a girl like Julie, the gorgeous but shy cellist/dancer on Fame (huge crush).
So when the opportunity came along for me to transfer to a private, arts-centered boarding school, I didn’t hesitate.
Interlochen Center for the Arts (Interlochen MI), home of Interlochen Arts Academy and National Music Camp; Inset: pep band trumpeter with delusions of grandeur
Interlochen Arts Academy was everything I’d dreamed of, a community of misfits and eccentrics, just like me. For the first time, I was living among kindred spirits my own age: painters, sculptors, actors, dancers, writers, musicians. I was home.
Like LaGuardia High School, on which the Fame school was based, Interlochen emphasizes both arts and academics, attracting students from all over the world to prepare for higher education while training for careers in the arts. But unlike LaGuardia, which is situated in the heart of Manhattan’s upper west side near Juilliard and Lincoln Center, the Interlochen campus in located in a rural Michigan pine forest between two lakes.
The secluded setting made my experience at Interlochen feel more like living in an artist colony than a boarding school. The year-round Interlochen Arts Academy had grown out of the prestigious summer National Music Camp, utilizing many of the same rustic cabins, classrooms and dormitories.
I staked out my practice spot early on: the boiler room in the basement of our residence hall. Each morning I would take my horn down there to warm up with long tones and scales before the school day began.
I loved that cozy little bunker more than all the grand stages and recital halls on campus. It was my sanctuary. When I returned to IAA many years later as a visiting artist and clinician, that room was the first place I asked to see. Although the building had been renamed, I was gratified to find that my little boiler room had not changed a bit.
Interlochen is where it all began for me, no joke. It’s where I learned the discipline required to build a life in the arts, and how rewarding the artist’s life can be.
Top: IAA Jazz Combos, DM front, second from left; Middle: performing with IAA Studio Orchestra, Corson Auditorium; Bottom: Stud Orch rehearsal, DM rear left
“You've got big dreams.
You want fame?
Well, fame costs.
And right here is where
you start paying: in sweat.”
—Lydia Grant, Fame
Interlochen taught me to work hard and stay humble, an ethos that would inform nearly all my future life choices.
It’s where I came to understand the artist's vaunted, leadership role in society, the public expectation to fulfill one's calling, and the private responsibility to develop one's capabilities -- not necessarily in the pursuit of fame -- but toward the creation of something meaningful and lasting.
The pressure to succeed in our lives and careers was explicit. Students who published a poem or won a concerto competition were celebrated by the entire student body. Those elite few who were named Presidential Scholars In The Arts were treated as mini-celebrities, with a pomp normally reserved for football team captains and homecoming royalty back home in the Lonesome Desert. A day did not pass without someone “sounding the call,” enjoining the Gifted Youth to get it together, buckle down, and level up.
I recall walking to class through the Concourse, a long hall of glass display cases, where the photos and accomplishments of notable Academy graduates were displayed. Seeing all their awards and accolades, knowing that these extraordinary young women and men -- now making waves in Hollywood, Chicago, the capitals of Europe -- had started their journeys in this very place? Inspiring! Intimidating, too.
If there is an Interlochen Doctrine, it is the notion of artistic talent as both a precious gift and a sacred responsibility.
“What will you contribute?” asked one of our teachers from the stage of Kresge Auditorium, the pledge Dedicated To The Promotion Of World Friendship Through The Universal Language Of The Arts adorning the wall behind her.
“What will you create for posterity?” she challenged us. “History remembers the artists and the conquerors, creators and destroyers. You are creators! Tomorrow’s leaders. So make your lives count! We’re counting on you.”
That kind of ideological rhetoric, grandiose as it was, really resonated with me.
I've never worked harder or had more fun than I did at Interlochen. I'm grateful to have made several lifelong friends there, too, including my mentor and jazz professor, bassist Tom Knific, now a dear colleague and frequent collaborator.
And yes, I even got to know a “Julie” or two ... but that’s a story for another time.
Fortress of Sassitude | Centralia WA
August 12, 2015
Photo by Sassy
last night to deliver two of his signature resin-sealed portraits to us at Dizzy's.
I love the colors in this image (based on a photo by Tom Kwas).
Great to meet you and your family, Mr. Plummer!
PHX to OAK
March 19, 2015
You're welcome, world.
Good News: Everybody gets a Batman stamp!
As you know, Christmas Day is also my birthday.
This year, I've been a very good boy and a hard working dog.
Please bring me anything from this list:
- CD: Grand River Crossings by Geri Allen
- Book: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
- DVD: Johnny Staccato
- Large black Rudy Vallee-style megaphone
- Autographed Nicholas Payton pocket square
- Medjool dates grown in Dateland AZ
- Custom personal cologne designed by David Carlos Valdez
- Working replica of the Mystic Seer
- Hat like the one Mark Gross wears on the cover of Blackside
- Property taxes windfall
- Chili and lime saladitos