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Santa Fe was a stone groove!
Highlights: sold-out show at Club Legato (woo hoo!), giant metal statue of Scout (my kinda public art!), and the best fish tacos in the world. Thanks JT! #BumblebeeBobForever
Now comes the fun part: the vantastic homeward journey of 2,000 miles, through five states, in three days! From New Mexico, through Arizona, California, and Oregon, and all the way back home to Washington State.
I’m so glad we did this.
Yesterday the Jazz Noir band rehearsed in Phoenix for our upcoming show at Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts. Scout chased a Gamble’s Quail and cooled off in front of the fan.
Today we traveled 281 miles to Gallup, New Mexico. The scenery on the drive was stunning. Highlights: snow in the White Mountains, a greasy spoon breakfast in Payson, and a lovely walk with Scout near Petrified Forest National Park.
Tomorrow’s destination: Santa Fe!
In Twentynine Palms, having tucked in for the night behind the big boys at Luckie Park, we were able to start our day with a vigorous game of fetch, or as Scout calls it, “Rowr-Roo.”
300 miles later we arrived in the Lonesome Desert just in time to witness a spectacular Arizona sunset. I’ve enjoyed sunsets all over the world, but none can compare. Thank you, Daddy Bill.
Today the Jazz Noir band rehearses in Phoenix for our upcoming show at Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts. Then Scout and I will hit the road again, this time for Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.
We've been listening to books on tape while we drive. Current selection: Dolly Parton, Songteller: My Life in Lyrics.
Nobody’s getting rich on this tour, but we’re having loads of fun, and it’s one hell of a vacation for my dog! #Forward #BoondockerBoondoggle
400 miles is about as far as I care to travel in a single day. But I must admit, as sure as dog is my co-pilot, I actually enjoyed the drive from Oakland to Twentynine Palms.
Highlights: seeing the sun rise over Alameda County, doing a KSFR Santa Fe Public Radio phone interview as we drove through the Tehachapi wind farms, walking Scout among the giant alien broccoli in Joshua Tree, and dining on pulled pork when we finally reached our destination.
Today we cross the Lonesome Desert into Arizona for a rehearsal, then it's on to Santa Fe. #Forward #BoondockerBoondoggle
Yesterday we drove to Merced, California. At the dog park Scout became fast friends — literally — with a beautiful Aussie named Partner. They ran and romped so fast that I couldn’t even snap a photo!
We arrived in Merced early, so I found a laundromat with wifi and took the opportunity to do a load of laundry, charge up our power station, and catch up on a little business.
Road life isn’t always glamorous. I once bumped into Diana Krall at the Jazz Aspen festival, matter-of-factly doing her laundry at the hotel in Snowmass Village. This is the way.
Still feeling the love after our Oakland show. Warm thanks to everyone who made the scene. It was a stone groove.
Today will be a long one. 7 hours driving. Destination: Twentynine Palms. Distance: 391 Miles. #Forward
Yesterday Scout and I woke to the sound of raindrops on the roof of our tour bus. She tilted her head and stared up at the ceiling in wonder. I immediately fell asleep again. Rain is a terrific soporific.
Then the sun came out and announced the beginning of spring. It was a big day for my CaCo (aka Canine Companion, pronounced “Keiko”). We visited three parks: Magnolia Park in Oakley, Tex Spruiell Park in Livermore, and Joaquin Miller Park in Oakland. She charmed everyone we met, of course.
In the evening I dropped her off for a puppy party with celebrity friend Berkeley (you.see.berkeley on Instagram), and then I headed over to the Sound Room to earn a little more kibble cash.
I had a ball with pianist Ken French, bassist Ruth Davies, drummer Mark Lee, and special guests guitarist Ed Dunsavage and vocalist Cary Williams. The convivial crowd included many friends I haven’t seen in ages, including several well-known musicians.
The old Sound Room was already a favorite; this new, improved venue is even better. Thank you, Karen and Robert! We’re looking forward to returning in September for our album release celebration.
Today Scout and I hit the road for Southern California.
So far, so good.
Scout and I spent yesterday at The Klub in Glen Ellen, the exclusive wine country getaway expertly owned and managed by our dear friends Rocket, Peaches, Jasper, and Wilson. It was our first grand reunion since the beginning of the damndemic. So good.
Today I coached the San Mateo High School jazz band while Scout visited the groomer. The jazz kids were engaged, focused, and inspiring, a credit to Maestro Til, the head coach. The pup emerged from the beauty parlor looking (and smelling!) more fabulous than ever.
Tonight it’s long tones in the mobile practice room (big show tomorrow), and if we aren’t too tired, a movie before bed, preferably one that isn’t too stressful, without dogs barking in the audio track of every establishing shot.
Funny how ubiquitous those movie dogs have become. There’s one particularly distressing bark they use over and over, like the Wilhelm Scream. Let me tell you, Scout is not a fan! So we’ll do our level best to find something hopeful and barkless to send us off to dreamland.
Scout and I have had a wonderful couple of days in the San Francisco Bay Area.
We explored the Redwood Glen and Palos Colorados trails, had a puppy party at the Oakland Dog Park, visited with friends old and new, and spent two nights on a farm! This afternoon we’re headed to the wine country.
I also presented a couple of jazz workshops in area high schools, so this is a legit work trip, not a vacation (ahem).
Destination: Oakland CA
Distance: 306 miles
Lovely day yesterday traveling with my best girl through Washington and Oregon to California.
We enjoyed the rain, listened to murder mystery audiobooks, and made excellent time on I-5, considering all the pit stops for puppy walks and pie!
Today (3/15) we ease on down the road to the San Francisco Bay Area.
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!
“Beware the Court of Owls, that watches all the time,
Ruling from a shadow perch, behind granite and lime.”
When Mr. Higgins told me how the Owl Club boasts many prominent artists and musicians among its members, I was skeptical.
I figured there are probably a small number of movie actors and rock stars sprinkled among their highfalutin order. I imagined that any artist members would have to be the type of mainstream celebrities that impress rich people and share their classist, politically conservative views. Even the pedigree of someone like Gordon Fleecing (British, famous) fit with my assumptions about this not-so-secret society.
But learning that Sweets — one of my personal heroes! — was a member? This blew my mind.
Because Sweets is not some rich white guy, mind you, but an African-American gentleman of modest means. Not a business mogul but a retired school teacher. Not a celebrity so much as a master craftsman, highly respected among our peers in the community of musicians. Hard-working. Dignified. Sincere. Real.
For all my trepidation about this club and groups in general, I must admit that his involvement intrigued me.
It’s springtime in San Francisco, and another typical workday in my three-ring circus of a life. Morning at the festival office dealing with demanding sponsors. Afternoon at the record company dealing with complacent distributors. Evening on the bandstand dealing with this unforgiving horn.
The plates never stop spinning and I always feel as if I’m neglecting something or someone somewhere. But tonight brings a welcome pause in the routine. After our show an audience member approaches the stage and offers to buy me a drink.
His name is Gregory. He’s a guitarist. We barely know one another, yet he speaks to me with the warm familiarity of an old friend. He asks how I’ve been, inquires about my wife and family, and shares some intimate personal details of his own.
Delighted to have made a new friend, I sip my single malt as we sit together, chatting amiably until the lights come up and the club empties out. In the parking lot Gregory hands me a small envelope.
“We're having a party in the city tomorrow,” he says. “You should come.”
As he drives away I open the envelope. Inside is a thick card embossed with raised lettering: Cocktails In The Cartoon Room.
I’ve never heard of the place, and there’s no address on the invitation, but in the lower righthand corner is the now familiar telltale symbol: the Owl of Athena.
Well I’ll be damned.
The Cartoon Room, it turns out, is no place for introverts like me.
I’ve been here before. This massive barroom, with its chaotic jumble of paintings and posters, was overwhelming on my first visit, but tonight the place is packed, shoulder-to-shoulder, with glad-handing, back-slapping, martini-swilling men, all laughing and shouting over the sounds of big band jazz.
I scan the room for Gregory (no luck) then jostle my way through the crowd and up to the long redwood bar. Before I can utter a word the bartender casually greets me by name.
“Mr. Matheny. So glad you could make it.” He pushes a tumbler of amber liquid across the counter. “Lagavulin, neat, yes?” A stranger who knows my name and my drink. What sorcery is this?
I'm about three fingers in when the far wall slides open to reveal a 25-piece swing orchestra in mid-shout chorus, capped off by a tasty trumpet solo from none other than Sweets Allen. The room erupts into boisterous applause.
How wonderful! I assumed the music was piped-in, but it’s live, and excellent. I recognize several of the musicians. Are they all members, I wonder, or hired help?
I want to pay my respects to Sweets and the other musicians, but I’m unable to get to them through the throng. The place is a madhouse. The guy who invited me isn’t here. The whole situation feels peculiar, like I’m supposed to do something, but I don’t for the life of me know what it is. So I stay about an hour, making awkward small talk with strangers, until the claustrophobia kicks in and the crowd becomes too much to bear.
As I cross the Bay Bridge home I ponder my perplexing experience in the parliament of owls.
“I felt like Alice going through the looking-glass,” I confess to my wife over dinner.
“They were clearly expecting me but nobody said anything.”
She raises an eyebrow. “Maybe it was some kind of test.”
“If so,” I reply, “Then I most definitely failed.”
We'll be back again in April with
THE OWL CLUB PART 6:
INTO THE WOODS!
“I hide in plain sight.
Same as you.”
I’m not a superstitious person by nature, but I was raised in the south where even educated folks recognize the power of signs and omens. Charlie’s gift of a tiny silver owl felt like such a signifier to me: a talisman of unknown provenance and portent.
I began to carry the mysterious little figurine in my pocket, where it would gently jingle against my mouthpiece and pocket change as I walked. I carried it everywhere, like a good luck charm, and it seemed to be working. Within a few short years I’d established myself in San Francisco as a working musician, and had sold enough sponsorships to increase our jazz festival budget ten fold.
In hindsight, this was during the tech boom of the early 1990s. Gigs were plentiful then because there were so many gainfully employed young people looking for a night out, and donations were up, too. The dot com bubble was expanding, the stock market was booming, and corporate support for the arts was ascendant. Bay Area businesses needed somewhere to park all that extra cash. Why not a nonprofit that offers exciting social events and a tax write off? It was an easy sell.
I didn’t have that perspective at the time, however. Naively I thought I’d cracked the code! I felt powerful, like a double agent: professional jazz musician by night, hot shot sponsorship salesman by day. Oblivious to the unseen economic forces that conspired to pave my way, I credited my own skill and hustle, with perhaps just a little bit of secret “owl luck” thrown in for good measure.
Over time my magical thinking grew deeper, abetted by echoes. Not only was I carrying the owl totem in my pocket, but I also began to notice similar statuettes in the executive offices of prospective sponsors.
I would be in mid-pitch, sitting across from some corporate mucky-muck, when I would look over at the shelf behind them, and there it would be: another owl statue. I never said anything, but on more than one occasion I sensed a subtle nod or look of acknowledgment when I spied the owl.
Like, I saw it. They saw me see it. Now what?
It’s Tuesday night in San Francisco, and I don’t have a gig of my own, so I’m headed over to Sonny’s Place in North Beach to hear the incomparable flugelhornist Sweets Allen.
For true fans of lyrical swing, it gets no better than Sweets and his honey-toned horn. He’s the real deal, a veteran soloist from the bands of Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, and Tony Bennett. Now in his 70s, Sweets is one of San Francisco’s most beloved musicians and one of the last great gentleman of jazz.
For me, Tuesdays at Sonny’s are like graduate school. I rarely miss the chance to attend one of these weekly masterclasses.
Tonight Sweets is really living up to his name. His improvised lines are powerfully simple, pure, soulful, logical, and undeniably joyful. The warmth of his sound and the smile on his face combine to lift the spirits of everyone in the club.
On the break I motion for him to join me at my table. Like my father, Sweets is a former school teacher, a wise elder who doesn’t mind sharing his accumulated knowledge. He patiently answers all my questions about music and life.
“The main thing is to tell a story,” he advises, tapping his finger on the table for emphasis. “But it’s not like reciting a poem or singing a song. It’s got to be your story.”
“Just be real,” he adds, “and never let the naysayers get you down. They’re everywhere, so keep your head on a swivel.”
“Like an owl,” I say quietly.
“Precisely,” he smiles, standing.
“Which reminds me,” he adds before returning to the bandstand.
“A little birdie told me you may be joining us.”
“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.
“Weaving spiders, come not here;
Hence, you long-legg'd spinners, hence!
Beetles black, approach not near;
Worm nor snail, do no offence.”
The Owl Club’s downtown headquarters, a stately ivy-covered red brick building off Union Square, turns out to be just a short walk from our jazz festival offices south of Market.
I’m curious, of course, why Charlie Higgins invited me here, but truth be told I have my own agenda. Based on the Fleecing concert, many of our city’s business leaders and arts patrons are apparently members of this club. In fundraising parlance, this place could be what’s known as a “happy hunting ground.”
I stand before the club entrance and study the large bronze plaque beside the door. It’s a Great Horned Owl in bas relief, its wings outstretched. In welcome or warning? I wonder.
I open the heavy wooden door and enter the dark chamber. It's drafty and deserted, with no signs of life other than the warm glow of a single unattended fireplace along one wall. Am I early? Guess I’ll have a look around.
From the grand foyer with its high vaulted ceilings, I take in the antique lighting fixtures, wood paneled walls, tall shelves of leather bound books, and low mahogany tables surrounded by clusters of empty armchairs. Down a quiet hallway I find sitting rooms and salons, meeting rooms, galleries, a music library, even a small theater, but no dining room and no people. Not a living soul.
Across the hall is a beautiful redwood cocktail bar, also unoccupied, yet entirely overpopulated with visual art in what can only be described as a surreal assault on the senses. The walls of this room are literally covered, floor to ceiling, with a chaotic jumble of ancient oils, sylvan landscapes, faded portraits, sepia photographs, and dozens of hand-painted event posters, all of them adorned with whimsical cartoons and carnival words. Carefree! Frolic! Hi-jinks! It’s dizzying.
I pick up a bar napkin to wipe my brow and notice the logo: it’s the Owl of Athena in profile flanked by the initials O and C. This is definitely the place, so where the hell is everybody? I feel like that guy in The Twilight Zone, only instead of wandering solo through Mayberry I’ve somehow stumbled into a haunted saloon or abandoned hotel.
But am I really alone? Because I feel like I’m being watched.
That’s when it hits me. I realize with a shudder that all around me, looking at me from every corner, are the eyes of owls. Owls staring from every shelf, peering out from the paintings and posters, glaring down from a stained glass window. Owl faces printed on the wallpaper, carved into the wainscoting, even woven into the very carpet beneath my feet.
Most unsettling of all is the large bronze owl shape directly in front of me. It has no face at all, just a blunt featureless void, giving the impression of both a very modern abstract sculpture and an ancient idol of the pagan underworld.
“Beautiful creatures,” intones the familiar voice of my host, suddenly standing right next to me.
“Fierce hunters, too,” he goes on. “They can swallow their prey whole, bones and all. I’ve seen it!”
“You sound hungry, Chuck” I say.
“Let’s eat,” he replies.
“Men have a desire for stability, security, repetition and order in their lives.
At the same time they have a tendency to want to flee,
to meet the adventure, and to destroy.”
I’ve never been much of a joiner.
Never had much use for clubs or cults or crowds.
Large gatherings and groupthink make me uncomfortable.
It’s one of the reasons I prefer playing an intimate jazz venue over a huge music festival. It’s why, even though I’m a serious Green Lantern collector, I can’t bring myself to attend Comic-Con. It’s why I never cared much for church or theme parks or spectator sports. It’s even why, at the apex of my Buddhism studies, I had to leave the San Francisco Zen Center. I could handle the silent sitting, but as soon as the chanting began, I got the willies and hightailed it the hell out of there.
But of all the creepy crowds I’ve ever encountered, none compare to The Owl Club.
Our story begins in the early ’90s, at San Francisco’s elegant Herbst Theater, where the brilliant blind pianist Gordon Fleecing is playing to a full house. Fleecing and his trio are in fine form, enchanting the sophisticated audience with their witty and clever takes on the Great American Songbook.
I’m standing in the wings wearing my only suit, feeling like a fraud as my boss and I peer through the curtains at the well-heeled crowd. I’m only half listening to the music, because I’m there in a professional capacity, not as a jazz musician, but as a fledgling fundraiser. I’ve recently begun writing grants and selling sponsorships for the concert’s producer, the mercurial jazz impresario Kendall Lane.
“Isn’t this great?” Kendall asks, squinting and smirking in triumph. His smile, if you can call it that, seems weirdly disingenuous, but the man has good reason to feel proud. The concert is a sold-out success and many of the city’s movers and shakers are in attendance. Tonight is a big night for our scrappy little organization.
At that moment something curious catches my attention. While improvising over the unmistakable chord changes to Autumn Leaves, Fleecing begins to play a different theme, something whimsically wistful, redolent of a European folk song.
This melody is unfamiliar to me, but a smattering of applause around the recital hall suggests that a dozen or more of our patrons have immediately recognized the song’s provenance. From our position at the side of the stage, we can see several captains of industry making eye contact with one another and nodding their heads in approval as Fleecing transforms the simple melody into a grandly majestic anthem.
In the lobby at intermission, I walk over to greet Charlie Higgins, the sponsor of tonight’s show.
I dig Charlie. He carries himself like one of the “good old boys” back home. He’s the real deal, a true believer and a genuine music lover with a jovial nature and a ready handshake. You wouldn’t know it to look at him, but Charlie is a great philanthropist, too. He and his candy company have underwritten nearly every significant jazz event on the west coast for years.
“Isn’t this great?” I repeat Kendall's line.
“Yes, indeed!” Charlie smiles broadly.
“Hey, what was that song Fleecing quoted?” I ask. “You seemed to recognize it.”
“The Soul of Bavaria,” Charlie replies. “It’s a favorite at the club. Fleecing is a longtime member.”
“Ah, the club. Of course.” I nod solemnly, understanding nothing.
“Why don’t you join me there for lunch next week,” Charlie asks casually, as if the idea had just occurred to him.
“It would be my pleasure,” I accept. I'm mystified but intrigued by the surprise invitation.
That night over dinner I consult my wife. She seems to have an innate understanding of such things.
“I've been invited to lunch next week with Charlie Higgins. I'm not sure why. I think it’s at a private club. Do you know of a club in the city where an American executive and a British jazz pianist would both be members?”
Her eyes widened. “You mean The Owl Club?
We’d better get you a new suit.”
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.
Well my friends, it may take several years before we can return to pre-pandemic levels of activity. But little-by-little we’re getting back to business, ever grateful for the clients, customers, friends and fans who sustain us. This year we:
staged 81 concerts and events
welcomed 75 generous album backers
published 50 memoir blog posts
gave 23 private lessons
conducted 19 workshops
collected 12 vintage treasures
recorded 10 songs
headlined 9 festivals
bottled 8 jars of homemade hot sauce
completed 7 new compositions
played 5 live stream shows
traversed 4 western states
received 3 doses of DollyVax
hosted 2 brilliant visiting artists
rescued 1 precious puppy
and consumed 2197 hours of television (sigh).
Here’s to a happier, healthier, and more productive 2022.
Onward and upward!
When I first met my hero Art Farmer, he was spending half his year at home in Vienna and the other half on tour.
Occasionally concert promoters would pony up for his New York band, but most of the time Art worked with local rhythm sections. Regardless, he hired the best musicians everywhere, and his ensembles never failed to impress.
"How do your groups always sound so good?" I asked him after a knockout performance at Kimball's in San Francisco. "What's the secret?"
"Dmitri, it's simple," he said. "If you find that you're the smartest cat in the room, you're in the wrong room."
“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.”
“That’s the great thing about being a teenager.
You think you’re a genius.”
Thirteen wasn’t quite the turning point I’d imagined last summer when I sold off all my comic books and action figures. I didn’t suddenly become cool. I wasn’t immediately transported to a magical land of heavy petting and house parties.
I was still the same skinny little kid, honking my horn. And I still had to make it through the rest of the school year at Marana. In my memory those last few months of seventh grade are a surreal blur.
I remember our teacher jumping up on top of her desk in a desperate attempt to win us over, howling “I’m WEIRD! I like WIZARDS!” And I remember how Jack quietly cleared his throat in response, a more subtle version of the snarky tween eye-roll.
I remember a big panic over an outbreak of Valley Fever which later turned out to be “merely” a respiratory irritation caused by low-flying crop dusters. Delightful.
Mostly I remember the awkward interactions with girls. There was prodigious Paula, who flashed her impressive tetas at me, then called me a “perv” for looking. And there was darling Debbie, who passed me a cryptic note on which she had scrawled, in big block letters, YOUR PENIS RUNNING OUT.
What the --? I blushed, checked my fly, then spent the entire rest of that period trying to figure out what she could possibly mean. Is this flirting? Should I write back? What should I say? After class I breathed a sigh of relief when she handed me a pen and said sweetly, “I noticed yours was running out of ink.”
Another year, another U-Haul.
It’s the summer of 1979 and Daddy Bill and I are loading our last few boxes into the back of the moving van at 22nd & Craycroft. “You about ready to go jump in that pool?” Daddy Bill asks. “You know it!” I answer enthusiastically.
I’m finally a teenager and everything’s new. New bike (got a ten-speed Schwinn for my birthday), new school (adios, Marana) and soon, a whole new me. The old man has even found us some great new digs over on the northwest side of town. I haven’t seen the place yet, but Daddy Bill promises we’ll have an even better view, a real air conditioner (adios, swamp cooler) and a swimming pool.
Dad chose a terrific location for us. Next year, his last at Marana, he'll enjoy a shorter weekday commute and easy weekend getaways to Mount Lemmon and Sabino Canyon. Most importantly for me, our new zip code means I can now go to Cross Junior High for eighth grade and Canyon Del Oro for high school. “It’s a better school district with more resources,” Daddy Bill says, “and I hear they have a pretty decent music program, too.”
We'll see next fall. In the meantime, summer vacation has only just begun and I’m excited to see our new place.
Moving from one modest two-bedroom apartment to another less than twenty miles away might sound like no big deal, but I feel like we’ve hit the lottery.
Coronado Apartments at Mona Lisa and Ina is a major upgrade. The complex feels almost like a luxury resort, with its grand Spanish Colonial architecture, tall palm trees, shady courtyards and manicured lawns.
The swimming pool is as advertised. There are also tennis courts, a fitness trail, and even a kid-friendly clubhouse with air hockey and billiards tables. Plenty of kids my age live at Coronado and in the middle-class suburb surrounding us, where ranch style family homes nestle safely in the shadows of the Catalina Foothills.
I love the new neighborhood and can’t wait to explore. I ride my ten-speed through miles of unspoiled desert scrub and citrus trees. Up at Ina and Oracle I discover a retail oasis called Casas Adobes Plaza where I grab a BLT at the drug store lunch counter before exploring a treasure trove of curiosities on the shelves of Bullard’s Hardware.
Life is good.
Jack comes over often and Dad enjoys his visits as much as I do. The three of us stand together on our balcony, listening to Ray Charles and admiring the colorful Santa Catalina mountains. Daddy Bill puffs his pipe and bends Jack’s ear about music and sports and whatnot. At sunset he throws three burger patties on the grill.
“Y’all like ’em charred, don’t you?” he asks with a wink.
After dinner I pull a box down from the closet shelf to show Jack my secret collection of stolen hood ornaments. The expression on his face is a curious mix of puzzlement and disapproval.
“What’s the point?” he asks.
“The point is to not get caught,” I say.
Meeting people is easy at Coronado, especially after I land a new job as paperboy, delivering the Tucson Citizen each evening and the Arizona Daily Star on Sunday mornings. Soon I know all the neighborhood kids and their parents by name. There are over 100 units in this apartment complex and almost everybody gets the paper.
Early on a summer Sunday before dawn, I sit cross-legged on the sidewalk in front of our building. I’m stuffing circular ads, Parade magazine, the coming week's TV listings and what Daddy Bill calls “the funny pages” into every fat copy of the Sunday Star. It’s a big job but I’ve learned the secret to getting it done quickly. You line up the stacks in a row, like an assembly line, then you get the rhythm and power through.
Twenty minutes later my hands are stained black with newsprint. I’m nearly ready to load up my big canvas delivery bag when I notice one of the inserts, a flyer for the March of Dimes Superwalk. I know better than to get distracted, but something special has caught my eye: the walkathon’s third prize, a Panasonic stereo with built-in tape deck and automatic record changer. The machine calls to me like the crystal in Clark Kent’s barn.
That week instead of the tips I usually collect on my rounds, I ask all my customers to sponsor me in the charity walk. “It’s for a good cause,” I explain, “and every page of sponsors I sign-up will put my name into the drawing again.” I’m determined to win that stereo.
I don’t remember how many miles I walked or how much money we raised for the fight against birth defects. What I do remember is filling seven entire pages with pledges. Lucky number seven. Seven chances to win.
The following Friday I wake to the sound of our telephone ringing. I stumble out of my bedroom into the kitchen, thinking Daddy Bill is probably calling to tell me when he’ll be back from birding. But when I lift the receiver, it’s not Dad on the line, but a hyper, exuberant Top 40 Radio DJ.
“Good morning! This is KTKT, the Old Pueblo’s number one station. Mr. Matheny, you are this year’s grand prize winner in the March of Dimes Superwalk, and will soon be the proud owner of a brand new Chevy Chevette. Congratulations! How do you feel?”
“I’m only thirteen,” I said. “I wanted to win the stereo.”
A few days later Daddy Bill takes me over to Matthews Chevrolet to claim my prize. Dad and I don’t quite know what to do about this car, since he already has a new Toyota wagon and I’m too young to drive. Fortunately, the dealership’s general manager comes up with a solution.
“Tell you what young man,” Tommy Stubbs says magnanimously, “How about I just cut you a check for the sticker price? That’s three thousand, four hundred and fifty-five dollars.”
“That’ll work,” I say.
Dad drives me to the bank where I keep my yard sale winnings. I deposit three grand into the account and pocket the rest.
In a single afternoon I bring home the exact stereo I’ve been obsessing over, three new LPs (Don’t Look Back by Boston, I Am by Earth Wind & Fire, and Out of the Blue by ELO), and a ridiculous amount of swag from Spencer Gifts.
I get busy transforming my room into my own personal nightclub. First I hang a beaded curtain in the doorway and mask my windows with aluminum foil to block the sunlight. Then I install two 17” black lights, a strobe, and a miniature mirrored disco ball. I cover my shelves with luminous bric-à-brac and all the walls with posters: Farrah Fawcett, Lynda Carter, Lindsay Wagner, a florescent cobra. Once everything is perfect I wire the whole shebang so I can turn it all on at once, lights and music, with one flip of the switch.
The result is spectacular.
“What do you think?” I ask Daddy Bill.
He grimaces. “I think it looks like a Den of Iniquity.”
“Remember, you’re not alone.
You’re part of an international
brotherhood of artists and musicians.
We’re all in this together.”
I aspire to be a Citizen of the World.
A world citizen is a xenophile whose identity transcends geography. Rather than swearing allegiance to a particular nation, ethnicity, or religion, the world citizen treats everyone with equal respect, and derives his rights and responsibilities from membership in the human race at large. He endeavors to be a man for all people.
I aspire to be a Citizen of the World.
Art Farmer was such a man. At the height of his success, as his Jazztet was winning American popularity polls, Art relocated to Vienna, Austria, then commenced to tour internationally for decades. His extensive discography includes dozens of collaborations with musicians all over the world. Near the end of his storied life and career, he was awarded both the NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship, the highest honor our nation bestows upon a jazz musician, and the prestigious Austrian Cross of Honor for Science and Art, First Class.
World Citizen Art Farmer received the highest honors in both America and Austria
Art had been an adventurer ever since he was a teen, when he and twin brother Addison set out for Los Angeles in search of their destinies. But even after many productive decades in the music business, Art never lost his humility or curiosity. He knew that his chosen career of traveling musician granted admission to the global creative class, an identity he cherished as the foundation of his enlightened worldview.
“Remember, you’re not alone,” Farmer told a room full of aspiring jazz students at Stanford University. “You’re part of an international brotherhood of artists and musicians. We’re all in this together.”
Art Farmer’s philosophy resonated deeply with me, perhaps even more than his brilliant, lyrical music. He was “beyond category,” a true Citizen of the World, and I was inspired to live by his example.
In the years since my mentor’s passing, I’ve been fortunate to enjoy many opportunities for international travel with family, friends and fellow musicians. Occasionally I experienced little more than a hotel and concert hall, but whenever time would allow, I made sure to get out, see the sights, and break bread with the locals. I’ve watched the sunrise in Tuscany, climbed the cliffs of Santorini, serenaded penguins in Patagonia, viewed fireworks over Bangkok, and listened to evening prayers echo through the streets of Jakarta. I’ve visited an artist in Kyoto, a tea master in Uji, a winemaker in Alsace and a chocolatier in Brussels. I’ve met so many fascinating people in my travels, several of whom have become lifelong friends.
I’m grateful to the bandleaders who invited me to be part of their international adventures, notably Suzan Lesna, Keiko Osamu, and especially Amina Figarova, with whom I recorded two albums and performed in a dozen different countries on tour. For several years in the late nineties and early aughts, Amina and her husband Bart generously hosted me at their home in the Netherlands each fall, an annual residency that enriched my life beyond measure. I love and admire them both as artists, friends, and world citizens.
It was my privilege to record two albums with Amina for Munich Records
Although I never became a pilot (holding out for a jetpack, I suppose), I never missed an opportunity to fly, and the long international flights were often most luxurious. Singapore Airlines provided big leather chairs, soft lighting, and an array of Asian delicacies. British Airways offered formal tea and cakes; Japan Airlines served sake and sushi. Virgin Airlines had spa treatments and sleeping pods. And KLM, my favorite, boasted a gorgeous cohort of leggy blonde stewardesses, whose fitted blue uniforms and winning smiles harkened back to the Golden Age of Air Travel.
The airports, however, were chaotic, unpleasant places. Everyone was on high alert after 9/11. Departure meant grappling with the recently formed TSA, whose agents relished their nascent power like freshly minted mall cops. Arrival meant trying to appear inconspicuous under the gaze of scowling soldiers, in full riot gear, with machine guns.
We learned to allow an extra hour or two for security screening, during which agents would empty our bags, disassemble our instruments, pat us down and shout commands over the hum of x-ray scanners. “Empty your pockets! Take off your belt and shoes! No liquids!” On one occasion I was pulled out of line, strip-searched down to my socks, and interrogated. “What is this?” barked the agent, holding up my tiny bottle of valve oil. “And exactly what sort of name is Dmitri?” he demanded suspiciously, squinting at the random assortment of stamps in my passport.
But it wasn’t always so bad. One of my favorite airport memories was arriving in Baku, Azerbaijan for the 2002 Caspian Sea Jazz Festival. I’d been working with Amina for several years, and was thrilled to see her ancestral homeland for the first time. I wanted to find out what sort of Silk Road Shangri-La could produce such a regal, charismatic bandleader. I nicknamed Amina “The Diva,” and often teased her about her aristocratic lineage and manner, but I didn’t fully appreciate where she was coming from until that day.
We arrived in Baku exhausted, to long lines of weary, grey-faced travelers. Prepared for a long wait at customs, we took our place at the back of the crowd. Suddenly a dapper gentleman in a dark suit appeared beside us. He smiled warmly, greeted us by name, placed our passports in his breast pocket, and handed Amina a giant bouquet of flowers, kissing her on both cheeks. The distinguished official then ushered us briskly through the crowd, past customs, down a private corridor and straight outside, where a ceremonial honor guard stood waiting at attention beside a row of shiny black town cars. “Apparently Amina is kind of a big deal around here,” I muttered to no-one in particular.
I was right. The whole band was wined, dined, and treated like royalty. There were welcome gifts, guided tours, shopping excursions to the Taza Bazaar, and even a special banquet in Amina’s honor. We feasted on grilled lamb, champagne and caviar, serenaded by a traditional darbuka ensemble complete with belly dancer, who danced with all of us after dinner. The evening concluded with an astonishingly long series of celebratory cognac and vodka toasts to Amina, her family, and the band. It was a glorious evening.
the whole band was wined, dined, and treated like royalty
The festival itself was a triumph of concerts, workshops, jam sessions and creative collaboration. I’ll never forget the delightfully surreal evening we spent at the Caravan Jazz Club, where we performed the funk classic “Pass the Peas” with an international superband of Sax ’N Hop (Germany), Toots Thielemans (Belgium), our quintet (Azerbaijan, Belgium, Netherlands, USA), and half a dozen hungry young horn players.
But the great highlight was our concert at the historic Respublika Palace theater. We played our hearts out, and the band never sounded better. Amina’s modern jazz compositions, especially the ones inspired by traditional Azeri folksongs, were a huge hit with the hometown crowd. The audience cheered wildly.
the highlight was our concert at the historic Respublika Palace theater
20 years later, I still aspire to be a Citizen of the World, but no longer wish to to travel so far, or so often. Touring is a young man’s game, and my jet-setter days best be behind me.
My new dream is a little more down-to-earth. I’m now in the market for a small camper van with a bed in the back, a simple “tour bus” in which my dog Scout and I can ramble around the western states together.
We’ll take our time, travel the back roads, see the sights, and break bread with the locals.
And who knows? I might even play a gig or two.