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JAZZ COMPETITION IS AN OXYMORON 

Damien Chazelle’s 2014 film Whiplash follows the fraught relationship between a brutally masochistic music teacher, Fletcher (J.K Simmons), and his ambitious student, drummer Andrew (Miles Teller). 

According to Slate critic J. Bryan Lowder, “Fletcher and Andrew are both obsessed with Greatness, but the specific sort they’re after is important: it’s a wholly masculine definition of the term, one tied to notions of jackhammer precision, overwhelming prowess, physical dominance, and solo victory. Alternative values like sensitivity, idiosyncrasy, gracefulness, and collaboration, despite being deeply compatible with jazz, are not admitted to their rehearsal room.” 

Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons in Whiplash

I couldn’t agree more. Whiplash shows us a heightened, yet weirdly accurate, view into the misguided toxic masculinity endemic to today’s jazz education subculture.

Talk to your musician friends who’ve seen the movie. They’re likely to share stories of their own about similar abuse suffered in their formative years. One of my colleagues actually said, “Whiplash triggered my Jazz Camp PTSD!”

I thought of that movie again yesterday, during a college workshopAs the students and I listened to Stitt and Rollins hold forth on “The Eternal Triangle,” I found myself astonished anew, not just by the brilliance of their ideas, but by the joyously playful, positive, collaborative spirit of their “tenor battle.”


“The Eternal Triangle” from Sonny Side Up
Dizzy Gillespie with Sonny Stitt and Sonny Rollins

If all cutting sessions were so inspired, I would be a fan.

To me, however, “jazz competition” is an oxymoron. 

We’re going to have a contest to see who can be the most vulnerable? The most sensitive or sincere? To find out who among us can best lay bare our soul and play from the heart? 

Every year on tour I hear dozens of excellent high school groups, all over the country, investing hours of rehearsal time, polishing the same Duke Ellington charts in preparation for the annual Jazz Hunger Games. 
 

Jazz Hunger Games

While it’s gratifying to witness Duke’s music being disseminated so widely, I have to wonder if these young musicians might be better off exploring a larger repertoire of sounds and styles, learning to sight read, listen and improvise. 

Of course, there is such a thing as “healthy competition” in the arts. Setting challenges and overcoming them is how we improve. 

Competitive, however, is not the correct mindset for quality music-making. This art form is interactive. It’s about listening and openness. Conversation, not competition. ​ 

Personally, I don’t feel that I’m in competition with other artists. I’m competing with Netflix, spectator sports, video games, social media and all the other distractions that vie for your leisure time, attention and dollars. 

I welcome opportunities to work alongside and learn from my betters. I always try to surround myself with talents greater than my own. Art Farmer said “if you’re the smartest cat in the room, you’re in the wrong room.” 

One time Nicholas Payton dropped by my gig in San Francisco and schooled me on a ballad. It was like a ten minute graduate seminar on understatement and grace. 

Recently I had the opportunity to participate in a tribute to one of my longtime heroes, Tom Harrell, along with Joe Lovano, Kenny Werner, Sean Jones, Johnathan Blake, and several other world class musicians, including the man himself, who has never sounded better. 

Tom Harrell Celebration (L-R) Tamir Hendelman, Kenny Werner, Ugonna Okegwo,
Sean Jones, Ron Stout, Dmitri Matheny, Johnathan Blake, Tom Harrell, Joe Lovano

Everyone involved was more capable and experienced than I. It was humbling and thrilling. I learned a lot and felt nothing but love and support in the room. There was no vibe. Everyone was there for Mr. Harrell. 

Wynton Marsalis says a cutting session is like a debate. And debates have their place, especially in the classroom. But wouldn’t you really rather have a conversation? 

Personally, I think most cutting sessions are a drag. Everyone trying to play higher, louder, faster. Everybody posturing, posing, showing off, going for house. The atmosphere of a cutting session is like a Michael Bay movie full of explosions. I usually end up resenting the audience for enjoying such tripe. 

Here’s a challenge: let’s play lower, softer, slower -- with intensity. 

Let’s play more soulfully. 

Let’s just play.

FAME! PART 4 — JUST SOME JAZZ GUY 

“Stars twinkle until they wrinkle.” 
—Victor Mature 

That was well over 20 years ago. Since then I’ve weathered many career ups and downs, working both with and without the support of managers, agents, publicists and investors. 

Although I’m now a far better musician, I can definitely confirm that the accolades are much harder-won after middle age. Youth isn’t the only thing that’s wasted on the young. 

I’ve learned that good fortune is evanescent, and fame, like the TV show, is fleeting. Our desire to to be known is really just the struggle to be seen. When we chase respect or renown, deep down what we really want is love. 

I once heard an interview with veteran actor Sidney Poitier, in which he was asked what it’s like to be famous. “People don’t really know the man so much as the name,” he replied. 
 

Sidney Poitier is an actor, director, producer, author, humanitarian and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom

He went on to describe a recent experience at a cafe. After taking his coffee order at the counter, the barista, an attractive young woman with piercings and tattoos, hands Poitier a cardboard voucher. “Have a seat and I’ll let you know when it’s ready,” she says. 

A few minutes later she calls out his name. “Sidney Poitier? Macchiato for Sidney Poitier.” Poitier approaches the counter and hands her the chit, pleased to have been recognized. She looks at it and frowns. 

“No, no, you’re Joan of Arc ... see?” She points to the name scrawled in black magic marker on the small piece of cardboard. 

“Sidney Poitier!” she calls again over his shoulder. 

“That’s mine,” says an Asian-American gentleman in the back of the room, handing her his chit as he approaches the counter. 

Don’t you love it? 

Indeed, people don’t really know the man so much as the name. 

Not only that -- sometimes they don’t even know the name! 

Case in point, here’s a cafe story of my own: 

Not that long ago I was performing in New Mexico, one of my favorite southwest touring hubs. Following successful shows in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, I arrived in Taos, a small mountain village with a population of about 5,000. I got to town early as was my custom; the rest of my band would arrive just before soundcheck. 
 

Holly Pyle and Dmitri Matheny at The Outpost (Albuquerque NM) photo by Joseph Berg

Upon checking in at the hotel, I went out in search of coffee and found the perfect spot. I settled into a corner table with my book and a cup of dark, rich, aromatic happiness. 

“First time in Taos?” the barista asked. 

“Why, do I look like a tourist?” I laughed. 

“I just happen to know most of the other folks in here,” she explained. 

“No, I love Taos. Been here many times,” I said. 

“Have you heard about the big concert tonight?” she asked. “Everybody’s going.” 

“Concert?” I asked, intrigued. “Who’s playing?” 

“I dunno,” she said. 

Just some jazz guy.

LULLABY 

the smell of the rain 
the sound of the train 
my dog by the fire 
home again
 

As a boy in rural Tennessee, Billy Matheny slept in an attic bedroom, the slanted ceiling only a few inches above his bed. The Matheny house had a tin roof that sang when it rained, and the sound of raindrops would serenade young Billy to sleep. So Billy treasured the rain. And when he grew up, he passed that treasure along to his own son like a beloved family heirloom. 

The rainstorms in Georgia were magnificent.  

At the first thunderclap, Daddy Bill would throw open all the doors and windows of our little apartment, so we could enjoy the breeze and wait for the rain. If I close my eyes, I can still see him, puffing his pipe in that wingback chair, his legs crossed casually, unlaced hushpuppies hanging off the ends of his narrow naked feet.  

Sometimes there would be soft music playing on the turntable -- James Taylor perhaps, or Miles Davis -- but usually we would just sit and listen to the rain as it came down out of the clouds, into the pines, and onto the red clay just outside our open door.  

I remember hearing the peaceful, percussive patter of raindrops on the kudzu, accompanied by the low rumble of distant thunder. The aroma of Daddy Bill’s cherry blend tobacco. The fresh scent of damp earth. A sensory symphony of sounds and smells. 

As the storm grew more intense, Daddy Bill would cheer the crescendo, appreciating nature’s performance.

Then he’d look over at me with twinkly eyes and say, “Welp, it’s really coming down out there, Little Bub. Let’s go for a walk.” 

And just like that we would venture out into the storm, splashing along the sidewalk together. No umbrellas. No slickers or galoshes. Just the two of us, man and boy, in our street clothes, soaking wet and laughing. The neighbors must have thought we were out of our minds.

Dad and I moved from Georgia to Arizona in the summer of 1977, just in time for monsoon season.

The Arizona heat was exactly as advertised -- damn near unbearable -- but those dramatic summer storms were something else. They cleansed the land, revitalized flora and fauna, and replenished our spirits. 

We knew that rain-walking would be a bad idea in the Sonoran Desert around Tucson. The topography is flat, vegetation is sparse and low to the ground, and lightning routinely strikes anything vertical.

No matter. We were thrilled to appreciate the monsoons from the safety of our screened-in patio -- an exhilarating, fully immersive experience.

The rain would pour down all at once in a heavy torrent, punctuated by brilliant flashes of crackling electricity that filled the sky, turning the saguaro cacti into stark silhouettes. The river beds filled up and overflowed their banks, flooding the roadways. Sheets of rainwater pelted our windows relentlessly. Peals of thunder rattled the adobe walls.

It was glorious. 
 

Over the years, no matter where I happened to live or travel, the rain has remained a loyal friend.

At Interlochen I would sit on the dock and watch raindrops dance on the surface of Green Lake. In San Francisco, where I lived for 20 years, it wasn't uncommon for the entire month of January to be wet. Even in Boston’s Back Bay, where winter weather vexed my college years, thunder showers were a rare gift. I would sit at the Trident Bookstore Cafe, writing letters, drinking coffee and daydreaming as stormy skies benevolently baptized the red bricks of Newbury Street. 

Rainy weather has been my welcome companion on the road, throughout the Americas, and around the world. Whether gentle or tumultuous, her arrival always feels like a personal message of support from the universe, assuring me that everything is going to be just fine.

Here in Washington State, where I now live with my girlfriend Sassy and our dog Scout, I have fully embraced my birthright as an avowed pluviophile! We receive about 73 inches of rainfall annually -- nearly twice the national average -- yet folks here seldom carry an umbrella. In the Pacific Northwest, rain is simply a fact of life. 

Now when I go storm-strolling with Scout, the neighbors don’t even bat an eye. They just wave to us as we splash along happily from puddle to puddle.  

Last month, we lost my father to Parkinson’s Disease. I miss him terribly, but I also feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude for everything he was and will remain, in memory. Among his many life lessons, Daddy Bill taught me to love the rain.  

Shortly before he died, I received a surprise early birthday gift from Sass: my very own tin Rain Roof, professionally installed, affixed to the awning over my bedroom window.

Such a thoughtful gift. What a tribute! What a solace!

No one knows what the future may bring, but at least for tonight, all will be well.

Tonight the rain will come, and she will sing us a lullaby.

Tomorrow is a new day.

CHET BAKER & THE SOUND OF SINCERITY 

Clockwise (L-R) bassist Jean-Louis Rassinfosse, Chet Baker, Dmitri Matheny at the Chet Baker Memorial in Amsterdam

 

The first Chet Baker recording I ever heard was not one of his celebrated cool jazz hits from back when he looked like James Dean and played like Miles Davis. 

No, I fell in love with Chet in the 1980s, long after his heyday, when he was struggling to play on new dentures and looked more like Clint Eastwood at the end of Pale Rider. Chet was living in Europe at the time, and the album that captivated me, Crystal Bells, showcased his working Belgian trio with guitarist Philip Catherine and bassist Jean-Louis Rassinfosse. 

It was that sound that got me. Chet’s warm tone and halting, yet lyrical lines, were imbued with a fragile, searching quality that hit me like a bullseye right in my melancholy teenage heart. 

I must have listened to that album a thousand times. 

The drummerless trio provided the perfect balance of interactivity and space for the old explorer, who seemed to be finding his way back from some kind of profound loss.  At the time, I didn’t know anything about Chet’s troubled history, but it was all there, laid bare, in the music. 

I felt as if I had found the secret key to a soulful world of authenticity and deep feeling. 

Chet died a few years later and my appreciation for him only grew.

When I had the opportunity to work with Jean-Louis Rassinfosse in the Netherlands, I told him how much I loved Crystal Bells.

Jean-Louis smiled broadly. “Chet didn’t even have a horn, you know,” he said. 

“He’d long ago sold it for drug money. But he kept the mouthpiece in his pocket.” 

The veteran bassist then described their routine, how each morning they would call ahead to the next little village on tour and invite all the brass players in the area to come down to the club with their horns. 

"At sound check there would be this little row of open instrument cases on the stage," he said. "Chet would go down the line, try out a few different horns, pick one, and that would be the instrument he played that night!

“Sometimes trompet, sometimes kornet or bugel, every night a different instrument,” Jean-Louis said. “But he always sounded like Chet.

“It was that sound, that same sound, always,” Jean-Louis marveled. “And every night, somebody would ask, ‘How do you get that amazing tone? What kind of instrument is that?’ as if the horn itself was somehow magical.

"But it was just Chet. It was all Chet.” 

I love this story and 100% believe it to be true, as it confirms my long-standing belief in music as a mystical force, and in master musicians like Baker as sorcerers. The embouchure and equipment are important, but they are secondary. What matters most is your intention. 

"Get your mind right," Art Farmer once advised. "You are the instrument. That thing that you're holding is just an amplifier."

“It isn’t the horn,” John Coltrane famously said. “You can play a shoestring if you’re sincere.”

LONG IN THE TOOTH 

Welp, I just turned 55.  

Now eligible for senior discounts at the diner. 

Damn. The years really sneak up on you, don’t they? 

The recent loss of my father during the navel-gazing of quarantine has only served to amplify this existential angst.  

I get it. Winter is here. But am I ready? 

Fifteen years ago, right around my 40th, I remember feeling something similar about facing the autumn of my years.  

Below is what I wrote at the time.

Perhaps it still holds up. 

ADVICE TO SELF AT MIDLIFE 

Congratulations, you’ve made it to the halfway mark. 

So far, so good. Now consider this: 

You’re old enough now that they no longer praise your potential. All those years of encouragement about your bright future are over. It’s quiet now. 

At the same time, you’re not yet old enough to join the ranks of those you so admire, the wise elders. You’re not yet one of them. You don’t speak for the ages. Few look to you for inspiration or advice. 

These are the middle years. 

Your past accomplishments and your hopes for tomorrow mean nothing. All that matters is what you do now: 

Stay agile. Draw up plans, but be nimble enough to abandon them. Be persistent in fulfilling your vision, but also be ready to shift course based on the changing landscape. Be ever-evolving. 

Take care of yourself. You’re on your own, so be careful. Pace yourself. Cultivate healthy habits. Know your limits. 

Pay attention. It’s now your turn to provide encouragement. Learn to be a mentor. Look for opportunities to serve, celebrate and share.

RESOLUTIONS 2021: The Year of Renewal 

Health 
Drink water. Eat vegetables. Take naps. Pace yourself.  
Cleaner fasts, more colorful feasts, smaller portions. 
Spend more time outdoors: walking, riding, fishing. 
Expand vegetable garden with new crops. 
Get vaccinated as soon as possible. 

Music 
Prepare arrangements for Cascadia studio album. 
Compose Legacy suite showcasing Dad’s poetry. 
Add Patsy Cline material to DMG repertoire. 

Business 
Schedule fourth quarter touring engagements. 
Apply for touring and commissioning grants. 
Launch Cascadia crowdfunding campaign. 
Recruit five more private students. 

Personal 
Collect missing issues of Silver Age Green Lantern
Launch a new 30-day challenge each month. 
Publish a memoir blog post every week. 
Invest in home security. 
Practice gratitude.

2020 BY THE NUMBERS 

Slept over 300 nights in my own bed 

Added 196 new friends and subscribers 

Enjoyed 180 homegrown garden salads 

Gave 122 private lessons online 

Sold 92 books and household items 

Directed 33 distance learning workshops 

Received 27 grants and contributions 

Collected 17 vintage comics by mail 

Staged 13 performances (pre-lockdown)

Wrote 10 new arrangements for jazz sextet 

Played 7 solo live-stream shows 

Created 6 new multimedia presentations 

Played 3 big band concerts (pre-lockdown)

Produced 2 virtual arts education festivals 

Survived 1 surreal, bottle episode of a year!

KOAN 

     “I hate my mouthpiece,” I said. “Can you help me find a good mouthpiece?”

     “You could spend your whole life looking for the right mouthpiece,” he replied. “You should spend more time looking for the right notes.” 

     “Am I playing wrong notes?” I asked.

     “There are no wrong notes,” he said.

     “No wrong notes?”

     “Right.”

     “But I should be looking for the right notes.”

     “Now you’re getting it.”

     “Uh, no I’m not! That sounds like some kind of Zen puzzle.”

     “Look, there are no wrong notes. But some notes are more right than others.”

SPONTANEOUS AND INEVITABLE 

The interrobang is a punctuation mark that combines the functions of an exclamation point and a question mark.

It's also an excellent symbol of my approach to improvisation. 

I intend to “tell a story” with conviction, intentionality and a strong sense of internal logic.

At the same time, I hope to convey a sincere searching, listening quality, an openness to what comes, and something of the mysterious beauty in jazz. 

As Art Farmer said, “you want to sound both spontaneous and inevitable.”

2019 BY THE NUMBERS 

304,000 
steps walked 
47,500 

miles traveled 

13,000 
friends and
subscribers 
756
comic books
collected 
238
musicians
hired 
173
performances
on tour 
53
workshops and
classroom visits 
41
sideman
appearances 
39
vocalist
collaborations 
30 
sold-out
shows 
27
youth and
family programs 

19
feature articles
and reviews 
12
arts education
residencies 

9
big band
concerts 

7
music
festivals 
6
jazz + film
events 
3
new compositions 
1
epic
year

Thank you for sharing these memorable milestones. 

Here's to more musical adventures ahead. 

Happy New Year! ~Dmitri

2018 BY THE NUMBERS 

57k miles traveled 

11k friends and subscribers 

7k streams and downloads

319 treasures found 

261 musicians hired 

159 performances on tour 

72 pounds shed 

61 workshops 

54 classroom visits 

40 sold-out shows 

39 youth and family programs 

22 feature articles and reviews 

19 jazz + film shows 

12 bottles of valve oil 

9 radio and television broadcasts 

7 big band appearances 

6 music festivals 

3 new compositions 

2 visiting artists 

1 perfect puppy

2018 RESOLUTIONS 


rest 

delegate 

pace myself

don't try so hard

enjoy the outdoors 

save 10% from each job 

take care of home and family 

support Dad and his caregivers 

mine great melodies from all genres 

sleep in my own bed whenever possible 

exploit all opportunities to write new music 

walk Scout every day, no matter the weather 

practice intermittent fasting and portion control 

scale back on touring and increase northwest jobs 

take full advantage of health care while it’s available 

schedule consecutive rejuvenation days every month 

begin transition from touring artist to local composer

2017 BY THE NUMBERS 

61,117 miles traveled 

342 new friends and subscribers 

234 musicians hired 

141 performances on tour 

46 college and high school workshops 

39 sold-out shows  

24 feature articles and reviews 

19 collaborations with vocalists 

17 television and radio broadcasts 

14 youth and family concerts 

12 bottles of valve oil 

9 big band appearances 

3 flugelhorn summits 

2 new compositions 

1 golden ear