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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.

FAME! PART 3 — MORE FAMOUS THAN YOU 

The old man was right. Fame is folly. The music business is no meritocracy. But sometimes the good guys do win. 

I’m gratified by the success of many of my friends and former schoolmates, now making names for themselves on the world stage. But I no longer expect to join their Olympian order. Age and experience have tempered my aspirations. As comedian Bryan Callen observed, “maturity is the slow acceptance of what you will never be.” 

I’m grateful to have at least achieved my dream of making a living as a touring musician and recording artist. And I’m thankful for all the truly extraordinary people I’ve been fortunate to know and collaborate with along the way. 

Recently, while sorting through some sheet music, I stumbled upon one of my old newsletters from the late 1990s. It occurs to me that the closest I ever came to any kind of notoriety was during that period, in the years right around the dawn of the new millennium. For that brief little stretch, the universe really seemed to smile on me. 

Starlight Cafe (1998) with Darrell Grant and bassist Bill Douglass

Starlight Cafe, my third CD for Monarch Records, was a modest success. The album received very good reviews and enough airplay on jazz and college radio that we were able to tour most of the year, returning to San Francisco each spring for our annual home season. Monarch promoted the new release with listening stations at flagship Virgin and Tower record stores, placement on airline in-flight channels, and full page ads in the jazz trades. Meanwhile, our excellent publicist worked wonders for us in the print and broadcast news media. It felt like we were everywhere.
 

Home Season performance at Yoshi's (Oakland CA) with vocalist Mary Stalling | photo by Stuart Brinin
 

“My stellar ascension has begun,” I thought naively. Gigs were plentiful. I was traveling internationally and meeting my heroes. Strangers were beginning to recognize me on the street. My phone never stopped ringing. Life was good. 

Looking back, I was the oblivious beneficiary of a momentary upsurge in this highly mercurial business. I didn’t know that we were in a boom economy, overdue for a downturn. Nor was I aware of quite how many previously closed doors had opened to me only because good people like Art Farmer, Herb Wong, Orrin Keepnews or Merrilee Trost had “put in a good word.” 
 

Art Farmer (1928-1999)
hero, mentor, friend

I was too inexperienced to see how my own good fortune was predicated on the hard work, personal connections and financial investments of other people. I was too busy and self-involved to question whether or not I deserved all the attention. I just thought my career was (finally) taking off. 

One night, upon arriving at a black tie gala in San Francisco with my bond trader wife, the event photographer crossed the room to greet us. “Well, well, if it isn’t my favorite couple, Rich and Famous,” he said archly. “She’s rich, and he’s famous.” Delightful. 

On another occasion I dropped off some clothes at the local dry cleaner. The proprietress, a lovely woman from Hong Kong named Mei, had clipped a recent news article about me from the Chronicle and attached it to the lobby wall. 

“Everybody see?” she said to the waiting customers in broken English. “My client! Very famous musician!” 

I was astonished. But when I returned a few days later to pick up the dry cleaning, the clipping had vanished. In its place was a New York Times article about composer John Adams! 

“Aw, Mei, you replaced me,” I pouted, feigning hurt feelings. “Is Mr. Adams your favorite client now?”

“Oh, yes!” she replied matter-of-factly. 

“He much more famous than you.”

 

Next:
FAME! PART 4 — JUST SOME JAZZ GUY

FAME! PART 2 — JAZZ FAMOUS? 

If Interlochen was an artist colony, Berklee was a star factory.  

By the late 1980s, Berklee College of Music had established itself as a global center for music education, attracting talented students from all around the world. From its modest midcentury beginnings as a jazz trade school, Berklee had grown to become a fully accredited conservatory of contemporary music, with a stellar faculty and a roster of chart-topping, Grammy-winning alumni.  

However, it wasn't the school's reputation for launching successful music careers so much as the prospect of living in the city of Boston that made me choose Berklee over the other colleges offering scholarships.  

The many colleges and universities in Boston, Massachusetts have made the city a world leader in higher education

“You gotta look at the big picture,” a visiting clinician at Interlochen had advised. “Those other programs are excellent, but do you really want to spend the next four years of your life in Denton, Texas, or Coral Gables, Florida? Wouldn't you rather start your journey in a cosmopolitan, culturally rich environment? Don't you want to experience everything the city has to offer?” 

The idea made a lot of sense to me. I envisioned myself as an urban denizen, living in a Back Bay apartment, riding the subway, bopping around to jazz clubs, art galleries and whatnot.

Empowered by my experience at Interlochen, I would collect a coterie of cool, bohemian friends from other creative disciplines. We would gather in cafes to challenge and inspire one another with lively debates about art, music and literature. We would navigate the city’s historic neighborhoods and discover its hidden treasures together.

That was the plan, anyway.

And so it came to pass that I arrived in Boston like a quixotic knight errant, carrying my horn like a lance, wearing an invisible suit of armor made of chutzpah, armed with all the grandiose myths I had come to believe about myself and my inevitable place in the world.  

Our hero, poster child for the Dunning-Kruger Effect

My nascent skills were unremarkable, my self-confidence absurdly high. I must have seemed ridiculous.

Professor John LaPorta was the first to burst my bubble. “I dig your ambition, kid, but if you think you’re gonna get rich and famous playing jazz, think again,” he said. “This music is neither popular nor lucrative. It’s a long, hard road. The best you can hope for is to earn the respect of your peers.” 

Prior to teaching at Berklee, clarinetist and composer John LaPorta 
played and recorded with Kenny Clarke, Charlie Parker,
Lester Young, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis

LaPorta lamented how the names of even our most celebrated artists are virtually unknown outside of jazz circles. Many of the legends are long dead, and to the extent that any ever became a “household name” — Duke Ellington, for example, or Louis Armstrong — that was in another time, back when jazz was more a part of the cultural mainstream.  

“Some of our colleagues have become what we call jazz famous," LaPorta explained. "They put in the work. Now they’re in the big leagues. Civilians may not know their names, but we do. In our world, their names ring out. They've earned our respect.” 

“You could be next,” he concluded, “but only if you get serious and stop fucking around.”

Next:
FAME! PART 3 — MORE FAMOUS THAN YOU

FAME! PART 1 — I FEEL IT COMING TOGETHER 

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 

Remember? 

“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.

Next: 
FAME! PART 2 — JAZZ FAMOUS?

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.

AMBITION 


"For we pay a price for everything we get or take in this world,
and although ambitions are well worth having,
they are not to be cheaply won."
—Lucille Maud Montgomery

"You'd like to quantify me, Officer Starling.
You're so ambitious, aren't you?
Do you know what you look like to me,
with your good bag and your cheap shoes?
You look like a rube."
—Hannibal Lecter

"Keep away from people who belittle your ambitions.
Small people always do that, but the really great
make you feel that you, too, can become great."
—Mark Twain