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THE SUNFLOWER 


To Georgia ... From Arizona

The Georgia clay bank 
   would surely erode 
Except for the Chinaberry tree 
   standing stark against the sky 

A sunflower bloomed 
   outside my patio door 
The sunflower was you 

September, somehow the saddest of months 
   except for October — 
      exquisite, mournful October 
Bringer of beautiful Autumn 

Now the mid-life crisis 
   takes a strange and different turn 
Some would say I’m crazy 
   though I would tend to doubt it 

Living on the fringe of civilization 
   like a desert cat 
I expend little energy 
   to find my food 

Trying to keep in touch 
   with the few friends I have 
I feel everything slipping 
   away from me 

Would you please 
   keep me informed 
      of any change of address 
Even after you marry? 

I promise not to interfere 
   with your new life 
Just to know 
   where you are 
      how you are 
To hear from you 
   once in a while 
      will be enough 

I can find 
   the minor key 
      in any song 

Because 
   I live my life 
     in a minor key 

Becoming used 
   to the freedom 
      of being alone 

I sit and suffer 
I mull over 
   all the things 
      that have happened 
And wonder why 

God, I have become 
   a desperate scribbler of lines 
Who doesn’t know whether 
   he creates or not except for 
A simple declarative act of love 

Besides, 
   every word 
      once spoken 
         becomes a cliché 

My head is full of poems 
But they won’t come out straight 
They are muddled 
   and mixed 
      and unintelligible 

I lie on the desert floor 
Looking at the Arizona night sky 
Looking at the myriad of stars 
That appear so 
   clear and clean and close 
Enough to touch 
Maybe if I could 
Then the thoughts 
   should come out 
      clear and clean 

Perhaps if I could touch a star 
A poem would come out right 

I love 
   this Golden Land 
      of Eternal Sunshine 

But I’ve had enough 
Of sitting in the sun 

A sunflower bloomed 
Outside my patio door 
The sunflower was you

      —Bill Matheny

GENERATIONAL WEALTH 

What did I know, what did I know 
of love’s austere and lonely offices?
 
—Robert Hayden 

When the time came for Daddy Bill to move into hospice care, it fell to me to clean out his stark little studio apartment. 

The task didn’t take long. I’d planned to rent a storage unit for his stuff, but this turned out to be entirely unnecessary. In the man’s eighty-something trips around the sun, he only accumulated enough possessions to fill a few small boxes. 

I was amazed. Not by Dad’s extreme minimalism (don’t forget I used to live with the guy), but by the eloquence of the items he deemed precious enough to keep. In his closet was a sleeping bag, camp stove and hand crank portable radio. Everything else was arranged in neat little dust-covered piles around the room. He had an axe, a battered pair of binoculars, an old fly rod, a few books and compact discs, a coffee cup, some framed photographs, a pocket knife, and a small leather pouch. That’s about it. 
 

 

The pouch was empty, but when I opened the drawstring to look inside, the familiar scent of Middleton’s Cherry Blend brought tears to my eyes. I was about nine years old when we last visited the Schley Family Farm in Georgia. I still remember sitting next to Daddy Bill, watching with rapt attention as Dr. Schley used his leather-crafting tools to carefully cut, punch and sew the pouch together. Once finished, he ceremoniously presented the soft little bag to my father, as if it was some kind of totem or talisman imbued with magic powers. The Schleys were important people in the Brookstone community, and Dad treasured this handmade gift. He stored his pipe tobacco in that leather pouch for years. 
 


In a drawer under the sink I found a mishmash of papers: old bank statements, love letters, canceled checks, poems, his birding “life list” handwritten on a yellow legal pad, and a stack of picture postcards, many of them from me, which had once adorned the thumbtack-covered walls of his Graham County hermit house. Resting on top, like a paperweight, was a small carved wooden sign: White Thorn Gallery. 
 


As far back as my great-great-grandfather, the Matheny men were all expert craftsmen. Daddy Bill and his brother Jim grew up working alongside their father in the Matheny Cabinet Shop, building and restoring heirloom furniture in mahogany, oak, walnut, cherry, maple and cedar. Almost everyone in our extended family today has at least one precious Matheny antique at home. 

But the only furniture my father owned at the end of his life was a single reclining armchair, purchased for him a few years ago by a generous friend. Everything else had long since been given away. He was funny that way. He gave all our furniture to one of his stepdaughters. He gave our car to my friend Kent. I have no doubt the old man would’ve eventually given that recliner away, too. 

So I followed his example and left that chair behind for the next tenant. I slipped my father’s poetry into my backpack, and boxed up the rest, stacking everything in the corner of Nedra’s garage for safekeeping. 

I suppose I’ll come back for that leather pouch someday. 

And maybe that fishing pole, too. 

I miss you, Daddy Bill.

KINKAKU-JI 

The foundation of any national character is human nature.
―Vasily Grossman
 

Of all the many magical places I’ve encountered in my travels, Kinkaku-ji, Kyoto’s Temple of the Golden Pavilion, is one of the most magnificent. Set in a classical strolling garden by a reflective pond, the temple’s design is strikingly opulent yet perfectly integrated into the surrounding landscape. 

 


Although I’ve only visited the historic world heritage site twice, I return so often in mind and memory that it has become comfortingly familiar. For me, this temple achieves what the great cathedrals of Europe do not. Instead of making one feel small and insignificant, Kinkaku-ji inspires a profound feeling of gratitude and connection to the natural world, inviting contemplation of one’s own role in the cosmos. As above, so below. 

Kinkaku-ji is a wonder of architecture and aesthetics. Each section of the three-story structure represents a different historical period and point of view. The first level, named Chamber of Dharma Waters, is rendered in the natural wood and white paneled shinden style of eleventh century imperial aristocracy, with verandas and open areas that bring the outdoors inside. The second story, called Tower of Sound Waves, is built in the tenth century manner of samurai warriors, with sliding doors and mullioned windows intended to convey evanescence. The top floor, Cupola of the Ultimate, is constructed in the twelfth century zen style suggesting meditation and spiritual insight. The top two levels are completely covered in shining gold leaf. Taken collectively, this singular architectural marvel confers both respect for nature and an awareness of the fragile, fleeting nature of existence. 

But it’s the luminous golden reflection of the temple on the surface of the pond that I find most compelling. The image remains constant as the seasons change. Even before you view the relics and treasures within, the building’s exterior design eloquently communicates the Japanese ideals of shokunin (craftsmanship, pursuit of perfection), wabi (understated elegance), sabi (the beauty of impermanence), yugen (mystery, grace) and ma (negative space, emptiness, and silence). 

Kinkaku-ji is a truly remarkable place. It’s also where I learned a valuable lesson about the absurdity of stereotypes and the gentle power of humor. 

A light rain was falling as I quietly admired the temple with my new friend Masa, an expert on buddhist culture who also happens to be the husband of a favorite visual artist), when our silent contemplation was suddenly interrupted by a boisterous busload of Japanese tourists. They tumbled out of the bus, photographers all, and immediately began to laugh and shout as they joyfully took pictures of one another on the temple grounds. 

I was offended by what I perceived as an inappropriate and unwelcome assault on my reverie. Kinkaku-ji is a sacred place! They should know better, I thought. But when I looked to my guide he was grinning ear-to-ear, delighted with their arrival. I wondered how he could remain so cheerful in the face of this intrusion.

“You don’t find them rude?” I asked, as yet another cluster of giggling girls pushed past us to pose in front of the temple. They squealed gleefully and flashed peace signs as their male companions snapped photo after photo.

“This is a happy place,” Masa explained, smiling benevolently. “Why shouldn’t they be happy?” 

Of course he’s right, I realized. Embarrassed by my own foolishness, I tried to make a joke. 

“Hey Masa, you’re Japanese. Where’s your camera?” 

He replied without hesitation.

“Well, you’re American...where’s your gun?”  

MEETING LELA | PART 7 — BISCUITS & GRAVY 


“We all grow up with inherited genes 
and inherited sensibilities, and 
they run very, very deep.” 

—John Lithgow 

 

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. 

I wonder what Mr. Stockdale would think of all this. I didn't fully appreciated those MACOS nature/nurture lectures at Brookstone until this moment.

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.”

MEETING LELA
Part 1 — The Frosty Frog
Part 2 — Chattanooga
Part 3 — Adventureland
Part 4 — America McGee
Part 5 — Under The Stars
Part 6 — Gifts
Part 7 — Biscuits & Gravy

MEETING LELA | PART 6 — GIFTS 

“All of us labor in webs spun
long before we were born.” 

—William Faulkner
 
 

The next morning I asked Lela the question that had kept me awake most of the night. “Same repertoire? What did you mean by that?” 

She smiled. “Well, you played Stormy Weather, My One And Only Love, and I’m Beginning To See The Light ... I did all those same tunes!” 

“What do you mean, you did those tunes?” I asked. “When? How? Where?” 

Her face registered genuine surprise. “You knew I was a singer, didn’t you?” 

“No, ma’am. I mean, I found some pictures of you in high school,” I stammered, “you know, singing musical theater stuff, but…” 

“Oh, honey! I was a jazz singer! Your father used to come to my gigs. That’s how we met!” she laughed. “Where did you think your gifts came from?” 

You could have knocked me over with a feather. 

“Lela, honestly, I always figured it was Dad’s record collection that set me on this path. Sketches of SpainRound About MidnightKind of Blue…” 

“Ooh, that’s just like him!” she interrupted, shaking her head. “First of all, those were my Miles Davis records.” She paused a moment. “He never told you? Really?” 
 


Nope. He told me you were crazy. He said you were a criminal. He said you “ran off in the middle of the night” and told me we were better off without you. But no, he never once mentioned anything about you singing jazz. 

Was it even true? Or was this just another of Lela’s tall tales? 

I was determined to find out. After she returned home to the midwest, I drove out to Daddy Bill's Hermit House to see if I could verify her story. I was a man on a mission. The three-hour drive through the Lonesome Desert gave me plenty of time to consider how I might broach the subject with my old man.

I arrived in the late afternoon to find him hunched over a bucket on his front porch, methodically shelling and cracking pecans with his blistered, blackened fingers. Pecan trees grew wild in the scrubby chaparral of Graham County. It had become Dad’s habit to harvest the nuts each autumn and gift large bags of them to family and friends during the winter holidays. I admired his resourcefulness.

“Hey Bub!” Daddy Bill greeted me cheerily. “You’re just in time.” 

He handed me a Sam Adams from the cooler. “Don't tell the Mormons,” he said with a wink.

Another glorious Arizona sunset.
 


“So. Dad. How did it feel to see Lela again after all these years?” 

He gazed thoughtfully into the distance. “Welp. She got old.” 

“You and I aren’t getting any younger either,” I laughed. “Anyway, did y’all have a good talk at the concert?” 

“She did most of the talking,” he said, adding “you know how she is.” He kicked a pile of pecan shells off the porch.

“Right. Listen, Dad. Lela told me she used to be a jazz singer.” 

My father rolled his eyes. “Aww, she was what we used to call a torch singer. But that was a long time ago. Before you were born.” 

“So it’s true?” I asked, astonished. “You didn't think your son -- the musician -- might want to know about that?” 

“Why would you care?” he said dismissively. “She wasn’t a big deal or anything. She just sang in nightclubs with her little combo.” 

Unbelievable. 

“Dad…what exactly do you think I do for a living?” 

MEETING LELA
Part 1 — The Frosty Frog
Part 2 — Chattanooga
Part 3 — Adventureland
Part 4 — America McGee
Part 5 — Under The Stars
Part 6 — Gifts
Part 7 — Biscuits & Gravy

MEETING LELA | PART 5 — UNDER THE STARS 

“The only thing new in the world
is the history you do not know.”
 
—Harry S. Truman

 

Since Lela’s last Irish goodbye, I’d grown up, moved out, finished high school in Michigan, graduated from college in Massachusetts, lived in California for twenty years, and traveled all over the world. I’d made my bones, married, divorced, and moved on. Suffice to say, it had been awhile. 

Then in 2009 I returned to the Lonesome Desert with my girlfriend Sassy. Daddy Bill’s health had taken a turn for the worse, so I bought us a house in a bedroom community outside of Phoenix and fixed up a room for him. He would often come to visit but always left after a day or two, stubbornly refusing to move in. “I don’t want to be a burden,” Daddy Bill said. “Besides, I prefer my little Hermit House by the Pinaleños.” 
 

 

In October 2012 the Dmitri Matheny Group played Music Under The Stars in Tucson. The open air concert felt like a homecoming. Presented by the very jazz society that gave me my first scholarship when I was fifteen, the event was held at Tohono Chul Park, my not-so-secret hideout during the CDO years. I’d spent many soul-restoring hours in the desert gardens of Tohono Chul back in the day, and I had returned to the Old Pueblo many times over the years for concerts. But this event was special. Both my father and biological mother were in the audience. 
 


The show was a grand success. The crowd was warmly receptive and our performance could not have gone better. I was so proud of my band, especially Akira Tana, who’d flown in from California for the occasion. But the great highlight, for me, was re-introducing Dad and Lela to one another after the show. 

“Well, I’ll be damned,” Daddy Bill said upon seeing Lela. “I thought you were dead.” 

“I thought you were dead,” Lela replied. 

Delightful.

I left them alone to chat a bit while I packed up my gear and settled up with the band. Eventually the old man hit the road back to Hermit House, and I returned home with Sass and our surprise overnight guest. 

Back at the Maricopa Cabana, Lela and I sat side-by-side on the living room sofa. Tee many martunis later, story time was in full effect. For all her past reticence, my mother was now a free-flowing fountain of information, and for once, not just about America McGee. In vino veritas! 

 

To summarize, Lela never wanted children but she loved my father and “decided to give him a son.” It was an especially difficult and prolonged pregnancy. Lela was in labor for days. The delivery, when it finally came on Christmas Day 1965, nearly destroyed us both. I was a breach birth. The doctor had to extract me with forceps. My father cried when he saw my misshapen skull. Everyone feared I might not survive. Eventually my head retained its natural shape, however, and I turned out to be perfectly healthy. 

 


“You were my miracle baby,” Lela smiled, shaking her head, “but you nearly killed me. I never blamed you, of course. But I had to get the hell out of there.” It was the closest thing to an explanation I’d ever heard. 

We continued to talk and imbibe into the wee hours until both of us were slurring our speech. When we finally called it a night, Lela was a little wobbly on her feet, so I gathered her bony frame in my arms and carried her down the hall to the guest bedroom. I could scarcely believe that this little old woman, this tiny weightless bird, had ever given birth to anyone. 

“Oh, about your concert,” she mumbled as I turned out the light.

“You and I do a lot of the same repertoire.”

MEETING LELA
Part 1 — The Frosty Frog
Part 2 — Chattanooga
Part 3 — Adventureland
Part 4 — America McGee
Part 5 — Under The Stars
Part 6 — Gifts
Part 7 — Biscuits & Gravy

MEETING LELA | PART 4 — AMERICA McGEE 

“Myths are lies and therefore worthless,” CS Lewis told 
JRR Tolkien, “even though breathed through silver.” 
“No,” Tolkien replied, “they are not lies.
 
—Joseph Pearce 

 

“Dmitri, I can’t believe it! How on earth did you find me!!?” 

How indeed! I cannot account for the bizarre sequence of events that led me to Mr. Bill’s Adventureland, nor can I rationally explain how I knew that Mr. Bill’s Lela and mine were one and the same. But somehow, whether by fate, synchronicity or merely coincidence, at the age of 43 I became penpals with my long lost mother. 

We didn’t converse so much as trade soliloquies. She ignored my questions, so I volunteered details from my own life hoping she might respond in kind. I told her about my successful music career and failed marriage. I shared all my hopes, dreams and fears. 

Lela answered these confessional data dumps with imaginative tall tales in which distant relations appeared as folk heroes. Often embedded within these homespun legends were non sequiturs of a more personal nature (e.g. “the scent of oranges always reminds me of Christmas”). I jumped at these crumbs like a starving orphan.

One day an envelope arrived with no letter at all. Inside were a one page single-spaced typewritten genealogy labeled “The Brown Family” and two photos. In one of the images a group of adults stands in a distant row facing the camera. On the back, in crayon block letters, they are identified as “(L-R) Mama Zulah, Brownie, Jo, Allene, Sissy, Evelyn, Frances, Sara, Jim, Willard.” The reverse of the other photo, a mother with two children, is annotated in Lela's handwriting, “I was about 8 and my little brother was 6 when this was taken, so it was about 1950.”


(


A close study of The Brown Family genealogy reveals “Mama Zulah” to be Lela's maternal grandmother. Following is the final paragraph, together with Lela's pencil notations in bold italics: “James Andrew Jackson Brown (1877-1961) PAPA son of William J. and Sarah Catherine, married Cornie Perdue around 1900. They had 2 children, V. R. (Brownie) 1904- and Vera Estelle (Sissy) 1906-. After the death of Cornie, James Andrew married Zulah Estes Cummings (1888-1963) MAMA in 1908. She was the daughter of Nancy Docia Brown who was the 13th child of Jeremiah Brown and Nancy Hodges Brown. Jeremiah Brown was the great grandfather of James Andrew and the grandfather of Zulah. James Andrew and Zulah had 7 children, Evelyn 1909-, Allene 1912-1972 MY MOM, 5 FEET TALL, BIG BOOBS, TINY WAIST, Josephine 1913-, Frances 1920, Sara 1923, James Andrew Jr. 1927- MY UNCLE WWII PURPLE HEART and Willard 1929-1977.”

This convoluted “kissing cousins” report represents the sum total of what I know about Lela's roots. More often than not her letters would only recount the superhuman exploits of America McGee, the larger-than-life (and likely imaginary) Native American ancestor who, according to family lore, worked miracles, healed the sick, communed with animals and angels, predicted future events, and inspired everyone in the community with her wise counsel.

I doubted the very existence of this messianic figure, but eventually came to appreciate her significance as a mythic hero. Fictional or not, America McGee was my mother’s personal avatar, the embodiment of her highest aspirations. Perhaps McGee was, to Lela, what the Green Lantern is to me. 

I’ve never had much use for religion but I must admit to enjoying these quasi-biblical stories a bit more after having experienced McGee’s magic for myself. After all, a Google search on her name was the deus ex machina that brought Lela and me together again. Even if I never find confirmation of America McGee as an actual historical figure, I will always be grateful to her mythos for moving our plot along. #AmericaMacGuffin 

Every once and awhile my mother would let her guard down and reveal something personal. I briefly regarded each of these revelations as precious nuggets of truth until they, too, were inevitably contradicted by Lela herself.

For example, in one of her letters, Lela cast herself as a child prodigy and honor student who “tested at the genius level” and graduated from a prestigious university while still a teenager. In another she appears as a college dropout who never took school seriously and scandalized everyone by “running off with a professor” during her freshman year. In yet a third version of events Lela skips college entirely, having been recruited right out of high school to join a prestigious national advertising firm as a professional commercial artist. 

Lela mentioned my father exactly twice. “Bill Matheny was a hopeless romantic,” she complained, “and I was his child bride. He smothered me with too much affection.” In a subsequent email she wrote “The man never said I love you, and I was the kind of girl who needed to hear that from time to time.” 

Bill Matheny: Hopeless Romantic? 
 

The two of us corresponded regularly for the next four years.

When you consider the sheer volume of words we exchanged, it’s really quite remarkable how little I learned about my mother’s actual thoughts, feelings or life experiences. Her fraught relationship with the truth was frustrating, but after so many years of silence, I was grateful for any contact at all. 

Then, in October 2012, Lela called with big news: 

“I bought an airline ticket today,” she said. “I’m coming to your next show.” 

MEETING LELA
Part 1 — The Frosty Frog
Part 2 — Chattanooga
Part 3 — Adventureland
Part 4 — America McGee
Part 5 — Under The Stars
Part 6 — Gifts
Part 7 — Biscuits & Gravy

MEETING LELA | PART 2 — CHATTANOOGA 

“It’s good to know where you come from. 
It makes you what you are today. 
It’s DNA. It’s in your blood.” 

—Alexander McQueen 

 

In 1984 I was at boarding school in Michigan when my father called from Arizona to tell me about a long-distance phone call he had received from my mother. 

Her husband Tom had died after a prolonged bout with cancer. Now a widow in her forties, Lela was back in college studying to become a registered nurse. The reason (or pretense?) for her call was to ask for my social security number. Apparently she was updating her will and wanted to list me as beneficiary. 

“But you know how Lela is,” Dad said. “According to her you stand to inherit a mountain top of all things! I promised I’d let you know … even though it’s probably horseshit.” 

“Wait, where is she?” I asked my dad. 

“Did you get an address? What’s her phone number?” 

I already knew what he would say.

“Naw, I didn’t ask. Why do you care? She’s crazy!” 

Same old stubborn Daddy Bill.

I didn’t press him. Ever since Lela’s Irish goodbye in '79, I’d grown increasingly ambivalent about her. I had many questions, but it was clear to me that they would never be answered by her or by my father. 

A few years later just before my college graduation, Dad came to visit me in Boston. He’d recently divorced wife number four and he wanted to take me on a road trip.

We spent two weeks exploring New England, including one of his favorite birding spots, Mt. Desert Island off the coast of Maine. I would sit on the rocks for hours, playing my horn over the Atlantic, while Dad studied the flora and fauna of Acadia National Park. 

Dmitri Matheny - Mt. Desert Island, Maine | Summer 1988


In the evenings we’d enjoy delicious seafood dinners in Bar Harbor before retiring to our hotel, where we’d crack open a Sam Adams and reminisce. Perhaps because I’d been away for several years at Interlochen and Berklee, Dad was uncharacteristically talkative, so I took the opportunity to steer our conversation to wife number two, hoping to learn a little more about their brief time together and my own origin story. 

I noticed that if I asked Dad a direct question (“How did you and Lela meet?”) he would abruptly change the subject, but if I introduced the topic in a more oblique way (“Where did you live before I was born?”) he would begin to wax nostalgic and eventually would find his own way to Lela-land. 

I’ve forgotten much of what Dad told me during these late night chin wags, but I do recall him saying that Lela was raised in Chattanooga, not by her parents but by “two old maid aunts in a big house with white columns.” Apparently Lela and several members of her family (the Aults) had experienced “nervous breakdowns” and were “taken to the nut house.” Dad also mentioned a schizophrenic and homeless uncle who was known to wander the streets naked. “Every year they’d find him, clean him up, get him dressed, and bring him to Thanksgiving Dinner,” Dad said, shaking his head, adding “that whole family was crazy.” 

I didn’t give these accounts much credence, chalking them up to a combination of heartbreak, hearsay, and hyperbole, but a few years later, when I repeated these stories to my fiancée in California, she expressed concern. “It’s important for us to know the medical history on both sides of your family,” Larissa explained, “especially since we want kids of our own.”

I agreed, so Lara and I traveled to Tennessee on a Lela fact-finding mission. We didn’t learn much about the family but we did find out a few revelatory things about my mother's adolescence.

In the microfiche archives of the Chattanooga Public Library we found the obituary for Lela’s paternal grandmother and namesake, Lela Elizabeth Ault (born Bryson) 1878-1953.

 

Lela Bryson Ault
July 26, 1878
Dec 12, 1953


Since the article included an address for the Ault family home, we drove over to take a look and, sure enough, it was a big house with white columns, looking like something straight out of Gone With The Wind. We knocked on the door but no-one answered. 

Returning to the library we discovered my mother’s Chattanooga High School yearbooks. What a find! In official school portraits between 1957 and 1960, we see Lela Ault transform from a cute, mischievous girl into a mature, sophisticated young woman right before our eyes. 

Lela Ault - Chattanooga High School, Tennessee
(L-R) 1957-58, 1958-59, 1959-60


Her senior photo, in particular, is striking. There’s something deadly serious and almost defiant in her expression. At eighteen she already appears to be someone of substance, and the arts-centric bio blurb beneath the image supports this impression.

It turns out that Lela Ault was not only a visual artist in high school, but a prolific singer and performer as well. Who knew?! She sang in the choir and cantata, was a featured soloist in several student talent shows, and appeared in musical theater productions of Porgy & Bess, The Pajama Game and A Star Is Born. Moreover, as a member of the art service and specialty clubs, she was invited to perform off campus for various civic organizations around town. 

Prior to this moment I had no idea that Lela was a music person. In media interviews, whenever I was asked if I came from a musical family, I always answered “not especially” and credited my father’s excellent record collection as the catalyst for my career in jazz. I was raised to believe that nurture, not nature, had set me on this path.

But here, in the pages of a midcentury high school yearbook, was new evidence that I could not ignore: photos of my biological mother on stage, five years before my birth, singing jazz standards by George Gershwin and Harold Arlen. 

Lela Ault - Chattanooga High School, Tennessee | 1959-60
Singing "Summertime" and "The Man That Got Away"

 

A few days later we visited Daddy Bill's side of the family in Cookeville, Tullahoma, and Nashville.

“Did you know that Lela was a singer?” I asked my Aunt Maxine. 

“Oh, she had a lovely voice,” she replied. “We all thought so.” 

MEETING LELA
Part 1 — The Frosty Frog
Part 2 — Chattanooga
Part 3 — Adventureland
Part 4 — America McGee
Part 5 — Under The Stars
Part 6 — Gifts
Part 7 — Biscuits & Gravy

MEETING LELA | PART 1 — THE FROSTY FROG 

“Sometimes I feel like a motherless child, 
a long, long way from home.” 

—Traditional 


When I was a kid in Tennessee and Georgia I knew very little about my mother. 

I knew her name. “Lela Matheny” was written in ballpoint pen on the inside cover of all our books. I knew she was a talented artist, too. We had several of her framed oil paintings hanging on our walls. And I knew she was movie-star beautiful. Although Dad was reluctant to speak of Lela, he did give me a single photo of her which I treasured and kept hidden away in a drawer. 

“Lela Matheny” was written in ballpoint pen on the inside cover of all our books.

The only other thing I knew about Lela was that she broke my father’s heart. 

“Shortly after you were born,” Dad explained, “Lela ran off with her lover in the middle of the night. They took my car and went to Mexico. Lela got herself a Mexican divorce and a Mexican marriage to the other guy. As far as I know, they’re still together.” He would repeat this story many times over the years, always emphasizing the words “Mexican divorce” and “Mexican marriage” as if that particular detail somehow signified illegitimacy or proved how unjustly he’d been treated. 

If I felt any sadness over losing Lela I certainly wasn’t aware of it. I didn’t remember her, so how could I miss her? I was a happy kid with a loving father and a revolving door of kind female caregivers. But I was understandably curious about the woman who gave birth to me. I wondered where she was, why she left, what her life was like now. 

Whenever I asked my Dad these things, he would repeat his “Lela ran off” refrain, and would shut down any follow-up questions with “Aw, you don’t want to know about her! She’s crazy!” 
 

I was understandably curious about the woman who gave birth to me.


As far as I knew our only contact with Lela was the birthday card I received each year at Christmas. There were never any messages inside, just “Love, Lela” in the same familiar handwriting. There were never any return addresses on the envelopes, either, but I always noticed the postmarks. Each year the card would arrive from a different place: Key West, Seattle, New York, Santa Fe, Ann Arbor. 

“Looks like Lela’s in Bozeman, Montana,” I said to Daddy Bill after my thirteenth birthday. “Why do you suppose she moves around so much?” 

I expected his customary evasiveness, but this time the old man surprised me. “Son, you’re old enough to know that your mother’s husband is a federal criminal,” Dad said soberly. “They have to keep moving because they’re on the lam. Tom is wanted by the feds.” 

“No kidding?” I asked. “What did he do?” 

“Mail order fraud,” Dad replied. “He sells fake chinchilla furs or somesuch.” 

I had no clue what a chinchilla was, but the notion that half my DNA might come from a mysterious, beautiful, crazy, vagabond artist/criminal? The idea intrigued me. I needed to meet this person.

"He sells fake chinchilla furs or somesuch."

It’s the summer of 1979 in Tucson, Arizona, and I’m living it up in our new Catalina Foothills apartment. Dad is teaching summer school so I have my run of the place. I get to sleep late and have friends over. We do whatever we want, when we want, free from adult supervision.

Our activities are fairly harmless: we crank up the air conditioner, make giant Dagwood sandwiches, drink gallons of sun tea, and watch creature features on the tube. We listen to records in the Den of Iniquity. Sometimes we ride our bikes down to the Circle K for Mad magazines and microwave burritos, or head over to the Coronado clubhouse to play air hockey and gawk at the high school girls sunning themselves by the pool. 

Any self-esteem I lost at Marana has been fully replenished. I now have friends, freedom and, thanks to my paperboy job, plenty of spending money. As if I needed any additional ego boost, they’ve been saying my name on the radio lately (“trumpet solo by Dmitri Matheny”) because I’m playing the mariachi classic “La Paloma” in the Fiesta de los Niños at El Con Mall. I feel special again for the first time since we left Brookstone. 

 

I’m playing the mariachi classic “La Paloma” in the Fiesta de los Niños at El Con Mall.


It’s mid-morning when the phone rings in our dark apartment. I shuffle into the kitchen and wipe the sleep from my eyes as I lift the receiver. What have I won this time? 

“Dmitri?” says an unfamiliar female voice. “This is Lela.” 

“Lela like my mother Lela?” I ask. 

“That’s me,” she says. “How are you?” 

“Surprised,” I reply.

“Listen, I’m in Tucson,” she says. “I live here. What are you up to today?” 

“Nothin’ much,” I reply, bewildered. 

“Would you like to go with me to the art museum?” 

Half an hour later I answer the door and there she is, the pretty lady from the photo, looking not unlike Suzanne Pleshette in her high-collared lime green pantsuit, white silk scarf, and oversized sunglasses. I lock up the apartment, follow to her car, and slide into the passenger seat next to her. I can’t believe she’s really here. 

Unlike my taciturn father, Lela turns out to be an absolute chatterbox. She talks nonstop as we walk through the museum galleries, jumping randomly from one non sequitur to the next, dramatically whispering then laughing loudly, dropping names I don’t know, passionately offering her opinion on every exhibit. The words tumble out of her but I barely comprehend their meaning. I’m too preoccupied with studying her every move and mannerism. Do I take after Lela? She strikes me as stylish and sophisticated, yet insecure and more than a little phony.  

After the museum we walk across the street to a frozen yogurt shop called the Frosty Frog. Lela orders a mint chip froyo to match the vivid green of her outfit, then lights a long slender cigarette, all the while babbling like the giddy guest on a late night talk show. Something in her affect makes me feel diminished, as if I’m merely a spectator in the movie of her life. It’s only at this moment, looking across the table at her, that I’m finally able to accept the reality of this surreal afternoon. 

So this is my mother. 

Lela orders a mint chip froyo to match the vivid green of her outfit.

When Daddy Bill gets home from work he finds me sitting silently in the living room. 

“How was your day, Bub?” he asks. 

“Well Dad,” I reply, “I think you ought to sit down for this.” 

In my memory the revelation that I’d spent the day with my bio-mom was a complete surprise to Daddy Bill. He didn’t mind that we'd met, but he seemed genuinely shocked to learn that Lela was in Tucson, and mystified by how she got our phone number. In hindsight I suspect he knew more than he let on. When it came to Lela, Dad played his cards very close to the vest. 

I rode my bike over to Lela and Tom’s place several times that summer. Their condo was modest, even smaller than our apartment, but it was brand new, adjacent to a magnificent golf course, and furnished with midcentury modern Scandinavian decor that looked like something you’d see in the pages of a high-end design catalog. 

Lela's husband Tom was an overly tan charmer with “trust me” eyes and a full head of gray-blond Banacek hair. He wore polo shirts and khakis, told silly jokes, brandished a fat bankroll, and flashed blindingly white teeth whenever he smiled, which was often. He spent most of his time either on the phone or on the links. 

“What exactly does Tom do for a living?” I asked Lela, thinking of the chinchillas and whatnot. 

“Oh, this and that,” Lela said with a dismissive wave of the hand. “Tom’s what’s known as an entrepreneur.”

It was the first time I’d ever heard the word. To this day when anyone uses it I think of Tom and his Cheshire Cat grin. 

I expected Dad’s reunion with his ex-wife, and the man she left him for, to be awkward, but the three of them got along just fine. They reclined in their chaise lounges, swilling gin cocktails and playing “remember when” like old friends. Later when we all went to dinner together at La Fuente, the mood was entirely convivial, or so it seemed to me. 

On one occasion Dad invited Tom over to play tennis while Lela stayed behind to give me a painting lesson. I still remember how she taught me to use complementary colors for the shadows, and the way she demonstrated the proper technique for washing a paint brush by making small soapy circles in the palm of my hand. 

Dad invited Tom over to play tennis while Lela stayed behind to give me a painting lesson.

I tried to engage Lela in meaningful conversation but quickly learned that she had no interest in being real with me. Having grown up in the south I'm no stranger to tall tales, but Lela was a full-on fabulist. She seemed incapable of giving a straight answer.

A simple query like “do I have any brothers or sisters” prompted a hyperbolic description of her own brother, a strikingly handsome, independently wealthy, eccentric genius, more clairvoyant than Edgar Cayce, who lives in a mansion and invents rockets for a secret government agency. Ahem. 

When asked about her childhood, Lela launched into a series of Bunyanesque tales about a magical, mythical Cherokee ancestor named “America” who married a Scotsman named “McGee” to become “America McGee.” Each story was more outlandish than the previous, but none shed any light on Lela’s actual life.

Lela delivered these far-fetched family fables with earnest enthusiasm, oblivious to how ridiculous they sounded. Eventually I stopped asking questions altogether and just surrendered myself to her whimsy. 

We saw each other several times that summer but she never gave up any credible intel. Nor did she seem interested in learning anything about my life or thoughts or feelings. I learned what I could about Lela through observation alone. 

In late summer Daddy Bill and I were sharing a bag of Fritos and watching 60 Minutes when he put his hand on my shoulder and said, “I’m glad you’ve enjoyed getting to know Lela and Tom, but you’d better prepare yourself, son. At some point they’ll disappear again, probably without warning. I don’t want you to get your feelings hurt.” 

Dad was right. A few days later Tom’s name appeared in an Arizona Daily Star article about interstate commerce irregularities. I called the condo and, sure enough, the number was disconnected. I rode over on my bike and, no surprise, the place was empty. 

It would be another 23 years before I would meet Lela again. 

Lela in 1965 (L) when I was born, and in 2002 (R) when I met her the second time.

 

MEETING LELA
Part 1 — The Frosty Frog
Part 2 — Chattanooga
Part 3 — Adventureland
Part 4 — America McGee
Part 5 — Under The Stars
Part 6 — Gifts
Part 7 — Biscuits & Gravy

SNAPSHOTS | PART 5 — CHEVY MAN 

“That’s the great thing about being a teenager. 
You think you’re a genius.”

—Daveed Diggs 

 

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.” 

Next:
MEETING LELA | PART 1

SNAPSHOTS | PART 4 — CHUBASCO 

“Your vibe attracts your tribe.” 
—Anthony Bourdain 

“We go back like car seats.” 
—Harry Bosch
 

It can’t be an easy thing to raise a son. 

It’s a balancing act. To help him find his way in life while also allowing him the freedom to fail. To provide advantages and opportunities without coddling or spoiling him. To encourage excellence without setting unrealistic standards. To teach him both self-confidence and humility. To know when to protect him, when to counsel him, and when to let him face adversity alone. To balance his needs with your own. 

My father did his best. In 1978 when he decided to relocate us to Arizona, he had his reasons. He was heartbroken, depressed, and needed a change. The move proved troublesome for me, but I don’t begrudge Dad needing to prioritize his own mental and emotional health. It was never his intention to sabotage my education or put me in harm’s way. Kids are resilient. He knew I would adapt. 

It didn’t take Daddy Bill long, however, to realize that Marana was no place for either of us. He loved to teach but was spending most of his time enforcing classroom rules and trying to maintain order. I loved to learn but none of my classes were interesting, and I was always on guard, looking over my shoulder for the next attack.

Dad resolved to seek employment elsewhere as soon as his contract was up, and promised he would find a better school for me in Tucson the following year. In the meantime it was my job to survive seventh grade at Marana Junior High. 

Fortunately, life got easier for me at Marana. There was still plenty of student-on-student violence but somehow I was no longer a target. Is it because I carried myself differently after I’d learned a few moves? Possibly, but the more likely explanation is that I was spared because I finally made the right friends. 

I met Jack in Reading class (no joke, the class was called “reading”), and we hit it off immediately. Jack was different from the other kids. Like me, he was a displaced southerner (his family came from Virginia) with an artistic bent and diverse interests. He was smart, articulate, creative, and funny as hell. He was also an excellent writer. In fact, the only time I ever got in trouble at Marana, it wasn’t for fighting, but for laughing at one of Jack’s hilarious short stories. 

 

Jack was smart, articulate, creative, and funny as hell.

 

“Settle down, Dmitri,” said Mrs. Woods. 

“Yes, ma’am,” I replied. 

“Don’t back-talk me! You go to the principal’s office right now!” she demanded. 

I told Principal Dewey that Mrs. Woods had misinterpreted my sincere polite response as sarcasm. “It’s how I was raised,” I explained. “At my old school in Georgia, you’d get in trouble if you didn’t say yes ma’am.” 

“Well, you’re here now. Lose that habit,” he said. “And I still have to give you detention for disrupting class.” 

“Yes, sir,” I replied, true to my roots. 

A few days later my new friend Jack introduced me to his pal Bennie, a charismatic football player with a winning smile and a terrific sense of humor. Bennie had cracked the code on how to flirt, too, and all the girls giggled whenever he was around. Ben’s upbeat attitude was infectious. I liked him right away and the three of us soon became fast friends. It didn’t surprise me at all when I later found out my new companions also happened to be Dad’s favorite English Lit students. 

 

Bennie’s upbeat attitude was infectious.

 

No fights found me after I started hanging out with Bennie and Jack. In a school where sports participation is one of the only real forms of social currency, the two of them were well-liked student athletes. They seemed to get along with everybody, even the so-called bad kids. I must have benefitted by association. Plus, Jack was taller than almost everyone else in our class. Nobody messed with him. 

We were the original three amigos. We hung out everyday at school and sometimes on the weekends. I liked to draw comic books for fun back then and remember creating Jack Fox and Blazin’ Ben as their superhero alter egos. 

For all its faults, Marana did one thing 100% right: almuerzo, or as we called it, lonche. Twenty-five cents would get you a man-sized portion of delicious Sonoran food, served up fresh daily in the school cafeteria. The ladies in the kitchen took great pride in their work and prepared a different main course for us each day: carnitas, tamales, machaca, fajitas, chile rellenos, enchiladas verdes, and more, always with a generous helping of frijoles refritos con arroz. Damn, I loved those Marana lunches. 

 

Damn, I loved those Marana lunches.

 

The other thing that made lunchtime so great was the game we always played. Bennie, Jack and I, and occasionally our friend Kevin, would take turns trying to make each other laugh with ridiculous jokes, silly voices and wordplay. Sometimes we would mimic absurd Steve Martin comedy routines or reenact entire skits by the Not Ready For Prime Time Players. Invariably we’d all end up doubled over in fits of laughter. The game never ended until the bell rang or Bennie spit milk out of his nose. Big fun. 

I loved those guys then and I love them still. 

I had no way of knowing, at the time, that Bennie would grow up to become one of the west coast's most popular radio personalities, or that he and his wife would generously let me stay with them while I found my first apartment in San Francisco. I couldn’t have known that Ben would one day introduce me to the O’Jays (with whom I would have the honor of working some years later), or how supportive he would be over the course of my future music career. I didn’t know that Ben and I would remain friends for life. 

And I certainly had no way of knowing, at the time, that Jack and I were destined to attend the same high school in Tucson, become college roommates in Boston, and remain close as adults as we both pursued careers in the performing arts. I couldn’t have known how much time we would spend playing in bands with each other, or discovering music together over many late nights at the turntable, poring over liner notes as we listened to his excellent collection of classic jazz on vinyl. I didn’t know we would one day stand up as “best man” at each other’s weddings, or that we would continue to confide in one another, sharing our troubles and triumphs well into late middle age. I didn’t know that Jack would be my best friend forever. 

All I knew was that I had finally found my tribe. I'm not sure whether I ever told them how our alliance had saved me. Jack and Ben made an otherwise miserable year not only bearable, but memorable in the best possible way. 

On December 25, my father and I celebrated the holiday on our balcony, grilling steaks and listening to our favorite seasonal album, Ella Wishes You A Swinging Christmas. After dinner we watched as heavy, dark clouds rolled over the valley, showering the desert with a wondrous cleansing rain. 

 

We watched as heavy, dark clouds rolled over the valley,
showering the desert with a wondrous cleansing rain. 

 

The winter cloudburst felt auspicious, like a baptism or benediction. 

“Merry Christmas, Daddy Bill,” I said. 

“Happy Birthday, Bub,” he said. “You’re a teenager now.” 

“Yes, sir,” I replied, true to my roots. 

Next: 
SNAPSHOTS | PART 5 — CHEVY MAN

SNAPSHOTS | PART 3 — TANGLE 

“The beginning of things is necessarily vague, 
tangled, chaotic, and exceedingly disturbing. 
How few of us ever emerge from such beginning!” 

—Kate Chopin 

 

By summer’s end I’ve discovered much to love about living in Arizona. 

The regional art, music and food are outstanding. The laidback lifestyle suits my temperament. The arid landscape is as vast and peaceful as the ocean. I like the way hawks wheel and keen overhead as the majestic saguaro watch silently like sentries. And most of all, I love the glorious sunsets. 

Some part of me knows my future lies elsewhere. If books and movies have taught me anything, it’s that one day the call to adventure will require me to leave this desert. In the meantime, this seems like a good place to begin the next chapter of life’s journey. 

 If books and movies have taught me anything, it’s that one day 
the call to adventure will require me to leave this desert. 


Today is the first day of school. Daddy Bill and I are up early for our commute to the town of Marana, just northwest of Tucson. The drive is pleasant. The sky is overcast so it’s a little cooler than usual. The university jazz station is spinning some classic Miles, always a good omen, and our little Toyota still has its new car smell. 

My spirits are high. I’m excited to begin seventh grade, although I’m not entirely sure what to expect. None of the kids in our 22nd & Craycroft neighborhood go to school out there. I only know what Dad has told me, that it’s a public school in a rural area which takes its name from the Spanish word “maraña,” meaning tangle. And last week I overheard Dad on the phone saying something about “teaching basic English to the children of migrant farmworkers.” 

This morning as we travel the long frontage road past dusty acres of alfalfa and cotton, I begin to understand. “Things are going to be a little different here than they were at Brookstone, son,” Daddy Bill says. “Just be patient and keep an open mind.” It sounds rehearsed, like a prepared speech. I have the feeling he’s talking to himself as much as to me. 

 As we travel the long frontage road past dusty acres
of alfalfa and cotton, I begin to understand. 


Dad was an important man at Brookstone School, and because of his position, I pretty much had my run of the place. I literally grew up there, kindergarten through sixth grade. I knew everybody, even the high school kids, and always felt safe and supported. Saying goodbye to Brookstone was the most difficult part of leaving Georgia. 

My favorite class at Brookstone was a sixth grade social studies elective called MACOS: Man A Course of Study, in which we compared innate and learned behavior in humans with that of other primates, then presented our findings to a panel of university graduate students. Our instructor James Stockdale, son of the homonymous war hero, was my favorite teacher. He taught us to be curious, question all assumptions, and believe in ourselves. 

Brookstone School cast a long shadow over my life. I thrived there, but since it was the only school I’d ever known, I took its brilliant faculty and innovative curriculum for granted. I didn’t realize how fortunate I was to attend such an elite private school. I wasn’t aware that we were poor, that my classmates were rich, or that my tuition had been waived as part of Dad’s teaching salary. And I certainly couldn’t have known, at the time, the degree to which being part of that nurturing scholastic community had shaped my nascent love of learning, positive self-image and sense of entitlement. 

Brookstone School cast a long shadow over my life.


I only knew that I enjoyed school. Or so I thought. 

For Dad to describe Marana as “a little different” would prove to be the understatement of the century. Far from the stately red brick lecture halls and leafy woodlands of Brookstone, the Marana campus is little more than a few cement buildings and mobile classroom trailers surrounded by dirt, asphalt and gravel.

Based on the school’s exterior, I’m prepared to be underwhelmed by whatever awaits inside. But nothing could prepare me for the physical and emotional trauma I’m about to endure at Marana Junior High School.

I show up guileless and confident, ready to hit the books and eager to make friends. But for the first time in my young life, I simply don’t fit in. Back home I was a popular kid who excelled in music, art and academics, but my study skills and work ethic are meaningless here. The only things that seem to matter at Marana are football and fighting. 

There are fist fights every single day at Marana. Clashes erupt spontaneously, for no reason and without warning.

For the first week I’m able to keep my distance. I watch with detached curiosity as the other students beat each other’s brains in. I wonder what Mr. Stockdale would think of all this violence. Is it innate or learned? And why don’t any of the teachers try to put a stop to it? 

 There are fist fights every single day at Marana. 


Later I would learn that Dad had actually tried to separate two kids who were fighting, only to receive a dressing down from his boss. “Never, ever lay your hand on a student for any reason,” Principal Dewey cautioned, “or we could be sued.” Dad was flummoxed. “Even if they’re about to kill one another?” 

I’m mystified by all the aggression, but naively not afraid for my own safety. I’m new here. I’ve made no enemies. Plus my dad is on the faculty. No one would dare. But the main reason I feel secure is because I’m a good boy. I don’t get into fights. I get along with everybody … right? 

Wrong. A skinny little southern boy with no friends who doesn’t play football? A teacher's kid, who struts around with his nose in the air, talking funny, using big words, acting all cocky and superior? At Marana Junior High this is a kid who needs a beatdown. 

 At Marana Junior High this is a kid who needs a beatdown. 


I’m walking to my locker after gym when out of nowhere someone shoves me against the wall. “What the hell?” I react, more startled than afraid. But before I can even get a look at my assailant he's knocked me to the ground. 

The jackals encircle us, laughing and cheering. By the time I realize we're fighting it’s too late. The kid's knees are already pressed against my upper arms, pinning me to the concrete floor. I can't move. I'm practically immobile as he punches me repeatedly in the face. 

Nobody stops the fight. Neither of us are punished. I’m literally saved by the bell as everyone goes to class, leaving me alone and vanquished. I never even learn the kid’s name or what motivated him to attack me in the first place. 

After my nose stops bleeding I wash up and change my shirt. No cuts, just a few bruises. My head hurts and my ears are ringing, but I don’t look so bad.

On the drive home Dad doesn’t even notice that I’m hurt. This is a tremendous relief. I don’t want to get in trouble for fighting, and besides, I’m ashamed. My father was a champion boxer. If he finds out I can't defend myself I’ll be humiliated. 

But I have bigger problems. Word gets around: the new kid doesn't know how to fight. It’s open season on Georgia Boy. I now have a target on my back. 

Every few days somebody jumps me. It’s not like I’m being bullied, not like on TV. It’s never the same person and there’s rarely any preamble. Nobody threatens me or tries to take my lunch money. They just start shit. I never know when the next sucker punch is coming, or from which direction. And it’s this, the sheer senseless randomness of it, that terrifies me so and makes Marana my personal living hell. Never safe. Nowhere to hide. 

I hate this school. I’m learning nothing here except how vulnerable I am. Some of these big, mean-looking boys with facial hair are obviously older kids who’ve been held back. One of them is so strong that he comes up behind me, picks me up, and throws me against the lockers. 

But it isn’t only the big kids who pick fights. One day after school I’m walking to Dad’s janky classroom/trailer to practice my trumpet. I notice a group of athletes in my peripheral vision, but they’re all walking in the opposite direction so I pay them no mind. Suddenly a short freckle-faced kid with red hair breaks from the pack and runs straight at me. I flinch but stand my ground. I’m bigger than this one. He doesn’t scare me. 

“I’m gonna kick your ass,” he says.

“I don’t even know you,” I say. “What’s your problem?” 

“I think you’re a wet bag and a pussy” he snarls. 

So I’m standing there looking at this little ginger lunatic, wondering what in the hell a wet bag could be, when he knocks the horn case out of my hand and tackles me. By now I know the drill. There’s no reasoning with these idiots. I land a few solid punches, but the impact does more damage to my fists than his face. The kid is small but he’s fast and knows how to grapple. He gets the better of me again and again. I can’t believe it: I’m losing this fight, too. 

That evening the drive home is tense. Daddy Bill is silent and agitated. I look over from the passenger seat and notice he’s gripping the steering wheel so tightly that his knuckles are white. He's pissed. Did he see the fight? Am I in trouble? 

Suddenly Dad pulls over, gets out of the car, and says “come here, dammit.” And right there, in the twilight, on the shoulder of the highway, my Golden Gloves-gone-pacifist father gives me the first of several lessons in self-defense. He shows me the boxer’s stance, some footwork, how to block and parry, how to throw a jab. 

 Right there, in the twilight on the shoulder of the highway, 
my Golden Gloves-gone-pacifist father gives me 
the first of several lessons in self-defense. 


“Don’t hit ’em in the head,” Dad says. “The head is hard. Hit ’em in the kidneys!” 

The old man is full of surprises. I should have gone to him from the beginning. 

Maybe I will survive this place after all.

Now all I need is a few friends. 

Next: 
SNAPSHOTS | PART 4 — CHUBASCO

SNAPSHOTS | PART 1 — LEAVING 

Childhood memories are like polaroid photos in an old dusty box. 

They don’t provide a cohesive autobiographical narrative, only brief flashes of insight into the murky past. You sort through the random images, shuffling them like playing cards, until one of them finally whispers to you, and a shard of memory is revealed, darkly, like a half-forgotten scent or song fragment. 

It is from these small, disparate clues that you must fashion your origin story. But each time you take the box down from the shelf, there seem to be fewer snapshots inside. 

It’s the summer of 1978 in Columbus, Georgia. A U-Haul is parked in front of our little apartment at Warm Springs Court. Daddy Bill and I are loading our last few boxes into the back of the truck. 

Daddy Bill Matheny | Summer 1978 
Warm Springs Court, Columbus GA
 

“You about ready to hit the road, Bub Man?” Daddy Bill asks. He’s been calling me “Bub Man” lately instead of Little Bub, and it feels right. I’m 12-and-a-half now, not a little kid anymore, and we’re about to begin a whole new life, far away from this place. 

The past year was an emotional roller coaster. Up and down, love and loss. Dad finished his seventh year at Brookstone School on a high note, winning a prestigious teacher’s award from the city and having the yearbook dedicated in his honor. Then he abruptly resigned. Devastated by divorce, he slept for days at a time, rarely coming out of his room. “The doctor has me on tranquilizers,” he explained. When finally he emerged from the darkness of depression, other women came around, comforting him, playing mother to me, and we were happy for a time. But eventually they left, too. 

When Dad’s last great love, Judy Mehaffey, moved to Nashville to pursue a songwriting career, her teenage son Jay came to live with us. Welcoming Jay into our home made sense. Our families were already intertwined. Jay’s mom and my dad, who still loved one another, were now prolific penpals. Jay’s older sister Kim, away at college, had been my babysitter and Dad’s star student at Brookstone. Kim and Jay’s father Lem (divorced from Judy, estranged from Jay) was the landlord of our little apartment complex. 

Confused? Welcome to my world. The important thing is this: for one glorious summer I had a brother. 

I was an only child who never especially wanted siblings. I cherished my solitude and was never bored. Daddy Bill and I were pals, and if I needed more companions there were always plenty of kids in the neighborhood. But Jay’s arrival in the summer of ’78 was right on time. 

We lived in a small, two-bedroom apartment. Jay slept on our couch and made the living room his domain. As a tween on the precipice of puberty, I was utterly fascinated by this confident, lanky 17-year-old now living in our midst. It seemed like the most natural thing in the world, the way he immediately made himself at home, blasting Frampton Comes Alive on the stereo, watching Midnight Special on the tube, drinking Sprite, talking on the phone, holding court. I didn’t even try to play it cool. I thought Jay hung the moon, and he knew it. 

Jay Mehaffey | Summer 1978   
Warm Springs Court, Columbus GA 

Dad knew it, too. Inviting Jay to move in may have sprung from a desire to help Judy, but it turned out to be the very best thing for all of us. Jay had a stabilizing influence in our home. His arrival prompted Dad to come out of his cave. Order was restored. We kept the pantry stocked, shared household chores, enjoyed regular meal times, and took road trips together.

Jay showed me how to assert my independence. Prior to Jay, I was Daddy Bill’s little sidekick, not so much a separate entity as an extension of his adult persona. I perceived Dad’s needs as my own; his moods became my moods. After Jay, I was my own man. There were three of us now, each with his own desires and responsibilities. We were a family. 

But Jay was more to me than an ersatz older brother. He was like a cosmic life coach, sent by the universe to guide me through the emotional, hormonally turbulent life transition from boyhood to early adolescence. Our alliance felt all the more momentous because we knew it to be temporary. Summer’s end would mean our separation. Jay would stay in Columbus to finish high school, and I would move out west with Daddy Bill. Dad had accepted a new teaching position in Tucson, so that was where I would turn 13, begin junior high, and meet my destiny. 

If Jay felt it was a drag to have a shadow that summer before his senior year, he certainly never showed it. He introduced me to his friends and let me tag along on their outings. He helped me find a job mowing lawns, taught me how to pop a wheelie on my bike, and hipped me to all kinds of music. At night I would make a pallet on the floor between the couch and coffee table, so we could continue talking into the wee hours. I’d stretch out flat, parallel to Jay on the couch above, and imagine that we were real brothers, sharing a room with bunk beds. 

Our late night heart-to-hearts offered a crash course in what I should expect from life over the next few years. We talked about all the things I didn’t feel comfortable discussing with my father: cliques, crushes, flirting, fighting, parties, popularity, petty rivalry, peer pressure, the prom. I asked Jay all about the rituals of dating and how to talk to girls. He answered solemnly in great detail, stressing the importance of things like having plenty of money (chicks are expensive), when to give a girl your letterman jacket (only if you’re serious), and how to unhook a bra clasp (always use both hands). He spoke earnestly, as if he’d been tasked with a sacred mission of passing along his accumulated teen wisdom. I was riveted and hung on his every word. 

Jay and I haven’t really stayed in touch since then, except to exchange Christmas cards once or twice, the way men do. But I sure hope he knows how important he was to me that summer, and how grateful I remain. 

When the moving van showed up I was ready. Packing up was a breeze. After all, I’m the minimalist son of an anti-capitalist. We didn’t have that many possessions to begin with. Plus, we’d already moved several times before, so I knew the routine: put your stuff in boxes; say goodbye to all your friends. 

Moving days are always bittersweet, but this one felt different. Inspired by everything I learned from Jay, I was committed to reinventing myself. I divided my belongings into two piles. One pile comprised only the essential things I’d need in my new life out west: clothes, books, trumpet, bike. We loaded them onto the truck. The other pile was all the “kid stuff” I would leave behind forever: comic books, action figures, toys.

Word got around quickly and the neighborhood kids descended like vultures. I sold everything I could and gave away the rest, pocketing a little over five hundred dollars.

“You about ready to hit the road, Bub Man?” Daddy Bill asked. “You bet,” I replied, climbing into the cab.

I didn't look back as we headed west. To the future.

Next:
SNAPSHOTS | PART 2 — FIRST CONTACT

UP IN THE AIR | PART 3 — CITIZEN OF THE WORLD 

“Remember, you’re not alone. 
You’re part of an international 
brotherhood of artists and musicians. 
We’re all in this together.” 

—Art Farmer 


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.

UP IN THE AIR | PART 2 — SEASONED TRAVELER 

“You've taken your first step into a larger world.” 
—Obi-Wan Kenobi 

 

When I was first starting out, my mentor Art Farmer told me what it really takes to persevere in this business. “Do you like to travel?” he asked. “Well, get used to it, because that’s the life of a musician.” 

I was reminded of his words a few years later when I asked record producer Cookie Marenco how to get the word out about my first CD. “You just need to go on tour,” she replied matter of factly. “It’s all about the tour. Your tour schedule determines everything: which stations play your music, what stores will carry it, when publications will review it, how people hear about it, and most importantly, whether anyone buys it.” 

Such advice may seem silly in this digital age of streaming music and social media. Today, virtually anyone with the right look or gimmick has the potential to “go viral” without ever leaving home. But back in the 20th century we had no choice but to hit the road and participate in the obligatory rain dance of (jargon alert!) flacks, hacks, trades, jocks, promos, co-ops, end caps, take ones, tip sheets, and street teams. The music business was an expensive and time-consuming hustle, and the whole megillah hinged on one’s willingness to travel. 

No problem here. Daddy Bill conscripted me into the vagabond lifestyle when I was still a toddler. I pretty much grew up in the backseat of his VW Fastback. By the time I left home at age 17, we had already moved nine times and taken dozens of road trips together. 

I pretty much grew up in the backseat of Daddy Bill’s VW Fastback 

By high school and college I’d begun to hit my wayfaring stride. I saved my pennies to fly from my father’s house in the Sonoran Desert to the snowy pines of Interlochen and the slushy streets of Boston. I rambled through New England for pick-up dates in the horn sections of touring Motown and pop acts, met up with Art for flugelhorn lessons on both coasts, and journeyed to Florida and California for gigs with Berklee friends. I even maxed out my first couple of credit cards chasing a particularly enthralling girl from New York City to London, Ontario, and back again. I was a novice nomad, but was already on a first name basis with half a dozen skycaps and flight attendants. 

So by 1995, when I began touring as a bandleader in support of my debut album Red Reflections, I was already a seasoned traveler. I well acquainted with the rules of the road: pack light, arrive early, sit tight, be cool, expect delays. 

I tried to find out everything I could about how to make the most of life on the road. Hal Galper had not yet published The Touring Musician, the resource that would ultimately become my bible, so I collected travel hacks wherever I could find them. I worked with agents to find the best deals, consulted a nutritionist for health and wellness ideas, and read magazines to collect business travel tips and tricks. I even asked experienced flyers to share their secrets for gaming the system, such as how to qualify for early boarding and how to gain admission to exclusive airport lounges with fireplaces, daybeds and private showers. 

But my number one travel guru, the person from whom I learned the most, was my friend and fellow road warrior, bassist Ruth Davies. We called Ruth “Felix The Cat” because her tiny magical travel bag always seemed to hold whatever anyone needed, be it an allen wrench, gaffer’s tape, a sewing kit or cold medicine. After years of touring with blues legend Charles Brown, Ruth knew everything there was to know about life on the road. She taught me how to “advance” each stop along the tour, insuring that all our backline tech and ground transportation needs were covered, as well as how to anticipate problems and prepare for every contingency.

The person from whom I learned the most was my friend and fellow road warrior, bassist Ruth Davies

Our first tours beyond the Bay Area were to other cultural hubs out west: Los Angeles, San Diego, Seattle, Portland, Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Las Vegas, Phoenix. Eventually our circuit expanded to include a few midwest and east coast dates as well. We were still only traveling domestically, but since concert promoters rarely covered our travel costs, we learned to leverage frequent flyer miles and points-based affinity programs to receive discounted flights and hotel stays. 

Then in the late 1990s I lucked into a quasi-sponsorship arrangement with American Airlines which enabled me to fly at no cost whatsoever. Amazing! I would volunteer a few hours each week to assist my friend Bobbi, an event promotions manager for the carrier. In exchange she gave me vouchers for free air travel throughout the United States. 

In the late 1990s I flew free-of-charge on American Airlines throughout the United States

Since these were the same certificates used by official airline personnel, gate agents would often quietly upgrade me to first class, no questions asked. Unfortunately, however, I was required to fly “stand by” and was occasionally asked to give up my seat in order to accommodate a paying customer. Plus, no matter where my final destination was, American always seemed to route me through DFW. On more than one occasion, what should've been a two-hour hop from SF to Portland turned into an all day odyssey with a long layover in Dallas.  

Crazy, right? I didn’t mind. A free flight is a free flight. Plus, by that point I had trained myself to work at the gate and sleep on the plane. I took the earliest possible flight the day before a show so that any delays would only be a minor inconvenience. And I always brought my practice mute so that even long layovers would be time well-spent. 

Whenever possible, I chose to fly out of Oakland, my home airport. OAK was a dream back then, much smaller and way hipper than SFO. They let you park right in front of the terminal, check-in was a breeze, and they even played classic jazz over the public address system. Within a few minutes of handing off your bags curbside, you could be relaxing at your gate, listening to Cannonball Adderley, and enjoying a nice hot cup of Peet’s coffee and a delicious veggie burger from Your Black Muslim Bakery. 

Oakland Airport was a dream back then, much smaller and way hipper than SFO

Those were the halcyon days, before the current era of shrinking seats, lost legroom and silly TSA “security theater.” After 9/11 lots of folks gave up on air travel entirely ... but not me.

I was about to take my first step into a larger world. 

Next: 
UP IN THE AIR
PART 3 — CITIZEN OF THE WORLD

UP IN THE AIR | PART 1 — JOURNEY PROUD 


“There’s no sensation to compare with this 
suspended animation, a state of bliss. 
Can
t keep my mind from the circling sky. 
Tongue tied and twisted, just

an earthbound misfit, I.”
—Pink Floyd

 

I’m not sure when or why I first became fascinated with flying, but I suspect it has something to do with my father. 

Daddy Bill was always looking skyward, peering jealously through his binoculars at the raptors kettling overhead. Like me, he could fly in his dreams, and as a boy he imagined doing it for real. Young Billy wanted so badly to be a bird. According to family legend, he even broke his leg in an attempt to launch himself into the clouds, after the ghost of my great grandmother appeared to him in a dream and encouraged him to leap off the roof of the barn. 

I guess the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, nor the boy from the barn. Unlike my Dad, I never watched birds, joined the air force, or injured myself trying to defeat the laws of physics, but I definitely inherited his vivid imagination and impulse to fly. 

Nearly all my childhood heroes were flyboys of one sort or another. There was Shin Hayata of Science Patrol, who transformed into the giant alien Ultraman (cue theme: “here he comes from the sky!”), and of course the space cop Green Lantern, whose alter ego Hal Jordan was a fearless test pilot. Luke had an X-wing and Kirk had a starship. James Bond had his jet pack and James Brown had his private jet. Neil Armstrong’s moon-landing poster adorned my bedroom wall, and Ol’ Blue Eyes filled our home with songs extolling the romance of air travel. 

 

Nearly all my childhood heroes were flyboys of one sort or another.

 

Such notions were not uncommon for children of the 1960s and 70s. We were raised by television to defy gravity. 

Just as the previous generation had grown up playing Cops & Robbers or Cowboys & Indians, my friends and I played Star Trek and SuperFriends. It never would have occurred to me to pretend I was the Lone Ranger. I was more likely to choose Billy Batson (a boy who, by saying a magic word, can transform into a flying strongman), Steve Austin (a NASA astronaut/USAF pilot who survives a crash to become a powerful cyborg that can leap 30 feet into the air in slow motion), or Evel Knievel (a real life daredevil who dressed like a superhero and refused to remain earthbound). 

Could Evel Knievel fly? He sure as hell tried. My friends and I never missed Knievel’s televised stunts, including his disastrous attempt to jump the Snake River Canyon in a rocket-propelled skycycle.

Some of my pals were even more obsessed with flight than I. Lance was a space nerd who knew everything about the Apollo missions and could even recite the names of all the astronauts. Jeffrey could tell you what kind of jet was flying overhead just by looking at its silhouette. And all of us were jealous of Payton, whose uncle was a helicopter pilot. 

Commercial airline flights were still considered a luxury in those days, something that only executives, celebrities and rich people could easily afford. This was the tail end of the Golden Age of Air Travel, when seats reclined all the way back and there was still plenty of legroom for everyone. 

 

The Golden Age of Air Travel

 

Passengers wore their finest clothes, dined on steak and lobster, and drank endless complimentary cocktails. Beautiful air hostesses, glamorous as models, paraded the wide aisles with magazines and trays of hors d'oeuvres, pausing to lean and light the cigarettes of ladies and gentlemen alike. But the real stars of this hedonistic theater-in-the-sky were the dashing and charismatic pilots. Pilots commanded respect.

 

Pilots commanded respect

 

If you’ve ever seen the movie Catch Me If You Can starring Leonardo DiCaprio, you know what I’m talking about. Meeting an airline pilot in uniform was like shaking the hand of a famous military hero or movie star. I only flew a couple of times with my family back then, when I was still too young to appreciate or even fully recall the experience. But I do have one very clear memory: a friendly, square-jawed Delta Airlines pilot winking at me as he leaned over to hand me my very first souvenir kiddie wing pin. 

The first flight I remember well was not on a commercial airline, however, but a tiny Cessna seaplane that Daddy Bill chartered from Key West, Florida to the Dry Tortugas. The year was 1974 and I was nine years old. 

 

a Cessna seaplane in the Florida Keys

 

Our pilot, shouting over the engine’s deafening roar, pointed out sharks, stingrays, and sunken treasure ships in the ocean below. My Dad only half listened, preferring to focus on the sky and his quest of adding some rare pelagic birds to his North American life list. I just giggled the entire time, giddy with delight as we soared through the air. When our pontoons finally touched down upon the surface of the water at Fort Jefferson, I squealed “Again! Let’s go up again!” 

I would happily go up again and again over the next few years. By the early 1980s, commercial air travel had become significantly more affordable. Small budget airlines were just starting up, and the larger companies lowered their prices in order to compete. Like many middle class families, we chose to fly rather than spend most of our vacation driving to and from our destination. 

On the plane, people were still allowed to smoke, but it was becoming less fashionable to do so, and only first class passengers enjoyed the few remaining perks. They had their own dedicated flight attendant serving cocktails and canapés. Meanwhile, back in the cheap seats, where my family and I were squeezed together, “airplane food” meant stale, flavorless cafeteria fare on a plastic tray. 

The Golden Age of Travel was over, but I didn’t care. I loved flying and looked forward to every opportunity.

Some of the grown-ups teased me for being “journey proud,” a southern expression for folks who get so excited that they can't sleep the night before a trip. 

What can I say?

I’m still that way today. 

Next: 
UP IN THE AIR 
PART 2 — SEASONED TRAVELER

SAVE OUR STAGES 

All the world’s a stage, 
and all the men and women merely players. 
They have their exits and their entrances, 
and one man in his time plays many parts.
 
—William Shakespeare 


Don’t it always seem to go 
that you don’t know what 
you got ’til it’s gone? 

—Joni Mitchell
 

 

I’ve been thinking a lot about stages recently. Concert stages, stages of life, and all the stages on which we perform, both literally and figuratively. 

Social media is itself a kind of performance space, where people gather for creative expression and the exchange of ideas. Depending on the user, social media may offer an elevated platform for high-minded art and ideals, an open forum for lively discussion and debate, or a cynical echo chamber of fear mongering, conspiracy peddling, virtue signaling and performative activism. (Or you can just post puppy photos!)

The virtual stage provided by live-streaming technology has been a godsend for performers during the shutdown, enabling us to stay active and remain in touch with friends and fans. When all the nightclubs and concert halls went dark, musicians from every genre took to the internet almost immediately, becoming virtual “buskers” overnight. I used a platform called “StageIt” to produce my Quarantunes series of live-streaming solo shows.

I used a platform called “StageIt” to produce my Quarantunes series of live-streaming solo shows

Don’t get me wrong. Live-streaming is no substitute for the real deal. But it can be thrilling to play for an international audience without ever having to leave the house. Food for thought as we consider the post-pandemic commute. 

Of course, real life also offers myriad opportunities to perform. Willy Shakes was really onto something when he penned his famous “All The World’s A Stage” monologue. Like actors in a play, we inhabit various roles at different stages of life: the good son, the good spouse, the good worker, the good friend, the good man. 

As I look back over my own life and career, I can identify seven stages of development. Starting from juvenescent beginner’s luck, I survived adolescent optimism bias and the Dunning-Kruger effect, then as an adult, progressed through confirmation bias and plenty of denial before arriving at my current position, somewhere between middle aged rationalization and senior citizen rosy retrospection. (Shout out to Wikipedia for the psychobabble refresher!)

Through it all, my refuge and sanctuary has been the concert stage, a sacred space where artists and audiences meet in search of a shared transcendent experience. As the immortal Bobby Hutcherson once told me, “Think of the bandstand as an altar. Music is a spiritual calling, and the stage is our church.” 

The Immortal Bobby Hutcherson 

Mr. Hutcherson’s wise words carry extra resonance today, as the pandemic threatens to permanently shutter many of our most beloved venues. Ours is a precious and precarious ecosystem which we must never take for granted.  

The relationship between artist and venue is a symbiotic one. Simply put, we need each other. Too often, however, relations between performers and those who hire them are perceived as adversarial. If you don’t believe me, ask your musician friends whether they happen to know any jokes about club owners.

Those jokes don’t seem so funny now. After fifteen solitary months of playing my horn to an unseen audience over the internet, I’m jonesing hard for a real gig with a real band in a real venue. I miss the creative collaboration, intimacy and immediacy of live performance. Most of all, I miss seeing the faces of people in the audience as we experience the miracle of music together.

Small venues have been hit especially hard by the pandemic shutdown. Many went out of business almost immediately. Of those remaining, ninety percent report that they are at risk of closing without additional financial assistance. 

Enter Save our Stages, a bipartisan bill to provide billions of dollars in relief grants for venues. Recently signed into law as part of President Biden’s economic recovery plan, the Save Our Stages act is not perfect, but it’s a start. As Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar points out, “Independent venues were some of the first establishments to close down and will likely be some of the last to open. I refuse to sit by and let the music die.”

Save Our Stages is an emergency relief fund for live event venues and promoters 

She's 100% correct, and we all must do whatever we can to help. #saveourstages

Presently, as we anticipate turning the corner on COVID-19, there is reason for hope. My buddy Ed, a jazz guitarist and concert promoter in Ashland, Oregon, optimistically predicts a post-pandemic gold rush for events. He believes that audiences, having been deprived of live music for so long, will return in record numbers, more motivated than ever to buy tickets and support the arts.

Makes sense to me. The global health crisis provided us all with a chance to pause and reevaluate which things in life matter and which things don’t. I, for one, have learned that live music matters immensely, and stages are absolutely essential.

Joni Mitchell said it best: you don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone.

MY THREE DEMONS 

“One day, you’ll make peace with your demons, 
and the chaos in your heart will settle flat. 
And maybe for the first time in your life, 
life will smile right back at you and 
welcome you home.” 

—Robert M. Drake 

 

“We don't see things as they are,
we see them as we are.”

―Anaïs Nin

 

When Daddy Bill passed away last December, just before my 55th birthday, I felt something change in me. 

Way down deep, beneath the ocean of love and gratitude for all that he was, below the waves of grief, loss and mourning, there was a feeling of release. Not relief, mind you, but release, as if by saying goodbye to this world, my father was giving me permission to let go of certain unrealistic expectations about my own place in it. 

Before he died, I never fully appreciated the extent to which my professional ambitions were tethered to the desire to earn my father’s approval. Ironic, since he never pressured me in any way, and was always encouraging, no matter what. He believed in me. He loved my music and supported my life choices without reservation. 

Daddy Bill has always been in my corner. His approval was a given. But because I admired him so and wanted to make him proud, I worked harder than I might have, and whenever I achieved anything, no matter how small, I couldn’t wait to tell him about it. 

Daddy Bill has always been in my corner

Even during his last years, as Parkinson’s and dementia assailed his body and mind, we remained close. I visited him in Tucson every few months, and called him every Sunday. Because of his condition, we could only talk about small things: the weather, the news, what he had for breakfast. And though he was often confused or forgetful, he always remembered to tell me that he loved me, and would end every conversation with the same benediction: “you just keep playing that horn.” 

I miss my father terribly, but paradoxically, I also feel his presence. I’m not a religious person, and I have no belief in an afterlife. I don’t pray to God, communicate with the ancestors or converse with my father’s ghost. But I do hear the “still small voice” of my own conscience, and it just so happens to speak with a comfortingly familiar, decidedly paternal, southern drawl. 

Lately that voice has been telling me to make peace with my demons. We all have our demons, right? I have three, and they have tortured me for as long as I can remember. Their names are Grandiosity, Imposter Syndrome, and Polarized Thinking. 

In the past I’ve tried to fight my demons without success. To make peace would require a new strategy: that I stop fighting, and instead try to understand them and where they’re coming from. Think of it as Cognitive Distortion Diplomacy. 

my three demons have tortured me for as long as I can remember 

Grandiosity is the biggest and loudest of my demons. He infects me with toxic superiority and an exaggerated sense of my own importance. He robs me of rational thought and empathy, and fills me with bogus, superstitious beliefs: that I’m special, that I’m chosen, that I’m destined for greatness, and that the universe magically conspires to assist me at every turn. Grandiosity distorts my positive aspirations and work ethic, transforming them into an unearned and ugly feeling of entitlement. 

Imposter Syndrome is Grandiosity’s evil twin sister. Whenever Grandiosity sleeps, she awakes, to drain my delusional overconfidence and replace it with extreme self-doubt. Imposter Syndrome perniciously whispers that I’m an untalented fraud, that my entire career has been nothing but a long con, and that any past accomplishments and accolades are meaningless. Imposter Syndrome says “You’re not special at all. You’re the worst thing a person can be: you’re ordinary.” 

Of the three, however, Polarized Thinking may be the most dangerous demon of all. He provides the fuel that sustains the others. He inflicts an absurd all-or-nothing worldview of black and white extremes, in which I’m either destined for success or doomed to failure. Polarized Thinking says there can be no in-between, no shades of gray. If Grandiosity is born of the hope that I’m special, and Imposter Syndrome is the fear that I’m not, Polarized Thinking is the erroneous belief that these are the only two options. 

If I’m ever to let go of unrealistic expectations, and come home to the life that I truly want, then making peace with these demons is paramount. I may never be able to silence them entirely, but If I can just see them for the maladaptive, habitual, self-sabotaging ways of thinking that they are, perhaps I can diminish their destructive power and re-integrate them into a more realistic sense of self. 

In other words, I must learn to perceive things clearly as they are, unclouded by hope and fear. I must become like Manjushri, the bodhisattva of keen awareness, whose flaming sword represents the transcendent wisdom which cuts through duality and delusion. 

Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of keen awareness 

Who knows what the future will hold? None of us control the narrative of our lives, not really. But to the extent that one can shape a life story, I now aspire to a smaller, simpler, more sustainable one. 

I will “keep playing that horn” for at least a few more years. But while my love of music is undiminished, any ambitious desires to prove myself or make my mark have waned considerably. The truth is, there is no longer anything to prove. Not to my father, not to myself, not to anyone. 

Look at it this way: my dream was to become a professional jazz artist, to travel, make records, and share my music. 

As it turns out, I did precisely that, and I've enjoyed it for nearly 40 years. 

Maybe now it’s time to dream a new dream. Why not? 

Whatever the new dream turns out to be, I'm sure Daddy Bill would approve.

HIGH ANXIETY 

It’s not just about me and my dream
of doing nothing. It
s about all of us!

—Peter Gibbons

Now is the age of anxiety.
—W.H. Auden 

Don’t make me dance.
—Lilia 

 

I’m a big fan of CBS Sunday Morning. The show’s bright, optimistic tone, cheerful sun iconography, and calming nature videos are usually a welcome comfort. But this week’s episode made me anxious. 

The entire show was dedicated to the encouragement of widespread tourism, as if we’re already living in a post-pandemic world. From host Jane Pauley to travel guru Rick Steves to the lemon merchants of the Amalfi Coast, everyone seemed to be singing from the same reckless hymn sheet. There was even a segment promoting revenge tourism, the idea that pleasure travel is even more fun now, as a giant middle finger to COVID-19. 

Are you kidding me? Aren’t we being a little premature? 

 

CBS Sunday Morning is usually a welcome comfort, but this episode made me anxious

 

I dig that people are restless, and I understand we’re all feeling more hopeful as vaccinations increase. But the virus is still surging in many areas, and some of those new variants are scary. There are now 141 million cases worldwide, including 32 million in the USA of which 566,000 have proven fatal. This thing ain’t over yet. Is now really the time to cheerlead for non-essential travel? 

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been a travel enthusiast all my life. In the 1970s of my youth, Daddy Bill and I road-tripped everywhere, from the Great Smoky Mountains to the Florida Keys to the Sonoran Desert. In the decades since I’ve had the privilege of making new friends in Azerbaijan, Barbados, Belgium, Cambodia, Canada, Chile, Czech Republic, England, France, Greece, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, Mexico, Netherlands, Poland, Thailand and nearly every one of these United States. #AlphabeticalHumbleBrag

I'm profoundly grateful for my travels, and I wholeheartedly agree with the late Anthony Bourdain (a personal hero), who contended that travel, if we do it right, is our best defense against racism and xenophobia. You dig? 

 

xenophile hero Anthony Bourdain and friends showing us how its done 

 

Cultural tourism literally brings us together! That’s one of the reasons I chose this career. Travel is the lifeblood of our business. You don’t meet many xenophobic musicians. 

But this year? I’m not feeling it. 

Don’t be surprised. After all, I’m the Proletarian Contrarian. My entire life has been an exercise in cognitive dissonance. Swimming against the current? It’s kinda my thing. 

While most of my friends were leading responsible lives, raising families and being good citizens, I was traveling 57,000 miles a year to honk my horn among the great unwashed. It stands to reason that now, when I feel afraid to venture beyond my front gate, the rest of the world can’t wait to get on a plane!

As one sidelined traveler told the Wall Street Journal, “The moment can’t come soon enough to actually hit the road again. We’re all kind of clamoring for the celebration party.” 

Not all of us, pal. As usual, I’m out of step with the zeitgeist.

I just got my second shot of Dolly Vax.

I’m very grateful, but also anxious. 

 

grateful, but also anxious

 

Some of my uneasiness is just a lingering reaction to the white coat effect. I always experience irrational fear and agitation around doctor stuff. The stakes are higher this time (i.e., deadly global plague), which only exacerbates matters. 

I’m also anxious about the uncertainty of it all. Maybe I’ll have a bad reaction to the vaccine. Maybe the vax won’t work, and I’ll still catch covid. Or maybe it will work, and the next bug is the one that gets me. See what I mean? 

And it’s not only the pandemic that makes me nervous. I’m justifiably worried over the state of the world. So much vitriol and violence in the news. Racial unrest. Joblessness, homelessness, food insecurity. Explosions. Invasions. Protests. Riots. Wildfires. Floods. Hurricanes. Police brutality. Political corruption. Voter suppression. Cancel culture. Rampant stupidity. Nazis! Four full years of enduring daily presidential messages of hate. (Aren’t we all still suffering PTSD from that SOB?)

Then there’s the hypervigilance. I don’t mind telling you, I’m straight up terrified of catching a stray bullet. It seems every week there’s another random, senseless mass shooting in this country. I’m always checking over my shoulder and looking for the exits. How does anyone feel safe in a crowd anymore? 

Some of this anxiety is grief-related. I’m still mourning the loss of my father. I feel untethered, like an orphan. Facing a world without him in it fills me with dread. 

 

facing a world without him in it fills me with dread 

 

So I’m delighted the vaccines are here, and grateful to have received mine. And I’m glad that people are feeling more hopeful, but not if it means we all have to go rushing back. 

Because if I’m being truly honest here, the main reason I feel anxious is this: I’m simply not ready. 

I’m just not ready to go back. Not yet. I’m not ready for the ambitious workaday world with all its expectations and obligations. I’m not ready to leave the safety and security of my Hunker Bunker. And I’m definitely not ready to resume that relentless hustle and grind. 

I’m here for the music, not the dance.

THE HUNKER BUNKER REPORT | PART 5 — THE ROAD AHEAD 


“Adulthood and what they call maturity is 
the slow acceptance of what you will never be.” 
—Bryan Callen 


“Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die.” 
—Jason Isbell 


As of today, about 71 million Americans have been fully vaccinated, representing 22 percent of the total US population. As the shots-in-arms number rises, so do our spirits. Restrictions on travel and events have already begun to relax. Folks are starting to get back out there. 

Progress is slower globally. According to UNICEF, 130 countries have yet to administer a single dose, leaving 2.5 billion people out of luck in the worldwide vaccination effort. Doses remain scarce in many countries, despite resource-sharing programs like COVAX. Same storm, different boats. 

Meanwhile, new COVID-19 variants continue to emerge. The experts are now saying that coronavirus will never be totally eradicated. It has already spread too far and is changing too fast. The primary goal of public health efforts is now to make the virus manageable, like seasonal flu. We may need to get a coronavirus shot every year. 

So hope in the air, but so is trepidation. We now consider the road ahead. 

I received my first dose of the Moderna vaccine last month, and am scheduled for shot number two this weekend. With cautious optimism, I decided to dip my toe in the water, and agreed to play a couple of socially-distanced jazz festival gigs and teach at an adult jazz camp next month. 

Did I make the right call in accepting these jobs? The decision seemed reasonable at the time, but as May approaches, I can feel my blood pressure going up.

I'm nervous! Covid cases continue to rise, and hospitalizations have plateaued even as vaccinations increase. This thing is far from over. But health concerns are only a part of my ambivalence. 

This year in lockdown has taught me a great deal about myself as an artist and as a man. To put it simply, I’m not entirely sure that I even want to return to public life. 

When I was a young man, I believed that I was part of a sacred continuum. I regarded my musical heroes as ancestors, and felt that it was my responsibility to take up their mantle and follow their example. I fully expected that one day I would join them, in the grand succession, on Olympus. 

As I got older, I began to think about my legacy. I had no protégé, no students, and no children, yet I saved every concert program and news clipping. I imagined that these items would be valuable to future historians, biographers, and curators of retrospective exhibitions about my life and career. I even lugged my memorabilia around in a giant footlocker, which I called The Dmitri Museum without a trace of irony. 

 

The Dmitri Museum

 

When I hit midlife, after I'd been making a living in music for awhile, I began to realize that my career held no great significance. I’m neither a virtuoso nor an innovator. I can play, but my simple songs and modest independent recordings are not likely to be remembered by history. 

After some soul-searching I made peace with the demotion and embraced the more realistic role of blue collar bandleader. I'd lost interest in collecting museum exhibits anyway, so I scanned a few items, tossed the rest, and focused all my energies on filling the schedule. 

“If I’m not going to be important,” I thought, “I can at least be busy.” Over the next decades my bands and I spent over two hundred nights a year on the road, playing thousands of shows for small audiences in intimate venues. I took pride in our success, but I also felt like the dog that caught the car ... now what? 

Then came the big Pandemic Pause Button, and with it the chance to stop, think, and ask the big questions. Am I happy? Why did I choose this life? What other paths might I have taken? Should I stay the course, or find a new way? 

The first few weeks of the shutdown were especially challenging. My ego was attached to my manufactured identity as one of the hardest working, busiest cats around, and that had been taken away. I felt defanged and emasculated. But as weeks turned into months, I began to let all that go. Gradually I settled into a new rhythm. 

The pace of life during lockdown slowed to a stroll, my preferred tempo in all things. Each day was perfectly balanced: a little writing, a little teaching, a lot of relaxing. I puttered around the house, played my horn, wrestled with the dog, and took naps. I spent time outdoors, walking, gardening and fishing. I enjoyed home-cooked meals with Sassy and heart-to-heart talks with faraway friends. 

We also watched tons of movies. One that I found particularly inspiring was Harry Dean Stanton’s final picture Lucky, in which a 90-year-old man comes to terms with his own mortality in a small desert town. 

 

Harry Dean Stanton in Lucky (2017)

 

Lucky finds enlightenment in the minutia of life. “He has a routine,” observes film critic Matt Zoller Seitz, “and like many older people, it gives shape to his days.” Yes, indeed. 

Like Lucky, I’m a non-religious seeker, and ritual is important to me as I prepare for my own senescence. This year provided an unexpected, welcome preview of what daily life will be like when I retire. I was surprised to learn that I love this simple life, and that even without music and travel, I’m still me. 

This year of Liminal Time was a gift from the universe, an opportunity to reevaluate foundational assumptions. For example, as a child I was taught to see myself as a winner, and that idea was reinforced every time I excelled in school, work, music, life. But how can you be a winner if you never try things outside your comfort zone? How can you be a winner if you never attempt something at which you might lose? 

All my life I’ve parsed the world into two absurd, Randian categories: “things that matter” (where I win), and “things that are a foolish waste of time” (where I never lose, because I refuse to participate). I now see that what I believed to be discernment was actually a childish defense mechanism against the inevitable shame of failure. 

This cartoonish worldview served me for awhile as a useful delusion. It gave me strength during times of adversity. But it also deprived me of valuable life experience and depleted my capacity for empathy. It hindered my ability to make friends, because whenever I dismissed something as foolish, I would be equally dismissive of those who enjoyed or excelled at that thing. 

Art Farmer was 100% correct when he told me that I don’t take enough chances. Art also said that there is really no such thing as losing. “There’s only winning or learning.” What he didn’t say, but I now believe, is that of the two, learning is best. 

 

Art Farmer was 100% correct when he told me that I don’t take enough chances.

 

Looking ahead, I’m not sure what my new normal will look like, but I hope to fashion a more balanced lifestyle, one with less busyness and more curiosity.

I do still have some ambition in the tank. I'll surely write more music, play more concerts, and record at least one more album before I call it quits. But I also feel the need to make space in my life for frivolous hobbies, silly games, small talk, chance encounters with strangers, taking chances, and exploring new interests. 

I’d like to spend fewer nights on the road. It’s time to begin my transition from “touring musician” to “northwest composer” and eventually “eccentric old guy at the diner.” 

The fact is, I may have no choice in the matter. Competition for post-pandemic work will be intense. Many venues, including several of my longtime clients, have gone out of business during this crisis. Others are now booking bands at unrealistically low wages. Most won’t return to live music at all until capacity restrictions are lifted. #SaveOurStages 

But if this year has taught me anything, it’s that work for work's sake is overrated. Been there, done that.

The new goal is a smaller, simpler, more sustainable life.

One shaped by ritual and routine, punctuated by moments of discovery and wonder.

That’s the life for me.

THE HUNKER BUNKER REPORT | PART 4 — WHAT I LEARNED IN LOCKDOWN 

“Honor the space between no longer and not yet.” 
—Nancy Levin 

“COVID-19 has taught us that life and health are precarious. 
We must not squander precious time.” 

—Tom Hanks 

This series of missives from the hunker bunker offer my insights after a year of sheltering in place. In parts one through three, we explored the health and financial effects of this damndemic. Today, in part four, we consider the lessons learned from a year in lockdown. 

While the news media would have us believe that everyone is anxious to “get back to normal,” I don’t think that’s possible. I also don’t believe that returning to the way things were before is even what most people want. In fact, I believe we are now standing at the precipice of profound sociological change. 

Part of the disruption caused by this global health crisis has been the curse, or gift, depending on your point of view, of Liminal Time. Derived from the Latin word “limens” meaning “threshold,” Liminal Time is the period between what was and what’s next. It is a place of transition and waiting. 

 

Liminal Time

 

Liminal Time is especially important for artists, for it is precisely when nothing else is happening that we’re finally able to achieve a creative breakthrough. It is only when the world is quiet and we are still that the muses deign to visit. 

Most of us only usually experience Liminal Time in small doses. Daydreaming while standing in line at the bank, or journaling during the commute from work to home. It is during these unscripted intervals between obligations that we finally have a moment in which to process our thoughts and feelings. And it is often during these small breaks from the status quo that we experience an “a-ha” of sudden insight, discovery or epiphany. 

When I lived in California, I loved to drive down the Pacific Coast Highway. Cruising along the curving road between San Francisco and Monterey Bay, with the majestic blue ocean on one side and the rugged hills on the other, I would enter a kind of waking dream-state. Something about the sea and sky along that scenic drive would instill in me a meditative calm and clarity in which all my synapses would fire. 

 

The Pacific Coast Highway

 

Highway One inspired many of my best musical compositions. I also made several major life decisions on that road: to relocate from east coast to west, to get married, to record my first album, to quit my day job and become a full time musician. All of these flashes of insight were thanks to the luxury of Liminal Time. 

Liminal Time is indeed a luxury. It stands to reason that we all would benefit from more self-reflection and course-correction. After all, if you’re always on the go, how will you know when it’s time to change direction? 

People of limited means, of which I am one, tend to regard psychotherapy as a hobby for rich people. We’d like to explore our feelings, but therapists are expensive, and anyways we’re too busy out here surviving to make time for that. 

But what if one day, out of the blue, all work was suddenly suspended, and you were asked — nay, instructed — to stay home and…just…wait? What if you were given an entire year of Liminal Time for introspection and conversation? 

After so protracted a period of Liminal Time, how could we not expect profound changes to society at large? Whether you were busy during the shutdown or not, even if you've been working from home and caring for family, the disruption of your status quo has been extreme, lasting and undeniable.

I predict that, in addition to anticipated systemic changes, such as increased telecommuting and reliance on new technology, we will see individuals make myriad bold decisions about the future of their careers and interpersonal relationships. Your new normal, and mine, will be very different from how things were before.

Which brings me to the Rashomon Effect.

In Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film Rashomon, a murder is described in contradictory fashion by four separate witnesses. The “Rashomon Effect” refers, therefore, to the fallibility of memory and the subjectivity of perception. 

 

Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon

 

I’ve been thinking quite a bit recently about the Rashomon Effect. A year of navel-gazing and comparing notes has convinced me that much of what I’ve always believed about my own origin story may, in fact, be false. And presently, as I puzzle through the mysteries of my past to begin compiling this memoir, I’m beset by many questions.

Was my father truly the devoted, attentive single parent I remember? Or was he a frequently absent man-child and serial monogamist who expected his wives and girlfriends to be surrogate mother to us both? 

Did his second wife, my biological mother Lela, “run off” when I was an infant, never to return (as the official story goes), or did she come back to us several times when I was a toddler? And if the latter is true, as the oil portraits she painted suggest, then why don’t I have a single memory of her? 

What about my stepmother Sandi? She and I reconnected online during the pandemic, which has been mind-blowing. I’ve always believed that she was only a brief part of my young life, but to hear Sandi tell it, she practically raised me all by herself, because Dad was always either at work or off birding. 

I recently learned that Sandi and Dad were married before my third birthday and stayed together until I was twelve. That’s nearly a decade, almost my entire childhood. But how can that be? In my Swiss cheese memory, Sandi was only around for a little while. I vividly remember their bitter divorce and my father’s subsequent depression, but I don’t remember having a mom when I was in elementary school. 

After Sandi there was Judy, then Catherine. I liked them all, but knew better than to get attached. “Women always leave,” Daddy Bill said, a self-fulfilling prophecy if ever I heard one. 

So was I parented by my father, his women, or both? Was it just the two of us, just me and my Daddy, the way I remember it, like all the photos in my album suggest? Or was there always someone else, a female presence, just out of frame? Come to think of it, who even took all those photographs, if not mon mère du jour?

I’m starting to suspect that I may be an unreliable narrator of my own story. Like Darley in Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, I'm the naïf who starts out thinking he’s the protagonist of an epic adventure, only to find out he is but a bit player and a fool. 

 

The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell

 

Like many children in the 1970s, I was a latchkey kid who came and went as he pleased, and who grew up feeling special and entitled. The Hero’s Journey monomyth was ubiquitous in the comicbooks, movies and pop culture of the era, and I took that omnipresent message to heart. I truly believed that I was uniquely talented and destined for great things. 

Freedom-plus-encouragement was a popular parenting style back then and my father was no exception. “You can accomplish anything you want if you set your mind to it” was the familiar refrain. To this powerful maxim, add the privileges of being an only child, attending a prestigious school, and growing up white and male in the American south, and it’s easy to see how I could believe in myself to an absurd degree. 

Granted, it wasn’t always easy being the artsy kid in a community which prized athletes and scholars, but “artist” was the identity I chose, and it quickly paid off. My earliest memories are of being in the spotlight, hearing applause, winning awards, taking a bow. Thus my father’s colleagues on the arts faculty at Brookstone School became co-conspirators in propping up both his high hopes for me, and my own nascent delusions of grandeur. 

Looking back, I now suspect that those compassionate grown-ups who singled me out, did so not so much for my talent and potential, but out of pity for the poor little ragamuffin from a broken home. He needed the boost, bless his heart. 

Today when I look at a school photo of ten-year-old Dmitri, I see things that were invisible to me at the time. I see his uncombed hair and the dirty smudge on his cheek. I notice the wrinkled, oversized hand-me-down shirt he wears, and how it's falling off his skinny little shoulders. I observe the unearned defiance of his proud, upturned chin. What I see is an arrogant problem child who needs a little more discipline and a lot less praise. 

Big picture, Tyler Durden was right. “You are not special. You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake.” Sadly, by the time I was old enough to see Fight Club, I was already too far gone, a slave to the tyranny of my own bogus, manufactured destiny. 

So what did I learn in lockdown? To doubt the veracity of my own story. 

Which begs the question: if I’m not who I thought I was, then who am I? 

And if this is a chance to reinvent myself ... who do I want to be?

Next:
THE HUNKER BUNKER REPORT
PART 5 — THE ROAD AHEAD

THE HUNKER BUNKER REPORT | PART 3 — MENTAL HEALTH & SOCIAL CONNECTION 


“I enjoyed the time out! I loved the fact that nobody had to achieve anything. 
And the light at the end of the tunnel is stressing me out.” 

—Neal Brennan 
 

After a full year of hunkering down and hiding out, I must admit to feeling anxious about the prospect of getting back out there again. My auto-diagnosis: 10% agoraphobe, 10% germaphobe, 30% introvert, 50% rational, reasonably cautious person. 

Several fellow creatives have told me that they, too, feel somewhat ambivalent about returning to their old lives. 

“To tell you the truth, I needed the break,” my friend Hans confessed over Zoom. “I was feeling burnt out for about five years before this thing hit.” 

Another colleague confided, “I’ve always been a homebody. Now I have permission! I hear folks talking about Covid Cabin Fever and how they can’t wait to go to a party or a bar. Is it weird that I don’t feel that way, like ... at all?” 

I don’t think it’s weird. We’re not all wired the same. Some of us feel imprisoned and can’t wait to bust out. Others find comfort in what Red in Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption called “the poison peace of institutional life.” 

Personally, I miss touring and performing, but not the relentless hamster-wheel hustle required to maintain that lifestyle. Moreover, now that I’ve experienced a year of living simply, I’m finding it difficult to remember why I ever felt it was so damned important to be busy all the time. 

 

I miss touring and performing, but not the relentless hamster-wheel hustle required to maintain that lifestyle.

 

When I hear reports of how social distancing is taking a toll on people’s emotional and mental health, I empathize. According to scientists at the University of Virginia, “human beings aren’t wired for social isolation. When people experience chronic social disconnection, they are subject to psychological distress, physical discomfort, and an increased risk of illness and death.” 

In-person social interaction seems to be especially important for children, whose brains are still developing. Socialization helps young people create a sense of self and learn what others expect from them. I really feel for all those high school and college students who are missing out on precious daily face-to-face interaction with peers, not to mention the group rituals that mark developmental milestones, such as the prom and graduation. 

I also feel for their parents. My friends with teenage kids have taken a crash course in the importance of socialization this year. They’ve learned first hand the extent to which their children’s happiness and well-being depends upon the physiological stress-buffering provided by “hanging out with friends.” 

Then there are those single adults, living alone, who’ve experienced profound feelings of sadness during the solitude of this past year. I feel for them, too, especially the older folks who just want to hug their grandchildren. 

I’m no stranger to loneliness, but leave it to me, the Pandemic People-Person, to experience better mental health and a stronger sense of community during this topsy turvy time. Truly, I have never felt such a sincere social connection to my friends and family, as during this year of sheltering in place! 

Dig: before the pandemic, my life was rife with obligatory interactions. Pitching prospects, calling on clients, managing musicians, mingling with the crowd. Hustle. Hang. Repeat. Ad infinitum. 

A career in the performing arts is essentially a never-ending cycle of event planning. If you’ve ever helped plan a wedding, you know how communication-intensive this kind of work can be. A single event may require dozens of phone calls, emails and discussions. 

Now imagine producing over 200 events a year! Is it any wonder that on my nights off I craved only solitary peace and quiet? Is it any wonder that, other than a weekly phone call to my faraway father, I rarely spent time, socially, with anyone? 
 

Is it any wonder that on my nights off I craved only solitary peace and quiet?

 

It’s not that I'm antisocial. I love my friends and family. I miss them when we’re apart. But I've always been an introvert, and prior to this pandemic, I simply did not have the alone time required to sort through all the stimulation of my world and my life. 

But during the shutdown? I’ve been downright gregarious!

Refreshed and recharged, I’ve transformed into a Social Media Butterfly — reaching out, checking in, taking a genuine interest in the lives of others. 

 

Refreshed and recharged, I've transformed into a Social Media Butterfly.

 

With plenty of time on my hands, I’m now using my phone socially, too. Every day I call a different person, just to say hello. Amazing! This is something I would never have made time for in the past. 

This year, through the miracle of technology, I’ve been able to reconnect with distant family, enjoy several heart-to-heart cyber-talks, and even engage in a few “virtual happy hours” with dear friends. I joined group chats, checked out some concerts, participated in podcasts, and even attended a live stream wedding! I've never been more grateful for the healing, community-building power of the internet.

 

I've never been more grateful for the healing, community-building power of the internet.

 

And now, when I stroll with my dog in our little town, we will often stop to chat, socially-distanced, with the neighbors. I used to despise “small talk” as a waste of time, but you should hear me now, remembering names and remarking on the weather and whatnot. 

Dare I say it? I’ve never been more social than during this time of social isolation. 

 

Next:
PART 4 — WHAT I LEARNED IN LOCKDOWN

THE HUNKER BUNKER REPORT | PART 2 — FISCAL HEALTH 

As a rule, professional bandleaders operate with neither job security nor a financial safety net.  We work gig to gig, operating on the slimmest of margins, without salary or benefits. We aren’t eligible for unemployment and many of us cannot afford health insurance. And most of our jobs are one-nighters, which means we can never stop looking for work, because we never know for sure how we’re going to pay that next round of bills. 

And the thing is, we learn to live with this uncertainty. We take austerity measures, diversify our income, launch side hustles, juggle our bills. We do whatever it takes to keep things rolling. After all, this house of cards we call a career is no-one’s fault, no-one’s responsibility, but our own. As Hyman Roth said in The Godfather, “this is the business we’ve chosen.” 
 

Hyman Roth is right.


But this year was different. 

When the shelter-in-place order came down and all concerts were canceled, my family suddenly found itself with no income at all. I had no choice but to reconfigure my business model and apply for every available grant and assistance program. It wasn’t easy to puzzle through all the misinformation and red tape, but eventually we began to receive pandemic relief payments as well as consistent earned income fees from our online activities. 

Within a few weeks, and with a little help from our friends, we were solvent, with fees arriving at regular, predictable intervals, like paychecks. I can’t stress enough how different this is, compared to the feast-or-famine cash flows I usually experience as a performing musician. 

No chasing down club owners who disappear when it’s time to pay the band. No having to guess what our income will be from each endeavor, when the amount may vary wildly, depending upon someone else’s sales efforts, not to mention honesty. No racking up thousands of dollars in travel costs and staving off creditors while we wait for payment from concerts we played last month or last year. 

Payments for online programs are instantaneous!


And here’s the kicker: sure, I’m earning less working from home, but my business expenses are wayyyyy lower! Think of it: no airline tickets, no hotel stays, no equipment rentals, no sideman payments. Zero travel costs! Gross revenue and net income are practically identical numbers. 

You dig? Don't get me wrong. I miss traveling and performing for a living. Teaching online is not my calling.

However, for the first time in years, my family and I have actually been able to make a financial plan and stick to it. We were finally able to predict our income, anticipate our expenses, cover our household costs and plan for the future. We paid our bills, paid our taxes, saved a little, and even made a few charitable contributions to worthy causes. 

I don’t mind telling you, as good as it feels to receive help, it feels even better to be able to help out a little, ourselves. 

I sure miss the travel, but not the expense.


I understand that for many of our friends, this past year was their first, or worst, lesson in living with financial insecurity. I've been there, and I empathize. But leave it to me, the Proletarian Contrarian, to have the opposite experience. 

Dare I say it? This health crisis has been good for our fiscal health. 

If this is what financial security feels like, I think I like it.

But is it sustainable? 

Next:
THE HUNKER BUNKER REPORT
PART 3 — MENTAL HEALTH & SOCIAL CONNECTION 

THE HUNKER BUNKER REPORT | PART 1 — PHYSICAL HEALTH 

One year ago this week, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic and we began sheltering in place. 

I took the warnings seriously, even though staying home meant figuring out how to pay the bills while simultaneously transitioning from touring performer to online music teacher (aka “building the plane as you fly it”). Planning for the worst while hoping for the best, I also took the opportunity to update my will and put my affairs in order. I resolved to hunker down and wait this thing out until it’s safe to get out there again. 

As you may remember, when this shutdown first began we were told to be patient, because “it could take several weeks before things return to normal.” Those weeks turned into months. Now it’s been a full year. 

Yesterday I received my first dose of the Moderna (aka Dolly Parton) vaccine. Hooray! Over 10% of the U.S. population has been fully vaccinated so far. According to the CDC, we should all continue to observe safety protocols until we reach about 80%, at which point we’re likely to achieve herd immunity. 

Why is this man smizing? After a full year of sheltering in place, he just received his first dose of Dolly Vax
 

So we’re now in a kind of arms race — a shots-in-arms race, if you will — against the dual forces of vaccine hesitancy and the evolving COVID-19 variants. The idea is to get most of the populace immunized before the virus mutates so much that the available vaccines become ineffective. 

Unfortunately, some states have already jumped the gun, prematurely abolishing mask-wearing laws. Scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson observes that such actions are “like designating a peeing section of the swimming pool.” 

Here in Lewis County, Washington, it’s fashionable to resist any attempts to suspend individual freedoms in the interest of public health. In other words, folks around these parts don’t take kindly to the government telling us what we can and cannot do. 

But even here, people seem to be getting the message. Our pop-up drive-thru vaccination site at the Lewis County Fairgrounds is proving to be very popular. I even noticed, in the long line of vehicles waiting for the vaccine, several campaign bumper stickers for our disgraced former president, who received his own immunization in secret after calling the pandemic a hoax. Sigh. 

Although many protested against state-mandated health measures,
Lewis County residents are now lining-up for vaccination

In the future, after this deadly pandemic is well behind us, those of us who were fortunate enough to survive may find it difficult to remember all the troubles we collectively endured over this past year. Beyond the considerable health and safety concerns, the coronavirus era has also been an unprecedented time of economic hardship, social unrest, political instability, ecological imbalance and existential crisis. 

So much struggle and sacrifice, fear and frustration, grief and loss. We worry about our sick friends, and we mourn those who died during the shutdown, including non-Covid deaths like that of my father, who succumbed to Parkinson’s while in hospice, just before Christmas, 1500 miles away. 

It’s been a long, hard year. Yet even as we reflect on its ravages, and at the risk of seeming insensitive to the suffering of others, we must acknowledge that some positive things have also transpired.

For example, my immediate family and I have enjoyed better health during this global pandemic than before it began. Ironic, 
I know.

You see, chronic low-grade illness is an occupational hazard for the touring musician. Jet-lagged and sleep-deprived, we ply our trade among the great unwashed, exposing ourselves to all manner of viruses and infections on the road. 

It’s always something. You get food poisoning at a roadside diner. That night you go to work anyway, because what can you do? A fellow musician gives you a hug, and afterward you notice she has the sniffles. On the flight home, everybody is coughing and sneezing. Each day is another chance to catch a bug and pass it along to someone else. 

But it turns out, when you remove travel and social interaction from the equation, good health returns. In fact, during this year at home, no-one at my house was even mildly sick. Not once! Apparently, staying home not only limits your chances of exposure to coronavirus, it also provides a bulwark against the flu, upset stomach, sore throat, even the common cold. 

Home-cooked meals heal body and soul, especially when you harvest fresh vegetables from the garden

I’ve even lost weight! During this lockdown, I’ve been able to eat right, exercise, get plenty of rest and practice good sleep hygiene, all with a consistency that I found impossible to maintain when traveling. 

Dare I say it? This health crisis has been good for my health. 

Next: 
THE HUNKER BUNKER REPORT
Part 2 — FISCAL HEALTH

OF LATE I THINK OF SANTA CRUZ  

memoria praeteritorum bonorum 

As we approach the first anniversary of this damndemic, I grow ever wistful for my old life on the road. 

My propensity for rosy retrospection is well-documented, but I’m often surprised by where the waves of nostalgia choose to make landfall. Curiously, I don’t miss the big cosmopolitan cities so much as the funky little towns, especially those special places that made a mark on my heart, the places to which I loved returning, year after year. 

Of late I think of Santa Cruz. 

I love this dirty town!

About 75 miles south of San Francisco, and just over the hill from San Jose, the colorful seaside hamlet of Santa Cruz, California was one of my early discoveries when I first began traveling for music in the 1990s. 

Among its myriad charms, Santa Cruz is home to Kuumbwa Jazz Center, a great little concert venue managed by true believers Tim Jackson and Bobbi Todaro. Named for the Swahili concept of creative spontaneity, Kuumbwa is much beloved in the community of musicians. Where else can you perform for an enthusiastic listening audience, in a convivial room with an expert sound engineer and a recently tuned, well-maintained grand piano? You’d be surprised how seldom such a confluence occurs.

(L-R) Tim Jackson, Kuumbwa Jazz Center, Bobbi Todaro
 

But the magic runs far deeper than professional production values. Established in the nonprofit arts boom of the 1970s, Kuumbwa is one of those places that genuinely treats everyone like family. Dig: after an easy breezy soundcheck, Tim (an excellent flautist who also happens to be artistic director of the Monterey Jazz Festival) stops by to greet the band and give us a tour of the new black and white photography exhibit in the hall. A few minutes later, Bobbi (simply the coolest) sits down with us in the green room, enthusing all about the expansion of Kuumbwa’s educational programs for kids and families. Then a friendly volunteer arrives, serving up a hot, homemade meal for the band. Now that's how it's done, friends!

I remember hearing about Santa Cruz back in my Boston days. I was interested to learn that three of the best musicians I knew at Berklee -- David Valdez, Donny McCaslin and Kenny Wollesen -- all happened to be from Santa Cruz. I wondered if there might be something in the water out there.

When I first visited Santa Cruz after the big earthquake in 1989, the downtown area was a post-apocalyptic hellscape of white tents and rubble. Even then, the town’s groovy bohemian spirit shone through. A cute girl with a nose piercing offered me grapes in front of the Catalyst. A street vendor in the alley by Sylvan Music told my fortune and sold me some incense. A soulful little combo called Warmth was busking valiantly on Cooper Street. I thought to myself, “This place is heaven.” 
 

(L-R) Vibraphonist Don McCaslin, leader of Warmth and father of saxophonist Donny
Claudia Villela, a favorite recording artist who happens to live and work in the area
The other Ray Brown: flugelhornist, composer and Cabrillo College jazz educator

 

After that, I routed my tours through Santa Cruz whenever possible, playing one night at Kuumbwa between shows in Oakland and Los Angeles. I would always make sure to arrive a few days early for a little advance work, usually a KUSP radio interview and workshops for music students at UC Santa Cruz and Cabrillo College. Then, after checking the arts section and calendar listings in the Sentinel, Metro and Good Times, I would put up fliers on all the bulletin boards downtown.

gig fliers ... the original social media posts


The promotional rain dance now complete, it was time to chill and enjoy the town. I called these mini-residencies “composition retreats” for tax purposes, but they were really just delightful little solo vacations. 

Each year I’d spend a little longer among the hippies, dot com millionaires and homeless hackysack teens that populate Pacific Avenue. By day I’d browse lazily in the vintage shops, galleries and bookstores. Afternoons I’d take a picnic lunch out to Natural Bridges and play my horn as the sun set on Monterey Bay. At night I’d ramble down to the wharf for fresh seafood, then catch a terrific set of live music (Claudia Villela!) before retiring to my cozy Boardwalk motel. 

My favorite hang was this big warehouse downtown that had been converted into a funky cafe and community gathering place, with high, vaulted ceilings, giant windows, lots of leafy green plants, and a large, sunny patio deck out back. I’d sit in that joint for hours, sipping coffee, reading, scribbling in my journal, and people-watching. It was glorious!

To this day, whenever I catch the scent of patchouli, I’m immediately transported there again … to my happy place.
 

“Kuumbwa Blues” from Red Reflections