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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 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

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.

LULLABY 

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

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

The rainstorms in Georgia were magnificent.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was glorious. 
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tomorrow is a new day.