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Santa Fe was a stone groove!
Highlights: sold-out show at Club Legato (woo hoo!), giant metal statue of Scout (my kinda public art!), and the best fish tacos in the world. Thanks JT! #BumblebeeBobForever
Now comes the fun part: the vantastic homeward journey of 2,000 miles, through five states, in three days! From New Mexico, through Arizona, California, and Oregon, and all the way back home to Washington State.
I’m so glad we did this.
Yesterday the Jazz Noir band rehearsed in Phoenix for our upcoming show at Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts. Scout chased a Gamble’s Quail and cooled off in front of the fan.
Today we traveled 281 miles to Gallup, New Mexico. The scenery on the drive was stunning. Highlights: snow in the White Mountains, a greasy spoon breakfast in Payson, and a lovely walk with Scout near Petrified Forest National Park.
Tomorrow’s destination: Santa Fe!
In Twentynine Palms, having tucked in for the night behind the big boys at Luckie Park, we were able to start our day with a vigorous game of fetch, or as Scout calls it, “Rowr-Roo.”
300 miles later we arrived in the Lonesome Desert just in time to witness a spectacular Arizona sunset. I’ve enjoyed sunsets all over the world, but none can compare. Thank you, Daddy Bill.
Today the Jazz Noir band rehearses in Phoenix for our upcoming show at Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts. Then Scout and I will hit the road again, this time for Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.
We've been listening to books on tape while we drive. Current selection: Dolly Parton, Songteller: My Life in Lyrics.
Nobody’s getting rich on this tour, but we’re having loads of fun, and it’s one hell of a vacation for my dog! #Forward #BoondockerBoondoggle
400 miles is about as far as I care to travel in a single day. But I must admit, as sure as dog is my co-pilot, I actually enjoyed the drive from Oakland to Twentynine Palms.
Highlights: seeing the sun rise over Alameda County, doing a KSFR Santa Fe Public Radio phone interview as we drove through the Tehachapi wind farms, walking Scout among the giant alien broccoli in Joshua Tree, and dining on pulled pork when we finally reached our destination.
Today we cross the Lonesome Desert into Arizona for a rehearsal, then it's on to Santa Fe. #Forward #BoondockerBoondoggle
Yesterday we drove to Merced, California. At the dog park Scout became fast friends — literally — with a beautiful Aussie named Partner. They ran and romped so fast that I couldn’t even snap a photo!
We arrived in Merced early, so I found a laundromat with wifi and took the opportunity to do a load of laundry, charge up our power station, and catch up on a little business.
Road life isn’t always glamorous. I once bumped into Diana Krall at the Jazz Aspen festival, matter-of-factly doing her laundry at the hotel in Snowmass Village. This is the way.
Still feeling the love after our Oakland show. Warm thanks to everyone who made the scene. It was a stone groove.
Today will be a long one. 7 hours driving. Destination: Twentynine Palms. Distance: 391 Miles. #Forward
Yesterday Scout and I woke to the sound of raindrops on the roof of our tour bus. She tilted her head and stared up at the ceiling in wonder. I immediately fell asleep again. Rain is a terrific soporific.
Then the sun came out and announced the beginning of spring. It was a big day for my CaCo (aka Canine Companion, pronounced “Keiko”). We visited three parks: Magnolia Park in Oakley, Tex Spruiell Park in Livermore, and Joaquin Miller Park in Oakland. She charmed everyone we met, of course.
In the evening I dropped her off for a puppy party with celebrity friend Berkeley (you.see.berkeley on Instagram), and then I headed over to the Sound Room to earn a little more kibble cash.
I had a ball with pianist Ken French, bassist Ruth Davies, drummer Mark Lee, and special guests guitarist Ed Dunsavage and vocalist Cary Williams. The convivial crowd included many friends I haven’t seen in ages, including several well-known musicians.
The old Sound Room was already a favorite; this new, improved venue is even better. Thank you, Karen and Robert! We’re looking forward to returning in September for our album release celebration.
Today Scout and I hit the road for Southern California.
So far, so good.
Scout and I spent yesterday at The Klub in Glen Ellen, the exclusive wine country getaway expertly owned and managed by our dear friends Rocket, Peaches, Jasper, and Wilson. It was our first grand reunion since the beginning of the damndemic. So good.
Today I coached the San Mateo High School jazz band while Scout visited the groomer. The jazz kids were engaged, focused, and inspiring, a credit to Maestro Til, the head coach. The pup emerged from the beauty parlor looking (and smelling!) more fabulous than ever.
Tonight it’s long tones in the mobile practice room (big show tomorrow), and if we aren’t too tired, a movie before bed, preferably one that isn’t too stressful, without dogs barking in the audio track of every establishing shot.
Funny how ubiquitous those movie dogs have become. There’s one particularly distressing bark they use over and over, like the Wilhelm Scream. Let me tell you, Scout is not a fan! So we’ll do our level best to find something hopeful and barkless to send us off to dreamland.
Scout and I have had a wonderful couple of days in the San Francisco Bay Area.
We explored the Redwood Glen and Palos Colorados trails, had a puppy party at the Oakland Dog Park, visited with friends old and new, and spent two nights on a farm! This afternoon we’re headed to the wine country.
I also presented a couple of jazz workshops in area high schools, so this is a legit work trip, not a vacation (ahem).
“Beware the Court of Owls, that watches all the time,
Ruling from a shadow perch, behind granite and lime.”
When Mr. Higgins told me how the Owl Club boasts many prominent artists and musicians among its members, I was skeptical.
I figured there are probably a small number of movie actors and rock stars sprinkled among their highfalutin order. I imagined that any artist members would have to be the type of mainstream celebrities that impress rich people and share their classist, politically conservative views. Even the pedigree of someone like Gordon Fleecing (British, famous) fit with my assumptions about this not-so-secret society.
But learning that Sweets — one of my personal heroes! — was a member? This blew my mind.
Because Sweets is not some rich white guy, mind you, but an African-American gentleman of modest means. Not a business mogul but a retired school teacher. Not a celebrity so much as a master craftsman, highly respected among our peers in the community of musicians. Hard-working. Dignified. Sincere. Real.
For all my trepidation about this club and groups in general, I must admit that his involvement intrigued me.
It’s springtime in San Francisco, and another typical workday in my three-ring circus of a life. Morning at the festival office dealing with demanding sponsors. Afternoon at the record company dealing with complacent distributors. Evening on the bandstand dealing with this unforgiving horn.
The plates never stop spinning and I always feel as if I’m neglecting something or someone somewhere. But tonight brings a welcome pause in the routine. After our show an audience member approaches the stage and offers to buy me a drink.
His name is Gregory. He’s a guitarist. We barely know one another, yet he speaks to me with the warm familiarity of an old friend. He asks how I’ve been, inquires about my wife and family, and shares some intimate personal details of his own.
Delighted to have made a new friend, I sip my single malt as we sit together, chatting amiably until the lights come up and the club empties out. In the parking lot Gregory hands me a small envelope.
“We're having a party in the city tomorrow,” he says. “You should come.”
As he drives away I open the envelope. Inside is a thick card embossed with raised lettering: Cocktails In The Cartoon Room.
I’ve never heard of the place, and there’s no address on the invitation, but in the lower righthand corner is the now familiar telltale symbol: the Owl of Athena.
Well I’ll be damned.
The Cartoon Room, it turns out, is no place for introverts like me.
I’ve been here before. This massive barroom, with its chaotic jumble of paintings and posters, was overwhelming on my first visit, but tonight the place is packed, shoulder-to-shoulder, with glad-handing, back-slapping, martini-swilling men, all laughing and shouting over the sounds of big band jazz.
I scan the room for Gregory (no luck) then jostle my way through the crowd and up to the long redwood bar. Before I can utter a word the bartender casually greets me by name.
“Mr. Matheny. So glad you could make it.” He pushes a tumbler of amber liquid across the counter. “Lagavulin, neat, yes?” A stranger who knows my name and my drink. What sorcery is this?
I'm about three fingers in when the far wall slides open to reveal a 25-piece swing orchestra in mid-shout chorus, capped off by a tasty trumpet solo from none other than Sweets Allen. The room erupts into boisterous applause.
How wonderful! I assumed the music was piped-in, but it’s live, and excellent. I recognize several of the musicians. Are they all members, I wonder, or hired help?
I want to pay my respects to Sweets and the other musicians, but I’m unable to get to them through the throng. The place is a madhouse. The guy who invited me isn’t here. The whole situation feels peculiar, like I’m supposed to do something, but I don’t for the life of me know what it is. So I stay about an hour, making awkward small talk with strangers, until the claustrophobia kicks in and the crowd becomes too much to bear.
As I cross the Bay Bridge home I ponder my perplexing experience in the parliament of owls.
“I felt like Alice going through the looking-glass,” I confess to my wife over dinner.
“They were clearly expecting me but nobody said anything.”
She raises an eyebrow. “Maybe it was some kind of test.”
“If so,” I reply, “Then I most definitely failed.”
We'll be back again in April with
THE OWL CLUB PART 6:
INTO THE WOODS!
“I hide in plain sight.
Same as you.”
I’m not a superstitious person by nature, but I was raised in the south where even educated folks recognize the power of signs and omens. Charlie’s gift of a tiny silver owl felt like such a signifier to me: a talisman of unknown provenance and portent.
I began to carry the mysterious little figurine in my pocket, where it would gently jingle against my mouthpiece and pocket change as I walked. I carried it everywhere, like a good luck charm, and it seemed to be working. Within a few short years I’d established myself in San Francisco as a working musician, and had sold enough sponsorships to increase our jazz festival budget ten fold.
In hindsight, this was during the tech boom of the early 1990s. Gigs were plentiful then because there were so many gainfully employed young people looking for a night out, and donations were up, too. The dot com bubble was expanding, the stock market was booming, and corporate support for the arts was ascendant. Bay Area businesses needed somewhere to park all that extra cash. Why not a nonprofit that offers exciting social events and a tax write off? It was an easy sell.
I didn’t have that perspective at the time, however. Naively I thought I’d cracked the code! I felt powerful, like a double agent: professional jazz musician by night, hot shot sponsorship salesman by day. Oblivious to the unseen economic forces that conspired to pave my way, I credited my own skill and hustle, with perhaps just a little bit of secret “owl luck” thrown in for good measure.
Over time my magical thinking grew deeper, abetted by echoes. Not only was I carrying the owl totem in my pocket, but I also began to notice similar statuettes in the executive offices of prospective sponsors.
I would be in mid-pitch, sitting across from some corporate mucky-muck, when I would look over at the shelf behind them, and there it would be: another owl statue. I never said anything, but on more than one occasion I sensed a subtle nod or look of acknowledgment when I spied the owl.
Like, I saw it. They saw me see it. Now what?
It’s Tuesday night in San Francisco, and I don’t have a gig of my own, so I’m headed over to Sonny’s Place in North Beach to hear the incomparable flugelhornist Sweets Allen.
For true fans of lyrical swing, it gets no better than Sweets and his honey-toned horn. He’s the real deal, a veteran soloist from the bands of Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, and Tony Bennett. Now in his 70s, Sweets is one of San Francisco’s most beloved musicians and one of the last great gentleman of jazz.
For me, Tuesdays at Sonny’s are like graduate school. I rarely miss the chance to attend one of these weekly masterclasses.
Tonight Sweets is really living up to his name. His improvised lines are powerfully simple, pure, soulful, logical, and undeniably joyful. The warmth of his sound and the smile on his face combine to lift the spirits of everyone in the club.
On the break I motion for him to join me at my table. Like my father, Sweets is a former school teacher, a wise elder who doesn’t mind sharing his accumulated knowledge. He patiently answers all my questions about music and life.
“The main thing is to tell a story,” he advises, tapping his finger on the table for emphasis. “But it’s not like reciting a poem or singing a song. It’s got to be your story.”
“Just be real,” he adds, “and never let the naysayers get you down. They’re everywhere, so keep your head on a swivel.”
“Like an owl,” I say quietly.
“Precisely,” he smiles, standing.
“Which reminds me,” he adds before returning to the bandstand.
“A little birdie told me you may be joining us.”
“Open your minds, my friends.
We all fear what we do not understand.”
Charlie Higgins leads me by the arm into a space entirely unlike the rest of this mysterious fortress.
The dining room is sunny, warm, and elbow-to-elbow with convivial groups of men in business attire, eating, drinking, talking and laughing.
“This is us,” Charlie says as we approach a corner table where a couple of seated gentlemen rise to greet us. “Let me introduce you to two of the original hep cats, Walt Connor and Will Cooley. Gentlemen, this is Dmitri Matheny.” We all shake hands and sit down together.
At each place setting a single card embossed with the now familiar OC logo offers a simple selection of steak, seafood, sandwiches, and salads. I’m delighted. Since moving to San Francisco from Boston a few years ago I’ve enjoyed a steady diet of international and vegetarian fare. I’ve even learned to appreciate California cuisine with its requisite avocado, pine nuts and sun-dried tomatoes. But I was raised on American comfort food from cafeterias and diners. This is my kind of menu.
Nevertheless, I decide to order something I’ve never tried before, a Crab Louie Salad. Based on the name, I’m fairly certain that I will enjoy at least two thirds of it.
Over lunch, Charlie cheerfully embodies his role as table host, guiding the conversation so as to include everyone. In spite of our difference in age (I’m in my late 20s and they’re all in their 60s) we all get along swimmingly.
Curiously, no one discusses business. Charlie, the candy magnate, talks about his experience as a paratrooper in World War II. Will, a Southern California real estate developer, holds forth about Stan Getz and his involvement in the committee for jazz at Stanford University. Walt, an author and photographer (who may or may not also be heir to a large national department store fortune) speaks with authority about the forgotten history of jazz on the Barbary Coast. I mostly listen, fascinated by these wise old owls.
As coffee is served, Charlie casually turns the conversation to the unique history and ethos of the Owl Club. Unlike other quote-unquote secret societies and fraternal organizations, Charlie explains, we aren't centered around a particular industry, sport, or school, but a common interest in nature and the arts.
“Our membership roster includes not only prominent businessmen and CEOs,” Charlie says proudly, “but writers, journalists, military heroes, politicians, global leaders, and many well-known artists and musicians.”
I'm intrigued. “But no women?”
Charlie smiles. “You know, a hundred twenty years ago when this club was founded, men tended to stay in their unhappy marriages. They needed clubs like this as an escape. Of course these days, if you aren’t happily married, you get a divorce. That’s why so many of our happily married members are now requesting more events to which they can bring their spouses.”
Taking this as my cue, I pull the glossy jazz festival sponsorship brochure from my breast pocket and lay it on the table. I’m just about to begin my pitch when Charlie interrupts me, raising his hand and saying, “no-no-no, not here.” A red-vested waiter immediately approaches to ask that I “kindly put away the literature.”
“I’m sorry, I thought …” I stammer, befuddled.
“We can discuss all that later,” Charlie replies magnanimously.
At precisely this moment, as if responding to a silent alarm, everyone stands to say their goodbyes. I stand too, shaking hands with Will and Walt, who leave together.
Charlie places his arm around my shoulder and ushers me back through the grand foyer, past the empty bar with its mad jumble of framed art, to the dark alcove where I first entered the building. It looks somehow different to me now. Less off-putting. More cozy.
“What a pleasure,” I say. “Thanks for lunch.”
“Ah! I almost forgot!” Charlie replies, reaching into his pocket. He retrieves a small box, about 4 inches in diameter, wrapped in white paper. “This is for you.”
On my way back to the jazz office, I stop by the piano bar at Kuleto’s, my favorite Union Square watering hole. I find a seat by the fireplace and order a bourbon, neat, feeling not unlike a noir detective at the beginning of a perplexing new case.
I unwrap the mysterious gift box, genuinely curious what I will find inside.
Perhaps some chocolate truffles from Charlie's candy company? But no.
I place the heavy totem onto the table in front of me and study it.
No card, no explanation.
Just a tiny silver owl.
“Weaving spiders, come not here;
Hence, you long-legg'd spinners, hence!
Beetles black, approach not near;
Worm nor snail, do no offence.”
The Owl Club’s downtown headquarters, a stately ivy-covered red brick building off Union Square, turns out to be just a short walk from our jazz festival offices south of Market.
I’m curious, of course, why Charlie Higgins invited me here, but truth be told I have my own agenda. Based on the Fleecing concert, many of our city’s business leaders and arts patrons are apparently members of this club. In fundraising parlance, this place could be what’s known as a “happy hunting ground.”
I stand before the club entrance and study the large bronze plaque beside the door. It’s a Great Horned Owl in bas relief, its wings outstretched. In welcome or warning? I wonder.
I open the heavy wooden door and enter the dark chamber. It's drafty and deserted, with no signs of life other than the warm glow of a single unattended fireplace along one wall. Am I early? Guess I’ll have a look around.
From the grand foyer with its high vaulted ceilings, I take in the antique lighting fixtures, wood paneled walls, tall shelves of leather bound books, and low mahogany tables surrounded by clusters of empty armchairs. Down a quiet hallway I find sitting rooms and salons, meeting rooms, galleries, a music library, even a small theater, but no dining room and no people. Not a living soul.
Across the hall is a beautiful redwood cocktail bar, also unoccupied, yet entirely overpopulated with visual art in what can only be described as a surreal assault on the senses. The walls of this room are literally covered, floor to ceiling, with a chaotic jumble of ancient oils, sylvan landscapes, faded portraits, sepia photographs, and dozens of hand-painted event posters, all of them adorned with whimsical cartoons and carnival words. Carefree! Frolic! Hi-jinks! It’s dizzying.
I pick up a bar napkin to wipe my brow and notice the logo: it’s the Owl of Athena in profile flanked by the initials O and C. This is definitely the place, so where the hell is everybody? I feel like that guy in The Twilight Zone, only instead of wandering solo through Mayberry I’ve somehow stumbled into a haunted saloon or abandoned hotel.
But am I really alone? Because I feel like I’m being watched.
That’s when it hits me. I realize with a shudder that all around me, looking at me from every corner, are the eyes of owls. Owls staring from every shelf, peering out from the paintings and posters, glaring down from a stained glass window. Owl faces printed on the wallpaper, carved into the wainscoting, even woven into the very carpet beneath my feet.
Most unsettling of all is the large bronze owl shape directly in front of me. It has no face at all, just a blunt featureless void, giving the impression of both a very modern abstract sculpture and an ancient idol of the pagan underworld.
“Beautiful creatures,” intones the familiar voice of my host, suddenly standing right next to me.
“Fierce hunters, too,” he goes on. “They can swallow their prey whole, bones and all. I’ve seen it!”
“You sound hungry, Chuck” I say.
“Let’s eat,” he replies.
“Men have a desire for stability, security, repetition and order in their lives.
At the same time they have a tendency to want to flee,
to meet the adventure, and to destroy.”
I’ve never been much of a joiner.
Never had much use for clubs or cults or crowds.
Large gatherings and groupthink make me uncomfortable.
It’s one of the reasons I prefer playing an intimate jazz venue over a huge music festival. It’s why, even though I’m a serious Green Lantern collector, I can’t bring myself to attend Comic-Con. It’s why I never cared much for church or theme parks or spectator sports. It’s even why, at the apex of my Buddhism studies, I had to leave the San Francisco Zen Center. I could handle the silent sitting, but as soon as the chanting began, I got the willies and hightailed it the hell out of there.
But of all the creepy crowds I’ve ever encountered, none compare to The Owl Club.
Our story begins in the early ’90s, at San Francisco’s elegant Herbst Theater, where the brilliant blind pianist Gordon Fleecing is playing to a full house. Fleecing and his trio are in fine form, enchanting the sophisticated audience with their witty and clever takes on the Great American Songbook.
I’m standing in the wings wearing my only suit, feeling like a fraud as my boss and I peer through the curtains at the well-heeled crowd. I’m only half listening to the music, because I’m there in a professional capacity, not as a jazz musician, but as a fledgling fundraiser. I’ve recently begun writing grants and selling sponsorships for the concert’s producer, the mercurial jazz impresario Kendall Lane.
“Isn’t this great?” Kendall asks, squinting and smirking in triumph. His smile, if you can call it that, seems weirdly disingenuous, but the man has good reason to feel proud. The concert is a sold-out success and many of the city’s movers and shakers are in attendance. Tonight is a big night for our scrappy little organization.
At that moment something curious catches my attention. While improvising over the unmistakable chord changes to Autumn Leaves, Fleecing begins to play a different theme, something whimsically wistful, redolent of a European folk song.
This melody is unfamiliar to me, but a smattering of applause around the recital hall suggests that a dozen or more of our patrons have immediately recognized the song’s provenance. From our position at the side of the stage, we can see several captains of industry making eye contact with one another and nodding their heads in approval as Fleecing transforms the simple melody into a grandly majestic anthem.
In the lobby at intermission, I walk over to greet Charlie Higgins, the sponsor of tonight’s show.
I dig Charlie. He carries himself like one of the “good old boys” back home. He’s the real deal, a true believer and a genuine music lover with a jovial nature and a ready handshake. You wouldn’t know it to look at him, but Charlie is a great philanthropist, too. He and his candy company have underwritten nearly every significant jazz event on the west coast for years.
“Isn’t this great?” I repeat Kendall's line.
“Yes, indeed!” Charlie smiles broadly.
“Hey, what was that song Fleecing quoted?” I ask. “You seemed to recognize it.”
“The Soul of Bavaria,” Charlie replies. “It’s a favorite at the club. Fleecing is a longtime member.”
“Ah, the club. Of course.” I nod solemnly, understanding nothing.
“Why don’t you join me there for lunch next week,” Charlie asks casually, as if the idea had just occurred to him.
“It would be my pleasure,” I accept. I'm mystified but intrigued by the surprise invitation.
That night over dinner I consult my wife. She seems to have an innate understanding of such things.
“I've been invited to lunch next week with Charlie Higgins. I'm not sure why. I think it’s at a private club. Do you know of a club in the city where an American executive and a British jazz pianist would both be members?”
Her eyes widened. “You mean The Owl Club?
We’d better get you a new suit.”
A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s heaven for?
About a year ago I wrote an obituary for my father.
I sorted through his letters and personal papers, created a list of his educational and professional accomplishments, and attempted to fashion the mercurial vagabond voyage that was his life into some sort of cohesive linear narrative.
I tried my best, but tributes never quite capture a subject’s true essence. This is especially the case with Daddy Bill, a great man who eschewed all markers of greatness. He didn’t care a whit about fame, gain, or material success.
The part of his obit that feels 100% right to me is this:
Throughout his life, Matheny generously shared his love of nature with others,
inspiring many of his students, friends and family members to develop their own
deep appreciation for the natural world. This is his great and lasting legacy.
That legacy was underscored for me by the many people who reached out personally to tell me what Bill Matheny had meant to them. There’s no question: the man was beloved. He died without property or prestige, but his reach was wide. He will long be remembered as someone who made a positive difference in the lives of others.
Unlike my Dad, I’ve always been ambitious and more than a little selfish. I knew better than to expect fame or fortune, but all my life I’ve worked harder than most of my contemporaries, powered by “main character syndrome” and the sincere belief that I was on track to become an historically significant artist.
I now understand that goal to be unrealistic.
Mind you, I’m a far better musician than I used to be. My new album will be my best, and I’m not done yet! I'll continue to strive for incremental improvement, greater authenticity, and soul.
But my talents are limited. At age 56, there simply aren’t enough years left for me to join my jazz heroes on Mount Olympus. Instead, I now hope to live up to my father’s simple example of sharing with, and inspiring, others.
Like the song says, “the greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.”
Recommit to OMAD, black coffee, and portion control.
Plant new salad vegetables in the garden.
Walk every day before the evening meal.
Curtail alcohol consumption.
Prioritize memory work.
Perform mostly songs from the new album.
Expand melodic range in both directions.
Arrange Joni Mitchell material for Holly.
Write songs for top Indiegogo backers.
Study Nelson Riddle's orchestration.
Practice Beleza duo repertoire.
Arrange for album design, distribution, promotion, and marketing.
Maintain tourbus with regular servicing, repairs, and upgrades.
Apply for touring, residency, and commissioning grants.
Schedule tours and album release events.
Purchase a backup horn.
Reduce debt by 25%.
Make an emergency response plan.
Write a blog post every week.
Invest in home security.
Make time for friends.
Well my friends, it may take several years before we can return to pre-pandemic levels of activity. But little-by-little we’re getting back to business, ever grateful for the clients, customers, friends and fans who sustain us. This year we:
staged 81 concerts and events
welcomed 75 generous album backers
published 50 memoir blog posts
gave 23 private lessons
conducted 19 workshops
collected 12 vintage treasures
recorded 10 songs
headlined 9 festivals
bottled 8 jars of homemade hot sauce
completed 7 new compositions
played 5 live stream shows
traversed 4 western states
received 3 doses of DollyVax
hosted 2 brilliant visiting artists
rescued 1 precious puppy
and consumed 2197 hours of television (sigh).
Here’s to a happier, healthier, and more productive 2022.
Onward and upward!
When I first met my hero Art Farmer, he was spending half his year at home in Vienna and the other half on tour.
Occasionally concert promoters would pony up for his New York band, but most of the time Art worked with local rhythm sections. Regardless, he hired the best musicians everywhere, and his ensembles never failed to impress.
"How do your groups always sound so good?" I asked him after a knockout performance at Kimball's in San Francisco. "What's the secret?"
"Dmitri, it's simple," he said. "If you find that you're the smartest cat in the room, you're in the wrong room."
“What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?”
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.
“We all grow up with inherited genes
and inherited sensibilities, and
they run very, very deep.”
To recap: it turns out that my estranged mother, who left us when I was a baby, was a singer. Although she never recorded, Lela had an active performing career singing torch songs in Tennessee nightclubs with her combo. And apparently my father was a fan who regularly attended her gigs before they met and married.
So music, my passion in life, is what originally brought my parents together, yet neither of them thought to tell me. I chased my dream obliviously ignorant of this history. I chose this path all on my own, or so I thought until age 46, when Lela showed up to one of my gigs and dropped a DNA bomb on my self-made origin story.
After Lela returned home to Michigan we took up where we had left off as penpals. She shared more wild yarns about America McGee (whose very existence I doubted), but the primary focus of our correspondence had now shifted to our shared interest in music.
“When you were singing, who were your influences?” I asked. “Any favorite artists or albums?”
“Well, if you ever get a chance to hear a record that Nancy Wilson made with Cannonball Adderley, that one is very special to me,” she replied. “I played that album to death when it came out and learned all of it by heart. I was probably singing those songs while you were in the womb!”
This revelation struck me like a thunderbolt. To find out that a classic jazz recording I’ve admired and enjoyed all my life also happened to be formative and personally significant for my mother? Damn. I wondered how much more we might have in common.
Lela must have been curious about this as well, because a few days later a Zune portable media player arrived in the mail with this note:
Here’s my music collection.
This will tell you more about me
than words can ever say.
She was right. Her cherished music encompassed many genres, from classical to country to jazz and blues, and I loved all of it. Our likes were so eerily similar, in fact, that it would feel self-congratulatory to compliment her excellent taste.
The overlap in our music libraries was uncanny. Of the several thousand songs and artists in Lela’s playlist, nearly all were already prized plums in my own collection. She sent Sarah Vaughan with Michel Legrand, Elly Ameling singing Schubert, Ahmad Jamal Live At The Pershing, Chet Baker on Pacific Jazz, all the Ella Fitzgerald songbooks, John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, Patsy Cline Showcase, Anita O’Day Travelin’ Light, nearly everything Miles Davis did in the 1950s and ’60s, some recent recordings by Diana Krall and Shirley Horn, and soooo much Nancy Wilson, clearly her favorite. Lela even included Willie Nelson’s cover of “Stardust!” Amazing.
Only a handful of the artists in her list were new to me (Jo Stafford, Helen Forrest, June Christie) and their songs resonated so deeply that they immediately became part of the soundtrack of my life. Driving around the Lonesome Desert at night, listening to my mother’s favorite music, made me feel a profound sense of connection to her in spite of the fact that we were basically strangers to one another.
I met Lela only once more.
In April 2014, while on tour in Michigan, Sassy and I accepted an invitation to visit her at home in rural Potterville.
Lela and Bill Horton (of Mr. Bill’s Adventureland), her husband of 23 years, received us warmly. Lela even cooked biscuits and gravy for us! Sitting there at my mother’s kitchen table, watching her fix me breakfast for the first and only time in my life, flooded me with conflicting emotions. Gratitude. Wonder. Comfort. Melancholy. Loss.
After our meal Bill gave us a tour of the rambling, ramshackle Horton house. The place was a packrat’s dream, filled to the rafters with papers, boxes, books, knickknacks, old computers, oxygen tanks, medical supplies and more. As Bill led us from room to room, Lela toddled behind, randomly tidying up and apologizing. “We don’t get many visitors.”
I remember thinking how beautiful it was, that this frail and fragile couple were lovingly taking care of one another in their declining years. Will Sassy and I do the same?
Bill was especially eager to show me their collection of records, tapes and compact discs. Lela had already sent me MP3s of most of it except for one major omission: the Hortons had amassed an impressive, damn near comprehensive stockpile of Dmitri Matheny CDs!
I was astonished. Not only did they own all my albums as a leader, they'd also somehow acquired a bunch of sideman recordings from my early years in San Francisco. Seeing this stash of obscure, out-of-print discs, I realized that Lela and Bill must have been quietly following my career for years, buying each new recording at the time of its release, long before I found Lela online.
Flattering, yes, but also infuriating. I’ve had a website since 1995. Lela obviously knew where I was and what I was doing. Why had she never contacted me? I’ll likely never know.
In August 2018 I received a phone call from Bill Horton letting me know that my mother had died. He didn’t mention her cause of death, but I assume it was severe emphysema after a lifetime of smoking.
“I also wanted to tell you that some years ago Lela and her brother inherited a parcel of land on a mountain near Chattanooga,” Bill said. “They sold it and she put her half of the money into a Vanguard account. You’re listed as beneficiary after I die. I’ll send you the paperwork.”
I remembered Lela's cryptic “mountaintop inheritance” call back in the 1980s. How about that? Another mystery solved.
I'm grateful that Lela and Bill Horton had so many good years together, and glad I had the chance to visit them before she died. Bill and I have stayed in touch since Lela’s passing and I’m glad. I’ve come to think of him as part of the extended family, especially now that both my mother and father are gone from this world.
The other day Bill sent me an antique sepia photograph.
“Lela would want you to have this,” he said.
“It’s a picture of your great-great-grandmother ... Matilda America McGee.”
“All of us labor in webs spun
long before we were born.”
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 Spain, Round About Midnight, Kind 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.”
“Dad…what exactly do you think I do for a living?”
“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.
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.”