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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 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 psycho-spiritual demotion, and embraced the more grounded, realistic role of blue collar bandleader. Having lost interest in collecting museum exhibits, I scanned a few items, tossed the rest, and focused 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 decade 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 a bit 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 this 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: 
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 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: 
PART 2 — FISCAL HEALTH

JAZZ COMPETITION IS AN OXYMORON 

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

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

Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons in Whiplash

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Jazz Hunger Games

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s play more soulfully. 

Let’s just play.

FAME! PART 4 — JUST SOME JAZZ GUY 

“Stars twinkle until they wrinkle.” 
—Victor Mature 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t you love it? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“First time in Taos?” the barista asked. 

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

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

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

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

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

“I dunno,” she said. 

Just some jazz guy.

CHET BAKER & THE SOUND OF SINCERITY 

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

 

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

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

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

I must have listened to that album a thousand times. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LONG IN THE TOOTH 

Welp, I just turned 55.  

Now eligible for senior discounts at the diner. 

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

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

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

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

Below is what I wrote at the time.

Perhaps it still holds up. 

ADVICE TO SELF AT MIDLIFE 

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

So far, so good. Now consider this: 

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

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

These are the middle years. 

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

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

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

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

RESOLUTIONS 2021: The Year of Renewal 

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

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

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

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

MY IDOL'S IDOL 

Art Farmer talked about Clifford Brown often.  

The two were contemporaries, nearly the same age (born just two years apart), and had played in Lionel Hampton’s band together.  

But Art spoke of Clifford Brown with a quiet reverence.

Art called Brownie "my idol” and had his initials carved into the bell of his own horn for inspiration. 

“Every time I see those initials — C.B. — I’m reminded of what’s possible. I see those initials, and I work harder.” 

Art would rub his thumb over the indentations, shaking his head in disbelief.

He never got over Brown's untimely death, in a car accident, at the age of 25.

“Can you imagine,” Art would ask, “if Cliff was alive today? What he would sound like now? Damn.”

A FEW THOUGHTS ON JAZZ & COMPETITION 

To my ears, “Jazz Competition” is an oxymoron. 

We’re going to have a contest to see who can be the most vulnerable? The most sensitive or sincere? 

To find out who among us can best lay bare our soul and play from the heart?

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s play more soulfully. 

Let’s just play.

RESOLUTIONS 


Practice Art Farmer improv method religiously.
Finish writing Jazz Noir material for 2016 recording.
Create and learn fresh DMG sets: 11 tunes, 2 original.
Pay health insurance first every month, no matter what. 
Walk or swim daily. Lose 5 pounds monthly, 60 by year-end.
Increase number of workshops nationally from 54 to 100.
Increase touring income by 20% while playing 20 fewer shows. 
Bump per gig average by 5% and increase total net income by 27%.
Eschew cynicism, laugh often and see the best in people.
When the time is right, get a dog!

 

 

 

Remembering Grant Wolf 

Dmitri Matheny, age 17
1983 NAU Music Camp

Stumbling across this ridiculous photo today (31 years later), I'm overwhelmed with gratitude for GRANT WOLF, who somehow was able to see past the silly clothes and cocky attitude, and steer this kid onto the right path to a beautiful life in music. Wolf was an inspiring teacher and was one of the first adults to take my jazz aspirations seriously. His encouragement was profoundly important to me at a critical time in my development.
I wish he were here so I could thank him.