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SAVE OUR STAGES 

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


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

—Joni Mitchell
 

 

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

For example, social media is itself a kind of virtual performance hall, an online gathering place for creative expression and the exchange of ideas. Depending on the users, social media can offer an elevated platform for high-minded art and ideals, an open forum for lively discussion and debate, or a cynical echo chamber of fear mongering, conspiracy peddling, virtue signaling and performative activism. You can also share photos of your pets! 

Social media and live-streaming have certainly been a godsend for performers during the shutdown, enabling us to stay active and remain in touch with friends and fans. When all the nightclubs and concert halls went dark, musicians from every genre (myself included) took to the internet almost immediately, becoming virtual “buskers” overnight. 

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

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

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

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

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

The Immortal Bobby Hutcherson 

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

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

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

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

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

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

So there is hope. In the meantime, we all must do whatever we can to help.

My buddy Ed, a jazz guitarist and concert promoter in Ashland, Oregon, optimistically predicts a post-pandemic gold rush for the performing arts. He believes that audiences, having been deprived of live music for so long, will return in record numbers, motivated to sponsor shows, make donations and buy tickets. 

Makes sense! The global health crisis provides us with a chance to pause and reevaluate which things in life matter and which things don’t. It turns out that live music matters immensely, and venues are absolutely essential.

Joni Mitchell was right: you don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone.

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

OF LATE I THINK OF SANTA CRUZ  

memoria praeteritorum bonorum 

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

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

Of late I think of Santa Cruz. 

I love this dirty town!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

gig fliers ... the original social media posts


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

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

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

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

“Kuumbwa Blues” from Red Reflections
 

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.

FAME! PART 3 — MORE FAMOUS THAN YOU 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He much more famous than you.”

 

Next:
FAME! PART 4 — JUST SOME JAZZ GUY

FAME! PART 2 — JAZZ FAMOUS? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That was the plan, anyway.

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

Our hero, poster child for the Dunning-Kruger Effect

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next:
FAME! PART 3 — MORE FAMOUS THAN YOU

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.”

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.”

KOAN 

     “I hate my mouthpiece,” I said. “Can you help me find a good mouthpiece?”

     “You could spend your whole life looking for the right mouthpiece,” he replied. “You should spend more time looking for the right notes.” 

     “Am I playing wrong notes?” I asked.

     “There are no wrong notes,” he said.

     “No wrong notes?”

     “Right.”

     “But I should be looking for the right notes.”

     “Now you’re getting it.”

     “Uh, no I’m not! That sounds like some kind of Zen puzzle.”

     “Look, there are no wrong notes. But some notes are more right than others.”

Michigan Tour Diary — Day 2 

Dmitri Matheny Group JAZZ NOIR
Michigan Tour Diary — Day 2
April 11 Traverse City, MI

After a four-hour flight to Detroit and a four-hour drive north through mist and fog,
dodging deer along the way, we've arrived in Traverse City.

TC is a small town (only 15,000 residents) but is the largest city in Northern Michigan, and something of a tourist destination. Situated on Grand Traverse Bay, Traverse is the self-proclaimed Cherry Capital of the US, and also produces wine grapes. Vacationing midwesterners come here for the freshwater beaches, vineyards, hiking and skiing.

Surprisingly, they're here now. Our hotel is full up with families, which seems odd, because it's so cold outside, with ice and snow piled up along the roadside. Why vacation now? Is it spring break? So many kids.

I hope a few of the older folks come to hear us tonight. It's always a white knuckle ride, arriving in a new place, wondering if anyone knows or cares that you're in town. You send announcements to traditional and social media, maybe do a couple of radio interviews, then it's out of your hands, entirely up to the Fates.

This morning at breakfast I perused the local paper, searching vainly for a photo listing or any mention at all.
Nope! No arts coverage. Just sports, real estate, gossip and TV listings.

Will they come?

Hope so! Regardless, I'm looking forward to the experience.

Traverse City holds much nostalgia for me.

30 years ago, when I was a teenager at Interlochen, we would come here on semi-chaperoned weekend bus trips to stroll around the shops, go to the movies and hang out away from campus.

I held hands with my high school crush here.

I also played my first ever paid gig in this town, a private party at the Maritime Hall.

Our little jazz quintet only knew six tunes from memory.

We played them all twice and made $50 each.

Sassy's Spicy Hoppin' John! 

Sassy's Spicy HOPPIN' JOHN is almost ready!

Here at the Maricopa Cabana, Hoppin' John is one of the ways we celebrate the beginning of a New Year. Traditionally served with cornbread and greens (collard greens, mustard greens, chard, kale or cabbage), the main ingredients in this delicious winter dish are black-eyed peas, rice, chopped onion, country bacon (ham hock or fatback), green peppers and spices. Sassy always adds a little Arizona Gunslinger for an extra kick. Enjoy Hoppin' John on New Year's Day for good luck and prosperity throughout the year.

Be sure to eat your fill: the peas represent coins, the greens are cash, and the cornbread, gold!

TWO, FIVE, WONDER WHAT'S FOR LUNCH? 



INTENDED approach to improvising:

 

Don't think. Just listen and react. Don't play licks and patterns. Create melodies. Let the horn sing, and play from the heart.

 

ACTUAL thoughts while improvising:

 

Here comes the turnaround...classic Brownie riff goes here...nope, this tempo's all wrong. Bop scale! Cleverly ironic Daft Punk quote! Ooh, that was hip. Nobody caught it, of course. Now C-sharp diminished up the...Fail! Awww. Nick Payton wouldn't have missed that high note. Third valve is sticky...uh...where does the bridge go again? No idea. Blues lick! What the hell is happening? I wish the bass player would play the damn roots. Sloan Sabbith. Sloan Sabbith. Sloan Sabbith. Two, five, wonder what's for lunch? Hey now, that was kinda awesome. Sloan Sabbith. Oops, lost the form.

CLAIRDEE'S GIFTS 



Next weekend, on Friday, August 16, the celebrated San Francisco vocalist Clairdee will join with the Dmitri Matheny Group in a salute to The Great American Songbook at Chandler Center for the Arts in Chandler, Arizona.

 

Presented free-of-charge as part of the arts center's "On The House" summer series, the program will showcase our favorite Broadway and Hollywood hits of the 1920s though the 60s, including works by George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, Hoagy Carmichael, Duke Ellington and more. Sharing the stage with us are saxophonist Andrew Gross, pianist Nick Manson, bassist T-Bone Sistrunk and drummer John Lewis.

 

If you've never yet experienced Clairdee in concert, you're in for a treat.

 

Clairdee possesses a beautiful, generous spirit that carries over into her song craft. On stage, she comports herself with effortless grace. She is unpretentious, charming and charismatic, and her performances convey a welcoming air of hospitality. Each member of the audience feels as if we've been invited to a cool, convivial party, and Clairdee is our elegant hostess.

 

Clairdee's vocal gifts are many. Her soulfully alluring style and rich vocal timbre reveal roots in the gospel church. She has an intimate, vulnerable and gentle way with a ballad, yet can swing or shout at will. Clairdee is that most exciting kind of jazz singer — the kind who always keeps a little rousing R&B in her back pocket.

 

Finally, as a song stylist and interpreter of lyrics, Clairdee is unmatched. Her diction is incredibly precise (all too rare today). She is aware of the meaning and feeling behind every phrase, all of which she communicates with winning sincerity and warmth.

 

Performing with Clairdee is, for us, a giant joy. 

 

We hope you can join us for this very special evening.

~DM

TIMING IS EVERYTHING 

A few weeks ago, when I blogged about how our Pacific Northwest tour would coincide with the Marionberry harvest, a kind soul in Eugene, Oregon brought a freshly picked bushel of them backstage for us. Yum! We don't want to push our luck, but it so happens that the Dmitri Matheny Group will be performing at Moody's in Truckee tomorrow night, and I understand the California Heirloom Tomatoes are exceptional this year. Ahem. ~DM


TIMING IS EVERYTHING 

A few weeks ago, when I blogged about how our Pacific Northwest tour would coincide with the Marionberry harvest, a kind soul in Eugene, Oregon brought a freshly picked bushel of them backstage for us. Yum! We don't want to push our luck, but it so happens that the Dmitri Matheny Group will be performing at Moody's in Truckee tomorrow night, and I understand the California Heirloom Tomatoes are exceptional this year. Ahem. ~DM


TIMING IS EVERYTHING 

A few weeks ago, when I blogged about how our Pacific Northwest tour would coincide with the Marionberry harvest, a kind soul in Eugene, Oregon brought a freshly picked bushel of them backstage for us. Yum! We don't want to push our luck, but it so happens that the Dmitri Matheny Group will be performing at Moody's in Truckee tomorrow night, and I understand the California Heirloom Tomatoes are exceptional this year. Ahem. ~DM