It's a remarkable gift, to meet your hero, the world's acknowledged master on your instrument, and for him to ultimately become your teacher and friend. Miraculously, it happened to me, and I will be forever grateful.
Mentor-protege relationships in jazz are so important. It's wonderful that colleges, conservatories and other institutions are now embracing jazz education, but I feel strongly that our master musicians need to maintain the lineage of the oral tradition.
There are some things you just can't learn in school.
Art Farmer had a comfortable life in Vienna, with a house, a family and a steady gig as soloist with the radio orchestra there, but he never rested on his laurels. He continued to practice every day and develop as an artist, maintaining his profile, recording and touring internationally right up until the very end of his life.
When Art died, Billy Taylor and I performed a duet at his memorial, and I was honored to play one of Art's flugelhorns. This is the horn I play today: a custom hybrid with an American Kanstul bell, French Besson lead-pipe and English Besson valves. I treasure this one-of-a-kind instrument, but I'll probably go to my grave trying to figure out how Art was able to produce such a gorgeous tone.
Art Farmer made over 200 recordings, many of them brilliant, but to my ears his masterpiece is Warm Valley on the Concord label. Art was at the top of his game, and the tunes he picked for the date are perfect showcases for the effortless logic of his improvisations. His band on the recording was one of his best, and they all give great performances. Akira Tana's playing on "Three Little Words," for example, is absolutely killing.
Art Farmer was my mentor and was one of the wisest and kindest men I've ever met. My years under his tutelage were an invaluable part of my education. Art was my finishing school, and I'm profoundly grateful to him for how generous he was with his time, sharing his wisdom about music and life.
Art taught me what to value in this craft of jazz: the importance of taking risks and challenging yourself, yet never losing the fundamental primacy of playing in tune with a mature tone above all.
He would say, "Fill that horn with air! It doesn't matter how hip you can play if you don't maintain a good sound." And he really walked the talk, developing a tone so rich, round and warm, it has become the gold standard for anyone who is serious about the big horn.
New York is Jazz Mecca. It's the place to go if you want to meet great musicians and gain experience as a sideman.
And L.A. is cool because you can see movie stars on the street.
But San Francisco has always been my favorite American city. As Tony Bennett says, "San Francisco is America's Paris," so culturally rich and so livable, and the second largest jazz market in the country.
I originally came from Boston to play at the Monterey Jazz Festival, but when I took that breathtaking drive down Highway One along the Pacific Coast, I immediately fell in love with the area and decided to stay.
The question for me has always been, when I come home from the road, where do I want to come home to? We musicians travel quite a bit to make our living. Each place we visit has its unique charms, but when you spend so much of your life in hotels and airports, living out of a suitcase, your home really needs to be a sanctuary; a place that feeds your soul.
I credit my father [a naturalist and school teacher] and his hip record collection for kindling my childhood interest in music. There was great music on our turntable all the time, from Rachmaninoff to Ray Charles.
According to Dad, one time when I was about five, he was spinning Kind of Blue. I asked, "Daddy what's that sound?" When he answered, "That's Miles Davis, a jazz musician." I responded, "Well, that's what I want to be when I grow up!"
The story may be apocryphal, but Miles is still my man.
Toward the end of high school, I left home to attend a private boarding school in Michigan called Interlochen Arts Academy.
Interlochen was for me a magical place, populated by individualists, social misfits, and eccentrics — kids who, like me, were passionate about art.
I loved Interlochen. For the first time in my life, I was surrounded by creative people my own age: musicians, painters, actors, dancers...it was like coming home. Interlochen was where I learned the discipline required to build a life in the arts, and where I learned how rewarding an artist's life can be.
When I was twelve, my Dad and I moved west from Georgia to Arizona. I spent my formative years there, and I still feel a strong connection to the landscape.
The desert gives you a perspective. It calms your spirit and invites contemplation, in much the same way that the ocean does in California. Play your horn into those canyons and foothills, and you'll experience for yourself the Japanese concept of ma, the sacred silence between sounds.