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Santa Fe was a stone groove!
Highlights: sold-out show at Club Legato (woo hoo!), giant metal statue of Scout (my kinda public art!), and the best fish tacos in the world. Thanks JT! #BumblebeeBobForever
Now comes the fun part: the vantastic homeward journey of 2,000 miles, through five states, in three days! From New Mexico, through Arizona, California, and Oregon, and all the way back home to Washington State.
I’m so glad we did this.
Yesterday the Jazz Noir band rehearsed in Phoenix for our upcoming show at Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts. Scout chased a Gamble’s Quail and cooled off in front of the fan.
Today we traveled 281 miles to Gallup, New Mexico. The scenery on the drive was stunning. Highlights: snow in the White Mountains, a greasy spoon breakfast in Payson, and a lovely walk with Scout near Petrified Forest National Park.
Tomorrow’s destination: Santa Fe!
400 miles is about as far as I care to travel in a single day. But I must admit, as sure as dog is my co-pilot, I actually enjoyed the drive from Oakland to Twentynine Palms.
Highlights: seeing the sun rise over Alameda County, doing a KSFR Santa Fe Public Radio phone interview as we drove through the Tehachapi wind farms, walking Scout among the giant alien broccoli in Joshua Tree, and dining on pulled pork when we finally reached our destination.
Today we cross the Lonesome Desert into Arizona for a rehearsal, then it's on to Santa Fe. #Forward #BoondockerBoondoggle
Yesterday we drove to Merced, California. At the dog park Scout became fast friends — literally — with a beautiful Aussie named Partner. They ran and romped so fast that I couldn’t even snap a photo!
We arrived in Merced early, so I found a laundromat with wifi and took the opportunity to do a load of laundry, charge up our power station, and catch up on a little business.
Road life isn’t always glamorous. I once bumped into Diana Krall at the Jazz Aspen festival, matter-of-factly doing her laundry at the hotel in Snowmass Village. This is the way.
Still feeling the love after our Oakland show. Warm thanks to everyone who made the scene. It was a stone groove.
Today will be a long one. 7 hours driving. Destination: Twentynine Palms. Distance: 391 Miles. #Forward
Yesterday Scout and I woke to the sound of raindrops on the roof of our tour bus. She tilted her head and stared up at the ceiling in wonder. I immediately fell asleep again. Rain is a terrific soporific.
Then the sun came out and announced the beginning of spring. It was a big day for my CaCo (aka Canine Companion, pronounced “Keiko”). We visited three parks: Magnolia Park in Oakley, Tex Spruiell Park in Livermore, and Joaquin Miller Park in Oakland. She charmed everyone we met, of course.
In the evening I dropped her off for a puppy party with celebrity friend Berkeley (you.see.berkeley on Instagram), and then I headed over to the Sound Room to earn a little more kibble cash.
I had a ball with pianist Ken French, bassist Ruth Davies, drummer Mark Lee, and special guests guitarist Ed Dunsavage and vocalist Cary Williams. The convivial crowd included many friends I haven’t seen in ages, including several well-known musicians.
The old Sound Room was already a favorite; this new, improved venue is even better. Thank you, Karen and Robert! We’re looking forward to returning in September for our album release celebration.
Today Scout and I hit the road for Southern California.
So far, so good.
Scout and I spent yesterday at The Klub in Glen Ellen, the exclusive wine country getaway expertly owned and managed by our dear friends Rocket, Peaches, Jasper, and Wilson. It was our first grand reunion since the beginning of the damndemic. So good.
Today I coached the San Mateo High School jazz band while Scout visited the groomer. The jazz kids were engaged, focused, and inspiring, a credit to Maestro Til, the head coach. The pup emerged from the beauty parlor looking (and smelling!) more fabulous than ever.
Tonight it’s long tones in the mobile practice room (big show tomorrow), and if we aren’t too tired, a movie before bed, preferably one that isn’t too stressful, without dogs barking in the audio track of every establishing shot.
Funny how ubiquitous those movie dogs have become. There’s one particularly distressing bark they use over and over, like the Wilhelm Scream. Let me tell you, Scout is not a fan! So we’ll do our level best to find something hopeful and barkless to send us off to dreamland.
Destination: Yreka CA
Distance: 413 miles
Scout and I are hitting the road today for California, Arizona, and New Mexico.
The first leg of our journey will take us all the way from Centralia, Washington to Yreka, California.
$5 per gallon for gas is no joke!
Heartfelt thanks and a "free" music download for all our generous tour support contributors!
“I hide in plain sight.
Same as you.”
I’m not a superstitious person by nature, but I was raised in the south where even educated folks recognize the power of signs and omens. Charlie’s gift of a tiny silver owl felt like such a signifier to me: a talisman of unknown provenance and portent.
I began to carry the mysterious little figurine in my pocket, where it would gently jingle against my mouthpiece and pocket change as I walked. I carried it everywhere, like a good luck charm, and it seemed to be working. Within a few short years I’d established myself in San Francisco as a working musician, and had sold enough sponsorships to increase our jazz festival budget ten fold.
In hindsight, this was during the tech boom of the early 1990s. Gigs were plentiful then because there were so many gainfully employed young people looking for a night out, and donations were up, too. The dot com bubble was expanding, the stock market was booming, and corporate support for the arts was ascendant. Bay Area businesses needed somewhere to park all that extra cash. Why not a nonprofit that offers exciting social events and a tax write off? It was an easy sell.
I didn’t have that perspective at the time, however. Naively I thought I’d cracked the code! I felt powerful, like a double agent: professional jazz musician by night, hot shot sponsorship salesman by day. Oblivious to the unseen economic forces that conspired to pave my way, I credited my own skill and hustle, with perhaps just a little bit of secret “owl luck” thrown in for good measure.
Over time my magical thinking grew deeper, abetted by echoes. Not only was I carrying the owl totem in my pocket, but I also began to notice similar statuettes in the executive offices of prospective sponsors.
I would be in mid-pitch, sitting across from some corporate mucky-muck, when I would look over at the shelf behind them, and there it would be: another owl statue. I never said anything, but on more than one occasion I sensed a subtle nod or look of acknowledgment when I spied the owl.
Like, I saw it. They saw me see it. Now what?
It’s Tuesday night in San Francisco, and I don’t have a gig of my own, so I’m headed over to Sonny’s Place in North Beach to hear the incomparable flugelhornist Sweets Allen.
For true fans of lyrical swing, it gets no better than Sweets and his honey-toned horn. He’s the real deal, a veteran soloist from the bands of Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, and Tony Bennett. Now in his 70s, Sweets is one of San Francisco’s most beloved musicians and one of the last great gentleman of jazz.
For me, Tuesdays at Sonny’s are like graduate school. I rarely miss the chance to attend one of these weekly masterclasses.
Tonight Sweets is really living up to his name. His improvised lines are powerfully simple, pure, soulful, logical, and undeniably joyful. The warmth of his sound and the smile on his face combine to lift the spirits of everyone in the club.
On the break I motion for him to join me at my table. Like my father, Sweets is a former school teacher, a wise elder who doesn’t mind sharing his accumulated knowledge. He patiently answers all my questions about music and life.
“The main thing is to tell a story,” he advises, tapping his finger on the table for emphasis. “But it’s not like reciting a poem or singing a song. It’s got to be your story.”
“Just be real,” he adds, “and never let the naysayers get you down. They’re everywhere, so keep your head on a swivel.”
“Like an owl,” I say quietly.
“Precisely,” he smiles, standing.
“Which reminds me,” he adds before returning to the bandstand.
“A little birdie told me you may be joining us.”
“Weaving spiders, come not here;
Hence, you long-legg'd spinners, hence!
Beetles black, approach not near;
Worm nor snail, do no offence.”
The Owl Club’s downtown headquarters, a stately ivy-covered red brick building off Union Square, turns out to be just a short walk from our jazz festival offices south of Market.
I’m curious, of course, why Charlie Higgins invited me here, but truth be told I have my own agenda. Based on the Fleecing concert, many of our city’s business leaders and arts patrons are apparently members of this club. In fundraising parlance, this place could be what’s known as a “happy hunting ground.”
I stand before the club entrance and study the large bronze plaque beside the door. It’s a Great Horned Owl in bas relief, its wings outstretched. In welcome or warning? I wonder.
I open the heavy wooden door and enter the dark chamber. It's drafty and deserted, with no signs of life other than the warm glow of a single unattended fireplace along one wall. Am I early? Guess I’ll have a look around.
From the grand foyer with its high vaulted ceilings, I take in the antique lighting fixtures, wood paneled walls, tall shelves of leather bound books, and low mahogany tables surrounded by clusters of empty armchairs. Down a quiet hallway I find sitting rooms and salons, meeting rooms, galleries, a music library, even a small theater, but no dining room and no people. Not a living soul.
Across the hall is a beautiful redwood cocktail bar, also unoccupied, yet entirely overpopulated with visual art in what can only be described as a surreal assault on the senses. The walls of this room are literally covered, floor to ceiling, with a chaotic jumble of ancient oils, sylvan landscapes, faded portraits, sepia photographs, and dozens of hand-painted event posters, all of them adorned with whimsical cartoons and carnival words. Carefree! Frolic! Hi-jinks! It’s dizzying.
I pick up a bar napkin to wipe my brow and notice the logo: it’s the Owl of Athena in profile flanked by the initials O and C. This is definitely the place, so where the hell is everybody? I feel like that guy in The Twilight Zone, only instead of wandering solo through Mayberry I’ve somehow stumbled into a haunted saloon or abandoned hotel.
But am I really alone? Because I feel like I’m being watched.
That’s when it hits me. I realize with a shudder that all around me, looking at me from every corner, are the eyes of owls. Owls staring from every shelf, peering out from the paintings and posters, glaring down from a stained glass window. Owl faces printed on the wallpaper, carved into the wainscoting, even woven into the very carpet beneath my feet.
Most unsettling of all is the large bronze owl shape directly in front of me. It has no face at all, just a blunt featureless void, giving the impression of both a very modern abstract sculpture and an ancient idol of the pagan underworld.
“Beautiful creatures,” intones the familiar voice of my host, suddenly standing right next to me.
“Fierce hunters, too,” he goes on. “They can swallow their prey whole, bones and all. I’ve seen it!”
“You sound hungry, Chuck” I say.
“Let’s eat,” he replies.
Unhindered one may walk this good earth
and see it’s bounty of living things
One may find heaven
wherever there is beauty
All superfluous things are gone
Simplicity itself remains
and grows and gains
what had been lost
No more fighting just to hang on
This is the good part of life
The struggle is over
What is there left to do
but to do good?
What is there left to say
but to say truth?
That’s the best word I could find to express the particular brand of loss that consumed me after my father died.
I wasn’t in mourning so much as weary and resigned to the cruel finality of mortality, both his and, by extension, my own. I was even a little relieved because his suffering was over.
In a way, Dad and I had already progressed through the first four stages of grief together — from denial to depression — while he was still alive, in hospice care. Only acceptance remained.
I miss him terribly, but truth be told, I’ve been missing him since long before he passed away. I miss the man he used to be, before Parkinson’s and dementia robbed him of his mobility, wisdom and good judgement. By the time he succumbed to the disease, it had already been many years since we’d had a real conversation. Many years since I could benefit from his sage advice.
With both my parents now dead, and no siblings or children of my own, it’s no wonder that I felt like an orphan. I’d experienced an inkling of that emotion only once before … when my marriage ended.
Erica Jong describes divorce as “a ritual scarring that makes anything that happens afterward seem bearable.” She’s not wrong. I was gutted by the loss, not only of my wife and home, but of her family, whom I’d come to think of as my own. And I was surprised to lose nearly all the friends we’d collected over our 14 years together. It’s deeply unsettling and disorienting, after so many years, to no longer be responsible for, or accountable to, anyone.
But even during the dark days of my divorce, Daddy Bill was there to commiserate and console. He was in my corner always. He never wavered. And now he’s gone.
Because of the pandemic, I wasn’t able to be with him when he died, but I did visit him frequently during his final few years. I would return to Arizona for a week or more each season, and would sit with him for hours each day before heading off to the evening gigs that paid my travel costs.
It’s difficult to know whether these extended seasonal visits to his assisted living facility were a genuine comfort to my father. He was embarrassed by his circumstances, and often when I returned each morning he didn’t remember seeing me the previous day. But every now and then his eyes would twinkle and he'd say something remarkably funny or insightful. He was still in there.
Even in hospice care Dad somehow maintained a sweet disposition. For all his charm, however, he mostly avoided socializing with the other residents, opting instead to merely exchange pleasantries at meal time, then return to isolation. He had no interest in group activities or parlor games. He was a man who treasured his solitude, who loved to get outside and explore, but whose world had become oppressively small: a single twin bed in a tiny shared room. He often told me that he felt like a prisoner. It was heartbreaking.
Sadly, he was no longer a man of letters, either. Books, his lifelong companions, were no longer of any interest. His hands weren’t steady enough to write, his eyes weren’t strong enough to read, and his attention span wasn’t long enough to follow the narrative of a novel or movie. Much of the correspondence sent to him remained unread. He appreciated postcards, greeting cards, small talk, and short conversations, even phone calls, as long as someone could help him operate his device.
Most days I would just sit at his bedside and watch him drift in and out of sleep, while the TV spewed a continuous stream of conservative news and sports highlights. Sometimes we would talk about the weather or listen to an Eva Cassidy song. Occasionally we would venture into the other shared spaces of the care home, or sit outside on the patio, just for a change of scenery. But Dad needed to remain near the bathroom at all times, so we couldn’t go far.
When he was able, we would shuffle around the tiny patch of desert surrounding the house. He tried valiantly to do it without his wheelchair or walker, but it was only a matter of time before even these small, slow walks around the block were too much for him. Yet even during our last few walks, although he struggled to finish a thought, he could still recall the latin names of all the neighborhood flora and fauna!
Dad’s been gone for over a year now and the world is diminished by his absence. I miss him something awful. And I must confess, while I don’t necessarily believe in an afterlife, I do find myself talking to him in quiet moments. I wonder what he would think of my life choices. I hope he would approve.
Thankfully, I feel a little more “tethered” these days as I make a sincere effort to reconnect with distant friends and extended family. It’s especially comforting to spend time with other people who knew and loved him.
Mostly I just feel grateful for everything he was, and will remain, in memory.
A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s heaven for?
About a year ago I wrote an obituary for my father.
I sorted through his letters and personal papers, created a list of his educational and professional accomplishments, and attempted to fashion the mercurial vagabond voyage that was his life into some sort of cohesive linear narrative.
I tried my best, but tributes never quite capture a subject’s true essence. This is especially the case with Daddy Bill, a great man who eschewed all markers of greatness. He didn’t care a whit about fame, gain, or material success.
The part of his obit that feels 100% right to me is this:
Throughout his life, Matheny generously shared his love of nature with others,
inspiring many of his students, friends and family members to develop their own
deep appreciation for the natural world. This is his great and lasting legacy.
That legacy was underscored for me by the many people who reached out personally to tell me what Bill Matheny had meant to them. There’s no question: the man was beloved. He died without property or prestige, but his reach was wide. He will long be remembered as someone who made a positive difference in the lives of others.
Unlike my Dad, I’ve always been ambitious and more than a little selfish. I knew better than to expect fame or fortune, but all my life I’ve worked harder than most of my contemporaries, powered by “main character syndrome” and the sincere belief that I was on track to become an historically significant artist.
I now understand that goal to be unrealistic.
Mind you, I’m a far better musician than I used to be. My new album will be my best, and I’m not done yet! I'll continue to strive for incremental improvement, greater authenticity, and soul.
But my talents are limited. At age 56, there simply aren’t enough years left for me to join my jazz heroes on Mount Olympus. Instead, I now hope to live up to my father’s simple example of sharing with, and inspiring, others.
Like the song says, “the greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.”
Recommit to OMAD, black coffee, and portion control.
Plant new salad vegetables in the garden.
Walk every day before the evening meal.
Curtail alcohol consumption.
Prioritize memory work.
Perform mostly songs from the new album.
Expand melodic range in both directions.
Arrange Joni Mitchell material for Holly.
Write songs for top Indiegogo backers.
Study Nelson Riddle's orchestration.
Practice Beleza duo repertoire.
Arrange for album design, distribution, promotion, and marketing.
Maintain tourbus with regular servicing, repairs, and upgrades.
Apply for touring, residency, and commissioning grants.
Schedule tours and album release events.
Purchase a backup horn.
Reduce debt by 25%.
Make an emergency response plan.
Write a blog post every week.
Invest in home security.
Make time for friends.
Well my friends, it may take several years before we can return to pre-pandemic levels of activity. But little-by-little we’re getting back to business, ever grateful for the clients, customers, friends and fans who sustain us. This year we:
staged 81 concerts and events
welcomed 75 generous album backers
published 50 memoir blog posts
gave 23 private lessons
conducted 19 workshops
collected 12 vintage treasures
recorded 10 songs
headlined 9 festivals
bottled 8 jars of homemade hot sauce
completed 7 new compositions
played 5 live stream shows
traversed 4 western states
received 3 doses of DollyVax
hosted 2 brilliant visiting artists
rescued 1 precious puppy
and consumed 2197 hours of television (sigh).
Here’s to a happier, healthier, and more productive 2022.
Onward and upward!
Please go away and be my friend,
This cup of fire let pass from you —
Because I know it’s not the end
I’ll only spill a tear or two.
Your laugh, your touch, your kiss I’ll need,
But these are only part of you —
Your other gifts to me indeed
My strength, my will to live, renew.
The on the other hand reproof,
Of language and “what’s right for me” —
(Don’t think I’m really that aloof)
Of these, at least, I’ll soon be free!
So think of love quite seriously
And to your new affairs attend;
What’s left for now’s enough for me —
Please go away and be my friend.
It’s time to go inside myself
I’ve had my share of happiness
The greatest lessons life can teach —
To learn to live with loneliness
To look ahead and not grow weak
To feed on inner resources
A seed must die to germinate
A life must lose before it gains
Oblivion will give new strength
When passion’s gone the good remains
I’ve watched a child become a man
From womb to break I gave my all
A drink from Lethe I don’t need
Both pain and pleasure I’d recall
I’ve thrown my share of pearls to swine
I’ve loved a woman long and well
The silly prattle of a fool
I’ve known the joy of heav’n and hell
I’ve seen the timber wolf lope by
And watched the eagle wheel and soar
I’ve listened to the whip-poor-will
And heard the ocean swell and roar
I’ll have my share of happiness
As long as I can climb a hill
But when it comes my time to die
I’ll leave this life at my own will
When I first met my hero Art Farmer, he was spending half his year at home in Vienna and the other half on tour.
Occasionally concert promoters would pony up for his New York band, but most of the time Art worked with local rhythm sections. Regardless, he hired the best musicians everywhere, and his ensembles never failed to impress.
"How do your groups always sound so good?" I asked him after a knockout performance at Kimball's in San Francisco. "What's the secret?"
"Dmitri, it's simple," he said. "If you find that you're the smartest cat in the room, you're in the wrong room."
“What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?”
When the time came for Daddy Bill to move into hospice care, it fell to me to clean out his stark little studio apartment.
The task didn’t take long. I’d planned to rent a storage unit for his stuff, but this turned out to be entirely unnecessary. In the man’s eighty-something trips around the sun, he only accumulated enough possessions to fill a few small boxes.
I was amazed. Not by Dad’s extreme minimalism (don’t forget I used to live with the guy), but by the eloquence of the items he deemed precious enough to keep. In his closet was a sleeping bag, camp stove and hand crank portable radio. Everything else was arranged in neat little dust-covered piles around the room. He had an axe, a battered pair of binoculars, an old fly rod, a few books and compact discs, a coffee cup, some framed photographs, a pocket knife, and a small leather pouch. That’s about it.
The pouch was empty, but when I opened the drawstring to look inside, the familiar scent of Middleton’s Cherry Blend brought tears to my eyes. I was about nine years old when we last visited the Schley Family Farm in Georgia. I still remember sitting next to Daddy Bill, watching with rapt attention as Dr. Schley used his leather-crafting tools to carefully cut, punch and sew the pouch together. Once finished, he ceremoniously presented the soft little bag to my father, as if it was some kind of totem or talisman imbued with magic powers. The Schleys were important people in the Brookstone community, and Dad treasured this handmade gift. He stored his pipe tobacco in that leather pouch for years.
In a drawer under the sink I found a mishmash of papers: old bank statements, love letters, canceled checks, poems, his birding “life list” handwritten on a yellow legal pad, and a stack of picture postcards, many of them from me, which had once adorned the thumbtack-covered walls of his Graham County hermit house. Resting on top, like a paperweight, was a small carved wooden sign: White Thorn Gallery.
As far back as my great-great-grandfather, the Matheny men were all expert craftsmen. Daddy Bill and his brother Jim grew up working alongside their father in the Matheny Cabinet Shop, building and restoring heirloom furniture in mahogany, oak, walnut, cherry, maple and cedar. Almost everyone in our extended family today has at least one precious Matheny antique at home.
But the only furniture my father owned at the end of his life was a single reclining armchair, purchased for him a few years ago by a generous friend. Everything else had long since been given away. He was funny that way. He gave all our furniture to one of his stepdaughters. He gave our car to my friend Kent. I have no doubt the old man would’ve eventually given that recliner away, too.
So I followed his example and left that chair behind for the next tenant. I slipped my father’s poetry into my backpack, and boxed up the rest, stacking everything in the corner of Nedra’s garage for safekeeping.
I suppose I’ll come back for that leather pouch someday.
And maybe that fishing pole, too.
I miss you, Daddy Bill.
“The more we share, the more we have.”
Early autumn, 1972. Rural Alabama. Late afternoon.
Daddy Bill and I are winding our way home in our muddy station wagon. We’re in high spirits, both of us having just spent several gratifying hours, each in our respective happy place.
Since dawn Dad has been wading through the saltwater marshes of Eufaula Wildlife Refuge, beating back cattails, stepping over gators, peering through his binoculars at shorebirds and raptors. Meanwhile I’ve been hunkering down in the backseat, oblivious to flora and fauna, blissfully engrossed in a new fistful of Green Lanterns, fresh off the spinner.
I know, I know. Daddy Bill isn’t likely to be voted Parent of the Year anytime soon. He thinks it’s a good idea to leave his seven-year-old kid alone for hours, in a parked car, in the middle of nowhere. But what can I say? This is how we live.
We relish our solitary pursuits then share our stories over catfish and okra at Bram's Diner. Dad holds forth on kingfishers, kestrels, sandpipers and snipes. I recount the latest exploits of hard traveling heroes Ollie and Hal. And so it goes.
After supper I’m riding shotgun and fiddling with the radio dial as Daddy Bill pilots our wagon homeward. Just before the Georgia line, as Paul Harvey is about to tell us “the rest of the story” -- BAM! A sudden jolt. A flash of white. The sound of crunching metal. Dad slams on the brakes as we skid along the red clay shoulder of the road. We lurch forward then slam backward again as a waterfall of broken glass cascades around us.
As soon as we tumble out of the car, we see him. There in the road, illuminated by our headlights, is the broken body of a very beautiful, very dead, white-tailed deer. The poor creature must have leapt right into us.
“You okay?” Daddy Bill asks.
“I think so.” I reply. “You?”
“Welp, I guess we’re both better off than he,” Dad says, nodding to the unfortunate young buck.
“Give me hand, will you?”
Pulling a tarp from the back of the wagon, we hoist the heavy carcass onto the roof and secure it with rope. Daddy Bill then turns on the emergency flashers and drives -- even more slowly than usual -- to the Columbus home of Coach Rutland. “Jim’s a hunter,” Dad explains. “He’ll know what to do.”
A few days later at Brookstone School, Mrs. Simmons calls to me in her sweet southern drawl.
“Deh-MAY-tray! What are you chewin’ back there?”
“Venison jerky, ma’am,” I confess.
“Bless your heart,” she smiles, “but it’s not polite to eat venison jerky in class unless you’ve brought enough to share with everybody.”
Fortunately I have plenty! More than enough to feed the multitude.
Roadkill. Sharing is caring.
“The foundation of any national character is human nature.”
Of all the many magical places I’ve encountered in my travels, Kinkaku-ji, Kyoto’s Temple of the Golden Pavilion, is one of the most magnificent. Set in a classical strolling garden by a reflective pond, the temple’s design is strikingly opulent yet perfectly integrated into the surrounding landscape.
Although I’ve only visited the historic world heritage site twice, I return so often in mind and memory that it has become comfortingly familiar. For me, this temple achieves what the great cathedrals of Europe do not. Instead of making one feel small and insignificant, Kinkaku-ji inspires a profound feeling of gratitude and connection to the natural world, inviting contemplation of one’s own role in the cosmos. As above, so below.
Kinkaku-ji is a wonder of architecture and aesthetics. Each section of the three-story structure represents a different historical period and point of view. The first level, named Chamber of Dharma Waters, is rendered in the natural wood and white paneled shinden style of eleventh century imperial aristocracy, with verandas and open areas that bring the outdoors inside. The second story, called Tower of Sound Waves, is built in the tenth century manner of samurai warriors, with sliding doors and mullioned windows intended to convey evanescence. The top floor, Cupola of the Ultimate, is constructed in the twelfth century zen style suggesting meditation and spiritual insight. The top two levels are completely covered in shining gold leaf. Taken collectively, this singular architectural marvel confers both respect for nature and an awareness of the fragile, fleeting nature of existence.
But it’s the luminous golden reflection of the temple on the surface of the pond that I find most compelling. The image remains constant as the seasons change. Even before you view the relics and treasures within, the building’s exterior design eloquently communicates the Japanese ideals of shokunin (craftsmanship, pursuit of perfection), wabi (understated elegance), sabi (the beauty of impermanence), yugen (mystery, grace) and ma (negative space, emptiness, and silence).
Kinkaku-ji is a truly remarkable place. It’s also where I learned a valuable lesson about the absurdity of stereotypes and the gentle power of humor.
A light rain was falling as I quietly admired the temple with my new friend Masa, an expert on buddhist culture who also happens to be the husband of a favorite visual artist), when our silent contemplation was suddenly interrupted by a boisterous busload of Japanese tourists. They tumbled out of the bus, photographers all, and immediately began to laugh and shout as they joyfully took pictures of one another on the temple grounds.
I was offended by what I perceived as an inappropriate and unwelcome assault on my reverie. Kinkaku-ji is a sacred place! They should know better, I thought. But when I looked to my guide he was grinning ear-to-ear, delighted with their arrival. I wondered how he could remain so cheerful in the face of this intrusion.
“You don’t find them rude?” I asked, as yet another cluster of giggling girls pushed past us to pose in front of the temple. They squealed gleefully and flashed peace signs as their male companions snapped photo after photo.
“This is a happy place,” Masa explained, smiling benevolently. “Why shouldn’t they be happy?”
Of course he’s right, I realized. Embarrassed by my own foolishness, I tried to make a joke.
“Hey Masa, you’re Japanese. Where’s your camera?”
He replied without hesitation.
“Well, you’re American...where’s your gun?”
“We all grow up with inherited genes
and inherited sensibilities, and
they run very, very deep.”
To recap: it turns out that my estranged mother, who left us when I was a baby, was a singer. Although she never recorded, Lela had an active performing career singing torch songs in Tennessee nightclubs with her combo. And apparently my father was a fan who regularly attended her gigs before they met and married.
So music, my passion in life, is what originally brought my parents together, yet neither of them thought to tell me. I chased my dream obliviously ignorant of this history. I chose this path all on my own, or so I thought until age 46, when Lela showed up to one of my gigs and dropped a DNA bomb on my self-made origin story.
After Lela returned home to Michigan we took up where we had left off as penpals. She shared more wild yarns about America McGee (whose very existence I doubted), but the primary focus of our correspondence had now shifted to our shared interest in music.
“When you were singing, who were your influences?” I asked. “Any favorite artists or albums?”
“Well, if you ever get a chance to hear a record that Nancy Wilson made with Cannonball Adderley, that one is very special to me,” she replied. “I played that album to death when it came out and learned all of it by heart. I was probably singing those songs while you were in the womb!”
This revelation struck me like a thunderbolt. To find out that a classic jazz recording I’ve admired and enjoyed all my life also happened to be formative and personally significant for my mother? Damn. I wondered how much more we might have in common.
Lela must have been curious about this as well, because a few days later a Zune portable media player arrived in the mail with this note:
Here’s my music collection.
This will tell you more about me
than words can ever say.
She was right. Her cherished music encompassed many genres, from classical to country to jazz and blues, and I loved all of it. Our likes were so eerily similar, in fact, that it would feel self-congratulatory to compliment her excellent taste.
The overlap in our music libraries was uncanny. Of the several thousand songs and artists in Lela’s playlist, nearly all were already prized plums in my own collection. She sent Sarah Vaughan with Michel Legrand, Elly Ameling singing Schubert, Ahmad Jamal Live At The Pershing, Chet Baker on Pacific Jazz, all the Ella Fitzgerald songbooks, John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, Patsy Cline Showcase, Anita O’Day Travelin’ Light, nearly everything Miles Davis did in the 1950s and ’60s, some recent recordings by Diana Krall and Shirley Horn, and soooo much Nancy Wilson, clearly her favorite. Lela even included Willie Nelson’s cover of “Stardust!” Amazing.
Only a handful of the artists in her list were new to me (Jo Stafford, Helen Forrest, June Christie) and their songs resonated so deeply that they immediately became part of the soundtrack of my life. Driving around the Lonesome Desert at night, listening to my mother’s favorite music, made me feel a profound sense of connection to her in spite of the fact that we were basically strangers to one another.
I met Lela only once more.
In April 2014, while on tour in Michigan, Sassy and I accepted an invitation to visit her at home in rural Potterville.
Lela and Bill Horton (of Mr. Bill’s Adventureland), her husband of 23 years, received us warmly. Lela even cooked biscuits and gravy for us! Sitting there at my mother’s kitchen table, watching her fix me breakfast for the first and only time in my life, flooded me with conflicting emotions. Gratitude. Wonder. Comfort. Melancholy. Loss.
After our meal Bill gave us a tour of the rambling, ramshackle Horton house. The place was a packrat’s dream, filled to the rafters with papers, boxes, books, knickknacks, old computers, oxygen tanks, medical supplies and more. As Bill led us from room to room, Lela toddled behind, randomly tidying up and apologizing. “We don’t get many visitors.”
I remember thinking how beautiful it was, that this frail and fragile couple were lovingly taking care of one another in their declining years. Will Sassy and I do the same?
Bill was especially eager to show me their collection of records, tapes and compact discs. Lela had already sent me MP3s of most of it except for one major omission: the Hortons had amassed an impressive, damn near comprehensive stockpile of Dmitri Matheny CDs!
I was astonished. Not only did they own all my albums as a leader, they'd also somehow acquired a bunch of sideman recordings from my early years in San Francisco. Seeing this stash of obscure, out-of-print discs, I realized that Lela and Bill must have been quietly following my career for years, buying each new recording at the time of its release, long before I found Lela online.
Flattering, yes, but also infuriating. I’ve had a website since 1995. Lela obviously knew where I was and what I was doing. Why had she never contacted me? I’ll likely never know.
In August 2018 I received a phone call from Bill Horton letting me know that my mother had died. He didn’t mention her cause of death, but I assume it was severe emphysema after a lifetime of smoking.
“I also wanted to tell you that some years ago Lela and her brother inherited a parcel of land on a mountain near Chattanooga,” Bill said. “They sold it and she put her half of the money into a Vanguard account. You’re listed as beneficiary after I die. I’ll send you the paperwork.”
I remembered Lela's cryptic “mountaintop inheritance” call back in the 1980s. How about that? Another mystery solved.
I'm grateful that Lela and Bill Horton had so many good years together, and glad I had the chance to visit them before she died. Bill and I have stayed in touch since Lela’s passing and I’m glad. I’ve come to think of him as part of the extended family, especially now that both my mother and father are gone from this world.
The other day Bill sent me an antique sepia photograph.
“Lela would want you to have this,” he said.
“It’s a picture of your great-great-grandmother ... Matilda America McGee.”
“All of us labor in webs spun
long before we were born.”
The next morning I asked Lela the question that had kept me awake most of the night. “Same repertoire? What did you mean by that?”
She smiled. “Well, you played Stormy Weather, My One And Only Love, and I’m Beginning To See The Light ... I did all those same tunes!”
“What do you mean, you did those tunes?” I asked. “When? How? Where?”
Her face registered genuine surprise. “You knew I was a singer, didn’t you?”
“No, ma’am. I mean, I found some pictures of you in high school,” I stammered, “you know, singing musical theater stuff, but…”
“Oh, honey! I was a jazz singer! Your father used to come to my gigs. That’s how we met!” she laughed. “Where did you think your gifts came from?”
You could have knocked me over with a feather.
“Lela, honestly, I always figured it was Dad’s record collection that set me on this path. Sketches of Spain, Round About Midnight, Kind of Blue…”
“Ooh, that’s just like him!” she interrupted, shaking her head. “First of all, those were my Miles Davis records.” She paused a moment. “He never told you? Really?”
Nope. He told me you were crazy. He said you were a criminal. He said you “ran off in the middle of the night” and told me we were better off without you. But no, he never once mentioned anything about you singing jazz.
Was it even true? Or was this just another of Lela’s tall tales?
I was determined to find out. After she returned home to the midwest, I drove out to Daddy Bill's Hermit House to see if I could verify her story. I was a man on a mission. The three-hour drive through the Lonesome Desert gave me plenty of time to consider how I might broach the subject with my old man.
I arrived in the late afternoon to find him hunched over a bucket on his front porch, methodically shelling and cracking pecans with his blistered, blackened fingers. Pecan trees grew wild in the scrubby chaparral of Graham County. It had become Dad’s habit to harvest the nuts each autumn and gift large bags of them to family and friends during the winter holidays. I admired his resourcefulness.
“Hey Bub!” Daddy Bill greeted me cheerily. “You’re just in time.”
He handed me a Sam Adams from the cooler. “Don't tell the Mormons,” he said with a wink.
Another glorious Arizona sunset.
“So. Dad. How did it feel to see Lela again after all these years?”
He gazed thoughtfully into the distance. “Welp. She got old.”
“You and I aren’t getting any younger either,” I laughed. “Anyway, did y’all have a good talk at the concert?”
“She did most of the talking,” he said, adding “you know how she is.” He kicked a pile of pecan shells off the porch.
“Right. Listen, Dad. Lela told me she used to be a jazz singer.”
My father rolled his eyes. “Aww, she was what we used to call a torch singer. But that was a long time ago. Before you were born.”
“So it’s true?” I asked, astonished. “You didn't think your son -- the musician -- might want to know about that?”
“Why would you care?” he said dismissively. “She wasn’t a big deal or anything. She just sang in nightclubs with her little combo.”
“Dad…what exactly do you think I do for a living?”