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MEETING LELA | PART 7 — BISCUITS & GRAVY 


“We all grow up with inherited genes 
and inherited sensibilities, and 
they run very, very deep.” 

—John Lithgow 

 

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. 

I wonder what Mr. Stockdale would think of all this. I didn't fully appreciated those MACOS nature/nurture lectures at Brookstone until this moment.

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.”

MEETING LELA
Part 1 — The Frosty Frog
Part 2 — Chattanooga
Part 3 — Adventureland
Part 4 — America McGee
Part 5 — Under The Stars
Part 6 — Gifts
Part 7 — Biscuits & Gravy

MEETING LELA | PART 5 — UNDER THE STARS 

“The only thing new in the world
is the history you do not know.”
 
—Harry S. Truman

 

Since Lela’s last Irish goodbye, I’d grown up, moved out, finished high school in Michigan, graduated from college in Massachusetts, lived in California for twenty years, and traveled all over the world. I’d made my bones, married, divorced, and moved on. Suffice to say, it had been awhile. 

Then in 2009 I returned to the Lonesome Desert with my girlfriend Sassy. Daddy Bill’s health had taken a turn for the worse, so I bought us a house in a bedroom community outside of Phoenix and fixed up a room for him. He would often come to visit but always left after a day or two, stubbornly refusing to move in. “I don’t want to be a burden,” Daddy Bill said. “Besides, I prefer my little Hermit House by the Pinaleños.” 
 

 

In October 2012 the Dmitri Matheny Group played Music Under The Stars in Tucson. The open air concert felt like a homecoming. Presented by the very jazz society that gave me my first scholarship when I was fifteen, the event was held at Tohono Chul Park, my not-so-secret hideout during the CDO years. I’d spent many soul-restoring hours in the desert gardens of Tohono Chul back in the day, and I had returned to the Old Pueblo many times over the years for concerts. But this event was special. Both my father and biological mother were in the audience. 
 


The show was a grand success. The crowd was warmly receptive and our performance could not have gone better. I was so proud of my band, especially Akira Tana, who’d flown in from California for the occasion. But the great highlight, for me, was re-introducing Dad and Lela to one another after the show. 

“Well, I’ll be damned,” Daddy Bill said upon seeing Lela. “I thought you were dead.” 

“I thought you were dead,” Lela replied. 

Delightful.

I left them alone to chat a bit while I packed up my gear and settled up with the band. Eventually the old man hit the road back to Hermit House, and I returned home with Sass and our surprise overnight guest. 

Back at the Maricopa Cabana, Lela and I sat side-by-side on the living room sofa. Tee many martunis later, story time was in full effect. For all her past reticence, my mother was now a free-flowing fountain of information, and for once, not just about America McGee. In vino veritas! 

 

To summarize, Lela never wanted children but she loved my father and “decided to give him a son.” It was an especially difficult and prolonged pregnancy. Lela was in labor for days. The delivery, when it finally came on Christmas Day 1965, nearly destroyed us both. I was a breach birth. The doctor had to extract me with forceps. My father cried when he saw my misshapen skull. Everyone feared I might not survive. Eventually my head retained its natural shape, however, and I turned out to be perfectly healthy. 

 


“You were my miracle baby,” Lela smiled, shaking her head, “but you nearly killed me. I never blamed you, of course. But I had to get the hell out of there.” It was the closest thing to an explanation I’d ever heard. 

We continued to talk and imbibe into the wee hours until both of us were slurring our speech. When we finally called it a night, Lela was a little wobbly on her feet, so I gathered her bony frame in my arms and carried her down the hall to the guest bedroom. I could scarcely believe that this little old woman, this tiny weightless bird, had ever given birth to anyone. 

“Oh, about your concert,” she mumbled as I turned out the light.

“You and I do a lot of the same repertoire.”

MEETING LELA
Part 1 — The Frosty Frog
Part 2 — Chattanooga
Part 3 — Adventureland
Part 4 — America McGee
Part 5 — Under The Stars
Part 6 — Gifts
Part 7 — Biscuits & Gravy

MEETING LELA | PART 2 — CHATTANOOGA 

“It’s good to know where you come from. 
It makes you what you are today. 
It’s DNA. It’s in your blood.” 

—Alexander McQueen 

 

In 1984 I was at boarding school in Michigan when my father called from Arizona to tell me about a long-distance phone call he had received from my mother. 

Her husband Tom had died after a prolonged bout with cancer. Now a widow in her forties, Lela was back in college studying to become a registered nurse. The reason (or pretense?) for her call was to ask for my social security number. Apparently she was updating her will and wanted to list me as beneficiary. 

“But you know how Lela is,” Dad said. “According to her you stand to inherit a mountain top of all things! I promised I’d let you know … even though it’s probably horseshit.” 

“Wait, where is she?” I asked my dad. 

“Did you get an address? What’s her phone number?” 

I already knew what he would say.

“Naw, I didn’t ask. Why do you care? She’s crazy!” 

Same old stubborn Daddy Bill.

I didn’t press him. Ever since Lela’s Irish goodbye in '79, I’d grown increasingly ambivalent about her. I had many questions, but it was clear to me that they would never be answered by her or by my father. 

A few years later just before my college graduation, Dad came to visit me in Boston. He’d recently divorced wife number four and he wanted to take me on a road trip.

We spent two weeks exploring New England, including one of his favorite birding spots, Mt. Desert Island off the coast of Maine. I would sit on the rocks for hours, playing my horn over the Atlantic, while Dad studied the flora and fauna of Acadia National Park. 

Dmitri Matheny - Mt. Desert Island, Maine | Summer 1988


In the evenings we’d enjoy delicious seafood dinners in Bar Harbor before retiring to our hotel, where we’d crack open a Sam Adams and reminisce. Perhaps because I’d been away for several years at Interlochen and Berklee, Dad was uncharacteristically talkative, so I took the opportunity to steer our conversation to wife number two, hoping to learn a little more about their brief time together and my own origin story. 

I noticed that if I asked Dad a direct question (“How did you and Lela meet?”) he would abruptly change the subject, but if I introduced the topic in a more oblique way (“Where did you live before I was born?”) he would begin to wax nostalgic and eventually would find his own way to Lela-land. 

I’ve forgotten much of what Dad told me during these late night chin wags, but I do recall him saying that Lela was raised in Chattanooga, not by her parents but by “two old maid aunts in a big house with white columns.” Apparently Lela and several members of her family (the Aults) had experienced “nervous breakdowns” and were “taken to the nut house.” Dad also mentioned a schizophrenic and homeless uncle who was known to wander the streets naked. “Every year they’d find him, clean him up, get him dressed, and bring him to Thanksgiving Dinner,” Dad said, shaking his head, adding “that whole family was crazy.” 

I didn’t give these accounts much credence, chalking them up to a combination of heartbreak, hearsay, and hyperbole, but a few years later, when I repeated these stories to my fiancée in California, she expressed concern. “It’s important for us to know the medical history on both sides of your family,” Larissa explained, “especially since we want kids of our own.”

I agreed, so Lara and I traveled to Tennessee on a Lela fact-finding mission. We didn’t learn much about the family but we did find out a few revelatory things about my mother's adolescence.

In the microfiche archives of the Chattanooga Public Library we found the obituary for Lela’s paternal grandmother and namesake, Lela Elizabeth Ault (born Bryson) 1878-1953.

 

Lela Bryson Ault
July 26, 1878
Dec 12, 1953


Since the article included an address for the Ault family home, we drove over to take a look and, sure enough, it was a big house with white columns, looking like something straight out of Gone With The Wind. We knocked on the door but no-one answered. 

Returning to the library we discovered my mother’s Chattanooga High School yearbooks. What a find! In official school portraits between 1957 and 1960, we see Lela Ault transform from a cute, mischievous girl into a mature, sophisticated young woman right before our eyes. 

Lela Ault - Chattanooga High School, Tennessee
(L-R) 1957-58, 1958-59, 1959-60


Her senior photo, in particular, is striking. There’s something deadly serious and almost defiant in her expression. At eighteen she already appears to be someone of substance, and the arts-centric bio blurb beneath the image supports this impression.

It turns out that Lela Ault was not only a visual artist in high school, but a prolific singer and performer as well. Who knew?! She sang in the choir and cantata, was a featured soloist in several student talent shows, and appeared in musical theater productions of Porgy & Bess, The Pajama Game and A Star Is Born. Moreover, as a member of the art service and specialty clubs, she was invited to perform off campus for various civic organizations around town. 

Prior to this moment I had no idea that Lela was a music person. In media interviews, whenever I was asked if I came from a musical family, I always answered “not especially” and credited my father’s excellent record collection as the catalyst for my career in jazz. I was raised to believe that nurture, not nature, had set me on this path.

But here, in the pages of a midcentury high school yearbook, was new evidence that I could not ignore: photos of my biological mother on stage, five years before my birth, singing jazz standards by George Gershwin and Harold Arlen. 

Lela Ault - Chattanooga High School, Tennessee | 1959-60
Singing "Summertime" and "The Man That Got Away"

 

A few days later we visited Daddy Bill's side of the family in Cookeville, Tullahoma, and Nashville.

“Did you know that Lela was a singer?” I asked my Aunt Maxine. 

“Oh, she had a lovely voice,” she replied. “We all thought so.” 

MEETING LELA
Part 1 — The Frosty Frog
Part 2 — Chattanooga
Part 3 — Adventureland
Part 4 — America McGee
Part 5 — Under The Stars
Part 6 — Gifts
Part 7 — Biscuits & Gravy

UP IN THE AIR | PART 2 — SEASONED TRAVELER 

“You've taken your first step into a larger world.” 
—Obi-Wan Kenobi 

 

When I was first starting out, my mentor Art Farmer told me what it really takes to persevere in this business. “Do you like to travel?” he asked. “Well, get used to it, because that’s the life of a musician.” 

I was reminded of his words a few years later when I asked record producer Cookie Marenco how to get the word out about my first CD. “You just need to go on tour,” she replied matter of factly. “It’s all about the tour. Your tour schedule determines everything: which stations play your music, what stores will carry it, when publications will review it, how people hear about it, and most importantly, whether anyone buys it.” 

Such advice may seem silly in this digital age of streaming music and social media. Today, virtually anyone with the right look or gimmick has the potential to “go viral” without ever leaving home. But back in the 20th century we had no choice but to hit the road and participate in the obligatory rain dance of (jargon alert!) flacks, hacks, trades, jocks, promos, co-ops, end caps, take ones, tip sheets, and street teams. The music business was an expensive and time-consuming hustle, and the whole megillah hinged on one’s willingness to travel. 

No problem here. Daddy Bill conscripted me into the vagabond lifestyle when I was still a toddler. I pretty much grew up in the backseat of his VW Fastback. By the time I left home at age 17, we had already moved nine times and taken dozens of road trips together. 

I pretty much grew up in the backseat of Daddy Bill’s VW Fastback 

By high school and college I’d begun to hit my wayfaring stride. I saved my pennies to fly from my father’s house in the Sonoran Desert to the snowy pines of Interlochen and the slushy streets of Boston. I rambled through New England for pick-up dates in the horn sections of touring Motown and pop acts, met up with Art for flugelhorn lessons on both coasts, and journeyed to Florida and California for gigs with Berklee friends. I even maxed out my first couple of credit cards chasing a particularly enthralling girl from New York City to London, Ontario, and back again. I was a novice nomad, but was already on a first name basis with half a dozen skycaps and flight attendants. 

So by 1995, when I began touring as a bandleader in support of my debut album Red Reflections, I was already a seasoned traveler. I well acquainted with the rules of the road: pack light, arrive early, sit tight, be cool, expect delays. 

I tried to find out everything I could about how to make the most of life on the road. Hal Galper had not yet published The Touring Musician, the resource that would ultimately become my bible, so I collected travel hacks wherever I could find them. I worked with agents to find the best deals, consulted a nutritionist for health and wellness ideas, and read magazines to collect business travel tips and tricks. I even asked experienced flyers to share their secrets for gaming the system, such as how to qualify for early boarding and how to gain admission to exclusive airport lounges with fireplaces, daybeds and private showers. 

But my number one travel guru, the person from whom I learned the most, was my friend and fellow road warrior, bassist Ruth Davies. We called Ruth “Felix The Cat” because her tiny magical travel bag always seemed to hold whatever anyone needed, be it an allen wrench, gaffer’s tape, a sewing kit or cold medicine. After years of touring with blues legend Charles Brown, Ruth knew everything there was to know about life on the road. She taught me how to “advance” each stop along the tour, insuring that all our backline tech and ground transportation needs were covered, as well as how to anticipate problems and prepare for every contingency.

The person from whom I learned the most was my friend and fellow road warrior, bassist Ruth Davies

Our first tours beyond the Bay Area were to other cultural hubs out west: Los Angeles, San Diego, Seattle, Portland, Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Las Vegas, Phoenix. Eventually our circuit expanded to include a few midwest and east coast dates as well. We were still only traveling domestically, but since concert promoters rarely covered our travel costs, we learned to leverage frequent flyer miles and points-based affinity programs to receive discounted flights and hotel stays. 

Then in the late 1990s I lucked into a quasi-sponsorship arrangement with American Airlines which enabled me to fly at no cost whatsoever. Amazing! I would volunteer a few hours each week to assist my friend Bobbi, an event promotions manager for the carrier. In exchange she gave me vouchers for free air travel throughout the United States. 

In the late 1990s I flew free-of-charge on American Airlines throughout the United States

Since these were the same certificates used by official airline personnel, gate agents would often quietly upgrade me to first class, no questions asked. Unfortunately, however, I was required to fly “stand by” and was occasionally asked to give up my seat in order to accommodate a paying customer. Plus, no matter where my final destination was, American always seemed to route me through DFW. On more than one occasion, what should've been a two-hour hop from SF to Portland turned into an all day odyssey with a long layover in Dallas.  

Crazy, right? I didn’t mind. A free flight is a free flight. Plus, by that point I had trained myself to work at the gate and sleep on the plane. I took the earliest possible flight the day before a show so that any delays would only be a minor inconvenience. And I always brought my practice mute so that even long layovers would be time well-spent. 

Whenever possible, I chose to fly out of Oakland, my home airport. OAK was a dream back then, much smaller and way hipper than SFO. They let you park right in front of the terminal, check-in was a breeze, and they even played classic jazz over the public address system. Within a few minutes of handing off your bags curbside, you could be relaxing at your gate, listening to Cannonball Adderley, and enjoying a nice hot cup of Peet’s coffee and a delicious veggie burger from Your Black Muslim Bakery. 

Oakland Airport was a dream back then, much smaller and way hipper than SFO

Those were the halcyon days, before the current era of shrinking seats, lost legroom and silly TSA “security theater.” After 9/11 lots of folks gave up on air travel entirely ... but not me.

I was about to take my first step into a larger world. 

Next: 
UP IN THE AIR
PART 3 — CITIZEN OF THE WORLD

RECURRING DREAMS 

Since childhood I’ve been haunted by three recurring dreams: the clown, the flying dream, and the shadow man.

THE CLOWN

I know, I know.  

Coulrophobia is is such a cliché.  

But this one’s a bonafide nightmare.  

I’m a small child in a white void, lying on my back, pretending to be asleep. With my forearm draped across semi-closed eyes, I sneak a peek at the only other occupant of this ghostly expanse: a faux-jovial, bald circus clown with a floppy ruffled collar and a cone-shaped hat.

The colors of his clothes and make-up are washed out and faded, almost grey. He reminds me a little of Krinkles, the creepy Post Cereal huckster from Saturday morning cartoons. 

Krinkles, the creepy Post Cereal clown

The clown stands nearby but faces away, cradling a bright blue, plush velvet sofa pillow in his arms. He seems oblivious to my presence as he pantomimes what appears to be a fake television commercial. Silently mouthing his sales pitch into an imaginary camera, the clown gesticulates dramatically toward the pillow as if it’s a wonderful new product.

Suddenly the clown stops smiling and becomes very still. His face loses all expression as he slowly turns in my direction. I sense that he now knows I’m here, awake and watching.

We lock eyes. A terrifying chill runs up my spine. At that precise moment, I awaken, my heart racing. 

I can't rationally explain the terror of this nightmare. What's so scary about seeing and being seen? But to this day, nothing frightens me so much as making eye contact with a clown. 

I endured these nightmares nearly every evening until my teen years when, inexplicably, they ceased. Decades later my mother Lela would mention having taken me, as a toddler, to the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus, but I have no memory of that experience. I do remember, however, the framed portrait of a grinning clown that she painted in oils and hung on the wall of my bedroom. 

I never much cared for that picture, especially after the nightmares began. 

THE FLYING DREAM

Curiously, my favorite recurring dream -- the flying dream -- centers around the same blue pillow. 

In this one I walk over to the sofa, pick up the pillow and take it outside.

Somehow I understand that this pillow is a talisman, imbued with magical powers.

I clutch the pillow to my chest and begin kicking my legs furiously, like a dog paddling in a pool. Gradually my body begins to levitate a few inches above the ground.

My neighbors watch in amazement. The higher I rise, the easier flying becomes, and the less I need to kick. Eventually I am able to float effortlessly in the sky, still clinging to the precious pillow as I sail above the clouds, over the town and all the tiny buildings and people below.  
 

Why does the same blue pillow appear in both the clown nightmare and the wonderful flying dream?
 

I'm so deliriously happy that I feel my heart will burst from pure joy. I fly for miles, free and fearless, knowing that I’ll remain perfectly safe as long as I don’t let go of the magic pillow. I only awaken when I realize that I'm dreaming.

Although this wondrous nocturnal fantasy began around the same time as the awful clown dream, it returned more frequently and continued far longer, well into my adult years. I’ve flown over the Great Smoky Mountains, the Sonoran Desert and the Golden Gate Bridge. But was I dreaming or astral projecting?  

It’s been a few years since my last night flight, and I miss it.

I swear, if I ever see that pillow again, awake or dreaming, I’m just gonna grab it and give it a go.  

THE SHADOW MAN

I hesitate to call this mysterious figure either dream nor nightmare. He always seem to visit during the hypnagogic twilight state between sleep and wakefulness. 

It’s always the same story: I rouse in the wee hours with the uncanny sense of being watched. I open my eyes and peer around the room into the darkness. 

I'm not alone. There, in the corner, is the Shadow Man, a dark figure in silhouette with no discernible features except for a wide, flat-brimmed hat. He faces me, yet he has no face.  
 

Is the Shadow Man watching me, or watching over me?
 

I’ve seen him many times in my own bedroom, while visiting friends, even in hotels on the road. He follows me in my travels, appearing only at night. He never moves or utters a word. If I speak to him, he doesn’t answer. If I rub my eyes or turn on the light, he vanishes.  

Apparently my experience is not unique. The internet is overflowing with accounts of shadow people sightings all over the world. This is cold comfort for me, however, since it answers none of my questions.

Who is the Shadow Man? Is he real or an hallucination? What does he want? Does he intend harm or protection? Is he watching me, or watching over me? I may never know. 

His most recent visitation was five years ago, when my dog Scout was only a few months old. I awoke to find the puppy shivering at the foot of my bed, staring into the corner, her eyes like saucers. Even before I looked, I knew he was there.

“I’ll be damned,” I thought. “She sees him, too.”

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

FAME! PART 1 — I FEEL IT COMING TOGETHER 

Remember the song “Fame?” 

Not the groovy David Bowie ear worm. The other one: 

Fame! I’m gonna live forever 
I’m gonna learn how to fly 
High! I feel it coming together 
People will see me and cry 
Fame! I’m gonna make it to heaven 
Light up the sky like a flame 
Fame! I’m gonna live forever 
Baby remember my name 

Remember? 

“Fame” was a major showbiz anthem of the ‘80s, a big hit for Irene Cara, and the titular theme song of a popular movie and television series. 

I watched Fame every Thursday night. I had no idea whether New York’s High School for the Performing Arts was real or fictional, but the premise of a special school for talented teens? Seemed pretty magical to me. To this day, when I hear that song I can’t help but sing along. 

Lori Singer as "Julie" in Fame

My school in Arizona couldn’t have been less like Fame. Nobody at Canyon del Oro was gonna “learn how to fly” or “live forever,” least of all some skinny little pep band trumpeter with delusions of grandeur. 

I could really see myself thriving, however, in a place like that Fame school. It wasn’t the bright lights of New York City that attracted me so much as the notion of being among my own kind. 

How glorious it would be to collaborate every day with other young creatives! Learning from experts, making music together, attending plays and exhibits, talking about art! I just knew I could find friends in a place like that, and maybe even meet a girl like Julie, the gorgeous but shy cellist/dancer on Fame (huge crush). 

So when the opportunity came along for me to transfer to a private, arts-centered boarding school, I didn’t hesitate. 

Interlochen Center for the Arts (Interlochen MI), home of Interlochen Arts Academy and National Music Camp;  Inset: pep band trumpeter with delusions of grandeur

Interlochen Arts Academy was everything I’d dreamed of, a community of misfits and eccentrics, just like me. For the first time, I was living among kindred spirits my own age: painters, sculptors, actors, dancers, writers, musicians. I was home. 

Like LaGuardia High School, on which the Fame school was based, Interlochen emphasizes both arts and academics, attracting students from all over the world to prepare for higher education while training for careers in the arts. But unlike LaGuardia, which is situated in the heart of Manhattan’s upper west side near Juilliard and Lincoln Center, the Interlochen campus in located in a rural Michigan pine forest between two lakes. 

The secluded setting made my experience at Interlochen feel more like living in an artist colony than a boarding school. The year-round Interlochen Arts Academy had grown out of the prestigious summer National Music Camp, utilizing many of the same rustic cabins, classrooms and dormitories. 

I staked out my practice spot early on: the boiler room in the basement of our residence hall. Each morning I would take my horn down there to warm up with long tones and scales before the school day began.

I loved that cozy little bunker more than all the grand stages and recital halls on campus. It was my sanctuary. When I returned to IAA many years later as a visiting artist and clinician, that room was the first place I asked to see. Although the building had been renamed, I was gratified to find that my little boiler room had not changed a bit.

Interlochen is where it all began for me, no joke. It’s where I learned the discipline required to build a life in the arts, and how rewarding the artist’s life can be.

Top: IAA Jazz Combos, DM front, second from left; Middle: performing with IAA Studio Orchestra, Corson Auditorium; Bottom: Stud Orch rehearsal, DM rear left

“You've got big dreams.
You want fame?
Well, fame costs.
And right here is where
you start paying: in sweat.”
—Lydia Grant, 
Fame

Interlochen taught me to work hard and stay humble, an ethos that would inform nearly all my future life choices.

It’s where I came to understand the artist's vaunted, leadership role in society, the public expectation to fulfill one's calling, and the private responsibility to develop one's capabilities -- not necessarily in the pursuit of fame -- but toward the creation of something meaningful and lasting. 

The pressure to succeed in our lives and careers was explicit. Students who published a poem or won a concerto competition were celebrated by the entire student body. Those elite few who were named Presidential Scholars In The Arts were treated as mini-celebrities, with a pomp normally reserved for football team captains and homecoming royalty back home in the Lonesome Desert. A day did not pass without someone “sounding the call,” enjoining the Gifted Youth to get it together, buckle down, and level up.

I recall walking to class through the Concourse, a long hall of glass display cases, where the photos and accomplishments of notable Academy graduates were displayed. Seeing all their awards and accolades, knowing that these extraordinary young women and men -- now making waves in Hollywood, Chicago, the capitals of Europe -- had started their journeys in this very place? Inspiring! Intimidating, too.

If there is an Interlochen Doctrine, it is the notion of artistic talent as both a precious gift and a sacred responsibility.

“What will you contribute?” asked one of our teachers from the stage of Kresge Auditorium, the pledge Dedicated To The Promotion Of World Friendship Through The Universal Language Of The Arts adorning the wall behind her.

“What will you create for posterity?” she challenged us. “History remembers the artists and the conquerors, creators and destroyers. You are creators! Tomorrow’s leaders. So make your lives count! We’re counting on you.” 

That kind of ideological rhetoric, grandiose as it was, really resonated with me.

I've never worked harder or had more fun than I did at Interlochen. I'm grateful to have made several lifelong friends there, too, including my mentor and jazz professor, bassist Tom Knific, now a dear colleague and frequent collaborator. 

And yes, I even got to know a “Julie” or two ... but that’s a story for another time.

Next: 
FAME! PART 2 — JAZZ FAMOUS?

Michigan Tour Diary — Day 13 

Dmitri Matheny Group JAZZ NOIR
Michigan Tour Diary — Day 13
April 23 Bloomfield Hills

Today we visited Cranbrook, a private, PK–12 college prep school
in tony Bloomfield Hills just outside Detroit.

The Cranbrook Schools comprise a co-ed elementary school,
separate middle schools for boys and girls,
and a co-ed high school with boarding facilities.

Directly adjacent are the Cranbrook Institute of Science,
Cranbrook Academy of Art and Cranbrook House and Gardens.

To call the sprawling campus 'impressive' is a bit of an understatement.

Imagine an ivy-covered mash-up of Exeter, Miss Porter's, Interlochen and Hogwarts.
Add 100 acres of gardens, fountains and outdoor sculptures 
and you're beginning to get the picture.

Thanks to a personal introduction from pianist Dave Henning
(Cranbrook's second most famous alum after Mitt Romney),
I was invited to present an improv workshop for the Cranbrook jazz ensemble.

The kids were engaged and enthusiastic. No surprise there.
Music director Sarkis Halajian, an inspiring and charismatic teacher,
has been making it happen at Cranbrook for nearly 40 years.

What a pleasure to meet Sarkis, work with his students,
and tour the Cranbrook campus afterward with Sassy.

Surprise cameo appearance by Janet Henning (Dave's mom!)
who sat-in on the workshop and took the center photo, above.

A beautiful day in Bloomfield Hills.

Michigan Tour Diary — Day 11 

Dmitri Matheny Group JAZZ NOIR
Michigan Tour Diary — Day 11
April 19-21 Kalamazoo, Potterville, Traverse City, Hillsdale

On Saturday Sassy and I checked into the 'Billy Hart Suite' at the home of Tom and Renata Knific in Kalamazoo,
a distinctly modern two-story house with soaring cathedral ceilings,
clerestory windows and musical instruments in every room.

We had a wonderful time visiting with the Knifics, two very well-traveled and respected musicians
who also happen to be warm, soulful people, sharing stories around their table
and playing with their beautiful Weimaraner Lara.

Tom, a world class bassist and educator who chairs the jazz department at Western Michigan University,
is a very important person to me. 30 years ago he was my teacher at Interlochen Arts Academy
and one of the first people to take my jazz aspirations seriously.
When I say that Interlochen changed my life,
I'm talking about Tom Knific.

We've stayed in touch over the years and have run into one another from time to time at industry events,
but this week was our first opportunity to work together. For me it was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.

The Union Cabaret & Grille is a beautiful venue, a joint venture between
a visionary group of investors and the WMU music department.
We had a magical night. The band (featuring Corey Kendrick, Marcus Elliot and Sean Dobbins)
was in fine form, playing with heart and finesse. WMU jazz bought us all dinner,
and Tom presided over everything --- the Jazz Mayor of Kalamazoo!

On Easter Sunday we visited Lela Horton and her husband Bill in Potterville.
Lela made us a late breakfast of biscuits and gravy. It was interesting to meet Bill,
to see where they live, and find out what it's like to enjoy a home cooked meal
prepared by my own mother (not bad).

Monday was another big driving day for Sassy.
At 7 AM (zero hour) I gave a master class at Traverse City West High School.
At 7 PM I did the same at Hillsdale College, 250 miles south.

Just another day at the office.

Michigan Tour Diary — Day 8 

Dmitri Matheny Group JAZZ NOIR
Michigan Tour Diary — Day 8
April 18 Interlochen

Today I returned to Interlochen Arts Academy for the first time in 30 years.

When I first came to Interlochen as a high school student in the mid-1980s, I loved it instantly.
It seemed to me a magical place populated by social misfits and eccentrics,
kids who, like me, were passionate about art and music.

Interlochen changed my life.
For the first time I was surrounded by creative people my own age.
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.

Jazz was still something of a novelty at the academy back then.
It's gratifying to see how much the school, and in particular the jazz program,
has grown since those days.

Heartfelt thanks to my friend Bill Sears, director of jazz studies,
for inviting me to come and spend the afternoon with his improv and combo classes.

Bill is a phenomenally gifted musician and educator.
His students are serious and dedicated.
Several of them already play like pros.

It was a giant joy for me to sit-in with them,
present a workshop, and share some of my experiences
as an IAA alumnus and working musician.

On a more personal note, coming back to Interlochen after all these years was soul-stirring.
To spend the night in the campus hotel, dine in the cafeteria with the students,
sit by the lake, stroll the grounds, see my old haunts,
and share it all with Sassy, filled my heart with joy.

Michigan Tour Diary — Day 7 

Dmitri Matheny Group JAZZ NOIR
Michigan Tour Diary — Day 7
April 17 Berkley and Ann Arbor

Returning to Southern Michigan after our adventures in the Great White North,
today I led a workshop at Berkley High School and played a concert at
Ann Arbor's celebrated Kerrytown Concert House.

Warmest thanks to founder and artistic director Deanna Relyea
for creating such a beautiful listening room and including us on the KCH schedule.

What a privilege to collaborate with such talents as these:
the brilliant young Detroit saxophonist Marcus Elliot,whose debut album I absolutely love;
Quad Cities pianist Corey Kendrick, enthusiastically recommended to me by Reggie Thomas;
veteran bassist Tom Knific, a world class musician, mentor and friend since my Interlochen days;
and rising star Sean Dobbins, that all-too-rare sort of drummer who simmers with quiet intensity,
and then—at just the right moment—turns on the swang!

And what an honor to perform for and meet one of my longtime idols, jazz master Marcus Belgrave!

Mr. Belgrave and his lovely wife Joan (a vocalist I knew years ago in San Francisco)
are pillars of the Michigan arts community and two of the warmest, most soulful people on the planet.
Sassy and I are looking forward to getting together with them again next week.

If I accomplish nothing else on this tour, I did at least survive
the terrifying and humbling (yet thrilling) experience of
playing 'Stardust' in front of the great Marcus Belgrave.

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.

BEFORE MOTOWN 



We're putting together a jazz residency in Michigan next spring, with concerts in Detroit, Ann Arbor and Kalamazoo, and workshops at colleges and high schools throughout the state. These will be my first Michigan appearances since attending Interlochen Arts Academy 30 years ago, and I'm very excited about getting back to the Great Lake State.

As part of my preparation, I've been brushing up on the cultural history of the region. A great resource is the book Before Motown: A History of Jazz in Detroit 1920-1960 by Lars Bjorn with Jim Gallert — a very well-researched and enlightening volume, drawn largely from the oral histories of seminal musicians who lived and worked there. Highly recommended.

~DM

THIRD EYE 

Hard to believe my high school senior recital was 29 years ago this week. So long ago that I still had a third eye ("i"). John Redmer on bass, a very talented young man, now gone but not forgotten. And I wonder what Eric, Tibor and Norm are up to these days? Maybe we should do a reunion tour. I remember our faculty advisor said we were too young—hadn't experienced enough of life's ups and downs—to play "A Remark You Made" with the requisite feeling.

Are we old enough now, Mr. Lindenau?



SOUND THE CALL 



Here are two photos of yours truly performing with the Interlochen Arts Academy jazz ensemble, taken nearly 30 years apart.

The top image is from our final "stud orch" concert at Interlochen's Corson Auditorium in Fall 1984. The bottom is from the academy's 50th anniversary tour to San Francisco's Kanbar Hall in Spring 2012.

Hard to believe that's the same person! (Even the horn has grown fat...)

INTERLOCHEN ARTS ACADEMY ~ 50th Anniversary Tour 



Interlochen Arts Academy is celebrating its 50th anniversary this month and next with a spring series of performances and events across the country. I'm honored to be among the Academy alumni who will appear as guest soloists, along with such esteemed artists as Matt Brewer, Peter Erskine, Alexander Fiterstein, Jorja Fleezanis, Ida Kavafian, Bob Mintzer and David Shifrin. http://bit.ly/z46VOt

THE WONDER OF INTERLOCHEN 



But how can one express the wonder of Interlochen? No one can truly translate it for others. I can only say that in a world which deals so much, for expedience's sake, in tinsel and material values, there is something fine and wholesome and splendid and altogether overwhelming in the euphony of sixteen hundred young boys and girls delighting in the wonders of great music. And a nation fortunate enough to have an arts center like Interlochen can look to the future with hope.
~Van Kliburn, 1962

COMING HOME ~ DM on Interlochen 



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.