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THE SECRET 


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."

HOW WE LIVE 

“The more we share, the more we have.” 
—Leonard Nimoy 

 

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.
 

MEETING LELA | PART 6 — GIFTS 

“All of us labor in webs spun
long before we were born.” 

—William Faulkner
 
 

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 SpainRound About MidnightKind 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.” 

Unbelievable. 

“Dad…what exactly do you think I do for a living?” 

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 4 — AMERICA McGEE 

“Myths are lies and therefore worthless,” CS Lewis told 
JRR Tolkien, “even though breathed through silver.” 
“No,” Tolkien replied, “they are not lies.
 
—Joseph Pearce 

 

“Dmitri, I can’t believe it! How on earth did you find me!!?” 

How indeed! I cannot account for the bizarre sequence of events that led me to Mr. Bill’s Adventureland, nor can I rationally explain how I knew that Mr. Bill’s Lela and mine were one and the same. But somehow, whether by fate, synchronicity or merely coincidence, at the age of 43 I became penpals with my long lost mother. 

We didn’t converse so much as trade soliloquies. She ignored my questions, so I volunteered details from my own life hoping she might respond in kind. I told her about my successful music career and failed marriage. I shared all my hopes, dreams and fears. 

Lela answered these confessional data dumps with imaginative tall tales in which distant relations appeared as folk heroes. Often embedded within these homespun legends were non sequiturs of a more personal nature (e.g. “the scent of oranges always reminds me of Christmas”). I jumped at these crumbs like a starving orphan.

One day an envelope arrived with no letter at all. Inside were a one page single-spaced typewritten genealogy labeled “The Brown Family” and two photos. In one of the images a group of adults stands in a distant row facing the camera. On the back, in crayon block letters, they are identified as “(L-R) Mama Zulah, Brownie, Jo, Allene, Sissy, Evelyn, Frances, Sara, Jim, Willard.” The reverse of the other photo, a mother with two children, is annotated in Lela's handwriting, “I was about 8 and my little brother was 6 when this was taken, so it was about 1950.”


(


A close study of The Brown Family genealogy reveals “Mama Zulah” to be Lela's maternal grandmother. Following is the final paragraph, together with Lela's pencil notations in bold italics: “James Andrew Jackson Brown (1877-1961) PAPA son of William J. and Sarah Catherine, married Cornie Perdue around 1900. They had 2 children, V. R. (Brownie) 1904- and Vera Estelle (Sissy) 1906-. After the death of Cornie, James Andrew married Zulah Estes Cummings (1888-1963) MAMA in 1908. She was the daughter of Nancy Docia Brown who was the 13th child of Jeremiah Brown and Nancy Hodges Brown. Jeremiah Brown was the great grandfather of James Andrew and the grandfather of Zulah. James Andrew and Zulah had 7 children, Evelyn 1909-, Allene 1912-1972 MY MOM, 5 FEET TALL, BIG BOOBS, TINY WAIST, Josephine 1913-, Frances 1920, Sara 1923, James Andrew Jr. 1927- MY UNCLE WWII PURPLE HEART and Willard 1929-1977.”

This convoluted “kissing cousins” report represents the sum total of what I know about Lela's roots. More often than not her letters would only recount the superhuman exploits of America McGee, the larger-than-life (and likely imaginary) Native American ancestor who, according to family lore, worked miracles, healed the sick, communed with animals and angels, predicted future events, and inspired everyone in the community with her wise counsel.

I doubted the very existence of this messianic figure, but eventually came to appreciate her significance as a mythic hero. Fictional or not, America McGee was my mother’s personal avatar, the embodiment of her highest aspirations. Perhaps McGee was, to Lela, what the Green Lantern is to me. 

I’ve never had much use for religion but I must admit to enjoying these quasi-biblical stories a bit more after having experienced McGee’s magic for myself. After all, a Google search on her name was the deus ex machina that brought Lela and me together again. Even if I never find confirmation of America McGee as an actual historical figure, I will always be grateful to her mythos for moving our plot along. #AmericaMacGuffin 

Every once and awhile my mother would let her guard down and reveal something personal. I briefly regarded each of these revelations as precious nuggets of truth until they, too, were inevitably contradicted by Lela herself.

For example, in one of her letters, Lela cast herself as a child prodigy and honor student who “tested at the genius level” and graduated from a prestigious university while still a teenager. In another she appears as a college dropout who never took school seriously and scandalized everyone by “running off with a professor” during her freshman year. In yet a third version of events Lela skips college entirely, having been recruited right out of high school to join a prestigious national advertising firm as a professional commercial artist. 

Lela mentioned my father exactly twice. “Bill Matheny was a hopeless romantic,” she complained, “and I was his child bride. He smothered me with too much affection.” In a subsequent email she wrote “The man never said I love you, and I was the kind of girl who needed to hear that from time to time.” 

Bill Matheny: Hopeless Romantic? 
 

The two of us corresponded regularly for the next four years.

When you consider the sheer volume of words we exchanged, it’s really quite remarkable how little I learned about my mother’s actual thoughts, feelings or life experiences. Her fraught relationship with the truth was frustrating, but after so many years of silence, I was grateful for any contact at all. 

Then, in October 2012, Lela called with big news: 

“I bought an airline ticket today,” she said. “I’m coming to your next show.” 

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 3 — ADVENTURELAND 

“Truth is not only 
stranger than fiction, 
it is more interesting.” 

—William Randolph Hearst 

 

After the Tennessee trip I called my father.

“Did you know that Lela was serious about music when she was in high school? She performed in musical theater, was a soloist in the choir, and sang standards in talent shows around Chattanooga. You never thought to mention any of this to your son, the professional musician?” 

Daddy Bill shrugged.

As fate would have it, Larissa and I divorced before ever having children, and I eventually lost interest in the mental and medical histories of my extended family. If crazy is in my genes, so be it.

But I remained curious about the length and depth of Lela’s relationship with music. When and how did she get her start? Did she continue to sing after high school? Is music still important to her? And does she know my work?

...now here's where the story really gets weird...

It’s 2008 on a rainy winter evening in San Francisco and I have insomnia. My South of Market loft is dark except for the glow of a single lamp and the faint flicker of a black and white movie on the tube. It’s Bogie and Bacall in a film I’ve seen many times. The volume is off but the images keep me company as I sip my scotch and surf the web. 

As usual during these liminal moments between work and sleep, I start out with benign intentions (checking the weather forecast, perhaps, or looking up a recipe) but eventually my online meanderings devolve into mindless consumption of celebrity gossip. 

I’m half in the bag when I notice that Marlowe is just about to enter the casino where Vivian Rutledge is singing. This is one of my favorite scenes, second only to Dorothy Malone in the bookshop, so I turn up the volume and listen. 
 


And her tears flowed like wine, 
Yes her tears flowed like wine. 
She’s a real sad tomato, 
She’s a busted valentine. 

 

I dig Bacall’s relaxed, cool delivery and the meaningful looks she exchanges with Bogie. Something in her casual manner reminds me of Lela sitting atop that piano singing “The Man That Got Away.”

It’s been a while since I last searched for Lela online so I decide to give it another go. I plug every iteration of her name into the ancestry sites and search engines: Lela Ault (maiden name), Lela Matheny (married name), even Lela Conte (the name of her late husband), but no luck. I don’t know her precise age, social security number, where she lives, which last name she now uses, or even if she is still alive. My cyber-sleuthing has once again hit a dead end. 

I’m about to give up entirely when I remember America McGee, the outlandish (and most likely imaginary) ancestor character from Lela’s shaggy dog stories back in ’79. On a lark I type that name into the search bar.

No joy, however, Google takes me to the Wikipedia page for American McGee, a video game designer. From there I bounce through various tech and gaming sites until I randomly arrive at Mr. Bill’s Adventureland, a multiplayer adventure game review site. By this point I've stopped looking for Lela; now I’m just aimlessly web surfing.

I’ve never been very interested in games of any kind, but for some reason I feel compelled to continue down this particular rabbit hole. I linger on the site for about an hour, reading all Mr. Bill’s reviews ... clicking, reading, then clicking again ... until I happen to land on the curious phrase “my wife Lela” — and I freeze. 

I know that there are thousands of women named Lela all over the world. I’m well aware of this. But somehow, at this moment, I can just feel it in my bones: this is she.This one is my mother. 

Without hesitating I click the contact button and write the following message: “Hi Mr. Bill, great website! I believe your wife Lela and I may know one another. Please give her my greetings. Sincerely, Dmitri Matheny.

I hit send and immediately fall into a deep and dreamless sleep.

When I awaken a few hours later, I see this response from Mrs. Lela Horton in rural Michigan:

Dmitri, I can't believe it!
How on earth did you find me!!?

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 1 — THE FROSTY FROG 

“Sometimes I feel like a motherless child, 
a long, long way from home.” 

—Traditional 


When I was a kid in Tennessee and Georgia I knew very little about my mother. 

I knew her name. “Lela Matheny” was written in ballpoint pen on the inside cover of all our books. I knew she was a talented artist, too. We had several of her framed oil paintings hanging on our walls. And I knew she was movie-star beautiful. Although Dad was reluctant to speak of Lela, he did give me a single photo of her which I treasured and kept hidden away in a drawer. 

“Lela Matheny” was written in ballpoint pen on the inside cover of all our books.

The only other thing I knew about Lela was that she broke my father’s heart. 

“Shortly after you were born,” Dad explained, “Lela ran off with her lover in the middle of the night. They took my car and went to Mexico. Lela got herself a Mexican divorce and a Mexican marriage to the other guy. As far as I know, they’re still together.” He would repeat this story many times over the years, always emphasizing the words “Mexican divorce” and “Mexican marriage” as if that particular detail somehow signified illegitimacy or proved how unjustly he’d been treated. 

If I felt any sadness over losing Lela I certainly wasn’t aware of it. I didn’t remember her, so how could I miss her? I was a happy kid with a loving father and a revolving door of kind female caregivers. But I was understandably curious about the woman who gave birth to me. I wondered where she was, why she left, what her life was like now. 

Whenever I asked my Dad these things, he would repeat his “Lela ran off” refrain, and would shut down any follow-up questions with “Aw, you don’t want to know about her! She’s crazy!” 
 

I was understandably curious about the woman who gave birth to me.


As far as I knew our only contact with Lela was the birthday card I received each year at Christmas. There were never any messages inside, just “Love, Lela” in the same familiar handwriting. There were never any return addresses on the envelopes, either, but I always noticed the postmarks. Each year the card would arrive from a different place: Key West, Seattle, New York, Santa Fe, Ann Arbor. 

“Looks like Lela’s in Bozeman, Montana,” I said to Daddy Bill after my thirteenth birthday. “Why do you suppose she moves around so much?” 

I expected his customary evasiveness, but this time the old man surprised me. “Son, you’re old enough to know that your mother’s husband is a federal criminal,” Dad said soberly. “They have to keep moving because they’re on the lam. Tom is wanted by the feds.” 

“No kidding?” I asked. “What did he do?” 

“Mail order fraud,” Dad replied. “He sells fake chinchilla furs or somesuch.” 

I had no clue what a chinchilla was, but the notion that half my DNA might come from a mysterious, beautiful, crazy, vagabond artist/criminal? The idea intrigued me. I needed to meet this person.

"He sells fake chinchilla furs or somesuch."

It’s the summer of 1979 in Tucson, Arizona, and I’m living it up in our new Catalina Foothills apartment. Dad is teaching summer school so I have my run of the place. I get to sleep late and have friends over. We do whatever we want, when we want, free from adult supervision.

Our activities are fairly harmless: we crank up the air conditioner, make giant Dagwood sandwiches, drink gallons of sun tea, and watch creature features on the tube. We listen to records in the Den of Iniquity. Sometimes we ride our bikes down to the Circle K for Mad magazines and microwave burritos, or head over to the Coronado clubhouse to play air hockey and gawk at the high school girls sunning themselves by the pool. 

Any self-esteem I lost at Marana has been fully replenished. I now have friends, freedom and, thanks to my paperboy job, plenty of spending money. As if I needed any additional ego boost, they’ve been saying my name on the radio lately (“trumpet solo by Dmitri Matheny”) because I’m playing the mariachi classic “La Paloma” in the Fiesta de los Niños at El Con Mall. I feel special again for the first time since we left Brookstone. 

 

I’m playing the mariachi classic “La Paloma” in the Fiesta de los Niños at El Con Mall.


It’s mid-morning when the phone rings in our dark apartment. I shuffle into the kitchen and wipe the sleep from my eyes as I lift the receiver. What have I won this time? 

“Dmitri?” says an unfamiliar female voice. “This is Lela.” 

“Lela like my mother Lela?” I ask. 

“That’s me,” she says. “How are you?” 

“Surprised,” I reply.

“Listen, I’m in Tucson,” she says. “I live here. What are you up to today?” 

“Nothin’ much,” I reply, bewildered. 

“Would you like to go with me to the art museum?” 

Half an hour later I answer the door and there she is, the pretty lady from the photo, looking not unlike Suzanne Pleshette in her high-collared lime green pantsuit, white silk scarf, and oversized sunglasses. I lock up the apartment, follow to her car, and slide into the passenger seat next to her. I can’t believe she’s really here. 

Unlike my taciturn father, Lela turns out to be an absolute chatterbox. She talks nonstop as we walk through the museum galleries, jumping randomly from one non sequitur to the next, dramatically whispering then laughing loudly, dropping names I don’t know, passionately offering her opinion on every exhibit. The words tumble out of her but I barely comprehend their meaning. I’m too preoccupied with studying her every move and mannerism. Do I take after Lela? She strikes me as stylish and sophisticated, yet insecure and more than a little phony.  

After the museum we walk across the street to a frozen yogurt shop called the Frosty Frog. Lela orders a mint chip froyo to match the vivid green of her outfit, then lights a long slender cigarette, all the while babbling like the giddy guest on a late night talk show. Something in her affect makes me feel diminished, as if I’m merely a spectator in the movie of her life. It’s only at this moment, looking across the table at her, that I’m finally able to accept the reality of this surreal afternoon. 

So this is my mother. 

Lela orders a mint chip froyo to match the vivid green of her outfit.

When Daddy Bill gets home from work he finds me sitting silently in the living room. 

“How was your day, Bub?” he asks. 

“Well Dad,” I reply, “I think you ought to sit down for this.” 

In my memory the revelation that I’d spent the day with my bio-mom was a complete surprise to Daddy Bill. He didn’t mind that we'd met, but he seemed genuinely shocked to learn that Lela was in Tucson, and mystified by how she got our phone number. In hindsight I suspect he knew more than he let on. When it came to Lela, Dad played his cards very close to the vest. 

I rode my bike over to Lela and Tom’s place several times that summer. Their condo was modest, even smaller than our apartment, but it was brand new, adjacent to a magnificent golf course, and furnished with midcentury modern Scandinavian decor that looked like something you’d see in the pages of a high-end design catalog. 

Lela's husband Tom was an overly tan charmer with “trust me” eyes and a full head of gray-blond Banacek hair. He wore polo shirts and khakis, told silly jokes, brandished a fat bankroll, and flashed blindingly white teeth whenever he smiled, which was often. He spent most of his time either on the phone or on the links. 

“What exactly does Tom do for a living?” I asked Lela, thinking of the chinchillas and whatnot. 

“Oh, this and that,” Lela said with a dismissive wave of the hand. “Tom’s what’s known as an entrepreneur.”

It was the first time I’d ever heard the word. To this day when anyone uses it I think of Tom and his Cheshire Cat grin. 

I expected Dad’s reunion with his ex-wife, and the man she left him for, to be awkward, but the three of them got along just fine. They reclined in their chaise lounges, swilling gin cocktails and playing “remember when” like old friends. Later when we all went to dinner together at La Fuente, the mood was entirely convivial, or so it seemed to me. 

On one occasion Dad invited Tom over to play tennis while Lela stayed behind to give me a painting lesson. I still remember how she taught me to use complementary colors for the shadows, and the way she demonstrated the proper technique for washing a paint brush by making small soapy circles in the palm of my hand. 

Dad invited Tom over to play tennis while Lela stayed behind to give me a painting lesson.

I tried to engage Lela in meaningful conversation but quickly learned that she had no interest in being real with me. Having grown up in the south I'm no stranger to tall tales, but Lela was a full-on fabulist. She seemed incapable of giving a straight answer.

A simple query like “do I have any brothers or sisters” prompted a hyperbolic description of her own brother, a strikingly handsome, independently wealthy, eccentric genius, more clairvoyant than Edgar Cayce, who lives in a mansion and invents rockets for a secret government agency. Ahem. 

When asked about her childhood, Lela launched into a series of Bunyanesque tales about a magical, mythical Cherokee ancestor named “America” who married a Scotsman named “McGee” to become “America McGee.” Each story was more outlandish than the previous, but none shed any light on Lela’s actual life.

Lela delivered these far-fetched family fables with earnest enthusiasm, oblivious to how ridiculous they sounded. Eventually I stopped asking questions altogether and just surrendered myself to her whimsy. 

We saw each other several times that summer but she never gave up any credible intel. Nor did she seem interested in learning anything about my life or thoughts or feelings. I learned what I could about Lela through observation alone. 

In late summer Daddy Bill and I were sharing a bag of Fritos and watching 60 Minutes when he put his hand on my shoulder and said, “I’m glad you’ve enjoyed getting to know Lela and Tom, but you’d better prepare yourself, son. At some point they’ll disappear again, probably without warning. I don’t want you to get your feelings hurt.” 

Dad was right. A few days later Tom’s name appeared in an Arizona Daily Star article about interstate commerce irregularities. I called the condo and, sure enough, the number was disconnected. I rode over on my bike and, no surprise, the place was empty. 

It would be another 23 years before I would meet Lela again. 

Lela in 1965 (L) when I was born, and in 2002 (R) when I met her the second time.

 

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

SNAPSHOTS | PART 5 — CHEVY MAN 

“That’s the great thing about being a teenager. 
You think you’re a genius.”

—Daveed Diggs 

 

Thirteen wasn’t quite the turning point I’d imagined last summer when I sold off all my comic books and action figures. I didn’t suddenly become cool. I wasn’t immediately transported to a magical land of heavy petting and house parties. 

I was still the same skinny little kid, honking my horn. And I still had to make it through the rest of the school year at Marana. In my memory those last few months of seventh grade are a surreal blur. 

I remember our teacher jumping up on top of her desk in a desperate attempt to win us over, howling “I’m WEIRD! I like WIZARDS!” And I remember how Jack quietly cleared his throat in response, a more subtle version of the snarky tween eye-roll. 

I remember a big panic over an outbreak of Valley Fever which later turned out to be “merely” a respiratory irritation caused by low-flying crop dusters. Delightful. 

Mostly I remember the awkward interactions with girls. There was prodigious Paula, who flashed her impressive tetas at me, then called me a “perv” for looking. And there was darling Debbie, who passed me a cryptic note on which she had scrawled, in big block letters, YOUR PENIS RUNNING OUT. 

What the --? I blushed, checked my fly, then spent the entire rest of that period trying to figure out what she could possibly mean. Is this flirting? Should I write back? What should I say? After class I breathed a sigh of relief when she handed me a pen and said sweetly, “I noticed yours was running out of ink.” 
 

Another year, another U-Haul.

It’s the summer of 1979 and Daddy Bill and I are loading our last few boxes into the back of the moving van at 22nd & Craycroft. “You about ready to go jump in that pool?” Daddy Bill asks. “You know it!” I answer enthusiastically. 

I’m finally a teenager and everything’s new. New bike (got a ten-speed Schwinn for my birthday), new school (adios, Marana) and soon, a whole new me. The old man has even found us some great new digs over on the northwest side of town. I haven’t seen the place yet, but Daddy Bill promises we’ll have an even better view, a real air conditioner (adios, swamp cooler) and a swimming pool. 

Dad chose a terrific location for us. Next year, his last at Marana, he'll enjoy a shorter weekday commute and easy weekend getaways to Mount Lemmon and Sabino Canyon. Most importantly for me, our new zip code means I can now go to Cross Junior High for eighth grade and Canyon Del Oro for high school. “It’s a better school district with more resources,” Daddy Bill says, “and I hear they have a pretty decent music program, too.” 

We'll see next fall. In the meantime, summer vacation has only just begun and I’m excited to see our new place. 

Moving from one modest two-bedroom apartment to another less than twenty miles away might sound like no big deal, but I feel like we’ve hit the lottery. 

Coronado Apartments at Mona Lisa and Ina is a major upgrade. The complex feels almost like a luxury resort, with its grand Spanish Colonial architecture, tall palm trees, shady courtyards and manicured lawns. 

The swimming pool is as advertised. There are also tennis courts, a fitness trail, and even a kid-friendly clubhouse with air hockey and billiards tables. Plenty of kids my age live at Coronado and in the middle-class suburb surrounding us, where ranch style family homes nestle safely in the shadows of the Catalina Foothills. 

I love the new neighborhood and can’t wait to explore. I ride my ten-speed through miles of unspoiled desert scrub and citrus trees. Up at Ina and Oracle I discover a retail oasis called Casas Adobes Plaza where I grab a BLT at the drug store lunch counter before exploring a treasure trove of curiosities on the shelves of Bullard’s Hardware. 

Life is good.

Jack comes over often and Dad enjoys his visits as much as I do. The three of us stand together on our balcony, listening to Ray Charles and admiring the colorful Santa Catalina mountains. Daddy Bill puffs his pipe and bends Jack’s ear about music and sports and whatnot. At sunset he throws three burger patties on the grill.

“Y’all like ’em charred, don’t you?” he asks with a wink. 

After dinner I pull a box down from the closet shelf to show Jack my secret collection of stolen hood ornaments. The expression on his face is a curious mix of puzzlement and disapproval. 

“What’s the point?” he asks. 

“The point is to not get caught,” I say. 

Meeting people is easy at Coronado, especially after I land a new job as paperboy, delivering the Tucson Citizen each evening and the Arizona Daily Star on Sunday mornings. Soon I know all the neighborhood kids and their parents by name. There are over 100 units in this apartment complex and almost everybody gets the paper.

Early on a summer Sunday before dawn, I sit cross-legged on the sidewalk in front of our building. I’m stuffing circular ads, Parade magazine, the coming week's TV listings and what Daddy Bill calls “the funny pages” into every fat copy of the Sunday Star. It’s a big job but I’ve learned the secret to getting it done quickly. You line up the stacks in a row, like an assembly line, then you get the rhythm and power through. 

Twenty minutes later my hands are stained black with newsprint. I’m nearly ready to load up my big canvas delivery bag when I notice one of the inserts, a flyer for the March of Dimes Superwalk. I know better than to get distracted, but something special has caught my eye: the walkathon’s third prize, a Panasonic stereo with built-in tape deck and automatic record changer. The machine calls to me like the crystal in Clark Kent’s barn. 

That week instead of the tips I usually collect on my rounds, I ask all my customers to sponsor me in the charity walk. “It’s for a good cause,” I explain, “and every page of sponsors I sign-up will put my name into the drawing again.” I’m determined to win that stereo. 

I don’t remember how many miles I walked or how much money we raised for the fight against birth defects. What I do remember is filling seven entire pages with pledges. Lucky number seven. Seven chances to win. 

The following Friday I wake to the sound of our telephone ringing. I stumble out of my bedroom into the kitchen, thinking Daddy Bill is probably calling to tell me when he’ll be back from birding. But when I lift the receiver, it’s not Dad on the line, but a hyper, exuberant Top 40 Radio DJ. 

“Good morning! This is KTKT, the Old Pueblo’s number one station. Mr. Matheny, you are this year’s grand prize winner in the March of Dimes Superwalk, and will soon be the proud owner of a brand new Chevy Chevette. Congratulations! How do you feel?” 

“I’m only thirteen,” I said. “I wanted to win the stereo.”

A few days later Daddy Bill takes me over to Matthews Chevrolet to claim my prize. Dad and I don’t quite know what to do about this car, since he already has a new Toyota wagon and I’m too young to drive. Fortunately, the dealership’s general manager comes up with a solution. 

“Tell you what young man,” Tommy Stubbs says magnanimously, “How about I just cut you a check for the sticker price? That’s three thousand, four hundred and fifty-five dollars.” 

“That’ll work,” I say. 


Dad drives me to the bank where I keep my yard sale winnings. I deposit three grand into the account and pocket the rest. 

In a single afternoon I bring home the exact stereo I’ve been obsessing over, three new LPs (Don’t Look Back by Boston, I Am by Earth Wind & Fire, and Out of the Blue by ELO), and a ridiculous amount of swag from Spencer Gifts. 

I get busy transforming my room into my own personal nightclub. First I hang a beaded curtain in the doorway and mask my windows with aluminum foil to block the sunlight. Then I install two 17” black lights, a strobe, and a miniature mirrored disco ball. I cover my shelves with luminous bric-à-brac and all the walls with posters: Farrah Fawcett, Lynda Carter, Lindsay Wagner, a florescent cobra. Once everything is perfect I wire the whole shebang so I can turn it all on at once, lights and music, with one flip of the switch.

The result is spectacular. 


“What do you think?” I ask Daddy Bill. 

He grimaces. “I think it looks like a Den of Iniquity.” 

Next:
MEETING LELA | PART 1

SNAPSHOTS | PART 1 — LEAVING 

Childhood memories are like polaroid photos in an old dusty box. 

They don’t provide a cohesive autobiographical narrative, only brief flashes of insight into the murky past. You sort through the random images, shuffling them like playing cards, until one of them finally whispers to you, and a shard of memory is revealed, darkly, like a half-forgotten scent or song fragment. 

It is from these small, disparate clues that you must fashion your origin story. But each time you take the box down from the shelf, there seem to be fewer snapshots inside. 

It’s the summer of 1978 in Columbus, Georgia. A U-Haul is parked in front of our little apartment at Warm Springs Court. Daddy Bill and I are loading our last few boxes into the back of the truck. 

Daddy Bill Matheny | Summer 1978 
Warm Springs Court, Columbus GA
 

“You about ready to hit the road, Bub Man?” Daddy Bill asks. He’s been calling me “Bub Man” lately instead of Little Bub, and it feels right. I’m 12-and-a-half now, not a little kid anymore, and we’re about to begin a whole new life, far away from this place. 

The past year was an emotional roller coaster. Up and down, love and loss. Dad finished his seventh year at Brookstone School on a high note, winning a prestigious teacher’s award from the city and having the yearbook dedicated in his honor. Then he abruptly resigned. Devastated by divorce, he slept for days at a time, rarely coming out of his room. “The doctor has me on tranquilizers,” he explained. When finally he emerged from the darkness of depression, other women came around, comforting him, playing mother to me, and we were happy for a time. But eventually they left, too. 

When Dad’s last great love, Judy Mehaffey, moved to Nashville to pursue a songwriting career, her teenage son Jay came to live with us. Welcoming Jay into our home made sense. Our families were already intertwined. Jay’s mom and my dad, who still loved one another, were now prolific penpals. Jay’s older sister Kim, away at college, had been my babysitter and Dad’s star student at Brookstone. Kim and Jay’s father Lem (divorced from Judy, estranged from Jay) was the landlord of our little apartment complex. 

Confused? Welcome to my world. The important thing is this: for one glorious summer I had a brother. 

I was an only child who never especially wanted siblings. I cherished my solitude and was never bored. Daddy Bill and I were pals, and if I needed more companions there were always plenty of kids in the neighborhood. But Jay’s arrival in the summer of ’78 was right on time. 

We lived in a small, two-bedroom apartment. Jay slept on our couch and made the living room his domain. As a tween on the precipice of puberty, I was utterly fascinated by this confident, lanky 17-year-old now living in our midst. It seemed like the most natural thing in the world, the way he immediately made himself at home, blasting Frampton Comes Alive on the stereo, watching Midnight Special on the tube, drinking Sprite, talking on the phone, holding court. I didn’t even try to play it cool. I thought Jay hung the moon, and he knew it. 

Jay Mehaffey | Summer 1978   
Warm Springs Court, Columbus GA 

Dad knew it, too. Inviting Jay to move in may have sprung from a desire to help Judy, but it turned out to be the very best thing for all of us. Jay had a stabilizing influence in our home. His arrival prompted Dad to come out of his cave. Order was restored. We kept the pantry stocked, shared household chores, enjoyed regular meal times, and took road trips together.

Jay showed me how to assert my independence. Prior to Jay, I was Daddy Bill’s little sidekick, not so much a separate entity as an extension of his adult persona. I perceived Dad’s needs as my own; his moods became my moods. After Jay, I was my own man. There were three of us now, each with his own desires and responsibilities. We were a family. 

But Jay was more to me than an ersatz older brother. He was like a cosmic life coach, sent by the universe to guide me through the emotional, hormonally turbulent life transition from boyhood to early adolescence. Our alliance felt all the more momentous because we knew it to be temporary. Summer’s end would mean our separation. Jay would stay in Columbus to finish high school, and I would move out west with Daddy Bill. Dad had accepted a new teaching position in Tucson, so that was where I would turn 13, begin junior high, and meet my destiny. 

If Jay felt it was a drag to have a shadow that summer before his senior year, he certainly never showed it. He introduced me to his friends and let me tag along on their outings. He helped me find a job mowing lawns, taught me how to pop a wheelie on my bike, and hipped me to all kinds of music. At night I would make a pallet on the floor between the couch and coffee table, so we could continue talking into the wee hours. I’d stretch out flat, parallel to Jay on the couch above, and imagine that we were real brothers, sharing a room with bunk beds. 

Our late night heart-to-hearts offered a crash course in what I should expect from life over the next few years. We talked about all the things I didn’t feel comfortable discussing with my father: cliques, crushes, flirting, fighting, parties, popularity, petty rivalry, peer pressure, the prom. I asked Jay all about the rituals of dating and how to talk to girls. He answered solemnly in great detail, stressing the importance of things like having plenty of money (chicks are expensive), when to give a girl your letterman jacket (only if you’re serious), and how to unhook a bra clasp (always use both hands). He spoke earnestly, as if he’d been tasked with a sacred mission of passing along his accumulated teen wisdom. I was riveted and hung on his every word. 

Jay and I haven’t really stayed in touch since then, except to exchange Christmas cards once or twice, the way men do. But I sure hope he knows how important he was to me that summer, and how grateful I remain. 

When the moving van showed up I was ready. Packing up was a breeze. After all, I’m the minimalist son of an anti-capitalist. We didn’t have that many possessions to begin with. Plus, we’d already moved several times before, so I knew the routine: put your stuff in boxes; say goodbye to all your friends. 

Moving days are always bittersweet, but this one felt different. Inspired by everything I learned from Jay, I was committed to reinventing myself. I divided my belongings into two piles. One pile comprised only the essential things I’d need in my new life out west: clothes, books, trumpet, bike. We loaded them onto the truck. The other pile was all the “kid stuff” I would leave behind forever: comic books, action figures, toys.

Word got around quickly and the neighborhood kids descended like vultures. I sold everything I could and gave away the rest, pocketing a little over five hundred dollars.

“You about ready to hit the road, Bub Man?” Daddy Bill asked. “You bet,” I replied, climbing into the cab.

I didn't look back as we headed west. To the future.

Next:
SNAPSHOTS | PART 2 — FIRST CONTACT

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

SAVE OUR STAGES 

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


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

—Joni Mitchell
 

 

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

Social media is itself a kind of performance space, where people gather for creative expression and the exchange of ideas. Depending on the user, social media may offer an elevated platform for high-minded art and ideals, an open forum for lively discussion and debate, or a cynical echo chamber of fear mongering, conspiracy peddling, virtue signaling and performative activism. (Or you can just post puppy photos!)

The virtual stage provided by live-streaming technology has been a godsend for performers during the shutdown, enabling us to stay active and remain in touch with friends and fans. When all the nightclubs and concert halls went dark, musicians from every genre took to the internet almost immediately, becoming virtual “buskers” overnight. I used a platform called “StageIt” to produce my Quarantunes series of live-streaming solo shows.

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

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

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

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

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

The Immortal Bobby Hutcherson 

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

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

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

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

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

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

She's 100% correct, and we all must do whatever we can to help. #saveourstages

Presently, as we anticipate turning the corner on COVID-19, there is reason for hope. My buddy Ed, a jazz guitarist and concert promoter in Ashland, Oregon, optimistically predicts a post-pandemic gold rush for events. He believes that audiences, having been deprived of live music for so long, will return in record numbers, more motivated than ever to buy tickets and support the arts.

Makes sense to me. The global health crisis provided us all with a chance to pause and reevaluate which things in life matter and which things don’t. I, for one, have learned that live music matters immensely, and stages are absolutely essential.

Joni Mitchell said it best: you don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone.

NEW YORK STORIES 

“if this town is just an apple 
then let me take a bite”
 
—Steve Porcaro 

 

I love New York.

Original, right? 

Artists are drawn to New York City of course, but unlike many of my college friends, I chose not to move there after graduation. I picked the other coast, and for better or worse, that decision has shaped the trajectory of my life and career. 

The first time I ever visited NYC was on a road trip in the seventies with my father. I can’t remember the reason for our trip, or why he insisted on driving into Manhattan, but I vividly recall how he muttered and cursed the whole time, anxiously gripping the steering wheel, his knuckles white, his face crimson red. 

For the rest of his life, whenever New York came up in conversation, my dad would launch into his litany of grievances, about “that bastard who cut me off,” how “we both could’ve been killed,” how “crowded and dangerous” that city is, and how “some druggie” even tried to break into our parked car. 

But Daddy Bill would always conclude with a smile and the same magnanimous declaration: “Welp, at least Little Bub got a kick out of climbing up that statue.” 


First Crush, 1975 
I've always had a thing for powerful women.

 

At age ten, I was fascinated by the Statue of Liberty. Our New York trip happened to occur just as bicentennial celebrations were ramping up, and I was enthralled by all the patriotic pageantry and symbolism. But it wasn’t the ascent to Lady Liberty’s crown that thrilled me so much as the sheer sight of her, towering majestically over the harbor. To this day, I can’t see that iconic statue in a movie without getting chills. 

Thus began my complicated affair with The Big Apple. Like my father, I felt out of place there, but I also felt the city’s mysterious gravitational pull. 

Surely part of New York’s magnetic appeal is its reputation as the cultural capital of America. The entire history of twentieth century music, film, visual art and literature can hardly be imagined without that city’s seminal role as a proving ground in virtually every genre. 

So in 1985, when I began commuting to New York for music lessons with Carmine Caruso (who changed my embouchure) and Art Farmer (who changed my life), it felt right. 

 

Art Farmer, who changed my life 

 

I loved taking the train down from Boston, the romantic feeling of passing through all those quaint little New England towns along the northeast corridor, the crescendo of excitement as the skyline gradually came into view, and the butterflies in my stomach as I exited the station and made my way over to Caruso’s 46th Street studio. 

After our lessons I would visit a friend or two before picking up Hot House or The Village Voice to check the club listings and decide which of my heroes to go see that evening. I knew that I could never actually live there. As an introvert, I found the city exhilarating but overwhelming. But I was motivated to visit often. When you need inspiration, you go to New York. 

Even during my lost years in San Francisco, when I was married and working for Jazz In The City (later renamed SFJAZZ), I enjoyed many business trips to New York. Whether to sell jazz festival sponsorships (Sony, Verve, Blue Note), participate in industry conferences (APAP, JazzTimes, IAJE), or serve on grant review panels (Doris Duke, CMA), I never missed an opportunity for an all-expenses-paid pilgrimage to Jazz Mecca. 

 

I never missed an opportunity for an all-expenses-paid pilgrimage to Jazz Mecca.

 

I saw Art Farmer at Sweet Basil, Tommy Flanagan at the Vanguard, Illinois Jacquet at Tavern on the Green, Sonny Rollins at Town Hall, Chris Potter at the Knitting Factory, and more. I was even so fortunate as to attend a secret late night performance by Ornette Coleman in his Harlem loft. 

After I’d lived in California for awhile, immersed in the vibrant Bay Area scene, I started my own band. It took some time to make my bones as a bandleader, but eventually we had a full dance card, playing concerts, clubs and festivals all over the region. We were essentially a territory band, criss-crossing the western states. 

As much as I loved life on the road, I soon learned that traveling with a quintet was unsustainable. Presenters rarely covered all our hotel and travel costs, and our margins were razor thin. Eventually I followed the example of my mentor, and began to travel solo, working with outstanding local rhythm sections in each destination. I found talented, capable sidemen everywhere. As one frequent collaborator observed, “The Dmitri Matheny Group is now a cast of thousands.” 

But even after I’d begun to tour internationally, New York City remained a tough nut to crack. It was a challenge to get the attention of the gatekeepers, but I was determined to play there. Nobody on the ice world of Hoth gives a damn how hard your cantina band swings back on Tatooine. 

I made my New York debut on Valentine’s Day 1995 at the Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall. Presented by Monarch Records as the east coast release party for my album Red Reflections, the concert featured a solid line-up of young NYC musicians, friends old and new, assembled just for the occasion. 

 

February 14, 1995 
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall NYC
Dmitri Matheny Group featuring Mark Gross,
George Colligan, Jesse Murphy, Hans Schuman 

 

My next New York appearance would be a couple of years later at The Jazz Gallery on Hudson Street. I was introduced to the venue’s founder, Dale Fitzgerald, by photographer Lee Tanner, whose work was on display in the gallery. Since the exhibit featured photos of Thelonious Monk, we all thought it would be cool to program an evening of Monk’s music in the same space. That show turned out to be one of the swingingest gigs of my life. I credit the world-class rhythm section for making everything feel so effortless. We had a full house, and the music seemed to play itself. 

 

November 8, 1997 
The Jazz Gallery NYC
Dmitri Matheny Group featuring
Jonny King, Larry Grenadier, Tony Reedus 

 

The following year, Hans Schuman invited me back for a youth concert at the Brooklyn Museum. I’m so proud of my buddy Hans, who founded the nonprofit Jazzreach in the early nineties and has since built it into an arts education powerhouse. The show was a blast, the kids in the audience loved it, and the band Hans put together was first rate. As a surprise bonus, concert sponsor Armani Exchange outfitted us all with stage wear. (I rocked those black velvet pants for years afterward!) 

 

October 7, 1998 
Brooklyn Art Museum NYC
Jazzreach presents Get Hip! 
Hans Schuman, Mark Turner, Xavier Davis,
Josh Ginsburg, Dmitri Matheny, Vernice Miller 

 

Later that month, on Halloween, I returned to Weill Hall for a second Monarch showcase, this time in support of my album Starlight Cafe. Pianist Darrell Grant, who played brilliantly on the CD, was able to make the date, and we had a ball. A highlight of the evening was a performance by dancer/choreographer Rebecca Stenn. The show was a big success and even raised some money for charity. 
 

October 31, 1998 
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall NYC
Dmitri Matheny Group featuring Darrell Grant,
Josh Ginsburg, Rebecca Stenn 

 

Two weeks later I was invited to participate in a series of promotional appearances for a compilation CD called Gershwin On Monarch by the Crown Project. Our final event was a performance for music retailers and distributors at Windows on the World, a glass enclosed restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center. The view was incredible, a treasured memory now that those towers are gone forever. 

 

November 14, 1998 
Windows on the World NYC
The Crown Project 

 

My hero, Art Farmer, passed away the following year. It was a tremendous loss, not just for me, but for the entire jazz world. I felt then as I do now, extraordinarily grateful to have known him and to have benefitted from his wise counsel. I was humbled to have been among the musicians asked to pay musical tribute to him at a memorial celebration at St. Peter’s Church. 

 

November 7, 1999 
St. Peter’s Church NYC 
A Celebration of the Musical Life of Art Farmer
Dmitri Matheny and Billy Taylor

 

St. Peter’s is often called “the jazz church” by musicians, partly because it’s where so many of our icons have been memorialized, and partly because of the church’s history of presenting jazz in concert. Grant & Matheny appeared there in a 2001 program celebrating the legacy of MLK. Darrell and I premiered new works dedicated to Dr. King, and many of our friends and fellow musicians turned out in support. We were thrilled. 

 

January 14, 2001 
St. Peter’s Church NYC
Grant & Matheny 

 

It’s funny how memory plays tricks on you. I didn’t realize it until now, but I performed in New York seven times between 1995 and 2001. Not so many, considering the number of shows I played elsewhere over the same period. But what really blows my mind is the fact that I wouldn't return to NYC until 14 years later, when Mark Taylor and I shared a bill at the Cornelia Street Cafe in Greenwich Village. We did the usual promotional rain dance and invited everyone we knew, but somehow our audience that night barely outnumbered the band. That was a rough one. 

 

September 14, 2014 
Cornelia Street Cafe NYC
Mark Taylor's Secret Identity and the Dmitri Matheny Group featuring
Richard Johnson, Michaël Attias, Eric Revis, Michael TA Thompson 

 

I’ve returned to the Empire State several times since then, playing modest venues in far-flung corners and giving more workshops than I can count. I even performed at the Rochester International Jazz Festival — a career highlight — but I haven’t yet returned to NYC. 

 

September 26, 2014 and October 13, 2017
Beanrunner Cafe Peekskill NY 
Dmitri Matheny Group featuring Richard Johnson, Harvey S,
Joe Strasser, Sheryl Bailey, Tony Jefferson, Rob Scheps

 

September 27, 2014 and October 14, 2017
Abilene Bar & Lounge Rochester NY 
Dmitri Matheny Group featuring Richard Johnson, Jeff Campbell,
Mike Melito, Doug Stone, Bob Sneider, Danny Vitale

 

June 26, 2018 
Rochester International Jazz Festival 
Dmitri Matheny Group featuring
Bob Sneider, Jeff Campbell, Mike Melito

 

Our plans for the post-pandemic future are uncertain.

I’m getting older, and touring is a young man’s game.

But I sure would love another bite at the apple.

THE HUNKER BUNKER REPORT | PART 5 — THE ROAD AHEAD 


“Adulthood and what they call maturity is 
the slow acceptance of what you will never be.” 
—Bryan Callen 


“Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die.” 
—Jason Isbell 


As of today, about 71 million Americans have been fully vaccinated, representing 22 percent of the total US population. As the shots-in-arms number rises, so do our spirits. Restrictions on travel and events have already begun to relax. Folks are starting to get back out there. 

Progress is slower globally. According to UNICEF, 130 countries have yet to administer a single dose, leaving 2.5 billion people out of luck in the worldwide vaccination effort. Doses remain scarce in many countries, despite resource-sharing programs like COVAX. Same storm, different boats. 

Meanwhile, new COVID-19 variants continue to emerge. The experts are now saying that coronavirus will never be totally eradicated. It has already spread too far and is changing too fast. The primary goal of public health efforts is now to make the virus manageable, like seasonal flu. We may need to get a coronavirus shot every year. 

So hope in the air, but so is trepidation. We now consider the road ahead. 

I received my first dose of the Moderna vaccine last month, and am scheduled for shot number two this weekend. With cautious optimism, I decided to dip my toe in the water, and agreed to play a couple of socially-distanced jazz festival gigs and teach at an adult jazz camp next month. 

Did I make the right call in accepting these jobs? The decision seemed reasonable at the time, but as May approaches, I can feel my blood pressure going up.

I'm nervous! Covid cases continue to rise, and hospitalizations have plateaued even as vaccinations increase. This thing is far from over. But health concerns are only a part of my ambivalence. 

This year in lockdown has taught me a great deal about myself as an artist and as a man. To put it simply, I’m not entirely sure that I even want to return to public life. 

When I was a young man, I believed that I was part of a sacred continuum. I regarded my musical heroes as ancestors, and felt that it was my responsibility to take up their mantle and follow their example. I fully expected that one day I would join them, in the grand succession, on Olympus. 

As I got older, I began to think about my legacy. I had no protégé, no students, and no children, yet I saved every concert program and news clipping. I imagined that these items would be valuable to future historians, biographers, and curators of retrospective exhibitions about my life and career. I even lugged my memorabilia around in a giant footlocker, which I called The Dmitri Museum without a trace of irony. 

 

The Dmitri Museum

 

When I hit midlife, after I'd been making a living in music for awhile, I began to realize that my career held no great significance. I’m neither a virtuoso nor an innovator. I can play, but my simple songs and modest independent recordings are not likely to be remembered by history. 

After some soul-searching I made peace with the demotion and embraced the more realistic role of blue collar bandleader. I'd lost interest in collecting museum exhibits anyway, so I scanned a few items, tossed the rest, and focused all my energies on filling the schedule. 

“If I’m not going to be important,” I thought, “I can at least be busy.” Over the next decades my bands and I spent over two hundred nights a year on the road, playing thousands of shows for small audiences in intimate venues. I took pride in our success, but I also felt like the dog that caught the car ... now what? 

Then came the big Pandemic Pause Button, and with it the chance to stop, think, and ask the big questions. Am I happy? Why did I choose this life? What other paths might I have taken? Should I stay the course, or find a new way? 

The first few weeks of the shutdown were especially challenging. My ego was attached to my manufactured identity as one of the hardest working, busiest cats around, and that had been taken away. I felt defanged and emasculated. But as weeks turned into months, I began to let all that go. Gradually I settled into a new rhythm. 

The pace of life during lockdown slowed to a stroll, my preferred tempo in all things. Each day was perfectly balanced: a little writing, a little teaching, a lot of relaxing. I puttered around the house, played my horn, wrestled with the dog, and took naps. I spent time outdoors, walking, gardening and fishing. I enjoyed home-cooked meals with Sassy and heart-to-heart talks with faraway friends. 

We also watched tons of movies. One that I found particularly inspiring was Harry Dean Stanton’s final picture Lucky, in which a 90-year-old man comes to terms with his own mortality in a small desert town. 

 

Harry Dean Stanton in Lucky (2017)

 

Lucky finds enlightenment in the minutia of life. “He has a routine,” observes film critic Matt Zoller Seitz, “and like many older people, it gives shape to his days.” Yes, indeed. 

Like Lucky, I’m a non-religious seeker, and ritual is important to me as I prepare for my own senescence. This year provided an unexpected, welcome preview of what daily life will be like when I retire. I was surprised to learn that I love this simple life, and that even without music and travel, I’m still me. 

This year of Liminal Time was a gift from the universe, an opportunity to reevaluate foundational assumptions. For example, as a child I was taught to see myself as a winner, and that idea was reinforced every time I excelled in school, work, music, life. But how can you be a winner if you never try things outside your comfort zone? How can you be a winner if you never attempt something at which you might lose? 

All my life I’ve parsed the world into two absurd, Randian categories: “things that matter” (where I win), and “things that are a foolish waste of time” (where I never lose, because I refuse to participate). I now see that what I believed to be discernment was actually a childish defense mechanism against the inevitable shame of failure. 

This cartoonish worldview served me for awhile as a useful delusion. It gave me strength during times of adversity. But it also deprived me of valuable life experience and depleted my capacity for empathy. It hindered my ability to make friends, because whenever I dismissed something as foolish, I would be equally dismissive of those who enjoyed or excelled at that thing. 

Art Farmer was 100% correct when he told me that I don’t take enough chances. Art also said that there is really no such thing as losing. “There’s only winning or learning.” What he didn’t say, but I now believe, is that of the two, learning is best. 

 

Art Farmer was 100% correct when he told me that I don’t take enough chances.

 

Looking ahead, I’m not sure what my new normal will look like, but I hope to fashion a more balanced lifestyle, one with less busyness and more curiosity.

I do still have some ambition in the tank. I'll surely write more music, play more concerts, and record at least one more album before I call it quits. But I also feel the need to make space in my life for frivolous hobbies, silly games, small talk, chance encounters with strangers, taking chances, and exploring new interests. 

I’d like to spend fewer nights on the road. It’s time to begin my transition from “touring musician” to “northwest composer” and eventually “eccentric old guy at the diner.” 

The fact is, I may have no choice in the matter. Competition for post-pandemic work will be intense. Many venues, including several of my longtime clients, have gone out of business during this crisis. Others are now booking bands at unrealistically low wages. Most won’t return to live music at all until capacity restrictions are lifted. #SaveOurStages 

But if this year has taught me anything, it’s that work for work's sake is overrated. Been there, done that.

The new goal is a smaller, simpler, more sustainable life.

One shaped by ritual and routine, punctuated by moments of discovery and wonder.

That’s the life for me.

THE HUNKER BUNKER REPORT | PART 4 — WHAT I LEARNED IN LOCKDOWN 

“Honor the space between no longer and not yet.” 
—Nancy Levin 

“COVID-19 has taught us that life and health are precarious. 
We must not squander precious time.” 

—Tom Hanks 

This series of missives from the hunker bunker offer my insights after a year of sheltering in place. In parts one through three, we explored the health and financial effects of this damndemic. Today, in part four, we consider the lessons learned from a year in lockdown. 

While the news media would have us believe that everyone is anxious to “get back to normal,” I don’t think that’s possible. I also don’t believe that returning to the way things were before is even what most people want. In fact, I believe we are now standing at the precipice of profound sociological change. 

Part of the disruption caused by this global health crisis has been the curse, or gift, depending on your point of view, of Liminal Time. Derived from the Latin word “limens” meaning “threshold,” Liminal Time is the period between what was and what’s next. It is a place of transition and waiting. 

 

Liminal Time

 

Liminal Time is especially important for artists, for it is precisely when nothing else is happening that we’re finally able to achieve a creative breakthrough. It is only when the world is quiet and we are still that the muses deign to visit. 

Most of us only usually experience Liminal Time in small doses. Daydreaming while standing in line at the bank, or journaling during the commute from work to home. It is during these unscripted intervals between obligations that we finally have a moment in which to process our thoughts and feelings. And it is often during these small breaks from the status quo that we experience an “a-ha” of sudden insight, discovery or epiphany. 

When I lived in California, I loved to drive down the Pacific Coast Highway. Cruising along the curving road between San Francisco and Monterey Bay, with the majestic blue ocean on one side and the rugged hills on the other, I would enter a kind of waking dream-state. Something about the sea and sky along that scenic drive would instill in me a meditative calm and clarity in which all my synapses would fire. 

 

The Pacific Coast Highway

 

Highway One inspired many of my best musical compositions. I also made several major life decisions on that road: to relocate from east coast to west, to get married, to record my first album, to quit my day job and become a full time musician. All of these flashes of insight were thanks to the luxury of Liminal Time. 

Liminal Time is indeed a luxury. It stands to reason that we all would benefit from more self-reflection and course-correction. After all, if you’re always on the go, how will you know when it’s time to change direction? 

People of limited means, of which I am one, tend to regard psychotherapy as a hobby for rich people. We’d like to explore our feelings, but therapists are expensive, and anyways we’re too busy out here surviving to make time for that. 

But what if one day, out of the blue, all work was suddenly suspended, and you were asked — nay, instructed — to stay home and…just…wait? What if you were given an entire year of Liminal Time for introspection and conversation? 

After so protracted a period of Liminal Time, how could we not expect profound changes to society at large? Whether you were busy during the shutdown or not, even if you've been working from home and caring for family, the disruption of your status quo has been extreme, lasting and undeniable.

I predict that, in addition to anticipated systemic changes, such as increased telecommuting and reliance on new technology, we will see individuals make myriad bold decisions about the future of their careers and interpersonal relationships. Your new normal, and mine, will be very different from how things were before.

Which brings me to the Rashomon Effect.

In Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film Rashomon, a murder is described in contradictory fashion by four separate witnesses. The “Rashomon Effect” refers, therefore, to the fallibility of memory and the subjectivity of perception. 

 

Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon

 

I’ve been thinking quite a bit recently about the Rashomon Effect. A year of navel-gazing and comparing notes has convinced me that much of what I’ve always believed about my own origin story may, in fact, be false. And presently, as I puzzle through the mysteries of my past to begin compiling this memoir, I’m beset by many questions.

Was my father truly the devoted, attentive single parent I remember? Or was he a frequently absent man-child and serial monogamist who expected his wives and girlfriends to be surrogate mother to us both? 

Did his second wife, my biological mother Lela, “run off” when I was an infant, never to return (as the official story goes), or did she come back to us several times when I was a toddler? And if the latter is true, as the oil portraits she painted suggest, then why don’t I have a single memory of her? 

What about my stepmother Sandi? She and I reconnected online during the pandemic, which has been mind-blowing. I’ve always believed that she was only a brief part of my young life, but to hear Sandi tell it, she practically raised me all by herself, because Dad was always either at work or off birding. 

I recently learned that Sandi and Dad were married before my third birthday and stayed together until I was twelve. That’s nearly a decade, almost my entire childhood. But how can that be? In my Swiss cheese memory, Sandi was only around for a little while. I vividly remember their bitter divorce and my father’s subsequent depression, but I don’t remember having a mom when I was in elementary school. 

After Sandi there was Judy, then Catherine. I liked them all, but knew better than to get attached. “Women always leave,” Daddy Bill said, a self-fulfilling prophecy if ever I heard one. 

So was I parented by my father, his women, or both? Was it just the two of us, just me and my Daddy, the way I remember it, like all the photos in my album suggest? Or was there always someone else, a female presence, just out of frame? Come to think of it, who even took all those photographs, if not mon mère du jour?

I’m starting to suspect that I may be an unreliable narrator of my own story. Like Darley in Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, I'm the naïf who starts out thinking he’s the protagonist of an epic adventure, only to find out he is but a bit player and a fool. 

 

The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell

 

Like many children in the 1970s, I was a latchkey kid who came and went as he pleased, and who grew up feeling special and entitled. The Hero’s Journey monomyth was ubiquitous in the comicbooks, movies and pop culture of the era, and I took that omnipresent message to heart. I truly believed that I was uniquely talented and destined for great things. 

Freedom-plus-encouragement was a popular parenting style back then and my father was no exception. “You can accomplish anything you want if you set your mind to it” was the familiar refrain. To this powerful maxim, add the privileges of being an only child, attending a prestigious school, and growing up white and male in the American south, and it’s easy to see how I could believe in myself to an absurd degree. 

Granted, it wasn’t always easy being the artsy kid in a community which prized athletes and scholars, but “artist” was the identity I chose, and it quickly paid off. My earliest memories are of being in the spotlight, hearing applause, winning awards, taking a bow. Thus my father’s colleagues on the arts faculty at Brookstone School became co-conspirators in propping up both his high hopes for me, and my own nascent delusions of grandeur. 

Looking back, I now suspect that those compassionate grown-ups who singled me out, did so not so much for my talent and potential, but out of pity for the poor little ragamuffin from a broken home. He needed the boost, bless his heart. 

Today when I look at a school photo of ten-year-old Dmitri, I see things that were invisible to me at the time. I see his uncombed hair and the dirty smudge on his cheek. I notice the wrinkled, oversized hand-me-down shirt he wears, and how it's falling off his skinny little shoulders. I observe the unearned defiance of his proud, upturned chin. What I see is an arrogant problem child who needs a little more discipline and a lot less praise. 

Big picture, Tyler Durden was right. “You are not special. You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake.” Sadly, by the time I was old enough to see Fight Club, I was already too far gone, a slave to the tyranny of my own bogus, manufactured destiny. 

So what did I learn in lockdown? To doubt the veracity of my own story. 

Which begs the question: if I’m not who I thought I was, then who am I? 

And if this is a chance to reinvent myself ... who do I want to be?

Next:
THE HUNKER BUNKER REPORT
PART 5 — THE ROAD AHEAD

THE HUNKER BUNKER REPORT | PART 3 — MENTAL HEALTH & SOCIAL CONNECTION 


“I enjoyed the time out! I loved the fact that nobody had to achieve anything. 
And the light at the end of the tunnel is stressing me out.” 

—Neal Brennan 
 

After a full year of hunkering down and hiding out, I must admit to feeling anxious about the prospect of getting back out there again. My auto-diagnosis: 10% agoraphobe, 10% germaphobe, 30% introvert, 50% rational, reasonably cautious person. 

Several fellow creatives have told me that they, too, feel somewhat ambivalent about returning to their old lives. 

“To tell you the truth, I needed the break,” my friend Hans confessed over Zoom. “I was feeling burnt out for about five years before this thing hit.” 

Another colleague confided, “I’ve always been a homebody. Now I have permission! I hear folks talking about Covid Cabin Fever and how they can’t wait to go to a party or a bar. Is it weird that I don’t feel that way, like ... at all?” 

I don’t think it’s weird. We’re not all wired the same. Some of us feel imprisoned and can’t wait to bust out. Others find comfort in what Red in Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption called “the poison peace of institutional life.” 

Personally, I miss touring and performing, but not the relentless hamster-wheel hustle required to maintain that lifestyle. Moreover, now that I’ve experienced a year of living simply, I’m finding it difficult to remember why I ever felt it was so damned important to be busy all the time. 

 

I miss touring and performing, but not the relentless hamster-wheel hustle required to maintain that lifestyle.

 

When I hear reports of how social distancing is taking a toll on people’s emotional and mental health, I empathize. According to scientists at the University of Virginia, “human beings aren’t wired for social isolation. When people experience chronic social disconnection, they are subject to psychological distress, physical discomfort, and an increased risk of illness and death.” 

In-person social interaction seems to be especially important for children, whose brains are still developing. Socialization helps young people create a sense of self and learn what others expect from them. I really feel for all those high school and college students who are missing out on precious daily face-to-face interaction with peers, not to mention the group rituals that mark developmental milestones, such as the prom and graduation. 

I also feel for their parents. My friends with teenage kids have taken a crash course in the importance of socialization this year. They’ve learned first hand the extent to which their children’s happiness and well-being depends upon the physiological stress-buffering provided by “hanging out with friends.” 

Then there are those single adults, living alone, who’ve experienced profound feelings of sadness during the solitude of this past year. I feel for them, too, especially the older folks who just want to hug their grandchildren. 

I’m no stranger to loneliness, but leave it to me, the Pandemic People-Person, to experience better mental health and a stronger sense of community during this topsy turvy time. Truly, I have never felt such a sincere social connection to my friends and family, as during this year of sheltering in place! 

Dig: before the pandemic, my life was rife with obligatory interactions. Pitching prospects, calling on clients, managing musicians, mingling with the crowd. Hustle. Hang. Repeat. Ad infinitum. 

A career in the performing arts is essentially a never-ending cycle of event planning. If you’ve ever helped plan a wedding, you know how communication-intensive this kind of work can be. A single event may require dozens of phone calls, emails and discussions. 

Now imagine producing over 200 events a year! Is it any wonder that on my nights off I craved only solitary peace and quiet? Is it any wonder that, other than a weekly phone call to my faraway father, I rarely spent time, socially, with anyone? 
 

Is it any wonder that on my nights off I craved only solitary peace and quiet?

 

It’s not that I'm antisocial. I love my friends and family. I miss them when we’re apart. But I've always been an introvert, and prior to this pandemic, I simply did not have the alone time required to sort through all the stimulation of my world and my life. 

But during the shutdown? I’ve been downright gregarious!

Refreshed and recharged, I’ve transformed into a Social Media Butterfly — reaching out, checking in, taking a genuine interest in the lives of others. 

 

Refreshed and recharged, I've transformed into a Social Media Butterfly.

 

With plenty of time on my hands, I’m now using my phone socially, too. Every day I call a different person, just to say hello. Amazing! This is something I would never have made time for in the past. 

This year, through the miracle of technology, I’ve been able to reconnect with distant family, enjoy several heart-to-heart cyber-talks, and even engage in a few “virtual happy hours” with dear friends. I joined group chats, checked out some concerts, participated in podcasts, and even attended a live stream wedding! I've never been more grateful for the healing, community-building power of the internet.

 

I've never been more grateful for the healing, community-building power of the internet.

 

And now, when I stroll with my dog in our little town, we will often stop to chat, socially-distanced, with the neighbors. I used to despise “small talk” as a waste of time, but you should hear me now, remembering names and remarking on the weather and whatnot. 

Dare I say it? I’ve never been more social than during this time of social isolation. 

 

Next:
PART 4 — WHAT I LEARNED IN LOCKDOWN

THE HUNKER BUNKER REPORT | PART 2 — FISCAL HEALTH 

As a rule, professional bandleaders operate with neither job security nor a financial safety net.  We work gig to gig, operating on the slimmest of margins, without salary or benefits. We aren’t eligible for unemployment and many of us cannot afford health insurance. And most of our jobs are one-nighters, which means we can never stop looking for work, because we never know for sure how we’re going to pay that next round of bills. 

And the thing is, we learn to live with this uncertainty. We take austerity measures, diversify our income, launch side hustles, juggle our bills. We do whatever it takes to keep things rolling. After all, this house of cards we call a career is no-one’s fault, no-one’s responsibility, but our own. As Hyman Roth said in The Godfather, “this is the business we’ve chosen.” 
 

Hyman Roth is right.


But this year was different. 

When the shelter-in-place order came down and all concerts were canceled, my family suddenly found itself with no income at all. I had no choice but to reconfigure my business model and apply for every available grant and assistance program. It wasn’t easy to puzzle through all the misinformation and red tape, but eventually we began to receive pandemic relief payments as well as consistent earned income fees from our online activities. 

Within a few weeks, and with a little help from our friends, we were solvent, with fees arriving at regular, predictable intervals, like paychecks. I can’t stress enough how different this is, compared to the feast-or-famine cash flows I usually experience as a performing musician. 

No chasing down club owners who disappear when it’s time to pay the band. No having to guess what our income will be from each endeavor, when the amount may vary wildly, depending upon someone else’s sales efforts, not to mention honesty. No racking up thousands of dollars in travel costs and staving off creditors while we wait for payment from concerts we played last month or last year. 

Payments for online programs are instantaneous!


And here’s the kicker: sure, I’m earning less working from home, but my business expenses are wayyyyy lower! Think of it: no airline tickets, no hotel stays, no equipment rentals, no sideman payments. Zero travel costs! Gross revenue and net income are practically identical numbers. 

You dig? Don't get me wrong. I miss traveling and performing for a living. Teaching online is not my calling.

However, for the first time in years, my family and I have actually been able to make a financial plan and stick to it. We were finally able to predict our income, anticipate our expenses, cover our household costs and plan for the future. We paid our bills, paid our taxes, saved a little, and even made a few charitable contributions to worthy causes. 

I don’t mind telling you, as good as it feels to receive help, it feels even better to be able to help out a little, ourselves. 

I sure miss the travel, but not the expense.


I understand that for many of our friends, this past year was their first, or worst, lesson in living with financial insecurity. I've been there, and I empathize. But leave it to me, the Proletarian Contrarian, to have the opposite experience. 

Dare I say it? This health crisis has been good for our fiscal health. 

If this is what financial security feels like, I think I like it.

But is it sustainable? 

Next:
THE HUNKER BUNKER REPORT
PART 3 — MENTAL HEALTH & SOCIAL CONNECTION 

THE HUNKER BUNKER REPORT | PART 1 — PHYSICAL HEALTH 

One year ago this week, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic and we began sheltering in place. 

I took the warnings seriously, even though staying home meant figuring out how to pay the bills while simultaneously transitioning from touring performer to online music teacher (aka “building the plane as you fly it”). Planning for the worst while hoping for the best, I also took the opportunity to update my will and put my affairs in order. I resolved to hunker down and wait this thing out until it’s safe to get out there again. 

As you may remember, when this shutdown first began we were told to be patient, because “it could take several weeks before things return to normal.” Those weeks turned into months. Now it’s been a full year. 

Yesterday I received my first dose of the Moderna (aka Dolly Parton) vaccine. Hooray! Over 10% of the U.S. population has been fully vaccinated so far. According to the CDC, we should all continue to observe safety protocols until we reach about 80%, at which point we’re likely to achieve herd immunity. 

Why is this man smizing? After a full year of sheltering in place, he just received his first dose of Dolly Vax
 

So we’re now in a kind of arms race — a shots-in-arms race, if you will — against the dual forces of vaccine hesitancy and the evolving COVID-19 variants. The idea is to get most of the populace immunized before the virus mutates so much that the available vaccines become ineffective. 

Unfortunately, some states have already jumped the gun, prematurely abolishing mask-wearing laws. Scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson observes that such actions are “like designating a peeing section of the swimming pool.” 

Here in Lewis County, Washington, it’s fashionable to resist any attempts to suspend individual freedoms in the interest of public health. In other words, folks around these parts don’t take kindly to the government telling us what we can and cannot do. 

But even here, people seem to be getting the message. Our pop-up drive-thru vaccination site at the Lewis County Fairgrounds is proving to be very popular. I even noticed, in the long line of vehicles waiting for the vaccine, several campaign bumper stickers for our disgraced former president, who received his own immunization in secret after calling the pandemic a hoax. Sigh. 

Although many protested against state-mandated health measures,
Lewis County residents are now lining-up for vaccination

In the future, after this deadly pandemic is well behind us, those of us who were fortunate enough to survive may find it difficult to remember all the troubles we collectively endured over this past year. Beyond the considerable health and safety concerns, the coronavirus era has also been an unprecedented time of economic hardship, social unrest, political instability, ecological imbalance and existential crisis. 

So much struggle and sacrifice, fear and frustration, grief and loss. We worry about our sick friends, and we mourn those who died during the shutdown, including non-Covid deaths like that of my father, who succumbed to Parkinson’s while in hospice, just before Christmas, 1500 miles away. 

It’s been a long, hard year. Yet even as we reflect on its ravages, and at the risk of seeming insensitive to the suffering of others, we must acknowledge that some positive things have also transpired.

For example, my immediate family and I have enjoyed better health during this global pandemic than before it began. Ironic, 
I know.

You see, chronic low-grade illness is an occupational hazard for the touring musician. Jet-lagged and sleep-deprived, we ply our trade among the great unwashed, exposing ourselves to all manner of viruses and infections on the road. 

It’s always something. You get food poisoning at a roadside diner. That night you go to work anyway, because what can you do? A fellow musician gives you a hug, and afterward you notice she has the sniffles. On the flight home, everybody is coughing and sneezing. Each day is another chance to catch a bug and pass it along to someone else. 

But it turns out, when you remove travel and social interaction from the equation, good health returns. In fact, during this year at home, no-one at my house was even mildly sick. Not once! Apparently, staying home not only limits your chances of exposure to coronavirus, it also provides a bulwark against the flu, upset stomach, sore throat, even the common cold. 

Home-cooked meals heal body and soul, especially when you harvest fresh vegetables from the garden

I’ve even lost weight! During this lockdown, I’ve been able to eat right, exercise, get plenty of rest and practice good sleep hygiene, all with a consistency that I found impossible to maintain when traveling. 

Dare I say it? This health crisis has been good for my health. 

Next: 
THE HUNKER BUNKER REPORT
Part 2 — FISCAL HEALTH

OF LATE I THINK OF SANTA CRUZ  

memoria praeteritorum bonorum 

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

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

Of late I think of Santa Cruz. 

I love this dirty town!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

gig fliers ... the original social media posts


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

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

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

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

“Kuumbwa Blues” from Red Reflections
 

FAME! PART 2 — JAZZ FAMOUS? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That was the plan, anyway.

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

Our hero, poster child for the Dunning-Kruger Effect

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next:
FAME! PART 3 — MORE FAMOUS THAN YOU

CHET BAKER & THE SOUND OF SINCERITY 

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

 

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

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

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

I must have listened to that album a thousand times. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LONG IN THE TOOTH 

Welp, I just turned 55.  

Now eligible for senior discounts at the diner. 

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

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

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

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

Below is what I wrote at the time.

Perhaps it still holds up. 

ADVICE TO SELF AT MIDLIFE 

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

So far, so good. Now consider this: 

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

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

These are the middle years. 

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

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

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

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

RESOLUTIONS 2021: The Year of Renewal 

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

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

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

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

2020 BY THE NUMBERS 

Slept over 300 nights in my own bed 

Added 196 new friends and subscribers 

Enjoyed 180 homegrown garden salads 

Gave 122 private lessons online 

Sold 92 books and household items 

Directed 33 distance learning workshops 

Received 27 grants and contributions 

Collected 17 vintage comics by mail 

Staged 13 performances (pre-lockdown)

Wrote 10 new arrangements for jazz sextet 

Played 7 solo live-stream shows 

Created 6 new multimedia presentations 

Played 3 big band concerts (pre-lockdown)

Produced 2 virtual arts education festivals 

Survived 1 surreal, bottle episode of a year!

2019 BY THE NUMBERS 

304,000 
steps walked 
47,500 

miles traveled 

13,000 
friends and
subscribers 
756
comic books
collected 
238
musicians
hired 
173
performances
on tour 
53
workshops and
classroom visits 
41
sideman
appearances 
39
vocalist
collaborations 
30 
sold-out
shows 
27
youth and
family programs 

19
feature articles
and reviews 
12
arts education
residencies 

9
big band
concerts 

7
music
festivals 
6
jazz + film
events 
3
new compositions 
1
epic
year

Thank you for sharing these memorable milestones. 

Here's to more musical adventures ahead. 

Happy New Year! ~Dmitri