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MEETING LELA | PART 2 — CHATTANOOGA 

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

—Alexander McQueen 

 

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

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

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

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

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

I already knew what he would say.

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

Same old stubborn Daddy Bill.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Lela Bryson Ault
July 26, 1878
Dec 12, 1953


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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 3 — MORE FAMOUS THAN YOU 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He much more famous than you.”

 

Next:
FAME! PART 4 — JUST SOME JAZZ GUY

FROM THE ARCHIVES 

On This Day

 

March 1, 1996

5/4 Magazine

In Seattle: Dmitri Matheny

By Joseph Murphy

 

Sometimes, in distinguishing stylists and recordings, it's the little things that stand out...more

 

March 1, 1996

JazzTimes Magazine

Dmitri Matheny Red Reflections

By Jim Ferguson

 

With the exception of drummer Alan Jones, who plays with David Friesen...more

 


March 1, 1998

Workshop @ The JazzSchool

Four Pillars of Success In The Jazz Business

Part 1, Publicity: Ann Dyer, Merrilee Trost, Jon Yanofsky

Berkeley, California

 

March 1, 1998

Concert @ The Jazzschool

Bill Douglass & Friends
Berkeley, California

 

March 1, 1999

Jazz at Pearl's 

World Premiere: Savannah Panorama

Contemporary Jazz Orchestra
San Francisco, California

 

March 1, 2000

Monterey Herald

Christmas Tunes in March

By Mac McDonald

 

I never thought I’d be listening to a Christmas album in the beginning of spring...more


March 1, 2000

Oakland Tribune

Flugelhornist Dmitri Matheny Pays Tribute To His Mentor, Art Farmer

By Christina Eng

 

Dmitri Matheny got his first instrument, a trumpet, when he was 9...more

 

March 1, 2003

Concert & Workshop @ The Jazzschool

Amina Figarova International Band

Berkeley, California

FROM THE ARCHIVES 

November 1, 1987
New Voice Jazz Sextet
Ryles Inman Square
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Dmitri Matheny, flugelhorn
Mark Gross, alto saxophone
Jack Wright, tenor saxophone
Mitch Hampton, piano
Peter Herbert, bass
Hans Schuman, drums

November 1, 1995
Windplayer Magazine
Your Most Difficult Playing Situation
By P. Helou

Dmitri Matheny has played on stage, on different occasions, with the Temptations, Fabian, Martha Reeves and Sam Rivers...more

November 1, 1998
All About Jazz
Dmitri Matheny: Starlight Café
By Jim Santella

Recorded live at La Note Café and Restaurant Provencal in Berkeley, California earlier this year, Dmitri Matheny’s third album...more

November 1, 1998
All About Jazz
Dmitri Matheny: Starlight Café
By Joel Roberts

Already tabbed a "Talent Deserving Wider Recognition" in the 1998 Down Beat Critics Poll, flugelhornist Dmitri Matheny seems on the verge of establishing himself as a major new jazz star...more

November 1, 1999
Public Radio International
Interview with Dmitri Matheny
By Lauren Craft

Dmitri Matheny was virtually unknown when his first album was released five years ago, but in a matter of weeks he was topping the jazz radio charts and selling out concert halls from New York to Warsaw...more

November 1, 2003
Amina Figarova International Band
Cultureel Café Bacchus
Aalsmeer, the Netherlands

Amina Figarova, piano
Bart Platteau, flutes
Dmitri Matheny, flugelhorn
Ruth Davies, bass
Chris Strik, drums

IN THE NEWS 



Arizona Daily Star
October 25, 2012
Jazz Noir Inspired By Crime Shows
By Chuck Graham

Known for his warm tone, soaring lyricism and masterful technique, flugelhorn artist Dmitri Matheny will go searching for poignant moments of jazz noir...more


Explorer News
October 25, 2012
Dmitri Matheny at Tohono Chul Park

Inspired by espionage and underworld movie music, Dmitri Matheny’s “Crime Scenes”...more

Tucson Weekly
October 24, 2012
Sax Under A Streetlight: Crime Scenes | Jazz Noir With Dmitri Matheny
By Mariana Dale

As a teenager living in Tucson in the late 1970s, it was hard to nurture dreams...more