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Santa Fe was a stone groove!
Highlights: sold-out show at Club Legato (woo hoo!), giant metal statue of Scout (my kinda public art!), and the best fish tacos in the world. Thanks JT! #BumblebeeBobForever
Now comes the fun part: the vantastic homeward journey of 2,000 miles, through five states, in three days! From New Mexico, through Arizona, California, and Oregon, and all the way back home to Washington State.
I’m so glad we did this.
“Beware the Court of Owls, that watches all the time,
Ruling from a shadow perch, behind granite and lime.”
When Mr. Higgins told me how the Owl Club boasts many prominent artists and musicians among its members, I was skeptical.
I figured there are probably a small number of movie actors and rock stars sprinkled among their highfalutin order. I imagined that any artist members would have to be the type of mainstream celebrities that impress rich people and share their classist, politically conservative views. Even the pedigree of someone like Gordon Fleecing (British, famous) fit with my assumptions about this not-so-secret society.
But learning that Sweets — one of my personal heroes! — was a member? This blew my mind.
Because Sweets is not some rich white guy, mind you, but an African-American gentleman of modest means. Not a business mogul but a retired school teacher. Not a celebrity so much as a master craftsman, highly respected among our peers in the community of musicians. Hard-working. Dignified. Sincere. Real.
For all my trepidation about this club and groups in general, I must admit that his involvement intrigued me.
It’s springtime in San Francisco, and another typical workday in my three-ring circus of a life. Morning at the festival office dealing with demanding sponsors. Afternoon at the record company dealing with complacent distributors. Evening on the bandstand dealing with this unforgiving horn.
The plates never stop spinning and I always feel as if I’m neglecting something or someone somewhere. But tonight brings a welcome pause in the routine. After our show an audience member approaches the stage and offers to buy me a drink.
His name is Gregory. He’s a guitarist. We barely know one another, yet he speaks to me with the warm familiarity of an old friend. He asks how I’ve been, inquires about my wife and family, and shares some intimate personal details of his own.
Delighted to have made a new friend, I sip my single malt as we sit together, chatting amiably until the lights come up and the club empties out. In the parking lot Gregory hands me a small envelope.
“We're having a party in the city tomorrow,” he says. “You should come.”
As he drives away I open the envelope. Inside is a thick card embossed with raised lettering: Cocktails In The Cartoon Room.
I’ve never heard of the place, and there’s no address on the invitation, but in the lower righthand corner is the now familiar telltale symbol: the Owl of Athena.
Well I’ll be damned.
The Cartoon Room, it turns out, is no place for introverts like me.
I’ve been here before. This massive barroom, with its chaotic jumble of paintings and posters, was overwhelming on my first visit, but tonight the place is packed, shoulder-to-shoulder, with glad-handing, back-slapping, martini-swilling men, all laughing and shouting over the sounds of big band jazz.
I scan the room for Gregory (no luck) then jostle my way through the crowd and up to the long redwood bar. Before I can utter a word the bartender casually greets me by name.
“Mr. Matheny. So glad you could make it.” He pushes a tumbler of amber liquid across the counter. “Lagavulin, neat, yes?” A stranger who knows my name and my drink. What sorcery is this?
I'm about three fingers in when the far wall slides open to reveal a 25-piece swing orchestra in mid-shout chorus, capped off by a tasty trumpet solo from none other than Sweets Allen. The room erupts into boisterous applause.
How wonderful! I assumed the music was piped-in, but it’s live, and excellent. I recognize several of the musicians. Are they all members, I wonder, or hired help?
I want to pay my respects to Sweets and the other musicians, but I’m unable to get to them through the throng. The place is a madhouse. The guy who invited me isn’t here. The whole situation feels peculiar, like I’m supposed to do something, but I don’t for the life of me know what it is. So I stay about an hour, making awkward small talk with strangers, until the claustrophobia kicks in and the crowd becomes too much to bear.
As I cross the Bay Bridge home I ponder my perplexing experience in the parliament of owls.
“I felt like Alice going through the looking-glass,” I confess to my wife over dinner.
“They were clearly expecting me but nobody said anything.”
She raises an eyebrow. “Maybe it was some kind of test.”
“If so,” I reply, “Then I most definitely failed.”
We'll be back again in April with
THE OWL CLUB PART 6:
INTO THE WOODS!
“I hide in plain sight.
Same as you.”
I’m not a superstitious person by nature, but I was raised in the south where even educated folks recognize the power of signs and omens. Charlie’s gift of a tiny silver owl felt like such a signifier to me: a talisman of unknown provenance and portent.
I began to carry the mysterious little figurine in my pocket, where it would gently jingle against my mouthpiece and pocket change as I walked. I carried it everywhere, like a good luck charm, and it seemed to be working. Within a few short years I’d established myself in San Francisco as a working musician, and had sold enough sponsorships to increase our jazz festival budget ten fold.
In hindsight, this was during the tech boom of the early 1990s. Gigs were plentiful then because there were so many gainfully employed young people looking for a night out, and donations were up, too. The dot com bubble was expanding, the stock market was booming, and corporate support for the arts was ascendant. Bay Area businesses needed somewhere to park all that extra cash. Why not a nonprofit that offers exciting social events and a tax write off? It was an easy sell.
I didn’t have that perspective at the time, however. Naively I thought I’d cracked the code! I felt powerful, like a double agent: professional jazz musician by night, hot shot sponsorship salesman by day. Oblivious to the unseen economic forces that conspired to pave my way, I credited my own skill and hustle, with perhaps just a little bit of secret “owl luck” thrown in for good measure.
Over time my magical thinking grew deeper, abetted by echoes. Not only was I carrying the owl totem in my pocket, but I also began to notice similar statuettes in the executive offices of prospective sponsors.
I would be in mid-pitch, sitting across from some corporate mucky-muck, when I would look over at the shelf behind them, and there it would be: another owl statue. I never said anything, but on more than one occasion I sensed a subtle nod or look of acknowledgment when I spied the owl.
Like, I saw it. They saw me see it. Now what?
It’s Tuesday night in San Francisco, and I don’t have a gig of my own, so I’m headed over to Sonny’s Place in North Beach to hear the incomparable flugelhornist Sweets Allen.
For true fans of lyrical swing, it gets no better than Sweets and his honey-toned horn. He’s the real deal, a veteran soloist from the bands of Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, and Tony Bennett. Now in his 70s, Sweets is one of San Francisco’s most beloved musicians and one of the last great gentleman of jazz.
For me, Tuesdays at Sonny’s are like graduate school. I rarely miss the chance to attend one of these weekly masterclasses.
Tonight Sweets is really living up to his name. His improvised lines are powerfully simple, pure, soulful, logical, and undeniably joyful. The warmth of his sound and the smile on his face combine to lift the spirits of everyone in the club.
On the break I motion for him to join me at my table. Like my father, Sweets is a former school teacher, a wise elder who doesn’t mind sharing his accumulated knowledge. He patiently answers all my questions about music and life.
“The main thing is to tell a story,” he advises, tapping his finger on the table for emphasis. “But it’s not like reciting a poem or singing a song. It’s got to be your story.”
“Just be real,” he adds, “and never let the naysayers get you down. They’re everywhere, so keep your head on a swivel.”
“Like an owl,” I say quietly.
“Precisely,” he smiles, standing.
“Which reminds me,” he adds before returning to the bandstand.
“A little birdie told me you may be joining us.”
“Open your minds, my friends.
We all fear what we do not understand.”
Charlie Higgins leads me by the arm into a space entirely unlike the rest of this mysterious fortress.
The dining room is sunny, warm, and elbow-to-elbow with convivial groups of men in business attire, eating, drinking, talking and laughing.
“This is us,” Charlie says as we approach a corner table where a couple of seated gentlemen rise to greet us. “Let me introduce you to two of the original hep cats, Walt Connor and Will Cooley. Gentlemen, this is Dmitri Matheny.” We all shake hands and sit down together.
At each place setting a single card embossed with the now familiar OC logo offers a simple selection of steak, seafood, sandwiches, and salads. I’m delighted. Since moving to San Francisco from Boston a few years ago I’ve enjoyed a steady diet of international and vegetarian fare. I’ve even learned to appreciate California cuisine with its requisite avocado, pine nuts and sun-dried tomatoes. But I was raised on American comfort food from cafeterias and diners. This is my kind of menu.
Nevertheless, I decide to order something I’ve never tried before, a Crab Louie Salad. Based on the name, I’m fairly certain that I will enjoy at least two thirds of it.
Over lunch, Charlie cheerfully embodies his role as table host, guiding the conversation so as to include everyone. In spite of our difference in age (I’m in my late 20s and they’re all in their 60s) we all get along swimmingly.
Curiously, no one discusses business. Charlie, the candy magnate, talks about his experience as a paratrooper in World War II. Will, a Southern California real estate developer, holds forth about Stan Getz and his involvement in the committee for jazz at Stanford University. Walt, an author and photographer (who may or may not also be heir to a large national department store fortune) speaks with authority about the forgotten history of jazz on the Barbary Coast. I mostly listen, fascinated by these wise old owls.
As coffee is served, Charlie casually turns the conversation to the unique history and ethos of the Owl Club. Unlike other quote-unquote secret societies and fraternal organizations, Charlie explains, we aren't centered around a particular industry, sport, or school, but a common interest in nature and the arts.
“Our membership roster includes not only prominent businessmen and CEOs,” Charlie says proudly, “but writers, journalists, military heroes, politicians, global leaders, and many well-known artists and musicians.”
I'm intrigued. “But no women?”
Charlie smiles. “You know, a hundred twenty years ago when this club was founded, men tended to stay in their unhappy marriages. They needed clubs like this as an escape. Of course these days, if you aren’t happily married, you get a divorce. That’s why so many of our happily married members are now requesting more events to which they can bring their spouses.”
Taking this as my cue, I pull the glossy jazz festival sponsorship brochure from my breast pocket and lay it on the table. I’m just about to begin my pitch when Charlie interrupts me, raising his hand and saying, “no-no-no, not here.” A red-vested waiter immediately approaches to ask that I “kindly put away the literature.”
“I’m sorry, I thought …” I stammer, befuddled.
“We can discuss all that later,” Charlie replies magnanimously.
At precisely this moment, as if responding to a silent alarm, everyone stands to say their goodbyes. I stand too, shaking hands with Will and Walt, who leave together.
Charlie places his arm around my shoulder and ushers me back through the grand foyer, past the empty bar with its mad jumble of framed art, to the dark alcove where I first entered the building. It looks somehow different to me now. Less off-putting. More cozy.
“What a pleasure,” I say. “Thanks for lunch.”
“Ah! I almost forgot!” Charlie replies, reaching into his pocket. He retrieves a small box, about 4 inches in diameter, wrapped in white paper. “This is for you.”
On my way back to the jazz office, I stop by the piano bar at Kuleto’s, my favorite Union Square watering hole. I find a seat by the fireplace and order a bourbon, neat, feeling not unlike a noir detective at the beginning of a perplexing new case.
I unwrap the mysterious gift box, genuinely curious what I will find inside.
Perhaps some chocolate truffles from Charlie's candy company? But no.
I place the heavy totem onto the table in front of me and study it.
No card, no explanation.
Just a tiny silver owl.
“Weaving spiders, come not here;
Hence, you long-legg'd spinners, hence!
Beetles black, approach not near;
Worm nor snail, do no offence.”
The Owl Club’s downtown headquarters, a stately ivy-covered red brick building off Union Square, turns out to be just a short walk from our jazz festival offices south of Market.
I’m curious, of course, why Charlie Higgins invited me here, but truth be told I have my own agenda. Based on the Fleecing concert, many of our city’s business leaders and arts patrons are apparently members of this club. In fundraising parlance, this place could be what’s known as a “happy hunting ground.”
I stand before the club entrance and study the large bronze plaque beside the door. It’s a Great Horned Owl in bas relief, its wings outstretched. In welcome or warning? I wonder.
I open the heavy wooden door and enter the dark chamber. It's drafty and deserted, with no signs of life other than the warm glow of a single unattended fireplace along one wall. Am I early? Guess I’ll have a look around.
From the grand foyer with its high vaulted ceilings, I take in the antique lighting fixtures, wood paneled walls, tall shelves of leather bound books, and low mahogany tables surrounded by clusters of empty armchairs. Down a quiet hallway I find sitting rooms and salons, meeting rooms, galleries, a music library, even a small theater, but no dining room and no people. Not a living soul.
Across the hall is a beautiful redwood cocktail bar, also unoccupied, yet entirely overpopulated with visual art in what can only be described as a surreal assault on the senses. The walls of this room are literally covered, floor to ceiling, with a chaotic jumble of ancient oils, sylvan landscapes, faded portraits, sepia photographs, and dozens of hand-painted event posters, all of them adorned with whimsical cartoons and carnival words. Carefree! Frolic! Hi-jinks! It’s dizzying.
I pick up a bar napkin to wipe my brow and notice the logo: it’s the Owl of Athena in profile flanked by the initials O and C. This is definitely the place, so where the hell is everybody? I feel like that guy in The Twilight Zone, only instead of wandering solo through Mayberry I’ve somehow stumbled into a haunted saloon or abandoned hotel.
But am I really alone? Because I feel like I’m being watched.
That’s when it hits me. I realize with a shudder that all around me, looking at me from every corner, are the eyes of owls. Owls staring from every shelf, peering out from the paintings and posters, glaring down from a stained glass window. Owl faces printed on the wallpaper, carved into the wainscoting, even woven into the very carpet beneath my feet.
Most unsettling of all is the large bronze owl shape directly in front of me. It has no face at all, just a blunt featureless void, giving the impression of both a very modern abstract sculpture and an ancient idol of the pagan underworld.
“Beautiful creatures,” intones the familiar voice of my host, suddenly standing right next to me.
“Fierce hunters, too,” he goes on. “They can swallow their prey whole, bones and all. I’ve seen it!”
“You sound hungry, Chuck” I say.
“Let’s eat,” he replies.
A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s heaven for?
About a year ago I wrote an obituary for my father.
I sorted through his letters and personal papers, created a list of his educational and professional accomplishments, and attempted to fashion the mercurial vagabond voyage that was his life into some sort of cohesive linear narrative.
I tried my best, but tributes never quite capture a subject’s true essence. This is especially the case with Daddy Bill, a great man who eschewed all markers of greatness. He didn’t care a whit about fame, gain, or material success.
The part of his obit that feels 100% right to me is this:
Throughout his life, Matheny generously shared his love of nature with others,
inspiring many of his students, friends and family members to develop their own
deep appreciation for the natural world. This is his great and lasting legacy.
That legacy was underscored for me by the many people who reached out personally to tell me what Bill Matheny had meant to them. There’s no question: the man was beloved. He died without property or prestige, but his reach was wide. He will long be remembered as someone who made a positive difference in the lives of others.
Unlike my Dad, I’ve always been ambitious and more than a little selfish. I knew better than to expect fame or fortune, but all my life I’ve worked harder than most of my contemporaries, powered by “main character syndrome” and the sincere belief that I was on track to become an historically significant artist.
I now understand that goal to be unrealistic.
Mind you, I’m a far better musician than I used to be. My new album will be my best, and I’m not done yet! I'll continue to strive for incremental improvement, greater authenticity, and soul.
But my talents are limited. At age 56, there simply aren’t enough years left for me to join my jazz heroes on Mount Olympus. Instead, I now hope to live up to my father’s simple example of sharing with, and inspiring, others.
Like the song says, “the greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.”
Recommit to OMAD, black coffee, and portion control.
Plant new salad vegetables in the garden.
Walk every day before the evening meal.
Curtail alcohol consumption.
Prioritize memory work.
Perform mostly songs from the new album.
Expand melodic range in both directions.
Arrange Joni Mitchell material for Holly.
Write songs for top Indiegogo backers.
Study Nelson Riddle's orchestration.
Practice Beleza duo repertoire.
Arrange for album design, distribution, promotion, and marketing.
Maintain tourbus with regular servicing, repairs, and upgrades.
Apply for touring, residency, and commissioning grants.
Schedule tours and album release events.
Purchase a backup horn.
Reduce debt by 25%.
Make an emergency response plan.
Write a blog post every week.
Invest in home security.
Make time for friends.
To Georgia ... From Arizona
The Georgia clay bank
would surely erode
Except for the Chinaberry tree
standing stark against the sky
A sunflower bloomed
outside my patio door
The sunflower was you
September, somehow the saddest of months
except for October —
exquisite, mournful October
Bringer of beautiful Autumn
Now the mid-life crisis
takes a strange and different turn
Some would say I’m crazy
though I would tend to doubt it
Living on the fringe of civilization
like a desert cat
I expend little energy
to find my food
Trying to keep in touch
with the few friends I have
I feel everything slipping
away from me
Would you please
keep me informed
of any change of address
Even after you marry?
I promise not to interfere
with your new life
Just to know
where you are
how you are
To hear from you
once in a while
will be enough
I can find
the minor key
in any song
I live my life
in a minor key
to the freedom
of being alone
I sit and suffer
I mull over
all the things
that have happened
And wonder why
God, I have become
a desperate scribbler of lines
Who doesn’t know whether
he creates or not except for
A simple declarative act of love
becomes a cliché
My head is full of poems
But they won’t come out straight
They are muddled
I lie on the desert floor
Looking at the Arizona night sky
Looking at the myriad of stars
That appear so
clear and clean and close
Enough to touch
Maybe if I could
Then the thoughts
should come out
clear and clean
Perhaps if I could touch a star
A poem would come out right
this Golden Land
of Eternal Sunshine
But I’ve had enough
Of sitting in the sun
A sunflower bloomed
Outside my patio door
The sunflower was you
“What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?”
When the time came for Daddy Bill to move into hospice care, it fell to me to clean out his stark little studio apartment.
The task didn’t take long. I’d planned to rent a storage unit for his stuff, but this turned out to be entirely unnecessary. In the man’s eighty-something trips around the sun, he only accumulated enough possessions to fill a few small boxes.
I was amazed. Not by Dad’s extreme minimalism (don’t forget I used to live with the guy), but by the eloquence of the items he deemed precious enough to keep. In his closet was a sleeping bag, camp stove and hand crank portable radio. Everything else was arranged in neat little dust-covered piles around the room. He had an axe, a battered pair of binoculars, an old fly rod, a few books and compact discs, a coffee cup, some framed photographs, a pocket knife, and a small leather pouch. That’s about it.
The pouch was empty, but when I opened the drawstring to look inside, the familiar scent of Middleton’s Cherry Blend brought tears to my eyes. I was about nine years old when we last visited the Schley Family Farm in Georgia. I still remember sitting next to Daddy Bill, watching with rapt attention as Dr. Schley used his leather-crafting tools to carefully cut, punch and sew the pouch together. Once finished, he ceremoniously presented the soft little bag to my father, as if it was some kind of totem or talisman imbued with magic powers. The Schleys were important people in the Brookstone community, and Dad treasured this handmade gift. He stored his pipe tobacco in that leather pouch for years.
In a drawer under the sink I found a mishmash of papers: old bank statements, love letters, canceled checks, poems, his birding “life list” handwritten on a yellow legal pad, and a stack of picture postcards, many of them from me, which had once adorned the thumbtack-covered walls of his Graham County hermit house. Resting on top, like a paperweight, was a small carved wooden sign: White Thorn Gallery.
As far back as my great-great-grandfather, the Matheny men were all expert craftsmen. Daddy Bill and his brother Jim grew up working alongside their father in the Matheny Cabinet Shop, building and restoring heirloom furniture in mahogany, oak, walnut, cherry, maple and cedar. Almost everyone in our extended family today has at least one precious Matheny antique at home.
But the only furniture my father owned at the end of his life was a single reclining armchair, purchased for him a few years ago by a generous friend. Everything else had long since been given away. He was funny that way. He gave all our furniture to one of his stepdaughters. He gave our car to my friend Kent. I have no doubt the old man would’ve eventually given that recliner away, too.
So I followed his example and left that chair behind for the next tenant. I slipped my father’s poetry into my backpack, and boxed up the rest, stacking everything in the corner of Nedra’s garage for safekeeping.
I suppose I’ll come back for that leather pouch someday.
And maybe that fishing pole, too.
I miss you, Daddy Bill.
“The foundation of any national character is human nature.”
Of all the many magical places I’ve encountered in my travels, Kinkaku-ji, Kyoto’s Temple of the Golden Pavilion, is one of the most magnificent. Set in a classical strolling garden by a reflective pond, the temple’s design is strikingly opulent yet perfectly integrated into the surrounding landscape.
Although I’ve only visited the historic world heritage site twice, I return so often in mind and memory that it has become comfortingly familiar. For me, this temple achieves what the great cathedrals of Europe do not. Instead of making one feel small and insignificant, Kinkaku-ji inspires a profound feeling of gratitude and connection to the natural world, inviting contemplation of one’s own role in the cosmos. As above, so below.
Kinkaku-ji is a wonder of architecture and aesthetics. Each section of the three-story structure represents a different historical period and point of view. The first level, named Chamber of Dharma Waters, is rendered in the natural wood and white paneled shinden style of eleventh century imperial aristocracy, with verandas and open areas that bring the outdoors inside. The second story, called Tower of Sound Waves, is built in the tenth century manner of samurai warriors, with sliding doors and mullioned windows intended to convey evanescence. The top floor, Cupola of the Ultimate, is constructed in the twelfth century zen style suggesting meditation and spiritual insight. The top two levels are completely covered in shining gold leaf. Taken collectively, this singular architectural marvel confers both respect for nature and an awareness of the fragile, fleeting nature of existence.
But it’s the luminous golden reflection of the temple on the surface of the pond that I find most compelling. The image remains constant as the seasons change. Even before you view the relics and treasures within, the building’s exterior design eloquently communicates the Japanese ideals of shokunin (craftsmanship, pursuit of perfection), wabi (understated elegance), sabi (the beauty of impermanence), yugen (mystery, grace) and ma (negative space, emptiness, and silence).
Kinkaku-ji is a truly remarkable place. It’s also where I learned a valuable lesson about the absurdity of stereotypes and the gentle power of humor.
A light rain was falling as I quietly admired the temple with my new friend Masa, an expert on buddhist culture who also happens to be the husband of a favorite visual artist), when our silent contemplation was suddenly interrupted by a boisterous busload of Japanese tourists. They tumbled out of the bus, photographers all, and immediately began to laugh and shout as they joyfully took pictures of one another on the temple grounds.
I was offended by what I perceived as an inappropriate and unwelcome assault on my reverie. Kinkaku-ji is a sacred place! They should know better, I thought. But when I looked to my guide he was grinning ear-to-ear, delighted with their arrival. I wondered how he could remain so cheerful in the face of this intrusion.
“You don’t find them rude?” I asked, as yet another cluster of giggling girls pushed past us to pose in front of the temple. They squealed gleefully and flashed peace signs as their male companions snapped photo after photo.
“This is a happy place,” Masa explained, smiling benevolently. “Why shouldn’t they be happy?”
Of course he’s right, I realized. Embarrassed by my own foolishness, I tried to make a joke.
“Hey Masa, you’re Japanese. Where’s your camera?”
He replied without hesitation.
“Well, you’re American...where’s your gun?”
“All of us labor in webs spun
long before we were born.”
The next morning I asked Lela the question that had kept me awake most of the night. “Same repertoire? What did you mean by that?”
She smiled. “Well, you played Stormy Weather, My One And Only Love, and I’m Beginning To See The Light ... I did all those same tunes!”
“What do you mean, you did those tunes?” I asked. “When? How? Where?”
Her face registered genuine surprise. “You knew I was a singer, didn’t you?”
“No, ma’am. I mean, I found some pictures of you in high school,” I stammered, “you know, singing musical theater stuff, but…”
“Oh, honey! I was a jazz singer! Your father used to come to my gigs. That’s how we met!” she laughed. “Where did you think your gifts came from?”
You could have knocked me over with a feather.
“Lela, honestly, I always figured it was Dad’s record collection that set me on this path. Sketches of Spain, Round About Midnight, Kind of Blue…”
“Ooh, that’s just like him!” she interrupted, shaking her head. “First of all, those were my Miles Davis records.” She paused a moment. “He never told you? Really?”
Nope. He told me you were crazy. He said you were a criminal. He said you “ran off in the middle of the night” and told me we were better off without you. But no, he never once mentioned anything about you singing jazz.
Was it even true? Or was this just another of Lela’s tall tales?
I was determined to find out. After she returned home to the midwest, I drove out to Daddy Bill's Hermit House to see if I could verify her story. I was a man on a mission. The three-hour drive through the Lonesome Desert gave me plenty of time to consider how I might broach the subject with my old man.
I arrived in the late afternoon to find him hunched over a bucket on his front porch, methodically shelling and cracking pecans with his blistered, blackened fingers. Pecan trees grew wild in the scrubby chaparral of Graham County. It had become Dad’s habit to harvest the nuts each autumn and gift large bags of them to family and friends during the winter holidays. I admired his resourcefulness.
“Hey Bub!” Daddy Bill greeted me cheerily. “You’re just in time.”
He handed me a Sam Adams from the cooler. “Don't tell the Mormons,” he said with a wink.
Another glorious Arizona sunset.
“So. Dad. How did it feel to see Lela again after all these years?”
He gazed thoughtfully into the distance. “Welp. She got old.”
“You and I aren’t getting any younger either,” I laughed. “Anyway, did y’all have a good talk at the concert?”
“She did most of the talking,” he said, adding “you know how she is.” He kicked a pile of pecan shells off the porch.
“Right. Listen, Dad. Lela told me she used to be a jazz singer.”
My father rolled his eyes. “Aww, she was what we used to call a torch singer. But that was a long time ago. Before you were born.”
“So it’s true?” I asked, astonished. “You didn't think your son -- the musician -- might want to know about that?”
“Why would you care?” he said dismissively. “She wasn’t a big deal or anything. She just sang in nightclubs with her little combo.”
“Dad…what exactly do you think I do for a living?”
“It’s good to know where you come from.
It makes you what you are today.
It’s DNA. It’s in your blood.”
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.”
“Sometimes I feel like a motherless child,
a long, long way from home.”
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.
“That’s the great thing about being a teenager.
You think you’re a genius.”
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.”
“Your vibe attracts your tribe.”
“We go back like car seats.”
It can’t be an easy thing to raise a son.
It’s a balancing act. To help him find his way in life while also allowing him the freedom to fail. To provide advantages and opportunities without coddling or spoiling him. To encourage excellence without setting unrealistic standards. To teach him both self-confidence and humility. To know when to protect him, when to counsel him, and when to let him face adversity alone. To balance his needs with your own.
My father did his best. In 1978 when he decided to relocate us to Arizona, he had his reasons. He was heartbroken, depressed, and needed a change. The move proved troublesome for me, but I don’t begrudge Dad needing to prioritize his own mental and emotional health. It was never his intention to sabotage my education or put me in harm’s way. Kids are resilient. He knew I would adapt.
It didn’t take Daddy Bill long, however, to realize that Marana was no place for either of us. He loved to teach but was spending most of his time enforcing classroom rules and trying to maintain order. I loved to learn but none of my classes were interesting, and I was always on guard, looking over my shoulder for the next attack.
Dad resolved to seek employment elsewhere as soon as his contract was up, and promised he would find a better school for me in Tucson the following year. In the meantime it was my job to survive seventh grade at Marana Junior High.
Fortunately, life got easier for me at Marana. There was still plenty of student-on-student violence but somehow I was no longer a target. Is it because I carried myself differently after I’d learned a few moves? Possibly, but the more likely explanation is that I was spared because I finally made the right friends.
I met Jack in Reading class (no joke, the class was called “reading”), and we hit it off immediately. Jack was different from the other kids. Like me, he was a displaced southerner (his family came from Virginia) with an artistic bent and diverse interests. He was smart, articulate, creative, and funny as hell. He was also an excellent writer. In fact, the only time I ever got in trouble at Marana, it wasn’t for fighting, but for laughing at one of Jack’s hilarious short stories.
Jack was smart, articulate, creative, and funny as hell.
“Settle down, Dmitri,” said Mrs. Woods.
“Yes, ma’am,” I replied.
“Don’t back-talk me! You go to the principal’s office right now!” she demanded.
I told Principal Dewey that Mrs. Woods had misinterpreted my sincere polite response as sarcasm. “It’s how I was raised,” I explained. “At my old school in Georgia, you’d get in trouble if you didn’t say yes ma’am.”
“Well, you’re here now. Lose that habit,” he said. “And I still have to give you detention for disrupting class.”
“Yes, sir,” I replied, true to my roots.
A few days later my new friend Jack introduced me to his pal Bennie, a charismatic football player with a winning smile and a terrific sense of humor. Bennie had cracked the code on how to flirt, too, and all the girls giggled whenever he was around. Ben’s upbeat attitude was infectious. I liked him right away and the three of us soon became fast friends. It didn’t surprise me at all when I later found out my new companions also happened to be Dad’s favorite English Lit students.
Bennie’s upbeat attitude was infectious.
No fights found me after I started hanging out with Bennie and Jack. In a school where sports participation is one of the only real forms of social currency, the two of them were well-liked student athletes. They seemed to get along with everybody, even the so-called bad kids. I must have benefitted by association. Plus, Jack was taller than almost everyone else in our class. Nobody messed with him.
We were the original three amigos. We hung out everyday at school and sometimes on the weekends. I liked to draw comic books for fun back then and remember creating Jack Fox and Blazin’ Ben as their superhero alter egos.
For all its faults, Marana did one thing 100% right: almuerzo, or as we called it, lonche. Twenty-five cents would get you a man-sized portion of delicious Sonoran food, served up fresh daily in the school cafeteria. The ladies in the kitchen took great pride in their work and prepared a different main course for us each day: carnitas, tamales, machaca, fajitas, chile rellenos, enchiladas verdes, and more, always with a generous helping of frijoles refritos con arroz. Damn, I loved those Marana lunches.
Damn, I loved those Marana lunches.
The other thing that made lunchtime so great was the game we always played. Bennie, Jack and I, and occasionally our friend Kevin, would take turns trying to make each other laugh with ridiculous jokes, silly voices and wordplay. Sometimes we would mimic absurd Steve Martin comedy routines or reenact entire skits by the Not Ready For Prime Time Players. Invariably we’d all end up doubled over in fits of laughter. The game never ended until the bell rang or Bennie spit milk out of his nose. Big fun.
I loved those guys then and I love them still.
I had no way of knowing, at the time, that Bennie would grow up to become one of the west coast's most popular radio personalities, or that he and his wife would generously let me stay with them while I found my first apartment in San Francisco. I couldn’t have known that Ben would one day introduce me to the O’Jays (with whom I would have the honor of working some years later), or how supportive he would be over the course of my future music career. I didn’t know that Ben and I would remain friends for life.
And I certainly had no way of knowing, at the time, that Jack and I were destined to attend the same high school in Tucson, become college roommates in Boston, and remain close as adults as we both pursued careers in the performing arts. I couldn’t have known how much time we would spend playing in bands with each other, or discovering music together over many late nights at the turntable, poring over liner notes as we listened to his excellent collection of classic jazz on vinyl. I didn’t know we would one day stand up as “best man” at each other’s weddings, or that we would continue to confide in one another, sharing our troubles and triumphs well into late middle age. I didn’t know that Jack would be my best friend forever.
All I knew was that I had finally found my tribe. I'm not sure whether I ever told them how our alliance had saved me. Jack and Ben made an otherwise miserable year not only bearable, but memorable in the best possible way.
On December 25, my father and I celebrated the holiday on our balcony, grilling steaks and listening to our favorite seasonal album, Ella Wishes You A Swinging Christmas. After dinner we watched as heavy, dark clouds rolled over the valley, showering the desert with a wondrous cleansing rain.
We watched as heavy, dark clouds rolled over the valley,
showering the desert with a wondrous cleansing rain.
The winter cloudburst felt auspicious, like a baptism or benediction.
“Merry Christmas, Daddy Bill,” I said.
“Happy Birthday, Bub,” he said. “You’re a teenager now.”
“Yes, sir,” I replied, true to my roots.
“Remember, you’re not alone.
You’re part of an international
brotherhood of artists and musicians.
We’re all in this together.”
I aspire to be a Citizen of the World.
A world citizen is a xenophile whose identity transcends geography. Rather than swearing allegiance to a particular nation, ethnicity, or religion, the world citizen treats everyone with equal respect, and derives his rights and responsibilities from membership in the human race at large. He endeavors to be a man for all people.
I aspire to be a Citizen of the World.
Art Farmer was such a man. At the height of his success, as his Jazztet was winning American popularity polls, Art relocated to Vienna, Austria, then commenced to tour internationally for decades. His extensive discography includes dozens of collaborations with musicians all over the world. Near the end of his storied life and career, he was awarded both the NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship, the highest honor our nation bestows upon a jazz musician, and the prestigious Austrian Cross of Honor for Science and Art, First Class.
World Citizen Art Farmer received the highest honors in both America and Austria
Art had been an adventurer ever since he was a teen, when he and twin brother Addison set out for Los Angeles in search of their destinies. But even after many productive decades in the music business, Art never lost his humility or curiosity. He knew that his chosen career of traveling musician granted admission to the global creative class, an identity he cherished as the foundation of his enlightened worldview.
“Remember, you’re not alone,” Farmer told a room full of aspiring jazz students at Stanford University. “You’re part of an international brotherhood of artists and musicians. We’re all in this together.”
Art Farmer’s philosophy resonated deeply with me, perhaps even more than his brilliant, lyrical music. He was “beyond category,” a true Citizen of the World, and I was inspired to live by his example.
In the years since my mentor’s passing, I’ve been fortunate to enjoy many opportunities for international travel with family, friends and fellow musicians. Occasionally I experienced little more than a hotel and concert hall, but whenever time would allow, I made sure to get out, see the sights, and break bread with the locals. I’ve watched the sunrise in Tuscany, climbed the cliffs of Santorini, serenaded penguins in Patagonia, viewed fireworks over Bangkok, and listened to evening prayers echo through the streets of Jakarta. I’ve visited an artist in Kyoto, a tea master in Uji, a winemaker in Alsace and a chocolatier in Brussels. I’ve met so many fascinating people in my travels, several of whom have become lifelong friends.
I’m grateful to the bandleaders who invited me to be part of their international adventures, notably Suzan Lesna, Keiko Osamu, and especially Amina Figarova, with whom I recorded two albums and performed in a dozen different countries on tour. For several years in the late nineties and early aughts, Amina and her husband Bart generously hosted me at their home in the Netherlands each fall, an annual residency that enriched my life beyond measure. I love and admire them both as artists, friends, and world citizens.
It was my privilege to record two albums with Amina for Munich Records
Although I never became a pilot (holding out for a jetpack, I suppose), I never missed an opportunity to fly, and the long international flights were often most luxurious. Singapore Airlines provided big leather chairs, soft lighting, and an array of Asian delicacies. British Airways offered formal tea and cakes; Japan Airlines served sake and sushi. Virgin Airlines had spa treatments and sleeping pods. And KLM, my favorite, boasted a gorgeous cohort of leggy blonde stewardesses, whose fitted blue uniforms and winning smiles harkened back to the Golden Age of Air Travel.
The airports, however, were chaotic, unpleasant places. Everyone was on high alert after 9/11. Departure meant grappling with the recently formed TSA, whose agents relished their nascent power like freshly minted mall cops. Arrival meant trying to appear inconspicuous under the gaze of scowling soldiers, in full riot gear, with machine guns.
We learned to allow an extra hour or two for security screening, during which agents would empty our bags, disassemble our instruments, pat us down and shout commands over the hum of x-ray scanners. “Empty your pockets! Take off your belt and shoes! No liquids!” On one occasion I was pulled out of line, strip-searched down to my socks, and interrogated. “What is this?” barked the agent, holding up my tiny bottle of valve oil. “And exactly what sort of name is Dmitri?” he demanded suspiciously, squinting at the random assortment of stamps in my passport.
But it wasn’t always so bad. One of my favorite airport memories was arriving in Baku, Azerbaijan for the 2002 Caspian Sea Jazz Festival. I’d been working with Amina for several years, and was thrilled to see her ancestral homeland for the first time. I wanted to find out what sort of Silk Road Shangri-La could produce such a regal, charismatic bandleader. I nicknamed Amina “The Diva,” and often teased her about her aristocratic lineage and manner, but I didn’t fully appreciate where she was coming from until that day.
We arrived in Baku exhausted, to long lines of weary, grey-faced travelers. Prepared for a long wait at customs, we took our place at the back of the crowd. Suddenly a dapper gentleman in a dark suit appeared beside us. He smiled warmly, greeted us by name, placed our passports in his breast pocket, and handed Amina a giant bouquet of flowers, kissing her on both cheeks. The distinguished official then ushered us briskly through the crowd, past customs, down a private corridor and straight outside, where a ceremonial honor guard stood waiting at attention beside a row of shiny black town cars. “Apparently Amina is kind of a big deal around here,” I muttered to no-one in particular.
I was right. The whole band was wined, dined, and treated like royalty. There were welcome gifts, guided tours, shopping excursions to the Taza Bazaar, and even a special banquet in Amina’s honor. We feasted on grilled lamb, champagne and caviar, serenaded by a traditional darbuka ensemble complete with belly dancer, who danced with all of us after dinner. The evening concluded with an astonishingly long series of celebratory cognac and vodka toasts to Amina, her family, and the band. It was a glorious evening.
the whole band was wined, dined, and treated like royalty
The festival itself was a triumph of concerts, workshops, jam sessions and creative collaboration. I’ll never forget the delightfully surreal evening we spent at the Caravan Jazz Club, where we performed the funk classic “Pass the Peas” with an international superband of Sax ’N Hop (Germany), Toots Thielemans (Belgium), our quintet (Azerbaijan, Belgium, Netherlands, USA), and half a dozen hungry young horn players.
But the great highlight was our concert at the historic Respublika Palace theater. We played our hearts out, and the band never sounded better. Amina’s modern jazz compositions, especially the ones inspired by traditional Azeri folksongs, were a huge hit with the hometown crowd. The audience cheered wildly.
the highlight was our concert at the historic Respublika Palace theater
20 years later, I still aspire to be a Citizen of the World, but no longer wish to to travel so far, or so often. Touring is a young man’s game, and my jet-setter days best be behind me.
My new dream is a little more down-to-earth. I’m now in the market for a small camper van with a bed in the back, a simple “tour bus” in which my dog Scout and I can ramble around the western states together.
We’ll take our time, travel the back roads, see the sights, and break bread with the locals.
And who knows? I might even play a gig or two.
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.
Don’t it always seem to go
that you don’t know what
you got ’til it’s gone?
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.
“if this town is just an apple
then let me take a bite”
I love New York.
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.
“Adulthood and what they call maturity is
the slow acceptance of what you will never be.”
“Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die.”
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.
“Honor the space between no longer and not yet.”
“COVID-19 has taught us that life and health are precarious.
We must not squander precious time.”
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 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?
THE HUNKER BUNKER REPORT
PART 5 — THE ROAD AHEAD
“Stars twinkle until they wrinkle.”
That was well over 20 years ago. Since then I’ve weathered many career ups and downs, working both with and without the support of managers, agents, publicists and investors.
Although I’m now a far better musician, I can definitely confirm that the accolades are much harder-won after middle age. Youth isn’t the only thing that’s wasted on the young.
I’ve learned that good fortune is evanescent, and fame, like the TV show, is fleeting. Our desire to to be known is really just the struggle to be seen. When we chase respect or renown, deep down what we really want is love.
I once heard an interview with veteran actor Sidney Poitier, in which he was asked what it’s like to be famous. “People don’t really know the man so much as the name,” he replied.
Sidney Poitier is an actor, director, producer, author, humanitarian and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom
He went on to describe a recent experience at a cafe. After taking his coffee order at the counter, the barista, an attractive young woman with piercings and tattoos, hands Poitier a cardboard voucher. “Have a seat and I’ll let you know when it’s ready,” she says.
A few minutes later she calls out his name. “Sidney Poitier? Macchiato for Sidney Poitier.” Poitier approaches the counter and hands her the chit, pleased to have been recognized. She looks at it and frowns.
“No, no, you’re Joan of Arc ... see?” She points to the name scrawled in black magic marker on the small piece of cardboard.
“Sidney Poitier!” she calls again over his shoulder.
“That’s mine,” says an Asian-American gentleman in the back of the room, handing her his chit as he approaches the counter.
Don’t you love it?
Indeed, people don’t really know the man so much as the name.
Not only that -- sometimes they don’t even know the name!
Case in point, here’s a cafe story of my own:
Not that long ago I was performing in New Mexico, one of my favorite southwest touring hubs. Following successful shows in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, I arrived in Taos, a small mountain village with a population of about 5,000. I got to town early as was my custom; the rest of my band would arrive just before soundcheck.
Holly Pyle and Dmitri Matheny at The Outpost (Albuquerque NM) photo by Joseph Berg
Upon checking in at the hotel, I went out in search of coffee and found the perfect spot. I settled into a corner table with my book and a cup of dark, rich, aromatic happiness.
“First time in Taos?” the barista asked.
“Why, do I look like a tourist?” I laughed.
“I just happen to know most of the other folks in here,” she explained.
“No, I love Taos. Been here many times,” I said.
“Have you heard about the big concert tonight?” she asked. “Everybody’s going.”
“Concert?” I asked, intrigued. “Who’s playing?”
“I dunno,” she said.
“Just some jazz guy.”
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.”