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Yesterday the Jazz Noir band rehearsed in Phoenix for our upcoming show at Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts. Scout chased a Gamble’s Quail and cooled off in front of the fan.
Today we traveled 281 miles to Gallup, New Mexico. The scenery on the drive was stunning. Highlights: snow in the White Mountains, a greasy spoon breakfast in Payson, and a lovely walk with Scout near Petrified Forest National Park.
Tomorrow’s destination: Santa Fe!
In Twentynine Palms, having tucked in for the night behind the big boys at Luckie Park, we were able to start our day with a vigorous game of fetch, or as Scout calls it, “Rowr-Roo.”
300 miles later we arrived in the Lonesome Desert just in time to witness a spectacular Arizona sunset. I’ve enjoyed sunsets all over the world, but none can compare. Thank you, Daddy Bill.
Today the Jazz Noir band rehearses in Phoenix for our upcoming show at Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts. Then Scout and I will hit the road again, this time for Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.
We've been listening to books on tape while we drive. Current selection: Dolly Parton, Songteller: My Life in Lyrics.
Nobody’s getting rich on this tour, but we’re having loads of fun, and it’s one hell of a vacation for my dog! #Forward #BoondockerBoondoggle
Yesterday Scout and I woke to the sound of raindrops on the roof of our tour bus. She tilted her head and stared up at the ceiling in wonder. I immediately fell asleep again. Rain is a terrific soporific.
Then the sun came out and announced the beginning of spring. It was a big day for my CaCo (aka Canine Companion, pronounced “Keiko”). We visited three parks: Magnolia Park in Oakley, Tex Spruiell Park in Livermore, and Joaquin Miller Park in Oakland. She charmed everyone we met, of course.
In the evening I dropped her off for a puppy party with celebrity friend Berkeley (you.see.berkeley on Instagram), and then I headed over to the Sound Room to earn a little more kibble cash.
I had a ball with pianist Ken French, bassist Ruth Davies, drummer Mark Lee, and special guests guitarist Ed Dunsavage and vocalist Cary Williams. The convivial crowd included many friends I haven’t seen in ages, including several well-known musicians.
The old Sound Room was already a favorite; this new, improved venue is even better. Thank you, Karen and Robert! We’re looking forward to returning in September for our album release celebration.
Today Scout and I hit the road for Southern California.
So far, so good.
Scout and I spent yesterday at The Klub in Glen Ellen, the exclusive wine country getaway expertly owned and managed by our dear friends Rocket, Peaches, Jasper, and Wilson. It was our first grand reunion since the beginning of the damndemic. So good.
Today I coached the San Mateo High School jazz band while Scout visited the groomer. The jazz kids were engaged, focused, and inspiring, a credit to Maestro Til, the head coach. The pup emerged from the beauty parlor looking (and smelling!) more fabulous than ever.
Tonight it’s long tones in the mobile practice room (big show tomorrow), and if we aren’t too tired, a movie before bed, preferably one that isn’t too stressful, without dogs barking in the audio track of every establishing shot.
Funny how ubiquitous those movie dogs have become. There’s one particularly distressing bark they use over and over, like the Wilhelm Scream. Let me tell you, Scout is not a fan! So we’ll do our level best to find something hopeful and barkless to send us off to dreamland.
Destination: Oakland CA
Distance: 306 miles
Lovely day yesterday traveling with my best girl through Washington and Oregon to California.
We enjoyed the rain, listened to murder mystery audiobooks, and made excellent time on I-5, considering all the pit stops for puppy walks and pie!
Today (3/15) we ease on down the road to the San Francisco Bay Area.
“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.
“Men have a desire for stability, security, repetition and order in their lives.
At the same time they have a tendency to want to flee,
to meet the adventure, and to destroy.”
I’ve never been much of a joiner.
Never had much use for clubs or cults or crowds.
Large gatherings and groupthink make me uncomfortable.
It’s one of the reasons I prefer playing an intimate jazz venue over a huge music festival. It’s why, even though I’m a serious Green Lantern collector, I can’t bring myself to attend Comic-Con. It’s why I never cared much for church or theme parks or spectator sports. It’s even why, at the apex of my Buddhism studies, I had to leave the San Francisco Zen Center. I could handle the silent sitting, but as soon as the chanting began, I got the willies and hightailed it the hell out of there.
But of all the creepy crowds I’ve ever encountered, none compare to The Owl Club.
Our story begins in the early ’90s, at San Francisco’s elegant Herbst Theater, where the brilliant blind pianist Gordon Fleecing is playing to a full house. Fleecing and his trio are in fine form, enchanting the sophisticated audience with their witty and clever takes on the Great American Songbook.
I’m standing in the wings wearing my only suit, feeling like a fraud as my boss and I peer through the curtains at the well-heeled crowd. I’m only half listening to the music, because I’m there in a professional capacity, not as a jazz musician, but as a fledgling fundraiser. I’ve recently begun writing grants and selling sponsorships for the concert’s producer, the mercurial jazz impresario Kendall Lane.
“Isn’t this great?” Kendall asks, squinting and smirking in triumph. His smile, if you can call it that, seems weirdly disingenuous, but the man has good reason to feel proud. The concert is a sold-out success and many of the city’s movers and shakers are in attendance. Tonight is a big night for our scrappy little organization.
At that moment something curious catches my attention. While improvising over the unmistakable chord changes to Autumn Leaves, Fleecing begins to play a different theme, something whimsically wistful, redolent of a European folk song.
This melody is unfamiliar to me, but a smattering of applause around the recital hall suggests that a dozen or more of our patrons have immediately recognized the song’s provenance. From our position at the side of the stage, we can see several captains of industry making eye contact with one another and nodding their heads in approval as Fleecing transforms the simple melody into a grandly majestic anthem.
In the lobby at intermission, I walk over to greet Charlie Higgins, the sponsor of tonight’s show.
I dig Charlie. He carries himself like one of the “good old boys” back home. He’s the real deal, a true believer and a genuine music lover with a jovial nature and a ready handshake. You wouldn’t know it to look at him, but Charlie is a great philanthropist, too. He and his candy company have underwritten nearly every significant jazz event on the west coast for years.
“Isn’t this great?” I repeat Kendall's line.
“Yes, indeed!” Charlie smiles broadly.
“Hey, what was that song Fleecing quoted?” I ask. “You seemed to recognize it.”
“The Soul of Bavaria,” Charlie replies. “It’s a favorite at the club. Fleecing is a longtime member.”
“Ah, the club. Of course.” I nod solemnly, understanding nothing.
“Why don’t you join me there for lunch next week,” Charlie asks casually, as if the idea had just occurred to him.
“It would be my pleasure,” I accept. I'm mystified but intrigued by the surprise invitation.
That night over dinner I consult my wife. She seems to have an innate understanding of such things.
“I've been invited to lunch next week with Charlie Higgins. I'm not sure why. I think it’s at a private club. Do you know of a club in the city where an American executive and a British jazz pianist would both be members?”
Her eyes widened. “You mean The Owl Club?
We’d better get you a new suit.”
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.”
The thunder groans and soon gives birth
To storm still-born, September’s worth —
To searing sight of flashing light
That tears apart the sky-soaked night:
Staccato sound of pelting rain
Throbs through my open window-pane.
Long have I lain in bed awake —
Such rain this thirst can never slake;
The awful truth, I am alone,
Hits home full-force: yes, you are gone.
When I first met my hero Art Farmer, he was spending half his year at home in Vienna and the other half on tour.
Occasionally concert promoters would pony up for his New York band, but most of the time Art worked with local rhythm sections. Regardless, he hired the best musicians everywhere, and his ensembles never failed to impress.
"How do your groups always sound so good?" I asked him after a knockout performance at Kimball's in San Francisco. "What's the secret?"
"Dmitri, it's simple," he said. "If you find that you're the smartest cat in the room, you're in the wrong room."
“What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?”
When the time came for Daddy Bill to move into hospice care, it fell to me to clean out his stark little studio apartment.
The task didn’t take long. I’d planned to rent a storage unit for his stuff, but this turned out to be entirely unnecessary. In the man’s eighty-something trips around the sun, he only accumulated enough possessions to fill a few small boxes.
I was amazed. Not by Dad’s extreme minimalism (don’t forget I used to live with the guy), but by the eloquence of the items he deemed precious enough to keep. In his closet was a sleeping bag, camp stove and hand crank portable radio. Everything else was arranged in neat little dust-covered piles around the room. He had an axe, a battered pair of binoculars, an old fly rod, a few books and compact discs, a coffee cup, some framed photographs, a pocket knife, and a small leather pouch. That’s about it.
The pouch was empty, but when I opened the drawstring to look inside, the familiar scent of Middleton’s Cherry Blend brought tears to my eyes. I was about nine years old when we last visited the Schley Family Farm in Georgia. I still remember sitting next to Daddy Bill, watching with rapt attention as Dr. Schley used his leather-crafting tools to carefully cut, punch and sew the pouch together. Once finished, he ceremoniously presented the soft little bag to my father, as if it was some kind of totem or talisman imbued with magic powers. The Schleys were important people in the Brookstone community, and Dad treasured this handmade gift. He stored his pipe tobacco in that leather pouch for years.
In a drawer under the sink I found a mishmash of papers: old bank statements, love letters, canceled checks, poems, his birding “life list” handwritten on a yellow legal pad, and a stack of picture postcards, many of them from me, which had once adorned the thumbtack-covered walls of his Graham County hermit house. Resting on top, like a paperweight, was a small carved wooden sign: White Thorn Gallery.
As far back as my great-great-grandfather, the Matheny men were all expert craftsmen. Daddy Bill and his brother Jim grew up working alongside their father in the Matheny Cabinet Shop, building and restoring heirloom furniture in mahogany, oak, walnut, cherry, maple and cedar. Almost everyone in our extended family today has at least one precious Matheny antique at home.
But the only furniture my father owned at the end of his life was a single reclining armchair, purchased for him a few years ago by a generous friend. Everything else had long since been given away. He was funny that way. He gave all our furniture to one of his stepdaughters. He gave our car to my friend Kent. I have no doubt the old man would’ve eventually given that recliner away, too.
So I followed his example and left that chair behind for the next tenant. I slipped my father’s poetry into my backpack, and boxed up the rest, stacking everything in the corner of Nedra’s garage for safekeeping.
I suppose I’ll come back for that leather pouch someday.
And maybe that fishing pole, too.
I miss you, Daddy Bill.
“We all grow up with inherited genes
and inherited sensibilities, and
they run very, very deep.”
To recap: it turns out that my estranged mother, who left us when I was a baby, was a singer. Although she never recorded, Lela had an active performing career singing torch songs in Tennessee nightclubs with her combo. And apparently my father was a fan who regularly attended her gigs before they met and married.
So music, my passion in life, is what originally brought my parents together, yet neither of them thought to tell me. I chased my dream obliviously ignorant of this history. I chose this path all on my own, or so I thought until age 46, when Lela showed up to one of my gigs and dropped a DNA bomb on my self-made origin story.
After Lela returned home to Michigan we took up where we had left off as penpals. She shared more wild yarns about America McGee (whose very existence I doubted), but the primary focus of our correspondence had now shifted to our shared interest in music.
“When you were singing, who were your influences?” I asked. “Any favorite artists or albums?”
“Well, if you ever get a chance to hear a record that Nancy Wilson made with Cannonball Adderley, that one is very special to me,” she replied. “I played that album to death when it came out and learned all of it by heart. I was probably singing those songs while you were in the womb!”
This revelation struck me like a thunderbolt. To find out that a classic jazz recording I’ve admired and enjoyed all my life also happened to be formative and personally significant for my mother? Damn. I wondered how much more we might have in common.
Lela must have been curious about this as well, because a few days later a Zune portable media player arrived in the mail with this note:
Here’s my music collection.
This will tell you more about me
than words can ever say.
She was right. Her cherished music encompassed many genres, from classical to country to jazz and blues, and I loved all of it. Our likes were so eerily similar, in fact, that it would feel self-congratulatory to compliment her excellent taste.
The overlap in our music libraries was uncanny. Of the several thousand songs and artists in Lela’s playlist, nearly all were already prized plums in my own collection. She sent Sarah Vaughan with Michel Legrand, Elly Ameling singing Schubert, Ahmad Jamal Live At The Pershing, Chet Baker on Pacific Jazz, all the Ella Fitzgerald songbooks, John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, Patsy Cline Showcase, Anita O’Day Travelin’ Light, nearly everything Miles Davis did in the 1950s and ’60s, some recent recordings by Diana Krall and Shirley Horn, and soooo much Nancy Wilson, clearly her favorite. Lela even included Willie Nelson’s cover of “Stardust!” Amazing.
Only a handful of the artists in her list were new to me (Jo Stafford, Helen Forrest, June Christie) and their songs resonated so deeply that they immediately became part of the soundtrack of my life. Driving around the Lonesome Desert at night, listening to my mother’s favorite music, made me feel a profound sense of connection to her in spite of the fact that we were basically strangers to one another.
I met Lela only once more.
In April 2014, while on tour in Michigan, Sassy and I accepted an invitation to visit her at home in rural Potterville.
Lela and Bill Horton (of Mr. Bill’s Adventureland), her husband of 23 years, received us warmly. Lela even cooked biscuits and gravy for us! Sitting there at my mother’s kitchen table, watching her fix me breakfast for the first and only time in my life, flooded me with conflicting emotions. Gratitude. Wonder. Comfort. Melancholy. Loss.
After our meal Bill gave us a tour of the rambling, ramshackle Horton house. The place was a packrat’s dream, filled to the rafters with papers, boxes, books, knickknacks, old computers, oxygen tanks, medical supplies and more. As Bill led us from room to room, Lela toddled behind, randomly tidying up and apologizing. “We don’t get many visitors.”
I remember thinking how beautiful it was, that this frail and fragile couple were lovingly taking care of one another in their declining years. Will Sassy and I do the same?
Bill was especially eager to show me their collection of records, tapes and compact discs. Lela had already sent me MP3s of most of it except for one major omission: the Hortons had amassed an impressive, damn near comprehensive stockpile of Dmitri Matheny CDs!
I was astonished. Not only did they own all my albums as a leader, they'd also somehow acquired a bunch of sideman recordings from my early years in San Francisco. Seeing this stash of obscure, out-of-print discs, I realized that Lela and Bill must have been quietly following my career for years, buying each new recording at the time of its release, long before I found Lela online.
Flattering, yes, but also infuriating. I’ve had a website since 1995. Lela obviously knew where I was and what I was doing. Why had she never contacted me? I’ll likely never know.
In August 2018 I received a phone call from Bill Horton letting me know that my mother had died. He didn’t mention her cause of death, but I assume it was severe emphysema after a lifetime of smoking.
“I also wanted to tell you that some years ago Lela and her brother inherited a parcel of land on a mountain near Chattanooga,” Bill said. “They sold it and she put her half of the money into a Vanguard account. You’re listed as beneficiary after I die. I’ll send you the paperwork.”
I remembered Lela's cryptic “mountaintop inheritance” call back in the 1980s. How about that? Another mystery solved.
I'm grateful that Lela and Bill Horton had so many good years together, and glad I had the chance to visit them before she died. Bill and I have stayed in touch since Lela’s passing and I’m glad. I’ve come to think of him as part of the extended family, especially now that both my mother and father are gone from this world.
The other day Bill sent me an antique sepia photograph.
“Lela would want you to have this,” he said.
“It’s a picture of your great-great-grandmother ... Matilda America McGee.”
“All of us labor in webs spun
long before we were born.”
The next morning I asked Lela the question that had kept me awake most of the night. “Same repertoire? What did you mean by that?”
She smiled. “Well, you played Stormy Weather, My One And Only Love, and I’m Beginning To See The Light ... I did all those same tunes!”
“What do you mean, you did those tunes?” I asked. “When? How? Where?”
Her face registered genuine surprise. “You knew I was a singer, didn’t you?”
“No, ma’am. I mean, I found some pictures of you in high school,” I stammered, “you know, singing musical theater stuff, but…”
“Oh, honey! I was a jazz singer! Your father used to come to my gigs. That’s how we met!” she laughed. “Where did you think your gifts came from?”
You could have knocked me over with a feather.
“Lela, honestly, I always figured it was Dad’s record collection that set me on this path. Sketches of Spain, Round About Midnight, Kind of Blue…”
“Ooh, that’s just like him!” she interrupted, shaking her head. “First of all, those were my Miles Davis records.” She paused a moment. “He never told you? Really?”
Nope. He told me you were crazy. He said you were a criminal. He said you “ran off in the middle of the night” and told me we were better off without you. But no, he never once mentioned anything about you singing jazz.
Was it even true? Or was this just another of Lela’s tall tales?
I was determined to find out. After she returned home to the midwest, I drove out to Daddy Bill's Hermit House to see if I could verify her story. I was a man on a mission. The three-hour drive through the Lonesome Desert gave me plenty of time to consider how I might broach the subject with my old man.
I arrived in the late afternoon to find him hunched over a bucket on his front porch, methodically shelling and cracking pecans with his blistered, blackened fingers. Pecan trees grew wild in the scrubby chaparral of Graham County. It had become Dad’s habit to harvest the nuts each autumn and gift large bags of them to family and friends during the winter holidays. I admired his resourcefulness.
“Hey Bub!” Daddy Bill greeted me cheerily. “You’re just in time.”
He handed me a Sam Adams from the cooler. “Don't tell the Mormons,” he said with a wink.
Another glorious Arizona sunset.
“So. Dad. How did it feel to see Lela again after all these years?”
He gazed thoughtfully into the distance. “Welp. She got old.”
“You and I aren’t getting any younger either,” I laughed. “Anyway, did y’all have a good talk at the concert?”
“She did most of the talking,” he said, adding “you know how she is.” He kicked a pile of pecan shells off the porch.
“Right. Listen, Dad. Lela told me she used to be a jazz singer.”
My father rolled his eyes. “Aww, she was what we used to call a torch singer. But that was a long time ago. Before you were born.”
“So it’s true?” I asked, astonished. “You didn't think your son -- the musician -- might want to know about that?”
“Why would you care?” he said dismissively. “She wasn’t a big deal or anything. She just sang in nightclubs with her little combo.”
“Dad…what exactly do you think I do for a living?”
“The only thing new in the world
is the history you do not know.”
—Harry S. Truman
Since Lela’s last Irish goodbye, I’d grown up, moved out, finished high school in Michigan, graduated from college in Massachusetts, lived in California for twenty years, and traveled all over the world. I’d made my bones, married, divorced, and moved on. Suffice to say, it had been awhile.
Then in 2009 I returned to the Lonesome Desert with my girlfriend Sassy. Daddy Bill’s health had taken a turn for the worse, so I bought us a house in a bedroom community outside of Phoenix and fixed up a room for him. He would often come to visit but always left after a day or two, stubbornly refusing to move in. “I don’t want to be a burden,” Daddy Bill said. “Besides, I prefer my little Hermit House by the Pinaleños.”
In October 2012 the Dmitri Matheny Group played Music Under The Stars in Tucson. The open air concert felt like a homecoming. Presented by the very jazz society that gave me my first scholarship when I was fifteen, the event was held at Tohono Chul Park, my not-so-secret hideout during the CDO years. I’d spent many soul-restoring hours in the desert gardens of Tohono Chul back in the day, and I had returned to the Old Pueblo many times over the years for concerts. But this event was special. Both my father and biological mother were in the audience.
The show was a grand success. The crowd was warmly receptive and our performance could not have gone better. I was so proud of my band, especially Akira Tana, who’d flown in from California for the occasion. But the great highlight, for me, was re-introducing Dad and Lela to one another after the show.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” Daddy Bill said upon seeing Lela. “I thought you were dead.”
“I thought you were dead,” Lela replied.
I left them alone to chat a bit while I packed up my gear and settled up with the band. Eventually the old man hit the road back to Hermit House, and I returned home with Sass and our surprise overnight guest.
Back at the Maricopa Cabana, Lela and I sat side-by-side on the living room sofa. Tee many martunis later, story time was in full effect. For all her past reticence, my mother was now a free-flowing fountain of information, and for once, not just about America McGee. In vino veritas!
To summarize, Lela never wanted children but she loved my father and “decided to give him a son.” It was an especially difficult and prolonged pregnancy. Lela was in labor for days. The delivery, when it finally came on Christmas Day 1965, nearly destroyed us both. I was a breach birth. The doctor had to extract me with forceps. My father cried when he saw my misshapen skull. Everyone feared I might not survive. Eventually my head retained its natural shape, however, and I turned out to be perfectly healthy.
“You were my miracle baby,” Lela smiled, shaking her head, “but you nearly killed me. I never blamed you, of course. But I had to get the hell out of there.” It was the closest thing to an explanation I’d ever heard.
We continued to talk and imbibe into the wee hours until both of us were slurring our speech. When we finally called it a night, Lela was a little wobbly on her feet, so I gathered her bony frame in my arms and carried her down the hall to the guest bedroom. I could scarcely believe that this little old woman, this tiny weightless bird, had ever given birth to anyone.
“Oh, about your concert,” she mumbled as I turned out the light.
“You and I do a lot of the same repertoire.”
“Truth is not only
stranger than fiction,
it is more interesting.”
—William Randolph Hearst
After the Tennessee trip I called my father.
“Did you know that Lela was serious about music when she was in high school? She performed in musical theater, was a soloist in the choir, and sang standards in talent shows around Chattanooga. You never thought to mention any of this to your son, the professional musician?”
Daddy Bill shrugged.
As fate would have it, Larissa and I divorced before ever having children, and I eventually lost interest in the mental and medical histories of my extended family. If crazy is in my genes, so be it.
But I remained curious about the length and depth of Lela’s relationship with music. When and how did she get her start? Did she continue to sing after high school? Is music still important to her? And does she know my work?
...now here's where the story really gets weird...
It’s 2008 on a rainy winter evening in San Francisco and I have insomnia. My South of Market loft is dark except for the glow of a single lamp and the faint flicker of a black and white movie on the tube. It’s Bogie and Bacall in a film I’ve seen many times. The volume is off but the images keep me company as I sip my scotch and surf the web.
As usual during these liminal moments between work and sleep, I start out with benign intentions (checking the weather forecast, perhaps, or looking up a recipe) but eventually my online meanderings devolve into mindless consumption of celebrity gossip.
I’m half in the bag when I notice that Marlowe is just about to enter the casino where Vivian Rutledge is singing. This is one of my favorite scenes, second only to Dorothy Malone in the bookshop, so I turn up the volume and listen.
And her tears flowed like wine,
Yes her tears flowed like wine.
She’s a real sad tomato,
She’s a busted valentine.
I dig Bacall’s relaxed, cool delivery and the meaningful looks she exchanges with Bogie. Something in her casual manner reminds me of Lela sitting atop that piano singing “The Man That Got Away.”
It’s been a while since I last searched for Lela online so I decide to give it another go. I plug every iteration of her name into the ancestry sites and search engines: Lela Ault (maiden name), Lela Matheny (married name), even Lela Conte (the name of her late husband), but no luck. I don’t know her precise age, social security number, where she lives, which last name she now uses, or even if she is still alive. My cyber-sleuthing has once again hit a dead end.
I’m about to give up entirely when I remember America McGee, the outlandish (and most likely imaginary) ancestor character from Lela’s shaggy dog stories back in ’79. On a lark I type that name into the search bar.
No joy, however, Google takes me to the Wikipedia page for American McGee, a video game designer. From there I bounce through various tech and gaming sites until I randomly arrive at Mr. Bill’s Adventureland, a multiplayer adventure game review site. By this point I've stopped looking for Lela; now I’m just aimlessly web surfing.
I’ve never been very interested in games of any kind, but for some reason I feel compelled to continue down this particular rabbit hole. I linger on the site for about an hour, reading all Mr. Bill’s reviews ... clicking, reading, then clicking again ... until I happen to land on the curious phrase “my wife Lela” — and I freeze.
I know that there are thousands of women named Lela all over the world. I’m well aware of this. But somehow, at this moment, I can just feel it in my bones: this is she.This one is my mother.
Without hesitating I click the contact button and write the following message: “Hi Mr. Bill, great website! I believe your wife Lela and I may know one another. Please give her my greetings. Sincerely, Dmitri Matheny.”
I hit send and immediately fall into a deep and dreamless sleep.
When I awaken a few hours later, I see this response from Mrs. Lela Horton in rural Michigan:
Dmitri, I can't believe it!
How on earth did you find me!!?
“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.
“The beginning of things is necessarily vague,
tangled, chaotic, and exceedingly disturbing.
How few of us ever emerge from such beginning!”
By summer’s end I’ve discovered much to love about living in Arizona.
The regional art, music and food are outstanding. The laidback lifestyle suits my temperament. The arid landscape is as vast and peaceful as the ocean. I like the way hawks wheel and keen overhead as the majestic saguaro watch silently like sentries. And most of all, I love the glorious sunsets.
Some part of me knows my future lies elsewhere. If books and movies have taught me anything, it’s that one day the call to adventure will require me to leave this desert. In the meantime, this seems like a good place to begin the next chapter of life’s journey.
If books and movies have taught me anything, it’s that one day
the call to adventure will require me to leave this desert.
Today is the first day of school. Daddy Bill and I are up early for our commute to the town of Marana, just northwest of Tucson. The drive is pleasant. The sky is overcast so it’s a little cooler than usual. The university jazz station is spinning some classic Miles, always a good omen, and our little Toyota still has its new car smell.
My spirits are high. I’m excited to begin seventh grade, although I’m not entirely sure what to expect. None of the kids in our 22nd & Craycroft neighborhood go to school out there. I only know what Dad has told me, that it’s a public school in a rural area which takes its name from the Spanish word “maraña,” meaning tangle. And last week I overheard Dad on the phone saying something about “teaching basic English to the children of migrant farmworkers.”
This morning as we travel the long frontage road past dusty acres of alfalfa and cotton, I begin to understand. “Things are going to be a little different here than they were at Brookstone, son,” Daddy Bill says. “Just be patient and keep an open mind.” It sounds rehearsed, like a prepared speech. I have the feeling he’s talking to himself as much as to me.
As we travel the long frontage road past dusty acres
of alfalfa and cotton, I begin to understand.
Dad was an important man at Brookstone School, and because of his position, I pretty much had my run of the place. I literally grew up there, kindergarten through sixth grade. I knew everybody, even the high school kids, and always felt safe and supported. Saying goodbye to Brookstone was the most difficult part of leaving Georgia.
My favorite class at Brookstone was a sixth grade social studies elective called MACOS: Man A Course of Study, in which we compared innate and learned behavior in humans with that of other primates, then presented our findings to a panel of university graduate students. Our instructor James Stockdale, son of the homonymous war hero, was my favorite teacher. He taught us to be curious, question all assumptions, and believe in ourselves.
Brookstone School cast a long shadow over my life. I thrived there, but since it was the only school I’d ever known, I took its brilliant faculty and innovative curriculum for granted. I didn’t realize how fortunate I was to attend such an elite private school. I wasn’t aware that we were poor, that my classmates were rich, or that my tuition had been waived as part of Dad’s teaching salary. And I certainly couldn’t have known, at the time, the degree to which being part of that nurturing scholastic community had shaped my nascent love of learning, positive self-image and sense of entitlement.
Brookstone School cast a long shadow over my life.
I only knew that I enjoyed school. Or so I thought.
For Dad to describe Marana as “a little different” would prove to be the understatement of the century. Far from the stately red brick lecture halls and leafy woodlands of Brookstone, the Marana campus is little more than a few cement buildings and mobile classroom trailers surrounded by dirt, asphalt and gravel.
Based on the school’s exterior, I’m prepared to be underwhelmed by whatever awaits inside. But nothing could prepare me for the physical and emotional trauma I’m about to endure at Marana Junior High School.
I show up guileless and confident, ready to hit the books and eager to make friends. But for the first time in my young life, I simply don’t fit in. Back home I was a popular kid who excelled in music, art and academics, but my study skills and work ethic are meaningless here. The only things that seem to matter at Marana are football and fighting.
There are fist fights every single day at Marana. Clashes erupt spontaneously, for no reason and without warning.
For the first week I’m able to keep my distance. I watch with detached curiosity as the other students beat each other’s brains in. I wonder what Mr. Stockdale would think of all this violence. Is it innate or learned? And why don’t any of the teachers try to put a stop to it?
There are fist fights every single day at Marana.
Later I would learn that Dad had actually tried to separate two kids who were fighting, only to receive a dressing down from his boss. “Never, ever lay your hand on a student for any reason,” Principal Dewey cautioned, “or we could be sued.” Dad was flummoxed. “Even if they’re about to kill one another?”
I’m mystified by all the aggression, but naively not afraid for my own safety. I’m new here. I’ve made no enemies. Plus my dad is on the faculty. No one would dare. But the main reason I feel secure is because I’m a good boy. I don’t get into fights. I get along with everybody … right?
Wrong. A skinny little southern boy with no friends who doesn’t play football? A teacher's kid, who struts around with his nose in the air, talking funny, using big words, acting all cocky and superior? At Marana Junior High this is a kid who needs a beatdown.
At Marana Junior High this is a kid who needs a beatdown.
I’m walking to my locker after gym when out of nowhere someone shoves me against the wall. “What the hell?” I react, more startled than afraid. But before I can even get a look at my assailant he's knocked me to the ground.
The jackals encircle us, laughing and cheering. By the time I realize we're fighting it’s too late. The kid's knees are already pressed against my upper arms, pinning me to the concrete floor. I can't move. I'm practically immobile as he punches me repeatedly in the face.
Nobody stops the fight. Neither of us are punished. I’m literally saved by the bell as everyone goes to class, leaving me alone and vanquished. I never even learn the kid’s name or what motivated him to attack me in the first place.
After my nose stops bleeding I wash up and change my shirt. No cuts, just a few bruises. My head hurts and my ears are ringing, but I don’t look so bad.
On the drive home Dad doesn’t even notice that I’m hurt. This is a tremendous relief. I don’t want to get in trouble for fighting, and besides, I’m ashamed. My father was a champion boxer. If he finds out I can't defend myself I’ll be humiliated.
But I have bigger problems. Word gets around: the new kid doesn't know how to fight. It’s open season on Georgia Boy. I now have a target on my back.
Every few days somebody jumps me. It’s not like I’m being bullied, not like on TV. It’s never the same person and there’s rarely any preamble. Nobody threatens me or tries to take my lunch money. They just start shit. I never know when the next sucker punch is coming, or from which direction. And it’s this, the sheer senseless randomness of it, that terrifies me so and makes Marana my personal living hell. Never safe. Nowhere to hide.
I hate this school. I’m learning nothing here except how vulnerable I am. Some of these big, mean-looking boys with facial hair are obviously older kids who’ve been held back. One of them is so strong that he comes up behind me, picks me up, and throws me against the lockers.
But it isn’t only the big kids who pick fights. One day after school I’m walking to Dad’s janky classroom/trailer to practice my trumpet. I notice a group of athletes in my peripheral vision, but they’re all walking in the opposite direction so I pay them no mind. Suddenly a short freckle-faced kid with red hair breaks from the pack and runs straight at me. I flinch but stand my ground. I’m bigger than this one. He doesn’t scare me.
“I’m gonna kick your ass,” he says.
“I don’t even know you,” I say. “What’s your problem?”
“I think you’re a wet bag and a pussy” he snarls.
So I’m standing there looking at this little ginger lunatic, wondering what in the hell a wet bag could be, when he knocks the horn case out of my hand and tackles me. By now I know the drill. There’s no reasoning with these idiots. I land a few solid punches, but the impact does more damage to my fists than his face. The kid is small but he’s fast and knows how to grapple. He gets the better of me again and again. I can’t believe it: I’m losing this fight, too.
That evening the drive home is tense. Daddy Bill is silent and agitated. I look over from the passenger seat and notice he’s gripping the steering wheel so tightly that his knuckles are white. He's pissed. Did he see the fight? Am I in trouble?
Suddenly Dad pulls over, gets out of the car, and says “come here, dammit.” And right there, in the twilight, on the shoulder of the highway, my Golden Gloves-gone-pacifist father gives me the first of several lessons in self-defense. He shows me the boxer’s stance, some footwork, how to block and parry, how to throw a jab.
Right there, in the twilight on the shoulder of the highway,
my Golden Gloves-gone-pacifist father gives me
the first of several lessons in self-defense.
“Don’t hit ’em in the head,” Dad says. “The head is hard. Hit ’em in the kidneys!”
The old man is full of surprises. I should have gone to him from the beginning.
Maybe I will survive this place after all.
Now all I need is a few friends.
SNAPSHOTS | PART 4 — CHUBASCO
“What makes the desert so beautiful
is that somewhere it hides a well.”
—Antoine de Saint-Exupery
Four days later we arrive, hot and tired, in the Old Pueblo.
Daddy Bill pilots our dusty U-Haul into an open parking space and squints upward through the windshield.
“I think that’s it, right up there,” he says, pointing to the third story. “Let’s check it out.” We’re both curious about this new apartment. Dad arranged the rental sight-unseen through an agency in Georgia. He mailed a check; they mailed the keys. Now we’re here.
I open the passenger side door and am nearly knocked over by the oven blast. “At least its a dry heat,” Daddy Bill says with a wink. “We’re definitely gonna need this,” he says, removing our portable ice chest from the front seat.
It’s late afternoon. The air is stifling. Cicadas buzz in the palo verde trees. We climb the exterior stairs, our footsteps echoing in the hollow cement stairwell.
The building itself is unremarkable, a typical example of the stark desert brutalist style of southwest architecture. Poured concrete blocks are stacked atop one another, textured with adobe and stained in shades of beige. There are rows of identical square windows, but nothing decorative, no arches, gables, or distinguishing features of any kind. This drab utilitarian structure could be anything: a factory, a hospital, a prison, you name it.
When we enter our apartment, however, I know we are home. On the opposite wall, sliding glass doors open to a balcony with a spectacular westward view. Brilliant hues of orange and violet paint the sky.
“Damn,” says Daddy Bill admiringly.
“What do you say we wait until dark to unload the truck?”
He reaches into the ice chest and hands me a cold one.
Watching the sunset from our balcony became a regular thing for us that summer, just as walking in the rain had been our routine down south.
Most mornings Daddy Bill would get up at the crack of dawn to go birding. “Gotta beat the heat,” he explained. Dad was smart that way, adapting to the climate, timing his excursions in synch with nature.
I, on the other hand, would blissfully sleep until noon, alone in the cool, dark apartment, lights off, blinds closed, swamp cooler cranked to the max. By the time Dad returned I would be on my second bowl of Raisin Bran and just about ready to start my day.
Like a fool I spent my afternoons outdoors under the relentless Sonoran sun, riding my bike, exploring. Whenever the heat became too much to bear, I would stop at the corner convenience store for a cold drink and a rejuvenating jolt of refrigeration. It was during one of these air conditioned interludes, standing in line at the Circle K, that I made first contact.
“You want a saleedo?” asked the girl.
She was blonde, tan, slender, freckle-faced, a little taller than I, and pretty, in a tomboyish Tatum O’Neal Bad News Bears sort of way. “I’m Cheryl,” she announced boldly, handing me a small, shriveled nugget of mysterious origin.
“Is it food?” I asked, dumbfounded. I studied the curious morsel she had placed in my hand. It was brown, misshapen, about the size of a buckeye, and dry as a bone. It looked like a piece of petrified animal scat.
“Just suck on it,” she giggled, popping one into her own mouth to demonstrate. I smiled. She smiled back.
Saladitos, for the uninitiated, are a Mexican snack of dried salted plums coated in chili and lime. Today you might find a sample in the international section of your favorite specialty food market. But back then, in the Summer of ’78, saladitos were a staple at every mini mart in Tucson, usually stored in a large glass jar right next to the cash register.
Cheryl consumed them like candy. “The best way to eat a saleedo is with a lemon or orange,” she stated matter-of-factly. “You cut the fruit in half, stick the saleedo in the middle, and suck out the juice. Soooo yummy.”
After that, the two of us were inseparable, riding our bikes every day on the street, along the sidewalk, and down the dry river beds, called “washes” by the locals. Cheryl was unlike any of the girls I knew back home. She was a wild child, free-spirited and fearless, always taking the lead, often getting into mischief, never waiting for permission to have fun. I was smitten.
One sweltering afternoon, Cheryl suggested that we go for a swim. “Do you know anyone with a pool?” I asked. “I know a place,” she answered cryptically.
To say we “snuck” into the Doubletree Hotel would not be accurate. Apparently a cute girl in a bikini can pretty much go wherever she pleases. Cheryl and I simply walked right in the front door and straight through the lobby, no questions asked. I was wearing running shorts, not swim trunks, but nobody cared. We parked ourselves poolside like hotel guests, ostensibly the entitled children of errant parents.
We had a blast splashing around in the Doubletree pool, teasing and taunting one another. I poked fun at Cheryl for being a juvenile delinquent, and she playfully mimicked my southern drawl, calling me “Jimmy Carter” and “Georgia Boy.” Eventually I remembered my dad and our sunset ritual, saying I should get home for dinner.
“Why don’t you come to my place?” Cheryl asked casually. “Just you, not your dad.”
The invitation took me by surprise. In all the time we’d spent together, Cheryl had never mentioned her home, and was weirdly evasive whenever I asked about her family. To me she was Feral Cheryl, untamed desert denizen. For all I knew she could have been a runaway.
We got on our bikes and I followed Cheryl home to a charming hacienda-style bungalow surrounded by colorful desert flowers, cacti in terracotta pots, and a welcoming ristra of chiles hanging over the front porch.
We walked around back and left our bikes by a large mesquite tree before entering the cottage through a side door. “Hellooo,” Cheryl called, kicking off her flip flops. There was no answer, but I wasn’t surprised. Something in the girl’s breezy, uninhibited manner told me what she already knew: we were alone.
“You hungry?” she asked. “I could eat,” I replied, trying to sound grown up. “I’m not ready for dinner just yet, but let me fix you something,” she said.
I then watched in amazement as my friend, still in her swimsuit, expertly prepared a cheeseburger just for me. I marveled at her casual, effortless skill as she sliced the ripe tomato, lightly toasted the bun, and browned the juicy burger in a cast iron skillet, all the while chattering away, hand on her hip, no big deal.
They say the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. I get that. Over the years I’ve shared many a special meal prepared by, or for, a beloved companion. But this was a first. I was just a twelve-year-old kid. No girl had ever cooked for me. The burger was delicious. If Jay could see me now, I thought.
Cheryl then pulled a styrofoam container labeled “Eegee’s” from the freezer, then led me by the hand to the living room sofa. “This is my favorite thing on a hot day,” she said, feeding me a spoonful of the frozen tropical treat. “Mm, hmm,” I responded approvingly.
“It’s even better with rum!” she giggles, producing a bottle from nowhere like a sleight-of-hand magician. “Now all we need is a little music.” I see a radio on the side table and turn it on. The wail of a saxophone fills the room with sound: “Baker Street” by Gerry Rafferty. I feel like I'm in a movie.
Cheryl rests her head against my chest.
She looks up. “Hey, how old are you, anyway?”
“Fourteen,” I lie.
“So ... you ever gonna kiss me?” she asks.
Childhood memories are like polaroid photos in an old dusty box.
They don’t provide a cohesive autobiographical narrative, only brief flashes of insight into the murky past. You sort through the random images, shuffling them like playing cards, until one of them finally whispers to you, and a shard of memory is revealed, darkly, like a half-forgotten scent or song fragment.
It is from these small, disparate clues that you must fashion your origin story. But each time you take the box down from the shelf, there seem to be fewer snapshots inside.
It’s the summer of 1978 in Columbus, Georgia. A U-Haul is parked in front of our little apartment at Warm Springs Court. Daddy Bill and I are loading our last few boxes into the back of the truck.
Daddy Bill Matheny | Summer 1978
Warm Springs Court, Columbus GA
“You about ready to hit the road, Bub Man?” Daddy Bill asks. He’s been calling me “Bub Man” lately instead of Little Bub, and it feels right. I’m 12-and-a-half now, not a little kid anymore, and we’re about to begin a whole new life, far away from this place.
The past year was an emotional roller coaster. Up and down, love and loss. Dad finished his seventh year at Brookstone School on a high note, winning a prestigious teacher’s award from the city and having the yearbook dedicated in his honor. Then he abruptly resigned. Devastated by divorce, he slept for days at a time, rarely coming out of his room. “The doctor has me on tranquilizers,” he explained. When finally he emerged from the darkness of depression, other women came around, comforting him, playing mother to me, and we were happy for a time. But eventually they left, too.
When Dad’s last great love, Judy Mehaffey, moved to Nashville to pursue a songwriting career, her teenage son Jay came to live with us. Welcoming Jay into our home made sense. Our families were already intertwined. Jay’s mom and my dad, who still loved one another, were now prolific penpals. Jay’s older sister Kim, away at college, had been my babysitter and Dad’s star student at Brookstone. Kim and Jay’s father Lem (divorced from Judy, estranged from Jay) was the landlord of our little apartment complex.
Confused? Welcome to my world. The important thing is this: for one glorious summer I had a brother.
I was an only child who never especially wanted siblings. I cherished my solitude and was never bored. Daddy Bill and I were pals, and if I needed more companions there were always plenty of kids in the neighborhood. But Jay’s arrival in the summer of ’78 was right on time.
We lived in a small, two-bedroom apartment. Jay slept on our couch and made the living room his domain. As a tween on the precipice of puberty, I was utterly fascinated by this confident, lanky 17-year-old now living in our midst. It seemed like the most natural thing in the world, the way he immediately made himself at home, blasting Frampton Comes Alive on the stereo, watching Midnight Special on the tube, drinking Sprite, talking on the phone, holding court. I didn’t even try to play it cool. I thought Jay hung the moon, and he knew it.
Jay Mehaffey | Summer 1978
Warm Springs Court, Columbus GA
Dad knew it, too. Inviting Jay to move in may have sprung from a desire to help Judy, but it turned out to be the very best thing for all of us. Jay had a stabilizing influence in our home. His arrival prompted Dad to come out of his cave. Order was restored. We kept the pantry stocked, shared household chores, enjoyed regular meal times, and took road trips together.
Jay showed me how to assert my independence. Prior to Jay, I was Daddy Bill’s little sidekick, not so much a separate entity as an extension of his adult persona. I perceived Dad’s needs as my own; his moods became my moods. After Jay, I was my own man. There were three of us now, each with his own desires and responsibilities. We were a family.
But Jay was more to me than an ersatz older brother. He was like a cosmic life coach, sent by the universe to guide me through the emotional, hormonally turbulent life transition from boyhood to early adolescence. Our alliance felt all the more momentous because we knew it to be temporary. Summer’s end would mean our separation. Jay would stay in Columbus to finish high school, and I would move out west with Daddy Bill. Dad had accepted a new teaching position in Tucson, so that was where I would turn 13, begin junior high, and meet my destiny.
If Jay felt it was a drag to have a shadow that summer before his senior year, he certainly never showed it. He introduced me to his friends and let me tag along on their outings. He helped me find a job mowing lawns, taught me how to pop a wheelie on my bike, and hipped me to all kinds of music. At night I would make a pallet on the floor between the couch and coffee table, so we could continue talking into the wee hours. I’d stretch out flat, parallel to Jay on the couch above, and imagine that we were real brothers, sharing a room with bunk beds.
Our late night heart-to-hearts offered a crash course in what I should expect from life over the next few years. We talked about all the things I didn’t feel comfortable discussing with my father: cliques, crushes, flirting, fighting, parties, popularity, petty rivalry, peer pressure, the prom. I asked Jay all about the rituals of dating and how to talk to girls. He answered solemnly in great detail, stressing the importance of things like having plenty of money (chicks are expensive), when to give a girl your letterman jacket (only if you’re serious), and how to unhook a bra clasp (always use both hands). He spoke earnestly, as if he’d been tasked with a sacred mission of passing along his accumulated teen wisdom. I was riveted and hung on his every word.
Jay and I haven’t really stayed in touch since then, except to exchange Christmas cards once or twice, the way men do. But I sure hope he knows how important he was to me that summer, and how grateful I remain.
When the moving van showed up I was ready. Packing up was a breeze. After all, I’m the minimalist son of an anti-capitalist. We didn’t have that many possessions to begin with. Plus, we’d already moved several times before, so I knew the routine: put your stuff in boxes; say goodbye to all your friends.
Moving days are always bittersweet, but this one felt different. Inspired by everything I learned from Jay, I was committed to reinventing myself. I divided my belongings into two piles. One pile comprised only the essential things I’d need in my new life out west: clothes, books, trumpet, bike. We loaded them onto the truck. The other pile was all the “kid stuff” I would leave behind forever: comic books, action figures, toys.
Word got around quickly and the neighborhood kids descended like vultures. I sold everything I could and gave away the rest, pocketing a little over five hundred dollars.
“You about ready to hit the road, Bub Man?” Daddy Bill asked. “You bet,” I replied, climbing into the cab.
I didn't look back as we headed west. To the future.
“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.