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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."