From the Slums of New Orleans to the Palaces of Europe: Meet Louis Armstrong – Musician

Meet Louis Armstrong – musician. You, the reader, may be muttering, “You must be joking: Everyone knows Louis Armstrong – musician and trumpet player, and he’s still world- famous even though he is long-gone from this earth!” In reality, only a tiny fraction of the many people around the world who “know” Louis Armstrong actually does.

king_oliver[1]Joe (King) Oliver and the Creole Jazz Band – 1923. King Oliver is on muted cornet behind the kneeling Louis Armstrong and Armstrong’s future second wife, pioneer jazz pianist, Lil Hardin.

Years ago, as a teen-aged, aspiring trumpet player, I had Louis Armstrong pegged as an old-timer from New Orleans whose trumpet playing sounded frayed around the edges. His questionable virtuosity on the trumpet seemed somewhat offset by his appealing “feel” for the music of his home town. His was an infectious style of playing – real soul – the inevitable outcome of growing up in the “Big Easy,” I reckoned. That’s all.

And I knew of his singing with that raspy voice. Songs like “Mack the Knife,” “Blueberry Hill,” “Hello Dolly,” and “It’s a Wonderful World” were very popular back in the nineteen-sixties. Armstrong had an awful voice… yet listening to him was and is, strangely, a pleasurable experience. Why is that? One thing was certain: Mr. Armstrong was a unique entertainer with his ever-present smile which often verged on “mugging.”

I knew nothing about Louis Armstrong, in reality! I discovered Louis Armstrong – jazz pioneer and trumpet player without peer once I began to seriously delve into music and my own trumpet playing – late in life. The eye-opener for me was the Ken Burns video opus titled, Jazz. That excellent, comprehensive documentary on the history of jazz took me way back in time to Armstrong’s early years in New Orleans, Chicago, and New York. It was then that I realized what a sensational musician he had been on the trumpet in his prime and how he, perhaps more than any single individual, defined a new style of playing which ultimately evolved into the musical genre known as “jazz.”

Then I read more about Armstrong – biographical accounts, and I listened to his early recordings (now on re-mastered CDs). I quickly realized that this man was not only the finest trumpet player of his era – by far – he was also an irresistible force stirring the winds of change which brought us new music – music which ranged from New Orleans and Chicago jazz to the big-band swing tunes of Goodman, Dorsey, Shaw, and Harry James. Jazz has continued to evolve from the seeds planted and nurtured by Louis Armstrong – even today.

I ultimately appreciated that his true stature as a musician evolves from both the brilliance of his playing in the early years and his unique musical phrasing which freed musicians from the prison of playing the music exactly as written. Armstrong’s creative, improvisational style heralded the beginning of modern jazz. The well-regarded authority, Gary Giddins, has said there is virtually nothing musically that came along later that did not have echoes of Louis, Louis….Louis.

 Out of the Mud Grows the Lotus; A Most Improbable Story!

I agree that fact is stranger than fiction. I can think of no better illustration than the life-story of Louis Armstrong. Born in the slums of New Orleans at the turn of the twentieth century, his father nowhere to be seen, his mother a part-time prostitute, little Louis (not “Louie”) did what it took to survive, much as his mother Mary Ann (he called her May-Ann) did. The youngster was born at 723 Jane Alley, on the edge of black Storyville, the red-light district where black sex was readily for sale. He lived among the worst squalor extant in New Orleans, and it was there that he began to learn all there was to know about life and living. He, like so many of the black youngsters, moved readily among the pimps, prostitutes, and cut-throat thieves that inhabited that infamous section of New Orleans.

There was another small class of individuals that caught the attention of Armstrong and most of his young pals, and these folks were the local musicians who played in the whore-houses, bars, and honky-tonks. These people, although almost as poor as the rest of the residents, were held in quite high esteem and even idolized by the boys in the neighborhood. For most Storyville residents, life offered little of cheer beyond alcohol, sex….and music. Little Louis and the other boys heard their music from the sidewalk, listening while standing outside joints like the “Funky Butt Hall” located across the street from the Fisk School for Boys which Armstrong began attending in 1907.

Little Louis and the Karnofsky Family who “Adopted” Him:
A Lifelong Respect for Jewish Industry and Ambition

At seven years of age, young Armstrong was working for a large Jewish family, the Karnofskys. Their little business involved buying and selling rags, junk, and coal. Louis pushed his little coal-laden wagon around Storyville, delivering small quantities to various enterprises including those operating in prostitute’s cribs. The Karnofskys took a liking to little Louis, often inviting him to stay for dinner after the day’s work was done. He was frequently included in their daily family rituals.

I purchased a very enlightening book on Louis Armstrong several years ago at Powell’s bookstore in Portland, Oregon. The title reads, Louis Armstrong in His Own Words – Selected Writings. It was edited by Thomas Brothers. Revealing his debt of gratitude to the Karnofsky family for their kindnesses shown him as a young boy, Armstrong pens some very strong words while comparing Jewish attitudes toward personal industry and self-improvement to the behaviors he had long observed on the part of poor black people, especially those he lived among as a boy. While blacks in the South were clearly “held down,” Armstrong saw, first-hand, similarly prejudicial attitudes toward poor Jews like the Karnofskys. In his opinion, Jews were not much better off in that regard. He also noticed that the Jews stuck together while patiently executing their self-crafted plans to lift themselves by their bootstraps – actions he claimed not to see from his black bretheren. Armstrong wore the Star of David for the rest of his life in remembrance of the Karnofskys.

These are startling accounts and accusations coming from a major adult black voice. His choice of words in the writings is blunt and brutally frank.

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When Armstrong left New Orleans to conquer the world with his talent, he often encountered racist attitudes which stung him and his fellow blacks. It is clear from his writings that these incidents left scars, yet he managed to defer the pain and embrace the white entertainment culture which quickly accepted him and made him a star. His willingness to play the white man’s game engendered criticism from many black colleagues at the time, some of whom accused him of “Uncle Tomming.”

Young Louis was once advised by an older, wiser black friend in New Orleans to, “Always have a white man in your corner.” The mature Louis took that advice to heart in the form of Joe Glaser, a tough character with mob connections who managed Armstrong’s career for decades. Despite the disparity of backgrounds and interests, they had mutual respect for one another, and Armstrong was freed to perform his music, free from the headaches of booking and book-keeping. For his all-inclusive role, Glaser received half of Armstrong’s considerable earnings!

The often present, toothy smile across Armstrong’s beaming face irritated some of his black critics, to be sure, and some white folks were not quite sure how to take him. His image was distinctly different from the smooth, sophisticated demeanor of a Duke Ellington, for example. To decipher Louis Armstrong, one must understand the forces that shaped him. I see him as a blend of two people: On the one hand, he was a basically kind, well-meaning human being who loved to please and who was easily pleased, needing not much more in life than his music, audience approval, and basic human respect; on the other hand, he was a worldly man, given his bulging dossier of life-experiences, many of which were bound to leave scars.

Louis, himself, confidently and proudly wrote (I paraphrase perhaps a bit), “There’s nothing I ain’t seen!” That certainly includes a lot of good and, undoubtedly, a bunch of “bad.”

It all began for little Louis Armstrong when the Karnofsky’s advanced him some pay so he could buy a battered, used cornet. He learned to really play his horn in the Colored Waif’s Home band where he found himself at age eleven, having been sent there for being involved in some Rampart Street mayhem on New Year’s Eve. After leaving the Waif’s home, young Louis hung around the local musicians, learning from them and finally coming to the attention of Joe “King” Oliver. Joe Oliver also played the cornet (a first-cousin of the trumpet which Louis later adopted) and fronted some local musical groups. When Oliver left New Orleans for Chicago in search of fame and fortune, he eventually called for Armstrong to come and join him, there. That was in 1922; from there, the rest is history as Louis proceeded to outplay everyone in sight with his unique musical phrasing, his pure tone, his high-register capability, and his overall technical proficiency. It was his phrasing, his interpretation of the written music, which made him the singularly most influential musician in the whole history of jazz and its development. It was his phrasing of music, his improvised elaboration of basic melodies that made listening to his vocals a pleasure despite his gravelly voice. And, always present and a significant factor, was his perfect intonation, or pitch.

Armstrong traveled the world, playing numerous command performances before kings, queens, and presidents. His real-life story makes Cinderella’s storybook transformation look rather mundane, by comparison. Later in life, as his raw talent on the trumpet declined, his music had become distinctly commercial. That was the Louis Armstrong I first encountered as a youngster. That was not the Louis Armstrong that garnered such musical acclaim as a young man – the musician you really should know and appreciate.

Armstrong and his wife Lucille lived their late lives in a very modest house in Queens, New York. There were no security guards; there was no gated property. At the end, Louis Armstrong was, fittingly, merely a “resident of the neighborhood” whom everyone knew just as he was in New Orleans at the beginning of it all.

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A good, readable biography is Pops by Terry Teachout.

Cowboy / Western Music – from Santa Clarita

Last weekend, for the eighth consecutive year, we kicked-up our heels at the Santa Clarita Cowboy Festival. The pilgrimage to Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch at Santa Clarita, California, never fails to rejuvenate its large audiences through music and cowboy “poetry,” all tantalizingly served-up by some of the best professionals in the genre – anywhere!

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This feast for the audio (and visual) senses takes place on the Melody Ranch movie lot, formerly long-owned by that most iconic of all movie cowboys, Gene Autry. There are several sizeable venues located around the scenic ranch whose central feature is the obligatory old “Main Street” of town, the scene of countless cowboy films and television productions. Many of Autry’s old films were shot there; the iconic and very popular television series, Gunsmoke, was filmed there as well.

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The very “best of the best” entertainment at Santa Clarita takes place on the Melody Ranch Stage, situated in a gigantic tent which is capable of seating a very large audience. There are several smaller, partially-covered venues scattered around the grounds which offer a rarely- encountered intimacy between performers and audience.

Our first time at this festival, eight years ago, triggered flashbacks in my memory of the very first cowboy/western music I ever heard – at six years of age, back in Chicago. Anticipating last weekend’s festival, I wrote of those impressions made by the Circle-J Ranch group, way back in 1946 (See my recent post of April 20, 2014, Cowboy/Western Music – from Chicago).

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The Messick family is one of the perennial favorites at Santa Clarita – a local family group that exudes both musicality and joy at each performance. That is the patriarch, Wayne Messick, on the bass fiddle, extreme right. He is in his eighties and still going strong. Being local and family, they perform only occasionally compared to the busy yearly schedules of virtually all the other professional acts. They lend such a nice touch to the musical festivities at Santa Clarita. It appears there are Messick grandchildren involved in music who may continue the tradition!

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The California Battalion is a period “band” from the days of the U.S. Civil War. The group specializes in re-creating the music and researching the traditions that are on display during their performances. They play authentic period brass instruments, and they do so in stirring and often humorous fashion. You might notice that the trumpets and other brass pieces seem to be pointing in the wrong direction – backwards! The battalion leader explains that, because the regimental bands always marched up-front of the troops, the instruments were pointed south for the benefit of the soldiers and their morale.

The trumpets also have rotary valves, not the “plunger” type valves we see today. My wife and I encountered one of the trumpet players and a few other band members who were strolling about the premises between performances. Being a trumpet player myself, I asked about their instruments and how they acquire them. We had a nice discussion on antique band instruments.

The point to be made, here, is the informality of the event and the venues. One often encounters even the “star performers” casually strolling about the grounds; we have often greeted them and engaged them in conversation. They have always been gracious and pleased to meet the public. There are few such venues anymore, sports or entertainment, where audiences can meet and even get to know the performers they come to watch.

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Main Street, early in the morning before the crowds arrive!

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“The Old Chuck Wagon” and “The Blacksmith” on Main Street

There is a lot to see at Melody Ranch during the festival. In addition to the live entertainment, one can stroll about and absorb the aura of a real western film location complete with numerous and eclectic movie props scattered about the premises. For a closer look, one can visit the Melody Ranch Motion Picture Museum located just a short stroll from the entertainment venues.

Cowboy Cobbler (peach) and Cowboy Coffee

They make a big deal over cowboy cobbler…and no wonder – it is absolutely delicious! Try to limit yourself to only one bowl per each of the two days of the festival…good luck! And we always opt for an endless, two-day supply of cowboy coffee by buying the mug for eight dollars. The coffee is served, cowboy style, from pots hung over coal fires – by authentic- looking cowboy volunteers. Note: fans of weak coffee need not bother! The mug in your hand is your endless coffee pass for the entire festival; each year the cup changes color. Great fun!

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The Steel Guitar is Back This Year!

This year we saw a group called “The Lucky Stars” which had not been at the festival since we started attending. They were great – a nice surprise, especially since they featured a swinging steel guitar. For me, nothing accentuates cowboy/western music like a steel guitar. The first one I had seen since the Circle-J Ranch back in Chicago so many years ago surfaced here, last year, in the person of Bobby Black, one of the venerable legends in western music on steel. He was not here this year, but Rusty of The Lucky Stars did a fine job on the instrument. Pure joy!

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We, once again, saw two performances that are an annual “must” at the Cowboy Festival. The “Sons of the San Joaquin” (as in the California valley, north of here) have resided at the top of the list of best acts in cowboy/western for some time. Joe Hannah joins with his younger brother, Jack, and Joe’s son, Lon, to produce the sweetest harmony this side of …anywhere. Jack and Lon play guitar, but Joe has relinquished his base fiddle to newcomer Dan Kahler. Rounding out the Sons is Richard Chon who plays the most beautiful fiddle accompaniment one could possibly image. Richard can effortlessly “saw” and stomp his way through the most challenging up-tempo pieces in the program, then turn around and play the most plaintive, singing fiddle imaginable; I think he must have a Stradivarius masquerading as a fiddle! When you listen to his musical interplay with the Sons on the slower pieces, it is difficult not to tear-up – it is that beautiful. Jack Hannah is the consummate voice and leader of the group. His deep baritone voice is truly something to behold. He is also a renowned songwriter with many fine ones to his credit.

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Last, and simply the best at what he does, is Don Edwards. His performances involve just him, his guitar…and the whole audience. His vocals always deliver a message, a message which connects with every person in the tent. That genuineness along with a great voice, diction, and superb guitar playing are the essence of Don Edwards. He chooses his songs carefully and well. He is never a “showman.” He is always a consummate professional who has researched much of the cowboy lore of which he speaks and sings. Seeing and hearing him perform on the big stage in the big tent – yet still up-close – is a memorable experience. One more thing about Don: He hates yodeling, but he does it well and usually inserts one short segment to please the crowd. Thanks, Don.

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Thanks also to our dear friends, Gil and Linda (on the right) for convincing us to attend our first festival. They waxed so enthusiastically about the music…and the cowboy poetry? That poetry part scared me off, initially. There are a few performers who deliver soliloquys on cowboys and life on the range. They tend to have ranching backgrounds and know of what they speak. Some of the recitals are very touching; some are downright hilarious. I will admit that I go for the music which predominates and cannot be beat. Thirty dollars per person will admit you for both days, allowing access to the several venues which operate all day. What a deal! Cowboy cobbler and cowboy coffee are extra!!

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Disclaimer: No, I am not a marketing front-man for the festival or for any of the performers or their products. I am merely a happy consumer of what they offer who would like to share the joy. That is my idea of what a blog should be. See you next year at Santa Clarita!

 

The Beatles: What Has Become of Pop Music?

Fifty years ago to the day I began writing this post, an obscure quartet of young, musical lads from across the pond landed in New York, their first visit to the “New World.” Following three successive Sunday night appearances on the venerable Ed Sullivan television program, the winds of excitement created by their fresh, ebullient musical performances caused a severe “muss” to America’s musical hairdo.

The Beatles

Put simply, they took America by storm while creating a new musical genre and a boost to the recording/entertainment industries that was unparalleled. How did they, in three weeks, go from virtual unknowns out of Liverpool, England, to being the toast of America? Thank America’s then-burgeoning television and communication networks for spreading the word, but look for the real answer in the entertainment value they offered. They played great music – tunes with melody, harmony, and that ever-present beat supplied by Sir Ringo on drums. They also turned out to be very competent song-writers in the personas of John and Paul.

As was the case with a very young Frank Sinatra who set the tone in the early nineteen-forties, young girls went Ga-Ga over the lads with the long haircuts. Like Sinatra, they played to screaming audiences and girls who fainted. The same enthusiasm was not forthcoming from some of the older set who, at first, viewed the Beatles’ English mod-style and haircuts with some apprehension; what else is new under the sun? Before long, many of them were also on-board, at least musically.

As individuals, the Beatles were an interesting lot. There was Paul, who, on first impression, seemed to be the extrovert and “face” of the group. There was Ringo, whose mop of hair swung happily to-and-fro as he knocked-out the Beatle’s backbone-beat on his Ludwig drums. Ultimately, George was the quiet, private one of the group while John was revealed as the mystic, the free-thinker, the hippie.

The colorful personas of the Beatles did not hurt their cause, but there was much more than that involved: They played good music…with a flair. I still get a chill watching that first Ed Sullivan television show, the night America was introduced to the lads from Liverpool. When Sullivan waved his hand toward them and announced, “Ladies and gentlemen… the Beatles!” and they launched into their flagship song, you immediately knew that this was something special. You felt the excitement of something new, something different, something that would not quickly blow-over and be gone. The Beatles offered-up unforgettable music and genuine excitement that first night in New York.

The same was true of Sinatra after he left Tommy Dorsey’s band to go out on his own in 1941 as a vocalist. Performances featuring Sinatra, a vocalist with musical support behind him, were a radical departure from the then-pervasive concept of a big-band spotlighting occasional brief vocal interludes. Sinatra made it big on his own, right from the beginning, ultimately arriving to the point in the nineteen-fifties where big studio bands and orchestras provided background support for his most famous recordings. He demanded and got the best studio musicians and musical arrangers extant, and the results reflected that fact. Despite all the first-class backup, Sinatra could really SING…and interpret the music. It all came from him. Like the Beatles, Sinatra was the real deal. Oh yes, there was another fellow who came in-between Sinatra and the Beatles and also stirred up some real musical excitement; his name was Elvis Presley.

Two events prompted me to write this particular post: The fiftieth anniversary of the Beatle’s arrival in New York, and the appearance of an editorial in our local newspaper written by Leonard Pitts Jr. of the Washington Post. The byline reads: Music has lost its edge – even today’s youths agree. As a former pop music critic, he is often asked his opinion of music today. He relates to being bored by much of it and goes on to say, “much of it feels corporate, cold, plastic, image-driven, less reflective of talent than tech, more programmed than played.” He goes on to add, “Of course, the old folks are not supposed to get the young folks’ music. That’s the whole point of the young folks’ music.” I believe he hit the nail on the head – on both counts. Even some young listeners have begun to express boredom with today’s performance-extravaganzas which masquerade as pop music.

For me, today’s music is much more a reflection on the talent of the tech-folks behind the scenes who “stage” the performance than on the performer’s “talent.” I see great visuals like programmed lasers and incendiaries, and I hear thunderous audio, distortion-free and balanced, but I hear no melody, no real harmony, and no discernable lyrics from the “performers.” I do hear much shouting, screaming, and gesturing some of which is not so PC. I am not impressed. I believe Pitts got it exactly right in his column. I ask, “Whatever happened to the great songwriters, the great music, the truly-talented performers of yesterday?

Pitts sagely observes part of the answer to the question – that the younger generation has always looked to something new, something different, something their parents either do not approve of or do not understand. I am afraid that attitude, along with the “dumbing-down” and commercialization of the music/entertainment business has taken us off into the weeds.

For me, the rose garden of the music business was the decade which spanned the mid-thirties to the mid-forties – the era of the big bands and the immensely talented songwriters and arrangers whose efforts made their music unforgettable. It was smooth, it was lyrical, it was exciting, it was jazz, it was romantic, and it was all eminently danceable. Although the economics which made the big bands of Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, and Harry James possible are never to return, my fondest hope is that young people will see fit to put aside the generational forces at play and re-discover their fabulous music. Fortunately, much of it is still available on well-restored CD tracks, waiting for new audiences to discover, for themselves, the musical treasure that they represent.

In the meantime, let us rejoice in the memory of those four talented lads from Liverpool who captivated America’s musical sensibilities almost fifty years ago. Unlike so much that we hear today, their music was truly worth all the excitement that ensued. It forged a unique niche in our musical memory and culture and will be fondly recalled and enjoyed for a long time to come.

 For previous blog posts of mine on the subjects of music and the big bands, click on the “Home” page and go into my post archives. Clicking on the red keywords on the right-hand side of the “Home” page can also take you to the posts.

The First Anniversary of Reason and Reflection

This is my 52nd post on this blog! Since I post every Sunday morning, this completes my first year of blogging. Thank you for following me this past year; I plan to keep-on keepin’-on for at least another year. I am not on Facebook or Twitter; if you are and have enjoyed this blog, please pass along its URL to friends and acquaintances who might also like what I write. Remember, too, that comments (replys) are always welcome. Thanks!

I Can Do This…and I’m Getting Better!

Is there any better feeling in the world than the realization of a meaningful personal goal or ambition? David McCullough, the noted author/historian expressed it ebulliently in the short video-bio on him called Painting with Words (See my post of July 21, 2013 in the archives, Meet David McCullough). Discussing his love of drawing and painting and the arts in general, he related the joy that results when “learning and doing” brings notable progress and proficiency: “I can do this…and I’m getting better!” Like so many succinct reflections of his, this one struck a real chord with me; I understand exactly how special that feeling is.

It is not that I have so many great life-triumphs to relate, but the joyous feeling he expressed does relate perfectly to one particularly hard-won success in my life that means a lot to me. I hope sharing my story in this post might rekindle in you similar reflections of personal triumphs. If not, perhaps the recounting will at least provide encouragement for those with as-yet unrealized personal ambitions.

My Life-long Passion-for and Battle-with the Trumpet:
 Bitten Early by the “Bug;” Round One

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Yes, I am referring to that shiny, B-flat brass instrument called a trumpet. I first became smitten in 1955, my sophomore year in high school, when the top hit on the pop charts was Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White by Perez Prado and his orchestra. With a mambo rhythm driving a shimmering trumpet solo throughout, the song was a giant hit. It hit me harder than most, for it sparked a life-long passion for the trumpet sound. I could not get enough of the tune, stopping everything to listen when it was played on the radio. Who can explain it, who can wonder why? …as the song lyrics go. My best guess as to why this attraction exists is genetic; I believe I have a hard-wired pre-disposition to the trumpet’s tonal qualities. It is a fantastically versatile instrument which covers the full range of musicality, from regal to jazzy to sexy/seductive. My parents understood my new-found enthusiasm and somehow found enough money to get me started on lessons…with a rented instrument.

Cherry Pink 45 1955

I immediately encountered significant difficulties. Recalling my first lesson with Mr. Cheney, the elderly proprietor of the downtown music store, brings a smile today. I was so nervous that the horn was shaking as I attempted to squawk out a few bleats and blats. It took a while for the nerves to abate and the shaking to stop. I vividly recall him asking if “a nervous disposition runs in the family.” I suppose, in hindsight, the answer to that was yes; my father had what might be called a nervous physiological tendency. To this day, I still experience nervousness, but not nearly as badly as in my youth. Of course, an appearance someday as trumpet soloist in Carnegie Hall or anything similar has always been highly improbable for me, so nerves were not my big problem; playing was.

After several months of lessons, I just could not play the higher register of the instrument with any consistency. Trying harder in the physical sense only made it worse as I “tightened up.” Nor could I gain any feeling whatsoever of confident competence and consistency in any register. Today, I appreciate that the trumpet is a very physically demanding musical instrument. For starters, it requires a lot of lung-power to produce the steady airstream necessary to “buzz” the lips and create that magnificent trumpet sound. By far, the most important aspect of playing is the “embouchure,” the configuration of the lips, jaw, and facial muscles and their relationship to the cupped mouthpiece. Proper and consistent alignment of all these elements as the mouthpiece is placed on the lips is absolutely necessary for success. Additionally, the lower facial muscles involved in the embouchure require considerable strength and conditioning just like the muscles of any athlete. Without the physical conditioning required for “good chops” (trumpeter’s lingo), playing is nearly impossible.

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Granted, there are only three valves to deal with, but so much is going-on at the mouthpiece! And “trying harder” to play upper register notes only makes things worse. Playing the trumpet requires a yoga-like relaxation mentality: Embouchure muscles are simultaneously in a state of relaxed tension! Achieving that takes a degree of mental maturity and much practice.

As a youngster, I had no clue. I did not appreciate any of these fine points, nor was I really informed of them by any of the three teachers whom I eventually went to for lessons in those days. I became very discouraged and gave up on trumpet, assuming that my “natural” embouchure was just not compatible with the instrument’s demands. It was very demoralizing to think, “Here I am, born with this great love of the trumpet, yet totally ill-equipped to play it.” That was my mistaken notion at the time. I switched to the clarinet in junior-year band hoping that it would yield more readily to “time spent practicing.” Alas, I had no passion for the instrument. No passion, no practice, no good! After high school, instrumental music disappeared from my life for twenty-some years.

Not Willing to Say No; Round Two

In mid-life, with a family and a career in engineering to keep me occupied, the trumpet was still on my mind. I bought a Yamaha student horn from a high school kid and gave it another try – with no lessons. After about four months of recurring exasperation, reminiscent of my early years, I put the trumpet away – for another twenty-some years.

Still Not Willing to Say No; Round Three

Five years ago, trumpetitis struck again, at age 68. Out came my Yamaha student horn. The saying that “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result is insanity” has merit! This time, I said to myself, “I am going to stay with this come hell or high-water and not get discouraged. Determined not to repeat past mistakes, I harnessed the power of the now-available internet to Google articles on trumpet playing and bought a number of books on trumpet technique, books that were formerly not available. I also patiently experimented with different aspects of technique – all new approaches for me.

Success! I Can Do This
and I’m Getting Better!

After five years of daily practice, study, and experimentation, I can finally play the  trumpet – high notes too! I am no threat to the first-chair players in our regional symphony orchestras, to be sure, but my tone is good, my endurance solid, and my register capability way beyond what I ever had before.

A series of lessons from an accomplished local jazz professional helped considerably – not only his “instruction,” but my ability to observe first-hand, through careful observation, all aspects of his approach to playing. He reinforced in me what my new books were emphasizing, namely that your capability as a player is best exemplified by your tone quality and your ability to play notes consistently and cleanly. I have arrived at that station and am now ready to move on to the intricacies of playing by learning techniques like double/triple tonguing, etc. With trumpet, there is no sense going beyond the big three – tone, control, and endurance – until proficiency is achieved in those. It is time now to move on to a more advanced level thanks to a new confidence in my foundation. I continue to look forward to playing/practicing, every single day – it is pure joy. I have graduated to a professional model Yamaha horn which makes playing that much more enjoyable. Just as in golf where expensive clubs do not a golfer make, the instrument does not make the musician, but a better horn does help. Over these past five years, learning about the jazz/swing music of the big-bands and the history of that era has been pure pleasure! Playing excerpts from standards of those years – strictly for my own pleasure – is a total joy. I hope to engage with a “late bloomers” jazz band someday and acquire some real playing experience, but that opportunity has not yet materialized.

In Summary and Looking Back on the Whole Saga

Hopefully, this has not been too long and detailed an account, but I wanted to tell the whole story. Although there are many more important things in life such as family, education, career, etc. than learning to play a musical instrument, some matters become very personal and very important. For me, learning to play the trumpet was one of those.

If you have followed my blog, you know that the fascinating process of learning (anything) is a subject near and dear to my heart. My saga with the trumpet has been extremely enlightening for me in that respect. What was it that I ultimately learned… or at least validated once again?

-Great Motivation is the key to great persistence; great persistence leads to great effort; great effort leads, hopefully, to ultimate success.

-Patience is necessary in all things difficult; do not be easily discouraged by the temporary lack of progress.

-Reach out for any and all resources which can help you. Develop a plan of attack.

Experiment and evaluate before committing to a given approach.

-Master fundamentals before moving on.

Lastly, specific to the trumpet: The embouchure is most everything, and an overlooked aspect of the embouchure is the critical importance of a proper and consistent initial placement of the mouthpiece on the lips. The importance of initial placement finally embedded itself in my consciousness not that long ago as I was observing a trumpet player in a jazz combo entertaining at our local Saturday morning farmer’s market. I have worked on that aspect diligently for months, and it was the final piece of the puzzle that finally really unlocked my abilities.

Is it not fascinating – the diversity of elements required to finally piece-together the whole learning puzzle – for any difficult endeavor? That question validates the priceless worth of teachers/instructors in any venue who appreciate the critical insights and can readily communicate them to students. Some individuals seem destined to breeze right-on through the learning curve with its pitfalls and difficulties. Others of us need to work hard to get there.

Great musicians who became virtuoso players at a very young age as was the case with two jazz greats, Harry James on trumpet and Benny Goodman on clarinet, are truly “naturals” in every sense of the word. Those two legends worked very hard at their craft early-on, but Benny Goodman did not hesitate when asked about the basis for great musical talent; he replied matter-of-factly, “You are born with it.” I understand. They are the ones who are physiologically equipped for the task in terms of muscle-memory and body-awareness in addition to being instinctively capable of visualizing the physical techniques required for great proficiency on an instrument. They then take that ability to new creative musical levels. The rest of us have much longer learning curves in the technique phase and often fall victim to “dropping out” for good. When Goodman was fifteen, he was already good enough to be playing in professional dance bands. He had all the confidence he needed at that early age. I imagine his personal revelation that “I can do this” came well before his teen years. Lucky him!

One More Thing!

David McCullough – when asked what he would like to be able to add to the list of his other accomplishments – replied, “Play the piano.” I liked that.

Dancing with the Stars?
Where Does That Enter Into the Discussion?

Yes, my wife and I enjoy watching the program. The process of celebrities with no prior experience in dance realizing at some point that “I can do this…and I’m getting better!” is fun and uplifting. For me, that aspect of the show cuts to the heart of its appeal. Perhaps a future post on DWTS is in order?

To My Readers

If any of this post strikes a chord with you, please tell the rest of us about your personal experience, whether in music, athletics….whatever! It can be very brief or it can be long. Reader-contributions in the form of comments are what truly make any blog “go-round.” To comment, you can click on the “Leave a reply” link just below!

The Myriad Mysteries of Music

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Is there anyone alive who has not been magically affected at one time or another by that strange phenomenon called music? Possibly not, but when thinking about music and its power, one is confronted with some interesting questions. What is it that so empowers mere audible tones – tones whose pitches  comprise notes which, when effectively time-sequenced, constitute the DNA of all music? How can these “arranged sounds” have such a deep effect on our emotional state? Some might immediately counter, “Music is not to be thought about, music is to be enjoyed!” But curiosity beckons, and so I do think about music and am attempting to learn more about it and its effect on us humans. 

Why did so many harmonically simple vocal melodies become gigantic popular hits in the 1950’s and 1960’s? I have in mind songs like Tammy (Debbie Reynolds) and Hey There (Rosemary Clooney). When one listens closely, the melodic simplicity is often striking and the lyrics frequently inane, and yet they were wildly popular. What is the essential difference between such tunes, songs that reached top positions on the music charts while selling millions of records and the many also-ran songs that were rarely played? What is it about the Beatles’ music that still appeals to so many? Why is the music of Frederic Chopin so hauntingly beautiful to many people – and I happen to be one of those?

 There are such things as music “theory” and music majors in college, realms of knowledge that in the past seemed far removed in spirit and application from my engineering background. Although I have always enjoyed most music, it was a chance encounter with Ken Burns’ documentary Jazz that, to my great surprise, opened whole new musical vistas for me (perhaps a future post!). Determined to learn more in detail about the subject, I bought some books on music theory and experienced much confusion, initially. Although music theory is not rocket science, I found engineering calculus easier to understand – really! As with calculus, for music theory to make much sense, one must start with a solid grasp of fundamentals. That was a good part of my problem with music. 

Did you know that the roots of music theory go back some 2500  years ago to the great Greek “natural philosopher” (early scientist) and mathematician, Pythagoras? It seems that he, too, was fascinated by the sensations of music and sound. He devised a series of what could properly be called physics/physiology experiments to satisfy his curiosity. He fastened a string at both ends (much as in a guitar) and plucked it. Then he did the same with a string half as long and noted that its sonic response, an octave higher (2X), blended pleasantly with the sound of the initial longer string (consonance). Other numerical ratios between two string lengths and their two tones produced similarly consonant blendings while some ratios produced dissonant blendings which sound harsh to the ear.

 Have you ever wondered what the piano keyboard with its white keys and seemingly random black keys represents in terms of sonic responses? How did it come about that the sonic interval between some white keys is what is called a “whole-tone” while other white keys are a “half-tone” apart? Now, we are talking music theory, and the fun begins…or not. We go no further, here, but to state that my confusion was ultimately resolved by purchasing the DVD video course offered by the Teaching Company called Understanding the Fundamentals of Music, taught by Professor Robert Greenberg. It is not for casual viewing, but it is the best way to gain a solid footing in music theory.

 Do you consider music a “universal language?” In some ways, perhaps it is – in others, not so much. It does seem that good tunes, fine melodies, and great compositions have the power to coalesce a favorable consensus – to evoke approval over a diverse audience, although there can be cultural barriers. Much Asian music is hard for me to relate to. I have learned that “our” music (in the global West) is based on the widely-adopted “Western pitch collection” which is built upon twelve distinct pitches. The use of this twelve-pitch “chromatic collection” goes back some 400 years. The seven pitches of the C scale, do..re..mi…etc. correspond to the white keys of the piano which, along with the five interspersed black keys represent the twelve pitches. It is not the only collection in use around the world. Pitch collections based on five pitches have been used in traditional Japanese music. Arab music sometimes uses a seventeen pitch collection. To reiterate, the Western pitch collection we use is reflected in the physical/tonal configuration of the piano keyboard, specifically, the arrangement of the white and black keys and their tonal responses. Different pitch collections produce different musical moods in their compositions; within a specific pitch collection, the “key” in which the piece is written can also influence the mood-response.

 What is universal in all of this seems to be the fundamental harmonic discoveries made by Pythagoras many centuries ago. Humans do seem to have brains universally hard-wired to respond favorably, or not, to certain harmonic relationships. Why is this so? At this point, it is time to stop thinking and just accept the musical ramifications; our musical responses ARE literally hard-wired into our brains such that most humans respond similarly to given tonal effects. It is the task of the composer and arranger to take maximum advantage of these facts as they set out to create good music.

Big Band CDs_1

 In my next post, I will consider some other “mysteries” relating to music. For instance, how does one explain the ever-changing “musical taste” of society? My favorite music is easily the huge book of great jazz/swing numbers played by the famous big-bands of the late 1920’s to the late 1940’s – bands led by the likes of Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, and Harry James. How did that great music with its complex arrangements come to be replaced in the public favor by the simple vocal offerings of the 1950’s (like Tammy and Hey There). And what carried us through rock-and-roll, heavy metal, and whatever it is the young listen to today? I think I finally know the answer after many years of wondering; at least I have an opinion! I am interested in yours, as well.

 Let us know if this post has awakened within you any dormant thoughts/memories regarding the effect music has had on you.