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Obviously, Jazz
By Eric Johnson

After that, most would have agreed it really didn't matter what came next, so to speak. How we sounded -- our ability to swing, for instance, or the competency with which we hit our notes -- was pretty much immaterial, but since most of us had braved hypothermia to get there, we figured we might as well play out.

Our judge, however, did care, which proved he was either sexually confused or he'd transcribed a few too many scores over the years and was too blind to see the stage. Either way, he was a very bitter man. Long before Simon Cowell made savagery a form of pop candor, Dickie DuLane was shoving high school jazz bands through the Quisinart of his four-to-the-bar soul.

We had history with Dickie DuLane. He was one of a handful of guest directors Mr. Kent brought in over the course of the school year to whip us into shape. A bonafide professional musician (he and his combo played weddings and the occasional mall opening between their standing Thursday night gig at the Brownstone Brownie Factory), Dickie DuLane considered himself a role model for all young musicians, and he took our musical futures far more seriously than any of us did, including even our bass trombonist, whose ice cold Aryan eyes continually glared at him as if he were contemplating a seriously invasive application of his trombone slide.

In any other venue, this familiarity might have constituted a conflict of interest, but that's the thing about musicians. As far as music goes they're above reproach. Nothing matters but the music. Black, white, purple or mauve - so long as you blow a righteous ax, nothing else matters, and I think our poor showing there at the Westlake-Slocum Jazz Band Contest pretty much proved it. Musically speaking, justice really is blind. And quite possibly homosexual to boot.

Still, the foreknowledge of what to expect had to have influenced Dickie's judgment. Certainly it at least prepared him for the more shocking elements of our performance, like our solo trumpet's impressive imitation of a trumpet solo. How could he of all people forget the rehearsal when he'd heard the same solo and incredulously suggested our boy might have missed a couple of chord changes.

"Oh, I don't do chords," our soloist responded matter-of-factly. He didn't do chords; the rest of us didn't do solos. You know, it was something we'd learned to live with.

Dickie DuLane, though. He lived in a world just a little bit more demanding than ours. A solo without chords… it was like words without meaning. Function cabin wrote said dirt to telegraph was Penelope fortune casaba toga. Sure they were notes, but they didn't say anything. Truth be told, neither did the words Dickie DuLane tried to string together there in the band room that night.

On the judge's tape, though, which provided real-time commentary, he was focused and direct. "No chords," he said, "no music. No music, no point. No point, no score. No score…" He left the "no problem" to those of us he knew could properly say it.

Our solo trumpet wasn't the only nit he had to pick. Though he was too far away to appreciate the cost of all those high Cs (to this day I still can't hear the final stratospheric climb to glory at the end of "In the Mood" without conjuring up the singular tang of Billy Taylor's farts), there was no way he could overlook the stubborn delinquency of the male members of the rhythm section, members for whom jazz was merely a form of rock and roll without pyrotechnics.

They were like missionaries, these fellows. At every opportunity they urged us to the river and tried to dunk us in the swift, redeeming waters of speed metal and stadium rock. Give him four bars and the drummer gave back an approximation of the Siege of Leningrad (with only slightly fewer rounds fired). Four bars to the guitar player gave us a head-shaking tribute to the hair bands that undoubtedly rocked his world. As for the bass player, his years in juvie had given him a fearlessly badass certainty. He just picked a tempo and forced the rest of us to follow him, upping the volume on his amp when we didn't.

To the bombastic drum soloist, Dickie DuLane suggested Ritalin. To the guitar riffs he said nothing, letting the ear splitting dissonance of the whammy bar do all the talking for him. To the bass player he passed no judgment whatsoever. Clearly intimidated by the kid's curriculum vitae, he offered only benign suggestions like "tempo perhaps a bit slow," and "bass might pick it up a notch, but that's just me." 

Overall, we received a low score. It might even have been the lowest of the competition, but none of us ever got around to checking. After all, what was the point? We weren't really much on legacy back then, except maybe Deena, who upon graduation felt honor bound to sign the raw spot she'd made on the piano bench. "Obviously," she wrote, "Deena was here."


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