By Eric Johnson
was a band kid in high school. Marching band. Symphonic band. Jazz band.
Pep band. "Have trumpet, will blow" was my motto, and I suppose
it served me well enough. It certainly kept my parents out of hock. While
everyone else was begging for a car or maybe a scooter, I had my eye on
a plunger. With the right plunger, I just knew I could wa-wa
with the best of them.
Each individual band had its own personality, of course. Marching band
tended to draw those who believed excessive sweating and leg cramps were
integral to the musical experience, while symphonic band catered to those
high minded sophisticates who felt music was best performed without sweatbands.
Pep band, as you might expect if you've ever spent any time watching March
Madness, was for those who liked to wear face paint and play really, really
By far the most interesting group, however, was the jazz band. A high
school jazz band is sort of like the French Foreign Legion, drawing from
both the seriously committed and the seriously messed up, and my high
school was no different. Our rhythm section, for example -- the heart
and soul of any jazz band -- consisted of a nymphomaniacal piano player,
a bass player on probation from a downstate juvenile detention facility,
a drummer with ADHD and a guitar player who happened to be a dead ringer
for Eddie Van Halen. As a jazz band we made a pretty good rock group.
That's not to say the rhythm section had all the characters, however.
We also featured a flatulent lead trumpet player, a solo trumpet player
who refused to play chords, a trombone player with a pair of quick-fog
Harry Carey glasses and a bass trombonist who acted as if he were an exchange
student from the Hitler Youth.
Our best feature -- our claim to fame, really -- was our all-female sax
section, which sat right down front like contestants for Miss Universe.
For competitions they wore short black skirts and matching white camisole
tops, figuring what they might have lacked musically they could more than
make up for in "production value." That's the beauty of a band
-- everyone pulls his own weight.
High school jazz bands do more than play concerts, however. Jazz bands
compete. They go to contests like the Westlake-Slocum Jazz Band Festival,
which was kind of a Battle of the Bands for kids in blue blazers.
Jazz band contests tended to be pretty nerdy affairs, sort of like a Star
Trek convention with horn cases. Though no one ever really dressed
up like, say, their favorite Blue Note artist, you did see lots of cats
in shades and, during practice at least, a few of the really dedicated
in berets. Come performance time, however, we were all typically uniform
little groups with only the occasional head nod, and even those were less
about expressing hipness than they were about expressing relief at getting
through a particularly problematic section. Alright! (nod) Made
it through the intro.
For reasons best known to band directors, jazz band contests were usually
held in the dead of winter and always hosted by schools at least a couple
hours away from our western Chicago suburb, which, considering the unheated
school buses that transported us, meant protracted bouts of frostbite
for any member who hadn't paired off with one of the sax players. (Deena,
our hyper-horny pianist, was wisely considered too incendiary to risk
huddling with, no matter how numb your extremities might have been).
Our appearance at the Westlake-Slocum Jazz Band Festival was unremarkable,
yet typical. At the appointed time we filed out on stage in our usual,
calculated crescendo. In swaggered the misfit rhythm section followed
by the trumpets on the high riser and the trombones on the middle. After
just the slightest anticipatory pause -- hey, isn't something missing?
-- our sax girls filed in, arranged themselves and seductively moistened
their reeds (a glorious sight by anybody's standards). By then the restless
venue full of competing bands was awestruck. Had we been allowed to recruit,
we'd have been culling All-Staters before the first note.
Our director, Mr. Kent, peered out into the darkened auditorium, and when
the judge gave him the all clear, he turned toward us, shrugged and raised
his baton. Nothing ventured, he seemed to say, nothing gained.
The first piece, or chart as the other bands might have called it, began
with a piano solo, which, coming so quickly on the high heels of our sax
section's arrival, provided our audience the opportunity to ponder two
of the more contrasting forms of femininity. On one hand you had the cool,
sophisticated beauty of our sax girls, knees together, their long bare
legs as smooth as if they'd just wrapped up filming a Nair commercial,
and on the other hand you had Deena, legs spread in her best Tori Amos
impersonation, shamelessly humping the piano bench as she stroked her
instrument to a 24-bar climax.
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
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
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
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
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