FRESH YARN presents:

Obviously, Jazz
By Eric Johnson

I 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 loud.

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.

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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