Tuesday, September 11, 2012

So long St. Pete

     It's getting down to crunch and time and we're starting to get a little nervous. Actually a lot nervous and to say we've got mixed emotions is putting it mildly. For me, while there's no doubt we're doing the right thing, still, the United States is where we were born and raised, well, I was anyway. But beyond that, everything I have I owe to Uncle Sam. I paid my way through college as an FBI clerk and have been a public servant ever since. When I discovered police work wasn't for me, the Bureau took me back and gave me the career that is now allowing me the freedom to do whatever I like. I'm as American as you can get and I don't want to hear any of that anti-government shit.

     But we're also wondering if we're not a little spoiled. After all, we've got a pretty good life here in St. Pete and for me I've been able to pursue another dream. When I retired from the FBI in 2004, I hadn't intended to stop working but before I looked for another job I wanted to deal with a regret I'd had since leaving high school. I wanted a degree in music.

     I grew up in Springdale, Pa., a factory town about 16 miles up the Allegheny river from The Point in Pittsburgh. Playing the trombone was the only thing that got me through high school. Like most people who play it, I didn't really pick the trombone, it picked me. Somewhere around 90% of the kids who show up for elementary school band without an ax are handed a trombone and I was one of those. As it turns out, however, this instrument suits my personality probably better that any other. Trombone players as a group tend not to take themselves too seriously, possibly because nobody else does either. But when it came time to leave high school and find a career I gave the horn up, believing myself not good enough to pursue it farther.

    Occasionally though, usually around Memorial Day and 4th of July, I'd get the horn out and march with the local fireman's band but that was it. After 1979, when I left the 'burgh for good, even this outlet dried so for about 25 years I hardly touched the thing. Then about midway through the '90's, it became imperative that I have something to distract me from my job so I retrieved my old 2B from my mother's house and joined a community band. After a couple of years I decided to start taking he whole thing more seriously since I was no longer satisfied with being slightly less than mediocre. I found a good teacher, Jay Shanman, and as I got better began to wonder if it was too late for me to ever be any good.

    Because law enforcement (I've never really been comfortable with that term) is perceived as a young man's job, most agencies allow for retirement after 20 years of service and the FBI added the requirement of also  being 50 years old. I had 20 years at the age of 51 and did not let the door hit me on the ass on the way out.  The spring semester of 2006, I started classes at the University of South Florida.

   When I decided to do this, my relationship with most teenagers had been mutual distrust and, at best, barely tolerant. But from the first day at USF, it became apparent that I was at last among my people. For over 30 years, I was forced into daily association with people who not only regarded jazz with contempt and ridicule, but if they listened to music at all it almost always prominently featured pedal steel guitars and alcohol related themes. To be every day with people 1/3 my age who not only knew and dug J.J. and Urbie Green and held conversations about Miles' modal period was, well, (cue Handel).
     So I graduated in 2008 and for the last 4 years I've bounced around, picking up gigs where I can but, like a lot of people, but especially trombone players, not as much as I would have liked. On balance, however, I've had more ups than downs, really, although if you've been the one who's had to listen to me bitch it hasn't always seemed that way. I'm writing this after having just finished my last gig here. I've been lucky enough to get to sub regularly with the TomKats, a St. Pete big band that plays every Monday night at the Blue Parrot in St. Pete Beach and features some of the best jazz players in town. In fact. I don't really belong on the same stage with some of these guys but I've generally not embarrassed myself and held my own on the occasional solo.

       I'll probably write more about this later but I want to get something posted before I leave town, But while I've lived here, I gotten to know a lot of some of the best musicians in the Tampa Bay area and, to me, that's infinitely cooler than following guys of Mediterranean ethnicity around Brooklyn all day. And I'll just say here that I consider myself lucky to have spent time with the great Buster Cooper, who most times remembers who I am after I tell him. One of the first things I ever had published was an article about Buster that appeared in the Journal of the International Trombone Association and if I ever figure out how to do it, I'll post a link here. If you don't know Buster, check out the Duke Ellington Orchestra after around 1963 through 1972. Once I got to play hockey with Gordie Howe and this is the musical equivalent as far as I'm concerned.

    At USF I got to take lessons once a week from Tom Brantley and if I could play like anyone, it might be him. Apart from being a great human being, he's a amazing musician - one of those people that when you see and hear him play, you know you're getting all he's got. And as if that weren't  enough for me, my last semester Tom went on sabbatical so I got to study with Keith Oshiro, an alum of both the Maynard Ferguson and Woody Herman bands. Being among these three world class trombonists was the high point of my life in Florida. And thanks to Tom's wife Claire, who was the managing editor of the ITA Journal, I now have a steady writing gig, even if it doesn't pay a dime.

   The first musical experience I had after moving to Florida was to play in the summer jazz band at St. Petersburg college. This is run by Dave Pate, a saxophonist and St.Pete native and it was, without doubt, some of the most fun I've ever had and Pate was a big part of the reason for this. He's played with and for some of the world's best musicians but never, ever exhibited the ego he actually would be entitled to have. These summer bands band were always a mixture of old goats like me and kids from grade school to early college. Pate treated everyone the same, made sure everyone soloed and not once did I hear anything but encouragement, even after listening to someone like me hack their way through even the simplest tunes.

   Another thing that's given me a lot of pleasure here is seeing some of my USF classmates doing well and making their way as teachers and musicians. Mark Feinman, a great drummer, and Jon O'Leary, a really sensitive piano player,  helped me get through my junior recital and now, along with Alejandro Arenas (another USF classmate) make up La Lucha, a group here in St. Pete that is really making a name for themselves. But beyond their own group, they're some of the most sought after sidemen in town and so I get to show up at their gigs and act all cool and hip 'cause I can tell people I've played with these guys.  I'm hoping to see them at Marciac some time.

   I'm going to miss all this but I'm hoping to have some of the same experiences now in a different language. If you're reading this and I've played with you somewhere along the line, thanks. Thanks more than you know. For all their foibles, I've found musicians, by and large, to be the real deal and I'd rather hang with them than anyone.

  After we find a place to live, I'm not going to have a lot to do for awhile so I'm planning on, not only total immersion language training but immersing myself in my horn again. Since this seems like a pretty good way of making the transition into a new culture, it will be a good time to work on some things I've been needing for a long time. For one thing, all the French sax players I've heard appear to prefer the same tempos as their American brethren so it might be a good time to learn to keep up.

   So long St. Pete, I'm gonna miss you. You were just starting to feel like home. Who knows, I might be back some day but if not, look me up. If you're in Bordeaux just listen for the out of tune trombone player trying to make the changes to some Django tune.

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