Sunday, January 08, 2006

Music Always, Jazz on Sundays

I grew up in a house that was full of music. Both my parents are jazz performers--my dad is an unbelievably good jazz pianist and my mom is a fabulous singer. In fact, they met when my mom (Elsa) auditioned for my dad's (Bill, Jr.) jazz combo at Marietta College in 1955. I remember many nights when the music room was full of family friends gathered around the piano singing while my dad played. The first time I remember actually playing music was with a pair of brushes on a metal TV tray, while my dad played the blues.

As a kid, I craved being able to stay up late listening and playing along when my folks had a music party. Even when it was bedtime, I'd lay awake listening to my dad playing, my mom's voice, and the all the sounds of joy and laughter floating like smoke up the staircase, down the hall to my bedroom.

I credit those music parties with my interest in music. Like millions of other kids I took piano lessons and I played an instrument in the school band (in my case, the trumpet). But my real music education came from playing music with other musicians, starting with my parents.

In high school I had an epiphany while writing a record review for the school newspaper. The record (remember vinyl records?) was Neil Young's Live Rust, and after hearing one of the long acoustic sides, I thought "Hey these songs are all just three chords! I can play three chords!" Poof! I was a guitar player. Much cooler to play your guitar at a high school party, I found, than your trumpet.


Dad encouraged me to take up the bass guitar, so I could play along with him. So before long I was learning the bass guitar and made my first feeble attempts at forming bands. As my bass playing progressed I would get to sit in with my dad's jazz group both at parties at our house, and at the occasional gig. And I kept on playing guitar and bass in my own bands, through college, and all the way to today. My first official gig with my own band? It was 1978 for an Electrolux vacuum cleaner sales convention, where we had to play the Electrolux theme song Caissons Go Rolling Along at least 12 times. This was actually good because it helped us fill the time--we only knew about 10 songs total and had to play for three hours. I remember a lot of sweating.

My dad grew up playing music with his best friend Bruce DeMoll. Bruce spent years on the road as a touring musician and composer with several big bands, including the Glenn Miller Band. Uncle Bruce was and still is, one of the best musicians I've ever known. Which is why I feel particularly lucky to have a regular weekly jazz gig now, playing with Uncle Bruce (at right, playing his soprano sax) and another fine musician, drummer Chet Backus (below, drumming).

We play a "jazz brunch" every Sunday at The Blennerhassett Hotel in Parkersburg, West Virginia from 10:30 am to 1:30 pm. Today's gig was our best in recent memory, in terms of virtually every song sounding and feeling really tight. When music happens right, it's beautiful. You don't have to work at it, you just feel it and let it happen. Today was like that, right from the first song We started with The Nearness of You, a lovely ballad written by Hoagy Carmichael--a song so melodic it would even sound good over a cellphone.

Brother Andy, Julie, and I are still rocking in the free world with The Swinging Orangutangs. Our next gig is Saturday, Feb. 4 at The Marietta Brewing Company. It's our first show in Marietta since last summer.

I feel really lucky to have grown up surrounded by music. Julie and I are inflicting the same houseful of music treatment on our own kids. I think it's working. Phoebe now walks around the house picking out songs on her plastic recorder. She's thinking about forming a band.

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