Finding music

Sam Smith, 1977 – My  earliest musical memory is of sitting on the john and singing “I got to Kansas City on a Friday; by Saturday I’d learned a thing or two. . .” That and the big posters my parents had of all the instruments of the orchestra and going to a children’s concert at Lisner and a kid in front of me being stabbed by another kid.

Not perhaps the most auspicious entry into the musical world but it was a start. And it was followed by six years of painful piano lessons, constant reminders that music was good for me (thereby putting it in the same category as milk of magnesia and dental floss), a brief (two-week) fling with the trumpet, a slightly longer engagement with the clarinet, (which my parents thought would do less damage to my lungs), popular piano lessons from the school geology-anthropology teacher who played solely in the obscure key that uses all of the black notes, dutiful but unenthusiastic participation in the high school choir, listening to an album made by some 1920s New York ballroom orchestra over and over again, and sharing with my older brother the delights of WCKY,WWVA and Sunday morning gospel music.

I went to a Quaker school in Philadelphia that had not allowed dancing until 1939. By the early fifties, though, music was a major part of school life as it graduated from Gilbert 5 Sullivan to serious’ choral work, eventually performing Arthur Honegger’s rugged “King David.” My father ran a classical music radio station, so between school and home I was well surrounded by “good” music.

But I found jazz anyway. First, it was a 45 recording of “Fidgety Feet” by the Memphis Five. Then the Benny Goodman Carnegie Hall Concert. I listened and thought that there might yet be a place for me in music. As a drummer, perhaps. My parents went along with the whim and I practiced to the Memphis Five and Benny Goodman and took the A bus every Saturday down to Henry Glass’s music store on 18th Street for lessons from a drummer who regularly nodded off from an overdose of work or whatever. Soon I was ready for my first assault on the power structure. As one tended to do in the fifties, especially if you were still in high school, I chose a cultural rather than a political attack. I organized a dance band, the first one the school had known. The Six Saints included one each piano, trumpet, saxophone, metal clarinet, drums, and a cello perched on a stool and plucked like a bass. My bass drum was 28″ in diameter and probably dated to 1928. We were well received, even by the choir director, who later employed me as tympanist for some of her more grandiose works.

We were not good, regardless of what we said to ourselves at the time. Then I went to college. Among the many astonishments involved in that transition was that not only did everyone at Harvard U. know more about literature, sex and political theory than I did, but they knew more about music. There were students who would end up with recording contracts. There was Joe Raposo who would write much of the great music for “Sesame Street.” There was the sax player with whom I would play for four years, Bob Brenman (now Dr. Robert Brenman), who had already worked the borscht circuit for several summers and could blow “A Train” lying on the floor and kicking his feet in the air. And there was this girl that Lew Walling (who was to be one of the first Americans killed in Vietnam) —who came down to the radio station and sang and played guitar and was something special. Her name was Joan Baez.

Music was all around.  There must have been at least a half-dozen working drummers in my class alone. Drummers who would grow up lawyers, doctors, corporate vice presidents, but for awhile understood that a paradiddle revealed more of God’s way to man than Soc Sci Two did. And they were good. I was over my head.

Fortunately, I had played enough high-low poker to survive. It occurred to me that being a successful drummer and being a great drummer were two different things. Since it was clear I would never be a great drummer, I set my sights, on the former course. I went low. In a jazz group the piano, bass and drums are often referred to as the “back-up” section. Alone among these instruments the drums can either back-up or take over. It’s up to the drummer.

I  decided to back up.  I had early observed that most other musicians were not enthralled by displays of rhythmic pyrotechnics by drummers. They wanted someone who would keep the beat and listen to what they were doing and give them support. You sit back there with your Gretsch pancake snare, a snapping high hat, a nice Avedis Zildjian 20″ ride cymbal, your tight-smacking bass drum and a tom-tom and you take over the show. But if you do, if you’re really not that good, you won’t get the next gig. Besides, if you listen to what you’re doing you realize you’re destroying what jazz is about.

Jazz is musical democracy. The greatest amount of freedom without screwing up someone else’s. If you want to learn how a country or a community ought to be run, listen to jazz. It is perhaps the purest form of democracy that exists today. The premise is that every-one should say what they have to say in the best possible environment but that there is a whole to which each participant voluntarily yields in order to make everyone else sound better. The trumpet player is having problems, you listen and pick up on one of his riffs, give him a little support, he hears it and backs down, finds the groove and is off safely again. The drummer is having problems, the piano player simplifies the pattern, looks over at you, nods as if to say “Come on it’s all right,” or the bass player throws his body into the music, becomes the unappointed but essential conductor of the moment, and drives the group back to where it should be.

So much goes on in those split instances; they stand like hours in my memory. The moment when something right turned wrong. The moment when four or five or six people trying to do something together couldn’t make it, but couldn’t walk away from it, so made it right. It is a demand that in personal or political lives from which we tend to retreat. But when you have 12 bars plus three more choruses to go, you don’t. I’d vote for any good bass player who ran for president. And if the Carter transition team invited me for consultation, I’d tell them that the difference between merely getting by and grooving is often a nuance of rhythm and touch so subtle that you can not describe it on paper; you only know it when it happens. Like that moment when a mundane ching-chicka-ching with a backbeat on the snare suddenly seizes the musical parts and makes them one mystical driving force steaming happily, gloriously, into endless time.

I was meant to be a student. In fact, I divided my time between the college radio station — among other things as a jazz DJ with a show called “Jam With Sam,” and playing drums. I don’t regret it a bit. Not the twelve hour gig playing for two SAE fraternities. Not the hours in coffeehouses and jazz clubs trying to absorb something from the drummer. Nor the nights riding the one cab in Cambridge that was willing to haul a four-piece combo including drums and string bass over to the suburbs, nor playing to the awful echo of your own sound in an empty hall where the dance was supposed to start at eight but no one came until 9:30. Nor sleeping through Zbiggy Breszinski’s class.

I was later to find out, via Time Magazine, that I was part of a generation, that drinking orange juice and munching on English muffins at four a.m. in Hayes- Bickford after a gig and talking until the sun came up had some social significance.  That passing time in a coffeehouse or wasting time somewhere else was a rebellion of importance.

Then I graduated, magna cum probation. And to graduate meant to lose music. To graduate meant to no longer be able to walk down the hall or across the street and find someone who would get on the phone and find someone else who would be free for a session. To graduate meant to face the real world, which meant a world without much music.

I have resisted the real world the best that I could. When I was stationed aboard a Coast Guard cutter I bought myself an accordion I called my “seagoing piano.” I joined the New Sunshine Jazz Band for awhile but I couldn’t raise a family and do what I was supposed to do and be a drummer too. I picked up the piano again, taught myself the tenor guitar, marched in the Cleveland Park Halloween Parade, played at a few parties, and tried to tell my children^ by sounds other than words, how important music is.  Not just for listening but for making. Not just for “musicians-” but for anyone. I hope they’ll learn (maybe they have already) that there are times when music is the only thing that makes sense.

Comfort in the face of loneliness. The feeling of tension and frustration departing your body through your fingers. To be able even for fifteen minutes, to sit at my upright and play “I Ain’t Gonna Give No One None of My Jelly Roll” or “I Got Those Steadily Depressing, Low Down Mind Messin’  Working at the Car Wash Blues” saves me thousands of dollars in psychiatrist bills. Music is what people had before they had therapy. And it worked.

But it’s not the same. Every so often, my friend up the street and I get to gether and do our schtick somewhere. But most of the time, we’re being responsible, – doing our job, trying to get by, without music. For Washington will go to the Kennedy Center, but it doesn’t really care that much about music. The official city uses music — like Jerry Ford used Captain and Teneel and Jimmy Carter used Bob Dylan and Greg Allman. But mostly the music is confined to places where you have to be invited or have to pay or as a bridge between commercials. People who are supposed to matter in Washington don’t talk about it, don’t play it, don’t recognize it as more important than the next cabinet appointment. I was trying to think the other night of political figures who cared enough about music to throw themselves into it, rather than to merely use it. Senator Abouresk and DC Delegate Walter Fauntroy were all I could come up with. Abouresk plays guitar; Fauntroy sings. Neither are going to make a big dent in official Washington. Abourezk, in fact, is probably the most atypical senator on the Hill. You can’t be a typical senator and play guitar.

Early in the ill-fated Fred Harris campaign I went to a party thrown for Harris by Abouresk. It ended the way a party should, with guitars and fiddles and songs. The other evening I went to a party filled with people from the old left. It ended the way a party should, with old union and Spanish civil war songs. In fact, when you come right down to it, there’s hardly been a political movement in this country worth a damn that didn’t rely heavily on music: the union movement, the civil rights activists , the anti-war rebellion. People who are trying to change things need music,, to provide courage, unity and cheer when everything points the ether way.

Perhaps it is because those in power subconsciously recognize the subversive force of music that they want so little to do with it. Perhaps they sense that music is the enemy of repression and blind ambition. It is no mere coincidence that when profiles of Jimmy Carter’s new cabinet were published recently, only one member listed music as a hobby. Music, it seems, speaks to a portion of our soul that has little survival value in official Washington. It should be a warning to us – that we elect so many people who don’t seem to care about music. It’s a danger signal, as much as a conflict of interest or a suspicious liason. Shakespeare said it and it’s still true: “The man that hath no music in himself, Nor is not mov’d with concord of sweet sounds, Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils; The motions of his spirit are dull as night, And his affections dark as Erebus. Let no such man be trusted.”


One year after I wrote this essay I would join with my wife and a music teacher at our sons’ school to write  a musical about DC history. In the !980s I would play in several bands including my own until 1997.

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