My earliest memories are of musicians rehearsing
in our living room on summer nights, with the smell of beer and cigarettes blown through saxes and trombones, in the air. I loved music, especially
jazz, and from the start I knew that I wanted to be a musician.
My father played alto sax and had a dance band in our small town in
upstate NY. Starting with a hand-me-down clarinet, which he gave me
in the 4th grade, I learned to play. By 5th grade I had started my
own band and landed my first gig. I booked my 5 piece jazz combo in the town's annual Masonic Minstrel Show.
On the night of the show I was so nervous, I dropped my clarinet 3
times while waiting to go on. Once on stage, all I could get out of
it was squeaks! Despite this inauspicious beginning, I stuck
with musicbut not with the clarinet, fortunately.
One night while on a summer vacation on the sea coast south of Boston,
my mom sneaked me into a nightclub where I saw a jazz quartet. The pianist
drew my attention like a magnetit was a Damascus Road experience!
From then on, I knew that piano was it. I went home and
started teaching myself. Before long I replaced the pianist in my little jazz band. About a year later a new teacher came to our school. He had been a professional pianist in New York City. I started hanging out on his moonlighting gigs in town and looking over his sholder. (I never once thought of asking him for lessons.) On my 18th birthday I played my first piano bar job. I later learned the term for this behavior: autodidact. It's how I learn everything.
Seeing Duke Ellington & his band of great black musicians was
another major aha! moment for me. I knew this was the
real thing. Here were players whose natural, cultural heritage came
with a wealth of warmth and soul, unlike the heritage into which I
was bornWhite, Anglo-Saxon, Presbyterian! In the same way that Bill Bradley learned to play
basketball through pickup games in the ghetto, I soon began choosing
to be the only white musician in many black bands (much to the dismay
of some of the musicians who had to endure my growing pains). This
On-the-Bandstand-Training(OBT) gave me an incredibly varied musical
education for which I am
grateful. Gigs in all kinds of places: from "chittlin' circuit" one-nighters
in Georgia and North Florida (with a band called "The Vibrators"!) to concerts
in South America and Europe with the Navy Band, to a tour with the
Platters, to "chichi" society gigs in New York and Palm
Beach. All have broadened my musical vocabulary and allowed me to appreciate the essential strengths in a wide range of
And hard as it is to believe,
I still get just as excited now before a gig as I did in
the "clarinet, butter fingers" days.