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 music—but 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 magnet—it 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 born—White, 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 styles.

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.

my life in music