A Story of Youth: My Big-Band Education
This is a story of youth.
I began playing trumpet professionally—meaning I got a small check at the end of the gig and didn’t have to pay for dinner—at age 13 with a proud organization called the North Coast Big Band. Based out of Astoria, Oregon, the group still exists with some of the same players as when I was a member. It continues to serve as an important outlet for retired professional musicians, as well as a the learning ground for countless young players from the Northwest Oregon coast, an area stretching from Astoria to Portland but mostly encompassing small towns like Seaside, Knappa, Gearhart, and, my hometown, Clatskanie.
I knew about the band before I ever heard it. My father played tenor and baritone saxophone in the band for years and finally ended up in the lead alto chair before he provisionally retired from playing altogether a few years ago. I knew all the characters, the way they talked and played, from his descriptions. Unwittingly he was building a mythology in my prepubescent mind with his stories, told over breakfast the morning after a gig or in the truck on the way to a trumpet lesson. The NCBB became less a big band and more like a cross between Jason and the Argonauts and M*A*S*H: simultaneously heroic and comic.
I remember hearing the band for the first time in the local high school auditorium. I was 11 and absolutely overwhelmed by the power of 16 musicians working in concert to create a wall of sound. It wasn’t like the sound of a big band was an epiphany—I had grown up sitting in front of the big bands of Woody Herman, Harry James, and, before parents thought to bring ear plugs to protect their children’s hearing, had experienced the nausea-inducing decibel levels of Maynard Ferguson’s band in a high-school gym on multiple occasions.
This concert was different, though. These men and women felt more real than the other players I had seen. They were available to me, not only by their actual physical proximity, but also via my connection with them through my father. I could understand this band because I could relate to them as versions of him. All of a sudden, music was no longer “magic,” but the result of individual and collective striving toward something big, unique, and wonderful. As the band cruised through their version of “Kansas City,” my dad played a bar-walking honking and bluesy bari solo. The corners of my mouth kept creeping higher and higher until tears formed in my eyes.
Fast-forward two years. Barely pubescent me is looking frantically for paraffin in an Oregon-coast grocery store. One of the players in the NCBB couldn’t make the afternoon concert in the park and I had a chance to sit in with the group on fourth trumpet. Like my dad, I had learned to always have my horn, or at least a mouthpiece, with me at all times, but I hadn’t thought to bring the dental protection necessary to cover, and protect the inside of my lips from, the braces ubiquitous to a boy my age. After shaping two large pieces of wax from a sandalwood-scented candle between my fingers and applying it to top and bottom wire structures, I mounted the stage and sat, singled out by my “Bones Brigade” T-shirt and jeans, in front on the band’s massive folder of music. Each piece had a number printed on its upper-right-hand corner and I hopelessly turned the out-of-order pages as the afternoon’s set list was being called out—the other trumpet players impatiently telling me the corresponding titles to help me spot the charts and speed up the process.
Barely settled, not even having had a chance to sheepishly introduce myself, the drummer kicked off the first tune. I knew enough to tell I was immediately about a sixteenth-note behind the rest of the group and began manically trying to get ahead, a process that feels like running through four inches of soft musical mud. Forget dynamics. Forget articulation. Forget making music! I was simply trying to play the damn notes at the same time as everyone else. My heart was pounding and I wasn’t catching up, even during the sax solo when I had time to rest. The last note of the tune ended and my blatty and late low D hung in space, resonating throughout the municipal park so the entire audience could enjoy my struggle. I was ready to take out my perfumed mouthguard, put my horn back in its case, and run crying to my mother (who was conveniently in the audience). Instead of the ridicule and humiliation I expected, however, the lead trumpet player—a legend because he played the trumpet calls at the Portland dog track—leaned over and explained how to half-memorize the bar you’re playing and look ahead to keep on top of the music as it comes. My success with this technique wasn’t immediate, but it did make the rest of the concert less panic stricken. It was my first lesson in the trumpet section of a big band and, thankfully, it wouldn’t be my last. At the end of the gig, it was collectively decided that I would become the fifth trumpet/mascot/pet project of the North Coast Big Band.
The NCBB rehearsed every Thursday in a number of different multi-use spaces and community service organization halls in Astoria. For most of my tenure with the group, these meetings occurred in the large conference-room configuration of a utilitarian structure that jutted out into the Columbia River, perched on large, squat stilts. No one was ever sure what the building was for or who owned it. My favorite space, however, was the Elks Lodge and Suomi Finnish Brotherhood Hall just off of Astoria’s main street. The lodge—a grand old ballroom above even older steam baths—was doused in perpetual dusk, requiring us to use clip-on stand lights in the middle of a summer day. The rich, dark old-growth wood of the room with its great looming bar and ghosts of New Year’s Eve depravity reaching back 50 years filled me with the feeling of warmth, fraternity, and subtle immorality that most 13-year-old boys crave. While other students in my high school were learning and practicing the bonds of friendship and the self-sublation of teamwork in the open air of sports fields and the funk of locker rooms, I was spending 45 minutes riding in a big red truck with my father to sit in the faux-monastery of the Suomi Hall and learn the same lessons with people roughly twice my age.
This is a story of youth.
I don’t want to imply that I existed without peers, however. There were musicians my own age from other high schools that came and went during my time in the NCBB, some of which I maintained friendships with well into college. But, it was the consistent core of the band—those retired, or almost retired, men and women—that ultimately provided me with the building blocks for my personality, sense of humor, ethics, and many elements of my musical education.
While it’s difficult to say that there was a single, alpha personality that provided adhesive to the band, there was Terry. He booked the gigs, provided us with the “books” of music, negotiated the terms of our engagements, secured the rehearsal space, and, most importantly, paid us. He was also the lead trombonist—sitting almost dead center in the group—and this made his helming of the band natural and above questioning to me.
Terry’s leadership style was most notably defined by its relative lack of either leadership or style, and marked by an attempt to be a strong authoritarian figure while fighting his genuinely boyish nature. He would get flustered with some of the more rambunctious elements of the band, but was always the first to break, laughing even as he desperately tried to maintain order. In essence, he was a true humanist and, in the rare opportunities in which we talked one-on-one, he always showed genuine interest in what I was thinking, my education, and if I was living in a way that made me happy.
As a concert date approached, it was clear that Terry’s primary concern was the band’s dress code: black shirts with red ties, white shirts with black ties, red shirts with purple ties. We were outfitting ourselves for careers in the ice cream parlor industry but, ultimately, it never crossed my mind that I looked ridiculous, because we all looked ridiculous together. In actuality, it was the first time I felt proud to be visually equated with a group of people, and the last time I felt comfortable being dressed the same as everyone else. I began to understand the pride others felt in wearing school colors or their mascots. It’s a concept I find unsettling now, but at that time, I could tap into the feeling of belonging to something larger than myself as I looked from side to side at the sea of magenta shirts with bright yellow ties.
Terry was one of the gentlest souls I’ve ever met. His occasional bluster was a coping mechanism for a sensitivity that was perhaps too fragile even for the polite society of the Pacific Northwest. He died of cancer in 2002. In his soft and considerate way, he had let a loved one convince him that it should go untreated, a fact that made my father and me furious and sad. One of his last gigs was leading a stripped-down version of the NCBB at my wedding reception. It was the last time I ever saw him, and I get a tear in my eye thinking about him and my dad playing “Everything Happens to Me” as I danced with my wife.
Terry was one-of-a-kind, but the band was populated with characters possessing their own unique narratives. From Jerry, the bass player who lived on a small island in the Columbia River, worked on school busses, and radiated the good-natured warmth of a 1950s hot-rodding high-school kid, to the tall and elegant solo trombonist, Bob, who perfectly arranged balanced tunes for the band, while still embracing the certain breezy “cool” of the LA big bands he was a part of in the 1960s and ’70s. Dave was a specific kind of Oregonian lumberjack—thick and hirsute—but he could careen effortlessly through any set of chord changes on guitar in a way that paid homage to Joe Pass but was purely his own. Judy looked like a displaced 1950s housewife but played a mellifluous Marshall Royal–style alto sax. Kent had a bag of mouthpieces but none of them seemed to make him very happy.
The band’s membership changed constantly (for some reason they had a hard time keeping lead trumpet players and drummers) but of the consistent members who defined the NCBB "Cap’n" Jack was my all-time favorite. He had some arthritis that caused his fingers to be limited in how far they could stretch, which would be a major hindrance for most keyboardists. But Jack played the most beautiful and joyous locked-hand solos (the melody note in the pinkie of the right hand, the bass note in the same of the left and all the other fingers filling in the chord tones). He just let the middle eight of his fingers fall where they would, regardless of the harmony of the song, and to this day, I remember him playing some of the most strange and wondrous chord voicings I’ve ever heard. On some long wedding gigs, he would play a lounge solo piano set during the band’s dinner break, and I would sit nearby, entranced by the amount of color he got out of a low-rate electric keyboard simply through his spectacularly vivid, if perhaps unintentional, harmonies. Every time he touched the keys, I was rapt.
It wasn’t just “Cap’n” Jack’s music that was unique. He was a human being like no other, an unaware proto-beatnik. No matter what direction a conversation took, it always “reminded” him of a girl. For example:
Me: “I can’t seem to find my Harmon mute.”
Jack: “That reminds me of a girl…1968…her name was Harmony and she had the most delirious laugh. I was quite a man then and I was convinced that we were in love…”
And onward and onward. Whether all of those women existed, I don’t know, but I can say that in the ten years of weekly rehearsals and concerts with the band, he never repeated a story or a woman’s name. Years later, when I learned about the concept of an unreliable narrator in a college literature class, the first person I thought of was “Cap’n” Jack. At this point, though, the idea that all of his stories were probably made up only confirms to me his improvisational genius.
The last time I saw him was at a Fourth of July gig in Seaside. I was in town for the funeral of my grandmother and my dad convinced me it would be a good idea for both of us to play for just an hour or two to get our minds off of missing her. When we were taking a set break, Jack took me aside and told me that maybe I should think about quitting what I was doing—which was working as an IT consultant for an NGO in midtown Manhattan—and become a professional musician so I could be a “specifically good kind of miserable.” I followed his advice, found the quality he was describing almost immediately, and have held on ever since.
The most mysterious member of the NBCC had a name perfectly suited for a noir fiction story: Louie Spivacek. He appeared seemingly from nowhere and, at some point when I was in high school, disappeared just as suddenly and under somewhat mysterious circumstance. According to band legend, he was part of the epic trumpet section of the Stan Kenton Orchestra. I’m not completely convinced of the veracity of that claim any longer, but it added a measure of legitimacy to every piece of advice he handed across the section during the short time that we played together. He was a soloist in the grand old big-band style exemplified by Harry James—an almost too bright sound with wide vibrato created by shaking his right hand as opposed to using his jaw, as most modern players do. Louie had mutton-chop sideburns that would not have been out of place on an underworld figure in an episode of Starsky and Hutch but, strangely, were not as anachronistic in the late 1980s Pacific Northwest as one would think. He was part hobbit, part Dizzy Gillespie…but mostly hobbit.
Life, as well as musical, skills were handed down with equanimity in the back row of that big band. With my father separated from me by the trombone section, Louie felt safe in imparting the “finer” points of life to me, most of which I’ve (thankfully) forgotten. Among the things I do remember were:
1. the importance of making your improvisation ride a line between self-expression and working in service of the composition,
2. not to tap your foot too hard, especially when your sense of time is weird (as mine is),
3. to play a ballad less with a feeling for the cute girl in the audience and more with a feeling for your grandmother, because that’s more real, and
4. to always line your pockets with Ziploc bags at weddings so you can fill them with meatballs and other hot food from the buffet for later. (He also advised bringing a double trumpet case so as to steal a bottle of champagne, but he didn’t feel it necessary to bring this up, due to my age.)
One night I was doing my homework at the bar of the Elks Lodge before we played, and Louie plunked down a heavy manila envelope in front of me with the whispered words, “Don’t tell your dad.” I had no idea what kind of contraband to expect, and so I opened it slowly, shielding the “who knows what” from the rest of the band. It was a hundred Xeroxed pages of Charlie Parker solos. He had a big smile on his face. It was the true beginning of my obsession with jazz.
No one knew much about Louie. Not long after I turned 16, he disappeared. I’m still not certain what happened to him. My dad told me he moved to Belize, which felt then, and still feels, like your parents telling you the family puppy is moving to a farm with room to run and play, but with Louie it was absolutely believable. I was devastated. After my dad, Louie was probably my first true musical hero. I wanted to play like him—play better than him, actually—make him proud.
Between the ages of 13 and 17, I spent at least one day a week as part of this motley crew. I slowly shifted my position in the group from hapless mascot to a decent soloist in my own right, the result of obsessive practicing and a slackening of my “healthy” social engagements. Over time, I was even given my own “feature,” a medley of the Harry James hits “Laura”/“Tenderly,” which I played from in front of the band, relishing the anxiety and fear of being plucked from the warm security of the back row and thrust into the spotlight. It was my first experience doing something musical that brought a crowd response, and I found myself wanting that feeling more and more. Other musicians my age came and went in the band, and it was hard to conceal my jealousy and competitive desire to play more solos, but thankfully some of the more mature members of the band made sure I didn’t think too much of my ability by reminding me that there was always another step in my training and a job that could be better done.
What I learned during those years wouldn’t lend themselves to a simple list of “life lessons” but fall somewhere into the more abstract realm of aesthetic foundation and the establishment of a personal ethic. These were ideas not just about blending musically, but harmonizing with others by practicing empathy and critical thinking at all times. I continue to find myself in positions when small lessons, learned in a half sentence from Terry or a raised eyebrow from Louie, are put in play to correct some moment of self-absorption or poor taste in a musical or social situation. I think of all the long truck drives with my dad and how he gently (or sometimes not so gently) reminded me that the collective production of music was the primary site of our work, not showing off some newly learned technique or anachronistic “fancy” harmony. I wouldn’t say that I am true to these lessons every single time I play, but the voices do their best to keep me moving in what I think of as the right direction.
While in college, I sat in with the NCBB every time I visited home. I always felt like a welcome guest and secretly felt proud when I could get “Cap’n” Jack or Terry to give me thumbs up after a solo. I probably became too big for my britches, having become a medium size fish in a larger pond, but I never received too harsh a rebuke for my over-confidence. They gave me the benefit of the doubt that I would outgrow whatever I was going through and become a person worthy of being called a life-long member of the North Coast Big Band.
This is a story of youth…one I’ve attempted to put in writing for the last twenty years in hopes of building a legend around some of the larger-than-life figures that still create gravity in my musical universe. These are mostly comic figures, or at least that’s how they’ve been portrayed here. It was their senses of humor and the caricatures I developed of their personalities that endeared me to them early on. And, while I was laughing with them, they taught me valuable lessons about playing music and being around people. I think I’m finally coming close to the person I think they were trying to make of me, for better or worse, and I often think about the opportunity I got, rare for a kid growing up long after the popularity of big bands waned, to learn the craft and art of playing jazz, not with the classroom or textbook as the primary source, but passed down through the words, ribbing, funny looks, and friendly criticisms of a special band of unusual people.
* Ed. Note: The NCBB is still active on the Oregon coast and continues to provide an amazing outlet for musicians from the area of all ages. Please give them any support you can. A community organization like this is an increasingly rare gift and should be celebrated.