What’s this? An informal bio in the first person? Isn’t that sacrilege? I hope not. There’s nothing really wrong with formal third person bios in principle, but in practice they reduce a person’s professional life to a self-serving blurb for the purpose of establishing professional credibility in a paragraph or less. Again, that’s fine, and useful in its own way, but it doesn’t begin to tell the real story. It may well be that no one really cares to hear more of the story than the formal blurb, but if anyone does, I’ll try to add a little more info here, hopefully in a more relaxed manner.
When did I start playing music, and why do I keep switching instruments? To hear my mother tell it, I started playing between the ages of two and three. I can’t remember much of this, but according to her, I used to sit at the piano and try to figure out songs that I’d heard around the house by plunking around on the white keys until the song started to emerge. Now, nearly forty years later, I still do the same thing when composing, the only difference being that these days, I throw in the occasional black key as well – but I’m getting ahead of myself. The first instrument was piano, on which I was self taught until about age five, at which point I had piano lessons for four or five years from the prototypical “old lady (at least, I thought so then) piano teacher down the street”. Her name was Carolyn Shapin. Most of her students called her “Miss Shapin”, although she clearly wasn’t, and at any rate the double-meaning was completely lost on us then. She was a good teacher, but I had the attention span of a hyperactive child (for obvious reason to those who knew me then), and I quit somewhere around age ten, about halfway through “Fur Elise”, if I recall correctly.
The years from age 10 to about age 18 are mostly a blur, but somewhere in there I played clarinet in the Brown School band, then switched to French Horn, which I ended up playing in the Louisville Youth Orchestra for a year or two. Somewhere around age twelve, I bought an old Silvertone guitar at a yard sale for $5, and started to teach myself how to play songs that I had on 45 rpm records. This was a very inexact science, but much preferable to a hyperactive teenager than studying classical music on a large, complicated, and very shiny piece of plumbing attached to a mouthpiece, so it eventually became my first passion. Besides, guitar was way cooler than French horn back then. To make a long story short, I was basically self taught on guitar through high school, played in various garage bands of dubious quality and one or two that were slightly better, and then when high school was over I had to make a choice: what was I going to do with my life?
I had no idea, but since I hated everything I tried doing except music, it seemed like a good bet. Unable to afford to go to a “real” music school (and most probably unable to get accepted into one at any rate), I enrolled at Jefferson Community College, and immersed myself in their small but more than adequate music department. They had a classical guitar teacher there, Doug Jones, who in addition to his penchant for standup comedy and self deprecating humor, was a pretty fair guitar player and teacher in his own right. Looking back on it, that music department resembled the Land of Misfit Toys more than anything due to the student base, but in spite of that, I got serious about music for the first time in my life there, and grew up a lot as a musician. JCC was also my first introduction to Music Theory, and the theory professor there, David Doran, was amazingly adept at making what can often be a very dry subject more interesting than I could have ever imagined.
After graduating from JCC, I went to Berklee College of Music in hopes of coming to understand something about this mythical music called “jazz”, which I respected but still didn’t like much , since it didn’t have the immediacy of blues and rock – my specialties at the time. It was at Berklee that two important things happened: First, for the first time I became aware of what a pretentious poser I was in danger of becoming (remaining?), as I was surrounded by 600 other guitar players, most of whom also thought that they already knew everything and were just waiting for their big break; and second, I heard real jazz masters play in person for the first time – the two that come instantly to mind were Chick Corea and McCoy Tyner – and for the first time I really “got” jazz, and the thought that any human being could actually do what these guys were doing off the top of their heads just completely blew my mind. Not surprisingly, I also decided during this year that if I wanted to ever get serious about composition, the piano was where it was at.
The following year I enrolled at UofL, studying composition with Nelson Keyes, and piano with his wife Doris Keyes. Doris turned out to be the best teacher I’ve ever had, and Nelson wasn’t far behind. Both were tremendously influential for many reasons, but most strikingly because their love for music was so blatantly obvious that you’d have to be blind, deaf, and dumb to miss it. It was Doris (in person I still can’t bring myself to call her “Doris” out of respect, going with “Mrs. Keyes” instead, a name which fortunately implies no disfigurement) who taught me to always ask the question, “What does THE MUSIC want from you? How does it want to be played?” This is a question I try to ask myself every time I play to this day, and is probably the most important lesson I’m still trying to learn.
During the course of my studies in classical piano with Mrs. Keyes, I became involved in jazz piano, to the point where it became almost an obsession for a few years. During this time I ate, breathed, and slept with a steady diet of Chick Corea, Bill Evans, Kenny Barron, and Keith Jarrett playing in the background. Somewhere in there, I became a professional jazz pianist, and for about 10 years, that and teaching were my primary sources of income.
The other instrument that I had always been fascinated with was the Double Bass, and in July of 1999, two things happened which changed my life drastically as regards my choice of primary instrument: 1) more and more clubs in town were either closing or getting rid of their acoustic pianos, an although I played an electric keyboard on many gigs, I’ve always hated the sound they make, and hoped one day to be able to only play acoustic pianos; 2) a student of mine found an old abandoned upright bass at the University which was being stripped down for parts. Nobody wanted it because it was in pieces, so he offered it to me if I wanted to fix it up. I took him up on it, and $800 later, I had my first Double Bass, a plywood American Standard from about 1925. I sold it after a few year, but to this day I can say that it’s one of the ugliest basses I’ve ever seen. Still, once I heard THAT SOUND, I knew that it was the answer to my dilemma. How could I live in Louisville, KY, and still manage to make a living playing music while playing a real instrument on every gig? Simple – all I had to do was switch instruments to one I could carry to the gig myself. As it turns out, the plan was a good one, for apparently Louisville was so bereft of bass players at that time that I was able to start gigging within 6 months of getting that bass, and a few months after that I decided to stop playing piano for ten years, sell all of my keyboard gear, and see what kind of bass player I could become in that amount of time. After that, I reasoned, I could pick the piano back up if I wanted and split the practice time on each instrument in half. That 10 years has just now passed, and I’m not sure I want to split the practice time, so that’s in a holding pattern. But in the meantime, I’m just enjoying the ride, and enjoying making music whenever I can.