Saturday, August 26, 2006

MF Horn No More

Yesterday morning my good friend, Dan Nelson, came into my office and said, “My heart is heavy.” With Dan, I never know if an opening line like this is to be taken at face value or if there is a tongue jammed into one cheek or the other. It turned out that he was quite serious and that he came to tell me that Maynard Ferguson had died on Wednesday. This information has an immediate impact on us because the legendary trumpeter is booked to play on our Jazz at the Point series later this year. His passing will require us to do some quick adjusting but there will be plenty of time for that. We talked a while longer and reminisced about when we first heard Maynard and what his music meant to us.

In the middle 1970's when I was a teenager growing up in a small town outside of Niagara Falls, New York, Maynard could be heard on AM radio playing his versions of MacArthur Park and the theme music for Rocky. His albums were marketed with splash and energy, and his band was always filled with some of the most amazing young players I had ever heard. As a young pianist trying to find a way into contemporary music of that day, Maynard's recordings caused me to seek out the music of Chick Corea and Stan Kenton. As my listening to jazz stretched both forward and backward, I was hooked for life.

In a time when all pop music was dominated by guitar driven bands of one flavor or another, Maynard carved out a successful niche for himself and inspired a generation of band geeks to keep playing and listening. I doubt anyone knows how many concerts and clinics Maynard gave in High School auditoriums over the last 30 years.

As Dan and I reminisced yesterday, he commented, "This is really the end of an era." Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Buddy Rich, Woody Herman and Maynard Ferguson were the last of the serious touring big bands. Kids like us dreamed of being good enough to be picked up by one of them. The personalities that led these bands were towering figures for us and with their passing we feel smaller, more vulnerable.

P.S. Here is an amazing video on YouTube of Maynard from the 1960's playing 'Round Midnight. This is fabulous!

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Tennis anyone?

Here is a very entertaining photo collection of famous musicians playing table tennis. My favorite of the bunch has Thelonius Monk in his signature pork pie hat playing gleefully.

Shown here is Arnold Shoenberg happily engaged. Yes, Virginia, it's second Viennese school ping pong. Who knew?

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Strings by the Sea

For the past decade or so I have spent a few days each August working as the staff accompanist for a marvelous camp, Strings by the Sea, that is hosted on our campus. Along with running the usual gauntlet of Bach, Vivaldi and Seitz concerti in student performances, each summer there are also opportunities to make music with other members of the camp faculty.

This year brought some extra special treats in that I was asked to play with two very gifted faculty cellists. Renata Bratt is based in Santa Cruz and plays incredible jazz and fiddle music. Together we played some old New Orleans style jazz and then samba'd with Jobim. Then, collaborating with Evangeline Benedetti, playing masterworks from the French cello repertoire, was an absolute highlight of my summer. Learning and playing the Fauré Elegie with her was a profoundly moving spiritual experience. "Van" has served as a member of the New York Philharmonic since she was appointed by then-music director, Leonard Bernstein.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Back at it!

Had a great time away--Bruckner 7th with the Grant Park Symphony, the Field Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago.

Like many of you, summer is my opportunity for more reading or at least different reading than at other times of the year. While away I read Noah Adams' Piano Lessons for the first time, lots of fun. This gave me an interesting look inside the mind and motivations of someone coming to the instrument without any agenda other than playing for themselves.

Later, I read Anthony Storr's Music and the Mind (1993). This set of thoughtful essays traverses a dizzying range of material from the anatomy and neuroscience of human hearing to a quite exacting parsing out of Freud, Jung and most of German philosophy from Schopenhauer to Nietzsche. While not exactly light reading, there is much food for thought here. In particular it was interesting to read a psychiatrist's analysis of why humans make music and why listening for aesthetic pleasure is so deeply important to so many of us.

Storr's earlier book, Solitude: a Return to the Self (1989) was an absolute revelation. With so much of a pianist's time spent alone in confined spaces with only his instrument for company, Storr's exploration of the ways solitude operates in human experience is absolutely enlightening.