Recently I was booked to play piano for a funeral at the Catholic church where I am employed as the music director.
As I looked at the music selections for the service, there was a note at the bottom of the sheet, regarding the deceased.
“She loved jazz.” Her and Jim went on several jazz cruises.”
I smiled as I read it.
“Oh, she’s definitely getting jazz at her funeral,” I said out loud to no one in particular.
At our church, there is always a time before the funeral starts and the family comes up to sign the deceased’s name in the Book of Remembrance, where they will be remembered in prayer throughout the year. As that is happening, I try to play something that seems to fit for that person.
For this funeral, Jean would be getting a rousing version of “Blue Skies.”
As I played it, I pictured her and her husband, who had passed away a couple of years prior, dancing together somewhere in the great beyond.
Unexpectedly, I also began thinking about my jazz band director from my first year of high school, thinking to myself that without him, this musical moment would not have sounded quite the same.
Growing up, jazz and I had little to do with one another.
It was all about rock and roll and top 40 radio for me. Other than repeated exposure to my parents’ record collection, which at the time, resided mainly in the easy-listening wing of jazz, I had virtually no experience with jazz, until my freshman year at an all-boys Catholic high school. I had been taking piano lessons since the third grade, so I signed up for jazz band, one of only three things you could do – in what was a bare bones music program.
There was no audition. You made the cut just by taking the class.
It’s why we had seven guitarists at one point, all playing at the same time. This was not how a typical big band was configured.
They hadn’t even hired a band director by the start of the school year, and a history teacher was manning the helm, presumably because he played flute. There was a senior who had been the piano player, but he moved over to the bass guitar. And suddenly, it was me on the keys.
I had just about never heard of any of the tunes we were to play: “Take the A Train”, “Intermission Riff”, “Opus One”, “String of Pearls”, what was this stuff? My mom and dad knew practically all of it, but I was clueless. I was given a large stack of music that had chord symbols I had never seen before in my life, but they also had everything notated, even the piano solos, so I relied on that almost completely, as I had no idea what to play if it wasn’t written out.
I would grow to really love this music. But initially, it was a grind. And I felt like I was struggling just to keep my head above water.
I could play by ear.
I had been doing that for seemingly forever, learning pop songs, without the aid of written music, such as “My Life”, “YMCA” or “Don’t Go Breaking’ My Heart”, as well as nearly anything else I heard in the wild:
Commercials, television theme songs, the background music for the Spiderman cartoons – you name it.
Much to the annoyance of my family at times.
I remember one time playing the jingle from a commercial for chocolate chips and purposely getting “stuck” on the same chord for what seemed to be an eternity until my sister Marybeth screamed at me from her room to stop. I don’t think I did.
One of my biggest childhood heroes was Chicago White Sox organist Nancy Faust.
She seemed capable of playing anything on any given day at the ballpark, all without any sheet music. If you were listening closely, whatever she was playing usually had something to do with what was going on in the game.
When a player came to bat, you would routinely hear strains of a song that was tied to their name (e.g. “Won’t you marry me Bill” from “Wedding Bell Blues”), or their jersey number (e.g. “Love Potion Number Nine“), or some other detail about them.
It was great fun to crack the code and be in on the joke. Many credit her with basically inventing “walk up music”. While attending a White Sox game with my father once when I was around 11, we dropped by her organ booth. Meeting her and getting her autograph remains a cherished memory. So, sure: playing “off the page” was something I knew well.
But jazz improvisation and fluidly navigating through complex chord changes? These were part of a language I did not speak.
Toward the end of the first quarter, an actual band director was finally hired. His first name was Bill, so we all called him Mr. Bill, after the clay figure that suffered endless abuse in a series of Saturday Night Live animated sketches.
One day, he stated that none of us really knew how to improvise, but that there was nothing stopping us from learning how to do it and that we all should. He proceeded to teach us the blues scale. I was intrigued and slowly began to figure out how I could integrate it into my playing.
Mr. Bill left at the end of that schoolyear, but I never forgot that scale. I kept hammering away at it. For a good chunk of my sophomore year, I would sit at the piano, playing the bass line of “Tainted Love” by Soft Cell in the left hand, and improvising on the blues scale with my right. ]
The blues scale was burned into my brain for life. I never stopped using it.
And true to form, I employed it significantly in my arrangement of “Blue Skies” for the funeral that day over four decades later.
The new band director had us playing some of the big band classics, but we also played quite a few arrangements of popular songs such as “Lady” by Kenny Rogers, “Honesty” by Billy Joel, “Send In the Clowns” by Judy Collins, and an Earth, Wind, and Fire medley of “In the Stone/That’s the Way of the World/September.”
I liked playing the pop stuff, particularly because the piano was the star of a good amount of it. But my growth as a jazz pianist was somewhat stunted. And when we did play big band arrangements, I relied mostly on the notated music.
We may have been underfunded, and nowhere near capable of competing with the public schools around us. But I always maintained that no one had as much fun as we did.
There were more than a few guys in the band that had genuine talent, some of whom went on to do some pretty great things with music. At that point, though, we would mostly use our quirky musical skills for our own nerdy amusement:
- I remember teaching my fellow bandmates to play the theme from a mostly forgotten arcade video game called “Jungle Hunt” in its entirety.
- Another day, a group of band members excitedly informed me that they had turned the school fight song into a waltz.
- I remember a get together of some band friends at my house where our idea of fun consisted of me sitting at the piano playing “Come Sail Away” by Styx, while two trombonists played the melody, a half step apart from each other, effectively destroying the song.
The director became aware of my love of playing things by ear and put it to good use. He had me play a bunch of TV themes where we were performing, in a game of “name that tune” with students at my old grammar school.
The golden moment for all this tomfoolery came my junior year, at a varsity basketball game in our home gym.
The jazz band played a half time show, and afterward, at the start of the third quarter, our director left to rehearse with some of the students that were playing in the pit orchestra for the school musical. Those of us who were left behind concluded that it was up to us to keep providing music during the game, though absolutely no one had asked us to do this.
Whenever there was a time out, I would start banging out snippets of whatever came to mind at the piano, and others joined in. Anything was fair game, from the The Brady Bunch theme song to video game music to Led Zeppelin’s “Fool in the Rain”.
It was like Nancy Faust. But a manic, non-sensical, teenaged out of control version.
It got uglier as the game went on. When the other team’s cheerleaders came out to do a routine during one of the time outs, we rudely blasted them off the court with our school’s fight song.
We then decided to weaponize our music and would raucously play theme songs from cartoons such as Underdog or Tennessee Tuxedo when the other team was at the free throw line to disrupt their concentration. Both coaches filed a complaint after the game, and the director talked to us about it the next day at band rehearsal.
None of us got in any real trouble. Probably because he knew it was his own fault for leaving a bunch of degenerate music freaks unsupervised for an entire half of a basketball game.
By senior year, I became known for basically two things: playing the piano, and being a total goofball.
Sometimes the two would converge.
A former classmate to this day reminds me of the time that I was playing for an all-school mass, as part of a choir and musical ensemble. At the end of mass, the dean of discipline, a tough Irishman, got up and said, “I need the following students to come down to my office.”
Without missing a beat, I played the opening notes to the theme from Dragnet, to signify that some people were about to be in deep trouble. It was all fun and games…
Until it was revealed that my name had been the first one on the list. The entire auditorium burst out laughing.
When it came time to consider college, I had no idea what to do. I just wanted to stay right where I was; I wasn’t at all ready to think about my future. My dad took me to college night, and we discussed what I might like to do with my life. We both agreed that music was probably the most obvious choice for a major. English was briefly considered, but it seemed clear that if I had to land on something, music was it.
My elaborate plan consisted of visiting and applying to one place, a state university where Marybeth had gone, a little over an hour from home. I got in, but to be accepted into the music department as a piano major, I had to pass an audition.
I had been taking classical piano lessons for around 10 years, and I thought I would be a shoo-in.
But truth be told, as much as I loved music: I had not been very focused or disciplined in practicing all those years and had basically put in the bare minimum – if that.
I was not the player I thought I was. I barely passed the audition and was told that I was accepted as a music education major on a probationary basis and had one year to work my way up to the accepted standards of the department. Turned out that I had been a big fish in a small pond that was more like a kiddie pool. I had no idea just how far off the mark I was from the skill level that was expected.
Oblivious to the fact that I should have been thankful they were even giving me a chance at all, I angrily huffed around the house muttering things like, “well if they don’t think I’m good enough for them, then maybe I just won’t go.” Of course, I had only applied to one school, so at this point, it was either swallow my pride or stay home.
So in the fall, off I went, quite terrified.
Into the great unknown.
Those high school days came to an end far too soon.
And I had no idea what was waiting for me at the end of that car ride to my new existence.
And yes, jazz would play a part.
to be continued…
As a special bonus for getting to the end of this installment, here is a playlist of some of the (mostly) big band tunes I came to know and love in my time in the high school jazz band.
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