Friday, July 29, 2011

My Musical Life - Part 7

As for my music listening habits, the mid-90s was about when I stopped buying or listening to much current music. I was into all this older stuff deeply, for one, and I had limited funds to buy albums, for two. I could buy older albums cheap in bargain bins, used stores, garage sales. Hey, a lot of that old stuff was new to me...and the prevailing 90s styles didn't really excite me - some of it's better in retrospect, to be fair. But I thought most grunge was kind of drab, the punk revival didn't grab me since I wasn't all that into punk before, I'm not really a hip-hop guy, easy listening got less easy, R & B often became a contest of which diva could oversing more egregiously, boy bands, uh, no, Billy Ray Cyrus, uh, god no...remember when I compared delicious chords and harmonic progressions to chocolate sundaes earlier? To my ears, there were fewer chocolate sundaes in the popular music of the 90s, as a whole, than before or since.

But wait a minute: you or I could just as easily make the same list of criticisms I just did above for any other decade or era of popular music, including our favorite one. There has always been plenty of music we find mediocre or even bad, and there will always be. And the same is true for the good stuff. The reason I've long favored music from the 70s and 80s isn't that it's "better". It just, I dunno, fits me.


So in early 1996 I wasn't playing with anyone, and I was living in Norman, and my friend Dean with the huge record collection had moved there also. He was rooming with Chance, who also played guitar and wrote songs. Dean had just gotten out of a band himself, a hippie jam band who'd had a pretty good run...he and Chance had written some songs, and I hung out there some, and eventually we had a band together called the Green Owls. Very different than any of the music I'd been playing for years - much more in the spirit of what Dean and I had played together long before. Whimsical, alternative, psychedelic...the Green Owl himself was a mysterious all-knowing being, as we explained to our audiences in our titular song. Dean played his sweet Les Paul guitar with his 60s tape-echo unit and other vintage effects, Chance played acoustic guitar, I played bass. We had two drummers (not at the same time), first John, then Adrian. We didn't play together that long - maybe fifteen shows? Don't remember exactly.

I didn't write a lot for the band - just one song, "Taking Psychology With You", with lyrics cribbed from a college psych text. Tried to write more but I had a hard time getting a handle on the style - mostly simple guitar chords at its base, but with a good sense of melody and pacing and quirky, memorable lyrics. We'd do some extended jamming live sometimes, ten or fifteen minute stretches, Dean's swooping array of sound effects leading the way. His rig and playing sound nothing remotely like anyone else's I've ever played with, and that's a big compliment. We weren't the tightest band, and I'm not sure I did that well fitting into the band concept, but I enjoyed the hell out of being a Green Owl. And a lot of the fan base were old friends of ours and their friends, so I got to meet and re-meet a lot of cool people. If there's ever a reunion show, I'll drive all night to be there. And, I promise, no Michael Jackson impressions.

The next while after that was mostly spent unsuccessfully trying to get another jazz thing going with Gary (he and I were fine, but our prospective bandmates were flaky as hell and it didn't materialize), doing a few fill-in gigs, trying to get a Trembles thing together with no luck...kind of a dead period for music overall. Wasn't even putting a lot of scratch-pad ideas down.


But in the summer of 1997, Gary told me about quite an opportunity: he'd gotten scholarship money, yes, actual money, to join the University of Central Oklahoma jazz ensemble. And I could try out and get the same deal. I sure needed to do *something*, and going back to school was something I wanted to do anyway, and there was financial help, and I'd never played with a big band before...yeah, I jumped at the chance. I went up to Edmond (north of OKC) to the university, auditioned and got accepted. UCO had three jazz ensembles, about 20-25 members each. I played electric bass in the first band, sharing the bass chair with an upright player (I'd never played upright bass, though I did take a semester of lessons on it when I was there), and I played piano in the second band. I also played guitar on a song here and there. Gary played in multiple bands as well. A lot of rehearsals. The year culminated in a successful performance for the bands at Wichita. UCO, while not a monster program like North Texas, is a very respectable jazz program and I met a lot of talented players and teachers there.

Being in the UCO jazz program was a new world for me in many ways. While I'd played in fusion bands for a few years that occasionally veered toward traditional jazz, and I'd worked through a voicings book or two, I'd never really played or listened to much traditional jazz. My natural playing style tends to be jazzy anyway, so the musical vocabulary was easy to dive into, but I didn't have the history; I didn't know the literature. A lot of the lingo was foreign to me. And my reading chops were rusty as hell, though they improved quickly by having to do it so often. There was so much to learn - it all depended on what I wanted to apply myself to.

I could have stayed at UCO, spent a whole lot of time playing music, gotten a bachelor's and more, embedded myself in musical academia. One could argue well that I should have. I'm not really sure why I didn't, but I was there only a year and part of another. Coming off the street from a commercial music background as I did, I found the academic music environment drastically different, though I wouldn't say that's why I didn't stick with it.

There's something museum-like about the way educational institutions handle "serious" music. Hidebound, over-reverent to the tradition. I've always thought that about the way our schools and cultural organizations tend to treat classical music, which I like but have never regularly listened to. What do a lot of people think of when they hear the words "classical music"? High culture. Rich, stuffy patrons; snobs; old people, old culture. Played by people in tuxedos with normal hair. Introduced on the radio by speakers with perfect diction and the expressive palette of golf announcers. Listen to this music because, like your vegetables, it's good for you. And even after you learn that that's absolutely NOT what classical music is, it's hard to undo the associations in your mind when you hear the music, and it's distracting, and worse, misleading. And collegiate jazz programs run the risk, stunningly given the anything but highbrow story of the evolution of jazz, of ossifying the music that same way.

I don't believe in the distinction between "serious" and "popular" music myself, not at all. That's cultural baggage, not music; the suits, not the people in them. There's nothing necessarily more staid and dignified and whatnot about a big-band piece or a classical piece than there is a heavy metal song or a rap song. You think classical music can't inspire people to base passions? People frickin' rioted when Stravinsky premiered "The Rite of Spring". Jazz was controversial as hell too, and there were a lot of attempts way back when to harass jazz musicians and suppress their music. It's bizarre to see the pained, transcendent art of an inner-city black man from the 1940s who died of a heroin overdose flattened into a pedagogic objective.

So anyway, the academic music world struck me as a bit insular and weird, but also amazing in that there's just so much to study and that's where you'd go to do it. The history and theory of music are fascinating, deep areas of inquiry. Besides, at school you can hole up in a practice room and really lose yourself, in the best sense of the phrase.

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