About five years ago I started writing a memoir. I kept at it for a little while, writing about 1,000 words a day for a few weeks. I hadn’t yet been to therapy and there were many things I didn’t really understand about my life, but I still find the unfinished memoir to be a fascinating look into my own past. I’ve decided to post it in installments here, with only a few redactions. You can find the other sections by clicking the Memoir category.
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About the Kenton record: When I was first listening to it as a kid, it never occurred to me that I might one day talk to members of the band. And I donâ€™t mean that I never thought I could reach those heights. I mean it literally never occurred to me that the band existed in the real world, and that some people had jobs that allowed them to talk to musicians.
I probably heard that record for the first time when I was four or five, and I got to know it well a decade later in junior high. Fifteen years after that, I interviewed Maynard Ferguson, one of the trumpeters on Kenton In Hi-Fi, and a legend in his own right. I didnâ€™t ask him about that particular record, although we did talk about Kenton. He was a funny, approachable, articulate man, and he was very generous with his time as a guest on my radio show.
Before I ever thought about interviewing famous musicians, I thought about becoming one. As a young child, I took classical guitar lessons, but I was never very good and I didnâ€™t last long. Right before I went into 7th grade, my cousin-hero Todd sent me his clarinet, which heâ€™d traded in for an electric bass. I started playing clarinet in junior high, switched to saxophone in high school, and decided that being a professional musician was the life for me. As it turned out, though, I got much closer to the top level of performers as an interviewer than I ever did as a performer.
Iâ€™m not really sure when it was that I realized that musicians were actual human beings. Isnâ€™t that strange? When do we cross that line of perception and discover that recorded sound is produced by regular people? How do we do it? I donâ€™t think anyone ever told me that all those records were made by people just like me. I guess one day I just put together all the images Iâ€™d seen on TV with the records Iâ€™d been listening to and made the connection. All these years later, thereâ€™s still an element of magic and awe involved in talking with someone who was on a milestone recording.
One of the strangest such meetings I ever had was with two legendary musicians â€“ bassist Eddie Gomez, who played for years in the trio of pianist Bill Evans, and drummer Jimmy Cobb, who played with Miles Davis. They played a show in Furukawa, Japan. I lived in Furukawa in 1991 and 1992 as an exchange student, and I went back with my wife in 1996 when we decided to move to Japan.
Furukawa was home to Hana no Yakata (Castle of Flowers), a jazz club run by a drummer who had long been one of Tokyoâ€™s first-call players until illness forced him to retire to his hometown in northern Japan. The Master, as everyone called him, still had connections, and heâ€™d often get famous jazz musicians to come up to his club when they played elsewhere in Japan.
When Jen and I moved to Japan in late 1996, we stayed in Furukawa with my former host family while we searched the Tokyo newspapers for jobs. While we were there, Gomez and Cobb played a date at Hana no Yakata along with a pianist whose name Iâ€™ve forgotten, and the flute player Jeremy Steig, who also recorded with Bill Evans. I heard about the gig from The Master, and Jen and I made plans to go to the show.
In the afternoon, we were walking down the street and saw two other foreigners â€“ a rare site in Furukawa. One was an older African-American man wearing a puffy blue winter jacket, and the other was another non-Japanese man with glasses and a dark coat.
â€œI think thatâ€™s Eddie Gomez and Jimmy Cobb,â€ I said to myself. And of course it was. But I didnâ€™t go over to talk to them for some reason.
Later that night, I showed up at the club and had a lovely dinner with Gomez, Cobb, Steig, the pianist, The Master and his wife, and one of my Japanese teachers from the high school I went to in Furukawa years before. So there I was, sitting down to dinner to with the drummer from Kind of Blue and the bassist from Bill Evansâ€™ longest-running trio in a tiny jazz club in a small town in northeastern Japan. As the only other native English speaker, I had the lionâ€™s share of the conversation. I knew less about the music then than I know now, and I asked them almost no questions at all about their history. We just talked about the food, the town, Japanese culture, and the Las Vegas jazz scene (the pianist was from Vegas). It was an experience that Iâ€™ll never duplicate, and one of the treasured memories of my time in Japan.